What happens to the ego when we die?

Question: Does the ego have less "reality" after bodily death?

Short answer: Bodily death does not end the ego nor give it less "reality" in our minds because the mind's belief in it, not the body, is responsible for making it seem real. As long as the mind is unhealed, then, the ego must continue on in some form when the body dies, presumably in another body of some sort. However, when the mind is healed through letting go of its belief in the ego, bodily death can become a final release from the limitations of the body.

Bodily death does not make the ego less "real" in our minds because the mind's belief in it, not the body, is responsible for making it seem real.

It is a common human belief, however that belief might be expressed, that the ego (the sense of separate selfhood) is born when the body is born, and dies when the body dies. In short, we believe we are our bodies. This becomes apparent if we simply consider how we identify ourselves. When I say, "I am Greg Mackie," "Greg Mackie" refers to a body that was born on a particular date in the past, and will die on a particular date in the future. In other words, my individual selfhood is defined by the lifespan of my body; one could say that my body causes my individual selfhood — my ego — to exist. When my body was born, I was born; when my body dies, I will die.

But according to the Course, the ego is not the result of the body; on the contrary, the body is the result of the ego (see W-pI.72.2:1-3). Our belief in separate selfhood (the ego) is what causes us to manifest a body to house that separate self. As contrary as this is to our usual way of seeing things, the Course tells us that the body and the ego (and death too, for that matter) are caused solely by the mind's belief in them. And the mind that has placed its faith in these things is not the body's brain, which does die when the body dies, but the eternal mind of the Son of God, our true Identity. "The ego is the mind's belief that it is completely on its own" (T-4.II.8:4), the erroneous conviction that we have somehow separated from our eternal life in God and become solitary, separate bodies, born into a cruel world and doomed to die at the hands of that cruel world. The implication here is clear: Since the ego's cause is a belief of the mind, it cannot be undone or even weakened by the death of the body. How could it be undone by the death of the body, since the birth of the body didn't cause it to begin with?

Ironically, the very belief that we are separate bodies trapped in a cruel world leads to the belief that the ego can be overcome by bodily death, an idea which the ego itself endorses. I think the belief that death can overcome the pain wrought by the ego is extremely common; many of us really do think that death brings peace and respite from the slings and arrows of the ego and its world. This idea is reflected in the common tombstone inscription "Rest in peace" (which the Course refers to and reinterprets — see (T-8.IX.3:5); in the suicidal lament, "Goodbye, cruel world!"; and in the way we often console the grieving by saying that the dead loved one is no longer in pain but has "gone on to a better place."

But as common as the belief that death brings peace is, the Course considers it an error and cautions against it. (Though I would not try to talk the grieving out of the idea if it brings them comfort, nor do I deny that death can be a temporary release from pain.) The Course tells us that "there is a risk in thinking death is peace" (T-27.VII.10:2). Why is this risky? Because this thought is an ego ploy designed to get us to seek death, either through suicide or through other "causes of death": accidents, murder, sickness, or old age. Of course, the causes of death other than suicide that I've listed are normally regarded as things that happen to us against our will, but the Course is clear that death is always the result of our decision (see (W-pI.152.1:4). Obviously, this decision is made at a very deep level of mind that we're not usually consciously aware of, but it is still a decision. Thus as long as the ego is governing our lives, all death is suicide. We "see in death escape from what [we] made" (M-20.5:2), and so we seek it to escape the pain of human life.

But underneath the tempting thought that death is peace lies the ego's real payoff: Thinking that the pain of human life can be escaped through death actually reinforces our belief that life — the life of our body, beset by the cruelties of the world — is the cause of our pain. On the contrary, says the Course, "death cannot be escape, because it is not life in which the problem lies" (M-20.5:4). The problem has nothing to do with life, which is of God and is eternal, but with the mind's belief that life is limited to the "life" of a separate ego encased in a frail, mortal body. Since this is a belief of the mind, it is a change of mind, not death, that brings us peace. And this change of mind is, in essence, a turning away from the "life" of the ego, which is really death, and an affirmation of true life, the eternal life of the mind, which we share with God:

When your body and your ego and your dreams are gone, you will know that you will last forever. Perhaps you think this is accomplished through death, but nothing is accomplished through death, because death is nothing. Everything is accomplished through life, and life is of the mind and in the mind. (T-6.V(A)1:1-3).

Thus the ego is not undone or weakened by bodily death; in fact, the ego uses bodily death to strengthen our belief in it. To the ego, death "proves" that we really are separate beings bound by bodies, forever cut off from God. The death penalty, in the ego's view, is God's ultimate punishment for the "sin" of separating from Him. Death, then, cannot undo the ego; only the mind's decision can undo the ego: "As you made it by believing in it, so you can dispel it by withdrawing belief from it" (T-7.VIII.5:2). The only way to make the ego less "real" in our minds is to recognize that the ego is unreal, and reaffirm our true Identity as Sons of God, rightful heirs to God's Kingdom. "The world is not left by death but by truth, and truth can be known by all those for whom the Kingdom was created, and for whom it waits" (T-3.VII.6:11).

As long as the mind is unhealed, the ego continues on in some form after bodily death.

This point — that the ego continues on after bodily death — is the clear implication of the idea that the ego cannot be undone by bodily death. It is a matter of simple logic: If the ego is not undone by bodily death but only by a change of mind, then when a person dies without making that change of mind, that person's ego must continue on after death. I, for one, certainly wish at times that it were otherwise, because the idea that death ends the ego has a definite appeal. If it were true, then all we would have to do is wait until we die, and poof! — the ego would be gone! Alas, it's not that simple. The truth of the matter, according to the Course, is that as long as the mental decision that made the ego remains in force, the ego will continue in some form.

What form might the ego take? It's hard to say, since the Course really doesn't talk about this, but I think it's safe to say that the ego would have to manifest some form in which to "live": "All thinking produces form at some level" (T-2.VI.9:14). Personally, I think that the ego simply manifests another "body" of one sort or another after we die. What kind of body? I don't know, but I suppose it could be anything from another earthly body (if one believes in reincarnation) to some sort of ethereal body. There are all sorts of theories about different kinds of bodies in various realms, but I don't think we really need to know anything about that. As Section 24 of the Manual tells us, "All that must be recognized…is that birth was not the beginning, and death is not the end" (M-24.5:7). This is the recognition of the eternal nature of life, which ultimately undoes the ego, whatever form it takes.

When the mind is healed through letting go of its belief in the ego, bodily death can become a final release from the limitations of the body.

Even though the ego uses death to confirm its existence, bodily death is neutral in itself. The idea of death is definitely of the ego, but the form of bodily death can be used by either the ego or the Holy Spirit. How might the Holy Spirit use death? Well, certainly, even the ego-based death described above can be transformed into an opportunity to give and receive love, if His perception of it is allowed to enter. Seen with His vision, even a painful death can be a time for friends and family to join together in love, compassion, and gratitude for each other and for the one who is passing on. But perhaps the best example in the Course material of death as He sees and uses it is the beautiful depiction of death in a section of The Song of Prayer entitled "False versus True Healing" (S-3.II). This section describes what bodily death is like for a person whose mind is completely healed, a person whose ego has been completely undone before bodily death through a change of mind. (I highly recommend reading the entire section.)

The section starkly contrasts death as it is normally experienced by the unhealed mind with death as it is experienced by the healed mind. For those of us with unhealed minds, who still identify with the ego, death comes "in forms that seem to be thrust down in pain upon unwilling flesh" (S-3.II.3:2) — the "causes of death" I mentioned above. Isn't this how death is for most of us? Whether a person dies suddenly in a car accident or slowly from the ravages of sickness or old age, death is usually painful and rarely welcomed (except, as discussed above, as an escape from pain to "peace"). We certainly don't see it as something we chose, however much the Course may tell us that death is always our decision. To us, death is the Grim Reaper, a dark angel who comes when we least expect him, whether we want him to or not. But for a person whose mind is healed, death is something else entirely. Rather than a Grim Reaper that seems to cut him down against his will, for such a person death is a conscious, peaceful decision to let the body go because it is no longer needed. The healed person uses the body only for the Holy Spirit's purpose of extending healing to others, and when its purpose is done, "it is discarded as a choice, as one lays by a garment now outworn" (S-3.II.1:11).

This may sound hard to believe, but spiritual literature is full of accounts of enlightened masters (including some fairly recent ones) who apparently chose consciously when to leave their bodies, and quietly did so when the proper time came. Certainly this represents an extremely high state of spiritual development, one that will take most of us a long time to achieve. But even if we aren't there yet, we can read The Song of Prayer's account of "what death should be" (S-3.II.2:1) as an inspiring foretaste of what awaits us when we finally let go of the ego. When we do so, bodily death is transformed from the ego's proof of limitation to the Holy Spirit's release from limitation. Death will not free us from the ego, but freeing ourselves from the ego through changing our minds can transform bodily death from the grim witness to separation into "a gentle welcome to release" (S-3.II.3:2). What was once the ultimate bondage can become the gateway to liberation:

We call it death, but it is liberty….If there has been true healing, this can be the form in which death comes when it is time to rest a while from labor gladly done and gladly ended….For Christ is clearer now; His vision more sustained in us; His Voice, the Word of God, more certainly our own. (S-3.II.3:1,3,5)

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