Sunday, January 8, 2017

Psychedelics and the Ego: How the route to Selflessness demonstrates the importance of the Ego.

Many psychonauts try to use psychedelics as a means to dissolve the ego or personal identity (the sense of being a person apart from others) via the use of psychedelic substances. They may hope to find a state where the sense of I has spilled out into the world, so that who they are no different than their surroundings. The aim of such a practice is to replace the troublesome ego with a new perception of the self as one with the world, rather than encountering and dealing with the world.  Although this may seem as a virtuous endeavor, it is wrought with misconceptions that may lead some astray from the path to selflessness.

At the zenith of psychedelic experience, one can come to the realization that their ego, far from being an obstacle to overcome, is necessary for any involvement within a system. So there I was, on around 200 micrograms of LSD staring at a blank white wall splashed with the light from a bedside lamp. Then, the fractal center of a storm gleaned its importance. Like consciousness, although the center is hollow, it’s the locus of experiential gravity. The center is needed to move across the landscape. The edges are used to tell it apart.
But wait, wasn’t the point to get rid of the ego? But then how would I move? How could I come to anything if there was no road? The stinging realization hit me hard: we need an Ego to move, let alone be anything. But then, what was the reason behind the ego-death project?

Some see the ego as an impediment to a happy, peaceful, and fulfilled existence. The reason many psychonauts seeks to demolish the ego is for this purpose- to better their existence. This seemingly noble task is specious. What I failed to understand was that taking on this journey to rid myself of my ego was a blatant contradiction. While it’s true that selfishness is the root of many violent and otherwise socially abrasive behaviors, we must also recognize what the ego makes possible for us.
Without an ego, we couldn’t tell ourselves apart from anything. In this case, without one, we would cease to exist. How could one come to any realization when their ego is absent? So the issue is not about identity itself being an impediment to a good life; rather, the problem is to find what is it about the ego that is harmful. What could we salvage, if anything, from the ego?

We know that the ego is needed to exist as a personal identity. Would this mean as behavioral agents, we are destined to live unhappy? One may think this as many psychonauts (and others in general) associate the ego with greed, vanity, and bigotry. But what one may fail to realize another side to the ego: selflessness. Now, this may confuse a reader. They may ask, “how can the ego be related to the state of the lack of a self?”. I will admit that the common conception of selflessness, meaning no identity to associated the self with, is troublesome for this relation and will therefore be adjusted slightly. What I mean by selflessness is not the total lack of the ego. Rather, I am describing a state where one’s will to behavior is not geared for the immediate pleasure of one’s consciousness. That is, rather than behaving in a way that only considers the immediate happiness of oneself (selfishness), one’s behavior is aimed at the fulfillment of endeavors which transcend the self. Notice, this state of selflessness requires an identity. One must recognize themselves as an agent of change, which is differentiated from the target of one’s behavior. They need a self in order to act.

We need the self to navigate the world. The real problem with the ego isn’t its inherent nature of separateness from the world; this separateness is imperative for any agent. Instead, the real problem with the ego comes when one allows only the fulfillment of immediate pleasure as the only end to their behavior. A truly selfless person who has transcended the ego, hasn’t lost their identity, but has replaced their capacity for selfish behavior with selfless and transcendent or moral ends. 

This is much like the Christian concept of Sin. It means missing the mark; but what mark? In this case, the target is salvation from material desires (much like the aim of Buddhism) from imperfect and inconsistent matter. But why would one want to remove these fruitions? The reason lies in how material joys are exhaustible; once started, the conditions needed to satisfy the needs grows with time. This leads to a considerable wasting of resources. On the other hand, pouring one’s pool of motivation and desire into an abstract, immaterial, and transcendent being (object of awareness) will not lead to dissatisfaction, ultimately. This is because unlike worldly phenomenon, devotion toward God cannot be tarnished by usage and time. The divine’s incorporeal nature allows one to receive boundless return, akin to an overflowing fountainhead. One cannot use up God like they can use up material pleasures.
Orienting one’s Ego toward pursuits bigger than one’s self should be the goal of psychonauts and others in general. 

This endeavor need not be religious in the colloquial sense. In the book “In Search of Lost Time”, Proust tells the story of a man looking for fulfillment. At first in the novel, the protagonist utilizes his efforts toward material possessions. Resultantly, he fails to sustain happiness and contentment with that endeavor. Next, he tries romantic pursuits, which also ultimately fail to bring him peace of mind. Eventually, he accomplished his goal by devoting his life to creating art. His will is geared toward creating art. It can be seen like a kind of discipline. We can be like this character. We can find peace of mind, perhaps not through Christianity, but via any kind of discipline which sets aside one’s personal pleasures for an exterior goal.

Accomplishing this goal can fulfill one, unlike no material phenomenon ever could! We can cultivate our occupation or hobby to create a level of dedicated attention. Thus, one doesn’t need formal religion to find the same abstract, immaterial, and transcendental object or being of awareness. However, for many, worshiping God comes naturally, and can help one who may not have an appropriate hobby or occupation to sufficiently motivate their will.

All in all, the goal for psychonauts shouldn’t be the complete dissolution of the Ego. The Ego is crucial to movement and one should focus on how the Ego can go astray- toward the self and not God (or any abstract, immaterial, and transcendent being/object). But at the same time, one needs to optimize the ego by placing the goal of the self beyond their immediate pleasure. For if they do so, they could find an infinite wellspring of unbounded contentment with their place in the world, and limitless happiness. 

The choice is ours: Either be selfish for your Ego, or be selfless via your Ego.