Walls were melting. They were floating into space. They stepped outside of themselves as a neutral spectator. When u/egodeathama posted on Reddit about what they experienced after taking “large doses of LSD and mushrooms,” they detailed a very specific type of trip: the ego death.
The concept of the ego death stems from Sigmund Freud’s personality theory, first posed in 1923, which divides the human psyche into three distinct parts: 1) the id, or the more instinctual and impulsive part of the brain; 2) the superego, or our moral center; and 3) the ego, or the mediator between the two. A psychedelic trip, then, can allow us to feel unencumbered by the stressors related to self-perception — i.e., experience an ego death, which is also referred to as “anattā” in Buddhism and “ego dissolution” in psychology.
Over the past few years, psychotherapist Jim Keim has seen an increasing number of clients come into his office specifically requesting an ego death. And although Keim is a psychedelic-psychotherapy practitioner, he explains that you don’t need to consume psychedelics to experience it. In fact, many people opt to kill their ego through meditation and hypnosis, but one of the main reasons folks opt for shrooms over meditation is that it’s just easier.
“You need more training to do it through meditation, but people who do a lot of meditation can absolutely experience what people experience on psychedelics,” Keim says, explaining that a few meditations on YouTube aren’t going to cut it. “In terms of what’s available to us in the U.S., transcendental meditation is one of the best and most commonly used.”
It’s worth noting that not everyone who gets involved in meditation does it for the ego-death experience, or is particularly ready for it, Keim warns. Redditer Snakeofpain learned this the hard way after about a year of meditation when they accidentally stumbled into a sober ego death, resulting in a series of panic attacks before eventually being able to “alternate between the self and no-self perspective,” they wrote. But other commenters assured them that this is normal and congratulated them on their progress. Similarly, spirituality educator and YouTuber Vishuddha Das describes this switching back and forth as “fluid cognition” in a video about how to achieve a sober ego death.
Outside of meditation, some associate ego death with going to church. “Sometimes religion can be extremely psychedelic. You can feel like you’re being hit by lightning and knocked off your horse,” Keim says. Likewise, there have also been a number of documented ego deaths associated with near-death experiences. “It can be similar in that you see yourself, not through these negative self-tapes, but through a loving universe,” Keim explains.
Ultimately, an ego death is mostly about getting “unstuck” and coming as close to a neutral vision of yourself as possible, and there are a lot of ways to get there — you just can’t stay there forever. “Part of why it’s attractive is that so much of our misery comes from self-torture, and your ego does a lot of that self-toture,” Keim tells me. He, however, hates the term “ego death” because he doesn’t see it as an accurate description of what happens. Instead, he says the experience is more akin to an “ego potty break or an ego vacation,” because your ego returns and you can still have that memory of what it’s like to see yourself from the outside.
But the real lesson here is that you don’t necessarily need shrooms for this potty break or vacation. If you want to kill your ego — at least temporarily — you have plenty of other weapons at your disposal, too.