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My Quest for an Out-of-Body Experience

Will Katie Heaney's spirit escape from her body and make it through the doors of Beyoncé’s house?
(Photo: louish/Flickr)

(Photo: louish/Flickr)

I have not, to my memory, had an out-of-body experience, but I remember watching one on TV. I was a big fan of the X-Files-lite Disney drama So Weird. One episode centered on a teenage girl who repeatedly left her body to wander a local carnival. If she was grounded, it didn’t matter; her body stayed in her room, but her spirit could go out and play. It could not, however, talk, and I remember thinking this made it pretty much worthless.

Still, when I recently came across a book called Astral Travel for Beginners, written by Richard Webster, I was sold immediately. (Astral travel and out-of-body experience, or OBE, are used fairly interchangeably by people who believe these experiences to be supernatural.) Maybe it was competitiveness: It had not occurred to me that I wasn’t traveling astrally because I was bad at it. I needed to know more.

"You can travel the world, and in fact, the entire universe, from the safety of your own home."

Like many modern mysticisms, astral travel has roots (some deeper than others) in a wide variety of ancient beliefs and practices—Webster cites the bible, Aristotle, Tibet, ancient Egypt, and the Druids, among others. Popular interest in astral travel grew in late 19th-century Europe, at which time it was studied in a number of scientifically questionable experiments. (Often, the low-stakes requests made of spirits were not unlike what you might see today on an episode of Ghost Hunters: One study asked a subject to prove he’d left his body by having his spirit make noise on the opposite end of the table from which his body sat.) Stateside interest was piqued in 1929 with the publishing of a book called Projection of the Astral Body, co-written by American author Sylvan Muldoon and the made-up-sounding British investigator Hereward Carrington.

Modern science holds that out-of-body experiences are dissociative, and can arise from a number of psychological and/or neurological factors. One study, published in Brain in 2004, argued that OBEs were symptomatic of “paroxysmal disorders of body perception and cognition,” or a failure to correctly organize perceptual, tactile, and visual cues with regard to one’s own body.

This is not to say that everyone who has ever had an OBE has some form of physical disorder; there are many people who believe they have had an OBE and are perfectly healthy. Other research has suggested OBE-like dissociation occurs in people with a preternatural capacity for psychological absorption—or, in other words, the fantasy prone.

The exact figure is a bit nebulous, but survey data suggests between 10-25 percent of people report having had at least one out-of-body experience sometime in their lives. Most people who say they’ve done it describe the experience positively and say it’s something they’d like to do again. According to Webster, a researcher named Dr. Stewart Twemlow presented a talk on this topic at the 1980 American Psychiatric Association in which he stated that 43 percent of the people who reported having traveled astrally said it was “the greatest thing that had ever happened to them.”

In his book, Webster provides several benefits to astral travel: “You can find out what people really think about you. You can obtain answers to questions that have been puzzling you.... You can travel the world, and in fact, the entire universe, from the safety of your own home.” This sounds great to me. I am always wondering what people think about me. And I am curious about outer-space, but I would never want to really go there.

So I thought I would try it.

WEBSTER PROVIDES SEVERAL METHODS of astral travel in his book, but he recommends starting with the simplest. After all, the process can seem a bit scary to beginners—some people worry their spirit will simply wander off and never return. “There has never been a recorded incidence of this happening,” he writes. You may also worry about dying while astral traveling. By way of reassurance, Webster writes that our spirits remain connected to our physical bodies by a very long elastic cord: “If this were cut while you were traveling, you would certainly die, but again, there have been no recorded instances of this happening.”

You should be relaxed, optimistic, and free of distraction, and possibly naked—constricting clothing makes it hard for the spirit to leave the body.

Webster recommends abstaining from meat on astral travel days, which I have already done because I am a vegetarian. Also forbidden on the day of are alcohol and marijuana, as well as coffee and cigarettes three hours prior. He also recommends gentle exercise beforehand, so I do my normal Jillian Michaels DVD, but I don’t try very hard.

As for what astral travelers should do, the main thing is really wanting it. You should be relaxed, optimistic, and free of distraction, and possibly naked—constricting clothing makes it hard for the spirit to leave the body. But don’t feel self-conscious: “This does not mean that people can see you naked while you are traveling,” Webster writes.

I don’t know that I buy that, so I put on loose pajamas that seem like they’d allow room for spiritual movement. I light a candle and lie down in bed. I turn off my phone, put on a Spotify playlist I made with tracks with the words “astral travel” in them, and concentrate on where I want to go. You’re supposed to decide your destination in advance. I thought about this a lot; it had to be a place about which I had no ambivalence, no question. I wanted to go somewhere exciting and unknown, but not too far. So I chose Beyoncé’s house.

I close my eyes, and I try hard to leave my body. I take deep breaths. I shut out all my earthbound worries. I picture my spirit—a translucent me—floating up from my body, an unraveling spirit cord attached to my foot, flying out my window and over the streets of New York. But neither me nor my spirit go anywhere. Nothing happens at all, except that I spend 15 or 20 minutes lying on my bed thinking about Beyoncé. It’s fine. Greatest thing that ever happened to me.