Have you ever had the experience of being out of your body? If it hasn’t happened to you, it’s likely that it has happened to someone you know. People from all walks of life have experienced feeling detached from their body and able to observe it and their surroundings with lucidity. For many people this happens during or at the threshold of sleep, but it can also happen when highly aroused such as during a rock-climbing fall, a traffic accident or to a mother during childbirth.
Fighter pilots can experience out of body feelings when they go through high G forces. During G-LOC, or gravity-induced loss of consicousness, a pilot might suddenly feel himself outside his airplane and be able to watch his body in the plane’s cockpit. Studying fighter pilots in simulated cockpits within giant centrifuges, researcher Dr. James Whinnery had 40 different pilots, including himself, report an out-of-body experience. After one test in the centrifuge, Dr. Whinnery reported feeling groggy and dislocated. He was able to see himself from behind as he walked down the hall from the test facility. Yet for most people, it doesn’t take a centrifuge to create the experience. Many people can have out-of-bedy experiences when they have a cold and a restless night.
The term “out-of-body experience” (OBE) was introduced in 1943 by G.N.M Tyrrell in his book Apparitions as a way of distancing the experience from the spiritualist states of astral projection or spirt walking. In 1968, Celia Green published an analysis of 400 firsthand accounts of out-of-body experiences and put together the first Western classification of these kinds of experiences. In 1972, Robert Monroe also normalized the experience in his popular book, Journeys Out of the Body. He later founded the Monroe Institute to study and find ways to learn how to have OBEs. Since then, the OBE has become a known phenomenon.
In some cases, the phenomenon occurs spontaneously; in others it is associated with physical or mental trauma, dehydration, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, use of psychedelic or dissociative drugs, or perhaps a near-death experience. (See AR #81.) Recent studies have shown that experiences somewhat similar to OBEs can be induced by electrical and magnetic brain stimulation, particularly at the temporo-parietal junction.
As with near-death experiences, OBEs often carry deep meaning. They may cause a person to reevaluate what he is doing in his life. Robert Monroe quit his corporate job and spent the latter half of his life researching OBEs. Many people who have these experiences report increased clarity and understanding, and a feeling of remembering who they are on a much deeper level. When people come back into their bodies, it’s often described as ‘waking up’; the experience is clearly not considered a dream. Some describe the OBE as the truly awake state, and the embodied part is the dream.
OBEs have similar characteristics. The OBE may be more vivid than waking life. The person is aware of exiting one’s physical body as a separate spirit or consciousness. The morphing and bizarre qualities in dreams are less common. One often has an ability to come back into their body at will. The period of leaving the body may include a cessation of sensations and body awareness, as if the body is falling asleep. Then there may be perceptions of movement, tingling, buzzing, or humming which, though strong, don’t seem to be transmitted by the physical senses. When out of the body, a person may experience complete freedom to move anywhere one wills, even through walls or to distant locations. For some who are practiced at inducing OBE, these stages may obscure or disappear.
As with other altered states of consciousness, the OBEs are fascinating to many people and serve as a source of inspiration and insight. There are many active discussion groups online for experiencers and those wanting to learn how to induce the state. There are also many different techniques offered on how to have an OBE. As a seeker myself, I have successfully experimented and have had my own OBEs.
Not everyone believes in OBEs. A large body of people question the validity and even reality of these kinds of experiences. Since the experience is subjective, it’s hard to quantify. Skeptics are quick to claim that the veridity of out-ofbody experiences has never been proven and that consciousness never truly separates from the physical brain. If you believe that consciousness is a product of the physical brain, how could it be possible to have consciousness outside of the physical body? Proponents of OBE suggest that documented reports where people have perceived accurate information while out of body proves something is happening. They also point out that the materialist position—that consciousness arises from, or even resides in, the brain, has never been proven.
Skeptics sometimes suggest the out-of-body experiences were caused by drug induced states or forms of mental illness. This is an easy way to write them off, without considering that many people in quite healthy states experience them. This issue also sidesteps the real problem. Even if they are caused by physical alterations in the brain chemistry or the body, it doesn’t negate the possibility that consciousness has left the body.
An implicit assumption of neuroscience is that all behaviours, and their concurrent experiences, are caused by the activity of neurons within the brain. Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist who has studied the effect of complex magnetic fields on the brain, suggests a more accurate statement might be that both, behaviour and brain activity, are strongly correlated because they are caused by a more fundamental and shared substrate which he calls, “neuroquantal” effects. This underlying structure of consciousness and matter may be similar to David Bohm’s implicit order, which is more subtle than the physical.
Some people under the influence of Persinger’s “God helmet” have reported out of body experiences as well as the sensation of an “ethereal presence.” Though his apparatus can stimulate these kinds of experiences, he suggests it is incorrect to conclude that the wiring of the brain or magnetic fields are responsible for all the experiences people have, rather it may be that the brain is wired to allow consciousness to have these experiences. The idea is, as we have eyes to perceive light, perhaps we have a brain wired to experience God, because some kind of spiritual realm exists.
English psychologist Susan Blackmore suggests that an OBE begins when a person loses contact with sensory input from the body while remaining conscious. Similarly, Dr. Whinnery, who has researched the pilots G-LOC experiences, offers the idea that when one is disconnected to their body schema, they may experience OBE. This schema is the brains working model of the body, an inner representation of self which includes the beliefs we carry of what is real. Disruption from this schema could certainly be happening during car crashes, near-fatal accidents, or near-death experiences. The same separation might occur in sleep or deep relaxation, when most people experience OBE, or in profound meditative or spiritual states.
Robert Monroe and other researchers at The Monroe Institute (TMI) have conducted extensive research on how certain brainwave frequencies are conducive to OBEs. TMI’s research has focused on stimulating the brain using binaural beat frequencies, a technology which allows the brain to perceive very low frequencies, the same as those that occur naturally within the brain. This binaural induction of the “body asleep” theta brainwave frequencies, which are characteristic during REM sleep, was observed as effective by the TMI for stimulating OBEs. Simultaneous introduction of “mind awake” beta frequencies, which are in the brains of normal, relaxed, awakened individuals, was also observed as effective.
Around 20,000 people are estimated to have gone through TMI’s Gateway program. This is a course of instruction for enlarging people’s consciousness so they can access lucidity in dreams and OBEs. In this program, participants spend time in specially designed sound booths, conducive to deep relaxation, where they receive binaural sounds and periodic guidance from a guide while the body is deeply relaxed or asleep. In conjunction with the technology, they are immersed in a field of belief where participants talk about these experiences openly. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the government sent Officers to TMI to go through the Gateway program as part of their training in the remote viewing program. There are similar centers for this kind of exploration at the Center for Higher Studies of the Consciousness in Brazil and The International Academy of Consciousness in southern Portugal.
Many people who have had an OBE report being on the verge of sleep, or already asleep, shortly before the experience. A large percentage of these cases referred to situations where their sleep was not particularly deep. This may be because of having a cold, hearing disruptive noises, being emotionally or physically stressed, or as at TMI, attending to something while falling asleep. The belief in OBEs does seem to help generate an experience, as does having the intention to stay conscious when crossing into the threshold of sleep. When one is in a deep trance, meditation, or close to sleep, OBE practitioners suggest visualizations to help create the shift. The types of visualizations vary and include climbing a rope to “pull out” of one’s body, floating out of one’s body, or creating some kind of movement. Robert Bruce, who wrote the book, Astral Dynamics, describes a complex system of imagery of moving and stirring energy through all the joints in the body.
When I was experimenting with OBEs I was reading a book about them and discussing them regularly with a friend. I was soon successful. One evening, I was restless and couldn’t sleep. I lay down on the floor of my living room. After a long time of consciously relaxing my body and mind, I experienced a short period of forgetfulness. Next I found myself floating over my body, high up in the room. I gradually floated out through the door, then up over the house. The light seemed to match what was physically present in the darkened room, but the details of the room and the outside of the house were very clear. After passing into the branches of a tree at the back of the house, my experience morphed into a dream and I lost lucidity.
Robert Monroe describes two levels of OBE. In locale 1, the environment is largely consistent with our physical reality. In locale 2, experiences are less overtly physical in nature and have a lot of overlap with lucid dreaming with some of the physically impossible or inconsistent features one might find in dreams. Robert Bruce considers this type of OBE to be an astral projection. The term astral projection is a paranormal interpretation of out-of-body experiences that assumes the existence of one or more non-physical planes of existence and an associated astral body beyond the physical. Some experiencers who find themselves with an astral body also report seeing a silver cord connecting them to their physical body. This cord is thought to be what keeps them connected to their body. Some experienced travelers see the cord more as a symbol of the connection, which is comforting to the conscious mind. Many travelers have no sense of a body or a cord.
The idea of the astral body has been around a long time. Egyptian priests knew of the existence of the astral body and described it as far back as 5000 years ago. They called it the “Kha” and they left inscriptions and drawings on the rock walls of many temples and buildings, representing it as something subtle and a light abandoning the physical body. During this time, some believe the records indicate there were initiations, where an individual had to show his capacity to leave the body and present him/herself partially or totally materialized in front of a group of persons.
Similarly, some indigenous cultures use ritual trance states and hallucinogenic substances to evoke an OBE. In these journeys practitioners are able to go to distant locations and communicate with shamans or healers from other tribes, a locale 1 phenomena. They are also able to contact spirit animals, spirits of place and of illness, to communicate with them or do battle with them for protection of the tribe or healing of an individual, which would fall into the locale 2 category.
In European history, healers and shamans were reported to use a witches cradle, a harness or chair suspended from a tree that would rock and sway in the wind. Sometimes these were used in conjunction with a hallucinogenic compound. I have experienced such a cradle, and the subtle 360-degree oscillation can be quite effective for disorienting awareness from the body which could, again, facilitate a separation from the body schema.
I find it interesting that many cultures highly value these kinds of experiences and have a long ritual history of their use. The insights and understandings that they reveal to the participants help to support and enlarge their worldview. It may be in an OBE where one can receive guidance from the spirit world or the gods, as I discussed in my article on angels in Issue #88. In a more concrete sense, one might also discover the location of food for the tribe or perceive the spiritual properties of a healing plant. Even in our Western culture many people find the OBE very meaningful. They actively seek ways to have them and desire to share their experiences with others.
There are individuals working within the scientific model that are willing to explore the possible implications and realities of these kinds of experiences. Pim Van Lommel, who has extensively researched near-death experiences, suggests that the brain might be a kind of a receiver for the information generated by memories and consciousness, which exist independently of the brain, just as radio, television, and internet information exist independently of the instruments that receive it. Within this model, he proposes one could have consciousness outside of their body, with the possibility of perception out and above their body, with identity, and with heightened awareness, attention, well-structured thought processes, memories, and emotions. And they also might experience their consciousness in a dimension where past, present, and future exist at the same moment, without time and space.
Fortunately, one doesn’t need to be near death to have these kinds of experiences; you can have them safely if you want to. I feel my experience with OBE and other altered states has enlarged my understanding of what I am as a human being. I have a strong knowing that I am more than a purely physical being. I have a highly energetic and timeless connections to a larger world. It may be that through OBE and near-death research that some of the mystical perspectives of our reality can begin to merge with modern scientific understanding.
Patrick Marsolek is the director of Inner Workings Resources. He is also author of A Joyful Intuition. See www.InnerWorkingsResources.com for more information.