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Out Of Body Experience

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    Much of the discussion of out-of-body experiences has centered around the recounting of experiences and speculation on the nature of those experiences. Some articles have questioned whether the experiences are of an hallucinatory nature or purely a function of biochemical processes that occur in the brain, and, at the other extreme, some have linked them with notions of the existence of an immortal soul and other ideas generally associated with religious interpretations of human existence. Most readers are intrigued by the thought of being able to have and control OBEs, and see them as a potentially interesting experience, though some smaller number of people taking part in discussions are interested in trying to figure out their nature and function and their possible implications for the understanding of what it means to be fully human.

What is an out-of-the-body experience?

Out-of-body-experiences (OBEs) are those curious, and usually brief experiences in which a person's consciousness seems to depart from his or her body, enabling observation of the world from a point of view other than that of the physical body and by means other than those of the physical senses. Thus, an out-of-the-body experience can initially be defined as 'an experience in which a person seems to perceive the world from a location outside his physical body' [Bla82]. In some cases experients claim that they 'saw' and 'heard' things (objects which were really there, events and conversations which really took place) which could not have seen or heard from the actual positions of their bodies.

OBEs are surprisingly common; different surveys have yielded somewhat different results, but some estimates indicate that somewhere between one person in ten and one person in twenty is likely to have had such an experience at least once. Furthermore it seems that OBEs can occur to anyone in almost any circumstances. Researchers have approached the question of the timing of OBEs by asking people who claim to have had OBEs to describe when they happened. In one of these, over 85 percent of those surveyed said they had had OBEs while they were resting, sleeping or dreaming [Bla84]. Other surveys also show that the majority of OBEs occur when people are in bed, ill, or resting, with a smaller percentage coming while the person is drugged or medicated [Gre68a, Poy75]. But they can occur during almost any kind of activity. Green cites a couple of cases in which motor-cyclists, riding at speed, suddenly found themselves floating above their machines looking down on their own bodies still driving along. Accidents did not ensue. Pilots of high-flying airplanes (perhaps affected by absence of vibration, and uniformity of sensory stimulation) have similarly found themselves apparently outside their aircraft struggling to get in. One might well struggle frantically under such circumstances.

More curious still are reciprocal cases of OBE and apparition: the OBE subject, aware that he is operating in some kind of duplicate body, travels to a distant location where he sees a person and is aware of being seen by that person; this person confirms that he saw an apparition of the OBEer at the time that the OBEer claimed to be in his presence. Thus the two experiences corroborate each other.

Not all OBEs occur spontaneously. Using various techniques, some people have apparently cultivated the faculty of inducing them more or less as desired, and a number have written detailed accounts of their experiences. These accounts do not always in all respects square with accounts given by persons who have undergone spontaneous OBEs. For instance the great majority of those who experience OBEs voluntarily state that they find themselves still embodied, but in a body whose shape, external characteristics, and spatial location are easily altered at will, and an appreciable number refer to an elastic 'silver cord' joining their new body to their old one. A much smaller percentage of those who undergo spontaneous OBEs mention being embodied, and some specifically state that they found themselves disembodied. The 'silver cord' is quite rarely mentioned. It is hard to avoid suspecting that many features of self- induced OBEs are determined by the subject's reading and his antecedent expectations.

Common aspects of the experience include being in an 'out-of-body' body much like the physical one, feeling a sense of energy, feeling vibrations, and hearing strange loud noises [GT84]. Sometimes a sensation of bodily paralysis precedes the OBE [Sal82, Irw88, MC29, Fox62]. OBEs, especially spontaneous ones, are often very vivid, and resemble everyday waking experiences rather than dreams, and they may make a considerable impression on those who undergo them. Such persons may find it hard to believe that they did not in fact leave their bodies, and they may draw the conclusion that we possess a separable soul, perhaps linked to a second body, which will survive in a state of full consciousness, perhaps even of enhanced consciousness, after death. Death would be, as it were, an OBE in which one did not succeed in getting back into one's body.

Such conclusions present themselves even more forcefully to the minds of those who have undergone a 'near-death experience' (NDE). It is not uncommon for persons who have been to the brink of death and returned -- following, say, a heart stoppage or serious injuries from an accident -- to report an experience (commonly of a great vividness and impressiveness) as of leaving their bodies, and traveling (often in a duplicate body) to the border of a new and wonderful realm. Reports suggest that the conscious self's awareness outside the body is not only unimpaired but enhanced: events which occurred during the period of unconsciousness are described in accurate detail and confirmed by those present. The subject sometimes 'hears' the doctor pronouncing him dead when he feels intensely alive and free from physical pain, and finds himself returning unwillingly to the constrictions of the physical body. If OBEs show the capacity of the conscious self to have experiences and perceptions outside the physical body, near-death experiences seem to suggest that this capacity still obtains when the physical body is totally unconscious.

The idea that we all have a double seems to spring naturally out of that of the OBE. If you seem to be leaving your physical body and observing things from outside it then it seems natural to assume that, at least temporarily, you had a double. It also seems obvious that this double could see, hear, think and move. This interpretation is not necessarily valid. As Palmer has so carefully pointed out [Pal78a] the experience of being out of the body is not equivalent to the fact of being out.

According to the English psychologist Susan Blackmore the definition of the OBE as an experience may not be a perfect definition but one of its major advantages is that it does not imply any particular interpretation of the OBE. The consequences of this definition are important. First, since the OBE is an experience, then if someone says he has had an OBE we have to believe him. Conceivably in the future we might find ways of measuring, or establishing external criteria for, the OBE, but at the moment we can only take a person's word for it. Another related consequence is that the OBE is not some kind of psychic phenomenon. As Palmer has explained, 'the OBE is neither potentially nor actually a psychic phenomenon.' This view is a natural consequence of any experiential definition. A private experience can take any form you like. This experience may turn out to be one associated with ESP and paranormal events, but it may not.

What are ESP, PK and psi?

    'Extrasensory perception' (ESP) is a term coined by Dr. J. B. Rhine of Duke University. It covers any instance of the apparent acquisition of non- inferential knowledge of matters of fact without the use of the known sense organs. ESP is usually said to have three varieties: 'telepathy,' in which the knowledge is of events in another person's mind, 'clairvoyance,' in which the knowledge is of physical objects or states of affairs; and 'precognition' (telepathic or clairvoyant), where the knowledge relates to happenings still in the future. The word 'knowledge' is, however, not entirely appropriate, for there may be telepathic or clairvoyant 'interaction,' in which a person's mental state or actions may be influenced by an external state of affairs, though he does not 'know' or 'cognize' it.

Another American term is 'psychokinesis' (PK), the direct influence of mental events on physical events external to the agent's body. 'Psi' (from the Greek letter) is 'a general term to identify personal factors or processes in nature which transcend accepted laws' [Gay74]. It is sometimes used to cover both ESP and PK.

What theories have been put forward to account for the OBE?

    The notion of the human double has a long and colorful history. Plato gave us an early idea. He believed that what we see in this life is only a dim reflection of what the spirit could see if it were released from the physical. Imprisoned in a gross physical body, the spirit is restricted; separated from that body, it would be able to converse freely with the spirits of the departed, and see things more clearly. Another idea which can be traced to the Greeks is that we have second body. The spirit or some subtle body would be able to see better without its body. Aristotle taught that the spirit could leave the body and that it is capable of communicating with the spirits, while Plotinus held that all souls must be separable from their physical bodies. This 'doctrine of the subtle body' runs through Western tradition.

Homer regarded man as a composite being comprising three distinct entities, namely the body (soma), the 'psyche,' and the thumos; this last term is untranslatable, but is always closely associated with the diaphragm/midriff (phrenes), which was considered to be the seat of the will and feeling, perhaps even of the intellect. At this stage (800 - 750 BC) the term psyche had not come to mean personal soul, but rather it represented the impersonal life-principle which dwells in the body but which is unrelated to the intellect and the emotions. A fourth component, the 'image' ('eidolon'), might also be included in human make-up; it was this aspect of self which acted and appeared in dreams, where it was considered as a real figure.

Dionysus' early followers in Thrace reenacted his death and resurrection in a gruesome ceremony, where they tore a live bull to pieces with their teeth, and then roamed about the woods shouting frantically. Later rituals were hardly less barbaric and frenzied; all were calculated to induce a stage of religious madness or mania. They took place at night to the accompaniment of loud music and cymbals, thus exciting the chorus of worshippers who soon joined in with shouts of their own. Dancing was so violent that no breath was left for singing, and eventually the worshippers induced through their excesses a state of such exaltation and rapture that it seemed to them that the ordinary limits of life had been transcended, that they were 'possessed,' their soul having temporarily left the body. The soul was in a condition of enthousiasmos (inside the god) and ekstasis (outside the body); liberated from the confines of the body it enjoyed communion with the god.

Perhaps the most pervasive idea relating to other bodies is that on death we leave our physical body and take on some subtler or higher form. This notion has roots not only in Greek thought and in much of later philosophy, but also in many religious teachings. Some Eastern religions include specific doctrines on the forms and abilities of other bodies and the nature of other worlds; and in Christianity there are references to a spiritual body. Some religious works can be seen as preparing the soul for its transition at death.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol (meaning Liberation by Hearing on the After-Death Plane) was first committed to writing in the eighth century AD, although the editor, Dr W. Y. Evans-Wentz, has no doubt that it represents 'the record of belief of innumerable generations in a state of existence after death.' It is thought that its teachings were initially handed down orally, then finally compiled and recorded by a number of authors. The book is used as a funeral ritual, and is read out as a guide to the recently deceased. It contains an elaborate description of the moment of death, the stages of mind experienced by the deceased at various stages of post-mortem existence, and the path to liberation or rebirth, as the case may be.

The Bardo body, also referred to as the desire- or propensity-body, is formed of matter in an invisible and etheral-like state and is, in this tradition, believed to be an exact duplicate of the human body, from which it is separated in the process of death. Retained in the Bardo body are the consciousness-principle and the psychic nervous system (the counterpart, for the psychic or Bardo body, of the physical nervous system of the human body) [Eva60]. Due to its nature, the Bardo body is able to pass through matter, which is only solid and impenetrable to the senses, but not to the instruments of modern physics; and the fact that the conscious self is not embedded in matter enables it to travel instantly where it desires. Flights of the imagination become objectively real, the wish comes true.

In his introductions to The Egyptian Book of the Dead -- called in the language of that people 'Pert Em Hru' ('Emerging by Day') -- Wallis Budge points out that its chapters 'are a mirror in which are reflected most of the beliefs of the various races which went to build up the Egyptians of history.' As all commentators have hastened to indicate, the Book of the Dead is not a unity but a collection of chapters of varying lengths and dating from different ages. A selection of these would be made for the deceased, and would be copied on the walls of the tomb or inscribed on the sides of the sarcophagi; or they might even be written on scrolls of papyri which were then laid within the folds of the bodycloths. The extracts meant to benefit the deceased in a variety of ways.

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead the perishable physical body, preservable only by mummification, is called the khat. Next comes the ka, which is generally translated as 'double,' and is defined by Wallis Budge as 'an abstract individuality or personality which possessed the form and attributes of the man to whom it belonged, and, though its normal dwelling place was in the tomb with the body, it could wander about at will; it was independent of the man and could go and dwell in any statue of him.'

The ba, or heart-soul, is depicted as a bird and is often translated as 'soul.' It is sometimes conceived of as an animating principle within the body, but elsewhere it is hinted that one only becomes a ba after death, when it either dwells with the ka in the tomb or with Ra or Osiris in heaven. The ba is often referred to in connection with the spiritual soul (khu), which was regarded as imperishable and existed in the spiritual body (sahu). The sahu was originally considered to be a more material body, and may have formed a part of an early and literal view of the resurrection, whereby the sahu, ba, ka, khaibit (shadow) and ikhu (vital force) all came together again after 3,000 years, and the man was reanimated. Gradually the sahu came to be regarded as more spiritual in its compositions, and the idea of physical resurrection lost its prominence. It was believed that this sahu was germinated from the physical body, provided that it was not corrupt, and that the appropriate ceremonies had been performed by the priests.

The Egyptians agree with the Primitives and the Tibetans in asserting a form of continued existence after physical death. Their notions are less psychologically consistent and subtle than those of the Tibetans, but much more complex and symbolically developed than those of the Primitives, whom they resemble only in the earliest stages of their civilisation. Their unique features center round the overwhelming dread of physical corruption and corresponding longing for the germination of the indestructible sahu in which the khu will exist 'for millions and millions of years.'

One of the directly relevant ideas derives from the teachings of Theosophy. Within a scheme involving several planes and several bodies, the OBE is interpreted as a projection of the 'astral body' from the physical body. Theosophical ideas have influenced the thinking and terminology of many OBE researchers since many people reporting OBEs have found terms like 'astral projection' which derive from Theosophy to be useful in describing their experiences. Other researchers, however, find such terminology and the model it has been devised to describe to be unnecessarily biased in favor of a certain 'esoteric' interpretation of the actual experiences.

The idea that we have a double also appears in popular mythology. Often these doubles have sinister overtones, or are associated with the darker side of the psyche, but usually they are supposed to be quite harmless. These phenomena seem to be related to the OBE in that they involve a double, but there the resemblance ends.

Dean Sheils [She78] compared the beliefs of over 60 different cultures by referring to special files kept for anthropological research. Of 54 cultures for which some information was reported, 25 (or 46%) claimed that most or all people could travel outside the physical body under certain conditions. A further 23 (or 43%) claimed that a few of their number were able to do so, and only three cultures expressed no belief in anything of this nature. In a further three cultures the possibility of OBEs was admitted but the proportion of people who could experience it was not given. From this evidence, we can conclude that some form of a belief in out-of-body experiences is very common in various cultures.

Apparently, as many cultures interpret dreams as OBEs as those which do not. The notion that one may induce an OBE deliberately is not entirely absent from the cultures included by Sheils, though it is usually confined to certain types of people. Often only shamans can achieve OBEs, sometimes by using special drugs or methods for inducing a trance. Of those cultures described by Sheils, there were several in which there was a common belief that the soul could travel in earthly places, while in others the general belief was that the soul could only move in the world of the dead or spirits, and in others both kinds of soul travel were accepted.

There are stories of bilocation in which the physical body exists and acts in two separate places at once. But physical effects in OBE are rare. Also related to OBEs are the phenomena of traveling clairvoyance, ESP projection and remote viewing. 'Traveling clairvoyance' was used to describe a form of clairvoyance in which a medium or sensitive seemed to observe a distant place, therefore it included both OBEs and experiences in which the clairvoyant 'perceived' the distant scene but without any experience of leaving the body. In both 'traveling clairvoyance' and 'ESP projection' the occurrence of ESP is presupposed, but the experience of leaving the body is not. Remote viewing is a recent and better-defined term. Typically a subject describes or draws his impressions while an 'outbound experimenter' visits randomly selected remote locations. Later the descriptions and the locations are matched up. Remote viewing has often been compared with OBEs, and sometimes subjects who can have OBEs are used in remote viewing experiments.

Many people have argued that the OBE itself is some kind of dream and involves no double other than an imaginary one. However, an ordinary dream does not have those important features of the experient seeming to leave the body and being conscious of perceiving things as they occur. In this sense OBEs are better compared with lucid dreams, which are dreams in which the sleeper realizes, at the time, that he or she is dreaming. In such an experience, the sleeper may become perfectly conscious in the dream, which makes the experience very much like an OBE.

The experience of seeing one's own double has been called 'autoscopy' or 'autoscopic hallucinations.' Here again the double is not the 'real' or conscious person. It is seen as another self, but the original self still appears the most real. In the OBE it is the 'other' which seems most alive.

It has been argued that the OBE is an hallucination, and any other body or double is likewise hallucinatory. There are in fact many similarities between some kinds of hallucinations and OBEs.

Among other experiences difficult to disentangle from OBEs are a variety of religious and transcendental experiences. People may feel that they have grown very large or very small, becoming one with the Universe or God. Everything is seen in a new perspective, and may seem 'real' for the very first time. It is difficult to draw a line between a religious experience and an OBE and any line one does draw may seem artificial or arbitrary.

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