Express. Exuviate. Expire. Exhume. Exalt. Ego Death & Equanimity
It began as it always does: with a memory.
Something small, something old—buried intentionally, or forgotten in the way one forgets. Some piece of the past left to sit and rot in the muck or be worn away by time. And suddenly remembered.
The deeper the closet, the more terrifying the skeleton, and this one had its skull spit from a fissure, breaching to settle in full view, unmistakable for its shape and color, sunbleached, all mirthless grin and empty eyes. Smiling at nothing, staring at nothing, perfectly symbolic, a harbinger of hollowness to come.
Not long after, I sensed death coming to visit me. Coming as it had many times before.
Death has long been my companion, coming to call and forewarn, though not to claim whatever I understood myself to be.
Antecedent to any depressive period I’ve experienced, there have been thoughts of death: preoccupation with dying and curiosity about what my death would bring. Often emotionless, always vivid.
The growing fascination with my death, thinking it both a punishment and a balm.
Beyond everything, there was the knowing. Abject certainty I needed to die. Not just that I was going to. But that I needed to; that my death was absolutely the only thing that would set the world aright.
Exit Equiponderant Experience
Whenever it came in the past, death would settle in, for days or weeks, setting the stage and preparing the scene for its partner, depression.
Always in tandem, death and depression, dark merrymakers in times of tumult.
And after the Storm, both would recede.
This time seemed no different. I heard death whispering to me, felt its breath hot in my ear. Gooseflesh rose when it caressed me.
At first, I saw death in my periphery. It was in the hallways, a dozen steps ahead or behind. It was in the quiet of the parks, glimpsed from eye’s corner, barely distinguishable from the dappled shadows of the trees, gone when I turned to look.
Soon, death walked beside me on the streets. Watched me from windows and rooftops. Pulled at my clothes as I passed by on the sidewalk.
When I sat at home, writing, death was with me.
I was not afraid or upset. A lifelong struggle with depression oft-punctuated by suicidal ideation creates a relationship with the concept of death I might describe as deeply familiar.
Aspects of this relationship I see now as little more than dramatic romanticism, but, in the main, it’s been one of pragmatic acceptance. However fanciful the idealized notion of eternal sleep as the solution for a life of pain, there is the solidity of knowing it is an end, if not a cure.
Three decades of proximity breeds a rare intimacy with death, shared principally by those who battle or have battled diseases of mind or body, and those who’ve experienced an event bringing them close to death’s bosom.
Months passed and death’s presence did not recede. It did not retreat. But neither did it advance. And at no point was death joined by depression.
That was my first surprise. A confusing development, and one I did not understand. Time spent in consternation led to contemplation, which led in turn to another surprise: the feeling of dread, unfulfilled.
Looking inward, eyes ever trained to the emotional horizon, I saw…nothing.
No clouds. No darkness. No trace or hint or sign of a coming storm, of the depression the arrival death had always augured.
On edge, vigilant, resigned, I waited.
No storm in sight.
My mental illness is ever a factor, a segment of my experience of life requiring some level of management. I am not and have never been an exemplar of stability in that regard, and while there were hiccups of anxiety and some mood swings…there was no crash.
Six months went by, and the Storm never came.1 No depressive downturn. No month-long period of being bedridden. No waking up disoriented, not recognizing my own home or feeling I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be.
Despite the omnipresence of death, no suicidal ideation or desire.
For the first time, in feeling the call to death, the call of death, I did not want to answer. Though I still felt the need to die, I did not want to.
There was nothing.
Just quiet. And in the quiet, voices.
To my waking mind came thoughts unbidden. Passages and poems, queries and quotations. Things I’d heard or read or said about death would emerge and echo, for days on days.
But different than they’d been in the past.
These did not sing to me of the romance of death, no more Peter Pan quipping, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”
Instead, there was the pall of inevitability.
For the greater part of a year, there was no night I dreamt that I did not dream of death. Sometimes of dying. Sometimes of having died. But always death.
In one dream, I was death—or leastways I was as much death as I was me. Dreaming, I felt true reconciliation and a peace I’ve rarely known.
The next morning, I sat in meditation, a practice I’ve historically found frustrating, sometimes fruitless, but at which I’d become, by that point, less demonstrably terrible.
It was July, dry and hot. Eyes closed, breathing deeply, I felt the sun streaming through the window, hot on my naked back.
And then a chill.
Death, still with me, always with me, whispered, “Rhaegar fought valiantly. Rhaegar fought nobly. And Rhaegar died.” 2
For twenty-one minutes this resounded in my head.
A message. A missive. A blessing. A benediction. A dictum. A death knell.
I breathed it in. I breathed into it. I let it settle in my head, on my heart. I knew what I had to do.
I opened my eyes.
It was time to die.
And I spent the next three months doing exactly that.
On Death and Dying
As I am currently writing and posting, you get the sense that I have not passed from the physical world. And neither am I undead.
Lacking a better descriptor, we’ll use the term Ego Death, to guide the conversation and differentiate between the death of the self and biological death.
To that: the Me I Once Was is dead.
In The End of the Affair, Graham Green posits:
“What happens if you drop all the things that make you, I?”
This prompts deeper questions.
Avoiding, if we can, the ineffable who are we?, then we are left to delve, almost by default, in the somewhat less obtuse what are we?
Sitting squarely ‘twixt these two unknowables is the more pertinent (and hopefully more fathomable) examination of the What which makes the Who.
Humans are beings of collectivity, and it’s easy to think of ourselves as the sum total of our experiences: the things that we’ve done, those done to us. Our actions and interactions. Those, in aggregate, are a personal history, a series of occurrences forming the base material for our personalities, thoughts, and opinions.
This is not untrue. In a way, we are our experiences and our memories of those experiences.
But in another way, a deeper way, we are not those things. We are how we relate to those things.
Taken together, our history and our relationship to it form our Ego, the aspect of our psyche that recognizes itself as an entity. This is your very identity, your assessment of yourself as “me.”
Bifurcating these two aspects, for the purposes of this discussion, we can look at your history as “content” and your relationship to it as “context.”
The content is relatively static:3 we can’t change what happened or what we did. But the context, our feelings about that content, are more fictile.
And this is of tremendous importance: how we relate to that history profoundly influences how it affects us, and those effects manifest both inwardly and outwardly.
Which is to say our experiences and memories are not nothing. They are us, but we are more so our feelings, emotions, beliefs, and actions.
Changing how we relate to our experiences, though, changes, almost automatically, our emotions and beliefs. Our actions—being, as they are, impulses, pushed through a nexus of those emotions and beliefs—change as well.
The change is not one of degree but of dimension.
The former leads to something mildly modified; the latter to something inherently, objectively, fundamentally not the same.
Dip a toe with me, if you will, into these waters of meta-consideration, and you’ll see that the difference between those differences makes all the difference.
By adjusting the context through which our content is processed, we reprogram, on the most base level, everything about ourselves as active beings: what we think, feel, and do.
And so we come to the idea of death as it relates to change.
Returning hence to Green’s query, “What happens if you drop all the things that make you, I?”
Simply: you are no longer you. That person ceases to exist.
We have a word for that, and that word is death.
This dalliance with death began just over 18 months prior to this writing. I have, over the past year and a half, changed almost entirely the way I relate to almost everything I experience or have experienced—the latter piece being by far the more impactful.
Accelerating over time, and shifting into high gear July with the inciting event of my meditation, the experience of the death was not so much a single traumatic event as a series of steps away from the person I’d been, culminating in a complete separation of content and context, the latter piece being slowly restructured over time.
My experiences and memories are the same. Historically, I am the person to whom those things happened and who undertook actions, and so forth.
But my feelings are different. My perspective is different. So my emotional relationship to those my own history is entirely changed.
I can think of very scant few circumstances in which I, the Me of Now, would react in a similar fashion to the Me of Then would have, when faced with a choice or problem.
By way of example:
- Things that once angered me have no effect on me. In fact, I can’t really recall having gotten angry in a year or more.
- I’ve released fear and shame around things that once felt crippling. Some are deep and intense, like my abusive childhood; others are lighter and seemingly innocuous, like dancing. In both cases, the change is remarkable and life-changing.
- The degree to which I care what other people think has diminished radically. While I’d never claim not to care what others think4, I’m no longer actively trying to earn praise the way I once did. Instead, I am focused on maintaining my sense of self.
- Related to that, while the Me Who Once Was checked enough boxes to be considered a people-pleaser and a borderline co-dependent, I now have little trouble setting, maintaining, and communicating my boundaries.
- Where I once carried seemingly-eternal guilt about things done in the past, I was able to forgive the person who did those things (and the other people involved). In large part, this was made easier because I simply do not view myself as the person who did those things, or identify as a person who would do those things.5
This is but a sampling, of course, and I could wax rhapsodic about the specific ways in which the new person I am is experiencing life, but the upshot is: almost nothing hits or lands with me the way it once did.
I don’t laugh at the same things. I don’t cry at the same things. I don’t get upset at the same things.
I enjoy different things. And enjoy them differently. My personality is different. My temperament is different.
My relationship to myself, to other people, to the word—all different.
That person once was, but no longer is.
The Process of Death
Who I was is dead. Who I am is alive. These two humans, who to the outside world may look identical, are anything but.
Saying it now seems easy. But when I first became aware of it, I fought it like my life depended on it.
That fight is a story for another day, save the conclusion: once I’d accepted this needed to happen, once I truly accepted that something had shifted past the point of no return, that continued shift was necessary, that the only way out was through, I changed my experience of it.
The quote I mentioned earlier truly did alter my perspective.
“Rhaegar fought nobly. Rhaegar fought valiantly. And Rhaegar died.”
When this drifted, erumpent and insistent, to the forefront of my consciousness during my meditation, I felt a jolt of alignment. Epiphanous and ecstatic, I recognized what I’d been trying to tell myself.
I’d been in denial. And all of my actions were guided by that denial. While not actively fighting death, I’d been repeating the patterns that had long kept me alive—kept that me alive.
Like Rhaegar, the Me I Was—my Ego—had fought valiantly, fought nobly. And like Rhaegar, it was time for that Me to die. Staying alive—at least as I was—was not an option. It was a clear choice: embrace the death of the Me that I was, or perhaps fall victim to myself and experience a biological suicide, killing the Me I Could Be, as well.
Too much evidence to support it. Too many close calls to deny it.
This had to happen.
Upon recognizing this was necessary—and, I realized shortly after, unavoidable—, I became a proactive participant, rather than a passive recipient.
What follows below are the general concepts, attitudes, and approaches towards the resolution of the Former Me.
Ever Eristic, the Ego
Ego death is a process.
You’ve spent your entire life in a symbiotic relationship with your ego: it guides your actions, often to protect you from harm; your actions, thoughts, and emotions, in turn, serve to strengthen and reaffirm it.
The ego, as your interpretation of self, is resilient. It seeks validation. I don’t refer to anything resembling vanity, arrogance, conceit, etc.; it’s not about feeling “good” (though that is a feature), it’s about justifying and affirming its—your—existence.
According to various traditions, breaking the ego down is part of the path to healing, growth, enlightenment, and One-ness.6
For my part, the aim was to achieve objectivity, allowing the release of long-held beliefs and attachments, deconstructing the Ego to as it unraveled.
Whatever the goal (or whatever name you give the goal), there are myriad tools:
I employed (and regularly employ) all of these, and each of them is worthy of discussion in its own right.
The only one I feel compelled to touch on briefly is the use of psychedelics.
Plant medicines and other entheogens are certainly having a moment, and writing about one’s experiences with them is almost de rigueur within the entrepreneur space.7
My aim here is not to discuss psychedelic usage, but while guided application of entheogens–including but not limited to my ayahuasca ceremony–has been a large and essential feature of my experience, it is one of several, and not the most important.
Beneficial though they are, they’re still drugs, illegal in most places. For that reason, I have concerns (and perhaps a few obligations) regarding how any of this might be interpreted.8
So, in brief: entheogens are, in this context, a tool. Nothing less, nothing more.
Possibly the most powerful tool in the acute sense, psychedelics do dissolve the Ego in a manner of hours. It happens quickly and ends quickly. It’s impactful, but my experience has led me to consider all of the variables of these journeys: intensity, duration, frequency, and accumulation.
Going to “the other place” changes you. The more often you go, the deeper you go, the longer you stay, and the total amount of time spent there all matter and factor in.
A single experience is eye-opening and makes you aware of the presence of your Ego in a way few other things do.
But after the trip, the Ego comes back to life. Certainly, it’s changed, but it’s back.
To truly allow for the death I’ve heretofore described, you need something more.
Despite the impulse to add more substance (more trips, higher dosage, etc), the answer isn’t increased exposure, but dedicated integration.
Less than a week after my revelatory, my mind raced.
I knew I had to be an active participant, but the action eluded me. As it often does, the medicine provided the answer.
My partner and I took a half-dose of LSD, and the resulting journey was clarifying.
What you need—what I needed—was universal for all of the modalities I used: time.
To synthesize and integrate, the key ingredient is always time.
Along with time, I needed space.
This was the most important part of the entire experience of my own death.
Sangfroid: Solitude, Starvation, and Social Silence
I came to understand I needed to cut myself off, to pull back from the things feeding my ego.
And because your Ego is you, nearly everything in your life feeds your ego. Again: not making it feel good about itself, merely reminding it that it is itself.
Knowing needed to let that version of myself die, I realized I had to stop interacting with the outside world as much as possible.
More specifically, I needed to limit the number of inputs to those who would be supporting my growth and supporting the creation and maintenance of the container in which the growth needed to take place.
After my acid trip, the path was clear.
To the greatest degree possible, I went dark. On everything.
- I stopped posting on social media.
- I stopped responding to text messages.
- I reduced my workload.
- I stopped dating.
I backed away from anything I could. Activities and places and hobbies that were, on some level, feeding my ego, keeping that version of me alive.
Social media, for example, has long been an important part of my life and business. And over the year or so I felt death with me, it fed me.
Every time I posted, I would get feedback. Whether that feedback was good or bad is immaterial. The key here is not whether I would get positive feedback in the form of praise, strengthening my Ego by providing evidence I didn’t need to change; the key is to understand any feedback was stimulus eliciting a conditioned response.
Posting content would create conversation, the contribution to which required me to stay who I was. I had to put on my Coach hat, or my Witty Writer hat, or just my Roman hat and respond in the way I’d always responded.
Each post fed the Me I Was, keeping that version, by necessity, alive to be participant.
Withdrawing from that created space and silence, starving my Ego in the process.
My journey over this time was contingent upon avoiding anything that would prevent the death I so clearly needed. A term I learned from Neil Strauss, role-lock9 is a phenomenon occurring when you change dramatically, but continue to be perceived as the same person by those around you. 10
Taking it a step further, because they cannot see you as a different person, they cannot treat you as a different person; instead, they continue to behave as though you are the You of No Longer.
Frustrating enough after you’ve changed, but disastrous when you’re in the midst of change itself.
People who can’t (or won’t) acknowledge or appreciate the changes being wrought in you certainly make no effort to support it. Instead, they double down on their behavior (sometimes aggressively so11), “locking” you into a role.
Interactions of which role-lock is a feature can be counter-productive, as they may lead us to exhibit the behavior of that discarded role.12
There’s no blame here, only acknowledgment: whether you’re being treated as the Old You or behaving as the Old You, role-lock stymies growth. And with recognition comes responsibility, as this is a two-way street.
In my case, there were some people I needed to avoid or excise not because of something they were doing, but because of where or how they fit into my life. The role-lock wasn’t about their behavior, but mine: with regard to certain humans, I simply didn’t know how to be anything other than what I had been and knew I could be no longer.
What’s It Feel Like to Be a Ghost?
A consequence of this process was ghosting on a good number of people in my life.
People who sent texts and never heard back from me. People waiting for follow-up emails.
I ghosted. A lot.
Dates. Friends. Family. Projects. The occasional client.
Nearly every section of my life was affected.
My commitment to myself was to communicate exclusively with people I was absolutely certain would allow me to change in their eyes and my own. Whether that meant actively facilitating or simply not interfering, my circle contracted drastically.
At first, though I acknowledged the necessity, this was difficult. I felt badly. And guilty. And to some degree, bereft.
I felt I owed people explanations for my silence. (And, in many cases, I did.) But my highest responsibility was to myself, and to push through the experience.
Deeper into the hole, I began to feel relief the likes of which I have never experienced and cannot accurately describe.
The transition of feeling obligated to explain myself to acknowledging the need for time and space and silence.
After the first month days of self-imposed semi-isolation, I began to see things I had missed: how certain relationships were one-sided; the unmistakable patterns existing between myself and some individuals, obviously unhealthy to new eyes.
After 60 days, there were people I no longer missed. People I no longer regarded as friends.
Emotions came up. Anger and resentment. Revulsion and incredulity. I spent a month or more in pure bewilderment at some of the situations of which I’d been a part, and at my part in them.
At the end of the third month and into the fourth, my feelings on nearly everything had changed. I found that I no longer had feelings about a number of things.
Perhaps I’d released the anger, but more so felt that I had no right to be angry with a given person; after all, I’d never interacted with them. They’d interacted with or hurt or been hurt by some version of me that no longer existed.
Thinking about some people, now, feels like thinking of a stranger, or a character I’ve seen on screen. I don’t know that person. I don’t even know the person who knew that person. The idea of those two people interacting is a passing thought, and not really noteworthy.
Everything has changed. Melted away.
Most especially me.
I cannot, in a literal sense, remember what it was like to be that other person.
On Names and the Nature of Things
During this process, I began to understand things in a way I never had.
Names, for instance.
Across time and history, several cultures have had deep and somewhat mystical beliefs about the power of names.
This shows up in science-fiction and fantasy literature—Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle all come to mind—, often as part of a larger magical system.
“The name is the thing, and the true name is the true thing. To speak the name is to control the thing.”
—Ursala K. Le Guin
Control notwithstanding, I’ve pondered on the idea of a true name, that the name indelibly tied to the substance, force, or person.
I’ve come to understand, with respect to role-lock, that few things have more power to keep us stagnant than our names.
One word, around which we’ve spent our entire adult life building and attaching our identity—and to which everyone who’s ever known us has built all of their associations—can tie us to our existent self, preventing growth or change.
No surprise, then, that when people undergo an event that shifts their perception of self to a significant degree, a name change often follows, prompting, in turn, the world to perceive and treat them differently.
So it was that upon his conversion to Islam, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. After his first experience with ayahuasca, Michael Marcus shed his given name and became the man I know today as my friend Aubrey.
Though the thought has crossed my mind, I am not, at the present moment, considering disregarding or discarding my given or legal name, I really can’t envisage a world in which I’d want anyone addressing me as Roman.
That person is gone.
If I’ve made any of this sound easy or romantic, it wasn’t.
This was miserable. It was challenging.
I fucking died. I cannot emphasize that enough.
Over four months, I did more work, deeper work, more directed work on myself than I’d done in all the years prior.
There was agony. Isolation. Fear. Doubt.
During this period, I cried. I vomited. I questioned. I second-guessed. I avoided. I confronted. I fought. I surrendered. I achieved. I failed.
And I healed.
I gave up my attachment to what any of those things meant for me. Then to what they meant at all.
So much became clear, but it was not without cost. I cut off friends. I cut off clients. I shut down parts of my business. I lost money. I lost momentum.
I also gave up pain. I gave up trauma. I gave up carrying other people’s expectations.
And in becoming this version of myself, I gained.
Calm. Clarity. Conviction. Direction. Forgiveness. Peace.
The death of the Me Who Once Was took a long, long time. Breaking down that Ego was the first part.
Restructuring it into the Me I Am is took an equal amount of work, but it’s been natural, more instinctive.
My Ego is not dead, I still very much regard myself as Me, as an individual, a self.
But I recognize now that this is not fixed; that it is moldable, changeable, in a way I never knew, could never have imagined. And now, so-knowing, cannot unknow. I cannot unsee the possibility—everywhere.
This death was necessary.
Painful though it was, I suspect it was not my last.
- Oh, there were storms, but they were small things, and often situational. Anxiety attacks and small dips into melancholy and an instance of pharmacological backsliding. But put them in the same category as my historical depressive episodes would be to call a thunderstorm a hurricane. ↩
- Spoken by Jorah Mormont to Daenerys Targaryan in A Storm of Swords, the second book of George RR Martin’s as-yet-unfinished opus, A Song of Ice and Fire. ↩
- “Relatively” is the operative word there; our memories are woefully unreliable. However, while it’s true we tend not to recall what actually happened in the absolute sense, our personal recollection of events gels and becomes a firm “content.” Worth the watch: this mini-doc about memory by Vox. ↩
- This is mostly a note to myself to write a piece about this in the future, but I want to assert that caring about what other people think is, to some degree, an essential part of community-focused life. ↩
- There is still remorse, which is healthy. I’ve shed my ego, not my conscience. A note to myself to dive into guilt vs. remorse in a future piece. ↩
- Anything spiritual is beyond the scope of this writing. In keeping with my own experience and current perspective, everything I present is best viewed through the lens of cognitive psychology. ↩
- I’m not letting myself off the hook here; I’ve written several pieces about my experiences with these substances, some of which I’ll publish. ↩
- Chiefly, I don’t want this piece to be read as an endorsement of cavalier substance usage, nor do I want the greater message lost in the perception of this essay as the ramblings of a drug-fueled writer making the leap from Hemingway fetishist to Thompson fetishist. Neither is the case. ↩
- Role-lock is closely related to the type of proximity bias occurring between members of a tight-knit group, particularly a family: members have a difficult time acknowledging advances in skill or expertise of the others, as they had close association prior to those advances. The closer someone is to you, the more difficult it is for them to view you as an expert. You may be a doctor, but your parents wiped your ass, so it’s difficult for them to take your advice seriously. If you’re a service-based professional, you may notice that your friends and family who knew you way back when won’t take your (free) advice no matter how many times you try to help; on the other hand, people who met you as an established expert are eager to “pick your brain.” ↩
- As a point of interest, while role-lock is harmful, it’s important to remember this isn’t malicious, or even intentional; it’s unconscious. To some extent, role-lock is an offshoot of role suction, an aspect of group dynamics in which the group unconsciously allocates specific roles to each of its members to have to meet the needs of the collective…which opens a rabbit hole in terms of Jungian archetypes. While unpacking the dynamics and addressing the behaviors is the responsibility of all involved, we should keep in mind these dynamics develop, in part, as individual and societal adaptations for survival. ↩
- Whether this manifests as crab mentality or something less overt, you can be held back just the same. ↩
- Called regression, many of us experience this during the holidays, when spending time with family has us behaving like frustrated teenagers instead of adults. More than a mere inconvenience, repeated regression can hold us back and deepen the patterns we need to break. ↩