A persuasive and thought-provoking account of one man’s experiences and experiments with traveling outside his own body.
My earliest memory of hearing about out-of-body experiences (OOBEs) was, I think, in the early 1970s, about the same time this book was published. A young woman who was the friend of a neighbor did psychic readings and talked about “astral travel”—the term current up to then for OOBEs. I don’t know whether I believed in it or not, but I remember thinking that it sounded like a plausible explanation for the experience one sometimes has of feeling that one is falling off a cliff, just as one is dropping off to sleep. The young woman explained this as the astral body dropping from the “zone of quietude” just above the physical body back into that body, creating the frightening feeling of a fall.
Some years later I was surprised and intrigued to see an article in Scientific American magazine discussing OOBEs in connection with the use of mescalin. If it’s in Scientific American, I thought, it must be something real. But I don’t think I read that article.
Still later, in 1986, I read a book called Life After Life by Raymond Moody, about a particular class of OOBEs: near-death experiences or NDEs. Moody made a groundbreaking examination of the experiences of people who had undergone clinical death and come back to life. He found that their experiences had certain broad similarities with each other. One of these similarities was the sense of floating away from the physical body and witnessing events going on around and near their corpse. For those who were in the “dead” state long enough, the experience sometimes went considerably beyond that, to meeting others and undergoing profound shifts in their outlook, such that, when they were revived, their beliefs and priorities were transformed. (The author Betty J. Eadie had a prolonged NDE which she recounts in her bestselling book Embraced by the Light, published in 1992.)
For me, Moody’s book was a convincer. As I read the accounts of people who had died and then revived, and the profound emotional effect it had on them, notably in changing their values to be much more concerned with the welfare of others, I felt sure that their experiences were authentic, and I wanted to let their experience change my life as it had changed theirs. It was a major motivator in my decision to seek out training in the Buddhist teachings, which I did soon after reading Moody’s book.
For different reasons now, related to my creative work, I wanted to learn more about OOBEs, and, discovering that Robert A. Monroe’s book is considered a major work in this line, I got myself a copy. I found it quite fascinating, even though it is much different from Moody’s and Eadie’s books, in that it is not concerned so much with death and the spiritual aspects of OOBEs. Rather, Monroe, an American businessman who had had a successful career in radio, discovered in the late 1950s that he could exit his physical body, and decided to develop his own experimental program to learn about this strange state. His book is an account of his findings, expressed in language that seeks to remain factual, neutral, and scientific.
He presents many accounts of specific “trips” he made from his body, taken directly from the notes he made right afterwards each time. I don’t want to say too much about what he found, in case I spoil the experience of reading this book for yourself, but I was intrigued with certain aspects of his experience. One aspect was that while he was in his “Second Body,” in the disembodied state, his emotions were especially powerful and hard to control, and his conscious mind was relatively weak and ineffective. Another aspect was that his experience out of the body appeared to be divided between 3 separate realms or, as he terms them, “locales.” Locale 1 is the physical world that we know, which the disembodied person can move through at will (with some interesting exceptions). Locale 2 is a vast, nonphysical realm that appears to be the usual habitat of the disembodied person; it is filled with all kinds of other beings in all kinds of situations. Monroe suggests that it is in this locale that we might find the “places” we call heaven and hell. Such places are defined not by location, but by the emotional state of those who are in them. Locale 3 is a separate realm that is much like Locale 1, except that its geography, technology, and societies are different from the ones we know: they’re like “alternative history” versions of our world.
In Monroe’s opinion, the experience we call death is the permanent detachment of our Second Body from our First Body, but he believes that we all leave our physical bodies routinely when we sleep. He thinks that we all—or nearly all—are out-of-body travelers. He writes of interactions out of body with people he knows, that later, when he meets them again in body, they have no memory of. We may all be having double or triple lives without knowing it. And why do all living things seem to have such a powerful need for sleep? In order to keep in touch with things going on in Locale 2?
I don’t know the answers to these things, but to me Monroe does not come across as a crazy or a crackpot. If anything, he goes out of his way to be skeptical of his experiences, for he wants them to have validity for science. To the extent possible, he tries to be a scientific observer of the phenomena he experiences. As a result, his actual prose is “scientific” sounding: detached, neutral, and with a fair amount written in the passive voice. His writing is workmanlike and factual rather than vivid. But what he’s writing about is hair-raising. Some parts I found to be gripping and scary, other parts merely puzzling or even comical.
But if Monroe’s journeys were real, then there are huge implications for us all. For a start, the popular materialist view of the world is wrong. The spiritual dimension of life is the one that endures and that we should be focusing on. Monroe admits that traveling out of body is very frightening, especially at first. It is a death experience. He gives detailed instructions how to do it, but most of us will never have the desire or the courage. But Monroe had the courage, and he has provided us with a detailed report of his expeditions. So we can learn from him, if we want, something of that wider universe of which we are a part.