This Virus Represents The Global Death of Human Ego

April 2, 2020

As a deadly, invisible force sweeps the planet, something profound is happening. We are in Hollywood late-show host Jimmy Fallon’s home as his daughter climbs his backMullahs in Iran, unbreakable for four decades, fall deathly ill. A prince of England goes into quarantine. Healers are slain from China to Manhattan.

The coronavirus respects no power or status. It strips us of our lines of demarcation, identity and ego. It forces us to see one another as equally vulnerable.

Philosophically, this virus represents something deep: a global death of human ego.

We face the devastation of our ordinary, everyday selves with pushes to transfigure and redefine our identities. In Hinduism, this transcendence is represented by the goddess Kali severing the head, a symbol of the ego. In Buddhism, this transformation is illustrated by the concept of the Severed Head Vajrayogini, the severing of the head from the body again representing destruction of the ego.

Jewish kabbalists call the dissolution of the ego “bitul hayesh.” The ego is nullified and undergoes death. If the dying of the ego is facilitated carefully, it opens the doors to self-realization and renewal. The ego’s death opens the possibility of rebirth and a reconstitution of the self. In Islam, Sufis call the breakdown of the self “fana,” meaning annihilation of the ego − also a nullification meant to reconstitute the self.

Often spoken about mystically, one can understand an “ego death” existentially.

In ordinary life, we are starting to see a fissure in our egos, and the meaning of our lives called into question. Weeks ago, CNN host Chris Cuomo spoke about the “surrender of the me to the we.” Now, he lives in isolation in his basement after testing positive for COVID-19. In a “Pandemic Times” podcast last week, Jewish Journal editor-in-chief David Suissa asked, “Is there a transcendent, larger than life component to this global crisis, which is touching all of humanity?”

The long answer is yes.

The attachments that once defined our lives are falling away, turning us inward. We are abandoning attachments to the most mundane, from chai at Starbucks to Pilates and PTA meetings. Isolated in our homes and estranged from the familiar, our identities of the past are losing meaning − to be replaced with new identities.

There is no better time than now to get philosophical.

The pandemic is dissolving our ego’s sense of a “separate self.” Walking onto late-night host Steven Colbert’s show one recent Friday night, CNN contributor Dr. Sanjay Gupta held his hands together in a firm namaste that is part of his ancestral tradition in India. He said, “I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but I find it really fascinating in a way that, if not for me, if I don’t engage in good behaviors for me, then I should do it for you. I should do it for the people around me.”

There is no better time than now to get philosophical.

The ego, or the “ordinary everyday self,” as late Tibetan Buddhist scholar Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche described it, informs our sense of reality and identity. When the ego dies, it is possible for its death to overwhelm and bewilder us. Our first principles lose their categorical nature, our sobriety becomes compromised, and our rational foundations start to shake. James Hollis, a Jungian analyst and director emeritus of the Jung Educational Center in Houston, describes it this way: “Either we die unto who we were, in order to move to the next stage, or we die through staying stuck, and suffer stasis and stultification.”

We can see the ego in the individual, but there also is something modern-day philosopher Eckhart Tolle calls the “collective ego.” Early 20th-century psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung called our group thinking and feeling the “collective psyche” in a 1916 essay, “The Structure of the Unconscious.”

When “ego death” is overwhelming, in both the individual and the collective, an adamant reassessment of values ensues. Ordinary thinking breaks down, which is happening today in simple ways, including our sense of safety in just breathing. We experience the world with surprise, shock and uncertainty − three emotions people around the world now simultaneously feel.

Dr. Stanislav Grof, a Czech-American psychiatrist based in California and Germany, remarks that “ego death” can “entail an instant merciless destruction of all previous reference points in the life of the individual.” This can be true for global “ego death.”

But out of destruction, a new world can be born, vitalized and united by the chaos over which it triumphed. “The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth,” wrote philosopher Joseph Campbell. In our global “ego death,” we are tasked with learning from our agony to grow from it as self-realized and devoted to the safeguarding of our health — as individuals and as a collective.

Samir Nomani is a recent graduate of philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross and is a poet and musician, completing his MA in Music Industry at West Virginia University. Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter.

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