This review is by Kit Riemer, MD, PhD
There’s a part early on in Far Journeys, the seminal 1985 biography by Robert A. Monroe (the founder of the modern out of body experience, or OBE, movement), where Monroe describes playing poker with some friends and being dealt multiple consecutive extremely unlikely hands. Before he has turned the cards over he feels certain he already knows the outcomes, says so out loud, and indeed, he’s proven right, much to the astonishment of his friends.
The first chapter of the book is filled with stories like this, where Monroe says, “check out this crazy shit that happened to me.” During this card game, Monroe doesn’t describe his consciousness leaving his body, or remotely viewing his hand before he turns it over, or anything. He just has a feeling. It’s unclear what connection there is, if any, between these occurrences and Monroe’s OBEs.
To me, this is the perfect summary of the OBE phenomenon, which I prefer to call “astral projection,” a less scientific, more sparkly name that Monroe makes a point to eschew. It’s a collection of psychological phenomena, not the least of which is confirmation bias: if you’re suggestible, if you want it to be true, then your most lifelike and symbolic dreams and strangest coincidences will form the rich tapestry of an astral visionary, and your failures will stem from a lack of determination, imagination, or discipline, or focus.
What is an OBE/Astral Projection?
“The act of separating the astral body (spirit or consciousness) from the physical body and its journey into the universe.” (Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, by way of Wikipedia).
Well, that’s not terribly invigorating. Let’s hear from Monroe:
“...an out-of-body experience is a condition where you find yourself outside of your physical body, fully conscious and able to perceive and act as if you were functioning physically—with several exceptions. You can move through space (and time?) slowly or apparently somewhere beyond the speed of light. You can observe, participate in events, make willful decisions based upon what you perceive and do. You can move through physical matter such as walls, steel plates, concrete, earth, oceans, air, even atomic radiation without effort or effect. You can go into an adjoining room without bothering to open the door. You can visit a friend three thousand miles away. You can explore the moon, the solar system, and the galaxy if these interest you. Or—you can enter other reality systems only dimly perceived and theorized by our time/space consciousness.” (page 3 of Far Journeys. I forget how to cite stuff. Monroe can’t sue me, he’s dead.)
Finally, here’s a definition from a paper on tinnitus treatment-induced OBEs in the New England Journal of Medicine:
“An out-of-body experience is a brief subjective episode in which the self is perceived as being outside the body (disembodiment), with or without the impression of seeing the body from an elevated and distanced visuospatial perspective (autoscopy)... It has been suggested that out-of-body experiences are the result of a transient failure to integrate the visual, tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular information that converges at the temporoparietal junction, especially on the right side of the brain.”
That will be the most informative part of this review, by the way.
Far be it for me to excoriate something intangible, something that can only be known through firsthand experience. I can only follow the evidence.
On the basis of my immersion in a popular online astral projection community, I think it’s safe to say there’s really just one source people commonly cite to assuage skepticism of the phenomenon: the CIA’s “Analysis and Assessment of The Gateway Process.” The 1983 document, produced by a US Army Lieutenant Colonel, was declassified in 2003, and it comprises an in-depth investigation of intentional OBEs and their potential usefulness to the US military. The thrust of the report’s conclusion is that astral projection could be legitimate and should be researched and taught to our soldiers so that they can project into secret bases and steal launch codes and so on. So at some point, at least, the CIA thought it had potential.
What other evidence is there? Well, there’s the Monroe Institute, founded by our boy Rob A. in the early 1970s. They haven’t published any research that I know of, but over the years they did run a great many workshops and studies of their own, resulting in their production and refinement of “binaural beats,” which we’ll get to shortly.
Around the same time that Monroe’s eponymous Institute was getting off the ground, Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California began their own program researching the phenomenon of “remote viewing,” which is, like, when you project your consciousness across the room or town or whatever and see stuff you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Their research apparently involved double-blind protocols in which viewers had to discern symbols and objects confined within envelopes and boxes, and according to the program’s director at the time, results supported the veracity of the phenomenon. That on its own is fairly exciting, but what really gets me hooting and slamming my cymbals together is the program’s sponsor: once again the CIA!
There’s an article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience where researchers fMRI’d someone claiming to be undergoing voluntary OBEs and which showed “an unusual type of kinesthetic imagery.” There are various anecdotes listed on a reference page from the astral projection subreddit. Based on my limited knowledge, I consider it likely you could find similar classified & declassified documents from most major countries around the same time our CIA’s investigation took place. Nobody wanted to be left behind when the hype train left the station, least of all a competing world power.
That is all the evidence of which I’m currently aware. Read it if you like, and draw your own conclusions.
Why Is This Novel and/or Interesting?
I’m so fucking glad you asked. The reason is that astral projection, and the lack of certainty its practitioners necessarily exhibit, produces the funniest content ever. Sharing a bunch of it here would feel self-indulgent, like when you’re with a friend and they won’t stop showing you Youtube videos, but I implore you to check out some of the batshit posts on the astral projection subreddit. Off the top of my head:
- Every time A astral projects, an energy entity tries to have sex with them. They want to know how to decline.
- B projected and saw a white planet with rings and it felt like home. “Does anyone know abt this?” they ask.
- C is curious whether dogs can astral project.
- D projected to the White House and was confronted by Astral Guards. They make a post to warn people. Other commenters confirm that especially important government targets are always protected in the astral.
- E is curious whether anyone projected to Epstein’s island (a reasonable question).
- F once had an experience where they were being harassed by a demon witch lady and then their cat appeared and beat the shit out of it. They’d like to know whether cats can project.
- G would like to know whether it’s possible to gain great knowledge in the astral plane by reading books or speaking with wise people. Another eminently reasonable question.
- H once had an OBE in which they were living with their girlfriend on another planet called Angora on the 260th story of a skyscraper. They were a successful tattoo artist. They looked at the sky and saw beautiful pink clouds and stars connecting and various symbols. They then had a vision of policelike entities picking up money from the street and burying it under the sand. “How can you be sure this wasn’t just a dream?” someone asked. “I’m not even sure I’m alive,” H replied. Perhaps the most reasonable of all possible responses.
How Does One Enter the Astral Realm?
You can go to the Monroe Institute’s website and take their “Beginner” set of courses, which total about 14 weeks of lessons and cost a combined $2,834. (The “Monroe Journey” for returning students is a bit more at $9,645, but it teaches you to explore the afterlife and “forms of dimensional shifting,” among other things.)
On the other end of the cost spectrum, /r/Astralprojection has a number of free resources. These include binaural beats (also developed by Monroe, but the technology has apparently been liberated from the claws of the Institute), the most popular aid in achieving an OBE. The conceit is this: when hearing two different frequencies simultaneously, our brains parse and “hear” the difference between the two, such that we can absorb frequencies beyond the typical human hearing spectrum, like 3 Hz. The resulting signal is generated by the two hemispheres of the brain working together, and according to Monroe, by mimicking the thrumming of brain waves, it can be used to induce certain states of consciousness.
“Beat” here refers not to the repetitive hitting of a drum but rather to a phenomenon in acoustics that occurs when two nearly identical tones are played together: rather than a steady tone, the listener hears a fluctuating tremolo pattern. We know that brains do emit certain waves (beta, theta, etcetera) during sleep, but whether the reverse is true—that the brain can be compelled into a specific state of consciousness by playing it a certain frequency—is a dubious prospect, although research (n=29, so ingest with salt) indicates it’s possible.
I’ve been listening to binaural beats the whole time I’ve been writing this (there are playlists on Spotify), and they pretty much sound like New Age-y ambient instrumentals with wobbly “beats.” Kind of like when you have a window on one side of the car open while driving but the others are all closed.
Why Astral Project?
What is the use case for such a thing, beyond just zipping around the universe? Monroe would have you believe that the ability to produce an intentional OBE so calms the brain that one can undergo surgery without anaesthetic, among innumerable other health benefits. r/Astralprojection seems to pretty much just visit/get visited by weird energy entities, occasionally fuck them, and steadfastly refuse to produce proof via remote viewing, despite people arriving in the sub ever so often, requesting this seemingly easily providable firsthand evidence, and being profoundly rebuked.
Having a Google Earth-style map of the universe that loads super quickly would be neat, no doubt. In Far Journeys, Monroe (hilariously, IMO) reports getting bored exploring birthing stars and other planets and stuff, so I guess nothing will hold humanity’s interest indefinitely. If you’re a member of a military or government agency, of course, the possibilities are endless.
I hope the CIA spends millions or billions more dollars researching this. The best possible scenario is that they find just enough proof to warrant repeated programs and expensive studies and that they empty our national coffers and we can’t pay social security benefits anymore and western society collapses. (ED: as the lead editor of the Holistic Review, I also hope this happens.) I hope teenagers keep having insane sex dreams and breathlessly telling strangers about them online and getting righteously pissed when anyone asks them to chill out. I hope the Monroe Institute keeps educating, or studying, or grifting the ultra-rich/bored/desperate, or whatever. I hope my melatonin kicks in so I can send this to Casey and go to sleep. Ah, there it goes.