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Altered Ego

teafaerie | Musings | Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Altered Ego

The Teafaerie is a superhero. She also sometimes refers to herself in the third person. Mostly it’s just a silly conceit. There’s something behind it, though. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about who I am and what it means to be an “I” in the first place; and while I haven’t come to any startlingly original conclusions, I have managed to find a relationship to my self-nature that’s more of an ongoing game than a constant battle. It didn’t used to be that way, so this happy state of affairs represents a sort of philosophical victory for me. Maybe you’ve always known exactly who you are, and if so then you’re either very lucky, very wise, or you simply haven’t asked yourself the wrong question yet. If this is you, consider navigating away from this page right now and finding something safer to read. I’d hate to be the one to confuse you.

Psychedelics have a way of making philosophers of us all. I just looked up philosophy, and Wikipedia says it’s the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Even people who would never think of themselves as philosophical types occasionally grapple with these issues on psychedelic drugs, and those of us who like to over-think things can and often do ramble on about such nonsense late into the night, trying to convey or interpret our unique insights as well as throwing well-worn chestnuts onto the open fire and stirring them around until they pop. One thing that seems to come up again and again is the problem of ego. What the heck is this persistent sense of individual selfness, what does it mean, what is it for, and what (if anything) is to be done about it?

Freud described the ego as the organized part of the personality structure where conscious awareness resides. It’s kind of a patched together composite that seeks to serve the id’s natural drives in a socially successful way, while at the same time trying to live up to the superego’s higher ideals. We are told that our consciousness as we usually know and love it is an emergent effect of that integration processing taking place. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Or rather, the doing of it implies or manifests “a somebody”, and that somebody is the tormented construct that we tend to think of as ourselves. The ego can be said to be our sense of self. Tellingly, the word is most often used colloquially to denote our sense of self-importance. If someone is “full of herself”, that person is said to have an enormous ego. This is commonly understood to be a bad thing. And for the most part it is. Maybe. The ego exists for a reason, though, and I think that it gets an unfairly bad rap generally and in psychedelic culture in particular.

Scorekeepers in the psychedelic locker room are forever asking people if they’ve lost their egos yet, and making them feel like virgins if they don’t say yes. I remember being a little (and not-so-little) virgin myself, and listening to the more experienced girls talk about “losing it” with a sort of jealous trepidation. What did I have to lose in the first place? What might I hope to get in exchange? People gush about “ego-death” as if it were a consummation devoutly to be wished. And then many of those who claim to have had it go on to preside over the wake in what appears to be a fit of acute egomania. Maybe the undead zombie ego takes over or something…

Everybody is always trying to break down the poor old ego, and people who are interested in consciousness expansion seem to be particularly keen to stamp it out. Psychedelics are supposed to dissolve the ego, though I don’t know exactly who it is that supposedly supposes this in the light of psychedelic history. And yes, of course it’s really true. And yes I’ve had a bunch of ego-defying drug experiences ranging from simple unconsciousness to something that I’d ironically be inclined to style as a “plus-five”, if only the Shulgin scale could be expanded to account for its occurrence. I’ve also had drugs cause or play a role in a few episodes of full-blown messianic inflation, complete with delusions of grandeur. I am immensely amused by both ends of the spectrum, and take them both at face value with an economy-sized salt lick on the side. I’m not even sure that psychedelics actually break down the ego at all. What I think they really do is dissolve some of the boundary conditions in which the ego arises, thus deconditioning the lens of awareness from its normal, healthy, survival-promoting fixation upon the here-and-now activities and affairs of the individual, and allowing it to slide more freely up and down the broad continuum of conscious experience. It’s as if we most often see the world through a telescope that’s stuck at a fixed focal length, and psychedelics can unstick it so that it becomes possible to zoom in and out, thereby gaining firsthand experience of processes taking place at levels not normally subject to our conscious observation. At one end of the continuum is the perception of the self-as-god, and way over on the other end you have the perception of god-as-self. Both are equally true, false, and meaningless of course; and in a sense, they’re not all that far apart. I’ve seen trippers toggle back and forth between the oceanic experience and megalomaniacal ravings on more than one occasion. In fact, I tend to associate the two phenomena in my mind, and I suspect that the difference between these apparently opposite states is more a matter of fine-tuning than we might be led to expect.

At one end of the spectrum is a state of superinflation that seems to confirm some people’s lifelong suspicion that the universe really does, in fact, revolve around them after all. My friend Seuss dean has an unsinkable ego. No, really. So naturally (if somewhat paradoxically) he became rather fixated on the quest to obliterate it, at least for a moment, as a matter of pride. I’ll never forget the time I saw him take twelve (twelve!) big cloudy-looking hits of 5-MeO-DMT and then proceed to eat a pop tart while he chatted casually about how lucky we were to have landed such choice roles in the cosmic drama. It was like watching Zaphod Beeblebrox emerge from the Total Perspective Vortex in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The Vortex is a torture device that floods its victim with one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation and the relative size and importance of themselves within it. Zaphod was an egomaniac and the device was intended to destroy him, but because all this occurred in a fake copy of the universe that had been created for Zaphod’s benefit, he saw himself as central and was quite amused by the experience. I’ve had some fairly solipsistic trips myself, come to think of it. I can’t bring myself to take them too seriously, though. If everybody who ever thought that they were the One when they were tripping really was some kind of messiah or something, there would be an awful lot of messiahs running around, now wouldn’t there?

The so-called “ego death” experience defines the other extreme of this continuum, and it’s an interesting topic to explore. I’ve had a few different versions of it, ranging from the utterly forgettable to the single most significant event in my entire life. I assume that the latter is probably closer to what everybody keeps raving about. The thing is, I really don’t remember much of the truly fascinating part. I do recall the vividly felt sense of just having had IT “holy shit for reals this time”, but apparently my memory couldn’t manage to hold onto much of the blessed experience itself. It’s simply not set up to record that kind of thing. Recording implies an observer–an ego, if you will. And mine was shot to shit at the time. There was no film in my internal camera, if indeed it was turned on at all. This is pretty typical in my experience as a trip-sitter as well. I’ve seen something happen quite a few times that, at least from the outside, appeared to be indistinguishable from the canonical “enlightenment” experience. I always try to get audio and video records for the subjects if that’s in line with their battle plans, because I know damned well that they’re probably not going to remember a bit of it. So what’s the point of having the experience in the first place? Many people report that the run up to their ego-loss experiences was more than a little bit frightening, and even those who fall into ecstatic bliss at the event horizon often draw a blank when asked to describe the true core of the mystery beyond to their curious counterparts back home in psycho-spiritual Flatland.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against enlightenment or its near relatives. It’s obvious that when one is properly prepared to receive it, this sort of experience can have real and lasting value. I just don’t think that it’s the end-all-be-all. Or I guess maybe it is. But I’m not particularly tempted to try to move in there yet. I’m not attracted to any philosophy that suggests that life is a trick or a trap. The universe is awesome and I’m thrilled to play my part in its magnificent unfolding. I’ve had it up to my pineal gland with all of all these so-called “spiritual” people who spend most of their time and energy just trying to beat the game and stop the ride. Many of them seem to be attempting to annihilate the observer all together. But the rub is that if they manage to succeed, they–as they understand themselves–won’t really be around to enjoy whatever the perks of enlightenment might turn out to be! If such a perfected one happened to be lucky enough to live in, say, a spiritual community in India, he or she could hope to be propped up on pillows by adoring fans who might at least be counted upon to keep the fresh fruit and incense coming. In America, where I live, someone who lost his ego and then couldn’t find it again (or didn’t choose to look for it), might well end up in the tender care of the mental health system. Which, you know, may be alright if one were enlightened, I guess…

Nevertheless, I know what people mean when they say that psychedelics help them keep their egos in check. To the extent that the ego is the amalgamation of all of our accumulated psychological habits–our minor anxieties and pet peeves, our obsessions, our defenses, our yearnings, fears and kinks (as well as our passions, hopes, and dreams)–psychedelics and empathogens seem like ideal tools to address any imbalances that might arise. Psychedelics are terrific for optimizing processes, sorting and integrating unconscious data, cleaning up old thought loops, and releasing unwanted beliefs and patterns of behavior. I often come away from a good trip feeling like I just had my engine retuned and my hard drive defragged. I think that psychedelics can aid and support the ego in its vital activities and help it to heal when it becomes dysfunctional or unbalanced. But if you treat the ego like a cancer and your goal is just to shrink and weaken it with a sort of psychedelic chemotherapy, you risk throwing the baggie out with the bongwater. You may be wise to want to break down your ego a little bit, but having your ego break down on you is another matter entirely. I’ve seen it happen and it’s not so pretty.

I love who I am when I take psychedelics. I have to. Interdimensional travel can be more than a little bit challenging, and I find that the only constant I can count on is myself. Fortunately psychedelics tend to selectively suppress the parts of my personality that discourage and annoy me, and amplify the aspects of my psyche that I particularly like. At least they do now. It’s been something of a long strange journey, I assure you. The first time I fell in (or “lost my ego”, or whatever), the first time I experienced myself as the continuum rather than as an individual, I had an existential crisis. Like many people, I’d naturally always equated the ego with the soul. I thought of myself as sort of a ghost living inside of my body. This ghost was the source of all of my thoughts, feelings, and personality traits; and I hoped–without much confidence–that it would go on living elsewhere after my death. The experience that I had seemed to reveal the ego as a hacked-together and bug-ridden construct that originated in my brain. My viewpoint suddenly shifted, and I was able to see my persona from the outside. And then it came unmoored all together, and I was at once my cells, myself, my intimates, the entire human race, sentient life in general, and the whole grand scheme of things entire. Which was awesome and all, but I was totally unprepared for that sort of a whammy and it left me feeling more shattered and confused than enlightened. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I worried that I might be a figment of my own imagination. (It turns out that I’m a figment of Seuss dean’s imagination, and he of mine, but that’s a story to be told another time.) I was depressed for months, actually. I stopped believing in myself. It was kind of like the existential revelation about there being no meaning in the universe besides what you choose to apply to it. At first I could only hear the scary part about there being no inherent meaning, and it took me a long time to focus my attention on the liberating part that says you get to define it all for yourself. Not that I’m an existentialist. But I had the same thing happen when I first saw the wiring under the board as far as the ego is concerned. At first it was really scary and depressing, but eventually I figured out that if my self-nature doesn’t just exist as a given, I’m free to tinker with it. That’s when the fun part started.

Psychedelics are excellent metaprogramming tools. Long before I started actively sculpting my psyche, I noticed that certain drugs made me feel “more like myself” than I typically felt when I was sober. I know that it sounds funny, but it still rings true. I don’t really have a good theory for why it works that way. Maybe it has to do with that optimizing of processes that I was talking about earlier. Maybe it’s because I’m better able to tune into my own body, or to other people, environments, or archetypal energies. I kind of feel like it’s a resonance thing–as if various parts of my psyche are chronically out-of-tune, and psychedelics help me harmonize and come into “a chord” with myself. Which is convenient, because I find that maintaining a strong sense of self is fundamental to my psychedelic practice. When my ego is weak I get frightened more easily and I have more trouble navigating. I forget my intention and it’s harder to complete processes. The weaker my personality is, the more likely other energies are to get the upper hand in a scuffle. Besides, if I just dissolve in the first wave of ecstatic bliss that comes along, I end up passing out in the corner and missing all the fun. A shaman needs to have a strong will. Which is not to say that a shaman doesn’t need to be humble and capable of surrender. Sometimes you’ve got to let go. It’s a balancing act, though–especially when there are other explorers who are counting on you for guidance and support. In a cartoon picture of a primitive village, you can always tell which character is supposed to be the shaman because he looks like a superhero. Shamans really are superheroes in a way, even though they don’t always dress the part.

Now I don’t think of myself as a shaman, but I do think of myself as a psychedelic superhero, and that perception can really save the day when I’m facing down a swarm of hyper-dimensional clowns or I suddenly need to warp time and space in order to get to the bathroom and back. So I cultivate it. Not just when I’m on drugs, but all the time. Because it helps to be a superhero when you’re facing your boss down, too. Just think of yourself as a character in a massively multiplayer role-playing game called Life. Or rather, think of yourself as the player: design the character that you want to play and commit to it. The fact you know on some level that it’s a construct is a feature, not a bug. It means that you can step into it at will, and set it down without trauma when it’s time to transcend. Seuss dean and I have developed an entire mock religion around this notion. We call it Avatarism, which is a word that our good friend irReverend Alexander made up to describe the process of developing Character while still identifying yourself with the Player, the higher-self, and the seamless ground-of-being. If you know how to build a temple in Second Life, get in touch with me. I kind of think that it could take off on the Internet. That might just be my big ego talking, though.

The ego is like a sharp machete that hangs off of your belt. I can’t remember who made this analogy up, but it wasn’t me. Mighta been my husband. Anyway, you need your machete, right? You’ve got to hack your way through the jungle and defend yourself from leopards and whatever. But you’ve got to make sure that you sheathe it away properly when you’re not using it, or it will slice the fuck out of your leg and you’ll bleed to death from just walking around. The trick to managing the ego is to keep it in perspective and strive to find a healthy balance. Kind of like everything else in life. I think that it’s awesome that a more robust dialogue is starting to develop between Eastern and Western philosophy, because the East seems to have a better grip on the Atman and the collective unconscious, while the West has historically been all about the development of the individual. Both are necessary and important, in my humble opinion. Maybe they’re just two sides of the same coin. We are both the undifferentiated ground-of-being, and the figure that is dancing upon it. We are all One, and yet if there were only one parachute between us we’d be in competition. It’s important for me to be able to tell which one of us I am, because I’m responsible for that person’s credit card bills–to say nothing of her eternal salvation. Besides, without Characters we wouldn’t have any Story. And then where we would we be? Marinating in cosmic bliss, maybe. But we wouldn’t really know it, so it doesn’t really count. So sayeth the Teafaerie speaking ex cathedra from her bellybutton. Ahem.

Play safe kids–and remember: It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an I.