The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

The Great Work of Immortality: Astral Travel, Dreams, and Alchemy

"When the Body Sleeps, the Spirit Travels" by Christina Bothwell

The ceramic-and-glass sculptures shown in this article are by artist Christina Bothwell, used with her kind permission.

Judging from the number of books and YouTube videos now available on the subject, out-of-body experiences (OOBEs) seem to be enjoying a contemporary revival, and there is surely no hobby more ontologically controversial. Several authors, including Robert Monroe (Journeys Out of the Body) claim to have had veridical experiences in a discarnate state (that is, experiences that correspond to reality) and thereby proven to their own satisfaction, if not the world’s, that one’s perceiving consciousness can exist apart from the physical body. Other writers understandably are skeptical of such claims, regarding the seeming realness of OOBEs as a cognitive or memory trick.

Whatever out-of-body experiences “really” are—actual journeys beyond the body or just lucid dreams that seem like it—it is increasingly clear that they were crucially important experiences in ancient mystical traditions.

Susan J. Blackmore, for example, initially believed in her own OOBEs’ realness but then retreated to a skeptical, safely materialist position; her 1982 book, Beyond the Body, is a thoughtful, comprehensive examination of the subject and its connection with psychical research. Recently, in his excellent exploration of Buddhist psychology and neuroscience, Waking, Dreaming, Being, Evan Thompson presents a similar narrative of youthful belief in the realness of his OOBEs followed by mature doubt. For these writers, OOBEs can only be a subset of lucid dreams—a state of being actively aware and conscious in a dream environment (in this case, one that just seems like one’s actual surroundings or other terrestrial locales). Lucid dreaming is itself an increasingly popular, albeit less controversial, contemporary hobby, thanks to the pioneering research and instruction of Stephen LaBerge. There are numerous guides to the practice available, mostly repackaging the ideas in LaBerge’s 1985 book Lucid Dreaming and in some cases incorporating Tibetan “dream yoga” techniques.

"Dreaming In Color" by Christina BothwellWhatever OOBEs “really” are—actual journeys beyond the body or just lucid dreams that seem like it—it is increasingly clear that they were crucially important experiences in ancient mystical traditions. Achieving these states may have been the aim of the ancient Greek shamanic practice of “incubation”—sensory deprivation in caves—as has been described in the writings of Peter Kingsley. And thanks to the work of Jeremy Naydler and Algis Uždavinys, we now know that descriptions of spirit travel in Egyptian sacred ‘funerary’ texts did not simply refer to the travel of the soul in the afterlife; they reflected a proactive shamanic exercise undertaken during life. Egyptian mystics actively practiced out-of-body travel, in other words, as the ultimate philosophical preparation for death.

One could imagine other, more mundane purposes too. Given the intelligence-gathering role of prophets in ancient Israel, it would not be far-fetched to guess that the Egyptian priesthood might have employed OOBEs along with other shamanic techniques in what we would nowadays call “psychic spying” on behalf of the state. OOBEs are linked to psychic abilities like clairvoyance, and some of the foremost modern remote viewers, including Joe McMoneagle, Ingo Swann, and Pat Price, have linked their abilities directly to OOBE experiences—in Price’s case, during Scientology training. One could easily imagine Egyptian priests performing a service to the kingdom much like psychics did to the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War.

The feminine, animal-like spirit was thought capable of leaving the body when we sleep. The Egyptians called it Ka. For pagan Europeans, it was our spirit double or feminine spirit guide.

The Middle Eastern and European traditions of alchemy that evolved out of the Egyptian mystical tradition would have carried on these practices, albeit disguised under layers of “materialistic” symbolism. Carl Jung famously illuminated the inner aspect of alchemy, arguing that the Great Work consisted of projecting unconscious mental stuff into material transformations, using laboratory processes and procedures as a symbolic control panel in personal journeys of individuation. Yet even though he described “active imagination” as a method of self-exploration, Jung to my knowledge was not aware of what we now call lucid dreaming, and even though he experienced his own OOBE, or what the spiritualists and occultists of his day called “astral projection,” after a heart attack in 1944 (what we would now call a near-death experience or NDE), I am not aware that he ever linked such experiences to what alchemists were trying to achieve.

But given what we now know of the ancient shamanic practices of Egypt that gave rise to alchemy, European alchemy’s Eastern analogues in Tantra and Yoga, and the pagan shamanic traditions that persisted on the margins of mainstream Christian culture in Europe, it becomes ever clearer that alchemical explorations would have gone, and indeed must have gone, much beyond active imagination and the projective processes Jung described. The real philosophic gold for some (or many) alchemists may have been fearlessness in the face of death—figurative “immortality”—achieved by self-induced veridical or veridical-seeming OOBEs.

Spirit and Soul

Crucially, and perhaps counterintuitively, the prerequisite for developing one’s astral capacity, in various ancient as well as modern traditions, was to cultivate not simply a Cartesian dualistic conception of psyche and soma, mind and body, but also to further subdivide the subtle psychic part of our nature into at least two distinct components of its own. Pagan and folk traditions all described a spirit with a dim animal-like awareness that was distinct from our more rarified and active, wilful, conscious component, equivalent to what in Christian tradition came to be called the soul. These were separate entities, not synonyms as they are for most people today.

"Might as Well Be Spring" by Christina BothwellIn general, the feminine, animal-like spirit was thought responsible for phenomena belonging to what Freud and Jung later called the Unconscious, and was thought capable of leaving the body when we sleep. The Egyptians called it Ka. For pagan Europeans, it was our spirit double or feminine spirit guide. Claude Lecoutoux, in a fascinating study of European pagan/shamanic traditions about spirit doubles, shows that this component not only took nightly trips remembered as dreams but also was responsible for ghost and poltergeist phenomena as well as animal familiars. As an enlivening force, the spirit was closely allied to our breath (whence the name, spiritus); linked to our physical body, it was also connected to our bones in some intimate way. Much later, in the Theosophical tradition, it came to be known as the “etheric body”; modern New Age writers write of an “energy body” that is more or less equivalent (see below).

This feminine, energetic spiritual component was in contrast to the more rarified, conscious, aware component allied to masculine, rational, awake thought. Although this “soul” component was capable of heavenly ascent after death or during ecstatic states, in daily life it was more imprisoned in the body than the spirit component. Indeed the two parts of the subtle self tended to resist being in direct contact when not together animating the awake physical body. This soul component was the Ba of the Egyptians (capable of ascending and uniting with the transcendent Akh) and corresponds to the Theosophists’ “astral” components of the self. If you take away its ancient connotation of existing beyond death, it is more or less equivalent to what we nowadays call consciousness: the center of awake, aware subjectivity.

Such a tripartite division of our earthly existence into body, soul, and spirit seems remarkably universal across non-Judeo-Christian cultures. Whatever you call these subtle psychic components, shamans throughout the world, including in Medieval and Dark Age Europe, claimed the ability, through meditative practice and sometimes use of drugs, to yoke them together and thereby achieve the feat of leaving their bodies consciously. And, some of the most mysterious texts of 16th and 17th century alchemy show indirect or direct evidence that, whatever else they were up to, alchemical adepts were also attempting precisely these difficult “journeys beyond the body.”


The clearest example is The Book of Lambspring, an alchemical poem that first circulated as a manuscript in the late 16th century and was later published with a series of beautiful illustrative engravings. It asserts that the key to riches, long life, and kinglike sovereignty over one’s existence is a process of taking the separate subtle components, soul and spirit, consciously uniting them, and leading them out of the body and back again. Among the various symbolic expressions of this are the imagery of a deer and unicorn living in a forest…

The sages say truly
That two animals are in this forest:
One glorious, beautiful, and swift,
A great and strong deer;
The other a unicorn.
They are concealed in the forest,
But happy shall that man be called
Who shall snare and capture them. …
If we apply the parable to our Art,
We shall call the forest the Body.
That will be rightly and truly said.
The unicorn will be the Spirit at all times.
The deer desires no other name
But that of the Soul; …
He that knows how to tame and master them by Art,
To couple them together,
And to lead them in and out of the forest,
May justly be called a Master.

For we rightly judge
That he has attained the golden flesh,
And may triumph everywhere;
Nay, he may bear rule over great Augustus.

Lambspring gives us further explicit indication of his belief/assertion that the soul and spirit actually leave the body during the alchemical work in the second half of his book, where he replaces the symbolism of forest, unicorn, and deer, with the more humanized symbolism of Father (body), Son (spirit), and an angelic Guide (soul). The Guide leads the Son out of the body of the Father, brings him up to the top of a “mountain in India” and carefully leads him back. This process of separating and reuniting—Separatio and Conjunctio—is one of the most central and universal motifs in European alchemy, but it is nowhere more explicitly identified as a process of leading the consciousness and spirit out of the body as it is in this book. The alchemical motto solve et coagula—”separate and reunite”—can refer on one level to this process.

On its own, Lambspring’s book would be pretty unhelpful to a modern person attempting to actually achieve an OOBE, but the author’s symbolism resonates strongly with the methods emphasized by some more modern teachers of the subject. The Theosophical tradition, which placed great emphasis on astral projection as a means of accessing cosmic consciousness (the Akashic Records, etc.) and communicating with ascended and alien intelligences, carefully emphasized the crucial role of the lower, denser “etheric body”—the subtle, energetic envelope or spiritual vehicle that could detach from the physical body on its own (dreaming) or which could, through effort, be yoked to the astral component (conscious awareness or soul) to achieve a conscious astral flight. The key to leaving the body consciously, in other words, was uniting the astral and etheric components, which, as I mentioned earlier, ordinarily don’t mix well together. (The resistance of the unconscious and conscious minds to commingle is of course a theme in Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, and may be seen as a kind of parallel here.)

One of the many modern teachers of astral projection, an Australian energy worker named Robert Bruce, has (in his book Astral Dynamics) essentially repackaged the Theosophical theory and its Eastern Tantric equivalents in modern, Western terms. Bruce teaches meditative exercises and a rather unique method of “tactile imaging” to cultivate a finer-tuned awareness of the physical body and its subtle energetic aspect (equivalent to the energy body with its nadis, chakras, etc. described in Asian systems) as a prerequisite to developing proficiency with astral travel. The separation experience at the outset of an OOBE is universally described as a vividly energetic sensation that may also resemble sensations familiar to those who have “raised their kundalini.” There is no indication in Bruce’s writing of familiarity with pagan folk traditions about the detachable spirit double, but clearly, despite using a modern computer idiom of “downloading” astral memories etc., his metaphysics are basically the same.

Energy Doubles

To my mind, the strongest evidence that Lambspring was referring to the refined, dreamlike but compellingly real-seeming state we would now call the OOBE comes from the testimony of modern astral travelers like Bruce that the key to decoupling alert awareness from the sleeping physical body is actually to be found, counterintuitively, in the reentry—the Conjunctio part rather than the Separatio. Lambspring places special emphasis on this: The Guide says to the son, “I will not let thee go alone; From thy father’s bosom I brought thee forth, I will also take thee back again.”

If you can’t recall it when you return, it’s like you never went. Developing a habit and a practice of recording dreams in the morning is a crucial preparatory step toward having a remembered astral journey.

Special care in rejoining chemical substances in physical alchemy could of course also be indicated here, but I think it signals a special concern with the process of reuniting the soul/spirit with the body as intrinsic to the success of the astral venture. The purpose of “careful reuniting” is not safety, as one might naturally suppose: Despite instinctive fears of permanent separation, there are no known cases when an astral traveler has failed to awaken safe and sound. Rather it is because the conscious portion of the self (i.e., soul or astral body) must remain in contact with the spiritual/etheric body, lest all recollection of the experience be lost. If you can’t recall it when you awaken/return, it’s like you never went. Consequently a crucial part of some modern training in OOBEs focuses on developing the capacity to remember it after the fact, because an unremembered OOBE is no OOBE at all.

"Incessant Dreamer" by Christina BothwellThis is the most crucial piece of advice given by Bruce: He even suggests that we are astrally projecting all the time but lack memory of it; thus his method focuses on initially keeping flights brief and then celebrating and recording one’s small successes. Developing a habit and a practice of recording dreams in the morning is a crucial preparatory step toward having a remembered astral journey.

The relationship between OOBEs and lucid dreams is widely disputed, but the same “induction” methods work for both, not to mention the necessity of keeping records afterward. This is true of any dream-work, as I’ve argued previously in the context of precognitive dreaming. Anyone who knows the extraordinary value of attention to dreams (even in a simply psychoanalytic vein) knows you will have a hard time remembering a dream or its crucial innocuous-seeming details if you don’t write it down right away, or at least jot down a few words to jog the memory when you have time to record it more fully later in the day.

Atalanta Fugiens

My favorite 17th-century alchemical text, Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier, contains among many other things a coded recommendation about keeping a dream diary, likely as preparation for more advanced Tantric or OOBE exercises.

It’s a very special quality of dreams that they evaporate very quickly and must be seized immediately after they occur or they are lost forever. Quick note-taking is required to fix this volatile substance.

The title of this lovely collection of engravings and accompanying poems and fugues, literally “Atalanta Fleeing,” refers to Ovid’s story about the race between the beautiful fleet-footed virgin Atalanta and her would-be suitor Hippomenes. The central secrets of alchemical books are sometimes hidden in plain sight right in their title pages, like Poe’s “purloined letter,” and this is true of Atalanta Fugiens, whose frontispiece depicts various scenes from the Atalanta legend. The 50 emblems and commentaries in the book supposedly relate in various ways to the Hermetic themes of that ancient myth.

Atalanta was the fastest in the land—so fast she couldn’t be caught—and would only marry a suitor who could beat her in a race. Hippomenes wins the race (and her hand in marriage) by availing himself of three gold apples given to him by Venus; during the race, he throws the apples on the ground, one by one, each time catching Atalanta’s attention and slowing her down (you know, the way even tomboy girls are easily distracted by pretty, shiny things). After winning the race, Hippomenes steals a kiss from his new bride in Aphrodite’s temple and the couple (as punishment from that goddess) are turned into lions. The conflict of two lions (and/or dragons) resulting in their ultimate union—again, soul and spirit which do not initially get along but which, with difficulty, can be forced into a productive merger—is a near-universal alchemical motif.

We are meant to ask, what is it that flees and how can you stop it from fleeing? The name Atalanta, meaning “equal in weight or value,” does not really give a clue to the nature of the volatile substance. But Hippomenes himself can tell us a lot. The name can be parsed firstly as hippo-menes or “horse mind,” which by itself signals that we may apply the wild-etymological method that the great 20th-century adept Fulcanelli called cabala (from caballus, horse), and redivide the word however we see fit. The most obvious re-parsing is hip-pommes, or “dropped apples,” which doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. But there is a very similar Greek word, hypomnema, which meant a reminder, a note jotted down. It happens that Emblem VI depicts this process explicitly: A farmer tosses gold coins onto furrowed ground (a gesture similar to Hippomenes tossing golden apples), accompanied by the motto: “Sow your gold in the white foliate earth.” Hippomenes thus seems to be a pun for the very thing indicated by “white foliate earth” with its “sown gold”—that is, hypomnema, precious reminders of something fleeting, jotted down (sown) in the white pages (folia or leaves) of a notebook.

Keeping records of laboratory procedures and results and the visible changes occurring in the retort would be an obvious interpretation here, not to mention the ultimate creation of a book that will serve to guide others: the alchemical text itself as philosopher’s stone. But are consciously observed chemical reactions, however fleeting, so ephemeral (or volatile) that they are completely forgotten unless fixed in the very moment they occur? No—it’s a very special quality of dreams and related phenomena like hypnagogic/hypnopompic images that they evaporate very quickly and must be seized immediately after they occur or they are really lost forever. Quick note-taking is required to fix this volatile substance.

There is way, way more that could be said about Atalanta Fugiens, which contains enough fascinating “Tantric” imagery to reward years of perusal and study. But let me move on to a third book that most explicitly addresses the link between dream life and OOBEs and also uses its own brilliant symbolism for dream recording.

Mutus Liber (Enlightenment by Means of Dew)

The 1677 alchemical masterpiece Mutus Liber (or “Silent Book”) is a series of mostly wordless alchemical ‘cartoons’ by a writer with the pseudonym “Altus,” depicting a complicated esoteric process undertaken by a pair of adepts, one male, one female. (Sometimes it is described as a male alchemist and “his” female assistant, wife, Tantric soror mystica, or Jungian Anima, but the book gives no cause to privilege the male figure over the female—they both seem to play equally important roles.) This book is another example of an alchemical text that hides its cipher in plain sight, right on its title page.

The frontispiece depicts Jacob’s famous dream in Genesis 28, of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Any reader would know that, in that story, right after he awakens, Jacob anoints the stone he has used for a pillow beth-el, “House of the Lord”; until the arrival of Christ himself in the Old Testament’s sequel, this stony pillow is perhaps the clearest and most literal expression of the Philosopher’s Stone in the Bible. But more crucially for the book we are concerned with here, the Jacob frontispiece includes three backwards chapter/verse numbers in Hebrew, each referring to Biblical passages about heavenly “dew.” The centrality of dew in this book is also signaled cleverly by the roses framing the scene: Rose is a pun on the Latin word for dew, ros (which should also give you a clue to the ‘true’ meaning of the rose in other esoteric contexts, such as Rosicrucianism).

The stuff of dreams is the materia prima, the murky raw material that must be taken, analyzed, worked with, to create true philosophic gold.

In subsequent panels, the alchemists are depicted engaging in various laboratory operations utilizing dew that has been initially collected in an array of sheets during spring mornings, the season being symbolized by a ram and bull, Aries and Taurus, rampant in the background (although the animals could have other connotations—see below). As a means of collecting literal nocturnal moisture, wringing out sheets one has suspended on posts in a field seems that it might be highly impractical. But “dew” is not meant to be taken literally here.

Adam McLean’s diagram of the process, provided in his Magnum Opus Hermetic Sourceworks Commentary, is invaluable for keeping track of the operations and the dense symbolism in Mutus Liber. For another modern interpreter writing under the name Eli Luminosus Aequalis, these sheets represent the five senses, and his subsequent analysis depicts a noetic, epistemic, and Tantric process. I agree with many of Eli’s interpretations, but I think he is wrong about the ingenious symbolism of dew itself and its collection on bedsheets: What else is it that appears in the early morning hours and evaporates quickly with the dawn, and that one might carefully and quickly collect ideally while still lying in bed? The same thing Maier represents by the fleeing Atalanta, and the same thing Jacob is shown in the process of doing right on this book’s title page.

Mutus Liber is actually pretty explicit about what we are supposed to do with this figuratively dew-like substance collected over a series of spring mornings. Subsequent panels depict an elaborate process of distilling and then mixing the dew’s various components in different combinations. Assuming I am right about the identity of “dew,” the process begins with what I believe to be isolating repeated dream motifs from other symbolic stuff and Freudian day residues and then using these recurring motifs as mnemonic triggers to wake up inside the dream (lucidity). This is the mnemonic-induced lucid dreaming (MILD) method recommended by LaBerge, and it may be taken as the equivalent of yoking soul and spirit and exiting the sleeping body consciously, as in Lambspring. Eli Luminosus Aequalus likewise argues that this part is about lucid dreaming. I imagine though that, at the time Altus was writing, there would have been no distinction between such ‘mere’ dream experiences and what we would now call OOBEs or astral travel.

Developing lucid dreaming capacity is useful for achieving a full-on OOBE and lucid dreams are the more common experience when the latter fails. Also, it is only in preparing for and interpreting an OOBE as such that one needs to first understand (or, be persuaded) that the spiritual component is distinct from consciousness imprisoned in the body (i.e., the first phase of the Mutus Liber process), which then enables one to learn to unite the consciousness with the spirit while leaving the body behind (the second phase), and lastly bring them together, followed by repetition of the process over time such that it becomes easier (lather, rinse, repeat).

The key to riches, long life, and kinglike sovereignty over one’s existence is taking the soul and spirit, consciously uniting them, and leading them out of the body and back again.

So I think that the Mutus Liber is basically a Baroque astral projection manual disguised as chemistry: The stuff of dreams is the materia prima, the murky raw material that must be taken, analyzed, worked with, to create true philosophic gold: a special “blended” state in which the soul (alert consciousness) fully joins with the spirit double/”energy body” on its nightly travels. Successive separations and conjunctions (returns) exalt the self and lead to enlightenment. Over the course of the book, the curtains behind the alchemists progressively open, letting more and more light into their workshop.

Why All the Secrecy?

Beliefs in the separability of consciousness from the body prior to death were antithetical to Christian theology: Humans possessed just a single “subtle” principle, the soul, which departed the body only in death. Jesus was the singular exception, the only person possessing a divine spirit as well as a soul. As a result, all ordinary human phenomena hinting at spirit—from dreams and visions and mystical and other altered states of consciousness to manifestations of what we would now call “the paranormal,” like ghosts or psychic phenomena—were at least distrusted and were often relegated wholly to the category of the demonic. You could say, Christianity successfully robbed religion of spirit, replacing it with faith.

"Deer Girl" by Christina BothwellWhether or not we nowadays accept that each person possesses both detachable components, the work of Lecoutoux (for Europe), Naydler (for Egypt), and other scholars makes clear that it was firmly a part of pre- and para-Christian folk psychology, supported by infrequent but remarkable experiences like spontaneous OOBEs, lucid dreams, sleep paralysis episodes, near-death experiences, drug experiences, etc. The continuity of shamanic practices under various alternative labels (black magic, sorcery, witchcraft, etc.) in Christian Europe was certainly genuine, even if their prevalence and power was exaggerated by Church authorities. Alchemical explorers of consciousness would have pursued these techniques, marvelously and densely disguising their efforts under their chemical symbology.

Thus in their writings alchemists perpetually did a subtle dance around this issue of our subtle self: Is it one thing or two? When they wrote explicitly about soul and spirit as distinct, it was important to emphasize either that they were referring to physical chemistry—in which “spirits” are light volatile distillates (like alcohol) and the “soul” of a substance could stand for its oily and more distinct extracts—or alternatively, to insist that “the two are really one.” We see this evasiveness clearly in Lambspring’s opening verse. The author says “the sages will tell you” that the body contains a soul and a spirit and that “nevertheless they are one.” Lambspring himself, weighing in on this, is more equivocal: “Now I tell you most truly, cook these three together … and hold your tongue about it.” He seems to be saying that body, soul, and spirit really are in some sense three things, but if you are smart, you won’t admit to holding such a belief.

The extent to which this Christian duality of the person influenced subsequent rationalist, materialist tradition have been less acknowledged. Enlightenment science and the rationalist tradition carried forward the Christian presumption of a singular mental principle that might somehow be distinct from the body, as in Descartes, and required no third intermediary, no third term mediating them or yoking them together, other than God himself. The result has been an almost complete erasure of the ancient and pagan traditions about spirit doubles, as well as lingering confusion about what spirit and soul mean. Most people now use the terms interchangeably, unaware that there was once a meaningful distinction.

Anyone who in their own spiritual explorations has realized the importance of figuring out just what (the hell) out-of-body experiences really are knows how difficult it can be, and also how worthwhile the pursuit as revealed by even the first glimmers of success.

To this day, we have difficulty conceptualizing a consciousness that is not somehow unified, yet we also perpetually have trouble conceptualizing how these two radically different things, consciousness and the physical body, could be linked together. They seem to need a mediator that our metaphysics completely lacks. Descartes’ famous search for the seat of consciousness in the pineal gland is emblematic of the felt need for some mysterious mediating principle to yoke the soul to the living body.

It was of course the genius of Freud and his followers like Jung to renew our sense of the psyche’s plurality, resolving it into the conscious and unconscious components as well as parsing psychological functions in various other ways. But even Jung and the analytical psychology he inspired continue to implicitly see the psyche as one thing, even if the person has delusionally lost sight of this unity through a refusal to recognize rejected components of self; spirit and soul are merely aspects of the same underlying consciousness that would realize its unity through individuation. For instance, the Jung-inspired writer James Hillman described the soul as the humid enclosed “valleys” where we live surrounded by the familiar local particulars of our lives, and the “spirit” as the mountain peaks to which we may at times loftily ascend, attaining a clearer, more objective, more far-seeing view. They are places our singular consciousness moves between, not actual separable components of our being. Lambspring’s “mountain in India” where the soul and spirit ascend in tandem, would make no sense in Hillman’s framework.

Laughing at Death

Anyone who in their own spiritual explorations has realized the importance of figuring out just what (the hell) OOBEs really are knows how difficult it can be—with months or years of setbacks, disappointment, and discouragement—and also how worthwhile the pursuit as revealed by even the first glimmers of success. Ordinary lucid dreaming, the continuity of consciousness in a typical dream environment and at least a related phenomenon (if not the same), is supremely exhilarating and empowering—famously a route to gaining control over one’s fears and nightmares, much the way virtual reality is used to desensitize people from phobias or train extraordinary and dangerous skills. Actual OOBEs in “Reality I” (Monroe) or the “real time zone” (Bruce)—that is, experiences in which the immediate physical environment and even one’s own sleeping body seem to be perceived and interacted with—certainly would provide the experiencer with an even greater validation of the separability of one’s consciousness from material existence and, as an inevitable corollary, its possible survival of bodily death.

Such experiential verification of the indestructibility of consciousness would be priceless to humans living in the constant terror of mortality, so it is no wonder that, in the centuries before we could automatically blame such experiences on the material brain, such experiences constituted an “elixir of immortality” (i.e. as proof of immortality), as well as a talisman of power and health and courage. Once the son and father are reunited in Lambspring’s final verse, “they produce untold precious fruit. They perish never more, and laugh at death.” Assurance of the independence of consciousness from the body would indeed tend to make one brave in life, and this courage would tend to produce power and success. Once you’ve glimpsed it or been convinced there could be something to it, it really is something worth devoting energy and time to exploring.

Assurance of the independence of consciousness from the body would indeed tend to make one brave in life, and this courage would tend to produce power and success.

The methods are, and were, various. In the excellent recent collection of essays, Alchemical Traditions (edited by Aaron Cheak), Hereward Tilton examines the writings of the 16th Century alchemist Heinrich Khunrath and his contemporaries, and concludes that Khunrath’s work described (and concealed) processes that resulted in the creation of diethyl ether—a potent anaesthetic. Ether may have been literally the philosopher’s stone for Khunrath, which supports the idea that European alchemists were indeed engaged in a project of exploring and using altered states of consciousness. Anesthetics particularly are notable for producing profound dissociative or out-of-body experiences.

But what the user gains in facility of entering an altered state using drugs may be canceled by the difficulty of controlling the experience and, in the modern world at least, easy dismissal of the experience’s validity. Thus while entheogens may provide an important taste of out-of-body or lucid-dream-type experiences, the holy grail really seems to be the production of these experiences solely through meditation and other non-chemical techniques. The original alchemical text, the Tabula Smaragdina or Emerald Tablet, tells us that “the wind carried it in its belly,” which points directly to meditation as the method of the Great Work. The link between breath (the original meaning of “spirit”) and thought is well-known in many traditions, and so it was surely central to ancient contemplative practices and trance.

There are plenty of guides out there now to enable one to learn to have OOBEs and ascertain for yourself whether they are merely a subset of lucid dreams—obviously the only scientifically and socially acceptable materialist interpretation—or something more. I’ve mentioned a couple of them, but the very best books on the subject are from early in the last century. My favorite, and the most interesting, is the 1929 book The Projection of the Astral Body, a collaboration between an articulate lifetime ‘projector’ Sylvan Muldoon and psychical researcher Hereward Carrington. It includes thorough discussion of the means of inducing these experiences as well as interesting suggestions of their link to other phenomena like sleep paralysis (“astral catalepsy”) and hypnic jerks (“repercussion”). Those authors mention a 1920 series of articles by projector Oliver Fox, subsequently published as Astral Projection, which I also really like—it is less comprehensive, but more personal, and also more frank about the difficulties and disappointments inherent in the practice, such as the increased difficulty of having such experiences with age.

Depending on how old you are, having OOBEs may prove much more difficult than most enthusiasts like to claim. Despite a few spontaneous OOBEs when I was a young adult and another about 18 years ago, deliberately bringing one on in my late forties has proven extraordinarily difficult—only one full-on success thus far, as well as many attempts resulting in lucid dreams or other precursor phenomena like sleep paralysis and strong energy- or Kundalini-like sensations like those described in the manuals.

It is plenty to satisfy me that the ancient and modern authors are not simply lying about the experience. Whatever is really happening in OOBEs, they do feel distinctly real/veridical in a way that lucid dreams do not, even though the surest method of induction—basically, sensation-focused meditation while lying in bed—is the same, as are the unusual, initially alarming energetic sensations frequently preceding or accompanying them. Meditative work with hypnagogia during the day or evening can also bring on remarkably real-seeming “remote viewing”-like experiences without the ability to actually move around in the seen environment; but “real seeming” isn’t necessarily the same as real. I’m still on the fence about the nature of all these phenomena and how they relate to each other. That they are indeed related seems undeniable, however.

Postcript: What Are Sheep?

Rams and sheep appear throughout alchemy, and they also have a little-noticed symbolic connection to sleep going back hundreds or, I suspect, thousands of years.

Sheep, which must be closely watched at night, are like dreams, and shepherds are watchers of dreams.

First, the alchemical Great Work is always said to originate under the sign of Aries, the ram—ordinarily taken to mean the season of spring, which is what seems to be shown in Mutus Liber. Aries is symbolically associated with Mars (Ares) and the metal iron, which Fulcanelli emphasizes throughout his fascinating writings (for a tantalizing invitation down the rabbit hole of alchemy, the best place to start is Fulcanelli’s Mystery of the Cathedrals). Like many alchemical writers, Fulcanelli also draws our attention to Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece, which has long served as an allegorical representation of the Great Work. Fulcanelli helpfully points out that the mysterious object of that quest, the fleece of the self-sacrificing golden ram Chrysomallus—was guarded by a dragon, etymologically from derkesthai, “ever vigilant” or “awake while sleeping.”

Sheep, which must be closely watched at night, are like dreams, and shepherds are watchers of dreams—like dragons, they are “awake while sleeping.” The motif of the shepherd as dreamer, having fallen asleep on the job, appears throughout European art and literature, and it has ancient roots with the mythical Endymion, the handsome shepherd placed in a perpetual sleep to be adored in slumber by the moon goddess Selene.

Then of course there is “counting sheep” as a supposed cure for insomnia. It was recorded first in the 12th century but could be far older: There is a possible folk etymology linking the Latin imperative sopor sond (“sleep soundly”) to the Hebrew sopwor tsoan (“count sheep”), and whether or not this is really the origin of the idea of counting sheep in connection to sleep, the linkage of sheep/shepherds and dreams is clearly ancient. I think it is possible that, as a focus of conscious awareness, counting sheep might originally have been intended, not to induce sleep, but as a meditative bridge to lucid dreaming using the wake-induced lucid dream—WILD—method described by LaBerge. In my experience, maintaining fixed meditative awareness across the sleep threshold is, although challenging, far more reliable than attempting to wake up in a dream once it has begun using a lucidity trigger, per the MILD method.

If sheep are an ancient symbol for dreams, then the ram, a male sheep, may also be specifically symbolic of dream lucidity. Ra, the nocturnal incarnation of Osiris, is depicted with a ram’s head in his nightly voyage through the Duat or Underworld. The name of the Egyptian soul, Ba, also the word for ram, may have been an onomatopoeia, from the sound sheep make (i.e., “baa”).

In light of this, the many other sheep and shepherding references in the Genesis story of Jacob signaled by Altus at the start of his “Mute Book,” become suggestive. After his dream, Jacob goes on to visit the land of his cousin Laban, where shepherds gathered at a watering hole cannot refresh their flocks alone but must wait for all of them to gather so they can roll away a large stone that blocks the spring. When Laban’s daughter Rachel, a shepherdess, arrives, Jacob is smitten and singlehandedly rolls away the rock so he can water her sheep. The power to bring on dream experience during daylight perhaps depends on an erotic power either sublimated or channeled in actual Tantric work with a partner—suggested perhaps by the partnership of male and female alchemists in Altus’s book. There are other suggestions in Jacob’s narrative that he was actually some kind of shaman and/or trickster, including his fooling of his blind father by donning the skin of a goat.

If I am right about the ancient esoteric symbolism of sheep, then we ought also to read Luke’s gospel in the New Testament as an alchemical text, because it encodes the same esoteric awareness. Christ was born at night, and in Luke alone among the Gospels the first people to be made aware of his birth were the shepherds in the fields. The esoteric significance of the adoration of the shepherds would have been apparent to Luke’s intended audience: Christ appeared first to the shamans and dreamers. (In Matthew of course, his first visitors were instead the Magi from the East—possibly signaling a Vedic, Buddhist, or Tantric commitment on the part of that author.)

Christ was the Lamb of God, sacrificed in the cruciform manner of the Paschal Lamb, bringing full circle the sacrificial substitution of a ram for Abraham’s only son in Genesis. In earliest Christian iconography, Christ was depicted not crucified but bearing a sheep over his shoulders (the “Good Shepherd,” per one apocryphal text). The pseudonym “Lambspring” of course would have been a Christian allusion, and also, I suggest, another veiled reference to the subject of his book: the ability of the soul and spirit to “spring” (project) out of the body.

The secret subject of these ancient esoteric traditions, of course, is consciousness. Christ is awake, aware consciousness, the union of Soul and Spirit, martyred on the ancient symbol of matter, the Cross, which means both the body and light (because the Latin letters in “LVX” can be formed from +), but capable of transcending the dream of ordinary existence through realization of immortal life. His resurrection is enlightenment, which we all have in our power to achieve through meditation, particularly meditation on, with, and in our nightly dreams.

"When You Sleep" by Christina Bothwell


I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

21 Responses to “The Great Work of Immortality: Astral Travel, Dreams, and Alchemy”

  • Hi Eric, another great blog entry!

    This is a subject I’m extremely familiar with, yet once again you’ve formulated & expressed ideas in a somewhat unique way I hadn’t explicitly considered before – very helpful, thanks!

    A while ago somebody asked me for my (detailed) thoughts on lucid dreaming/astral projection and any tips I may have, so I wrote up a long, rambling most incoherent email to him, which I also posted on the forum I met him on. What you are suggesting in your post is something I believe I kind of touched on, without being as explicit as yourself:

    “The secret to successful, consistent & “at will” OBEs is to forge a strong and ongoing connection between the waking mind and the dreaming mind. Really, this was the biggest secret for me personally that really helped me to become good at it……

    As most people are hardly ever even vaguely aware of their dreaming mind, let alone intimately familiar with it, the first step is to get to know it…..and the easiest possible way is to pay very close attention to your dreams. A “dream diary” may well be the most important tool in any OBErs, astral projectors or lucid dreamers tool kit that they will ever have. If you feel you can skip this step, like many do, then you may as well skip the entire endevour. This is the foundation of any strong OBE ability. Also know, deep down, it is important. In this way you’re paying respect, with your waking mind, to your dreaming mind.”

    (not sure if external links are allowed, but entire post here:

    Your section on the Book of Lambspring (thanks for the reference – had already read the other 2 alchemical texts mentioned, but never heard of this one, will be checking it out in full!) reminded me of what I was attempting to hint at in my email…’s opened up new ways of thinking for me….which is nice 🙂

    PS – you mention entheogens and astral projection/lucid dreaming – being quite familiar with both (including DMT, mushrooms, LSD, Salvia), I would personally have to strongly suggest they are indeed entirely different things, really. Though that is not a popular view, these days, with DMT/Ayahuasca and other entheogens being en vogue – I agree with your comment regarding it!

    PPS – Have you read any Patrick Harpur? His book Mercurius hints at a similar reading of the great alchemical work as your readings above – he suggest the “philosophers stone” is the “imagination” (or imaginal realm)….


    Cheers, Manu

  • Body, spirit, and soul: like vegetative, sensitive, and rational psyche a la Aristotle? One of the big Plato-Aristotle differences is, of course, that Aristotle believed that psyche only “happened” when there was a particular form for the psyche to fill, while Plato was a reincarnationist: Psyche migrated between bodies, spending time in the “real world” in between.

    One of my summer 2013 books was Mark Booth’s The Secret History of the World (2008, rev. 2011. New York: Overlook Press, 633 pp.). This was very much an eye-opener for me, in terms of being someone who was looking for a non-materialistic metaphysics that made sense in terms of the ‘apparently’ material world we live in.

    A main point he makes throughout the book is that initiatory processes, including alchemical and ‘secret society’ ones, were indeed to teach the individual (the spirit + soul) about how to detach the subtle essence from the body, and that this practice was to prepare the individual for ‘life after (bodily) death. I don’t recall that OOBEs were discussed directly, but he would be in agreement with one of your conjectures in this post.

    Another point Booth makes that has stuck in my mind is that “Materialism works” (wish I had the page number!) That is, we can alter genes, we can extract materials and turn them into new things, we can fight viruses and bacteria, we can harness wind, sun, water, coal, gas, and oil to generate power, we can use algebra to accurately range the bombs we want to drop; we can unleash the energy of the atom. Plato aside, all of this stuff seems quite “real.” A solid idealist metaphysic has to account for all this, and then some. It makes my head hurt.

    I don’t remember whether it was in a blog-post proper, or whether it was in a response to a comment, but a few months back you wrote something to the effect of “the nervous system will always be found to shape experience, period.” This is a key, key point. Our technologically enhanced view of body – experience/behavior correlates will only continue to become more and more exquisitely refined. Doubtlessly, the increase in this kind of information will present more and more ‘interventions’ that can be made (for good or ill). What I’m not at all confident about how soon we’ll “understand” how it all fits together to give us the experience we experience. That doesn’t mean this knowledge isn’t “real,” so far as it goes.

    Whatever out-of-body experiences “really” are—actual journeys beyond the body or just lucid dreams that seem like it—it is increasingly clear that they were crucially important experiences in ancient mystical traditions.

    To me, that’s breathtaking – not that “they were crucially important” part, but that OOBEs might be “just lucid dreams.”

    “Just lucid dreams.” Ouch, says the individual who has experienced only one, and not without some effort.

    I wish I remembered which early neuro-science-head suggested towards the end of his career that there might not be that much difference between being “awake” and “dreaming.” I find this to be a powerful and provocative idea. I think it’s the Don Miguel Ruiz “Toltec” school of thought that explicitly states that waking consciousness is truly a form of “dream.”

    Of the various theories about what dreams “are” and “are for,” you have propounded the “dreams are long term memories in formation” theory, which is one that makes sense to me in many respects. If so… what effect does “being aware that this is a dream” have on the quality (and ‘usefulness’) of the memory being formed (if any)?

    Going back to the “nervous system shapes experience” idea, I think it’s interesting to consider the fact that dreams are not generally easy to remember in terms of what we know is going on in the nervous system during REM sleep.

    According to wikipedia, acetylcholine activity goes up, especially in the brainstem. One cognition-related function of acetylcholine in the brain itself is “sustained attention.” At the skeletal muscles, however, acetylcholine is what enables us to move.

    But we don’t want our limbs to act out all the motions the cerebral cortex is firing for during REM sleep, so we have to shut that down somehow. Evidently the medulla oblongata and the brain stem in general are involved in shutting down movement during dreams (think of the common dream experience of needing to get away from something, but the dreamer’s limbs don’t actually move her through “space.”)

    In contrast, serotonin (a super-complicated and fascinating neurotransmitter that is involved with, among with many other things, memory) and norepinephrine (general nervous system arousal and vigilant alertness) are “completely unavailable” (along with histamine).

    So, during REM sleep, three neurotransmitters that are involved with movement, memory, and its necessary precursor, attention, are deployed throughout the brain in ways that are significantly different than in waking sleep and non-REM sleep. This has “got” to be involved with the challenge of remembering dreams. I’m not sure how to apply this in any direct way to a “dreams project” other than to concur that the best way to learn to remember (and further use) one’s dreams involves consistently writing down what you remember as soon as you wake up. Nevertheless, I can’t shake the desire to keep in mind these facts, feeling that they might all “fit in” to the problem at a later time.

    The challenges to “gathering the morning dew” include the neuro-physiological, but these are not insurmountable.

    Another (and I don’t think mutually exclusive to ‘dreams as memories in formation’) theory about what dreams are “for” is ‘practice runs’ for dangerous/threatening situations. To me, this looks consistent with a lot of the information we have collected about the content and neurophysiology of dreams, although I can’t really think of why it might be adaptive for dreams to be difficult to remember (unless that doesn’t necessarily matter).

    It does make sense to me, however, that remembering dreams might be useful in supporting and making use of that ‘practice run for trouble’ function. Further, that helping someone who suffers, say, from nightmares to learn to become aware in a dream and alter the situation (as practitioners evidently are doing as an intervention these days) would also be an adaptive step forward.
    Making a transition from lucid dreams to OOBEs seems to me to be a thrilling step forward. Would OOBEs “just being mere lucid dreams” really matter? Dreams as practice runs for dangerous/challenging situations equivalent to OOBEs are being practice runs for staying ‘intact’ while dying?

    The ‘normal’ dreaming mind is the spirit at work; lucid dreaming brings the soul and the spirit together.

    Back to Mark Booth: Again, he was one of the first sources I personally found who laid an outline of an idealist metaphysics that made possible sense to me (although I don’t believe it would be the only one). Booth stresses, under idealistic philosophies, the power, efficacy, and value of imagination, a concept that doesn’t get much credit in strictly materialist readings of things. Imagination can be/is “real” in an idealist world. What is the statement “OOBEs are ‘just’ imagination” was changed to “OOBEs are imagination… and so what?”

    Thanks for another super-interesting and informative post. The part about “sheep” is new to me.

    I would be interested to see you say more about “meditating into sleep” as a way to trigger lucidity in dreams.

  • Thanks, Manu! I haven’t read any Patrick Harpur, but I’ll check out the book you mentioned.

  • “Just lucid dreams.” Ouch, says the individual who has experienced only one, and not without some effort.

    Sorry to make it sound like I was belittling the difficulty of lucid dreaming! 🙂 It’s definitely not easy! I achieved my initial successes with the aid of a relatively safe nootropic supplement called Galantamine, which you can buy cheaply online. There are lots of instructions online about how to use it to help with lucid dreaming: basically, wake up after a few hours of sleep, in the early morning, and take the capsule, then go back to sleep–it acts at nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and creates a kind of alertness that can facilitate waking up in the dream. But tolerance develops very quickly so you should only use it once a week, and best just a few times to sort of open the door to the experience and gain initial practice, then learn to bring them on without chemical help (i.e. meditation).

    Of the various theories about what dreams “are” and “are for,” you have propounded the “dreams are long term memories in formation” theory, which is one that makes sense to me in many respects. If so… what effect does “being aware that this is a dream” have on the quality (and ‘usefulness’) of the memory being formed (if any)?

    Great question. I think a lucid dream is probably useless from the standpoint of memory consolidation, which is why you wouldn’t want all or even many of your dreams to be lucid. Here I very much agree with Evan Thompson (Waking, Dreaming, Being) against the Tibetan “dream yoga” folks who see the ideal as being always lucid during sleep. I think that’s a recipe for not assimilating new experiences (i.e., learning). May be okay if you’re a monk whose only goal is enlightenment, but not for a functioning person in the world.

    Going back to the “nervous system shapes experience” idea, I think it’s interesting to consider the fact that dreams are not generally easy to remember in terms of what we know is going on in the nervous system during REM sleep.

    I discuss this in my “Dreams & Art of Memory” post; dreams are memories being formed and they aren’t really ‘intended’ to be consciously remembered. In a sense, I think a dream has kind of ‘failed’ at its task if you actually remember it. In effect, your conscious memories of yesterday and the day before are the real ‘dream’–that is, the dreams you had were firing of new synaptic connections to create a bundle of new associations; remembering this experience isn’t the intention of the system, although may have its own other functions/uses by a logic of ‘exaptation.’ A dream can be thought of as the scaffolding at a construction site–the point is the building being made, and that’s what’s going to remain when all is said and done. The dream is meant to go away when its purpose is served.

    Another (and I don’t think mutually exclusive to ‘dreams as memories in formation’) theory about what dreams are “for” is ‘practice runs’ for dangerous/threatening situations. To me, this looks consistent with a lot of the information we have collected about the content and neurophysiology of dreams, although I can’t really think of why it might be adaptive for dreams to be difficult to remember (unless that doesn’t necessarily matter).

    I disagree with this (Allen Hobson’s) theory. It’s just the best Hobson has to offer in the absence of accepting that dreams bear a coherent and meaningful relationship to past experience. He’s so resolutely opposed to anything smacking of Freud and psychoanalysis that he rejects meaningful-content theories out of hand. In his response to Sue Llewellyn’s neuroscientific argument for dreams’ mnemonic functioning he basically says “okay, how are you going to prove this?” As I elaborated in my article, this is precisely the problem: dreams utilize such personal symbolism that there would be no way of actually proving this in the laboratory. The individual dreamer is always an n of 1. This was, of course, the great scientific argument against Freud’s theory too. The only hope of proving it is using neuroimaging to correlate dream imagery with cortical activation patterns somehow, in real time, while a person is dreaming and then when they are remembering an experience … but the ability to do that is years off.

    I would be interested to see you say more about “meditating into sleep” as a way to trigger lucidity in dreams.

    Set an alarm that will wake you up after about 3 hours of sleep–this is necessary because you’re looking for the shallower stages of sleep, which don’t start until about 3 hours after you fall asleep–and then meditate in bed, keeping focus on a mental image or a physical object, breathing evenly. I try to fill my consciousness with my steady breath and an actual object that I hold in my hand. Just fight to keep your attention on the object even as hypnagogia takes over, bringing your attention back to the object again and again–i.e. same as any ordinary daytime meditation session. Increasingly you will be able to ‘inhabit’ those hypnagogic images and turn them into dreams, or you will start to dream, and then find yourself waking up in it. I find that the doorway to lucid dreaming, for me, is an optic light phenomenon in the center of my visual field that is almost flame-like, which I shift my focus onto (from the object I am holding) when it starts, and kind of ‘stoke’ this ‘fire’ with my breath. This is similar to what Oliver Fox describes in his book as his “pineal doorway” to OOBEs.

  • I appreciate the information about “meditating into sleep.” It speaks to a particular question I had regarding meditation involving visualization, vs. meditation focused on thinking about ‘nothing.’ Since I usually wake up about 3:00 AM, and use breath meditation to avoid ‘racing thoughts’ and to get more sleep, I should be able to try your suggestions out without too much trouble.

    I’m going to chew on your reply in terms of remembering dreams. I’m also going to have to go back and re-read your art of memory and dreams/memory posts.

    The Threat Simulation Theory I was referring to belongs to a Finnish psychologist named Antti Revonsuo. Having just discovered it yesterday, I can’t claim to be an expert — but I think it goes somewhat beyond Hobsons “dreams are en epiphenomenon” approach. I’m going to dig around in it for a bit, and then get back to you.

    Thanks for your replies!

  • “I discuss this in my “Dreams & Art of Memory” post; dreams are memories being formed and they aren’t really ‘intended’ to be consciously remembered. In a sense, I think a dream has kind of ‘failed’ at its task if you actually remember it. In effect, your conscious memories of yesterday and the day before are the real ‘dream’–that is, the dreams you had were firing of new synaptic connections to create a bundle of new associations; remembering this experience isn’t the intention of the system, although may have its own other functions/uses by a logic of ‘exaptation.’ A dream can be thought of as the scaffolding at a construction site–the point is the building being made, and that’s what’s going to remain when all is said and done. The dream is meant to go away when its purpose is served.”

    I *really* like this set of ideas.

    Over the last several days, I have kicked around in the abstracts on some full text articles through the *psychinfo* database. This was a good exercise for me in that it helped bring me ‘up to speed’ some on the dream literature for the last 10 years or so. Here are some interesting things that stick out to me:

    Right around 2000, there was a big kerfluffle in the sleep science community when they decided that a lot of the stuff that’s (still in) the intro psych books was ‘too simple,’ including the idea that REM sleep and dreams are ‘the same thing.’

    That conversation lead to interesting new research, including at least two other big ‘special issues’ in journals dedicated to sleep/dreams research.

    I saw at least one abstract that suggested that REM dreams were for consolidating emotional memories, and non-REM sleep and mentation was associated with consolidation of semantic memories. I wasn’t able to access the full text or find much more to advance those ideas. But the whole idea that sleep and dreams are at least partly “for” memory consolidation is QUITE solidly supported by various kinds of evidence.

    I did find the Hobson material you referred to, and it is separate from the Revuonso “rehearsal for threat” theory, but there is definite similarity between the theories. Revonsuo and his (oops!) colleagues have done some solid work finding supporting evidence for “threat rehearsal” as part of the ‘reason’ for dreams. I don’t think he’s been able to pound the last nail in the coffin for it being the ‘only’ reason for dreams, nor do I think he will be able to, and lots of folks actually doing research in this area don’t think he’ll be able to, either. Several folks argue “why not ‘rehearsal’ in general, including for positive motivations?” That makes a lot of sense to me.

    I find it interesting that Hobson has evolved to the extent that he has! That is, he has gone from stridently defending a “dreams are simply/strictly epiphenomena” position to having to move to a “dreams might actually be ‘for’ something, after all” position. HE’S BEEN FORCED TO DO THIS BY THE DATA! (Including having to acknowledge the reality of lucid dreaming. He’s got the neuro-imaging to show that regular REM sleep and waking are different, and that Lucid REM sleep is intermediate between the two.) Are you sure you don’t like it *just because* he still insists that ‘free association’ is worthless? 🙂 From my perspective, we can still take his data and argue that the kind of process you are arguing for explains what he finds better than his explanation accounts for it!

    The things that I find so appealing about the “‘threat rehearsal’/rehearsal” approach to dreaming include: Revuonso and his colleages have interesting data to back it up, it fits with my personal experience of dreams I recall; it is consistent with a non-human/non-linguistic approach to mammallian dreaming (which I think you pretty much have to have in an overall theory of sleep, REM sleep, and dreaming, since it’s both a mammalian and an avian characteristic); “rehearsal” theories in general leave room to include “play”; when you add the linguistic features that come with the development of language, you can easily defend ‘free association’ as a way to discover(or maybe “make”) meaning(s).

    Very interested to see where the next post takes us.

  • My objection to the threat rehearsal theory is that it’s simply not nearly as good a theory as the mnemonic theory: It doesn’t fit the lived experience of dreaming, for one thing. If dreams were for rehearsing threats to deal with them better, then you’d think they’d (a) present realistic threats (they seldom do) and (b) would be highly repetitive, because rehearsal is repetition. In fact very few dreams repeat, and even their basic situations don’t repeat with much regularity.

    But the main reason is what we know about how memory works. If you practice the art of memory, you realize very quickly that what you are doing is consciously producing dreams: i.e., highly associative/punny and emotionally vivid scenes, strung along in a spatial situation, organized episodically. That dreaming is just the art of memory operating automatically while we sleep elegantly fits all the data on memory formation and consolidation during REM sleep. Dreaming also happens to be an activity engaged in precisely by the animals most dependent on learning versus instinct, i.e. mammals and birds. Everything we know about dreams and memory converges on the mnemonic theory.

    It was just the missing link in dream theory because dream researchers are siloed in psych and neurosci departments, far far away from Warburg Institute types who study pre-Gutenberg mnemonic practices. Following Sue Llewellyn’s Behavioral and Brain Sciences article, I think the paradigm will shift, but sluggishly because of the resistance of Hobson et al. who remain vehemently opposed to the idea that dreams are meaningful. They’ve been forced to come around to a grudging acceptance of functionality, yes, but not meaning. Meaning (interpretability) is still the place they won’t go, partly because hard sciences understandably have problems dealing with meaning as it’s not falsifiable (forgiveable) but also because of a lifelong professional hatred of anything smacking of Freud. The mnemonic theory, when you examine it, turns out to be very close to Freud, just sort of mirror-imaged. It’s one of those situations where the old guard is just going to have to retire or die before the paradigm will really shift, but I’m quite confident it will … and hopefully in 10 years we won’t have to read any more tiresome pop science articles on “why do we dream???” It will have been quite confidently answered.

    Which is not to say that there aren’t secondary functions for dreaming that have emerged by exaptation. I won’t say threat rehearsal isn’t one of them; I suppose it’s possible. But access to new personally and culturally valuable knowledge from the nonlocal quantum whatever definitely seems part of the story. On that topic, I just got back from the SSE meetings, where I spoke to Dale Graff (of Star Gate fame) about this; turns out his interests have shifted from remote viewing to dream precognition, and he is basically of the opinion that the actual thing being viewed, not only in dream precog but also RV, is the future feedback. I felt quite vindicated :-).

  • I’m jealous you got to go to SSE! It’s always exciting to find another bright person thinking in the same direction as oneself.

    That’s an excellent response, and I appreciate it. I think I need to go back and read the two “art of memory posts” twice more each. I think I understand the “mnemonic theory” better than I have before after reading this. Thanks for mentioning Sue Llewellyn; I hadn’t found that article article just wandering through abstracts with keywords — I’ve asked ILL to fetch it up for me now (maybe it will work this time. I also found a second one I asked for by her, as well.)

    For the last two-three weeks, I have been re-reading articles by the social psychologist/personologist Seymour Epstein; mostly stuff that was published in the mid-’80’s. He was working on a synthetic, cognitive self-theory that included preconscious and unconscious elements. He had a lot to say about Freud and dreaming, including his own theories about why it was that dream information almost never is presented directly, but in the “elliptical”, punny, associationistic, and even playful way you describe as “mnemonic.” Basically, as understand it, he said that dream information was “displaced and condensed” in this way because that is the way the unconscious mind “thinks”; it never does “think” in a rational or conventionally symbolic way. He was writing at a time before there was much talk about sleep and dreaming as being “for” memory consolidation, though. I’m happy to be reading it at the same time I’m reading this stuff on your blog.

    Thanks, as always, for the work-out.

  • Hi Eric, as a scientist AND someone that has had quite a few ‘off the edge’ experiences I’ve been trying to figure out what ‘scenario’ would explain a lot of ‘paranormal’ experiences and particularly OBE’s, NDE’s, ghost sightings, past lives, action and perceptions at a distance (and many others).

    My ‘physical con’ page which is here:

    Provides a basic hypotheisis to not only explain many consistent but ‘odd’ experiences BUT also why there is so much effort made to dismiss or explain them in entirely disresepctful ways i.e. as halucinations and so on.

  • Thanks, Brent–I’ll check it out!

  • I have been practicing lucid dreaming for a while and having great success, until one night I was inside a dream floating to the ceiling and underneath me I was still asleep in my bed at this point I thought I was still in a lucid dream as I started floating thru the ceiling I could here someone in the distance calling my name as the earth was getting smaller. This experience scared me so much it woke me up. I don’t know if this was a oobe or if it was a really freaked out lucid dream.

  • Discovered your blog, and you’re a wonderful writer. Pleas help me with something. You say –

    ‘The name Atalanta, “not held,” does not really give a clue to the nature of the volatile substance.’

    Atalanta means not held? All the etymologies I could find say that Atalanta means something else. Can you tell me how Atalanta means ‘not held’? Thank you very much for your help.

  • Thanks for the post. Just one detail. I think Jung did link lucid dreams to alchemy. An example is his vivid dream of the green crucifix, recorded in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, where he links the alchemical green with new life, as I recall.

  • Thanks, Nick. You’ve caught what seems to be an error. I delved into it, as you did, and I’m wrong about the etymology. I was probably linking it to “talon” but the meaning of that is “heel,” not “hold.” Apologies, but thanks for catching my mistake!

    I’ve edited the text to correct it.

  • thanks. oh well, i was rooting for its etymology meaning ‘not held’ as well….
    you know she used to be a hood ornament on Studebakers back in the day.
    listening to a podcast on skeptico where you’re discussing trauma and psi. this is something i’ve come to understand as well.
    as a limit concept.
    benjamin and agamben touch on this too.
    is this the best way for one to reach you, or is there an email?

  • eric[dot]wargo[at]gmail

  • Good post.

  • Hi Eric, thanks for sharing this information with us all. From this post I see that in many cultures and traditions the concept of outer-body experiences is nothing new. I was reading an interesting article published by the spiritual research center ‘SSRF’, that does spiritual research into the subtle dimension. They have explored the nature of the claims of people feeling that they are going through a tunnel or seeing light in a NDE. I feel that it adds a nice perspective to the discussion. You can see it here. What do you think about it ? –

  • Eric – this is an amazing post. You clearly can hear if not speak the twilight language; you read like a modern Coowaraswamy. It’s a rich vein on OOBE: ancient Greek shamanic practice of “incubation”; the writings of Peter Kingsley, Jeremy Naydler, Algis Uždavinys, Aaron Cheak, Hereward Tilton and Claude Lecoutoux; the role of the body in both ‘The Book of Lambspring’ and ‘Atlanta Fuigens’; sensory dew-collecting in ‘Mutus Liber’; 16th century Heinrich Khunrath’s concealed work that resulted in the creation of diethyl ether; meditative breathing in the ‘Tabula Smaragdina’; Fulcanelli’s ‘Mystery of the Cathedrals’; counting sheep; and Luke’s gospel in the New Testament as an alchemical text. Breathless work! I hope you are writing books or at least creating a book out of the blog.

  • Thanks, David! Yes, I’m working on a book currently — hence not many blog posts recently, and failing to check/reply to blog comments — apologies. 🙂