What is an Astral Projection?
Superficially, the idea of having a double may seem to explain the OBE. However, as soon as this idea is pursued, problems become obvious and the system has to get more complicated to deal with those problems. One of the most complex, and certainly the most influential, of such systems is the theory of astral projection, based on the teachings of theosophy. In 1875 Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York, to study Eastern religions and science. From her teachings, brought back from her travels in India and elsewhere, a complex scheme evolved. According to the Theosophists, man is not just the product of his physical body, but is instead thought to be a complex creature consisting of many bodies, each finer and more subtle than the one ‘below’ it. These bodies should be thought of as an outer garment which can be thrown off to reveal the true man within.
Although there are variations in the details, it is commonly claimed that there are seven great planes and seven corresponding bodies or vehicles. The grossest of all is the physical body, of flesh, with which we are all familiar. There is supposed to be another body also described as physical known as the ‘etheric double,’ or ‘vehicle of vitality.’ Etheric double is the manifestation of physical vitality. It is constant and does not change throughout the cycles of life and death, but it is not eternal, for it is eventually re-absorbed into the elements of which it is composed. This ‘double’ acts as a kind of transmitter of energy, keeping the lower physical body in contact with the higher bodies. Etheric substance is seen as an extension of the physical.
Next up the scale is supposed to be the ‘astral world’ and its associated ‘astral body’, or the ‘vehicle of consciousness’. These entities are thought to be finer than their etheric counterparts and correspondingly harder to see. Astral body is thought to be ‘a replica of the physical body (the gross body), but of a more subtle and tenous substance, penetrating every nerve, fibre and cell of the physical organism, and constantly in a supersensitive state of vibration and pulsation’ [Gay74].
The astral world consists of astral matter, and all physical objects have a replica in the astral. There is therefore a complete physical copy of everything in the astral world, but in addition there are things in the astral which have no counterpart in the physical. There are thought forms created by human thought, elementals and the lowest of the dead, who have gone no further since they left the physical world. All these entities and many others are used in ritual magic, and thought forms can be specially created to carry out tasks such as healing, carrying messages, or gaining information.
In the scheme just described, those who have the ability are supposed to be able to see the nature of a person’s thoughts by changes in the color and form of the astral body. All around the physical can be seen the bright and shining colors of the larger astral body, making up the astral aura. The aura is multi-colored and brilliant, or dull, according to the character or quality of the person and therefore ‘to the seer, the aura of a person is an index to his hidden propensities’ [Gay74].
All these conceptions are of special relevance because of the fact that the astral body is supposed to be able to separate from the physical and travel without it. Since the astral is the vehicle of consciousness, it is this body which is aware, not the physical. It is said that in sleep the astral body leaves the sleeping body. In the undeveloped person, little memory is retained and the astral body is vague and its travels are limited and directionless, but in the trained person the astral can be controlled, can travel great distances in sleep, and can even be projected from the physical body at will. It is this which is called astral projection. In astral projection the consciousness can travel almost without limitation, but it travels in the astral world. It therefore sees not the physical objects, but their astral counterparts, and in addition the beings that live in the astral realms. The astral world has been known as the ‘world of illusion’ or world of thoughts. The unwary traveler can become confused by the power of his own imaginings. In this state one can appear, as an apparition to anyone who has ‘astral sight.’ Indeed one can appear to other too, but to do so requires some involvement of lower matter, for example of etheric matter, as in ectoplasm. Ectoplasm is considered to be the materialization of the astral body and is described as ‘matter which is invisible and impalpable in its primary state, but assuming the state of a vapour, liquid or solid, according to its stage of condensation’ [Gay74].
An aspect of astral traveling which has become important in later writings, though it appears little in early theosophy, is the silver cord. It is held that in life the astral body is connected to its physical body by an infinitely elastic but strong cord, of a flowing and delicate silver color. Traditionally the cord must remain connected or death will ensue. As one approaches death, the astral gradually loosens itself, lifts up above the physical, and then the cord breaks to allow the higher bodies to leave. Death is thus seen as a form of permanent astral projection.
Beyond the astral Theosophy distinguishes a further five levels. These include the mental or devachnic world, the buddhic, the nirvanic, and two others so far beyond our understanding that they are rarely described. The task of every person is to progress through all of these.
Is Astral Projection an adequate explanation?
Many investigators are convinced of the reality of astral projection. Among the best known are Muldoon and Carrington, and Crookall. Sylvan Muldoon claimed to be able to project at will and described his experiences in The Projection of the Astral Body [MC29] written in collaboration with the psychical researcher Hereward Carrington. Together these two collected many cases of spontaneous OBEs which they amassed as support for the reality of astral projection. Many years later Robert Crookall [Cro61-78], in more systematic fashion, did much the same thing. Many of the people who report OBEs have found the notion of astral projection helpful, and describe their experiences in these terms.
There are several serious problems with the theory of astral projection, as pointed out by Susan Blackmore [Bla82]. The first is that many OBEs simply do not fit well into the astral projection framework. Celia Green [Gre68a] has collected many cases in which the person describes no astral body, indeed no other body at all. Also very few people actually report any cord, let alone the traditional silver cord.
Of course this type of experience can be fitted in by saying that the experient’s astral vision was clouded, or the astral body or cord too fine to be seen, but these methods of attempting to account for actual experience begin to weaken the theory. Blackmore criticizes the complexity of the theory of astral projection as it tries to account for new facts. And this relates to the second problem, its ‘stretchability.’ In her opinion the theory is so complicated and flexible that almost anything can be stretched to fit it and it makes hard to draw definite predictions from the theory. If you don’t see the features you should, your astral vision is not clear enough, or memory was not passed on from higher levels. If you fail to make yourself visible to someone else then not enough etheric matter was involved and so on. In this way the ‘theory’ is in danger of explaining everything and nothing. Furthermore, any theory which is untestable is useless in scientific terms.
What is Animism?
A school of thought has grown up within parapsychology, and around its fringes, which takes very seriously the idea of death being an OBE in which one did not succeed in getting back into one’s body. Gauld [Gau82] refers to this school of thought as the ‘animistic’ school (anima = soul), ‘animism’ being the view that every human mind, whether in its before death or after death state ‘is essentially and inseparably bound up with some kind of extended quasi-physical vehicle, which is not normally perceptible to the senses of human beings in their present life’ [Bro62]. An argument which one commonly hears from members of the animistic school runs as follows: OBEs and near-death experiences are, so far as we can tell, universal. They have been reported from many different parts of the world and in many different historical eras. The experiences of the persons concerned therefore must reflect genuine features of the human constitution; for we cannot possibly suppose that they derive from a common stream of religious tradition or folk-belief — the societies from which they have been reported are too widely separated in space and time for the common-origin idea to be a serious possibility.
The most powerful shot in the the animist’s locker remains, however, still to be mentioned. There are some cases — by no means a negligible number — in which a person who is undergoing an OBE, and finds himself at or ‘projects’ himself to a particular spot distant from his physical body, has been seen at that very spot by some person present there. Such cases are generally known as ‘reciprocal’ cases. Thus the animist, starting from his study of OBEs and NDEs, claims to have direct evidence that after death we remain the conscious individuals that we always have been and that the ‘vehicle’ of our surviving memories and other psychological dispositions is a surrogate body whose properties (other perhaps than that of being malleable by thought) are, he would admit, largely unknown.
In addition to taking OBEs and NDEs as themselves evidence for survival, the animist might well feel able to offer the following argument in support of regarding a further class of phenomena as evidence for survival of consciousness following physical death. There is in the literature on apparitions a substantial sprinkling of cases of apparitions of deceased persons, some of which have been seen by witnesses who did not know the deceased in life. An extensive statistical investigation by the late professor Hornell Hart [Har56] strongly suggests that apparitions of the dead and the phantasms of living ‘projectors’ in reciprocal cases are, as classes, indistinguishable from each other in what may be called their ‘external characteristics’ — such as whether the figure was solid, dressed in ordinary clothes, seen by more than one person, whether it spoke, adjusted itself to its physical surroundings, etc. Now we know that in reciprocal cases the phantasms of the projector is in some sense a center of or a vehicle of consciousness, namely the consciousness of the projector. Since apparitions of the dead and of living projectors manifestly belong to the same class of objects or events, we may properly infer that since the apparitions of living projectors are vehicles for the consciousness of the person in question, this must be true of apparitions of the dead also. Hence the consciousness of deceased persons survives and may either have, or make use of, a kind of body.
Can the OBEer be seen as an apparition?
The study of apparitions formed an important part of early physical research, and many different types of apparition have been recorded, but the ones which primarily interest us here are those in which a person having an OBE simultaneously appeared to someone else as an apparition. There are many cases of this kind in the early literature and they have been quoted again and again but a relatively small number of them really form the mainstay of the anecdotal evidence on OBE apparitions. Crookall [Cro61] and Smith [Smi65] give some recent cases but they too concentrate on the older ones. Green [Gre68a] discusses the similarities between apparitions in general and the asomatic body perceived by OBEers, but she does not give any examples from her own case collection in which another person saw the exteriorized double. By contrast, about 10% of Palmer’s OBEers claimed to have been seen as an apparition [Pal79b] and Osis claims that from his survey OBEers ‘frequently’ said they were noticed by others and in 16 cases (6% of the total) he was able to obtain some verification through witnesses, although he does not expand on this remark. Obviously it would be very helpful if much more evidence of this sort could be collected, and recent cases thoroughly checked.
How can one find out what Out Of Body Experiences are like?
One of the easiest ways to find out what OBE is like is to collect a large number of accounts of cases and compare them. In this way any common features can be extricated and variations noted. A great deal can be learned about the conditions under which the experiences occurred, how long they lasted, and what they were like. Accounts by people who have had OBEs fall, roughly speaking, into two categories. There are the many ordinary people to whom an OBE occurs just once, or a few times; and there is a small number of people who claim to be able to project at will. The limitations of this method are that there are many important questions which cannot be answered by collecting cases. Since the people voluntarily report their experiences, the sample necessarily ends up with a bias. Many accounts are given many years or even decades after the event and it is then impossible to determine how much of the story has altered in memory with the passage of time. For such reasons it is not possible to determine, for example, how common the the experience actually is. Second, many OBEers claim that they were able to see rooms into which they had never been, describe accurately people they had never met, or move physical objects during their experience. Such reports are of great interest to parapsychology but they cannot be tested by collecting cases.
What is an average Astral Projection like?
Accounts of OBEs have been collected since the beginning of psychical research. The first collection of cases of spontaneous apparitions, telepathy, and clairvoyance published in 1886 as ‘Phantasms of the Living’ [GMF86]. Frederic Myers also collected similar cases for his ‘Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death’ [Mye03].
The first major collection was made by Muldoon and Carrington and published in 1951 [MC51]. Nearly a hundred accounts were categorized according to whether they were produced by drugs or anaesthetics, occurred at the time of accident, death or illness, or were set off by suppressed desire. Finally they gave cases in which spirits seemed to be involved. By categorizing the cases in this way, Muldoon and Carrington were able to compare and interpret them in the light of their theories of astral projection, but they did not go beyond this rather simple analysis. These researchers implied that we do have a double, and that it is capable of perceiving at a distance and even of surviving without the physical body.
The largest collections of accounts of astral projection have been amassed by Robert Crookall. In his many books [Cro61, 64a] he has presented hundreds of cases which show the kinds of consistencies as Muldoon and Carrington found. He also divided the cases according to how they were brought about. First there were the ‘natural’ ones which included those people who nearly died or were very ill or exhausted, as well as those who were quite well. Contrasted with these were the ‘enforced’ cases, being induced by anaesthetics, suffocation and falling, or deliberately by hypnosis.
Typical features of Crookall’s accounts were the mysterious light illuminating the darkness, the white double, the ability to travel at will and inability to affect material objects. Crookall cited typical elements of the natural projection being the cord joining the two bodies, feelings of peace and happiness and the clarity of mind and ‘realness’ of everything seen. By contrast with what Crookall calls ‘the enforced’ OBE, by which he means one which is entered into deliberately by the experient, he argued the person typically finds himself not in happy and bright surroundings but in a dream or conditions reminiscent of popular conceptions of ‘Hades.’
In projection two aspects can be exteriorized: in natural OBEs the soul body or the astral body is ejected free of the vehicle of vitality and the vision of the experient is clear, but when the OBE is the result of a conscious effort to have an OBE some of the lower vehicle is shed at the same time and clouds the vision. The same principles apply in death: natural deaths according to NDE accounts usually lead to an experience of paradisaical conditions, but the victim of an ‘enforced’ death is likely to find himself in Hades with clouded vision and consciousness. The implication of Crookall’s argument is that there is an astral body, a vehicle of vitality and a silver cord, and that we survive death to live on a higher plane. He believed that insofar as such a thing could be proved, the many cases he had collected proved the existence of out other bodies.
What are average Out Of Body Experiences like?
The previous case collections were made by researchers who believed implicitly in the astral projection interpretation of the OBE. A properly analyzed case collection can provide a rich source of information about what the OBE is like. The collections used here include those by Hart, Green, Poynton and Blackmore and the analysis is made by Blackmore [Bla82].
Hornell Hart, a professor of sociology at Duke University in North Carolina, collected together cases of what he called ‘ESP projection’ [Har54]. He required that the person not only have an OBE, but also acquire veridical information, as though from the OB location. This excludes many OBEs in which the information gained was wrong or could not be checked. He also rated the cases. The best possible case would gain a score of 1.0, but in fact the highest score given was .90. No higher scores were gained because the cases show a curious mixture of correct and incorrect vision which seems to be common in the OBE.
Through this research, one assumption is crucial, that ESP projection is a single phenomenon which might have any or all of Hart’s eight features. Rogo [Rog78b] and Tart [Tar74a] have both suggested that several different types of experience may have been lumped together under the label ‘OBE.’ It could be that astral projection, traveling clairvoyance, and apparitions are quite different and need different interpretations, or other distinctions might be more relevant. The reason Hart gave why the non- evidential cases should be excluded is far from satisfactory: if there was no evidence of ESP they did not count in his analysis. Hart was ruling out the majority of cases on the basis of a very shaky criterion.
Perhaps the most thorough, and certainly the best-known case collection was carried out by Celia Green of the Institute of Psychophysical Research [Gre68a]. Her definition of an OBE was an experience, defined as follows, ‘… one in which the objects of perception are apparently organized in such a way that the observer seems to himself to be observing them from a point of view which is not coincident with his physical body.’ J. C. Poynton [Poy75], like Green, advertised in the press, and circulated a questionnaire privately, and on the whole Poynton’s results, although less detailed, are similar to Green’s. Susan Blackmore [Bla82] has analyzed the cases collected by the SPR and by herself.
Table: Some Results of Case Collections [Bla82]
Green Poynton SPR cases Blackmore
Proportion of ‘single’ cases 61% 56% 69% 47%
Some features of ‘single’ cases: Saw own body 81% 80% 72% 71%
Had second body 20% 75% — 57%
Definite sensation on separation ‘majority’none 25% 36% —
Had connecting cord 4% 9% 8% —
Apparently most people have had only one OBE, but the frequency of subjects claiming many OBEs is high enough to conclude that if a person has had one OBE he or she is more likely to have another. Also many people learn to control their OBEs to some extent, even if they never learn to induce them reliably at will.
OBEs are occurring in a variety of situations. Green found that 12% of single cases occurred during sleep, 32% when unconscious, and 25% were associated with some kind of psychological stress, such as fear, worry, or overwork. Some cases show that it is possible to have an OBE while the body continues with complex and co-ordinated activity. However, OBEs are far more common when the physical body is relaxed and inactive.
Most of Green’s cases occurred to people whose physical body was lying down at the time (75%). A further 18% were sitting and the rest were walking, standing or were ‘indeterminate.’ In fact it seemed that muscular relaxation was an essential part of many people’s experience. Just a few found that their body was paralyzed. A feeling of paralysis was found to be only rarely a prelude to an OBE.
A difference is found between the ‘single’ cases and the multiple cases. The latter tended to have had experiences in childhood, and learned to repeat them. The single cases tended to occur mostly between the ages of 15 and 35. Poynton found that many more of his cases came from females, but among the SPR cases there are more males than females. This sort of difference is most likely to be due to sample differences.
Floating and soaring sensations are certainly common. Poynton also found that most of his OBEers saw or felt their physical body. On the contrary, catalepsy rarely occurred. Some subjects mentioned noises or a momentary blacking out, but this did not seem to be the rule. The majority just ‘found themselves’ in the ecsomatic state. As for the return, for most it was as sudden as the departure. An interesting finding by Green was that more of the subjects who had had many OBEs went through complex processes on separation and return.
Green separated her cases into those she called ‘parasomatic,’ involving another body, and those she termed ‘asomatic’ in which there was no other body. Her surprising finding was that 80% of cases were asomatic — they had no other body. She asked her subjects whether they had felt any connection between themselves and their physical bodies. Under a third said they had, and only 3.5% reported a visible or substantial connection such as a cord. Poynton’s results tell a similar story. There seems to be little evidence from the case collections to support the usual details of astral projection.
Green found that on the whole perceptual realism was preserved. Subjects saw their own bodies and the rooms they traveled in as realistic and solid. Even when the scene appears to be perfectly normal there may be slight differences. Some her subjects said that everything looked and felt exaggerated. The experience is typically in only one or two modalities: vision and hearing. Green found that 93% of single cases included vision, a third also had hearing, but the other senses were rarely noted. Another interesting feature of the OBE world is its lighting. In some mysterious way the surroundings become lit up with no obvious source of light visible, or else objects seem to glow with a light of their own.
Perhaps the most important question about the OBE is whether people can see things they did not know about — in other words whether they can use ESP in the course of an OBE. Among Green’s subjects, some felt as though they could have seen anything, but lacked the motivation to test out such an ability. Another related question is whether subjects in an OBE can affect objects, or have the power of psychokinesis. On the whole the evidence is against that possibility.
The last feature which Celia Green found to be common in OBEs is that a spontaneous OBE can have a profound effect on the person who experiences it. Sometimes OBEs can be very frightening, sometimes exciting and sometimes they provide a sense of adventure. Interestingly, Green found that fear was more common in later, not initial experiences. Pleasant emotions are also common.