Out-of-Body Experiences: Leaving the Body?
Part 1: How an out-of-body experience changed my life.
Posted Jun 13, 2019
Have you ever had an out-of-body experience (OBE)? Have you seemed to leave your physical shell to go floating and flying free beyond the body?
This happened to me when I was just nineteen and the experience has shaped the whole of my life ever since – from my becoming a parapsychologist determined to understand what had happened, to taking up decades of Zen meditation and mindfulness. For just a couple of hours I seemed no longer confined to a slow, heavy, physical body but escaping through a tunnel to fly around the world until finally I entered the mystical experience of oneness with the universe and ‘I’ disappeared altogether.
As an enthusiastic first-year student of psychology, how could I understand any of this? I couldn’t. Nothing I was learning in my psychology and physiology degree had any bearing on such strange adventures. So I jumped quickly to my own conclusions. I was sure that my spirit had left my body and would survive after death, and even that telepathy, clairvoyance, ghosts, and premonitions must all be real. I studied magic and the occult, read Tarot cards and the I-Ching, sat with spiritualist mediums, and trained as a witch. And I continued studying psychology and neuroscience.
At the time, I knew a little about astral projection but I had never heard of tunnel experiences, and the term near-death experience (NDE) wasn’t even invented until five years later (Moody 1975), so I had little to guide my thinking. Nearly half a century later, psychology and neuroscience have progressed so far that I can at last look back and begin to make sense of my dramatic adventure. And this is why I want to share my discoveries here, and why I wrote ‘Seeing Myself: The new science of out-of-body experiences’ to be published in the USA and Canada on June 11th.
In the first two of these posts, I will describe what happened, and in subsequent posts, I’ll go on to explore the many possible explanations for OBEs and what they might mean for the nature of our self and consciousness. But first – what happened that night back in November 1970?
A night to remember
My memories of that night are curiously vivid, as people often say about remembering OBEs, NDEs, and mystical experiences. It is as though these memories have a brightness, immediacy, and intensity of feeling that other old memories do not, and recent studies of NDE memories confirm this (Thonnard et al 2013). Some researchers have interviewed people again after years or decades and found their memories to be clear and stable and hardly changed (Greyson 2007, Van Lommel et al 2001). But whether they are accurate is another matter. I cannot be sure, but in my own case I have both my diary to consult and the long description I wrote a couple of days after it happened – as soon as I was recovered enough to write anything.
This strange night began with a meeting of our Oxford University Society for Psychical Research in which a small group of us spent several long hours trying to contact spirits with a Ouija board. This is not something I would recommend to anyone, not because of any dangerous spirits but because asking inappropriate questions can raise up all sorts of emotional troubles. By the time we finished, I was exhausted and went with two college friends, Vicki and Kevin, to smoke a joint and relax.
There I was, sitting cross-legged on the floor, sleep deprived and tired, with my mind already wandering when the hallucinations began. Unlike later events, these drifting visions didn’t feel real, which means they should technically be called ‘pseudo-hallucinations’. Music was playing on a little portable record player, although I’ve forgotten what it was; probably Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, or Grateful Dead. Whatever it was, it turned into multi-coloured patterns pulsing with the rhythms, interspersed with incredibly sharp and detailed images of different places that came briefly and disappeared. Then a tunnel formed and I began rushing along it, accompanied by a thunderous noise as though I were a horse galloping down a tree-lined avenue towards a distant light.
I wrote that all this lasted “… for about half an hour—12:00 to 12:30—and then the transition came.” So it’s clear that I immediately sensed the difference between what I took to be familiar drug effects and something quite new. My feet seemed to be far away and I sensed a wall of drifting whiteness passing right through me. What I saw with my eyes open ceased to make sense, so I closed them and kept them closed as I felt as though I was rising up to the ceiling and gently drifting about. I could still hear the music and the others talking but they seemed ever so far away, and when Vicki asked if I’d like some coffee I couldn’t reply. So she stomped out of the room.
Alone with Kevin, he asked me the strangest question, “Where are you, Sue?” As I tried to work out where I was, everything suddenly cleared. I was near the ceiling and looking down. I could even watch myself—the body down below—reply. I seemed able both to control that lumpen body and to watch it as though it were someone else, and I continued speaking like this for most of the next three hours. I wrote, “I was somehow quite able to conceive of being in the two places at once, or rather to be in one place but to still have the knowledge and perception of the body in another.” My vision now was nothing like those hallucinations of color and shape or even the tunnel of leaves. It was utterly realistic. Looking down from up there the scene felt as real, even more real, than looking out of my eyes had seemed all my life.
Soon I saw the silver cord, a shiny greyish-white thread, slowly bending and moving. The ‘me’ up there seemed to be made of a similar substance, only denser and more solid, and the cord stretched away from my tummy down to the neck of the body below. Everything in the room seemed clear and normal and, with Kevin’s encouragement, I set off to explore the world outside. I whizzed up through another room and out into the night sky. As I flew over the college roofs a tiny flicker of skepticism urged me to take a good look at the ancient gutters, downpipes, and chimneys and then I was off.
Most of my travels are rather tedious to recount as I flew around in what I took to be the astral planes—even then wondering whether this was the real physical world or some kind of mind-created astral version that looked like the physical world. I visited a star-shaped island with a hundred trees, floated over waves in the sea, stared down at people rushing about in cities or slaving away in fields, and then began to worry. Would I be able to get back to my body?
The only way to find out was to try. And I found it was quite easy. I said ‘hello’ to my two friends and off I went again, flying around, enjoying myself, but gradually realizing that I was no longer the sensible bodily shape I had seemed to be at the outset. Instead, I became first many different shapes and then a mere point of awareness that could move around. I had better really go back, I thought, and this time the return was far from easy.
I will describe the very different experiences that followed that attempt in next post but for now, I want to raise some difficult questions. There is no doubt that my experience was of the classic type described in the astral projection literature (e.g. Crookall 1961, Monroe 1951, Muldoon and Carrington 1951), including the ways of moving, the bodily changes, and the famous ‘silver cord’, but why? Were their theories correct?
The next morning, I went out excitedly to check on the ancient gutters I had seen the night before, but to my surprise, they were modern white plastic ones, and the building I was in had no chimneys at all. So what was going on? Was I a spirit travelling invisibly in the actual physical world? Had my astral body separated from the physical and gone travelling on the ‘astral planes’? Was the whole experience concocted by a sleep-deprived and slightly intoxicated brain? I became obsessed with trying to find out. In this series of posts, I’ll first describe the culmination of this extraordinary experience and, in subsequent posts, explore some possible answers to those tricky questions.
Crookall, R. 1961 The Study and Practice of Astral Projection. Wellingborough, Northants, Press.
Greyson, B. 2007 Consistency of near-death experience accounts over two decades: Are reports embellished over time?. Resuscitation, 73(3), 407-411
Monroe,R.A. 1971 Journeys Out of the Body. New York, Doubleday.
Moody,R.A. 1975 Life after Life Atlanta, Ga, Mockingbird.
Muldoon,S. and Carrington,H. 1951 The Phenomena of Astral Projection. London, Rider & Co.
Thonnard, M., Charland-Verville, V., Brédart, S., Dehon, H., Ledoux, D., Laureys, S., & Vanhaudenhuyse, A. 2013 Characteristics of near-death experiences memories as compared to real and imagined events memories. PloS one, 8(3), e57620
Van Lommel, P., van Wees, R., Meyers, V., & Elfferich, I. 2001. Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. The Lancet, 358(9298), 2039-2045