A recent study of the “astral projection” phenomenon at University College in London demonstrated that out-of-body experiences (or OBE's) can be produced in a laboratory setting. This is the first time that OBE's have been induced in normal subjects in a lab without the use of drugs. The study, called "The Experimental Induction of Out-of-Body Experiences," led by neuroscientist Henrik Ehrsson, involved changing the subject's visual perception using virtual reality goggles that were linked to live video cameras placed behind the subjects so that they were able to see themselves from behind.
Next, Ehrsson's team used synchronized simulated touch by rubbing the subject's chest while showing a hand doing the same in the VR goggles, which helped create a very convincing sensation that the subject was outside of their body, watching themselves in the chair. To test the efficacy of the projection Ehrsson picked up a hammer and hit the area where the subject's projected virtual body double would be, while stress-monitoring electrodes attached to the subject's real body measured their physical response. The reaction was physical stress, fear, and often the subject would visibly flinch when their virtual body was hit. This would seem to indicate that there is a real psycho-physical connection between a person and their projected form. The conclusions of two studies on OBE's were published in a recent issue of the journal Science.
The idea of an “etheric” or “subtle” human energy body has been known for thousands of years. Many cultures throughout history have worked with the ethereal body in their medical and mystical systems, including the ancient Chinese, the Egyptian, and the early Vedic civilizations.
Several modern authors have written about astral projection. Robert Monroe's provocative books, beginning with Journeys Out of Body, describe his personal experiences of traveling in astral form out into space and meeting alien entity spirits, both benevolent and malicious. Astral Dynamics by Robert Bruce and Professor C. E. Lindgren is a substantial tome, weighing in at more than 500 pages of research about OBE's, and how to induce them with astral projection techniques.
There are several forms of out-of-body experiences, which may or may not share a common connection. Astral projection is a form of OBE in which a person creates an astral body and travels to imaginary, yet perceivable spiritual planes of existence. Lucid dreaming, deep meditation, and visualization exercises are helpful for developing and coordinating the astral body. Often on astral journeys, as in dreams, an attentive seeker will meet forms of higher consciousness and helpful spirits who will impart information that is useful for everyday life.
Another form of OBE is etheric projection, a term used by occultist and esoteric philosopher Dion Fortune in her book Psychic Self Defense. She describes etheric projection as traveling in an energy body outside of the physical body, yet remaining present in the material world, usually appearing invisible to others.
Near-death experiences are another type of OBE. People have near-death experiences due to heart failure, severe trauma, or illness, and frequently report floating above their physical bodies and viewing them from the outside, often meeting significant people like spiritual figures and deceased family members, traveling up into a tunnel or passageway, and communicating with entities made of light. As strange as this story may seem, it is in fact a recurring narrative within the literature of near-death experiences. Is it possible that the immaterial vessel of the astral body present in near-death experiences is actually the “soul” which has been described by so many religions and spiritual traditions throughout the ages? Is this the soul that is released from the body at death and travels in the spirit realms? While there is no definitive scientific answer as to why OBE's happen or what they are exactly, the mystery remains open for exploration (as the recent virtual reality studies have shown).
Today the practice of preparing and entering the astral or etheric body is still taught by some authors and spiritual teachers, often in combination with physical exercises and metaphysical visualization exercises. I have practiced astral projection techniques and lucid dreaming with some success. Here's the technique I use to actualize the astral body, for those of you who'd like to try. People who are skilled at lucid dreaming and meditative visualization exercises will be more easily able to create the astral body due to the similarities of these practices.
First, begin by lying down with your eyes closed, and relaxing your entire body. Then, one by one, begin flexing your muscle groups from the bottom to the top of your body; starting with your toes and feet, then moving up to your legs, into your pelvis and torso, your arms, then chest, shoulders, neck, and head. You may want to repeat this a few times. The goal here is to get your body into a very aware state, where you create a dynamic balance between complete tension and complete relaxation.
When you're ready to try to project, begin to imagine yourself moving forward and curling into a ball. As you speed up and begin to move faster and faster, you can feel yourself beginning to loosen and come apart from your physical body. You can actually feel yourself spinning forward even though your physical body is perfectly still. At this point you can attempt to roll or slide out of your body into the astral form. You may feel a falling sensation or a sensation that you are being sucked or pulled out of your body. This can be frightening, but if you remain calm and aware of your surroundings, you will be able to materialize in the astral body.
You will find yourself outside of your physical body but present with it simultaneously. I have experienced this several times and it is quite an uncanny feeling. In the intermediate stages of projecting, it is very common to feel a gripping full-body paralysis and you can sometimes get “stuck” when trying to move around, but if this happens you will eventually return to your body. Experimenters report a bizarre array of physical sensations, sometimes feeling an intense energy resembling electricity crackling all over their body, perceiving very concentrated vibratory levels of existence. Sometimes an experimenter will hear voices or see colors even with eyes closed. Many of these sensations are remarkably similar to sensations described by monks in the initial stages of a meditation practice, or people in sensory deprivation tanks. Of course, keep in mind when traveling in the astral realms that you may encounter energies that are harmful to you, so you travel at your own risk. However, people who are genuinely seeking a spiritual experience and wanting to connect with evolved consciousness will find their fair share of wise spirits, interesting locations, and fascinating perceptions.
Image: Creative Commons courtesy of quemas.
Tristan Gulliford is a writer, dreamer, and aspiring myth-keeper who makes electronic music under the name "Dreamcode". He is currently attending the University of Colorado at Boulder.