Ego Dissolution Is Not the Point
The death of the self is not the point of a trip. It is merely a waypoint along the journey. Psychedelics allow the dissolution of a specific kind of self in order to rebuild an expanded one.
“I dreamed I was a butterfly, dancing in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man?” – Zhuangzi
Psychedelia has an ego problem. I’m not only talking about the ego inflation that can occur with psychedelic use. I’m referencing how one of the most widely talked about facets of the psychedelic experience is the death or dissolution of the self. In fact, one of the goals for many undergoing a psychedelic trip is to experience this dissolution. If this complete dissolution isn’t achieved, the user might feel disappointed at the results. And while recent studies (See here, here, and here) have shown that ego dissolution, along with the mystical experience, are highly correlated with better outcomes in individuals, this does not explain why these experiences have the effect they do, nor what the purpose of them is.
Despite this seeking and searching for ego dissolution and the potential benefits of such, this death of the self is not the point of a trip. It is not the end goal. It is merely a waypoint along the journey. However, the fact that it is experienced at all makes it something deserving of careful attention and study (as well as why it might be viewed as an end goal). However, the presumed universality of the phenomenal qualities of the experience is a fundamental problem in addressing the importance of these encounters. The perennialist approach of “hey it appears in all these cultures so they all must be referencing the same thing” does not come close to doing justice to the contours of experience.
What does “ego dissolution” mean in the context of an urban, agnostic, middle-class white dude tripping on LSD with his friends? Does it mean the same thing as the experience of someone ritualistically using ayahuasca as a part of their cultural heritage? What does ego dissolution look like to a Druid? A ceremonial magician? A devout Christian?
Does ego dissolution have the same felt experience when experienced at the behest of LSD rather than psilocybin? What about ketamine? Or Amanita Muscaria? And if ego dissolution is the point, might someone who has only experienced it with LSD be disappointed by the contours of the “same” experience with mescaline?
These are all questions that need to be further explored before we can conclusively say that all ego dissolution experiences are X. The phenomenology of each need to be explored and appreciated for what they are.
All of that said, there do seem to be similarities between the differing experiences of ego dissolution. If there were no commonalities then the experiences wouldn’t be equated as similar by those who have experienced it under different circumstances.
Broadly, there does seem to be two major categories of experiences that are described as ego dissolution: the unio mystica (the oneness of everything) and the expanded self.1 The former appears to be a union with the entire universe, feeling the oneness of everything, and an identification with the entire interconnected universe or ecosystem at large. The latter, while containing aspects of the oneness and wholeness of things, is a more contained experience, an expansion outwards towards our immediate ecosystem and surroundings. This is the experience with which we will concern ourselves with today. The unio mystica experience will be discussed in more depth in another article as will other specific phenomenological questions regarding the ego dissolution experience.
The Extended Self
In a recent article, Eduardo Kohn puts to words a claim I've long held: "Ayahuasca is medicinal insofar as it is toxic to the self that we think we are. They are anthropophagic. They consume this self to allow another, larger one to emerge. Psychedelics allow the dissolution of a specific kind of self in order to strengthen a carefully delimited but larger emergent one."2 The goal is not to completely destroy the self all together, but rather to show that it is not an isolated being. It exists in a web of relations to everyone and everything around it. It is fundamentally connected to the world around it, enmeshed in a series of relations with its surroundings.
Psychedelics can do this in part by providing an experience outside of our ordinary drudgery. It expands our reality from a small, localized “I” to something larger. It offers an experience outside of our normal thinking, something that allows a shift in our rhetorical framework, a topic I will return to in a moment.
Consider the following example of a psychonaut coming to recognize and identify with their cat:
At one point [during the trip], our cat came and curled up next to me. The essence of my husband and cat blended in with me and we all became one. I could then sense my cat taking over and he was ‘showing’ me, through feelings, what he had experienced before my husband and I rescued him (he had been an abandoned cat). He showed me the torture some boys had put him through and I could sense his love and gratefulness for us having saved him and loved him.3
Similarly, a psilocybin user reported that “I saw glimpses of myself e.g. in my dog, in my son, in the forests where I worked.”4
Thelma Moss observed the expansion of the self in her account of LSD psychotherapy:
I wish I could convey how real is this sensation of becoming something or someone other than one’s self while under the drug . . . it is always extraordinary. To retain one’s own identity, yet to become another being or animal or object.5
These are all cases that match the dissolution of one’s individual self into something larger than just their physical body but lack the grandeur that sometimes is associated with ego dissolution and the experience of oceanic boundlessness.
Here’s another experience of a psychonaut via the San Pedro cactus that expands their sense of self beyond what we would ordinarily consider living:
I feel such a profound connection to all life in the universe, in all its forms, including those not ordinarily accessible to our perception. And that includes rock dust and stars, with everything in between that, outside that, and in lateral parallels to that.6
What we see in each of these cases is a dissolution of a very specific, localized sense of self into a larger sense, one that transcends mere bodies and inhabits its surroundings. As a recent article notes, in the anthropological literature surveying the use of ayahuasca and other psychedelics substances by indigenous Amazonian societies,
there is no mention of ego dissolution but rather the switching of ego positions in acts of becoming animal, plant, or other beings . . . Ayahuasca users, in this context, are not dissolving their egos and becoming one with Nature, God, or the All, but are metamorphosing into alternate beings . . . that embody alternate moral perspectives and capacities.7
Perhaps one reason for the lack of dissolution into the larger system they are embedded in is these indigenous societies don’t have the strictly atomized sense of self that is culturally dominant in Western culture. They are already a part of their larger ecosystem and recognize the relations within it. Meanwhile, our culture has us moving from place to place, consistently uprooting our lives, focusing only on our atomized families and ignoring the world around us. This is the rhetorical framework which we are embedded in as Richard Doyle observes.
The Role of Rhetorical Frameworks in Our Experiences
Part of the problem is the rhetorical strategies that we use as descriptors. It limits the way we understand and view the world as Robert Anton Wilson here notes:
“Reality” is a word in the English Language which happens to be (a) a noun and (b) singular. Thinking in the English Language therefore subliminally programs us to conceptualize “reality” as one block-like entity, sort of like a huge New York skyscraper, in which every part is just another “room” within the same building. This linguistic program is so pervasive that most people cannot “think” outside it at all, and when one tries to offer a different perspective they imagine one is talking gibberish.8
To many the psychedelic experience sounds like gibberish because they lack any framework or willingness to understand it. However, some might also say that Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s description of a different kind of rhetorical framework is gibberish:
It has to do with Gaia. There is a situation where I’m very clear that I’m not acting for myself. And when I realize that, that I am a cell, a living cell of the global organism. . . . If I see myself as a living cell of a living planet, that creates a whole different set of ethical norms. . . The planet is not a thing that's made of pieces of legos. It is all interconnected, and it is all organic.9
What Rabbi Zalman is describing here is an ecodelic insight. Richard Doyle suggests that psychedelics reliably produce what he calls the "ecodelic" insight: the sudden and absolute conviction that the psychonaut is involved in a densely interconnected ecosystem for which contemporary tactics of human identity are insufficient.10
Many psychedelic users, and the general population itself, lacks the tools to understand this greater identity. And I think this is part of the opaqueness of the term ego dissolution. One tool to understanding this is a rhetorical framework such as the one Rabbi Zalman elucidates—one where we are a living cell (self) within a larger ecosystem of cells.
So why give us the experience of becoming something larger than ourselves? Why embed us in our surrounding ecosystems during the trip? Why would psilocybin, DMT, LSD, ketamine, and others provoke this? (As a side note, it is interesting to compare the differences between naturally occurring substances’ production of ego dissolution vs. synthetic substances’ production—a topic for another article!) Perhaps this a way for the global organism to communicate to the cells, to show them that they are a part of something larger and have a place in it.11
The Overview Effect
Psychedelics are not the only method of achieving the type of insight we are discussing. Edgar Mitchell, an astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission reported that after the mission was complete and he had a moment to relax, he looked out the window:
The sensation was altogether foreign. Somehow I felt tuned into something much larger than myself, something much larger than the planet in the window. Something incomprehensibly big. . . Then looking beyond the earth itself to the magnificence of the larger scene, there was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught. My understanding of the separate distinctness and the relative independence of movement of those cosmic bodies was shattered. There was an upwelling of fresh insight coupled with a feeling [of] ubiquitous harmony—a sense of interconnectedness with the celestial bodies surrounding our spacecraft. Particular scientific facts about stellar evolution took on new significance.12
Mitchell didn’t need to have an ego-killing experience in order to have an ecodelic insight. While that experience might be beneficial in aiding the emergent larger “self”, it is by no means necessary. Nor is it entirely sufficient either.
This change in perception is sometimes called the Overview Effect. Frank White, who coined the term, wrote that our “mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our ‘worldview’ as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”13 And while White’s conception has been derived from astronauts who see the earth from space, the principle can be applied more generally, as a “zooming out” of our perception.
This can be illustrated through the use of sets. The ordinary perception of the self contains the set with the element [me] (although even the set of just me also includes the trillions of bacteria, microbes, and other creatures living in and on me. So really there is no isolating just you in the first place). However, what the overview effect and psychedelics can do is go any number of sets above the set [me] in the hierarchy.
Our ordinary self looks like this:
Self = [me]
One step up includes within the set of Self = [me, my wife, my cats, my place of residence, etc.].14
Go up a step further and all of a sudden the set includes my family, the nearby stream, all my neighbors, the plants around me, etc. In the case of Mitchell, the set of everything that he loved and cared about was contained within the set of everything on earth.
Another way to think about it could be that the set titled “myself” no longer only contains [me] within it. The set now includes those things around myself that I love and care about. Or, psychedelics break down the rigid barriers between self/other allowing the members of the set titled “myself” to be more fluid. One process by which this might occur is through redefining our in-group/out-group perceptions. But that’s a discussion for another post.
The point of a psychedelic experience then isn’t for the user to experience the set of themselves as the null set. Instead, the point is to notice that the set of themselves is actually much larger than 1. The point isn’t to fall into some solipsistic or nihilistic abyss of no self, but rather to see the abyss as absurd and recognize that as long as you exist, even after you cease to exist, you remain connected to everything around you.
In fact, scientific evidence is merely beginning to scratch the surface of just how embedded we are in a larger system of things. Recent studies are just starting to understand things that we as a society have forgotten: things like the role the soil microbiome plays in shaping cities, how trees speak to each other across forests, and how the environment and people around us shape who we are.
This is what ego dissolution under psychedelics can look like. It looks like recognizing that we are no different from our cat, the fellow down the street, or the tree we carelessly break branches off of. And perhaps the reason that ego dissolution is experienced this way is because of the culture and frameworks that exist today.
Part of the healing potential of psychedelics is this expanded sense of self. This has been understood and described by researchers as a sense of connection (See here, here, and here). In her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer tries to imagine what it would be like to not know the names of the plants and animals around you and compares it to being in a foreign city and not being able to read the street signs. She writes:
Philosophers call this state of isolation and disconnection “species loneliness”—a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship. As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors.
This species loneliness is the framework in which we live today. How many of you know all the different species of birds that live nearby and greet you with their songs in the morning? Or the names of the flowering plants that you walk past each day, brightening up the spaces in which you (and they) inhabit? How many of us know all of the neighbors on our block?
You are not just you. You are the relationships of your parts. You are the ecosystem in which you are embedded in. You are the soil that you live on. You are me. This adds significant meaning to the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. What you do to others you are also doing to yourself.
Psychedelics reveal the Other in each other. They don’t annihilate our self. They expand it. The whole point of the ego dissolution experience is that of what comes after: the reconstruction of the self to something larger.
While this post has escaped the original scope a bit, I think the above point is an important one. And I think it makes up an important aspect of the phenomenology of the experience. The sort of logic I have laid out here, that you are not just you, is at the core of many individuals’ experiences. It’s been one of the major themes in many of the people I’ve spoken to and guided through these experiences.
In the near future I’ll do another article that compares and contrasts the phenomenology of the expansion of the self across different domains of experience and how these details can be key to integration of the experiences.
But for now remember that ego dissolution itself is not the point. The journey extends far beyond.
There many ways to categorize the different experiences and individual facets of ego dissolution. The following article has many such interesting insights into the experiences people have. See Raphaël Millière, Robin L. Carhart-Harris, Leor Roseman, Fynn-Mathis Trautwein, and Aviva Berkovich-Ohana, “Psychedelics, Meditation, and Self-Consciousness,” Frontiers in Psychology 9 (2018).
Eduardo Kohn, “Forest Forms and Ethical Life,” Environmental Humanities 14:2 (2022): 401–418.
Cornczech. “We All Became One: An Experience with MDMA (Ecstasy) & Ketamine (exp12384),” Jun 14, 2007. erowid.org/exp/12384.
Neşe Devenot, Aidan Seale-Feldman, Elyse Smith, Tehseen Noorani, Albert Garcia-Romeu, and Matthew W. Johnson, “Psychedelic Identity Shift: A Critical Approach to Set And Setting” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 32:4 (2022): 359-399, 384.
Melter Skelter. "Contacting Logos: A Phenomenological Account: An Experience with Cacti - T. peruvianus (exp94867)," Oct 14, 2012. erowid.org/exp/94867.
Alex Gearin and Neşe Devenot. “Psychedelic Medicalization, Public Discourse, and the Morality of Ego Dissolution.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 24:6 (2021): 917–35, 929.
Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger I: The Final Secret of The Illuminati (New Falcon Publications, 1977), iii.
Richard M. Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noosphere (University of Washington Press, 2011), 20.
This is the suggested reason by a wide majority of psychonauts across the globe. For an interesting portrayal of it see Dennis McKenna’s article “Is DMT a Chemical Messenger from an Extraterrestrial Civilization” in DMT Dialogues: Encounters with the Spirit Molecule (Park Street Press, 2018), 38-66.
Edgar Mitchell, The Way of the Explorer (Putnam, 1996), 57-58.
Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution (AIAA, 2014), 1.
Obviously there are more incremental steps one could take between these sets, but no one wants to take the time to read all of the examples.