Out of Body Experiences: A Comparison of Eastern and Western Views of Astral Travel

“Extending my arm, I reached for the wall in front of me. I stared in amazement as my hand actually entered the wall [âÂ?¦] only then did the overwhelming reality hit me, My God, I’m not in my body” (5). So William Buhlman describes the first time he felt the sensation of being out of his body as an experience that caused him to reevaluate his beliefs. He has since “left” his body many times over, and today he teaches others how to have similar adventures. Buhlman is certainly not the first man to make such claims of leaving his body. “Out-of-body-experiences (OBE),” is a Western term for “when the spirit travels beyond the physical body for a short time, and then returns” (Psychic Voyages 7), but such experiences have been described by many different cultures throughout history. In fact, up to one in five who make up the world’s population have laid claim to having an OBE, according to British psychologist Susan Blackmore (Weir 8). This includes famous pilot Charles A. Lindbergh and writer Earnest Hemingway (Psychic Voyages 7).

Eastern and Western societies differ in their view of what an OBE is. Westerners seem most skeptical concerning this type of travel. The subject is being studied carefully through science in an attempt to explain the phenomenon. The most widely available mediums credit a part of the brain as a possible trigger that gives people the illusion of leaving the body. Easterners believe more readily those who claim to meditate into “higher consciousness” have indeed done so. To the Easterner the experience is spiritual and is achieved through meditation, and having it is considered positive, but to the Westerner the experience is usually an accident and subject to criticism from society.

Most Westerners cannot relate to the OBE. In fact, “For centuries, people who described floating out of their bodies were dismissed as being out of their minds” (Herskovits 19). Even so, ordinary individuals from the west have reported experiencing accidental OBEs, even early last century before the term was coined. In 1910 a middle-aged woman named Caroline Larsen was laying in bed while her husband was downstairs playing in a string quartet, when she felt faint. She became numb and then felt paralyzed. “[âÂ?¦] At first I heard the music plainly [âÂ?¦] until finally everything became a blank [âÂ?¦] The next thing I knew was that I, I myself, was standing on the floor beside my bed looking down attentively at my own physical body lying on it” (Psychic Voyages 14).

One of the most well known western out-of-body travel writers is Robert A. Monroe. He first experienced this phenomenon in the late 50’s, and it alienated him from the rest of society. “It is impossible for me to describe the fear and loneliness that took over during those episodes [âÂ?¦] I was a misfit in a culture of which I thought I was a part, a culture that I admired and respected” (Monroe1 4). Even so, Monroe’s curiosity was strong. He had taken tests to determine his psychological state and was deemed healthy, and he wanted to know more about his experiences.

He started a research division in his family’s corporation, but remained secretive at first out of fear for his reputation:

Until 1970 the whole research effort operated quietly, if not covertly. After all, I was the head of a conventional business dealing with conventional people. I was sure that any public revelation of my secret life activity would bring doubt of my ability to conduct responsible business affairs (9).

But Monroe didn’t stay quiet. He attracted attention to the subject. People began to talk about it, and society struggled with the possibility of leaving the body behind. He describes the difficulty of changing society’s view: “Early in our investigation, we realized that we live in a culture and civilization where waking physical consciousness is the most vital of all qualities. It is not easy to make a case for any state of being that is different” (6). Monroe says that today the idea is gaining acceptance (9).

Recently, scientists have been taking new notice of the phenomenon. One event that seemed to revive the subject occurred in the year 2000, when a 43-year-old woman from Switzerland was being treated for epilepsy. The neurologist performing surgery on her “stimulated different regions of the woman’s brain with electrodes, devices that transmit electric charges” (Weir 8). Whenever the right angular gyrus was stimulated, the woman claimed to have an OBE. But there is a difference between her experiences and those triggered without electrodes, however. While she could see herself lying on the bed, she could only see her legs and the lower trunk of her body (9). Experiences that aren’t induced by electrodes mention seeing the whole body as opposed to just one part. In addition, many healthy people have experienced being out of the body, and this woman had a brain dysfunction to begin with. Kenneth Pelletier, M.D., has been quoted as saying, “This is a fascinating single observation, but it is rather premature to conclude that OBEs are reducible to electrical stimulation” (Herskovits 19). But the study does have value. Dr. Olaf Blanke, the neurologist who made the discovery, said the study indicates, “repetitive OBEs may be a brain dysfunction” (Herskovits 19). This conclusion is based on the fact that the OBEs were only induced through the right angular gyrus.

Some travels out of the body have questioned the notion that experience lacks proof. While sleeping in a laboratory, Monroe had an OBE in which he noted the technician was absent from the room. “He then floated into the brightly lit outer corridor, where he found the technician talking to a man who was unfamiliar to Monroe” (Psychic Voyages 35). Monroe learned that the technician had indeed been in the corridor, conversing with her husband. In other experiments, Monroe has been able to see places outside the body that can be later confirmed. This does not prove without a doubt that he left his body, but it does provide some evidence of a paranormal occurrence.

Scientists and researchers from the west aren’t completely unwilling to consider paranormal possibilities. Dr. Blanke is optimistic. He said it would be nice to collaborate with researchers in other fields, and does not discount the worth of their research. Marsha Walton, a reporter for CNN.com, quoted Blanke as saying, “Lots of people try to explain something away which is for many people, an amazing experience that has transformed their lives. I hope we can add some precise neuroscience and try to collaborate with people in many fields.”

Dr. Blanke was right when he said that the experience is amazing for many. Larson, the ordinary woman who experienced leaving her body, was reluctant to return to her physical body (Psychic Voyages 14). And Buhlman’s entire life changed. “The more I pondered the significance of the experience, the more profound I realized it to be. All my agnostic beliefs had been swept away in a single night” (Buhlman 6). If OBEs are simply brain dysfunctions, they have given some people unforgettable memories.

After their first experience, most people want to leave the body again. For example, a man named Ingo Swann has created paintings inspired by his travels throughout the galaxy. “A large, blonde, cigar-smoking man, Swann claimed to have had his first OBE at the age of two while under anesthesia for a tonsillectomy” (Psychic Voyages 36).

In a survey conducted in 1976 on 339 individuals who claimed to have had an OBE, 89 percent wanted to have more experiences (Monroe1 289), and 85 percent considered the experience to be “very pleasant” (290).

So profound have these experiences been that people have published books describing their own accounts of out-of-body travel while giving instructions on how to do the same. In Buhman’s book there is a section called “Developing Your Natural Ability.” He gives steps to achieving the out-of-body state. His advice includes using affirmations by repeating to oneself phrases such as, “Now I’m out of body,” “I remain aware as my body goes to sleep,” and “Now I separate from my body” (189) before drifting off to sleep. He says combining affirmations with visualization can help the body separate. One technique includes repeating an affirmation while visualizing the details of a familiar room. “Become absorbed in the details of the room [âÂ?¦] As much as possible, use all your senses” (190). Buhlman’s techniques are simply to get out of the body, and that is the ultimate goal of many out-of-body travelers from the west. Westerners are more focused on the experience than spirituality. In the study of the OBE travelers, only about half considered it a spiritual experience (Monroe 289), but 66 percent changed their mind about life after death (290).

I followed Buhlman’s instructions, and by the second week I experienced consciousness outside my body. It would have been fun to try and explore the universe as Swann claimed to, but it was as if I was being magnetically pulled back to my body. I was outstretched perpendicular to my bed, seemingly attached to my physical legs. Behind me lay my body, sleeping peacefully on the bed. Below me lay my dog, and she was looking up at me. I felt groggy and had difficulty maintaining consciousness. I eventually succumbed to this feeling and let myself fall to the floor. I awoke in my body. Whether it was real or not can never be proven, but I still felt the same as those surveyed in that I wanted the experience to happen again.

Inducing OBEs is nothing new to those in the east, who are able to meditate into a higher state of consciousness. In the book Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda describes his first experience in what he refers to as “cosmic consciousness:”

The whole vicinity lay bare before me. My ordinary frontal vision was now changed to a vast spherical sight, simultaneously all-perceptive. Through the back of my head I saw men strolling far down Rai Ghat Lane, and noticed also a white cow that was leisurely approaching [�] After she had passed behind the brick wall of the courtyard, I saw her still [�] The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being [�] The divine dispersion of rays poured from an Eternal Source, blazing into galaxies, transfigured with ineffable auras. Again and again I saw the creative beams condense into constellations, then resolve into sheets of transparent flame. By rhythmic reversion, sextillion worlds passed into diaphanous luster, then fire became firmament (Yogananda 142-143).

Though he had sought the experience and welcomed it greatly, his overall goal in life was spiritual, a desire to be closer with god. “The primary purpose of meditation is to become conscious of, and familiar with, our inner life. The ultimate purpose is to reach the source of life and consciousness” (Maharaj 13). Meditation begins with concentrating within oneself, but the goal is to be with God. Most Eastern accounts of OBEs are imbedded in philosophical books and are related to meditation. This could be because, like Buhlman’s advice on visualizing a room, the goal of meditation is to bring the focus away from the physical self. The focus instead is within the body.

Like Monroe’s experience in seeing the technician talking with her husband in another room, there are events in India that defy explanation as well. Sathya Sai Baba and Dadaji, two swamis, claimed to have traveled to two places at once. One time Dadaji was seen in a prayer room and was also seen at home in Calcutta, where “he had appeared in their study, silently indicated that he wanted tea and the daughter of the house had brought him tea and a biscuit” (Blackmore 12-13).

Even if the ultimate goals of Eastern and Western travelers are different, some of the claims are the same. Like Swann, there are those from India who have the ability to see space. “The yogi knows everything, and he can transfer himself to any planet he likes. He does not require the help of any spaceship. The scientists have been trying to reach other planets for so many years with their spaceships, and they will go on trying for one hundred or one thousand years. But they’ll never be successful. Rest assured. This is not the process to reach another planet” (Prahupada 136). He says those who wish to transfer themselves to other planets should practice yoga, but also says that in death material planets are not of interest to true yogis. The goal instead is to go to the spiritual world (139).

But no matter which culture is being looked at, people have described some of the same sensations before leaving the body. Numbness and paralysis is common. After leaving the body, a few people from both cultures have mentioned seeing the “silver cord,” a cord that supposedly links the spirit with the body. “The voyager sees a silver cord connecting the physical self with its etheric counterpart, a cord whose original thickness attenuates as distance increases between the two selves” (Psychic Voyages 46). Both cultures believe that once the cord is cut, the person’s soul is forever separated from the body. “The silver cord is the last link with the body. When you draw your consciousness up to the eye center in meditation, you don’t cut the silver cord. Otherwise you could be dead” (Beas 135-136). Sylvan Muldoon, a Western out of body traveler, shows in a diagram the cord attached to the head of the body and to the head of the spirit. (Psychic Voyages 28-29). Susan Blackmore, one of the most outspoken critics of the OBE, saw the cord in her own experiences, but concludes that the experiences do not prove anything. “[âÂ?¦] It is clear that however ‘real’ the body, the cord, and so on appeared, they could always be imagined, and no amount of such experience constitutes evidence that we have a second body” (Blackmore 6).

Blackmore is right when she says that no amount of experience can prove that OBEs are real. It seems as though the culture of origin determines the nature of the OBE, with Westerners being focused on the physical journey and Easterners being focused on the spiritual journey. This makes the description of travel different. Yogananda felt God’s love, while Buhlman experienced “a serene feeling of calm” (13). In addition, Easterners strive for independence from the physical self while the idea remains taboo in Western culture. But even though the mindset of the two travelers is different, there are enough similarities to warrant further investigation. Scientists should continue to study OBEs, in order to gain a better understanding about their causes and the impact they have on society. One thing is for sure: Real or imagined, spiritual or otherwise, OBEs have had a profound effect, changing peoples’ lives everywhere.

Sources Cited

Beas, Radha Soami Satsang. Die to Live. Punjab, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 1999.

Blackmore, Susan J. Beyond the Body. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1992.

Buhlman, William. Adventures Beyond the Body. USA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

Cave, Janet P. and Laura Foreman. Psychic Voyages. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, Inc., 1988.

Herskovits, Zara. “The seat of soaring consciousness.” Psychology Today Jan/Feb 2003: 19.

Maharaj, Sri Nisargadatta. I Am That. Durham, North Carolina: The Acorn Press, 1997.

Monroe, Robert A. Far Journeys. New York: Doubleday, 1982.

– -. Ultimate Journey. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. The Journey of Self-Discovery. Australia: The

Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1997.

Yogananda, Paramahansa. Autobiography of a Yogi. USA: Self-Realization Fellowship: 1994.

Walton, Marsha. “Out-of-body experience clues may hide in mind.” CNN.com 19 Sept. 2002.

Weir, Kirsten. “Outta here?” Current Science 17 Jan., 2003: 8-9.

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