Out of Body Experiences (OBEs)

You’ve heard about them. The doctors and nurses are feverishly working around the patient as the EKG sings its steady tone of death. Meanwhile, the patient hovers calmly above observing all the activity around his body and wondering what all the fuss is about. Do I go back into that trauma, he wonders, or do I head toward the light?

For many years, I disregarded these stories out of hand. I had three strikes against me in being able to evaluate them without bias: my mother was a nurse, which influenced me to think of these things medically; I had a theology that prevented me from giving the experience any spiritual credence[1]; and I was ignorant of the fine distinctions between out of body experiences and a near death experiences (NDEs). These episodes, I reasoned, had to be traumatic delusions, drug induced fantasies, or caused by some fairly normal near-death synaptic firings. Not surprisingly, their spiritual implications weren’t given much thought.

The classic scene described above involves an out of body experience, but it is really a near death experience. OBEs are much more common than NDEs. Though we might casually say “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven” after eating a particularly wonderful slice of pie, we don’t mean to imply that we actually had a vision of the Pearly Gates. But when we say “I was beside myself,” we are in the emotional state of an out of body experience and have generally come close to escaping our skin.

To understand that one can come out of one’s body, one has to believe that they are more than their body. This is difficult if your world view is mechanistic – that all phenomena have physical or deterministic causes. Though mechanism has provided us with some great insights and understanding of our physical universe, I much prefer a spiritual world view; if for no other reason than it is a bit more fun. In the mechanistic universe, I can “reach out and touch someone” by making a phone call. In the spiritual world, someone can feel my touch fifteen feet across the room.

OBEs exist in other guises: astroplaning, astral projections, lucid dreaming, doppelgangers[2], psychotic episodes, trances, open visions, slain in the Spirit, and déjà vu to name a few. For those limited to materialistic explanations, all of these are simply similar experiences with physical causes. After all, they reason, we are just a bio-electrical expression of organic matter. Our thoughts, dreams, visions, and even consciousness itself are mere illusions projected by the brain. But to the spiritually minded, not only can these incidents be physically induced; they can also be a real experience of the soul and spirit of man, a dance with angels or demons, or glimpses through the tears in the thin veil of the physical world.

A great example of an OBE in the Bible is Ezekiel’s journey to Israel. Ezekiel was sitting in his house in Babylon meeting with the exiled elders of Judah. He saw a man of fire extend his hand and grab Ezekiel’s hair. He pulled the prophet up and over to the temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel witnessed the activity of the Jews still in Judea and watched as the glory of the Lord departed the temple. He was then returned to Babylon and put back inside his body. He lived through four chapters of Scripture while sitting there and the elders were none the wiser until he told them.[3]

Saint Paul’s description of his OBE is classic and succinct. Of his journey to the third heaven, he says, “Whether in the body or out of the body, I don’t know.”[4] A fully engrossing OBE leaves us in doubt of where we really are. When it’s over, we find ourselves back where we started and wondering about where we have been.

My OBEs are not as dramatic as Ezekiel’s, Paul’s, or the man in the trauma unit. But the sense of dislocation is very similar. They include moments of spiritual projection, poignant recall, and cautionary insight. They are part of my life and in sharing them, I trust they touch yours.

The first time I literally reached outside of myself, I wasn’t even aware of it. The church service was near its climax. The pastor had called folks forward to the altar for prayer. A close friend of mine went up with several others and they kneeled down at the stairs of the low platform. The worship band was playing a song. Members of the congregation moved towards the altar, praying out loud. Others were exiting the sanctuary no-so-quietly. In the midst of this cacophony, I stood about fifteen feet behind my friend as he prayed, my arms extended toward him. I watched as he knelt there pouring his heart out to God. When the season of prayer was over, I turned around and walked away. I went back to my seat, gathered my belongings, and headed out to the lobby. My friend found me there and gave me a hug. He thanked me for standing with him in prayer. I thought I knew what he meant, that perhaps he had looked over his shoulder at me and I had missed it. But then he said, “When you came behind me and put your hands on my shoulders and prayed for me, I was very encouraged. It meant a lot to me.” I hadn’t touched him at all. I had been yards away the entire time.

My most haunting OBE also occurred in a church. My eldest son was a toddler at the time, not much older than three. The preacher was near the mid-point of his message and my son was sitting in my lap. I looked down saw my arms around him. Suddenly, I was no longer me. In that moment, I was my son and the arms were my father’s and the world was spinning backwards. The experience left me grateful in the knowledge of my father’s love and somewhat lost in a mist of nostalgia.

The OBE that comes closest to a classic example happened during a business meeting. I was having a conflict with my best customer. Let’s call him Fred.[5] He had a job that got pushed into a weekend timeframe and I couldn’t do it without charging him overtime. He said he understood, then took that project and three others and gave them to a competitor. Up until that time, we had been his sole supplier of furniture installation talent. I was livid. I was hurt. And I was a bit unreasonable. He was the better man and came to my office to work it out. It started out diplomatically enough. But then I began to explain to him how I felt. Not a good idea when you’re angry. “You know,” I said, “I feel like I came to you and said, ‘Listen, I’ve got a cut on my finger. Do you have a band aid?’ And what you did was,” and at that moment, I opened my desk drawer and pulled out my bayonet.

Yes, you read that right, I pulled out a bayonet. It was a World War II vintage American bayonet in a metal scabbard. I used it now and again to open up freight for inspection. It wasn’t there for self-defense. I had a pistol-grip shot gun in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet for that.

“And what you did was,” I said, skinning the knife out of its sheath, “wham! Cut my whole finger off!” The instant I brandished the blade, I jumped outside of myself. I was looking down at us from the side of my desk. Fred was on my left looking a little pale. I was on my right looking a bit flushed. The bayonet trembled between us in the force of my grasp. “You just pulled a knife on your best client,” I said to the me behind the desk. It was too late to take a breath and count to ten. I had to play the scene through.

Fred was in front of me once again. I slapped the knife back into the scabbard and threw it into the drawer. Secretly, I was glad that I hadn’t decided to go with the gut-shot analogy. It wouldn’t do to pull a 12 gauge on a customer, even for an illustration.[6] I’m happy to report that despite my antics, Fred heard me out. We continued to work together for years after. But that was the last time I waved a bayonet at a customer.

[1] I used to hold to a belief in “soul sleep”, a position I no longer consider tenable in light of Scripture and experience.

[2] Clinically known as autoscopic delusions. It’s when you see a vision of yourself. When not spiritually generated, it is probably a misfire in the brain between the body map areas and the visual association areas. I have someone close to me who suffered with this for a while. She would walk into a room and find herself already there. In this instance, having a physical explanation for her temporary malady was comforting to her.

[3] Ezekiel 8-11

[4] 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 Some see this experience as a revelation of the future, or a temporal journey. There are many Scriptures that would indicate that it was actually a spatial journey.

[5] Obviously, not his real name. He might have forgotten about this by now and I wouldn’t care to remind him.

[6] Vendors, however, are another matter altogether. But that’s a different story.

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