One of the first books I read on paranormal matters was Sylvian Muldoon's Projection of the Astral Body, published (I think) during the 1930s. It talks about how he started having out-of-the-body experiences, and how he learned to bring them on regularly. I'd never come across such a thing before, and the idea of it blew me away.
Later I came across collections of OBE anecdotes by Robert Crookall and Celia Green, the work of Robert Monroe and others, and realised that this is a well attested phenomenon. I was also impressed by veridical details that suggest it's genuinely supernormal. By the time I discovered Susan Blackmore's study I was disinclined to accept her 'all-in-the-mind' explanation, which I found well argued but thinly supported by experience, being derived from her single episode.
Yet I realise now that I've treated the out-of-body experience from a research perspective, not from a practical one, as something that might be exciting - and spiritually educational - to actually do. When Graham Nicholls, an out-of-body expert, got in touch to invite me to one of his workshops last year, I was tempted, but it seemed like a big leap to take.
Now Nicholls has sent me his new book to review, about how to induce OBEs. I soon realised it would make no sense without reading his first one, Avenues of the Human Spirit, which tells how he first started having these experiences. So this post is by way of comment on both.
Nicholls's background is working class London, where he was brought up in the often difficult circumstances of the inner city. He describes a harrowing mugging incident, and hanging out with delinquent youths in his teens, yet he clearly possesses a highly sensitive and spiritually-inclined temperament. His first psychic experience occurred as a child when he awoke one night feeling a powerful sense of energy all around him. He found himself getting out of bed and going into the corridor outside, where he encountered an unfamiliar tall figure staring intently at him.
I looked up to find that the energy continued to flow in every direction and even the doorway in which the figure stood seemed to extend out into another place or time.... Although my fear held me to the spot, there was also a feeling that something very important and transformative was taking place. The fear came from me, not from anything the apparition had done. In fact it had more of the feeling of a messenger or guide than of anything negative...
The more I looked into the eyes of the tall ethereal figure the more I felt like I was being given something. Looking back now, even without appealing to mystical explanations for what took place, it is clear that I was opened to a new and life-changing avenue of enquiry in my life.
At age twelve he started to have the frequent sense of floating a few feet above the ground, and sometimes woke from sleep to find himself briefly looking at the sky above him, as if he was somehow seeing through walls. Later he discovered Janet Lee Mitchell's book Out-of-Body Experiences, and spent several months trying to induce one by means of complex visualisations. Eventually he succeeded:
I had not been lying there long when an almost violent surge shot through my body, like all the effort of the previous months had built up into a single transformative moment. I opened my eyes to the realisation that I was floating above my body like a translucent reflection of myself. Currents of energy seemed to pulse and flow throughout my shimmering form, and although I could barely move, and only side-to-side as if a pole extended from my head to my feet, the intensity of what was happening gave me a deep sense of freedom.
Looking down, his body appeared grey and stony, almost statuesque. His 'second' body was 'luminous and radiating, and seemed to add a slight hue to the room.
It took a while to learn how to move, and longer still to reach beyond the confines of his home. He found that organic objects, such as trees, seemed to vibrate on a subtler frequency to concrete and glass, which, counterintuitively, seemed more energised. But the frequencies seem to shift; sometimes living things seem 'almost unbearably luminescent' while at other times they appear dull and almost invisible.
He began experimenting with ways to push himself to more distant locations, using techniques such as meditation and yogic breathing. Physical exhaustion, he found, is an ideal condition in which to have an OBE. On one such occasion, during a trip to the New Forest, he witnessed
the most vivid and intense colour cascading around me. As I became used to the intensity of the scene I could make out trees and countryside with a level of detail that my physical eyes had never achieved... The leaves of plants seemed to glisten with light and as I focused on their surface my eyes seemed to look deep into them giving a sense of the life and fertility flowing through their delicate structures... I felt ecstatic travelling over the treetops with a sense of total peace and freedom; everything was alive and transfused with light.
Some incidents provided veridical details. In one of the first, he found himself looking down at a street near Paddington in North London. Going down to street level he focused on a sign outside a restaurant that listed the day's specials, and going to check it later found it to be exactly as he had seen it while in an out-of-body state. This persuaded him it was not just a hallucination. (I'd need more details to be convinced of this myself, but if confirmed, it's the kind of thing that refutes the implication in Blackmore's single experience, where the details she observed turned out not to conform with the facts.)
Some of his experiences turned out to be precognitive, but not in a good way. He describes witnessing the 1999 Soho pub bombing, an event that actually took place five days later, and also the 2005 underground train bombings, viewing one of the attacks near Liverpool Street a year before it happened. He describes these experiences as being suffused with a cerulean-blue light, which he now takes as an indication that it is likely to be precognitive.
Such incidents nurtured Nicholls's gradual spiritual development, although more by seeking knowledge and experience rather than following any particular religion or ideology. He started holding workshops, and developed innovative methods of bringing on an OBE. He especially favours immersive techniques, such as the ganzfeld, not necessarily to create OBEs, but to help nurture the conditions for experiences to occur.
These are described in some detail in his new book, Navigating the Out of Body Experience: Radical New Techniques. Other approaches include relaxation, visualising, massage, movement, physical exhaustion, and so on. He also discusses the of geometric patterns and other visual symbols, similar to those used by occultists, and there are sections on related topics, such as healing, nutrition (he is a keen vegan), sleep, exercise and sex. A substantial appendix gives a variety of methods in a step-by-step form for readers to follow.
He also looks at the scientific (parapsychological) background, referring to theories of the extended mind and quantum entanglement, and the relationship with remote viewing and near-death experiences. He talks about mediumship, precognition and the afterlife. I read attentively the section on fears: my personal worry would be about finding my way back, having separated from the body, but Nicholls is quite reassuring on these and other points.
He makes some useful comments on sceptical disbelief. In the case of Susan Blackmore's single experience, the fact that she was able to go on communicating with other people who were present in the room at the time suggests to him that it was a hallucination - unsurprising, since it was brought on by smoking a joint at a party.
He doesn't think much either of the Swiss neurophysiologist Olaf Blanke, who simulates OBE-type experiences by using virtual technology and claims this proves it is all in the mind. Blanke's view has been uncritically accepted by much of the media - a pity, as he has merely shown that the brain can be tricked or manipulated, so that it becomes confused about the position of the body or limbs in space. That tells us little if anything about full out-of-body experiences, which he has not demonstrated, as NDE specialist Dr Peter Fenwick also points out.
I found both these books fascinating, both on a general level and in terms of specifics. The OBE has been something of a dead end for parapsychologists, and the difficulty of verifying veridical perception has been a challenge for near-death researchers too. But adepts like Nicholls show how rich the experience can be on a personal level, in which the separation of the self from the physical body opens the eyes to all sorts of transformative possibilities.
Where dabblers like me try to find a place for spirituality in our otherwise quite unspiritual lives, Nicholls is one of those people for whom it has always been the main thing; it informs all his ideas and activities. The out-of-body experience is central to this. Thanks to the efforts of such pioneers, others can follow in their footsteps into the extraordinary world that lies close by, but of which most human beings have no knowledge whatever.