This article expatiates on the phenomenon of out-of-body experience(OBE) , astral projection , etheric projection and near-death experience based on the works of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, who used the term exteriorization to denote all such phenomena. Please note that this post is *not* a how-to guide on astral projection. It is dangerous to forcibly attempt any kind of exteriorization or astral projection for it may put one into contact with malevolent supernatural forces which could even lead to one’s death. It is better to let exteriorization happen naturally with the practice of Yoga and under the guidance of an able Master/Guru.
To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause:
(Shakespeare. Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1)
The Yogic explanation of all out-of-body phenomena is based on the fact our being is composed of five major sheaths (see Constitution of Man) and that these sheaths correspond to various planes of the Universe(see Cosmology). Our total consciousness is not limited to the physical body but is actually distributed into the various sheaths. There are links which join these sheaths and the whole composite is held together by the psychic being (soul). At the time of death, the psychic being dissolves these links and then the various sheaths fall apart.
Note that there is no such thing as unconsciousness; what we experience during sleep, trance or fainting is just a transfer of consciousness between the various sheaths of our body. A Yogin accomplishes this transfer of consciousness from one sheath to another through meditation.
There are four states of consciousness as per the Mandukya Upanishad:
- Waking (Jagruti): In the waking state, our consciousness in terms of mind, vital and physical is focussed on the physical world.
- Dream (Swapna): When we fall asleep, our consciousness withdraws from the physical world and retreats into the occult mental and vital worlds. For a Yogin, this withdrawal of consciousness occurs as part of meditation itself. One may identify two stages in this dream state:
- The first stage we experience after falling asleep is a state of slumber where our consciousness lies submerged near the subconscient. After waking up from this state, we remember little except some incoherent images recorded in our own subconscient. In medical terms, this stage is called NREM or non-REM sleep.
- The next stage occurs when a major portion of our consciousness transfers into the vital or mental sheaths. This transfer occurs spontaneously in those who have well-developed Udana Prana (The Udana Prana or Upward Moving air is one of the five major Pranas which comprise the vital body or Pranamaya Kosha). This rise in consciousness enables our inner sheaths to separate from the physical body and travel independently in their own domain giving rise to the phenomenon called OBE. In medical terms, this dream experience occurs during REM sleep. Dreams and OBE occur more frequently than we assume but we do not remember them because our inner sheaths lack the ability to record what is happening in those other worlds. This inability to remember disappears with the practice of Integral Yoga when we are able to interiorize better (i.e. when growth in consciousness enables us to navigate effectively in the occult world.)
- Deep Sleep (Sushupti): Here, the consciousness shifts into the causal body and we experience the state of Divine Bliss (Sachchidananda) which refreshes and energizes the soul. In medical terms, this is called slow-wave sleep
- “The Fourth” (Turiya): This is the state which encompasses all the three described above. It is the state of a person who has gained liberation (salvation). The liberated soul is conscious of all sheaths at all times and is able to navigate unrestricted through the various occult worlds. It is as the Buddha described “I am awake” because there is no fall into the subconscient at any time.
Five kinds of exteriorization
Five kinds of exteriorization can be distinguished depending on which sheath makes an excursion into its corresponding world and the manner in which the excursion occurs.
This is the easiest type and can occur naturally in those who have a strong sense of visualization. When you think of a person or object, your mental sheath extends itself in the mental world, your thought goes there and you may be able to feel the mental atmosphere of that person (e.g, what someone is thinking right now). This form of exteriorization does not require entering a state of trance. This is the basis of what parapsychology refers to as remote viewing.
Sri Aurobindo eludicated this form of exteriorization in a conversation with his disciple Pavitra:
When the vital body leaves the physical, the latter remains in trance, but if it is only the mind, this does not happen. The mind leaves, for instance, in meditation, and goes on a visit to certain places or certain planes. It can observe things there and even make itself felt. It is not even the whole mind which goes out thus, but a central portion, so to say. There are no dangers as of trance. If you are awakened, the mind comes back immediately without danger. It is not the same if the vital itself has gone out. A link ties it to the physical. As it is the life, if this thread is cut, death results. An abrupt recall is also dangerous. As a rule, it is better to acquire a certain experience of the mental going-out and a mental knowledge of the planes before attempting the exit in the vital body. 
This is how the Mother described it.
Mother, the other day you said that when one thinks of someone or something, one part of this thought goes there at once.
Yes. For example, I think of someone who is in Calcutta, then if my thought goes there, I ought to have the knowledge of…
Thought is only conscious of thought in the mental world. So you can become very conscious of the mental atmosphere of Calcutta, of the thought of the person to whom you go, but of nothing else, absolutely nothing that has to do with the vital and physical….But the mental exteriorisation occurs constantly. It puts you in contact only with the mental world. Perhaps if you are very conscious and the person you go to see is very conscious, and if at that moment he has formed opinions or ideas about something happening in Calcutta, then you can become conscious of the ideas of this person on what is happening – indirectly – but you are not directly conscious of the thing.
The Mother, Questions and Answers (1955): 6 July 1955
In this state, the mental and vital sheaths together leave the physical body to explore a vital world while still remaining bound to the body by a silver cord. About three-fourths of the consciousness can be said to have left the physical body in this situation. Some of the stories of disciples receiving initiation from adepts in a dream fall into this category.
These are two instances of Ramakrishna Paramahansa talking about his exteriorization experiences.
Sometimes the visions were of the young sannyasin resembling himself. When he wished to see some deity of a distant place, or hear the singing of God’s glories here or there, the sannyasin would come out of the Master’s body in a shining form and travel to those places along a luminous path(i.e. silver cord). By that way he would come again and re-enter the body.
Sri Ramakrishna told him, when both had returned to the temple garden, ‘I was feeling a great yearning to see your worship; I went into bhavasamadhi and felt that I was going along a path of light (i.e. silver cord) and was present in your worship hall in a luminous body.’ 
Subtle physical exteriorization
In this state, the mental, vital and subtle physical sheaths travel together out of the physical body and move in a world which resembles the physical world, hence the appellation “subtle physical“. In this situation, since most of the consciousness has left the physical body, one enters a state of catalepsy where the body can become cold and rigid. However, the link connecting the other sheaths with the body still exists so re-entry is still possible.
Amal Kiran, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, in a letter outlined how he was able to move about in a subtle physical world.
It’s come to be a habit now to get out of my body, time and again. Occasionally I just see with my closed, eyes. At other times I actually leave the body – and the coming back to it is often due to some disturbing thrust of impulse from it into the new condition. I am fully conscious when I leave the body and soon start testing the concreteness and reality of the things I am amidst by touching them. Usually I move about in my own room but now and then I go outside too. The room I move in is not quite the same as the physical: the furniture is arranged somewhat differently. My conclusion is that I move in a subtle body in a subtle plane; but is that always unavoidable? Does one’s subtle body never move in the very physical plane? In my latest experience I went to the pier, but the street through which I ran to reach the pier was of a strange kind because I moved, shortly after, from room to room, as through some deserted building. At last I glimpsed the sea; many boats were standing in dirty green water close to the shore. The word “lagoon” came to my mind. But further on I found myself in full sight of the sea. And it was an extremely beautiful spectacle. The water had a violet colour mixed with indigo and there was an atmosphere of magic as the large waves heaved and broke with spray and sparkle.
I have margin-bottom: 0; asked whether one is forced to explore only some subtle world. But take the following experience. I was meditating in my easy-chair. A book was lying on my left side where I had put it before closing my eyes there was a book-marker inserted at the page where I had stopped reading. Now, I went all numb, as I always do when these phenomena take place – but the eyes are exempted from the general paralysis, so to speak. I keep on opening them and thus swing from the consciousness of one plane to that of the other. This time, however, I opened my eyes and saw not only my own body lying inert, with my both arms dropped paralysed, but also a third arm free at the right shoulder, it was, of course, a subtle arm and could move. Immediately my experimentalist mind thought of a test. So I strained the third arm towards the book by my side, caught hold of the hook-marker and tried to full it out. I actually did pull it out, but imagine my surprise when I saw that though I was holding a book-marker in my subtle hand the original was still in the book! 
Sri Aurobindo’s responded by confirming that Amal Kiran had indeed found himself in a subtle-physical world.
It is evidently in a subtle world, not the physical-material that you move; that is evident from the different arrangement of things, but such details as the third arm and the book-marker removed yet there show that it is a subtle world very near to the physical; it is either a subtle-physical world or a very material vital domain. In all the subtle domains the physical is reproduced with a change, the change growing freer and more elastic as one gets farther away. Such details as the lameness show the same thing, — the hold of the physical is still there.
This is a variation of the subtle physical exteriorization called Etheric projection where the subtle physical sheath, instead of exploring the subtle-physical worlds, instead materializes into the physical world. Sri Aurobindo explicates this variant in a letter to a disciple:
It is possible to move about in the physical world, but usually that can only be done by drawing on the atmosphere of other physical beings for a stronger materialisation of the form – when that happens one moves among them and sees them and all the surroundings exactly as they are at that time in the physical world and one can verify the accuracy of the details if immediately after returning to the body (which is usually done with a clear consciousness of the whole process of getting into it) one can traverse the same scene in the physical body.
The most extreme form of exteriorization called NDE occurs when all other sheaths leave the physical body and enter what the Mother referred to as the Domain of Death, where one first receives a review of the current life before the sheaths are dissolved. At this point, the links to the physical body have been cut and if one tries to re-enter the physical body again, it requires some effort. This corresponds to the case where a person who was thought to be clinically dead for some time suddenly comes back alive. In the words of the Mother:
The experience I am speaking about is still much more difficult. Once one has gone out like that and left his body in a cataleptic state, one cuts the links. So, one is really dead; that is, the heart beats no longer. But as there is still “the life of the form”, and it is not through an accident that one has left, as it is by an act of will with knowledge and power, one can force one’s way back, re-establish the connection and come back forcibly into one’s body. It is not a comfortable business – the whole thing is difficult. Like that, on paper it seems to be nothing at all. But it is not easy.
The Mother, Questions and Answers (1954): 10 March 1954
Summary of various methods
|Exteriorization||How does it work||Travel into which world|
|Mental||Mental sheath extends itself. Possible without deep trance.||Mental worlds|
|Vital||Mental, Vital sheaths separate but remain connected to physical body with a silver cord. About 75 percent of consciousness has left the physical body.||Vital worlds|
|Subtle-physical||Mental, Vital, Subtle-physical leave the body. Body becomes cold and rigid. State of catalepsy.||Subtle-physical worlds|
|Etheric projection||Mental, Vital, Subtle-physical separate and materialize in the physical world.||Physical worlds|
|Near-death experience||Mental, Vital, Subtle-physical leave the body. Silver cord is cut and then one re-enters the body.||Domain of death|
Two ways to exteriorize
The Mother identified two ways of exteriorizing: through the heart and through the head via the Brahmarandhra(anterior fontanelle).
You must go out through here (the heart) – you can go out through the top of the head, but it’s more difficult. You must leave through the heart and return the same way. It’s quite natural; it’s the first thing you learn when you want to exteriorize. The whole consciousness has to be concentrated here (the heart), and that’s where you go out. And you must reenter the same way and maintain the link.
The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: September 5, 1962
Rebutting the simulated OBE
In light of the above passages, let us examine the simulated OBE reported here or here. Neuroscientists conducted experiments which simulated OBE by tricking the senses into imagining that the physical body is in a different location.
By deliberately scrambling a person’s visual and tactile senses, it is now possible to give them an “out-of-body” experience.
Two procedures – which are the first to imitate an out-of-body experience artificially – use cameras to fool people into thinking they are standing or sitting somewhere else in a room. They provide the strongest proof yet that people only imagine floating out of their bodies during surgery or near-death experiences.
The primary objection with regards to this experiment is that it was conducted on subjects who were awake whereas OBEs have been traditionally reported during when subjects are asleep, when the senses are inactive and the consciousness has withdrawn from the physical world. Scientists need to demonstrate that senses can be tricked in sleep as well and that this can cause an OBE to occur. Can science induce a sleeping man to dream that he or she is floating in the air ?
- Pavitra. Conversations with Sri Aurobindo.
- Swami Yogeshananda. The visions of Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna Math(Madras), 1973.
- Amal Kiran. Poet and Critic, p 29.