Thinking About Myself in the Third Person
How ego-death cured my eating disorder for good
“We therefore develop this curious thing: we develop a thing which is called an ego(…) what we call our ego is something abstract, which is to say it has the same order and kind of reality as an hour, or an inch, or a pound, or a line of longitude. It is for purposes of discussion, it is for convenience. In other words, it is a social convention…
But the fallacy that all of us make is that we treat it as if it were a physical organ. As if it were real in that sense, when in fact it is composed, on the one hand, of our image of ourselves (…) this image of ourselves is obviously not ourselves anymore than an idea of a tree is a tree, anymore than you can get wet in the word ‘water.’ And to go on with our image of ourselves is extremely inaccurate and incomplete.
So the image I have of myself is a caricature. It is arrived at through, mainly, my interaction with other people who tell me who I am, in various ways, either directly or indirectly. And I play about with what their picture is of me, and they play something back to me, so we set up this conception. And this started very, very early in life.” — Alan Watts, The Inevitable Ecstasy
It was December 26th 2020. A hot night in Sydney, Australia. I walked along the foreshore of the harbour. Nature surrounded me — to the left the beautiful mansions of the wealthy, covered in jasmine and fairylights. To the right, bushland covering the slope to the glistening water. Wet, rich scents of transpiration from ferns and figs. The rhythmic sounds of cicadas, mixed with the muffled sounds of late night revelers still celebrating Boxing Day. The lights doubling, refracting into rainbows — everything a little brighter than normal; a little more vivid.
It had been an hour since the tab of acid dissolved under my tongue. The intention for the trip — to seek to understand the nature of consciousness. I was listening to the Alan Watts’ lecture “Out of Your Mind: The Inevitable Ecstasy” as I walked.
I find that the best time to listen to Watts is while walking in nature — something about the process of moving while looking at how nature expresses itself, the shapes it takes — forms the perfect counterpoint to his musings. My mind takes his words, turning them over gently and holding up his images to the shapes of nature, and the rhythm of movement — and sometimes insights emerge.
Suddenly I stopped in the middle of the path, looked around, and laughed.
I saw the truth of my life. I saw the incredible error I’d made in how I’d perceived myself up until this point. And the mental illness that had ruled my life for ten years — it fell away. Gone. And it has not come back.
What is anxiety? What is perfectionism? What is an eating disorder? How do they work?
While I’ve gone into how my past influenced the development of my eating disorder — fundamentally all of my neuroses were built on a belief that underpins much of Western thought — something so fundamental to how we think that it took me decades to realise it was something I was doing at all.
They operated because I had been taught to think of myself in terms of images and words. I had been taught to look at my reflection and identify it with the “real me”. I had constructed an idea in my mind for how I believed I was perceived by others, and I thought that was actually the more accurate view on myself than the “inner” view. I actually believed, subconsciously, that other people could know me better than I knew myself.
“So I turned myself to face me,
But I never caught a glimpse
How the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test”
— David Bowie, Changes
In other words, I had been thinking of myself my whole life in the third person, not the first person! And even while I had started to realise this in October that year, and therapy had helped me identify the harmful thought patterns I’d been following, the pieces of the puzzle hadn’t finally clicked until this moment in December, standing on the path around 11pm, surrounded by the sounds of nature and the beauty of Sydney Harbour.
For the first time, I really understood what “ego” means. I’d read about it, thought about it, but never really understood it, until now.
My names, birth-given or self-chosen. My reflection, in mirrors and windows. My selfies. Candid photographs and videos. My shadow, wavering before me. The reactions of people who encounter and interact with me. Their words about me.
All of this, building up a character that exists in my mind. It has a name, pronouns. It has a face (a composite of my reflections and photos), a body, and a fashion style. It has a list of accomplishments, a resume — a social media presence.
I had thought this was me. I thought that if I could control this character, if I could perfect her in the eyes of others, I would be happy. And so I would constantly be struggling with the discrepancy of my first person experience of life, and the way I believed people perceived this image. Trying to fix a first person experience, by thinking about myself in third person.
This was the core of my eating disorder. This was the core of my anxiety and perfectionism.
And I suddenly saw so clearly that it was an illusion — and like a soap bubble it dissolved. And I realised that there is no separation between the experiences I was having, and existence itself. No separation between “me” and “everything”.
“And if you will feel it — the going on, which includes absolutely everything you feel — well, whatever that is, it’s what the Chinese call Tao, or what the Buddhists call ‘suchness,’ or tathātā. And it’s a happening. It doesn’t happen to you, because where is that? You — what you call you — is part of the happening, or an aspect of it. It has no parts; it’s not like a machine (…)
So you have this process — which is quite spontaneous — going on. We call it life. It’s controlling itself! It’s aware of itself. It’s aware of itself through you. You are an aperture through which the universe looks at itself. And because it’s the universe looking at itself through you, there’s always an aspect of itself that it can’t see.” — Alan Watts
When I realised this, it was the greatest relief possible. “I Am” is the universe, as experienced here, now. The character of the ego, that’s only a way of talking about specifics. It’s picking out some patterns, and recognising their regularity.
When people talk about ego-death, it sounds scary. In my experience, it was not scary. It did not feel like losing anything. It was gaining everything. Everything.
Tat Tvam Asi — I Am That
Within 2–3 weeks of this experience, I stopped my therapy sessions. We’d kept them going a couple of weeks in case this change in my mental state was temporary. But eventually I said to my therapist “I don’t need this anymore, I am cured”. And she congratulated me, and let me go.
It’s been over a year, and I can confidently say I am cured of my mental illnesses. Of course, the acuteness of the mystical experience does not last forever. I still find myself thinking in third person. I still perform the character of the ego.
But deep inside, I know now that this is all a way of talking, a way of thinking — it’s all patterns of concepts, imagery and social conventions. I see the ego as an art project now. I know who I really am. In this knowledge, there is peace — the expansive peace of the infinite.
I won’t pretend that I feel pure inner bliss all the time now. I feel anxious sometimes. I feel dissatisfaction sometimes. But it’s not chronic. The feelings arise, then they pass quickly. I am no longer “overcontrolled”.
I regularly practice mindfulness and have had several mystical experiences since December 2020. I eat intuitively and exercise when it pleases my body. I am healthy, in body and mind.
Recovery, something I thought was out of reach for me for years — is here. I am so grateful. To anyone who has suffered an eating disorder — I wish the same for you.
“The question “What shall I do?” has now disappeared. It should have disappeared in the beginning. Because there wasn’t any real I, there was just the happening. And so that question brings us back again to the experience itself, see?
That’s the only way that you can answer the question: is from the experience. You would say, “what would happen if?” The answer is only: “You must feel it. Then you’ll know.”
— The Inevitable Ecstasy, Alan Watts