Is it Depression, or is it the
Loss of the Affective Ego Leading to Spiritual Gain?

Is there a state which at first glance mimics depression, but really is something else, something that we could call the loss of the affective ego? And if there is, could it have a positive purpose driving it? First I want to describe the loss of the affective ego and then refer you to an analysis of the possible goals it might be leading to.

The Loss of the Affective Ego

The affective ego means the ego and the affective energy that normally animates it and sets it in motion in a search for gratification. But in the loss of the affective ego this energy seems to disappear, or perhaps better, drains out of the ego and goes elsewhere.

Imagine the ego as a room with four doors. Each door represents a particular way of ego functioning. Let’s use the Jungian terminology and call these doors sensation, intuition, thinking and feeling. Normally the room of the ego is full of activity. People are going in and out of the doors. They are talking, laughing, singing, crying, but there is always something going on. What animates this activity is what we are calling here affective energy, so the affective ego means an ego alive with seeking out things that are pleasurable, and avoiding things that are painful, and all this activity takes place instinctively and automatically. Then one day, sometimes quite suddenly, we find that the room is empty. The affective energy that set everything in motion has disappeared. We are disoriented, and wonder what has gone wrong. What we had known as life has disappeared. Has someone locked the doors? No. The doors still open and close, but instead of throngs of people going in and out, we have to open the doors ourselves and carry on our activities by planning and will power.

Here are some of the characteristics of this process.

It leaves the functioning of the ego intact. The ego is not cognitively impaired. All the former abilities and skills of the ego remain, but the ego seems to have entered into a zone of silence in which the normal hum, or noise of the ego’s functions, searching out their usual ends, has disappeared.

It can happen rather suddenly so that it is quite noticeable, and it is disorienting to the ego which finds its normal life has disappeared, and goes about trying to regain it, but cannot. Therefore, it experiences a kind of death of the ego and can long for the old life that it had, and mourn for its loss.

In this new state the ego is set in motion, not by its old affective desires, but by the situation it finds itself in, and by the will.

A sense of gratification is lost, resulting in sometimes feeling that everything is worthless, and nothing is worth doing. The ego sometimes looks around in its pain and wants to find someone or something to blame for this situation. It can imagine that changing its outer situation would fill the affective emptiness inside so it could feel normal again.

The ego can get into the wrong relationship with this ongoing process of affective loss, and become upset as if its life has been stolen from it. It can suffer acute episodes of "depression" from which it can recover quickly with no apparent aftereffects.

There is a tendency to overdue things without realizing it, as if the person acting has been put in gear, but the driver is somehow not fully present. This kind of overextraversion can lead to a depletion of energy that mimics depression.

The memory remains intact. Past events can be recalled, but the affective charge that surrounded them is diminished. It is something like viewing a film with the sound off, that is, without the usual emotional responses to it. New events can be responded to appropriately, but they often appear to have less affective impact unless they activate the unconscious. They leave smaller affective footprints in their wake and can quickly be forgotten. The normal reverberation and repercussion of events is dampened down.

There seems to be no physical disorder to account for this loss of affectivity, nor does there appear to be some particular psychological problem that has caused it.

On the positive side, the ego now tends to see the world more objectively because its own subjective shields and screens are down. It can even achieve a certain distance from its own problems which it can view, at times, without the normal emotional reactions to them. The ego can be sensitive to what is happening around it precisely because it hears things better since its own noise has been so diminished. It has a certain kind of peace because it is not being pushed around by its affective desires.

It can find it tiring, even upsetting, to be around people who are expressing lots of affective energy.

It can express the appropriate feelings for the situation that it is in, but as soon as it leaves the situation, the feelings disappear back into the silence. There seems to be no going back to the old sense of ego.

See also: "Dark Nights, Depression and the Loss of the Affective Ego"

A Positive Purpose?

The big question is, why does this happen? Should we call it plain old-fashioned depression, or could it be connected to some kind of positive transformation of energy taking place in the psyche? Three possibilities suggest themselves: psychological development, enlightenment, and contemplation. Some examples of this loss of the affective ego seem to be connected to prior spiritual practice. It is almost as if the counsels to practice detachment that are found in so many religious traditions are no longer active things that we attempt to do, but we are suffering some kind of process of detachment that has a life of its own.

For an examination of these questions read: Chapter 8 of Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue.

And go to "On the Loss of the Affective Ego" for a discussion on this topic.

Contact us at


Here are some excerpts from remarks by Philip St. Romain taken from a discussion held at a Shalom Place discussion thread:

The Arrajs and I have been comparing notes and discussing this topic for years now. With their publication of this web page, we're hoping to discover if others can relate to the experience, and how they understand it.

I can share that, for myself, what they describe fits my own experience to a fraction of a degree. Even after over 15 years, however, I'm still adjusting to this phenomenon of the loss of the affective ego, and can imagine that some who've come upon this state would consider it a "loss of self," even a psychopathology of some kind. I do not consider it such, but (perhaps) an example of apathaea or profound detachment that the desert fathers thought so valuable. There are many positive consequences which ensue--none the least of which is that one isn't getting pushed around by emotions any more. Also, when I don't over-work (especially mentally), there is a subtle flow of bliss buoying up my heart--the ananda of the Hindus, and the joy which Christ promised. Nevertheless, as I say, it takes some getting used to and can feel like psychic death, in many ways.

I would not characterize my experience of the loss of the affective ego as akin to depression in that it lacks the "down" or "blue" feeling that comes with depression. Unlike depression, which has a definite affective content, this state seems to be altogether devoid of emotion or feeling until one is engaged in an activity of some kind. Then, the appropriate feeling emerges; once that is over, however, things revert back to zero -- a state of flatness or apathaea. I'm aware that some counselors might consider this dissociation or a type of depression, but I would disagree, and so would the Arrajs -- which is why we're hoping this experience will become better understood.

Prior to the loss of affectivity as described here, the Ego is usually moved one way or another and senses from these inner movements a kind of direction being suggested for one's life. You might even say that with the loss of the affective Ego, there is a loss of intentional consciousness, which does feel like the loss of interiority and a kind of psychic death. I strongly suspect that this is, in large part, what many in the spiritual literature are referring to as a "loss of self," or "no-self." If this were only a passing phase/dark night between developmental levels, that would be one thing; but when one is "stuck" there for almost 20 years, as some of us have been, might as well say it's not simply transitional.

I wouldn't want to go back to the "old ways" at all even if I could. For one thing, I don't even remember what that was like! But since pretty much everyone I relate to has an Affective Ego, I see the difference between what they go through and my usual state. Thanks, but no thanks!

It seems to me that there is something of an "acquired taste" that one must develop to live in this new psychic world, and I think this is where the metaphor of the desert in Christian mystical literature becomes relevant. The desert appears to be arid and lifeless, but upon closer inspection, there are all kinds of living things that have found a way to survive there. One must look and listen deeply to notice them, but they're there! I liken this to the sensitivity one develops to subtle movements in the psyche; they fall below the radar of the Affective Ego, but the dis-affected Ego, in its thirst for a sense of life, learns to listen for them and cherish what is found. Sometimes, it is the "still small voice of the Spirit" that is detected--a tiny rivulet of life meandering along, somewhat obscure, but exuding peace.

Another delightful compensation for me is that with the diminishment of intentionality, the world of the senses has become more awakened.

The Ego refers to one's sense of being an "I" or the conscious subject of one's life. This is not the false self; it is generally experienced in an affective milieu, howsoever subtle; memory generally retains a "record" of how the "I" experiences affectivity, and we can often access that.
- E.g., you hear a song that reminds you of a special date and experience some of the feelings you had then.
- you think back on a certain time in your life and have a feeling of what your life was then.
- you think back on what happened 2 hrs ago and have a feeling of what that was like corresponding to what you experienced then.

We take for granted such things. . . until it is lost, which is what we are trying to talk about.

So, for example, one can interact with company and experience a range of feelings when they visit. The next day, you can usually think over some of what went on and experience an affective connection with this past event through the affective dimension stored in memory.

With the loss of what the Arraj's are calling the affective ego, however, there is no such affective recall. You can remember who said what, that you were happy or sad or whatever, but you do not have an affective connection with the past event. It's gone! Dessicated! There is no emotional trace in the memory.

So we're not saying that people who experience this situation display no affectivity: they do, during the situation they're living in the present. . . the whole range of feeling. But once the experience is over, it's over . . . affectively, that is . . . like it never even happened . . . could have been 10 years ago just as well as 15 minutes ago. The empirical Ego/individual-subject-of-attention is still there, alive and well, with all its faculties intact, only it seems to be living in a desert of some kind, deprived of inner movements of affectivity connecting present with past and pointing the way to a future. In my own experience, this has also brought a quieting of the mind so that, unless I am working on some kind of problem or creation, there are no thoughts whatsoever. The mind is silent, which at first is quite disconcerting, but eventually becomes most enjoyable.

I hope this helps to clarify the relation between Ego, affective Ego, false self, and the experience we're trying to describe. Maybe this is one of those kinds of experiences that's impossible to grasp unless one undergoes it to some extent.

I would not say that what I'm describing equates with a loss of selfishness or the false self, however, as vices of all kinds (especially pride) still come into play and must be seen and resisted. That's why I keep trying to say that I'm not talking about the loss of a false self, although there is a change in that experience with the loss of affective memory.

As for marriage and the testimony of a spouse, what my wife sees is my relationship with her in the moments we share, and these do include affectivity, as I have tried to explain. She cannot possibly know my inner experience when I am not with her and uninvolved in activities. I've told her about all this, but see no point in making a big deal out of it with her. I don't know what gurus' wives would say to disprove their husbands' claims, but my wife could certainly give witness that I am no perfect person on any level. I have no illusions about that. That's not what I'm talking about at all.

I broached this topic 14 years ago in my kundalini book, but it never even got a nibble in comparison to the kundalini vs. Holy Spirit discussions. I don't think it's the same thing Bernadette Roberts is describing either, for she's actually saying there's no subject of attention present in her experience and I'm quite sure there is one such in mine. I don't fully understand her experience, but it seems similar to that of Susan Segal. Others have described the no-self state in a manner similar to what we are calling the loss of affective ego, so there is a touchpoint there.

I think discerning "the point" of this is partly why the Arrajs opened the discussion. In my own case, I have noted some of the practical benefits in the remarks above. All in all, it's a very positive development, I would say, especially in terms of making available to one greater freedom to exercise the will according to one's values and decisions. There is a very definite "death" or sense of loss that comes with the shift, however, and that takes some getting used to.

What is left, then? The desert . . . profound aridity . . . emotional detachment . . . a silent mind . . . the flowering of the senses . . . and, eventually, a deepening sensitivity to subtle movements of life within and about. With this comes increased capacity to live in the present moment, including the experience whatever affectivity such action awakens.

The loss of the affective Ego DOES mean the end of the compulsivities originating in false self conditioning. That's a pretty big deal, in my opinion, and a great healing indeed! It also spells the end of shame, existential anxiety, and resentment, for all these emotions are of the past and are therefore part of the affective memory. Granted, there are degrees of healing from these bitter poisons, but in my own case, I would say that I have been over 90% free of these for almost 20 years! I did not believe this was possible, and for the first few years, kept expecting their return. I also saw how much the false self derives its energies and intentions from these poisonous emotions. After they are healed, one is relatively free of the false self, but not completely.

Once the flow of affectivity is diminished, the mind is no longer triggered by this information and one can explore its domain . . . how attention and mind interact, for example. We can also learn how the mind actually tries to generate emotions to reinstate something of the old identity. This contrivance becomes seen for what it is, however, and comes to pass. But the mind needs *something* to help it understand what's going on and to cooperate. Here, again, the importance of a vision of the spiritual journey; also, the importance of a theological vision.