Astral projection, also known by the term “astral travel” is a term that can be used to describe a facet of telepathy and divination that temporarily separates a person's consciousness and awareness from her physical body. While the body remains in a fixed point on the “material plane,” the astral projectionist's mind is free to travel the universe. Astral projection was promoted by the Theosophists, 19th Century philosophers who were deeply interested in the mystical and psychic aspects of the world. This particular practice shares some overlap with lucid dreaming and states of intense meditation. Some individuals have noted experiencing the same out-of-body-experience (OBE) attributed to astral projection while under the influence of certain psychotropic substances or during a session of self-hypnosis. While this gives a baseline definition of the term “astral projection,” there are multiple traditions and cultures that allude to such experience with different phrasing or approaches. The next few paragraphs will address how some cultures have approached concepts like the separation of body and mind, starting in Europe and ending in the Amazonian rain forests.
While the Theosophists were huge fans of astral projection, this particular feat of mental and psychic acuity has been referenced in several cultures throughout the world.
As far as the West is concerned, the Hermetics, Neoplatonists, Rosicrucians and the previously mentioned Theosophists approached astral projection with the idea that the “rational soul” is a body of light that tethers a person's consciousness to her body and that the astral plane is the realm between Heaven and the material realm. Heaven extended to multiple planets that were ruled by angels, demons or other spirits. Notable practitioner Aleister Crowley claimed that for a person to properly project one's consciousness outside of her body, she would have to focus on meditation, controlled breathing, visualizing the appearance of her rational soul and then moving awareness from the still, physical form to the intangible form of the rational soul.
According to some scholars, even the Bible makes mention of this practice. Advocates for evidence of astral projection's mention in Bible cite the 14th chapter of Ecclesiastes; this text makes mention of “the silver cord,” one of most common descriptions of the phenomenon that tethers the projectionist to his body during astral travel. Corinthians II is also regarded as evidence of astral projection; Paul mentioned knowing of a Christian from 14 years prior to writing his letter, though he was unclear whether or not he met him on the material plane or while projecting himself across the astral plane. This claim also inspired the notion of seeing the various facets of the afterlife, which is especially notable when accounting for the entities witnessed by the previously mentioned Western philosophers.
Shifting away from the West and toward one of the regions featured in the Bible, the Ancient Egyptians also make mention of astral projection and allowing the soul to temporarily escape its body. Specifically, their religion claimed that the soul was more than capable of leaving the physical body through a “subtle body,” an expression likely used to describe the astral body while distinguishing it from a soul.
Moving further east from Egypt, the country of India has a considerable amount of history and literature on the subject of things like astral projection. This particular mental skill is one of the “siddhis,” or mystical abilities, possessed by those who have achieved a great level of spiritual advancement; one of India’s greatest epics, The Mahabharata, makes mention of such a mystical adept who temporary escapes his body in order to check in on the health of his son. Indian teachings regarding the ability to project one's self outside of the physical body place a great deal of importance on a person mastering understanding of the self before his spirit is strong enough to move beyond its host body. A practitioner who has gained sufficient mastery of self and spirit is an individual with the power to enter the astral plane while sleeping, in meditation or while fully conscious.
The spiritual training and enlightenment common to Indian mysticism place a far greater emphasis on the ability to transcend the physical world while still conscious than it does while in meditation or slumber; this is seen as yet another means by which the aspirant can better understand the place his body takes in the cosmic scale and contrast it with his astral body. A sufficiently practiced yogi can swap in and out of the physical world without the barest hint of difficulty. Some yogis have tapped into a form of astral projection they refer to as “soul travel;” this approach has the yogi leaving his physical body in order to visit the various heavens that make up the cosmos and the celestial wheel.
Moving further east from India and into China, the Taoists participate in activities like astral projection through deeply controlled breathing. Taoists texts describe one mystic, named Xiangzi, who entered a still trance but could be heard snoring. Some investigation within the text indicated that the Xiangzi had somehow split himself into two beings; one slumbering by a drum and snoring greatly, another in a separate chamber performing a routine of song and drum-playing. After the court observers made note of how the separate men looked identical to Xiangzi, the musical Taoist stopped his performance, got up, walked over to the Xiangzi's sleeping body and merged with the body as Xiangzi awoke from his restful meditation.
Moving further east from China and into Japan, the Japanese beliefs in Shinto and Buddhism refer to the temporary separation of a soul from its living body, quite similar to the state of mind from projecting on the astral plane, as an “ikiryo.” Some traditions claim that a portion of the soul can leave the body of a vengeful person in order to impart malevolence upon the wrong-doing party; other traditions comment that ikiryo can also manifest when their physical bodies grow comatose or extremely ill, these ikiryo are benign in origin and are the result of the body's reduced capacity to hold on to the spirit.
As we circumnavigate the globe from west to east in search of other cultures that make mention of OBEs experienced by astral projectionists, we reach the American super-continent and begin with the Inuit cultures of Alaska and the far north. Inuit folklore has multiple mentions of people undergoing meditation and trance in order to travel to far corners of the land in order to see how people are doing or to gain information in mere minutes, rather than over the span of several days. This divination would be used to learn the best way to hunt during a particular season, how to cure the infirm and ailing or to learn other secrets. Many of these feats can be attributed to the clairvoyant aspect of astral projection, also known as “remote viewing.” Traveling further south into the Amazonian tribes of South America, the Waiwai's Yaskomo people have a reputation for a ceremony known as the “soul flight.” This particular ritual is called upon for several different situations: receiving healing, divining a good name for a newborn or even beseeching higher powers for plentiful hunting and other assistance.