The modern idea that it is wrong to awaken a sleepwalker may be traced back to the primitive belief that to do so would prevent the soul, or astral body, from returning. Even more frightening is the belief, common in Haiti, that the soul can be stolen by evil beings and its owner subsequently enslaved -the zombies of Haiti are deemed to be bodies without souls.
In 1978, Dean Shiels, Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin, USA, published the results of his cross-cultural study of beliefs in OOBEs. He had collected data from nearly 70 non-Western cultures and this revealed that the belief in OOBE occurred in about 95 per cent of them. Despite the need for further research, Professor Shiels remarked that ‘the near-universality of OOBE beliefs and the consistency of the beliefs is striking.’
The notion of the astral body has a continuous history in the West, too medieval scholars wrote of the soul as the anima divina or aninza hunzana. Dante’s Purgatorio (canto 25), written in the 14th century, says that after death the soul ‘around it beams its own creative power, like to its living form in shape and size the circumambient air adopts the shape the soul imposes on it. ‘
One of the few men whose ability to travel astrally was acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church was St Anthony of Padua (1195—1231). St Anthony was a Portuguese Franciscan friar who won a great reputation as a preacher in southern France and Italy. He is the patron saint of the poor and is often called upon for the return of lost property.
It is said of St Anthony that one day in 1226, when he was preaching in a church in Limoges, he suddenly remembered that he was supposed to be reading a lesson at another church on the other side of town. St Anthony stopped his sermon, pulled his hood over his head and knelt silently for several minutes. During that time, monks in the other church saw the saint suddenly appear in their midst, read the lesson, then just as suddenly disappear again. St Anthony returned to his kneeling body and continued his sermon.
During recent centuries, many notable writers have described their own experiences of spontaneous projection or those of colleagues, among them Walter de la Mare, T. E. Lawrence, Jack London and Guy de Maupassant. Ernest Hemingway experienced the sensation of quitting his body when he was hit by shrapnel during the First World War. He later described it as
“my soul or something coming right out of my body, like you’d pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It flew around and then came back
in again, and I wasn’t dead any more.
The phenomenon of OOBE raises considerable problems for philosophers and psychologists. Many sceptics maintain that any suggestion of an OOBE should be dismissed as an hallucination or delusion. But people who have had such experiences arc adamant that they have, indeed, taken place. Even when unconscious at the time of the experience, some people have later described what was going on around them and those present have confirmed their accounts. Subjects who experience this phenomenon arc fully aware that they are in an out-of-the body state. Many subjects who have had an OOBE while on the operating table or after a serious accident say that the experience has profoundly changed their view of life and dispelled any fears about dying. An interesting theory on this type of projection, or ‘near-death experience’ (NDE) has been put forward by Doctor Carl Sagan, director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies in New York. He describes the phenomenon of NDE in these terms:
Every human being has already had an experience like that of travellers who return from the land of death; the sensation of flight and the emergence from darkness into light; an experience in which the heroic figure may be dimly perceived, bathed in radiance and glory. There is only one common experience that matches this description. It is called birth.
In times of mortal danger or acute emotional stress, perhaps one is able to retrieve these memories of birth and, once again, leave the darkness — the suffering body — and rise towards freedom and the light.