Superficially, the idea of having a double may seem to explain the OBE. However, as soon as this idea is pursued, problems become obvious and the system has to get more complicated to deal with those problems. One of the most complex, and certainly the most influential, of such systems is the theory of astral projection, based on the teachings of theosophy. In 1875 Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York, to study Eastern religions and science. From her teachings, brought back from her travels in India and elsewhere, a complex scheme evolved. According to the Theosophists, man is not just the product of his physical body, but is instead thought to be a complex creature consisting of many bodies, each finer and more subtle than the one ‘below’ it. These bodies should be thought of as an outer garment which can be thrown off to reveal the true man within. Although there are variations in the details, it is commonly claimed that there are seven great planes and seven corresponding bodies or vehicles. The grossest of all is the physical body, of flesh, with which we are all familiar. There is supposed to be another body also described as physical known as the ‘etheric double,’ or ‘vehicle of vitality.’ Etheric double is the manifestation of physical vitality. It is constant and does not change throughout the cycles of life and death, but it is not eternal, for it is eventually re-absorbed into the elements of which it is composed. This ‘double’ acts as a kind of transmitter of energy, keeping the lower physical body in contact with the higher bodies. Etheric substance is seen as an extension of the physical.
Next up the scale is supposed to be the ‘astral world’ and its associated ‘astral body’, or the ‘vehicle of consciousness’. These entities are thought to be finer than their etheric counterparts and correspondingly harder to see. Astral body is thought to be ‘a replica of the physical body (the gross body), but of a more subtle and tenous substance, penetrating every nerve, fibre and cell of the physical organism, and constantly in a supersensitive state of vibration and pulsation’ [Gay74].
The astral world consists of astral matter, and all physical objects have a replica in the astral. There is therefore a complete physical copy of everything in the astral world, but in addition there are things in the astral which have no counterpart in the physical. There are thought forms created by human thought, elementals and the lowest of the dead, who have gone no further since they left the physical world. All these entities and many others are used in ritual magic, and thought forms can be specially created to carry out tasks such as healing, carrying messages, or gaining information.
In the scheme just described, those who have the ability are supposed to be able to see the nature of a person’s thoughts by changes in the color and form of the astral body. All around the physical can be seen the bright and shining colors of the larger astral body, making up the astral aura. The aura is multi-colored and brilliant, or dull, according to the character or quality of the person and therefore ‘to the seer, the aura of a person is an index to his hidden propensities’ [Gay74].
All these conceptions are of special relevance because of the fact that the astral body is supposed to be able to separate from the physical and travel without it. Since the astral is the vehicle of consciousness, it is this body which is aware, not the physical. It is said that in sleep the astral body leaves the sleeping body. In the undeveloped person, little memory is retained and the astral body is vague and its travels are limited and directionless, but in the trained person the astral can be controlled, can travel great distances in sleep, and can even be projected from the physical body at will. It is this which is called astral projection. In astral projection the consciousness can travel almost without limitation, but it travels in the astral world. It therefore sees not the physical objects, but their astral counterparts, and in addition the beings that live in the astral realms. The astral world has been known as the ‘world of illusion’ or world of thoughts. The unwary traveler can become confused by the power of his own imaginings. In this state one can appear, as an apparition to anyone who has ‘astral sight.’ Indeed one can appear to other too, but to do so requires some involvement of lower matter, for example of etheric matter, as in ectoplasm. Ectoplasm is considered to be the materialization of the astral body and is described as ‘matter which is invisible and impalpable in its primary state, but assuming the state of a vapour, liquid or solid, according to its stage of condensation’ [Gay74].
An aspect of astral traveling which has become important in later writings, though it appears little in early theosophy, is the silver cord. It is held that in life the astral body is connected to its physical body by an infinitely elastic but strong cord, of a flowing and delicate silver color. Traditionally the cord must remain connected or death will ensue. As one approaches death, the astral gradually loosens itself, lifts up above the physical, and then the cord breaks to allow the higher bodies to leave. Death is thus seen as a form of permanent astral projection.
Beyond the astral Theosophy distinguishes a further five levels. These include the mental or devachnic world, the buddhic, the nirvanic, and two others so far beyond our understanding that they are rarely described. The task of every person is to progress through all of these.
Is astral projection an adequate explanation?
Many investigators are convinced of the reality of astral projection. Among the best known are Muldoon and Carrington, and Crookall. Sylvan Muldoon claimed to be able to project at will and described his experiences in The Projection of the Astral Body [MC29] written in collaboration with the psychical researcher Hereward Carrington. Together these two collected many cases of spontaneous OBEs which they amassed as support for the reality of astral projection. Many years later Robert Crookall [Cro61-78], in more systematic fashion, did much the same thing. Many of the people who report OBEs have found the notion of astral projection helpful, and describe their experiences in these terms.
There are several serious problems with the theory of astral projection, as pointed out by Susan Blackmore [Bla82]. The first is that many OBEs simply do not fit well into the astral projection framework. Celia Green [Gre68a] has collected many cases in which the person describes no astral body, indeed no other body at all. Also very few people actually report any cord, let alone the traditional silver cord.
Of course this type of experience can be fitted in by saying that the experient’s astral vision was clouded, or the astral body or cord too fine to be seen, but these methods of attempting to account for actual experience begin to weaken the theory. Blackmore criticizes the complexity of the theory of astral projection as it tries to account for new facts. And this relates to the second problem, its ‘stretchability.’ In her opinion the theory is so complicated and flexible that almost anything can be stretched to fit it and it makes hard to draw definite predictions from the theory. If you don’t see the features you should, your astral vision is not clear enough, or memory was not passed on from higher levels. If you fail to make yourself visible to someone else then not enough etheric matter was involved and so on. In this way the ‘theory’ is in danger of explaining everything and nothing. Furthermore, any theory which is untestable is useless in scientific terms.