Out-of-Body Experiences: A Review of the Literature & Discussion of Potential

by J.P MacKenzie

One of the most useful tools in spiritual growth is the out-of-body experience. Known variously as the OBE, astral projection, “traveling in the spirit” or any of a host of other terms, the basic definition is an altered state of consciousness in which you feel yourself to be someplace other than where you know your physical body to be. Like many altered states of consciousness and spiritual phenomena, it is difficult to explain or understand it fully unless you have personal experience with it. What I intend to do in this article is to give a brief history of reports and research available on this phenomena, and also include some personal comments from our staff. Hopefully, this will dispel some confusion and common misconceptions, and be helpful to those who wish to be able to use this valuable tool.

I will use the acronym “OBE” throughout the article, since that seems to be the more recognized term in recent and current research in this field.

History & Review of the Literature

Two of the earliest pioneers to document their experiences in this area of research are Hugh Callaway and Sylvan Muldoon. Muldoon’s experiences were noted by Hereward Carrington in the late 1920s; Callaway (using the pseudonym Oliver Fox) wrote up his own work in the field, probably around the same time, though the dates of his work are less certain. Muldoon was a “natural,” having OBEs spontaneously as a child. He put forth the opinion that nearly every form of “psychic phenomena” — everything from telepathy to poltergeists — could conceivably be explained by the phenomena of OBEs. There is certainly a logic to his rationale, and if one tends toward economy of explanation, this idea certainly simplifies many “unexplained mysteries.” Muldoon, however, does not assert that OBEs are responsible for all psychic phenomena, only that they are a plausible explanation for such.

Despite allegations by some that Hereward Carrington was more of a capitalist than a spiritualist and was only interested in exploiting Muldoon’s abilities for his own financial gain, the books they produced together are well-written accounts and the basics are set forth in an easy-to-understand manner. Curious students will probably find their first book to be the most helpful (The Projection of the Astral Body by Sylvan J. Muldoon & Hereward Carrington, published by Rider & Co., London, 1929). Their subsequent books are more along the lines of anecdotal collections. Projection is currently available in a paperback edition but if you’re put off by the “new-age” pastel illustration on the cover, you can still find copies of the original hardcover edition in some university libraries. In addition, with this book (as with most of the others I’ll mention), you may be able to locate various editions by checking the used books section of an online bookseller such as Powell’s.

Oliver Fox’s book is getting a bit harder to find these days than it was when I ran across it in 1983. Fox’s accounts are drawn from his own experiences and are quite descriptive if occasionally confusing for the beginner who hasn’t yet had an OBE. There are, however, some very valuable contributions as far as technique — one being what he refers to as the “dream of knowledge.” The basic idea is that Fox uses lucid dreaming as a jumping-off point for having an OBE; the knowledge during a dream of the fact that he is dreaming seems to shift his consciousness just enough to begin an OBE. Acquiring this knowledge that one is dreaming is not as difficult as one might think; what is required is to “awaken the critical faculty,” as Fox calls it, and this is most easily done by noticing some inconsistency (even a seemingly trivial one) in the dream — for instance, Fox describes noting in one dream that the stones along the curb faced one way in his dream when he knew that they actually faced the other way, and this alerted him to the fact that he was dreaming and launched an OBE. Fox’s book is Astral Projection: A Record of Out-of-the-Body Experiences; first published in the 1920s, it has more recently been reprinted by University Books, Inc., Citadel Press, Secaucus, NJ.

Again, Fox’s book will better serve the student who has already begun to experiment with OBEs and is looking for different techniques or a different perspective to stimulate thought. If you haven’t had an OBE (or have only had enough to be confused!), try Muldoon’s book first to get some basics on practical theory and techniques.

One of the more prominent practitioners of the OBE was Robert Monroe. Monroe’s first book Journeys Out of the Body appeared in 1971 (published by Doubleday & Co., Inc., NY) and has been followed by other books as well as tapes. As with Muldoon, however, the first book seems to be the most helpful one as far as actual technique; after that, Monroe starts to theorize and gets further and further “out there” (which may be helpful to some, but keep in mind that Monroe’s later OBEs aren’t necessarily what you’d expect from your own experiences — like most things of this nature, they are highly personal, individualized experiences). He also was largely responsible for setting up the Monroe Institute near Charlottesville, VA; the Institute was designed to assist others with having OBEs and is reported to have a high success rate among participants.

One of the more helpful contributions of Monroe’s first book was the observation and documentation of the vibrational state that many people experience at the start of an OBE; by learning to adjust and vary the rate of these vibrations, they can actually be used to facilitate the OBE. Monroe is also one of the first writers to work extensively with getting into an OBE from “full waking consciousness” rather than from a sleep or dream state. It must be noted, however, that there is a rather wide gap between the techniques described in Monroe’s first book and the methods now in practice at the Monroe Institute. And it must be noted as well that there is a discrepancy between the original documentation of his first OBEs (in an article which Monroe wrote under the pseudonym Bob Rame) and the description which appears in his book. (The discrepancy is in the omission of the information that Monroe’s first OBEs were probably induced by inhaling glue; this is included only in the original article and is not mentioned in his books.) However, as various drugs — such as an anesthesia used for surgery, for instance — can certainly assist in facilitating OBEs and similar altered states of consciousness, I do not feel that this necessarily invalidates his research as a whole.

For an overall comprehensive guide to the OBE, check out Leaving the Body: A Complete Guide to Astral Projection by D. Scott Rogo (published by Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1983). Rogo covers eight different techniques for having OBEs (including Monroe’s methods, yoga practices, dream control, etc.). Each technique is described and the basic points are summarized in a concise, impartial manner. This is an ideal introductory guide for the beginner and a good source of varied techniques for those who “haven’t quite found what works best” for them yet.

There are, of course, a number of other books available on the subject as well as numerous articles from various journals and websites; I note these in particular simply because they are some of the more accessible ones with which I am familiar. Much of the more recent material I’ve found is often a rehash of the ideas elucidated by the writers I’ve mentioned, and some of the more interesting books to come out during the past ten years or so simply don’t stand up as well as the classic texts on the subject. Others may find something useful in them, but as a general rule, I’m skeptical of the ones promising “OBEs in 8 Days!” or some similar claim. Deadlines don’t produce OBEs; in fact, it’s common to not have one until days or months after you’ve actually given up and stopped trying to do it.

Common Misconceptions

One of the more confusing points of the OBE, even for those who have had one, is how to distinguish it from a “normal dream.” Unfortunately, there isn’t a completely objective way to determine this; it is especially difficult to do so with one’s first OBEs. However, I can offer a few suggestions to help with this distinction.

#1: OBEs are generally much more vivid than dreams (varying, of course, in proportion to how vivid your own dreams normally seem to you).

#2: With practice, one can exercise a great deal of control over OBEs (although the same could be said of lucid dreams, and it is often very difficult to attempt to distinguish between the two). In a typical dream, there is no awareness that you’re in a different state of consciousness, and little to no control over the events of the dream.

#3: If one has had previous OBEs, a similar setting will be more likely to indicate an actual OBE than to signify a dream involving an OBE setting.

#4: OBEs are generally much less chaotic and confusing than dreams; they may not necessarily “make sense” but there is less feeling of needing to make sense of something or do something. There is none of the nonsensical urgency that is so often present in dreams.

#5: OBEs generally involve more senses; dreams tend to be primarily visual experiences with occasional auditory features. OBEs tend to have a fuller experience of more of the senses, often even going beyond the five senses used by the physical body.

If none of these help to determine whether your experience was an OBE or a dream, I suggest that you simply make note of the experience without labeling it as either. Be patient. Further experience may assist in revealing its nature to you.

Another source of confusion is the “silver cord” and alleged hazards connected with having OBEs. Many researchers insist that the part of you that leaves the body is connected by means of a silver cord which, if severed or tangled, could cause any number of complications ranging from a headache to death. (This seems to have been a more serious concern with earlier researchers.) I’m not saying there’s no silver cord or connection of any sort — and certainly, if you expect to see one, you might very well do so — but in an informal survey of about a dozen people who’d had at least one OBE experience, I found no one who’d seen or felt a cord of this sort during any of their OBEs.

As for the hazards associated with OBEs which some writers warn about, our experiences with these have been minimal. One person reported a few instances of OBEs in which there was great difficulty in getting back into connection with the physical body, but these resulted in no physical or psychic damage, merely annoyance. Catalepsy (a feeling of temporary paralysis in which the limbs seem unable to move) is not uncommon, but goes away of its own accord within a few minutes. A mild drop or rise in body temperature is also not uncommon, though it may be perceived from the inside as being much more extreme than it actually is; again, this phenomena passes within 15-20 minutes in most cases. If one is “brought back” abruptly, a sense of disorientation is common; if one tries to go about one’s normal physical activities immediately, there may be a certain lack of muscular coordination — almost as though drunk. However, none of these are lasting effects and cannot really be considered dangerous in any way. If one simply takes a few moments to re-orient and “pull oneself together,” the OBE has virtually no adverse effects.

Let’s address another misconception: the “viewing of the body.” Many OBEs are “local,” meaning that you find yourself in surroundings you recognize, perhaps even in the room where you recall having gone to bed a few hours ago. Many people have described looking down at their physical body. In fact this is a quite common occurrence in the “near-death” experience. Many people have also noted that seeing one’s body is often so startling that it has the effect of ending the OBE abruptly; if one is not prepared or holds any fears at all about the OBE, the cognitive shock of seeing one’s body as entirely separate from what one is experiencing as one’s self is enough to bring the experience to a screeching halt; perhaps it also taps into the fear of death that many people hold in their lower levels of consciousness. It is not, however, necessary to view your physical body to be certain you are having an OBE. If you’ve tried to do so and find the experience too alarming or unsettling, skip it. Don’t hang around in your room looking for your body. Go out and do something else. You don’t need to verify that your body’s in its place to know that you’re someplace else.

This brings me to another point: all OBEs are not “local.” Many people feel the need to verify their OBEs by finding some piece of information which they can later check when back in their body to prove that they were “really out” and experienced what they thought they did. While evidence of this type is certainly not to be ignored and should be collected and documented whenever possible, it is not necessary to the experience. If you experience going across town and seeing a friend watching TV and upon comparing notes you find a discrepancy (such as he was reading, not watching TV, or perhaps he was doing exactly what you saw but not until two hours after you thought you saw it), don’t be discouraged and write it off as a “false” experience. When unconfined by the physical body, the senses are prone to operate in somewhat different ways than they do back in the body; time perception may become distorted or nonexistent, for instance.

What if you find yourself someplace that you don’t recognize as “local” and have no conscious thought of being separated from your body? This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not having an OBE; it may simply mean that you’re having one which is different from the “classic” OBE. If you’re trying to have your first OBE, it is not going to be made easier by trying to remember to look at your body and gather evidence and so on; don’t worry about setting specific tasks for yourself until after you’re more comfortable with having OBEs. In the words of D.V. Gray, “You must learn to make letters before you learn to write words!”

For those who are at the point of setting tasks or exercises for themselves, however, here are some hints.

#1: If you’re looking for something to recall back in your ordinary state of consciousness, look for color or take in whole scenes — these sorts of things tend to translate most easily to waking consciousness and have a far greater rate of accuracy in recall.

#2: Trying to read in an OBE state is difficult and often alters the state of consciousness too much to maintain the OBE; if it doesn’t, and you can read what is written, chances are you probably won’t remember it accurately when you get back (if you remember it at all). If you see something to read while you’re out, I suggest you skip that and move on to something more likely to be recalled accurately.

#3: In an OBE, animals will be far more likely to recognize your presence than humans. Don’t be surprised if you venture over to your neighbor’s house and get a greeting from their dog but no one else notices you at all. Individuals who have a stronger degree of intuition, however, may be aware of your presence.

#4: As you become more advanced, try looking for a mirror and make note of how you appear to yourself in the OBE (there’s a lot of variation in response to this one — some people don’t see themselves at all).

#5: As you become further advanced, see if you can affect physical objects during your OBEs. This requires great energy and is often very draining, even for advanced and gifted practitioners; it is also relatively rare — few people can carry this one out successfully with any sort of control. However, there are those who seem to have a knack for it, and it’s worth trying if you feel you have enough control over your OBEs otherwise.

Techniques

So how do you go about having an OBE — and how do you use this tool? As noted earlier, there are numerous techniques to get you started, and of course the near-death OBE is a well-known phenomena by now. Can an OBE be induced — or does it just sort of happen? The consensus among our staff seems to be that although OBEs can certainly be induced and controlled (with practice and a little training), the first one is usually spontaneous. Even if you’re well-read on the subject and familiar with the procedure, the first one never seems to happen when you’re trying to do it. However, the first one does seem to go much more smoothly if you know what to expect, and once the first few have occurred, subsequent ones are easier to induce. There is no single foolproof formula; what works for one person may create nothing but chaotic confusion for another. However, once you have found the method that seems to work for you, sticking with that method tends to make it progressively easier.

“The trick,” says one frequent practitioner, “is to put your body to sleep and keep the mind awake. I find listening to music through headphones very conducive to ‘going out.’ Obviously, though, you have to find music that’s relaxing enough to let your body unwind but stimulating enough to keep your mind going. The headphones have the additional effect of helping to block out distractions in the room.”

Do you close your eyes? “Not usually,” says another. “If I close my eyes, I go to sleep and then I have to go through a couple of dreams before I can get lucid enough to step out and do what I want. I can do it that way, but it takes me longer. If I want to go straight out and have an OBE, I just sort of stare off into space until I’m no longer aware of the physical surroundings. They sort of fade away as your mind drifts. But I don’t think it really matters whether you close your eyes or lie down or what-have-you. You’re much less likely to just fall asleep if you’re sitting up with your eyes open, but for some people it’s much easier to go out from the sleep state.”

So how do you make the best use of this tool? “The best thing about the OBE,” says D.V. Gray, “is that it teaches you not only the practical aspects of cause and effect but also teaches you on a more abstract level about yourself and the universe. You learn the discipline of how to get from point A to point B with the least amount of energy expended. But when you’re out, you have access to much more than you ordinarily would. It’s an entirely different perspective. You can absorb ideas more quickly. Because everything’s geared to the speed of thought rather than verbal communication, you can almost instantaneously take in the gist of an idea that would ordinarily take weeks to explain. You become more attuned to your intuitive abilities and learn to trust them. After awhile you begin to realize that even though you may have no conscious recollection of it, you’re doing problem-solving exercises while you’re out as well — it manifests in your physical existence as a sudden inspiration, an impulse to try out something that works amazingly well — things like that. You may not have a full conscious memory of everything you work on during an OBE but it’s retained on a deeper level and your mind calls it up when it’s needed.”

Expanded memory capacity is one of the areas where growth becomes obvious. Stress-reduction is another; self-confidence and self-knowledge are also effects commonly experienced with the practice of OBEs. “Prompting myself to remember dreams or OBEs before I drift off at night carries over,” says one individual. “It’s almost become second nature to periodically remind myself to pay attention to what I’m doing so I can remember it later. I remember more about what I was thinking at any given time, and I experience things more intensely.”

Stress-reduction? “It’s hard to get too worked up about that guy at work who always gets your parking place if you view it from… an ‘aerial’ perspective,” laughs one person. “From that place of timelessness where OBEs happen, you can think, ‘in all the events that have taken place on planet Earth over the past 3,000 years… who cares if I parked ten feet to the right or left on a patch of asphalt that’s taking up less than a square mile of the entire surface of the earth?’ It helps to put things in perspective.”

And self-knowledge? “Most people think they know themselves,” says D.V. Gray. “They assume that they know how they’d react in any given situation, what they really want, what their fears are. Then when something happens and instinct or emotion takes over, and they do something and don’t have any idea why, it shakes them. When you work with OBEs, it’s like finding out things about yourself without having to wait for that intense provocation. The insulation is gone. Out there in the place of the OBE, you’re pure thought, pure emotion, no defenses. You get to find out what you really are. And some people need that sort of shock to the system, to see the inconsistency between who they really are and who they’re trying to be. For some, the gap isn’t that great and it becomes just a fascinating experience, seeing how they can transcend themselves; it gives them hope, inspires them to become that person they know they truly are.

“The best way to learn from an OBE is to take a good look at who you are… remember the ‘pure you’ from your OBE… and let it move you to close the gap until you achieve convergence.”

© Copyright 1998 by J.P. MacKenzie. Republished 2003, 2004, 2011, 2015.

[This article previously appeared in SKOPOS Vol. I No. 2, and is archived here in an updated form with the assistance and permission of the author.]

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