The year 2020 was all about the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and quarantines. It's no wonder, then, that stir-crazy people around the world were looking for a way – anyway at all – to escape the tedium of a solitary indoor existence. Perhaps that's why an old declassified document from the CIA mentioning astral projection created a buzz on Twitter this summer.
Astral projection, after all, is like taking a vacation without even leaving your home. All you have to do is, well, leave your body. Unlike the sort of out-of-body experience some people report when near-death, astral projection is an intentional out-of-body experience.
"An out-of-body experience (OBE) is a transient experience some people have, while conscious, that their self seems to becomes separated from their body, floats above the body and looks back down at that body from an elevated location," says Jane Aspell, a cognitive researcher at Anglia Ruskin University in England, via email. "Astral projection (AP) is an intentional OBE that usually involves the experience that the self can seem to travel far from their body – even to other countries or planets."
Western esotericism commonly uses the term astral projection to describe a purposeful OBE. In short, it's a way of describing the human consciousness or soul – or "astral body" — temporarily leaving the physical body. Unanchored from its mortal flesh and blood, the astral body can supposedly do all sorts of miraculous things.
"Astral projection is when the consciousness of a human is projected outside of his body into what we call the astral world," emails Robert Rubin, a tarot card authority at Mysterium Philippines. "Astral projection happens when the consciousness is sent to the astral form of this world (i.e. the astral representation of Katipunan, Manila, San Francisco, etc.) It usually has many, if not most similarities, with its real-world counterparts."
In other words, if you can harness the power of this phenomenon, you could potentially travel anywhere your imagination desires. How handy would that be in the middle of yet another stay-at-home order?
History of Astral Projection
Astral projection is anything but new. It's been around since ancient times, strewn throughout various cultures and religions. But its most recent resurgence in the Western world occurred in the 1800s.
"The idea comes from a 19th century mystical system called theosophy which claims that we have seven bodies from the lowest physical to the highest spiritual and mental bodies," emails Dr. Susan Blackmore, a writer, psychologist and visiting professor at the University of Plymouth in England. "The astral body is supposed to be able to separate from the physical and travel in the astral worlds."
Theosophy gained traction in America thanks to Russian immigrant Helena Blavatsky, who helped found the Theosophical Society in 1875 in New York City. Born into a wealthy family, she traveled much of the world, soaking up various religious beliefs along the way and then reworking them into new forms via theosophy. One of Blavatksy's teachings involved the astral body, and its ability to transcend mere flesh and travel to new places untethered.
"I have found that most people pursue astral projection as a part of their spiritual development," emails Laura Brown, a "spiritual life stylist" and founder of Intuitive Alchemy. "As we go deeper into our spiritual exploration, we learn that we are more than our physical Earth suit, and astral projection reinforces this notion. Not to mention it's quite a trippy experience to feel the sensation of leaving your body and being weightless."
Rubin adds that people do this "usually to understand the deeper significance of what lies beyond this realm, or to go places their physical bodies could not go. Even in some cases to commune and interact with nonphysical entities, like spirits, gods, or even the departed at times."
Is There Proof of Astral Projection?
You might be skeptical of these claims. Is this stuff real at all?
"They are 'real' in the sense that they feel real for the person experiencing them. As do dreams," says Aspell. "But does the experience reflect external reality? There is no scientific evidence that consciousness/mind/self can exist separately from the body or can 'detach from it'."
She adds that it seems as though the self is in a different place to the body during OBE and astral projection, and that experience must of course be itself generated by the brain. Our brains create a model of reality, in response to the information received and interpreted.
"If the brain does not function as it should – e.g., because of epilepsy/brain injury/lack of oxygen — then this model can give rise to an experience that differs from what we usually experience (our self being located inside our bodies)," Aspell says. "There is evidence from multiple scientific studies that OBEs arise because of abnormal functioning of an area of the brain called the temporo-parietal junction. This is an area that combines signals from multiple senses to create the model of our self in the world.
When the brain malfunctions, Aspell adds, "it gives rise to an unusual model (and experience) of the self in the world – one that seems to be separated from the body."
When it comes to astral projection, Blackmore is dismissive, going so far as to call the concept, "stupid." But out-of-body experiences in general? She loves them.
"They really are fascinating," she says. "Once you reject the idea of astral projection you come to think about the physiology. How does this work? What's going on? We now know that OBEs occur when our body schema is disrupted, that is the brain's continuously updated model of what our body is doing. OBEs can be induced by stimulating the part of the brain that builds this inner model, and we can practice playing around with our body senses in this and other ways."
She adds that it's the idea of science solving what was once a great mystery that fascinates her, not old ideas of astral projection.
Attempting Astral Projection
No matter what may be transpiring in our brains, Laura Brown sees astral projection as a way to explore our deeper selves.
"The more I work with astral traveling, the more I am fascinated by how it confirms that our consciousness and soul are not bound by the physical," she says. "We've often seen the human body as the central aspect of being, but it's what the human body is home to, that it contains this beautiful spiritual aspect of ourselves and the way projection affirms this."
For those wishing to try out astral projection, the website Spiritual Unite suggests lying in bed, clearing your mind and visualizing that "your astral body is leaving you." Laura Brown advises that it takes practice.
"I would suggest that newbies begin with guided meditations for astral travel which can be found for free on YouTube and such," she says. "The best thing I can suggest is to be very calm and to let go of any attachment to the outcome. Don't cling to this notion of 'I have to astral travel' because then you're not relaxed — you're holding on, which is the exact opposite of what you should be doing. And have fun with it!"