The notion that consciousness can separate from the body and has the ability to travel to, and perceive distant locations on the Earth or in otherworldly territories, has long been held by many cultures throughout history. Ancient Egyptian initiation rites into the mysteries of Isis and Osiris required postulants to project their “ka,” a spiritual double believed to reside within, from their physical bodies. Many of the celebrated Greek Philosophers of antiquity left behind written descriptions of phenomena that resembled out of body experiences (OOBEs):
Many times it has happened: Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentered…” (The Six Enneads; Plotinus)
Plato's primary teaching on "leaving the body" transpires in his dialogue with Socrates documented in Phaedo; Socrates elucidates the nature of philosophy as the preparation of dying before one’s actual death:
And what is that which is termed death, but this very separation and release of the soul from the body?
Besides the ancients, contemporary psychologist and physician, Dr. Raymond A. Moody Jr., provides us with detailed accounts of near death experiences (NDEs), which are strikingly similar to reports from individuals whom have had OOBEs:
The dying often have the sensation of rising up and floating above their own body while it is surrounded by a medical team, and watching it down below, while feeling comfortable. They experience the feeling of being in a spiritual body that appears to be a sort of living energy field.
This subtle body is sometimes referred to as the astral or dream body, and it is thought to exit the physical body most easily during sleep. Theosophist, C W Leadbeater, author of, Dreams: What They Are And How They Are Caused, writes:
Clairvoyant observation bears abundant testimony to the fact that when a man falls into a deep slumber the higher principles in their astral vehicle almost invariably withdraw from the body and hover in its immediate neighbourhood. Indeed, it is the process of this withdrawal which we commonly call 'going to sleep'.
The earliest memory I have of leaving my body is when I was about seven or eight years old, and like most astral flights, it happened after I had fallen asleep:
I am standing over my sleeping body yelling, “wakeup, wakeup!” The bedroom looked just as it did in waking life. I move towards my parents’ bedroom and stand over my mother’s sleeping body yelling, “Mommy wakeup… wake me up!”
Everything in the house was exactly as it was in the material world, even the side of the bed my mother slept on. When I told my mother about my OOBE she merely stated, “It was just a dream.” I protested it was NOT just a dream, and I was angry at for her not waking up when I was clearly yelling at her bedside. My maternal grandmother was there when I related my OOBE and she matter-of-factly declared, “She was astral traveling,” and later gave me a book on the subject by Robert A. Monroe, which had been among the many curious books in her extraordinary library.
Leadbeater further examined this phenomenon in his classic, Invisible Helpers, which is composed of accounts from people whom have provided assistance to the living in their normal waking reality while “the helper” was out of their own physical bodies, and in this altered state witnessed many peculiar otherworldly life forms:
Help, then, may be given by several of the many classes of inhabitants of the astral plane. It may come from devas, from nature-spirits, or from those whom we call dead, as well as from those who function consciously upon the astral plane during life - chiefly the adepts and their pupils.
Scholar, Carlo Ginzburg, in his book The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, wrote about similar “astral” expeditions regarding the Benedanti, or “those who go well,” which were essentially good witches that could travel out of body to attend sabbats, participate in magic, partake in dancing and celebrations, and do battle with evil witches (Maledanti) all in a disembodied state:
Margherita of San Rocco, […], declared that ‘the visits to the games which I have made did not take place in person, but in spirit, leaving the body at home.’
When I was a teenager I had a very strange OOBE reminiscent of Leadbeater’s “astral inhabitants” and Ginzburg’s “witches’ revelries:”
I sit up, half out of my physical body; I turn my “astral-head” around and realize I am leaving my body. My bedroom looks exactly as it does in waking life; I get up and stand next to my physical vessel, watching over my sleeping body for some time. I turn around and face the mirrored closet doors, and instead of mine and the room’s reflection, I see a huge, ornate, golden hall with tall, very white, shimmering skinned beings on the other side of the mirrors. They are dressed in Eighteenth Century French clothing and hairstyles; they are dancing, specifically waltzing, to music without sound, at least that I can hear. They are wide-eyed ethereal beings, and they moved so gracefully, hovering above ground. They beckon me to join them using hand gestures, but I am afraid and thus remain motionless – I wonder “are they aliens?” – And will myself back into my body / awake.
Several years following this OOBE I found a book depicting the scene I had encountered on the other side of the mirrors, Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, and they claim these particular faery beings are called “The Gentry,” the aristocracy of the faery realm. I researched the fay further via the works of author R J Stewart, and other faery lore experts, and it is written that the fay look for young, creative and intelligent humans to join them in their realm, a place interwoven / parallel to Earth, much like the theosophists’ astral plane; however, as the legends assert, if a human being enters the domain of the faery folk there is a chance they may never return, especially if one eats, drinks or engages in sexual activity with the fay during their stay.
Many researchers have conducted experiments for, and developed techniques to induce OOBEs over the past century; one of the most well-known researchers and authors on the subject is Robert A. Monroe. In his book, Journeys Out of the Body, he recounts in great detail his OOBEs, provides preliminary exercises and separation techniques to achieve astral projection, such as the “Disassociation” technique:
The simplest method to use in separating from the physical is the “lift-out” procedure. The intent here is not to travel to far-off places, but to get acquainted with the sensation in your own room, with familiar surroundings.
As I grew older I had more frequent, spontaneous OOBEs and I would talk about them to anyone who would listen; some people were enthralled, others skeptical. When I was almost twenty I had an acquaintance that doubted my OOBEs; he said, “If you can travel out of body then come to my house and tell me something you saw.” I wasn’t sure I could “will” myself out of my body; I had only done it once before and thought, perhaps, it was an arbitrary incident, but I was able to astral project using some of Monroe’s exercises / techniques to exit the body and journeyed to this acquaintance’s house, a location I had never before visited:
I see D standing in the kitchen in “red bikini underwear;” he is “making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” I observe him for a short time and then get bored. I decide to leave and go flying around the night sky – eventually I return to my body – to normal waking consciousness.
The next day I told him what I saw, even describing the kitchen layout, and the time I had begun meditating / carrying out the exercises to leave my body. He was blown away! He confirmed he was, in fact, wearing red bikini underwear while making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich around midnight; he said he felt uneasy knowing I could visit him unseen at anytime. I assured him I only did so because he invited me, and I would not astral travel into his personal space unsolicited.
Some researchers have argued that OOBEs are a form of lucid dreaming, which I will explore in another future blog; moreover, there are some individuals whom believe OOBEs are just a trip of the mind that no other “body” exists beyond the physical. If their suppositions are correct, I wonder then, how do they define what the mind is and where it dwells? A “mind trip” sounds like an actual journey beyond the material plane if you ask me. This brings to “mind” the longstanding debate between philosophers of substance dualism vs. property dualism and that much disputed question: Does the mind, our consciousness, continue after the physical organ, the brain, has died?