Setting the Stage


SETTING THE STAGE
BY
FREDERICK AARDEMA


Introductory chapter from EXPLORATIONS IN CONSCIOUSNESS: A NEW APPROACH TO OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCES


Copyright © 2012 by Frederick Aardema
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work in any form whatsoever, without permission in writing from the author or publisher.

More than two decades ago, I was first introduced to the topic of out-of-body experiences (OBEs) by Robert Monroe through his first book, Journeys Out of the Body.1 In that book, Monroe described how he one day, out of the blue, began to experience strange vibrations coursing through his body while lying down and preparing for sleep.

Initially, these sensations provoked a great deal of fear, especially when Monroe discovered that the vibrations allowed him to leave his body. Over time, however, his fear subsided, and he set out to actively explore the out-of-body state. He moved through walls, flew through the air, talked to the dead, and visited all kinds of exotic locations.

At seventeen years old, I believed that anything was possible, and with much naïveté and enthusiasm I made it my first priority to experience the same thing. I carefully read the method Monroe prescribed for leaving the body, which required approaching the borderline of sleep while simultaneously trying to keep one's mind awake. For several weeks, every night before bedtime, I attempted to leave my body.

I was not successful at first - I would always fall asleep prematurely. It was not easy to remain awake while lying in bed, especially when trying to relax my mind at the same time. I decided that more drastic measures were needed. What I lacked in skill I would make up for with sheer effort and determination. I vowed that in my next attempt, I would not give up, no matter how long it took.

That same night, I spent what seemed like ages twisting and turning in my bed, trying every possible method I could come up with. I even quite literally tried to will myself out of my body. Of course, this method failed as well. It was exhausting, and five or six hours later, unable to keep sleep at bay, I slipped into unconsciousness.

Only a couple of minutes later, I awoke. I heard the sounds of bells - the most delicate tones I had ever heard. Each vibrated at a unique frequency, combining into a beautiful arrangement. They were exquisite. A broad smile appeared on my face. I had finally made some progress!

Barely able to contain my excitement as deep and vibrant colors flashed before my eyes with each tone, I focused on the sounds. They began to speed up, slowly at first, but quickly reaching a peak. I braced myself.

Suddenly, my body began to vibrate violently. A strong current of energy coursed through me. It felt like what I imagine being electrocuted feels like, but without the pain. I felt excited, afraid, and elated all at once. But what was I supposed to do next?

I remembered the instructions provided by Monroe. They involved getting the vibrations to form a circle around my body. Then I needed to move the circle of energy upward along the axis of my body. This would somehow allow me to leave my body.

It seemed like a scary prospect, but I couldn't take the vibrations much longer. They were beginning to feel more and more like a real electric current. Every molecule in my body was shaking.

I requested the vibrations to form a circle around my legs. To my surprise, they responded almost instantly, settling into a circle around my body, just above the knees. I had not expected it to be that easy. They were still the same heavy pulsations but were much easier to bear in a more localized area.

I looked down at my body, seeing through closed eyelids. It was an incredible sight. Wrapped around my legs was a brilliant golden circle of light with multicolored sparks flying off in all directions. I had never seen anything like it. It was out of this world!

So far, the vibrations had been like a steady, low-frequency thumping. But I knew that in order to be able to leave my body, they needed to pulse much faster. I asked for the vibrations to increase in frequency.

Once again, the vibrations responded immediately. Their frequency increased until it became difficult to tell one beat from another. The shift made the sensations a lot smoother and more comfortable. They were as strong as before, but all the roughness had now disappeared.

I asked for the ring of vibrating light to move upward.

It responded.

The ring began to move along the axis of my body, its pace steady and unwavering. I got a sense that I would not be able to stop it, even if I were to try.

I felt some trepidation as the ring of energy approached my loins, but it passed uneventfully. The energy flowed past my belly and chest and then moved farther upward. I assumed it would continue all the way to my head. But then, suddenly, it stopped at my neck, right near the suprasternal notch. I felt pressure there, as if it was trying to find an entry point.

I became anxious. I had not expected the energy to actually get inside of me! There was no way all that energy would fit through that tiny hole in my neck. But I had no say in the matter. The pressure continued until I felt the energy worming its way inside like a snake. I felt some tension as it did so, but nothing cracked. There was no pain.

Then something happened I was completely unprepared for. My head roared - a deafening noise, as if the entire Niagara Falls had descended into my brain. The energy was all inside of me now. The sheer power of it was enormous. I was on the edge of panic. It was all too much. Then, abrupt silence!

I felt good, very good. A comfortable tingling sensation had spread across my body, like the feeling of a thousand soft, warm raindrops falling on my skin. It was blissful. My mind felt light. A little too light.

The sky had opened in front of me as if I were looking into deep space. Not outer space, but something entirely different. Far in the distance were wispy clouds of a purple hue. I began to hear whispering sounds-thousands of voices. It was eerie, nonhuman, not of this world. I felt my mind extending there. Almost like being there.

I became afraid again and quickly focused back on my body. Everything seemed normal. The tingling had disappeared. The only thing out of the ordinary was my leg. It was touching the wall beside my bed. Then it hit me. My leg was floating outside of my body! But I was not ready yet! I did not want to leave my body!

Moments later, I felt my regular leg again, on the bed as it should be. I immediately jumped out of bed. I couldn't believe the magnitude of what just happened. I had read about the vibrations and about some sort of electric current preceding an OBE, but I had never imagined anything like what I just experienced. This was the real thing!

Rarely has an OBE felt as vibrant as it did that first time. I never fully left my body, but that was inconsequential. For many years to come, this experience had me in its grasp; I sought to recapture the sense of freedom, bliss, and delicacy of that journey into the unknown. The sheer sense of euphoria was beyond my wildest imaginings.

In the years that followed, my OBE quest was similar to those described by others. In the beginning, I was only able to partially leave my body. Often, I would get "stuck" with a phantom arm or leg sticking out of my physical body, while the rest of me was unable to complete the exit.

However, as time went by, separating from my body became easier. "Rolling out" of the physical body was a favorite method for a long time. Eventually, I no longer even needed an exit procedure. I would fly up and away as soon as the vibrations allowed. Other times, I simply lifted myself out of bed as if I were getting up in the morning.

My experience of the vibrations also changed. Right from the start, they pulsated at a much higher frequency. I certainly did not mind that. It was a lot more comfortable than the extremely heavy and slow vibrations I had experienced the first time. Also, the direct manipulation of these sensations was no longer necessary to achieve separation. I only needed to mentally relax into them, and they would automatically intensify until separation was possible.

Like many others who explore OBEs, I initially found myself experimenting in the immediate environment of my bedroom. However, moving through walls and examining the specific attributes of the nonphysical body can only hold one's interest for so long. I soon found myself venturing farther out. Some of these experiences had a physical flavor to them, while others seemed to take place "elsewhere."

I never had any problems with returning to my body. Staying out of my body was the more difficult task. Often, I would suddenly find myself back in bed during an OBE. The slightest thought about my physical body would cause this to happen. I was able to remedy the problem somewhat by keeping myself ultra-focused on the environment, but it was far from ideal. Over time, however, thoughts about my physical body seemed to have less of an effect.

Traveling for long distances in the out-of-body state was also quite difficult, I discovered. This problem became especially acute while I was still living in the Netherlands, physically separated from my girlfriend, who was in Canada. Standing in front of the Atlantic and having to cross it by flight is a pretty overwhelming prospect. My attempts to travel such long distances often failed. I was either pulled back into my body prematurely, or I would completely forget about my initial purpose on my way there by getting distracted by something else. I had to find a simpler and more straightforward mode of travel. The "void" seemed like a good candidate for doing just that.

In the out-of-body state, I would frequently find myself floating in an empty black space with nothing around me. It was not unpleasant except that very little ever seemed to happen there. It was like floating in a space of nothingness. But then something occurred to me. If distance is an illusion in the out-of-body state - and it certainly appeared that way in the void-then why not use it to travel from one location to another? I would simply fly through it for a while, keep my destination in mind, and then arbitrarily touch ground somewhere.

With this method, I had better success in reaching my girlfriend, who was living in Montreal. It certainly was a lot cheaper than taking an airplane. Mind you, the method was far from foolproof. More often than not, I would end up in what appeared to be a foreign city, but not always close to the house where my girlfriend lived. It is not that easy finding your way in the out-of-body state, even if you are relatively close to your destination. Yet, despite all these difficulties, I was able to reach my girlfriend on several occasions.

Apart from traveling issues, what I also came to realize during these early experiences was that the OBE is not at all as straightforward as it is often proposed. Usually, the environment I encountered was quite different from the real environment that I knew to be there. Proof of the reality of the OBE was difficult to come by, and even if there was some sort of validation, it was usually different from what I expected. For example, during one projection, I found my girlfriend's house filled with vampires. This was odd, since vampires had never before figured in my out-of-body experiences, nor were they particularly in vogue at the time. Needless to say, I did not stick around for long during that particular visit, but the next day I asked my girlfriend what she had been doing at the time. She told me she had been watching a horror movie, and indeed vampires were a part of it. Assuming that this was more than just coincidence, I had apparently perceived her state of mind rather than the actual environment. It was one of the first indications I had that the content of consciousness takes precedence over everything, including physical reality itself.

One of the most popular interpretations of the OBE is that you are roaming the physical world quite literally as if you were a ghost. However, what is assumed to be physical reality in the out-of-body state does not always act like physical reality. Often, objects that should be there are absent or displaced (windows, furniture, doors, and so on). Or you may encounter events and people that are not really there. Other inconsistencies include being able to open doors and windows while out of the body. The latter is obviously not an ability that a ghost is supposed to have.

In the OBE literature, these inconsistencies are often referred to as "reality fluctuations" or "perceptual distortions." It is said that the out-of-body environment is more fluid than regular physical reality, more easily responding to thoughts and expectations of the projector. This did not seem such a bad explanation except that these distortions were the norm rather than the exception. Where was reality located in all of this? I had to find other accounts of the OBE, so I began to read up on the scientific literature.

I quickly discovered that the problems I experienced were hardly unique to me. Of particular interest were several parapsychological investigations carried out in the 1970s. These experiments usually involved asking a talented subject to establish the out-of-body state and then try to perceive an object in another room, with the object itself unbeknownst to the projector. Surprisingly, even the most famous and adept projectors were unable to correctly view the object in the other room. There were a few exceptions, but overall, results showed that accurate perception in the out-of-body state was not as straightforward as is often suggested in the popular literature. Without prior knowledge of the environment, physical reality was almost impossible to perceive correctly.

My skepticism regarding the reality of the OBE grew. I'd had a few experiences that were difficult to relegate to the realm of coincidence. Yet, none of these explained the vast number of occurrences in which my experience in the out-of-body state was different from physical reality. It didn't seem to fit this quite literal idea of roaming the physical world as a ghost, give or take a few perceptual distortions. I became increasingly interested in more scientific and conventional explanations for the OBE.

One of these explanations suggested that that the OBE is a lucid dream, which is a dream during which you are entirely alert and aware, just as you are in ordinary waking consciousness. Yet, you are actually only occupying a dream world that is recreated from your own mental model of the world, perhaps even including hovering over your own body located on the bed. In other words, according to this explanation, when you have an OBE, you are not really out of your body-you are dreaming it.

This "dreaming hypothesis," as we might call it, sounded pretty convincing to me when I first learned about it. After all, my body seemed to be asleep during these experiences, and it would certainly account for the many inconsistencies I encountered. So was I just dreaming during my experiences? And if so, what would that imply?

Whatever the terminology used, dream or otherwise, most scientific approaches try to make the point that the OBE is an unreal experience. Some, for example, hold that the OBE is a hallucination of some sort that has nothing to do with reality. Others argue that the OBE is produced by the brain; they assume that consciousness is a product of the brain and is therefore ultimately located inside of the body, so therefore nothing is leaving the body. Still others consider the OBE the result of a distortion in various psychological and perceptual processes. In all of these perspectives, the OBE is viewed as entirely internally generated, not related to objective reality as we know it. Nothing is leaving the body, and the out-of-body environment is entirely created by the projector. But what does the idea that the OBE is internally generated really tell us about the reality of the OBE?

As noted by Charles Tart, we already live in a virtual world in which our perception is a simulation of reality rather than reality itself.2 We do not experience reality directly, but instead, energies of sound and light travel down our sensory apparatus and through our central nervous system, eventually resulting in the conscious perception of physical reality. So physical reality, as we perceive it, is internally generated as well. Senses obviously function as senses, but ultimately, what you perceive as the world comes from within, not from the outside. We do not really know what is "out there" on an objective level. In Tart's words: "We sit, as it were, in a movie theatre of our own, lost in the show created by the usually hidden mechanisms of the World Simulation Process."3

No matter how you turn it, the OBE fundamentally challenges your outlook on what is real. I am presented with experiences that have a definite feeling of reality to them. There are many inconsistencies, and even a high level of lucidity may not always be guaranteed, but the out-of-body experience is able to closely simulate physical experience. Thus, inevitably the question arises as to what makes anything real or unreal, including physical reality itself. After all, scientific rigor, if applied to one end of the spectrum, should work in the opposite direction as well.

In the end, the experience of floating in the air while looking down upon your physical body, at the very least, opens up your mind to the possibility that consciousness may have less to do with corporeal existence than previously assumed. Even so, as convincing as the experience may be, I still cannot be certain I am really out of the body. I may merely be looking down at a replication of my physical body, produced by my own expectations and lacking any real significance. Does it end with my imagination - the inner experienced as if coming from outside - or is there something else about the out-of-body state that makes it real? We will have to make up our minds as we go along, with all our expectations and beliefs and their confounding influence on everything that we encounter in the out-of-body state.

1. Monroe, R.A. (1971). Journeys out of the body. New York, Doubleday.
2. Tart, C. (1990). Multiple Personality, Altered States and Virtual Reality: The World Simulation Process Approach. Dissociation, 3, 222-233.
3. Ibid, p. 227.