Ego death happens in stages or phases, and if courageously pursued, eventually results in the experience of Self-Realization, Nirvana, Oneness, Spiritual Ascension, or Spiritual Enlightenment.
It's important to remember that while the sequence presented below appears linear in it's written form, the process of ego death is messy, not linear and most people are experiencing parts and pieces of multiple stages at once. This is due, in part, to the fact that our egos are much more attached in some areas of our lives than others. In relationships, for example, we may have a very hard time letting go, whereas in our professional or social lives we may find we more easily accept an ending or a death. Ego death is not formulaic or necessarily predictable, but there are identifiable themes and a generally identifiable pattern or trajectory.
In the early stages of ego death, one “wakes up” to life. This awakening might be triggered by an existential crisis, a tragedy, a chronic illness, the death of a loved one or the loss of a relationship . . . or simply the natural process of soulful maturing. When spiritual awakening occurs, the search for more depth and meaning in life becomes a focus. Often, big questions such as “what is my purpose?” “what is the meaning of life?” or “what happens after death?” start to occupy the mind. The signature element of most spiritual awakenings is the sense that something profound is missing in life. This can lead to feelings of depression or anxiety or a sense of urgency.
The Dark Night of the Soul
The Dark Night of the Soul is inherent in the process of spiritual awakening. The Dark Night defines the vivid awareness of separation from true nature, from the hearts of other people. A deep knowing arises and there is an undeniable awareness that there is MORE . . . perhaps something Divine, perhaps something metaphysical . . . we may not know WHAT, but we can feel the presence of MORE. The Dark Night of the Soul is a period during which we recognize that we are utterly lost, lonely and isolated from others, and have been for most of our lives, separated from the MORE we sense is near but we're unable to grasp. In the depths of our being, we know something has to radically shift in our lives, but we don’t know what or where to look. Often, the Dark Night experience can feel like a sudden ‘pop’ of the ego bubble – like releasing the cork from a wine bottle or the air from a balloon. Suddenly the pressure to conform to the ego structures that have been in place for decades is released, but there is no clarity or understanding about how to survive without that ego-constructed sense of self.
Eventually, after experiencing a Spiritual Awakening and Dark Night of the Soul, we stumble into the field of spirituality. We may start going to therapy. We may get a divorce, quit our jobs, and travel to India or the Amazon or the North Pole. Regardless,there is a movement toward having both an inner life experience and an outer life experience that will bridge from the egoless "not knowing what to do with ourselves" to the MORE we sense is possible. Guided by intuition or therapists or a guru or teacher or coach, we start experimenting with different spiritual practices and find that some alleviate the suffering associated with being in this liminal, inbetween state. We become quite focused, sometimes obsessed with reducing the suffering, the fear and uncertainty that comes with the loss of old ego structures. We can't do life unconsciously any more. While still depending on some of our old ego habits to get by, we also can't maintain those old habits of separation and isolation without feeling extreme discomfort, but we haven't become established in living life beyond the confines of our old ego structures. This begins the exploration of many different fields such as energy healing, yoga, astrology, mysticism, meditation, body awareness, many forms of psychology, religion, philosophy, psychedelics, etc.
The word “Satori” is a Zen Buddhist word meaning “momentary enlightenment.” During the process of Spiritual Seeking, many will catch a brief glimpse into the True Nature of their Being, or they may have momentary access to Consciousness itself; an experience in which the ego completely dissolves. Many describe Satori as being the result of a kundalini awakening; an experience of life force or consciousness moving through the body, unresisted. For some, this experience is terrifying, and spiritual growth stagnates. But for many, the Satori experience, kundalini-based or not, is deeply life-changing, and spiritual growth continues to evolve. Satori becomes an embodied reference for what is possible and it is quite motivating. The challenge is accepting its fleeting nature. The ego wants to grab onto it, recreate it, make it stable, control it, posses it.
Elder Soul or Crone Soul
Over time, we develop spiritual discernment. We discover the gimmicks and spiritual bypassing attempts of the ego to save itself from complete annihilation! The ego does not die easily and will not go down without a fight! This resistance to death keeps us trapped in the cycles of pain, fear, and separation, until we become learned and skilled in the spiritual practices that open us to our True Nature, to our Inner Being, to the Divine. As we begin to experience more soulful maturity and identify more easily and naturally with a Higher Self, (essentially a repurposed ego) we can then more intentionally choose the sustaining and supportive behaviors or attitudes of self-discipline, patience, and focus. Maturity in these attitudes and practices and approaches set the stage for the final letting go of the ego's death grip on our identity.
Dissolution and Deconstruction
In this stage, we begin to surrender all that we are not. All the old messaging from early childhood conditioning finally starts to actually dissolve . . . Whereas we may have previously been aware of negative patterns of thought and we understood the obsolescence of outdated ideas about ourselves, now we are noticing in this stage that those old ideas about ourselves have no sway and are, in fact, disappearing. This stage is no longer just about identifying our destructive and limiting beliefs and behavior patterns but actually letting go of them and letting the light in. As we integrate our soulful maturity into our everyday way of BEING in the world, the old ego structures disintegrate. Grace, discipline, trust, courage, non-attachment, humility, and love all play important roles in this process.
The End of the Search
Finally, we come to a resting place. We realize that all that we are, and all that we need, can be found right Now. The search to become something, to lose something, to find something, and to accomplish something perishes. We see through the illusion of looking for truth, joy, peace, and love in any place outside of ourselves. We see the truth that we are mirrored in all beings and all things. We experience interconnectedness and Oneness. While the ego still exists, we become aware of the ego as simply a tool; not the Truth of Who We Are. Transcending duality and the grip of the ego, we develop the capacity to give unconditional love and acceptance. This is the state of ultimate inner peace, freedom, and what people refer to as “enlightenment,” yet those who experience this know that no possible label or mental construct can describe such an experience.
Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to die before you die – and find that there is no death.
– Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now)