The notion of the human double has a long and colorful history. Plato gave us an early idea. He believed that what we see in this life is only a dim reflection of what the spirit could see if it were released from the physical. Imprisoned in a gross physical body, the spirit is restricted; separated from that body, it would be able to converse freely with the spirits of the departed, and see things more clearly. Another idea which can be traced to the Greeks is that we have second body. The spirit or some subtle body would be able to see better without its body. Aristotle taught that the spirit could leave the body and that it is capable of communicating with the spirits, while Plotinus held that all souls must be separable from their physical bodies. This ‘doctrine of the subtle body’ runs through Western tradition.
Homer regarded man as a composite being comprising three distinct entities, namely the body (soma), the ‘psyche,’ and the thumos; this last term is untranslatable, but is always closely associated with the diaphragm/midriff (phrenes), which was considered to be the seat of the will and feeling, perhaps even of the intellect. At this stage (800 – 750 BC) the term psyche had not come to mean personal soul, but rather it represented the impersonal life-principle which dwells in the body but which is unrelated to the intellect and the emotions. A fourth component, the ‘image’ (‘eidolon’), might also be included in human make-up; it was this aspect of self which acted and appeared in dreams, where it was considered as a real figure.
Dionysus’ early followers in Thrace reenacted his death and resurrection in a gruesome ceremony, where they tore a live bull to pieces with their teeth, and then roamed about the woods shouting frantically. Later rituals were hardly less barbaric and frenzied; all were calculated to induce a stage of religious madness or mania. They took place at night to the accompaniment of loud music and cymbals, thus exciting the chorus of worshippers who soon joined in with shouts of their own. Dancing was so violent that no breath was left for singing, and eventually the worshippers induced through their excesses a state of such exaltation and rapture that it seemed to them that the ordinary limits of life had been transcended, that they were ‘possessed,’ their soul having temporarily left the body. The soul was in a condition of enthousiasmos (inside the god) and ekstasis (outside the body); liberated from the confines of the body it enjoyed communion with the god.
Perhaps the most pervasive idea relating to other bodies is that on death we leave our physical body and take on some subtler or higher form. This notion has roots not only in Greek thought and in much of later philosophy, but also in many religious teachings. Some Eastern religions include specific doctrines on the forms and abilities of other bodies and the nature of other worlds; and in Christianity there are references to a spiritual body. Some religious works can be seen as preparing the soul for its transition at death.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol (meaning Liberation by Hearing on the After-Death Plane) was first committed to writing in the eighth century AD, although the editor, Dr W. Y. Evans-Wentz, has no doubt that it represents ‘the record of belief of innumerable generations in a state of existence after death.’ It is thought that its teachings were initially handed down orally, then finally compiled and recorded by a number of authors. The book is used as a funeral ritual, and is read out as a guide to the recently deceased. It contains an elaborate description of the moment of death, the stages of mind experienced by the deceased at various stages of post-mortem existence, and the path to liberation or rebirth, as the case may be.
The Bardo body, also referred to as the desire- or propensity-body, is formed of matter in an invisible and etheral-like state and is, in this tradition, believed to be an exact duplicate of the human body, from which it is separated in the process of death. Retained in the Bardo body are the consciousness-principle and the psychic nervous system (the counterpart, for the psychic or Bardo body, of the physical nervous system of the human body) [Eva60]. Due to its nature, the Bardo body is able to pass through matter, which is only solid and impenetrable to the senses, but not to the instruments of modern physics; and the fact that the conscious self is not embedded in matter enables it to travel instantly where it desires. Flights of the imagination become objectively real, the wish comes true.
In his introductions to The Egyptian Book of the Dead — called in the language of that people ‘Pert Em Hru’ (‘Emerging by Day’) — Wallis Budge points out that its chapters ‘are a mirror in which are reflected most of the beliefs of the various races which went to build up the Egyptians of history.’ As all commentators have hastened to indicate, the Book of the Dead is not a unity but a collection of chapters of varying lengths and dating from different ages. A selection of these would be made for the deceased, and would be copied on the walls of the tomb or inscribed on the sides of the sarcophagi; or they might even be written on scrolls of papyri which were then laid within the folds of the bodycloths. The extracts meant to benefit the deceased in a variety of ways.
In the Egyptian Book of the Dead the perishable physical body, preservable only by mummification, is called the khat. Next comes the ka, which is generally translated as ‘double,’ and is defined by Wallis Budge as ‘an abstract individuality or personality which possessed the form and attributes of the man to whom it belonged, and, though its normal dwelling place was in the tomb with the body, it could wander about at will; it was independent of the man and could go and dwell in any statue of him.’
The ba, or heart-soul, is depicted as a bird and is often translated as ‘soul.’ It is sometimes conceived of as an animating principle within the body, but elsewhere it is hinted that one only becomes a ba after death, when it either dwells with the ka in the tomb or with Ra or Osiris in heaven. The ba is often referred to in connection with the spiritual soul (khu), which was regarded as imperishable and existed in the spiritual body (sahu). The sahu was originally considered to be a more material body, and may have formed a part of an early and literal view of the resurrection, whereby the sahu, ba, ka, khaibit (shadow) and ikhu (vital force) all came together again after 3,000 years, and the man was reanimated. Gradually the sahu came to be regarded as more spiritual in its compositions, and the idea of physical resurrection lost its prominence. It was believed that this sahu was germinated from the physical body, provided that it was not corrupt, and that the appropriate ceremonies had been performed by the priests.
The Egyptians agree with the Primitives and the Tibetans in asserting a form of continued existence after physical death. Their notions are less psychologically consistent and subtle than those of the Tibetans, but much more complex and symbolically developed than those of the Primitives, whom they resemble only in the earliest stages of their civilisation. Their unique features center round the overwhelming dread of physical corruption and corresponding longing for the germination of the indestructible sahu in which the khu will exist ‘for millions and millions of years.’
One of the directly relevant ideas derives from the teachings of Theosophy. Within a scheme involving several planes and several bodies, the OBE is interpreted as a projection of the ‘astral body’ from the physical body. Theosophical ideas have influenced the thinking and terminology of many OBE researchers since many people reporting OBEs have found terms like ‘astral projection’ which derive from Theosophy to be useful in describing their experiences. Other researchers, however, find such terminology and the model it has been devised to describe to be unnecessarily biased in favor of a certain ‘esoteric’ interpretation of the actual experiences.
The idea that we have a double also appears in popular mythology. Often these doubles have sinister overtones, or are associated with the darker side of the psyche, but usually they are supposed to be quite harmless. These phenomena seem to be related to the OBE in that they involve a double, but there the resemblance ends.
Dean Sheils [She78] compared the beliefs of over 60 different cultures by referring to special files kept for anthropological research. Of 54 cultures for which some information was reported, 25 (or 46%) claimed that most or all people could travel outside the physical body under certain conditions. A further 23 (or 43%) claimed that a few of their number were able to do so, and only three cultures expressed no belief in anything of this nature. In a further three cultures the possibility of OBEs was admitted but the proportion of people who could experience it was not given. From this evidence, we can conclude that some form of a belief in out-of-body experiences is very common in various cultures.
Apparently, as many cultures interpret dreams as OBEs as those which do not. The notion that one may induce an OBE deliberately is not entirely absent from the cultures included by Sheils, though it is usually confined to certain types of people. Often only shamans can achieve OBEs, sometimes by using special drugs or methods for inducing a trance. Of those cultures described by Sheils, there were several in which there was a common belief that the soul could travel in earthly places, while in others the general belief was that the soul could only move in the world of the dead or spirits, and in others both kinds of soul travel were accepted.
There are stories of bilocation in which the physical body exists and acts in two separate places at once. But physical effects in OBE are rare. Also related to OBEs are the phenomena of traveling clairvoyance, ESP projection and remote viewing. ‘Traveling clairvoyance’ was used to describe a form of clairvoyance in which a medium or sensitive seemed to observe a distant place, therefore it included both OBEs and experiences in which the clairvoyant ‘perceived’ the distant scene but without any experience of leaving the body. In both ‘traveling clairvoyance’ and ‘ESP projection’ the occurrence of ESP is presupposed, but the experience of leaving the body is not. Remote viewing is a recent and better-defined term. Typically a subject describes or draws his impressions while an ‘outbound experimenter’ visits randomly selected remote locations. Later the descriptions and the locations are matched up. Remote viewing has often been compared with OBEs, and sometimes subjects who can have OBEs are used in remote viewing experiments.
Many people have argued that the OBE itself is some kind of dream and involves no double other than an imaginary one. However, an ordinary dream does not have those important features of the experient seeming to leave the body and being conscious of perceiving things as they occur. In this sense OBEs are better compared with lucid dreams, which are dreams in which the sleeper realizes, at the time, that he or she is dreaming. In such an experience, the sleeper may become perfectly conscious in the dream, which makes the experience very much like an OBE.
The experience of seeing one’s own double has been called ‘autoscopy’ or ‘autoscopic hallucinations.’ Here again the double is not the ‘real’ or conscious person. It is seen as another self, but the original self still appears the most real. In the OBE it is the ‘other’ which seems most alive.
It has been argued that the OBE is an hallucination, and any other body or double is likewise hallucinatory. There are in fact many similarities between some kinds of hallucinations and OBEs. Among other experiences difficult to disentangle from OBEs are a variety of religious and transcendental experiences. People may feel that they have grown very large or very small, becoming one with the Universe or God. Everything is seen in a new perspective, and may seem ‘real’ for the very first time. It is difficult to draw a line between a religious experience and an OBE and any line one does draw may seem artificial or arbitrary.