Ego Death

by Stephen Levine

The day I awoke with no center of gravity, my heart knew it had blown its mind. There was an open cauldera where once my haircut neatly grew.

I seemed a cartoon character of myself dreamed up to keep the mind from being bored.

When in 1975 I went through the dark night of our collective grief while studying with Sujata, it was only the first of that sort of mind-jarring initiation that occurred over the years.

Having been reborn years before out of that dark night that gives rise to such a bright dawn, both of which required substantial re­adjustment, I was deeply inside the Great Question, Who am I? being processed by the mystery.

There arose a series of experiences in which no separate self was to be found, which at first left me feeling rather lost and bewildered.

Indeed, a darker night for the soul awaited in what the ego wants to call “ego death.” But the ego doesn’t really die; it just has a near-death experience. It just stretches the self into the Self, becoming unrecognizable as it expands past previous personal fallacies and long-established false identities.

Ego death is when our idea of who we are, which we fear will be diminished by confronting some deeply self-image-threatening, existence-questioning, rather unpleasant truths, actually breaks its boundaries. We become confused, even frightened, when we cannot identify who is missing in the midst of unending presence.

We presume that an ego death is the end of our hard-won bigness, but actually it is the end of our smallness.

In what is called ego death it should be remembered that the word “ego” simply means “I am,” and that it is the sense of “I” that is trans­formed, not the “am-ness” that is eternal being.

Listening past all the ramblings and rimshots of the hard-postured self, awareness settles into the field of sensation, exploring the sense of presence.

Entering first the sensations that are the basis for the belief we exist, we find a flow of moment-to-moment sensation, but it is noticed that the “I am” is only an afterthought. Not really “the doer,” more just another doing.

Neti, Neti,” the aspirant repeats, “Not this, not that,” as they dig deeper and wider to find who it is in there, to find something solid enough, permanent enough, to still be real by the end of the sentence. But it all dissolves like flowers in air. The deeper you go the less the question is involved with either the “who” or the “I” of Who am I? but more a reflection on, and of, endless am-ness.

As we explore beyond our accumulated identities, the “who” and the “I” of the question, being so much heavier than the whole truth, fall back to earth. And only the am-ness remains. Only the unending essence of being, of deathless suchness, to silently answer the question.

There is nothing found small enough to be limited to the mind/body.

—————

In the course of breaking the narrow confines of the self-image, a whole new world becomes available when you find out who you aren’t, including your suffering, which wipes out most of your precious/painful identity. This can be a little disconcerting.

—————

Just before my face fell off, I looked back at my life as though it were my own. I was possessed by memory.

But as I passed behind the well-woven tapestry of appearances, history was undone. The knots and snags that hold the illusion in place unraveling.

The suffering defended so long dissolved like the Cheshire smile as a karmic wind caught a loose end and pulled . . .

In transit beyond the known.

—————

These experiences resemble death in that at first they may be met by considerable resistance and fear, but eventually they reach us how to break through to love. After a pound or two of perspiration they lead to considerable healing and insight.

As the series of ego-challenging experiences continued, crossing the no-man’s-land beyond the boundaries of the habitual mind, any­thing resembling a familiar face, particularly my own, seemed a long dark night away. That self-protecting, self-defeating, fear-at-the-edge noticed floating nearby.

A subtle nausea begins to rise in my gut.

The free-floating fear of the unknown, which attempts to placate every anxiety from the will-to-live to sabertooth-behind-the-bush, sig­nals going beyond our edge and entering our great unknown. A letting go of those places of holding past which we seldom venture. Beyond the cage of our safe territory, our limitations, our attachment to old models of who we think we are or should be.

All that ordinarily seems so solid and girds the precious mental construct of the self, no longer able to support its own weight. The illusion as unstable as quicksand, we cross the shifting ground of ordi­nary mind, as if traversing a haunted cemetery at midnight. Being ever so diligent not to wake the dead.

—————

Opening, as into Big Mind, without clinging to or condemning the moment-to-moment unfolding of rapidly changing states of mind, we begin to notice how mechanically one thought dissolves into the next.

Observing consciousness more as process than content, we con­tinue to cross this no persons’ land with mercy and awareness, with gratitude and love for all the wounded and dying identities shed along the way. All the identities that litter the path as this thought or that Image, as son, father, man, poet, meditator, seeker, prisoner, teacher, saint, and fool. Passing through the fear that once kept my suffering in place, what had been a fearsome guardian was gradually becoming something of a tour guide. Life accessed at yet another level.

Observing from the still point of the heart everything as just thought. No reality other than thought. Nothing to be feared and no one fearing. Even the thinker just a thought.

After years of being met by a merciful awareness, this fear that her­alded greater openings now received with genuine gratitude. With very little inclination to stop the fear or protect the edge, level after level of letting go allowed one imagined boundary after another to fall away.

Just over the ridge above the eyes that separates us from prehistory, unimaginable being expands into inconceivable space.

This boundaryless vista can arouse survival mechanisms that eman­ate a kind of terror greater than that of dying: the fear of nonexistence. Thu unfamiliar vastness, offering no milestones or old trailmarkers, can easily disorient small mind into something of a “dark night.” A feeling of being lost in edgeless space can occur that leads occasionally to the identity confusion and common grief sometimes confronted in what has been come to be called “spiritual emergencies.” This hide-and-seek with the self, this confusion, is most often caused not from just experiencing the unending openness of spiritual emptiness but from, when turning to ourselves for an answer to “Who am I?” we discover only the cold vacuity of our psychological emptiness.

It is here perhaps that we might address the much misunderstood Buddhist concept of “nonself.” Indeed, in the face of such terms, much less such experiences as ego death, a student of Buddhism might ask, “How can there be an ego death if, as we are taught, there is no self?

But of course to say there is no self is absurd and very misleading. The self is a perfect example of what is called a “real illusion.” The self is simply an idea of itself. A long-grasped concept that reflects the mind’s fears like Narcissus’s pond. Of course there is a self; it is a mental construct, a long accumulated fantasy of who we are. To say that this “self”-thought is not founded on anything “real” abiding autonomous at the center would be more accurate. To say there is nothing smaller than our essential enormity that we might even consider calling “I” would be closer to the truth.

When we experience levels of consciousness in which thoughts of self and any other thought carry the same weight—are equally appreciated in an undifferentiated awareness, with no differentiation between the idea of ourselves and the idea of others—a delightfully egolessness ensues.

Which brings us to the realization that if it were true that there was no self, we wouldn’t have to work so hard. The ego/self wishes to be present at its own funeral; it’s been working on its obituary most of its life. Nothing would make it prouder, identifying itself with such as nonself philosophies, than to be seen as having been uprooted. As the old joke goes, “Look who thinks they’re nobody!”

That evening, in meditation, in the absolute silence I could see it hanging there like an old overcoat. It was my personality ego: its likes and dislikes, its inclinations and attitudes, its justifications and imagined personal history.

It was what Joseph Goldstein used to warmly refer to as “the whole catastrophe!” It was “the me” to be put on like a heavy garment. Displacing the sun and stars from my true skin, leaving me cold and in need.

It seemed the dynamics of things (the mystery) had simply dealt me a personality. It wasn’t my personality; it seemed just to be the one donned to suit the long day.

The personality seemed at the time such an obvious and pathetic joke. Another primitive artifact. A second skin always one step away from the infinite. But then again only one step!

—————

But with ego-death experience as with a physical death, it’s easier to die than to stay dead, and what do you do with that painful old self-image after a glimpse beyond the kasina and our farthest, most trea­sured horizon?

After seeing into the nature of thinking and the thinker?

After the origins of consciousness are realized? After form and all that we know and believe appear as but a tiny bubble on the frothy tip of one very small wave amongst innumerable greater waves on a boundless ocean?

And perhaps the best answer to that question of what to do with one’s life after one awakens was well offered by one of Kerouac’s dharma bums who, when asked what he was going to do with the rest of his life, answered, “Just watch it.”

To deconstruct the compulsions of the given personality, to settle back while stepping in, takes strength and courage. To go beyond the familiar and open to the transpersonal, universal miracle of just being is to unlock the personality. Not to cure it, of course, but simply to offer it some care and healing. To loosen some of its bonds and live a bit more lightly, relating to rather than from the chaos-oriented ordi­nary mind. To allow our intentions a bit more clarity and patience as we take the next step inward toward healing.

Sudden wholehearted comprehension said: cut out the middle man, the proprietary interpreter of the senses. Live directly. Truth resides as a dormant grace in the cells like hidden flowers in a rain forest waiting to become cures when at last the illness is acknowledged.

The deepest truth cannot be spoken. The mystery has nothing to press its tongue against; it cannot speak. Only the illusion can be described.

But observing the personality, clearly I was not that. But rather the awareness by which it was seen. The luminous space between the atoms and desires that created it,

The personality, as ill-fitting as it seemed, could nonetheless be recognized as a necessary dynamic at this stage of evolution. In the same way that one cannot have a voice without a tone of voice, so we cannot have being without a way of being, a personality.

Our personality is the shape of our grief, the manner in which we deal with our pain. A coping mechanism. A driving force from life to life that benefits greatly from the teachings of the heart.

Seen as the personality rather than my personality, it settles down and stops taking itself so seriously, often experiencing an expanded sense of being. Of the personal uniting with the universal.

Passing through strata after strata of consciousness, there comes a silence so deep that form cannot manifest.

A bliss ensues in which even a single molecule can accommodate the big bang. And I Am That (Om Tat Sat) for three billion years rather than become anything less.

—————

Years before I received Terry Southern’s note in prison that “poetry was too easy,” my resistance to that idea was quite evident.

The poet model may have saved me from drowning, so I was not so quick to put it aside. Actually, at the time it was a skillful deep illusion that kept me upright so I might find the ground beneath my feet and take a further step on the path.

In the adolescence of my spirituality I imagined the highest good would be to become an enlightened poet. Little did I realize that one of the models I would eventually have to break through was the concept of enlightenment. No one gets liberated who still holds to that churchlike dictum. We must first realize that we are a verb, not a noun. That poet is to poetry as religion is to spirit. That one stands small and alone while the other partakes wholly of the enormous universe.

My attempt to defend my identity as poet provided me the opportu­nity to see the discomfort of attachment to any model at all, even “poet,” the best identity I had to far. These signposts pointing toward a distant horizon had suitably confronted me with my own confusion.

As one of my teachers would later point out, “poet” was the lifeline I had used to pull myself from the swamp, but it could very quickly become the hangman’s rope to which I was most attached. To para­phrase the teacher’s warning, “Don’t be a poet. Don’t be a saint. Don’t be anything small enough to be defined. If you are anything apart from the whole you will suffer!”

If absolute presence is being sought, we cannot stop anywhere.

Any identity, good or bad, can be a burden.

For over thirty years, Stephen & Ondrea Levine have combined the compassion of Buddhist teachings with modern psychology, developing original methods to help people deal with death and dying. Throughout their journey they collaborated with other teachers, including Ram Dass and the Dalai Lama. Jack Kornfield said of Stephen and Ondrea, “their work is among the deepest, most healing and heartfelt contributions to modern spiritual life in America.” They draw from the teachings of a variety of wisdom traditions, including Native American, Sufism, mystical Christianity, and Theravada Buddhism. Stephen is the author of numerous books, including Who Dies, Turning Toward the Mystery, and A Year to Live. Stephen lives with Ondrea in relative isolation in northern New Mexico.

www.levinetalks.com

 From Turning Toward the Mystery: A Seeker’s Journey, by Stephen Levine. Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Levine. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers. www.harperone.com