Can having an out of body experience help your mental health?
A new generation is delving into this ancient spiritual practice...
image Jonas McIlwain
words Naomi Attwood
Trigger Warning: This piece contains references to suicidal ideation
Seven years ago, Jade Shaw was a successful choreographer and dance teacher at institutions like The Royal Academy of Dance and Sadler's Wells Theatre. Although interested in spirituality, she was career-orientated, also running her own company teaching dance. During childhood she’d had; “super scary” experiences; while lying in bed, she’d feel intense vibrations and energy come over her. She learned “to phase myself out of them, using breathing techniques”. Eventually, the experiences stopped and Jade forgot about them.
As an adult, finding a book by Robert Monroe called Journeys Out of the Body; Jade, a glamorous, animated Northerner, who speaks at 60mph, realised; “this is what I used to have as a child! This is crazy, is it real? Can I have one now?” She practised the book’s techniques for weeks; trying to keep her mind awake while the body falls asleep. Once achieved, if a sensation of extreme vibration comes over you, you will yourself out of your body.
But nothing happened. “I gave up trying, then had one spontaneously” - having been at the point of falling asleep, Jade felt the energetic vibrations, then used the techniques she’d learned. Rising out of her body, she looking down on herself, then floated out of her house and down the road, exploring. She willed herself to nirvana [the Buddhist concept of heaven] and found herself floating along a dark tunnel, propelled towards a light. Then, she explained, “I got super scared, which made me snap back into my body”. She sat up in bed, crackling with static electricity.
Professor of Psychology Imants Barušs, explained that; OBEs “occur within altered states of consciousness (ASC) where our awareness differs from our usual way of being” Other altered states include dreams or psychedelic hallucinations, which share some features of OBEs, but are not the same in all ways.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, Neuroscientist Professor Olaf Blanke, characterises the phenomenon as; “a location of the self (or one's centre of awareness) outside one's body, an impression of seeing the world from an extracorporeal elevated perspective, and an impression of seeing one's own body from this perspective. They are striking phenomena because they challenge the experienced spatial unity of self and body—or the experience of a real me that resides in one's body and is the subject of experience and action.”
Blanke points to “neurological evidence [which] shows that these experiences are related to an interference with the temporo-parietal junction of the brain”. According to Blanke, the phenomenon is ‘related’ to certain brain activity, although others question whether this equals causation or not, more of which later.
Jade explains the profound effect on her life; “there’s a phenomenon astronauts experience called The Overview Effect. When they look down at the Earth, they undergo a massive shift in consciousness and feeling of interconnectedness. They realise they’re not part of a nation, but the human race, and that everything is connected.” When you leave your body; “you look down on yourself and realise; I am not my physical body, I will not die. My me-ness is here, my body is not me.” She adds; “It’s not a hazy dream, it’s not a psychedelic trip. It’s tangible and real”.
Research shows, having an OBE decreases fear of death and that even a simulated OBE induced by immersive VR can lessen it. Jade explains; “when I looked down at my body, I realised I’d always self-identified as that body, and limited myself to that. I thought – maybe there are no limitations, only endless possibilities”. In psychology, this is known as a ‘peak experience’.
Another feature of OBEs is heightened sensory awareness, such as extra-sharp vision, and extraordinarily sensitive hearing; “I can see dewdrops on a leaf in the park down the road” Jade describes. Another is ‘non-local perception’; you can come out of your body, go and look at physical landmarks. “I went down a road I’d never been down, looked at a door number. Later I went back and verified it.”
Within a month, Jade decided to switch careers, turning down a grant her dance company had worked for years to secure and closing the business before enrolling at University to study MSc Transpersonal Psychology - the study of consciousness and spirituality. Jade explains; “I couldn’t go back to my old life, knowing what I knew now”. She lived in a Tibetan Buddhist Centre in London, going deeper into meditational practice.
Now Jade is a full-time Out of Body Experience Researcher and Teacher. She’s made a documentary called Insight Out; travels the world teaching people to have OBEs (you can find her courses via her site or at Conscious Lifestyle shop, She’s Lost Control); and is planning a book.
Culturally, in the West we’re not attuned to these experiences. While some studies show that as many as 10% of the population report having had one, widespread knowledge is limited. Interviewees for this piece mentioned it’s not an experience you can mention conversationally, with one saying; “just try going to Church and telling people you can leave your body”. Scientific studies into the phenomenon have focused on surgical patients, or accident victims rather than healthy participants. In other cultures, it's more normalised. “In Sufism [Islamic mysticism] Hinduism, Buddhism and in indigenous cultures” says Jade, they’re accepted. These cultures “have polyphasic perception. The West is monophasic” she added. Meaning, in our culture, only everyday waking reality is valid, ‘evidence’ means physical evidence, while altered states of consciousness, like meditation, trances or dreams are discounted.
Other benefits include; comfort when bereaved and spiritual enlightenment or finding the meaning of life. A speaker in Insight Out describes becoming a vegan, finding greater compassion for animals. “You become aligned with your authentic self. You gain clarity and decide what you want in life”. Jade explains.
Experiences vary between individuals. Lance, a softly-spoken Texan tattoo artist, dressed in black with neatly barbered hair, told me; “I grew up in a blue collar, oil field, desert-wasteland type of town” he explained. “Everyone there was aggressive and hard-edged. I was too - getting into fights”. When Lance became a father, he decided he didn’t want that hostility surrounding his son, so started therapy. “Then meditation. I got serious, practising the Kundalini method daily”. Through meditation he felt a state of awakening, which he described as feeling; “in tune with nature; trees, animals”. A more subtle experience than Jades, Lance describes feeling overwhelmed with gratitude and love, and consciously inviting of those states.
He stumbled onto Astral Projection; the practice of self-inducing OBEs - on YouTube. Devouring books and videos, he practised for six months before experiencing loud ringing within his own head, which he knew was one of the signs; the transitional, or vibration stage. It would take several more months of practice before, one night, after waking in the early hours, he experienced floating up and out of his body, travelling to various astral locations for what felt like hours, which he remembered clearly and recorded afterwards. It was scary and sometimes creepy, but amazingly vivid.
Then things took a turn. Lance went out drinking with a friend who suffered from depression, and was suicidal. “I was listening to him and wanted to connect with him, but he wouldn’t listen to me and just looked at his phone. I lost my temper with him, while we were both intoxicated”. Lance arrived home feeling angry, then went to bed. He woke up in sleep paralysis and couldn’t move. He had another experience. “I had weird vision and static electricity. There was a demon screaming in my ear. I couldn’t move, as if covered in heavy tar. I could hear creepy children’s voices singing, and playing with my son’s toy blocks but it wasn’t my son. Horrifying”. Lance was desperate to wake but it continued. Finally, it started to dissipate. He laid there “shaking and trying not to piss myself. I was traumatised.” After that he thought; “what have I opened myself up to?”
Lance now describes this ‘bad trip’ as the best thing to happen to him. Research led him to counteract the chances of another bad experience by practising openness, love and gratitude all the time. “When you exit your body, you’re in an environment where your thoughts take form. Whatever you’re thinking and feeling, that’s what you get.” Lance continued to check in with his friend, consciously seeing his struggles through the lens of compassion, remembering what he’d been through to cause that suffering, and avoiding judgement, but with the boundary that you can only help those who want to be helped.
Lance describes becoming more outgoing, confident, adventurous and open-minded. Even his tattoo designs have become “more positive, even psychedelic!” He’s subsequently had more experiences; all positive.
Having scary experiences, or “facing fears” are one element of the practice, says Susan, a Scottish nurse, who radiates an aura of calm. While out of our body, she says; our thoughts create images. If you’re in a fear-based state, those images could be frightening. Susan has experienced many OBE’s over a period of years, describing one memorable time; “I rolled out of my body and made a command ‘kitchen now’ and appeared in my kitchen. My form was luminous rainbow light, which mesmerised me. It felt truly blissful. My kitchen seemed more vibrant and brighter than normal.”
At one point; “I returned to my bedroom and saw my physical body lying on the bed. I walked back to the kitchen, enjoying the light feeling of being this luminous rainbow body. I decided to return to my physical body and wanted to see if I could re-enter without losing awareness. I hovered over my body and entered fully conscious and then I lifted up out of it again and I could see my luminous body creating energy trails.”
Susan explains how Astral Projection, so-called because participants determine where to travel after leaving their bodies – has changed her. “I am not my body, I am not my thoughts and I’m not my conditioning” - which has given her perspective on life, similarly to successful therapy unpicking negative thought patterns. Susan temporarily left nursing while grappling with the implications of her experiences, but returned and now works in a hospice. “I can do this role because I know you don’t die”, she explains. She provides comfort and acceptance to those at their time of “transitioning” – believing it’s made her a more compassionate nurse. Since having experiences, Susan started meditating regularly and has become interested in Theta healing and sound waves; concepts that, with her traditional upbringing and medical training she would never have previously believed in. She’s also coaching Astral Projection.
Jade says people getting over grief are drawn to practise OBE’s “to meet a loved one who’s passed.” Another category is the terminally ill, who want proof that when they die they will go on. “Even listening to others talk can be really healing. People with cancer often come to my courses.”
Opening the door to the multidimensional world of OBEs and astral projection is the beginning of a journey; the more you learn, the more questions arise; If it’s a phenomenon of the mind, then how can some protagonists see places and receive verifiable information while out of their body? What happens to your body while “you” are not in it? And one that scientists have started and continue to ask; does consciousness originate in the brain, or is the brain merely a conduit? Those who go deep into these experiences ask; could it come from somewhere else, only explained by a spiritual, rather than neurological perspective?
Jade Shaw’s next course at She’s Lost Control is in August, available to book now.