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In psychology, egolessness is an emotional and cognitive state where one’s sense of self evaporates and is replaced by a feeling of egolessness, unity, or oneness. Egolessness was first identified by William James as an important feature of mystical/religious experience. Sigmund Freud associated egolessness with the oceanic feeling and dismissed it as an infantile regression, but others have been more sympathetic. Today egolessness is incorporated in psychological research as a feature of mystical experience. Mystical experience itself has been operationalized by Ralph Hood in the Hood Mysticism scale. Hood’s scale includes questions that identify an egolessness experience.
The described feeling of oneness (of being inextricably woven to the fabric of one's surroundings or environment) is thought to be akin to egolessness. Lifestyles of communal ownership (no individual property) and the "vow of poverty" in many monastic traditions may also be intended to make selflessness easier to maintain; that its practitioners may continuously remain in a meditative state of mind.
In some forms of meditation in Asian religions, egolessness is a mental state that is sought after. While at the basic levels, meditation is geared toward relaxation, the practice of advanced meditators may be aimed toward the purpose of dividing one from their awareness of "self," to a certain degree, and for a certain time. The ritual and religious treatment of meditation functions so that the individual learns to take the practice with seriousness; learning to gradually control their degree of relaxation such that undesired and harmful schisms do not occur to the psyche.
Note that the term "selflessness" is similar in literal meaning (ego is the Latin word for "I") but differs in nuance and usage. One would describe a set of acts as "selfless" (altruistic) when they are not selfish—when they benefit others more than oneself. One would say that a person is "egoless" when he or she feels or acts in a way that suggests that the self is irrelevant (regardless of whether the act or attitude had any benefit to self or others). In other words, "selfless" is the opposite of "selfish" while "egoless" is orthogonal to both. The closest antonyms to "egolessness" are "egotism" (a heightened sense of self-worth or one's own importance) or possibly solipsism.
The writer Aleister Crowley distinguished between two main types of egolessness, for which he used the Sanskrit terms Dhyana (which means "meditation") and Samadhi (which he associated with the Nothing, or in Hebrew Ain). He wrote the following about the relative difficulties of attaining them:
Now we do know this, that if thought is kept single and steady, Dhyana results. We do not know whether an intensification of this is sufficient to cause Samadhi, or whether some other circumstances are required. One is science, the other empiricism.
Despite this, Crowley recommended a complex system of practices from Eastern and Western sources to help people attain Samadhi.
- James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature. New York: Penguin, 1982.
- Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. New York: Anchor Books, 1964
- Stace, Walter Terence. Mysticism and Philosophy. London: Macmillan, 1960.
- Hood Jr, Ralph W. "The Construction and Preliminary Validation of a Measure of Reported Mystical Experience." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 14.1 (1975): 29.
- Book 4 –Hermetic.com
- Lyvers, M., & Meester, M. (2012). Illicit Use of LSD or Psilocybin, but not MDMA or Nonpsychedelic Drugs, is Associated with Mystical Experiences in a Dose-Dependent Manner. [Article]. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 44(5), 410-417. doi: 10.1080/02791072.2012.736842