Navigating the Out-of-Body ~ Lucid Dream Continuum
Edit (2020): (1) Since writing this in 2017, I've read the work of Thomas Metzinger, Celia Green and Charles McCreery and others who suggest that these experiences do exist on a spectrum of 'intermediate states' (Green and McCreery 1994) and mention 'dream-like OBEs' (Metzinger 2009). This might be cynical, but I think that the reason this typically isn't explored in workshops and popular books is that it's a very nuanced subject that is difficult to make claims about, so it's difficult to package and commercialise! (2) It's also important to point out that both popular and academic materials about dreams and OBEs are derived from WEIRD people (white, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), so the definitions we use are limited (see this article for more).
I woke up in what seemed to be an out-of-body state, although I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten there. I was in a sleek, high-ceilinged room, standing in front of a button that read ‘Meeting Room’. I pressed it and the room morphed ever so slightly. I walked up a spiral staircase to a small platform where a woman in an office chair swivelled toward me.
‘Is this an OBE?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘How do I know it’s not a lucid dream?’
‘I don’t know what that is.’
I explained that it’s a dream where the dreamer knows that they’re dreaming. She gave me a look as if to say ‘Now that doesn’t really make much sense, does it?’ My brain felt a bit more ‘switched on’ in that state than when awake, and I was starting to get what she was hinting at, but unfortunately I couldn’t carry the concept into waking physical reality.
I had a feeling that the delineation between OBEs and LDs was about to become clearer to me, something that I'd been struggling with after a number of frustratingly liminal, yet conscious experiences which didn’t fit into either category.
Was this a lucid dream (LD) or an out-of-body experience (OBE)?
Earlier this year I conducted a survey on out-of-body experiences, in which 44% of respondents said they'd had an experience which they couldn't clearly identify as an OBE or an LD. Comments included "Yes, goes back and forth between them" and "Yes, in [the] early days. LDs have hallucinated dream scenery which is not always obvious."
The way I initially attempted to differentiate LDs from OBEs for myself, was to transition into these states from the waking state without a break in consciousness. So if I started from my body and experienced the classic signs of an OBE (see below), I would pay attention to the characteristics and 'feel' of the following experience. If it started with hypnagogia or felt as though I was going inside rather than outside, I classed it as a lucid dream. (I no longer think that it's that simple.)
This is how I experienced these transition states; others may have experienced these differently:
* When I say the physical shell, this is not an assumption that it is the physical body (I often have OBEs from false awakenings), but that this is how it's perceived.
However, as time went on, the transition process would seem more streamlined or I would skip it entirely; leaving the body became easier or immediate. I had now become somewhat familiar with each of these states, so I could normally guess which it was. But without the characteristics of the transition state as a reference point, and because there seemed to be some overlap in the experiences, I would at times be unsure whether I was in an OBE or a LD.
To make matters more complicated, I would also sometimes transition from a LD into an OBE. Was I dreaming about having an OBE? I would still have the vibrations, the rising out of my (dream) body, but could this be explained by the continuity hypothesis, i.e. you dream about what you experience - and if you experience OBEs, couldn't you dream about them too? The way to test this would be to measure EEG or fMRI of somebody accustomed to consciously toggling between an OBE and LD, and see if any changes show up in the data. The interesting thing would be if this showed that they were "hacking" into the sleep cycle - ultimately switching between sleep stages, which would then have huge implications for sleep medicine.
At the time of my 'Meeting Room' experience, according to most books, workshop facilitators and fellow dreamers, the LD was a creation of your subconscious, while the OBE involved a consensual reality. For example, if you thought that you were having an OBE but you noticed an artefact from your subconscious (like the banana in the bar, see below), then that was your clue that it wasn’t an OBE at all, but an LD.
Generally, both experiences involve lucidity, or feeling awake within an immersive state. So, if you awoke from an experience that had the qualities of an OBE but lacked the conscious awareness, then it was just a dream.
I was not satisfied with these answers. I mean, you can have REM intrusions when you're awake (hallucinations), but that doesn't mean that you're in a dream. Similarly, if your doorbell or alarm get incorporated into your dream, it doesn't mean that you're awake. It's not that easy. In fact, I think these experiences suggest that we need to reconsider the way we think about dreams and consciousness entirely.
There seems to be a spectrum along which certain dream elements have more stability (typical of an OBE) or more entropy (typical of an LD). When I started having OBEs, I initially concluded that the stability of what I was seeing meant that it was more real or consensual, but I think that's because I equated stability with the waking physical world (in which the wallpaper doesn't magically change colour - yet!).
Between a lucid dream and an out-of-body experience: 'augmented reality'
Sometimes what seemed to be a full-blown OBE would, given enough time, start to develop the qualities of an LD. I had intentionally switched between the two states before, but when it happened spontaneously it seemed to be more gradual.
I was sitting with a small group of strangers in a bar. We were discussing our current out-of-body state, swapping ideas about what might’ve caused it (one wagered that he’d had a drug overdose), when I noticed that on another table sat a notebook and a banana. Why would these objects suddenly be in the bar? I noticed that these items had a different quality to everything else in the room. Then I recalled that I had eaten a banana before bed, while studying from a notebook. Uncomfortable, I dismissed it.
I noticed that there had been a weird whooshing background noise, similar to the noise in the Stephen King film The Langoliers, which was getting progressively louder. I had to speak over the sound, shouting ‘Hey, guys!’ to indicate when I was going to say something. Eventually it occurred to me that we might need to meditate for a few seconds to stabilise [this usually helps to stabilise disintegrating LDs and OBEs]; we did so but the noise didn’t let up, although the room did get brighter (similar to going from moonlight to sunlight). We walked onto the roof and saw a large airplane slowly rolling down a city street. Things were definitely starting to take on the qualities of a lucid dream. We were going from Insidious to Inception territory.
Probably because I had been a "gamer" since the age of three until my late teens, I related these experiences to role playing games or virtual reality. The banana and notebook felt an awful lot like augmented or mixed reality; perhaps the augmentreality dial started turning up as I was switching brainwave states or coming out of a sleep cycle?
Like the objects, the noise felt out of place. Did the airplane sound manifest from the noise of an OBE transition as I switched between states, or from a noise filtering through my physical ears?
Whatever was behind it, it felt to me as if these 'augmented reality'-type overlays were seeping in because whatever was keeping me in the OBE state was losing juice, like battery drainage. It felt completely independent of my lucidity, tiredness or focus. Again, I believe this depends largely on which sleep stage you're in, but more on that another time.
In my experience, you can switch scenes or states while either unconscious or conscious, voluntarily or involuntarily. So, although you're conscious in the LD or OBE and may not want to switch scenes or states, it may happen automatically, like the example above.
i. The involuntary toggle - waking up and 'falling asleep' within the dream: Sometimes while still feeling wide awake in the LD or OBE (or somewhere along the spectrum), the environment will start to fade. Occasionally, I start to feel sleepy while the environment remains stable.
This essentially redefined ‘falling asleep’ for me, and I now see it more as ‘switching channels’. Falling asleep in a dream feels exactly like falling asleep from the waking state. I wonder if this could be where sleep stage meets circadian rhythm?
ii. The voluntary toggle:
Sometimes I’ll find myself on the LD side of the spectrum and intentionally switch off or turn down the dial as in the following dream:
<Dream log 27 March 2017, after WBTB technique>
I entered a bathroom in an attic which had a bath split into two compartments, so that two people could bathe right next to each other (with their own preferred temperatures, for example). It looked comfy and told the people I was with that I wish I had my phone on me so I could take a photo. With that, I realised that I was dreaming.
I said out loud, 'All subconscious content, please disappear. Let me see an 'astral' version of London'. My vision blurred, and light pastel colours were the last to fade. In came a main road of 'London'. I felt I'd seen this before several times in other dreams. There was one section of yellow emergency vehicles: utility-type vans and even a horse with a work tarp in the same colour. Some were going backward into a more dilapidated area, but on the other side was a more beautiful, more futuristic city. I chose to explore the dilapidated area, which had a more stable feel to it. The people could see me*. There were restaurants and cafes in meandering alleys, and a few friendly people in one of them welcomed me in to talk to them, but I wanted to explore a little bit more as I didn't know how long I had until I woke up.
*Sometimes in an OBE, 'characters' won't see or hear you, another topic explored in the survey.
Hallucinated dream content is generally described as such because it is less stable, more changeable, and can be more vivid (sometimes even cartoon-like). OBE content, in contrast, feels more 'real', so can sometimes be more jarring. Avid out-of-body experiencer Robert Peterson has described experiencing this erasure of hallucinated dream material as immediate, like switching off a tv. I’ve only experienced immediate erasure when meditating in the LD or OBE state and teleporting to a completely new scene. Other than that, I would be in the same environment and it would be a gradual fading out, sometimes to a white or black nothingness until a new scene fades in. Perhaps it was only a matter of his switching function being more streamlined!
The above example seemed to be a gradual transition between a LD and OBE. Below is an example of perhaps the opposite:
<Dream from 2006>
I can’t recall whether I was attempting an LD or OBE but I found myself with my (dream) eyes open. My bedroom was dark and I felt a calm, light sensation that often accompanies OBEs. However I felt as though I was hovering between the two states and could decide which state to go into.
I felt vulnerable and nervous about going out into my dark room, so I decided to go into a lucid dream instead, wrapped safely in my own hallucination. Once I'd made this decision, it felt as though I was going inward very quickly, as though falling backwards in a funnel before finding myself inside a lovely bright dream.
If you accept that you can be both conscious and unconscious on a spectrum ranging from changeable (typical of REM dreams) to 'augmented' or 'mixed' reality, to a stable environment (typical of OBEs), then when you awake with memories of an experience it might be hard to force it into any of the categories we currently have.
In debating whether an experience is an LD or OBE, I think it’s just a matter of distinguishing where the content originates (and we're still a long way from that), and then learning how to navigate these spaces consciously - while seeking to understand any ramifications this can have on our sleep cycle.
Barrett, D. (1991). Just How Lucid Are Lucid Dreams? Dreaming. 2:4
Basso, E. (1987). The implications of a progressive theory of dreaming. In: Tedlock, B. (Ed.), Dreaming: anthropological and psychological interpretations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
De Foe, A. (Ed.) (2016). Consciousness Beyond the Body: Evidence and Reflections. Melbourne: Melbourne Centre for Exceptional Human Potential
Green, C. E. and McCreery, C. 1994. Lucid Dreaming: The paradox of consciousness during sleep. New York, NY: Routledge
Metzinger, T. 2009. The Ego Tunnel. New York: Basic Books
Peterson, R. (2015). Turning lucid dreams into OBEs. Retrieved from: http://obeoutlook.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/turning-lucid-dreaming-into-obes.html [Accessed 16th August 2017]