The Dark Side of Good Trips
Psychedelic ego death and its strange aftermath
You have probably heard of bad trips: scary psychedelic experiences that may stay with you for some time afterward, but that gradually diminish in strength.
And then there are psychedelic voyages that result in psychosis. For people experiencing this, it can seem like their trip never ended.
But there is another way that using psychedelics can go wrong. It usually starts with an experience of ego death, which can be brought on by most of the classical psychedelics, often in the higher dosage ranges.
What is this ego death?
So let’s talk about ego death for a moment. In this experience, your entire cognitive structure breaks down, often against your own wishes. The “self” — or ego — is seen to dissolve, which is pretty scary for most people, as it really feels like some profound sort of death.
Usually, there is an impulse to fight it with all the resistance you can muster. Which is exactly the wrong thing to do, as the experience will force itself upon you in what seem like never-ending loops of horror. This is why psychedelic guides and therapists advise to trust and let go.
When you surrender fully, the scary part ends, and you enter an experience that is often quite light and blissful. It may feel like some grand illusion has been removed, that has governed your life up until this point.
There can be life-changing insights into the nature of your psychology, your existence, or reality itself. You are still there, but something has dropped away, exposing you to the love in which you were always held. You are known in your fullness, including your darkest shame and your most lofty inclinations. And yet you are at one with the universe.
Through all this, you wake up to a deeper reality of existence: one where, in the words of Roger Glover: love is all.
However scary the descent into ego death may have been, the experience itself is rated very positively, often being ranked among the top 5 most meaningful experiences of someone’s life. An ego death experience is very similar to other mystical experiences, such as a near death experience.
This, then, is no bad trip, but a very, very good one.
Much more can be said about the experience of ego death, but as this article’s focus is on its unfortunate aftereffects, for now we need to move on.
You see, ego death is a temporary revolution within your consciousness, which will not last much beyond the limits of the psychedelic experience itself. There may be an afterglow, into which several of its characteristics survive, but most people who experience ego death will return to their ego-based self pretty quickly, as the psychedelic experience ends.
What happens in the aftermath of an ego death experience?
Many people struggle a bit with integration. That is only natural, as the two states — the ego death experience vs life as you know it — are so very different from each other.
The ego death experience has shown you that you are fully known, and that nothing is needed for you to be held in love. Nothing actually matters, in the grand scheme of things. Morality, action, words, even thought itself, are perceived to be utterly irrelevant.
In your life-as-you-know-it, on the other hand, love and acceptance of your specialness are much more conditional. Here, everything matters, from the actions you take, through the words you speak, to the very thoughts you think. Morality is essential to the way you live your life.
These states could hardly be more opposite. And only one can be the foundation for your life. How do you reconcile the two?
Through integration, you allow your ego death experience to settle within the confines of your day-to-day life. From there, it may continue to inform your outlook, and your decisions.
It’s true, your psychedelic experience becomes subordinate to your mediocre existence as a member of the human herd. But that is not such a bad thing.
There is hierarchical clarity in this situation. Your ego death experience becomes a memory. It can be a subject of fond recollection, of painting, or of poetic prose. But at least it’s not an alternate reality that becomes a threat to the life that you have built over the years.
The good news is that, for most people, such integration happens naturally and comes to a natural conclusion.
The initial phase of integration is usually filled with enthusiasm to take this experience and have it inform your way of life. This can lead to drastic decisions, such as quitting jobs, or severing relationships. Sometimes, such decisions are helpful in your life, and sometimes they are not.
However, for our purposes, whether your actions are helpful or not is kind of beside the point. Taking enthusiastic action on your existential discomfort can take on a symbolic significance. Through taking action, you honor the ego death experience, and allow it to settle. It is through such symbolic actions that integration happens.
Unresolved psychedelic integration destabilizes
For some, however, the integration phase doesn’t really end. And the longer it goes on, the stronger the tension becomes between the life you made for yourself, and the ego death experience. This can lead to disorientation, where everything is questioned, and every little decision can become fraught. Paralysis and stasis result from this, as well as a sense of not being able to understand the world, and the people around you.
When this remains unresolved, disenchantment with your old life can follow, where you feel fed up with the disregard with which your experience has been met by your surroundings. You can’t just go back to your old life, as if nothing has happened, can you?
This in turn may deepen into disengagement. With that comes the visceral feeling that every perception is somehow unreal, and/or you may start strongly identifying with philosophies that say “consensus reality is a dream,” or “we’re all living inside a simulation.”
This is a precarious situation. Not knowing how to integrate your ego death experience, you may end up painting yourself into a corner. Your potential, which at one time seemed infinite, is now vastly limited. If you can’t — or won’t— rejoin the herd, and can’t find ways to make your mystical experience more available, you remain stuck in this twilight zone in between your old life and the psychedelic experience. This can last for months, or years.
Surely, this must be what purgatory feels like.
And things can get even more severe, as in an ugly condition called solipsism. If you are unfortunate enough to experience this, you become convinced that you are the only person who is real, and the rest of us are just figments of your imagination. Unrestrained by your normal sense of responsibility, other people, banks, etc., are only there for your private amusement. I’m sure you can imagine what mayhem can result from such a belief.
Yet another way in which the integration phase can become problematic is when you are left feeling ungrounded. You may be oscillating between states of extreme fear and extreme elation, feeling disconnected from your body, feeling afraid of going to sleep, and of the ego death experience recurring.
Most of these problems typically do not surface within the psychedelic experience itself, and may not be experienced for some time after the trip ends. They are not always easy to trace back to the psychedelic experience, as weeks can go by without experiencing any discomfort.
How to work with these difficult experiences
If you’re feeling deeply ungrounded and destabilized, this is the most urgent thing that needs to be addressed. One way to handle this cluster of symptoms is to:
- Accept and honor your increased sensitivity.
- Return to the very basics of what you are able to handle, and postpone — for now — anything that you can’t.
- Abandon the recreational use of mind-altering chemicals — yes, that includes alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine — at least until these ungrounded effects have abated.
- Ask for and accept help from others.
- Spend time reconnecting with your body, and with nature.
It may take several weeks or longer to gradually get a handle on this. Don’t feel like you have to rush things. You need some stability to be able to do anything, so focusing on regaining that stability is of paramount importance.
This, though, is only the beginning of the road for most people. You have experienced something profound about your existence, something that is hard to “un-see.” Merely seeing it once, however, does not mean that you are now enlightened, and most ego death experiences can best be viewed as initiations, or “glimpses.”
All of the aforementioned symptoms, and many aspects of your ego death experience, have been described and experienced by mystics of religious traditions throughout the past three millennia.
For example, the Buddhist text Visuddhimagga, in describing a path to awakening, lists a series of terrible stages that happen to a person who has just had their first spiritual experience. These stages carry evocative names like knowledge of dissolution, terror, misery, disenchantment, and desire for deliverance.
Unwittingly, and often unwillingly, the ego death experiencer has become a spiritual seeker.
There is a slight cruelty to that realization, but there is also an advantage. Besides making you feel lost and rudderless, your experience has given you an inkling of what to aim for, to make this experience more available in your everyday life.
Remembering your ego death experience can uncover a series of waypoints that can help you progress on a contemplative path. Like a road map to the mystical dimensions of your life. Doing so helps you find practices — and communities of practice — that suit your personality, and your needs.
For example, some people remember being guided by a figure they instantly recognized as Jesus. Others report that there was mainly emptiness in their experience, or a lack of things. Yet others describe an ecstatic experience of oneness, where any separation seems ludicrous. In fact, all three memories can stem from the same ego death experience.
Whichever memory stands out to you can be helpful when determining which path to follow to make sense of your experience.
Towards a re-enchantment of your life
Such a journey holds the promise of turning your current disenchantment into a genuine re-enchantment with existence, informing every aspect of your life, ultimately leading to great wisdom, intimate engagement, and even sainthood.
For that to happen, though, you must first let go of the belief that you are already enlightened.
Yes, your ego death experience has given you a powerful vision. But if it hampers the way you live your life, if it results in your disengagement from relationships that were important to you before, it’s not much of an awakening.
Your life, and the way you live it, is the only credible proof of the proper integration of your insights.
One way to work at integration is to embrace the “slow road” that is provided by spiritual practice. One important caveat here: don’t do the pick-and-mix, shopping-around thing, unless you happen to be highly informed about the foundations of all of these traditions. By all means, try them out, but if you find something of value in one, commit to study and practice within that tradition for the foreseeable future.
Describing the ins and outs of such spiritual paths is beyond the scope of this article, but it is the main focus of an upcoming book, called Life After Ego Death. Learn more at lifeafteregodeath.com.