What Does Chuck Yeager Have To Do With Ego Death?
If you are unfamiliar with the life of Chuck Yeager, briefly, he became famous when he was the first person to fly an airplane faster than the speed of sound. That was in 1947. Before that, he was an ace combat pilot in WWII. He was also a main subject of the popular movie The Right Stuff. For a very long time, many believed it was physically impossible to fly an aircraft faster than the speed of sound, approximately 760 miles per hour or 340 meters per second. But test pilot Chuck Yeager proved it could be done. (Mr. Yeager recently passed away on December 7, 2020, at the age of 97.)
We’ll come back to Chuck Yeager in a moment, but the other subject of this short essay is “ego death” catalyzed by ingestion of a psychedelic substance, sometimes also called ego dissolution. In the psychedelic literature and community, there is a lot of attention paid to ego death. Some people want it, some fear it, and many both want it and fear it. And then there are the people who take pride that they’ve experienced it, as if it makes them special; this is the ego talking! Some individuals who have taken psychedelics but have not experienced ego death may feel that they are somehow inferior or incapable—a harmful and useless form of self-criticism.
It’s sort of obvious from the name, but ego death is a state of consciousness where the subject has no awareness that he or she is a subject. There is no “me” identified by the mind. This state is also generally accompanied with a lack of sense of time passing.
Despite what may appear as a terrifying intention or outcome for a psychedelic journey, nevertheless many are pulled toward the “abyss” of ego dissolution because of our innate desire for understanding, illumination, and wholeness.
Before ingesting a psychedelic, most people naturally have a degree of fear or trepidation about the upcoming journey because they are about to enter the unknown. Even experienced “psychonauts” (those who have had many psychedelic journeys) usually have an unsettled feeling. But especially during a psychedelic journey, there often is a strong feeling of fear—a fear of death in particular, a fear of annihilation. Fear of death is common and nothing to be ashamed of, of course. When there is a sense that we might die or are in the process of dying, that is equivalent to saying there is a sense of the ego’s impending death, since it is the ego that gives us a (false) sense of separate existence.
With a strong psychedelic dose, as the intensity of the journey climbs, often this fear becomes stronger and stronger until great waves of anxiety and resistance appear. This too is understandable. Sometimes this fear and anxiety result in the projection of dark thoughts and visions (like threatening beasts or demons) emanating from deep within the psyche. Because scary visions and terrifying thoughts can appear, it is best to be under the care of an experienced guide with supportive set and setting so that the experience is not traumatic but rather healing—by facilitating integration of the shadow material with consciousness.
As the intensity of the journey climbs higher and higher, or shall we say, faster and faster, we can appreciate the analogy of approaching a dreaded barrier, not unlike the sound barrier, which appears not just dangerous, but even life-threatening, and impossible to transcend.
Now back to brave Chuck Yeager and what happened when he tried to break the sound barrier. As his vehicle approached the speed of sound, the aircraft began to shake, and it shook harder and harder the closer he approached that barrier. Many would have then pulled back on the throttle. But Mr. Yeager did not pull back. He kept going. And when he broke through the sound barrier, suddenly, the shaking stopped, and the ride became smooth.
Get the idea? I imagine you do. There is nothing to fear on the other side of ego death. There is no fear on the other side. Just peace and love.
The jet airplane does slow down subsequently in order to land safely. Likewise, we come down from the psychedelic journey. But something has happened to us after we have crossed that barrier.
We can still remember our phone number, so the ego is still functioning. Yet a new perspective and feeling has opened. How to describe? Perhaps a bit calmer, a bit more grateful, a bit more accepting. The words come up a bit short.