In my previous posts, OBEs Part 1 and Part 2, I described a long and powerful out-of-body experience (OBE), culminating in a mystical experience of oneness. I was just a first-year student, studying psychology and physiology, neither of which helped me in any way to explain these travels of the mind. How was I to understand what had happened to me?
The obvious starting point, and one urged on me by fellow students in our Oxford University Society for Psychical Research, was the theory of astral projection. This idea, still wildly popular in occult and alternative circles, was an important part of Theosophy, a movement founded by the Victorian occultist and spirit medium, Madame Blavatsky. She claimed to have travelled the world, studied with Tibetan gurus, contacted the dead, and learned to reach higher planes with Hindus and Buddhists. Her followers, Annie Besant (1896) and C.W. Leadbeater (1895), wrote about the ‘ancient wisdom’, the power of ‘thought forms’, and ‘the seven principles of man’. They always spoke of ‘man’ even though Annie Besant was a feminist, atheist and campaigner for marriage reform.
The idea of thought forms enchanted me, and a version of it lurked for many years in my (ultimately abandoned) theories of consciousness and the paranormal (Blackmore 1982). According to this ‘ancient wisdom’, every thought creates a form and these forms have a life of their own, attracted by similar thoughts, repelled by opposites, making up our dream life, forming apparitions of the deceased, and facilitating telepathy and clairvoyance. By learning to concentrate deeply we can produce powerful thought forms that leave the mind that created them and continue to exist on another plane.
The Seven Bodies of Man
Theosophy teaches that each of us is a continuing Self that enters and leaves different bodies, over and over again, while really existing on a high mânasic or mental plane” (Besant 1896 p 90). This is, of course, a version of the idea of personal reincarnation. This meme is extraordinarily popular in both certain religions and in New Age thinking. I find it strange and rather depressing that it even persists in Buddhism, despite the fact that the Buddha taught the difficult idea of ‘anatta’ or ‘no self’; based on his experience of enlightenment he explicitly denied that selves are persisting entities – discovering that, like everything else, selves are impermanent and ever-changing (Rahula 195.
But back to Theosophy. The bodies that this eternal Self inhabits are the seven ‘vehicles of consciousness’ and we use different ones in different regions of the universe, from the gross physical world to the subtlest and most spiritual realms beyond. We must learn, says Besent, that this Self is the owner of the vehicle, and we can exist in far fuller consciousness outside the vehicle than inside it.
A typical list of the vehicles includes:
Our seven bodies according to Theosophy
Source: From web licensed for reuse and edited by Susan Blacmore
1. The physical body.
2. The etheric body or body of vitality.
3. The astral body.
4. The mental body.
5. The causal body.
6. The Buddhic, diamond or cosmic body (there is much less agreement over the higher levels).
7. The celestial, eternal or nirvanic body.
The physical body, composed of ‘ordinary matter’, confines consciousness to the laws of space and time. It is interwoven with the etheric double or ‘vehicle of vitality’ which transmits energy between the physical and higher bodies and may briefly survive after death as ghost or graveyard wraith. It is an exact replica of the physical body but made of ether.
This clearly makes no sense now, but in the late nineteenth century the idea of an interpenetrating ether seemed far more plausible than it does today. Most scientists still believed in the need for a ‘luminiferous ether’ to explain the propagation of light, until the great Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887 disproved its existence and presaged a revolution in physics. Even so, the idea of the ether persisted in the popular imagination and seemed to provide a haven for the higher planes of theosophy and spiritualism.
Onto the astral planes
We can now see where astral projection fits in because the astral body can leave the physical and etheric bodies behind and go travelling on the astral planes. Sylvan Muldoon was one of the most famous astral projectors of the twentieth century and worked with psychical research Hereward Carrington, producing books about OBEs and diagrams (shown here) of how he typically left his body (Muldoon & Carrington 1929, 1951). It is said to be the ‘vehicle of consciousness’, which means that the astral body is supposed to be doing our thinking, seeing, feeling and being conscious. We don’t need to be ‘in’ our body at all. We can fly free without it, seeing the world from any place we like to go, and moving completely free of the encumbrance of a physical body.
You are probably asking yourself the obvious questions – if the astral body can see without using physical eyes why do we need to have eyes in the first place? And if we do need eyes, how is the astral body supposed to see without them? These are not trivial questions. Indeed, if astral projection theory is to be any use at all, it must answer them.
In my next post I will try tackle these questions and ask whether astral projection theory really can explain my OBE, and those of many thousands of other people who seem to leave their body and go flying.