"The first time I experienced ego death," says Bradley, a 26-year-old from Idaho, "I took four-and-a-half grams [of magic mushrooms]. At first I tried to focus on bringing myself back a little bit, but that obviously wasn't going to work because the mushies knew what I needed. So I just reminded myself that, even though it feels like I'm dying, I'm definitely not."
The "ego death" that Bradley describes is an extreme state brought on by psychedelic drugs that is becoming increasingly popular with online psychonauts: an initially terrifying sensation of dying, where the user enters a trance and occasionally screams, before their entire sense of self disappears and they're left with nothing but the awareness that everything in the universe is connected.
"Ego death" in the broader sense doesn't necessarily involve LSD, or mushrooms, or DMT, or anything else you'd hope to find in a squat raver's bum-bag. It's simply a life-shattering cerebral experience. Buddhists call it Enlightenment and believe it can be cultivated with meditation; Sufi Muslims call it fana; psychologist Carl Jung dubbed it "psychic death", and defined it as when – after a period of suffering – our consciousness "dies" and is resurrected.
Drugs, then, are just a way to reach this point quicker. First written about by LSD advocate Timothy Leary in 1964, he defined ego death as "complete transcendence − beyond words, beyond space-time, beyond self. There are no visions, no sense of self, no thoughts. There are only pure awareness and ecstatic freedom."
Fifty years later, there is an ego death arms race of sorts among the kind of people who like to write about their psychedelic experiences online, with hundreds on Reddit and YouTube boasting about their latest transcendence of self. On message-boards like Reddit's r/Psychonaut, a lively hub of 175,000 subscribers, posts about ego death are rife and, in many cases, used to assert dominance. "Ego death is the ultimate goal of life," reads one. "I think [it's] a fair statement that if you've experienced ego death that you're a superior psychonaut," reads another.
Bradley, who's experienced ego death "a handful of times", made a thread on r/Psychonaut a couple of months ago called, "Does anyone else feel like there is a massive ego-death circle jerk on this [forum]?"
"I made that because there were a lot of posts like, 'Took some mushrooms, felt everything was connected, was this ego death?'" he explains. "Constantly worrying about achieving this Holy Grail type of experience just isn't the way to do it. You need to have respect for these kinds of things."
Though attempts to fully explain ego death always fall short, drug YouTubers like PsychedSubstance have tried eloquently, saying it's like "stepping back from experiencing life as the programme, and experiencing life as the operating system". Dakota of Earth – another drug YouTuber – describes our transition to ego death as "awareness identifying with a body. Remove the body."
Michael – a 20-year-old from Florida who's tripped "50-plus times" – says ego death comes on gradually: "You don't even realise it's happening. Your thoughts are slowing down, getting confused, then panic sets in. Your body will start vibrating, like you're going to detonate. It feels like 'This is it. This is the moment I've been walking towards.'"
At this point, he says, you can either accept it, or fight and scream.
"You might get stuck in time for a second, with the ability to look around," he says. "It was like there were two of me – my spirit looking around while my body was stuck staring at my friend. I could feel wind howling around me. I felt time slow to an absolute stopping point and I was consumed by a white light that came from everywhere. At that moment, I experienced it."
Tony, a 23-year-old from Kentucky, experienced ego death for the first time two months ago when smoking DMT. He tells me that every surface in his living room exploded with detail like he'd never seen; that there was so much going on visually that he couldn't close his eyes. "It was the most intense feeling of connection ever," he says. "All sensations of ego and self dissolved until nothing was left but a loving union with everything."
Like Michael, he describes leaving his body. "I felt my consciousness float out of it slowly, only a few centimetres above where my corpse sat. I can remember thinking, 'This is what it feels like to die.'"
Researchers believe the ego death sensation stems from the part of the brain responsible for our sense of self – the "default mode network" – being quietened by psychedelic drugs, which disrupt negative thought patterns and open up new perspectives.
On a similarly chemical – but, admittedly, less scientific – level, there are five stages of psychedelic experience, according to Timothy Leary, and various dosages that will help you achieve them. The first two are mild and involve short-term memory loss and visual enhancement, while level three is more intense and includes hallucinations. Though dependent on mood and tolerance, a level three dose of LSD is about 100 micrograms, while – insanely – a level four or five trip, i.e. an ego death dose, is closer to 300 micrograms. For mushrooms, an ego death dose is about four to five grams.
Psychedelics have a long therapeutic history, and are currently being studied at Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins University and NYU, while – combined with professional support – they've been shown to help alleviate depression, addiction and anxiety in the terminally ill. However, dangers remain when using them heavily and unsupervised, especially if users have existing mental health problems. Heightened anxiety and psychedelic-induced PTSD are both common side effects – but perhaps the most common is the feeling of manic depersonalisation that can set in, and never leave, after ego death. The majority of psychonauts I spoke to reported experiencing this.
Sean, 22, from Oregon tells me that, after his ego death, it was like there was a "frequency shift" inside him. "I honestly thought I was developing psychosis," he says. "I couldn't believe what I saw, what the world was. Nothing made sense, nothing had a point. I became very anti-social and it didn't take much to send me into a panic."
Tony developed even stronger symptoms, saying that just existing in his body became so taxing that one night he literally got sick. "I had to look at myself in the mirror for a long time so I'd know what my face looks like," he explains. "I had to tell myself my name over and over again until I started to develop a sense of identity. I saw how temporary this world is and I struggled to find a reason to live."
Spiritual awakenings can be ugly, explains Michael: "The truth can leave you miserable. You lose interest in things, people drift away, you question your career. It's been years since [my ego death] happened – I still think about it daily. I wasn't ready for the experience. I was left in a state of manic insanity – I kept thinking the trip wasn't over."
Fortunately for some, normal life eventually reintegrates, leaving them happier for having gone through it. For others, the catch-22 of having seen a utopia they can't live in permeates everything, breeding a nihilism which asks whether living the lie (like the rest of us) would have been better.
It's difficult to tell how many psychedelics users are actually pushing their trips to this extent – whether it's reality or merely internet bravado. But there have been enough ego death posts on message-boards like Reddit's r/Psychonaut lately to suggest that many psychonauts are being driven towards potentially dark turning points – in some part, it would seem, for internet credibility.
Certainly, when read about online, ego death seems to offer solutions to many of life's problems – along with a promise of clarity in a confusing age – but with validation-seeking forum posts showing that, clearly, our egos can't be killed for long, perhaps making friends with the ego, and learning how to control it, would be healthier than trying to destroy it.
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