In April 2012 a dancer named Sharon Stern committed suicide. Stern was deeply committed to the Buddhist-influenced Japanese dance form of Butoh, in which mastery involves surrendering parts of the self. Prior to her suicide Stern was exhibiting mental instability, including worrisome signs of depersonalization, a condition marked by a sense of detachment from one’s body and thoughts. As Stern’s devotion to Butoh grew, so did her inability to identify as an individual with a history, personality, or future. She began writing emails in the third person, and as Rachel Aviv detailed in The New Yorker, in one of Stern’s last emails to her teacher, she asked, “So the question arises what happens AFTER the deconstruction of your body/mind/ego?” 

It’s a question that has both inspired and haunted seekers for millennia. The deconstruction of the ego can lead to the type of transcendent oneness that is a hallmark of a profound spiritual experience, or to the type of destabilizing freefall that is a hallmark of severe mental illness or a bad psychedelic trip. As the case of Sharon Stern and others have shown, mental illness or psychedelics aren’t the only gateway to destabilization. Contemplative practice can lead there, too. Conversely, just as contemplative practice can lead to radical understanding, so too can mental illness or psychedelics. 

A recent revival of scientific research on psychedelics, which was barred from the halls of academia in the late seventies, has allowed researchers to study the brains of people undergoing experiences of ego deconstruction. In How to Change Your Mind, author Michael Pollan explains that while participants are undergoing drug-induced mystical experiences in a lab setting, “imaging tools can observe changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the ‘neural correlates’ of the sense of self and spiritual experience.” A similar mental mapping has occurred in research around both meditation and psychosis. By examining how depersonalization unfolds in the brains of meditators, during psychedelic experiences, and through psychosis, we can better understand why depersonalization can be a vector for both the profound and for profound loss, and perhaps learn how such an experience can be better integrated into one’s life.

It may be impossible to isolate the factors that determine the ultimate outcome—the profound or profound loss—but research, as well as history, points to two key, interdependent players: set and setting. The careful consideration of set and setting in research on psychedelics, and the resulting infrequency of bad trips, suggests that similar considerations could protect against negative experiences with contemplative practices. Indeed, in Buddhist practice, where ego deconstruction is a goal, there exists a framework in which proper intention can be cultivated, proper guidance is present, and contextualization and support are available.

This is Your Brain on Self

At some point in human history it became advantageous to consider one’s self in relation to everything else. In Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius explain how one’s ability to conceive of a self “has been stitched into human DNA by reproductive advantages slowly accumulating across a hundred thousand generations.” One of the primary mechanisms of the self is the ability to simulate experience internally, either by reflecting on past experiences to promote wiring of successful behavior, or by anticipating future events in order to choose the approach most likely to protect one’s self. 

When one is not engaged in a task, researchers have found that the brain’s default mode is self-referential processing, which occurs in an area of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN). The DMN seems to be most active when one is at rest and is correlated with self-referential mind-wandering, or the movie version of your life that you project while folding laundry, in which you’re either the hero or the victim, but the star nonetheless.

Activity in the DMN is also associated with unhappiness. Researchers have found that when people recognize that they were ruminating, they rate themselves as feeling less happy than when they were engaged in an activity. This raises the question: can we spend less time succumbing to self-obsession? The default mode works well, writes Pollan in How to Change Your Mind, “but what if it isn’t the only, or necessarily the best, way to go through life?”

This is Your Brain on Meditation

The self might be an excellent contrivance for keeping the project of craving-attainment humming along, a significant evolutionary advantage, but it can be a cumbersome contrivance in a world of abundance. By trafficking heavily in introspection, the DMN props up the notion of self and its paramount desires, thereby propagating the cycle of suffering. But, as the Buddha realized while meditating under the Bodhi tree, chasing cravings is not the only, or the best, way to go through life. And so began the practice of recognizing and releasing this pattern of grasping that is known as meditation. 

“Prior to contemplative practice, we simply respond to a particular type of event in the habitual, unintentional ways we have in the past,” says Buddhist scholar Dale Wright in Buddhism, What Everyone Needs to Know. “Meditative practice consciously develops alternatives to those patterns of action.” This was true millenia before functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) existed, at least in a phenomenological sense, but advances in neuroimaging have allowed researchers to observe these alternative patterns neurologically as well. The brains of meditators look different than the brains of research participants at rest.

In multiple studies, researchers have found a decrease of activity in key regions of the default mode network of meditators. The fact that meditation leads to decreased activity in the DMN suggests that it can interrupt the brain’s tendency to reify the self. When the time typically spent sorting memories, anticipating how the self might perform in future scenarios, or ruminating on past encounters starring the self gets devoted to meditation, one spends less time passively watching the movie and more time attending to the flow of unfolding sensory stimulation. And the tether that one might have felt to the concept of self could become more tenuous.

This experience can no doubt be intense. Researchers at Brown University have gathered and analyzed first-person reports of unsettling reactions to meditation in the Varieties of Contemplative Experience project. Cataloguing such reports, researchers found numerous instances of practitioners who experienced an “adverse effect” regarding their sense of self. The most common one was the change in boundaries between the inner self and the outer world. In a paper summarizing the findings of the project, Jared R. Lindahl, et al., wrote

Some practitioners reported boundaries dissolving and general permeability with the environment or with other people; others felt like their self had expanded out from their body and merged with the world; still others used the inverse language, reporting that the world had become merged with their sense of self. A range of different affective responses were associated with this change, from neutral curiosity, to bliss and joy, to fear and terror.

It’s a description, it turns out, that bears a striking resemblance to another kind of transcendent experience.

This is Your Brain on Drugs

Before they were known as psychedelics, hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin and LSD were used in research on mental illness and called psychotomimetics for their ability to mimic the state of psychosis. Research participants exhibited behavior under the influence of these drugs that suggested that something profound was occurring in their minds. The problem with the psychotomimetic model, however, was that rather than psychosis, often what was going on in their minds seemed to be profoundly good. Participants frequently counted such experiences amongst the most meaningful ones of their lives. The psychotomimetic model gave way to the psychedelic—or “mind manifesting”—model, with the hope that such experiences could not just mimic psychosis but help otherwise healthy individuals attain deeper levels of consciousness. “What a psychiatrist might diagnose as depersonalization, hallucinations, or mania, might better be thought of as instances of mystical union, visionary experience, or ecstasy,” writes Pollan in How to Change Your Mind. “Could it be that the doctors were mistaking transcendence for insanity?” 

In the late 1960s the idea of drug-induced transcendence became problematic from the perspective of a government trying to preserve the status quo, and psychedelics became a banned substance. But the use of modern brain-imaging tools to map this inward journey has led to a resurgence in enthusiasm for this class of drugs. It has also allowed researchers to correlate the experience of depersonalization, or mystical union, with specific patterns in the brain.

“What a psychiatrist might diagnose as depersonalization, hallucinations, or mania, might better be thought of as instances of mystical union, visionary experience, or ecstasy.”

In attempting to map the neural correlates of “drug-induced ego dissolution,” researchers have administered a wide variety of substances. They’ve found that psilocybin, ayahuasca, and LSD are all linked to decreased functional integrity of the DMN, and that DMN interruption is correlated with ego dissolution and reduced rumination about the past. Furthermore, the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), structures that are part of the DMN and involved in self-referential processing, both show decreased activity under the influence of these drugs. These are the same regions that also display decreased activity during mindfulness meditation. 

Reflecting on his own psychedelic journey, Pollan offers a poignant description of depersonalization:

The sovereign ego, with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries, was simply no more, and there was no one left to mourn its passing. Yet something had succeeded it: this bare disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the scene of the self’s dissolution with benign indifference.

The equanimity, lack of a concrete self, and bare awareness Pollan describes are all emblematic of the profound meditative experience.

Of course, drug-induced ego dissolution, as with meditation-induced self-loss, is not always a transcendently positive experience. A “bad trip,” in which the sudden loss of self leads to intense destabilization and potentially destructive behavior, is what first led researchers to conclude that psychedelics could mimic the experience of psychosis. They weren’t entirely wrong.

This is Your Brain on Psychosis

Psychosis is a broad term that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, refers to mental health disorders in which there is some form of loss of contact with reality, including hallucinations, delusions, or schizophrenia. 

In examining resting-state fMRI data from schizophrenic patients in comparison with healthy controls, researchers have found altered DMN connectivity in schizophrenics. In another study, researchers comparing brain images from schizophrenic patients with those of healthy controls have found that decreased DMN activity correlates with the severity of symptoms in patients. Both of these studies are consistent with previous findings that show both a hyperconnectivity in the DMN and decreased DMN connectivity in schizophrenic patients. In short, it seems that schizophrenics suffer from aberrant DMN activity; a self-referential process that is either absent or on overdrive, wherein the prism through which the ego is filtered is off kilter.

Of course, perception itself is a controlled hallucination for so-called normal brains as well. As a highly efficient predictive machine, the brain will readily pick and choose what information is allowed to formulate conscious attention. It is not surprising that researchers examining the potential dark side of meditation in the Varieties of Contemplative Experience study faced a conundrum in making a distinction between an “adverse effect” and a “religious experience.” They wrote, “Similar challenges affect research that attempts to compare and differentiate ‘mystical’ or ‘religious’ experiences from ‘psychopathology.’”

The above is not meant to undermine the legitimate suffering and confusion experienced by those with psychosis. There are subsets of the general population that suffer from consistent imbalances in functional connectivity resulting in debilitating mental disorders. But it is entirely possible that somewhere within this jumble of disorders are glimpses into forms of consciousness that meditation and psychedelics also offer, such as depersonalization. Furthermore, the way various cultures approach these glimpses can have a considerable impact on how those undergoing them are treated.

Phil Borges, a documentarian of indigenous and tribal cultures, notes in a TED talk that in some of these societies shamans are often those who have suffered a mental break. When this psychological crisis occurs, the individual is taken under the wing of a mentor who offers guidance, and leads the individual through a ritual of death and rebirth, in which consciousness and compassion are meant to expand, and the individual takes on a life of service as a shaman. 

Borges contrasted this with the way psychosis is approached in Western society by way of a young man named Adam who he encountered while researching this topic. Adam described his mental break first as “shattering” and “mind-opening,” featuring a “beautiful” connection to the universe in which the boundary between self and other dissipated. But the feeling shifted to panic and fear, and eventually he was diagnosed with a mental disorder and prescribed medication. After several years Adam attended a Vipassana meditation retreat that led to a period of stabilization. But when seeking to do another retreat, his history of mental illness was disclosed, and he was not allowed to partake. The stigma of his condition and lack of overarching guidance or support left him stranded.

There’s no question that psychosis requires professional intervention. And the depersonalization that occurs through meditation, drugs, or mental disorder can nudge one into a dangerous state, as occurred in the case of Sharon Stern. Yet it is also possible that one could be nudged in a more spiritual direction to experience depersonalization as a unifying awakening. Whether one experiences the former or the latter might depend on the support systems one has in place.

Set and Setting

Timothy Leary is a complex figure in the history of psychedelics, notorious for pushing the envelope in a way that may have antagonized the establishment into action. But he also contributed greatly to knowledge and understanding in the burgeoning field, including coining the terms “set” and “setting,” which Ido Hartogsohn, professor and author of American Trip, describes as follows:

The set and setting hypothesis basically holds that the effects of psychedelic drugs are dependent first and foremost upon set (personality, preparation, expectation, and intention of the person having the experience) and setting (the physical, social, and cultural environment in which the experience takes place).

Despite the volatility of these substances, experiences of bad trips in a research setting are more infrequent because set and setting are carefully considered. A person taking a psychedelic in a clinical setting is given time to properly frame the experience and set meaningful intentions for the journey; the individual undertakes the experience in a space designed with the proper ambience in mind, and with the help of an experienced guide (what Michael Pollan has called “White Coat Shamanism”); and following the experience the individual undergoes an integration in which the trip is contextualized with the help of the guide or clinician.

The lack of proper set and setting in the Western meditative context can lead to a dissolution of ego that is absent of the support or resources required to make sense of it.

The attention to set and setting here bears a striking resemblance to the support offered to (and by) shamans in indigenous and tribal communities. Similarly, in Buddhist practice one takes refuge in the Three Jewels of the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Buddha refers to the historical Buddha, as well as the teachers in one’s life that embody the teachings; the dharma refers to the teachings and the truth of reality; and the sangha refers to the community one practices amongst. 

Unfortunately, this framework is often absent from the meditative experience that has been taken up in the West. Rachel Aviv quoted Robert Sharf, a professor of Buddhist studies, who explained:

The depersonalization to which Buddhists aspire is not supposed to result in dysfunctional alienation. The dissolution of the ego is meant to occur within an institutional and ideological framework that helps one make sense of the experience. Nowadays, people who become depressed or depersonalized through secularized meditation practices don’t have access to the conceptual resources and social structures to help them handle what is happening to them.

The lack of proper set and setting in the Western meditative context can lead to a dissolution of ego that is absent of the support or resources required to make sense of it.

Returning to the case of Sharon Stern, the descent from dancer to self-destruction becomes clearer. Stern dove headfirst into a Buddhist-influenced form of dance that prizes surrendering the self and committing completely to the form. She became overly involved with her teacher, Katsura Kan (a Butoh master who had studied Zen Buddhism for three decades), to the point that her family intervened, leaving Stern feeling alienated and adrift. She remained in contact with Kan, and continued to dance and attend his workshops, though she suffered a psychological crisis, ended up in a psychiatric ward, and was put on medication. Stern’s email to Kan in which she asked, “What happens AFTER the deconstruction of your body/mind/ego?” was sent a week before she killed herself.

It is possible that Stern suffered from mental illness and that this imbalance and subsequent behavior would have surfaced regardless of the path she had taken. It is also possible that her devotion to a form of dance that likely deactivated her DMN in a manner similar to meditation or psychedelics resulted in a depersonalization that pushed her to that liminal stage between psychosis and spirituality. But Stern lacked the context and care that set and setting provide. She lacked a place to take refuge, such as the Three Jewels, to help support and direct this experience.

Granted, as the Varieties of Contemplative Experience project has made clear, even with proper support, depersonalization can be deeply unsettling. The Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young has described such experiences of no self as “Enlightenment’s Evil Twin.” In a 2011 blog post, he wrote, “This is serious but still manageable through intensive, perhaps daily, guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive.” As with the experience of shamans-in-training, or psychedelics, Young emphasizes the continuous guidance and support that allow for the intensity of the experience to be enfolded into the spiritual journey. Just as psychedelics taken outside of a clinical setting are more likely to result in bad trips, in the absence of the Three Jewels, secularized meditation in the West runs the risk of inducing profound experiences without the proper tools to process them. Taking a page from the secularized process of psychedelic research, accounting for set and setting could go a long way toward supporting the depersonalization that can occur when “one” becomes “none.”

The concept of a self has allowed the human species to flourish to an extent that is unrivaled in the history of life on this planet. By ruminating on the past and strategizing for the future, countless generations of selves have been able to orchestrate growth on a scale and magnitude that has dramatic implications for all life. By learning how to properly support and integrate experiences of self-loss, perhaps humans can begin to act on these implications and these countless other lives in a more compassionate way, leading to the sense of unity to which mystical experiences so tantalizingly point. 

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