The Varieties of Selfless Experience: Theological, Neurological, and Ecological Phenomenologies of Ego Death Brianna Morseth , Ian Doyle Olson; Amandi Bianka Budai (Psychological and Brain Scienc, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara, Minneapolis, MN ) C16
What is it like to be a conscious, living, breathing self? Moreover, what is it like to lose this sense-of-self through either bodily or ego death? Philosopher David Chalmers states of consciousness that it is "the thing we know about more directly than we know about anything in the world." This immediate sense-of-self is shared and experienced by us all, as is the eventual fate of biological death. Yet how one relates to death, selflessness, and one's own mortality encompass much more varied and unique experiences. Long have sages, mystics, and saints encouraged practices that culminate in self-transcendence: meditation, prayer, fasting, and other undertakings that alter one's state of consciousness and may even lead to the experience of ego death. Only recently have these topics entered any realm of empirical research. We reviewed existing literature and conducted an interview-based, international survey to further elucidate a basic background of these topics. Using a mixed-methods approach combining qualitative and quantitative data, we compare and contrast the direct experiences of selflessness and ego death among over one hundred participants from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds. Analysis reveals three phenomenological contexts in which ego death experiences are likely to manifest: meditation and other contemplative practices, immersion in and unification with nature, and consumption of hallucinogenic substances that alter the chemical constituents of the nervous system. In this work we articulate these experiences and extrapolate toward an operational definition of ego death. We then broaden the discussion to address how ego death is contextualized in different traditions, approach an understanding of the underlying neurological processes, and critically examine the philosophical implications of ego death for free will, the criminal justice system, and environmental ethics.