In the last post, I talked about the spiritual concept of “ego death” as it is reflected in dreams [“When the Dream-Ego is Slipping or Sleepy”]. “Ego death” occurs when the whole psyche is undergoing a transformation (due to illness, crisis, loss, or deep inner work) in which the familiar ego must die in order for a new, potentially larger, sense of self to come into being. During such times, dreams often contain death imagery: the dream-ego or other dream-character faces death, and perhaps actually dies in the dream. Deaths can be enacted again and again in transitional dreams, and then other dreams (or sometimes the same dreams) may begin to indicate the development of new life, new ways of being.
Sometimes, when the transformation is particularly significant, we experience breakthrough dreams: extraordinarily powerful dreams that not only represent the transformation from one ego identity to another, but actually involve the “willing sacrifice” of the entire self-definition, allowing for complete openness to a new way of experiencing reality and identity. These dreams may be like great mystical experiences, beyond words. They may be like literal near-death experiences where attachment to our present life is let go almost easily as we glimpse what we really are and the vastness that includes us.
Occasionally, a dream can be quite direct in its metaphorical expression of the process of “willing sacrifice” and “ego death.” About two years ago, I had this extraordinary dream:
The Willing Sacrifice: I am a young Asian prince in an ancient Eastern culture. My small community has been suffering from a drought or other catastrophic challenge. Our survival is at stake. We have just completed the re-enactment of an ancient ritual that is supposed to restore harmony: the symbolic sacrifice of the community’s leader (me). But it does not work, and I now realize that only an authentic sacrifice will make a difference. We must enact the ritual again, and this time I must actually die. I accept this with sadness, and some fear, but a deep sense of responsibility, feeling the weight of what I must do. The community is gathered to bear witness: to support me, and to honor and grieve for my sacrifice.
Ahead of me is a large ritual space—a square, marked on the ground by a wide golden ribbon. I am wearing a white tunic or kimono. I walk, formally, toward one side of the square. I hope that my death will not be bloody—but then I release that thought: it will be what it will be. I release the hopes I had for the rest of my life. On the left side of the square, there’s a gap in the ribbon that opens onto nothingness, and I believe that when I die I will go through that gap. In the far right corner of the square sits the Emperor or King—a wise, compassionate, powerful being, like a god. I sense his deep sympathy with me, and his willingness to play his role as I am playing mine. His attendant, a young man in white like myself, leaves his side and comes to meet me as I approach the square. We stand facing each other at the edge of the square, and I realize he’s almost a mirror image of me.
Before stepping across the ribbon, I must ask permission to make this sacrifice. I kneel down, as I have done many times before during the symbolic ceremonies, but this time I know I must go further. I close my eyes and bow all the way down to the ground. It seems a long way down, an infinite falling in and giving over. At the moment when my forehead finally touches the earth in complete surrender, I feel flooded with love: the loving tenderness of the young attendant standing over me, meeting me absolutely where I am; the loving benevolence of the King; the loving warmth and gratitude of the people… Also, the overwhelming love that pours through me from the earth herself. It is more than I can contain.
The final sentence in my description of the dream says it all: “It is more than ‘I’ can contain.” The ego “I” cannot hold the larger experience of life itself that rushes in with love at the moment when the sacrifice is accepted. The small self gives way, and the larger self can then be experienced. The larger self is not limited to one apparently separate identity, but includes all who are taking part in this ceremony. And beyond the shared human experience, there is also a profound connection with the earth.
Until that point when the forehead touches the ground, the scene had been almost exclusively male (key characters are men, and the ritual takes place in a square, under the jurisdiction of a King)—but in the presence of love, the earth herself manifests the female energy that grounds the male ritual. Even though the dream-ego is a man, the dreamer is a woman, so the overall context for the dream is actually female. The female energy is always implicitly present, even though it is only experienced fully in the moment of acceptance.
In the years since this dream, in my waking life, my ego-identity has been experiencing sacrifice on many levels, sometimes willingly, sometimes with great reluctance. I’ve had a lot of dreams in which the dream-ego fades into the background (as described in the previous post), and other dreams in which there is no dream-ego at all, but a larger, witnessing perspective. The predominant characteristic of this witnessing perspective is love—just like the love manifested in the moment of complete acceptance in “Willing Sacrifice.” A similar witnessing presence emerges from the background when I’m meditating, and instead of identifying with the busy thoughts or sleepiness, I identify with the experience of noticing these things nonjudgmentally.
In recent years, the spiritual teacher Ram Dass has been expressing all that he has ever taught in one simple phrase, “I am loving awareness.” The “I” in that phrase is not Ram Dass himself, but all of us, any of us, all beings, the earth, the cosmos. Loving awareness is big awareness, and big love.
When my ego is in turmoil, struggling to gain ground and establish itself, or wavering in confusion in the face of its own inadequacy, I’ve begun to be aware of the larger observer, witnessing this whole process with compassion. Not just with compassion—in fact, this presence is nothing but compassion. As in the dream, the ego has to give way in order to grow, but loving awareness is behind everything. Loving awareness is the whole reason that the sacrifice is made willingly—for the sake of others, for the sake of something beyond itself. So when the ego gives way, loving awareness is everything.
It’s difficult to know this and trust this in waking life. But in a dream, it becomes real.