Navigating the Death and Transfiguration of the Ego
By Jeff Vander Clute, Revised February 2020
The following framework for the process of ego death and transfiguration has emerged from firsthand experience and from working with coaching clients and mentees who are living through their own versions of the process. These understandings are spiritual in nature, and they can help people who are awakening beyond the limits of conventional models of ego and transformation. It is my hope that this summary of the stages and indications of ego death and transfiguration will help many people to see where they are in the journey, have a sense of the more promising life to come, and relax into what is fundamentally a natural process.
A Working Definition of Ego
Although there are many definitions of ego, the one that resonates for me as being maximally true and useful is this: Ego is the habitual pattern of rejecting and labeling phenomena as “wrong,” and building our lives upon that misperception and misidentification of what is actually the case.
What is actually the case is the totality of life unfolding and discovering itself through successive forms and experiences. None of these experiments is wrong, though many are discovered to be unworkable or undesirable, and life is continuously making improvements. The recognition that something could be improved is part of the feedback loop of life experiencing itself and making adjustments.
However, the labeling of “wrongness” disconnects us from the wholeness of the life and from our deepest self, since we are life. To the extent that we are disconnected we experience suffering.
Once the disconnection from life, and from our true selves, has become established, we experience a pattern of negativity (and death) that is of our own making. This pattern is the ego, and its existence is based on judgments that things should be other than they are. As the ego is entirely dependent upon what is not, it is entirely imaginary. To sustain this imaginary entity in the face of everything that is actually the case requires that we invest ever more energy in the further denial of life. Like a lie that grows until it can no longer be sustained, at some point the false reality of the ego must crumble. Then a profound reorientation occurs: ego death and transfiguration.
Importantly, we are not labeling the ego as wrong. We can see it as a stage of development, an experiment and exploration that contributes valuable learning. And as a stage of development it is also inherently limited, which a growing number of people have been discovering the hard way. The next evolution of human is emerging now, and a defining feature of this new species is that it will operate beyond the egoic stage. In the meantime, by understanding the process of evolving beyond ego we can navigate this transformation with as much grace as possible.
Here are a few egoic patterns to keep in mind:
- Attachment and aversion
- Reactivity: a spectrum of passivity to aggression/violence
- Defensiveness and overidentification (with small ideas)
These patterns resolve into the following post-egoic characteristics:
- Openness, willingness
- Right, aligned responsiveness
Next we will explore five stages of ego death and transfiguration that give an overall sense of the journey from ego- and fear-based living to post-egoic being. Although the stages are presented in a linear fashion for clarity, they overlap and people tend to experience moving back and forth among them. Nevertheless, over time there is a shift from experiencing confusion and fear to knowing clarity and peace.
Stage 1: Initiation (disruption!)
Life stops making sense. (stage 1.0-2.9)
- Confusion (stage 1.0-2.4)
- Apparent chaos (stage 1.1-3.6)
- Sense of meaninglessness and futility (stage 1.2-3.2)
One may find themselves considering suicide, or daydreaming of not being in the world, as a way out of the uncertainty, confusion, and despair. (stage 1.1-4.1)
What used to be motivating no longer seems to work. (stage 1.2-3.4)
Frequent fear, anxiety, dread, despair, sleeplessness, and/or existential terror, often for no apparent reason (stage 1.2-4.9)
Stage 2: Sense of not belonging
Feelings of not fitting into the world, of being between worlds, of not belonging (stage 2.0-4.2)
Inability to cope with the extreme uncertainty (stage 2.4-3.7)
Work can become difficult at this stage. (stage 2.4-3.9)
Feelings of profound pointlessness and demotivation can be very strong. (stage 2.6-3.7)
Loss of appetite (stage 2.7-4.1)
Dawning insight: “You are not your thoughts.” (stage 2.8)
Stage 3: Glimmers of a new way of being
Starting to see the light of a new way of being, though it might not make sense yet, e.g. financially or in other traditional ways (stage 3.0-4.4)
The limit of conventional Western psychology (stage 3.1-3.4)
Spiritual exhaustion, often accompanied by illness (stage 3.1-4.4)
Oscillation between highs of love, joy, and gratitude and lows of fear and panic (stage 3.4-4.4)
A sense of no longer being in the personality arises and grows stronger (stage 3.6-)
Stage 4: Lightening of the heavy burden of being someone
A lightening of a burden one didn’t know was there! (stage 4.0-)
Patterns of defensiveness and reactivity are noticeably diminished. (stage 4.1-)
Dawning perception of beauty in everything (stage 4.2)
Perceiving the perfection of circumstances on a consistent basis (stage 4.7-)
Growing clarity and an ability to know intuitively what to do / where to go (stage 4.8-)
Stage 5: Consolidation of the new way of being
A new and more powerful motivation arises: actual inspiration. (stage 5.1-5.4)
Consistent appreciation and seeing beauty in all are established patterns of the new way of being. (stage 5.2-)
One begins to know and experience the true nature of Love. (stage 5.7)
A prevailing sense of inner peace is present and will continue to deepen long after the egoic patterns have been transmuted and forgotten. (stage 5.9-)
Summary and Call to Compassionate Engagement
The process of ego death and transfiguration into a lighter way of being is natural and completely aligned with the next phase of human evolution. In a real sense, whatever species is to follow homo sapiens will be discovered on the other side of this transformation. It is, therefore, well worth exploring where you are on the path. Especially if you find yourself in one of the more challenging stages, know that there are people who have been through this transformation and that there is support for your journey. On the other hand, if you have navigated the difficult passages already, then please consider helping others.