Ego Death – Part of a Hero’s Journey

Ego Death – Part of a Hero’s Journey

Ego death. Ego loss. Psychic death. Self-surrender and transition. The list of names could go on and on. A dissociative loss of your sense of self-identity, ego death has marveled spiritual and medical minds for thousands of years.

The concept of ego death presents itself in dozens of cultures and philosophies across history and geography alike [1]. According to religious scholar Daniel Merkur in his book, Crucified with Christ: Meditations on the Passion, Mystical Death, and the Medieval Invention of Psychotherapy, ego death is a frequent concept found in many world religions.

“The conceptualization of mystical union as the soul’s death, and its replacement by God’s consciousness, has been a standard Roman Catholic trope since St. Teresa of Avila; the motif traces back through Marguerite Porete, in the 13th century, to the fana, ‘annihilation’, of the Islamic Sufis.”

It is important to remember that ego death refers to the ego in the psychological sense, rather than the individual concept of self-esteem or self-importance. According to famed neurologist and father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, the ego is “that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.”

In Freud’s line of thought, this means the ego is a mediator between the unreasonable and oft-chaotic id and the objective reality outside of the individual. The ego is “like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superiour strength of the horse”.

Ego death itself is kind of a misnomer – it is not a true death of the ego itself, but rather a chance for us to transcend the boundaries of ego and subjectivity and look at our lives, ourselves, and our hurdles objectively. This is not to say ego death is an enjoyable experience for all; for some, it can be a terrifying process, but one you may grow to be thankful for.

While the experience can be different for many, one does not need to look far to see positive examples of these experiences. You likely have heard of the Hero’s Journey, the all-encompassing monomyth that is the foundation of many of the most famous stories told throughout history.

[2] The Hero’s Journey, described by Joseph Cambell in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is a basic narrative pattern that fictional and historical narratives follow, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad, Gautama Buddha, Moses, and Jesus Christ.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” – the general structure, as outlined by Campbell. The Hero’s Journey has been identified in modern works like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings as well as more classic literature such as Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, and more.

The second phase of the hero’s journey – self-surrender – is itself a form of ego death. It often incorporates themes from the transition of adolescence into adulthood as well. The protagonists of our stories often find themselves deeply affected and forever changed, but usually for the better.

In the case of our heroes, ego death is just one step in an overall path towards change and betterment and is a painful but necessary part of the transformation they must go through. Perhaps this is the case for everyone – maybe this is a sometimes arduous task we all should undertake in order to become a better and more complete version of ourselves?

So let’s say that ego death is an important part of recovery or personal growth – how do you get there? In modern times, the answer tends to be psychedelics, and it’s not hard to imagine why.

A study recently published in Neuropsychopharmacology indicates psilocybin mushrooms may play a role in the concept of ego death or ego dissolution. There are specific parts of the brain associated with ego and self-awareness: the cortex, the hippocampus, and the neurotransmitter glutamate.

Some substances – psychedelics like psilocybin or ketamine – are thought to play a role in the level of glutamate within the cortex and the hippocampus. This new study seems to indicate that changes in glutamate within the cortex can be associated with a negative experience of ego death (a “bad trip”). On the other hand, changes in glutamate levels in the hippocampus may be associated with a positive experience of ego death.

Is ego death not only a spiritual tool for growth but a medical one as well? Many physicians across the globe would say yes.

Check back in soon for Part 2 of our series examining Ego Death, Shadow Work, and the importance that the unconscious mind holds in treating mental health or experiencing overall wellness.

[1] Merkur, Daniel (2007). Crucified with Christ: Meditations on the Passion, Mystical Death, and the Medieval: Invention of Psychotherapy, SUNY Press.
[2] Campbell, J (2008). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Third edition. Novato, California: New World Library.

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