Astral projection (or astral travel) is a spiritual interpretation of the out of body experience. It supposes we each possess a spirit that can roam freely from the body while we are in a semi-sleep or trance state.
For scientists, astral travel is a controversial notion because of the lack of direct physical evidence. For lucid dreamers, it bears striking resemblances with internally generated wake induced lucid dreams (WILDs).
So, as a scientist and a lucid dreamer you can imagine where I stand.
But it hasn't always been this way. For years I believed astral projection was a real, obtainable goal. I did everything in my power to achieve it.
Here's what happened when I did.
As a teenager I was set on having out of body experiences.
Through meditation practices, I'd already had some tantalizing experiences of passing through the "vibrational state"; a harsh buzzing sensation which marks the onset of conscious sleep.
Around the same time I began having lucid dreams, which I more often initiated from within the dream state. It's a very different proposition.
But soon, I'd managed to separate my awareness from my body in bed, and float away into my bedroom. Sometimes I'd be floating in a dream bedroom; other times I felt it was for real (even if it was difficult to see much).
My beliefs at the time suggested I was genuinely traveling out of my body. I became too scared to travel very far out.
But over time, I had more WILDs, in which I entered my dreams, consciously, from a waking state. If I didn't imagine a dream scene, I'd start dreaming of my bedroom, and then I'd float out my body and out the window to begin my adventure. It was as tangible as any astral projection experience.
And so it soon made sense to me that the most likely explanation of all was that these slightly different exit methods were all internally generated dream states.
When I looked at it that way, the jigsaw pieces fell into place.
Interestingly, the core experience of astral projection, out of body experiences, sleep paralysis and wake induced lucid dreams are very similar.
It begins when you are half-asleep in bed. You may feel paralyzed. You are aware of lying in bed, yet there are some funny sensations going on.
As you dissociate from your body, you begin to feel as if you're floating. Your mind shuts off awareness from your physical body. As long as you are awake, and your body falls asleep, you will naturally transfer your awareness to a more flexible replica body; a dream body.
You could describe this as a spirit or astral body. Or you could call it your lucid dream body. It's all about perspective.
To carry the perception that you are still paralyzed, or somehow stuck in your body in bed, will almost certainly create a frustrating experience. It may even become scary - especially if you start to dream that evil entities or astral spirits have entered the room. No-one likes a night time intruder.
Those bold enough to separate fully can explore the room, pass through walls and windows and even fly out into the night. It's no wonder that this incredibly realistic experience is interpreted as a spiritual one.
But wait a moment... I have still achieved all of this in lucid dreams. Considering the most likely explanation, I'm going with lucid dreaming. We can even call it astral dreaming. To my rational brain, I see no reason to invoke a stranger explanations.
I think believers would argue my case with the claim that I was only lucid dreaming about astral projection. That's something that neither of us can prove or disprove, so it leaves us in a quandary.
So to help explore this phenomenon, I'd like to propose a study of astral projection experiences. Crucially, the study will involve lodging people's personal spiritual or religious views at the time they had their experience.
This will help us understand whether the experience of astral travel is externally or internally generated.
If there's one reliable principle in lucid dreaming, it's that your expectations play a leading role in your experience.
You might travel to different astral planes, see layers of ethereal realities shaped by energy and light. Yet one key similarity remains: in astral projection and lucid dreams, your thoughts guide the experience.
In the same way, if you imagine a friend's house on your astral travels, you will likely zap there in an instant. If you imagine your body back in bed, you will quickly return to it. And if you expect to see the legendary silver chord connecting you to your body, it will materialize.
As lucid dreamers, the expectation principle often works in our favor. We can use it to manifest dream figures and objects, change the scenery, and fulfill our greatest desires. Even if things turn sour and we experience a lucid nightmare, we remain aware that none of it is real and we are safe.
For the astral traveler, the power of expectations can be a major hindrance. Not least because of the direct emotional implications of mingling with the spirit world. One example is from the blogger Erin Pavlina who described her first astral projection experience as terrifying:
Under the effect of sleep paralysis, Erin sensed three other entities in her bedroom, trying to coax her out of body.
She had problems trying to breathe, scream, and free herself from the paralysis. The more she fought it, the more terrified she became, until she eventually woke up.
She later had a nervous breakdown.
Erin believed her spirit was in a literal tug-of-war against the presences in her room (who, incidentally, she could also hear talking about her).
This was bad news for Erin. And I strongly feel her experience was led by her belief in the spirit world. Could the same thing happen to a non-believer?
In other words, in light of the lack of evidence for a spirit world, I see no reason to plague our conscious and unconscious minds with irrational beliefs that ultimately lead to terrifying encounters. Especially if we dabble with lucid dream experiences on the sleep-wake border.
If you want to feel safe in your dream explorations, I suggest consciously recognizing that any entities you perceive through sleep paralysis or wake induced lucid dreams be accepted as dream figures. There's no need to draw upon theories of astral projection or out of body experiences.
This calm recognition will help reduce your fear and lead to better dream outcomes. Win-win.
This is a controversial subject. It touches on that soft sensitive spot where people hold their personal religious and spiritual views. By suggesting there's no such thing as an afterlife, I may be tearing up your world view and the instinctive reaction is to turn you back on me instead.
I hope you choose to remain open-minded to both possibilities. That you control your choices, and you dictate your internal experiences. Because it's the only way you'll be able to feel safe in the dream space.
Erin went on to have many more astral projection experiences and met many more negative entities in the spirit world. Eventually she learned to fight them Buffy The Vampire Slayer-style. Wouldn't it be fantastic, though, if she didn't have to go around in fear, defending herself from demons?
In lucid dreams, there is no need to fear nightmare figures. In fact, you can very often embrace them emotionally. Given the choice, would you rather fight off a twisted spirit - or embrace is as your unconscious self?
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This dream starts out pretty violent but then suddenly goes all profound on me. I'm having a nightmare in which a thin, gray-faced man is trying to kill me. I become lucid and battle him with ease, firing shots of lighting out of my hands and hitting him in the chest. He falls to his knees and I lock him in a gated prison using only my mind. But then my lucid dream evolves into a lucid nightmare. Another villain, who looks like Krang (or Krang's body at least) from that delightful cartoon about giant mutant turtles, frees the gray man using his telepathic powers. I am no match for him.
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