A conversation with spiritual explorer William Buhlman
William Buhlman is a man on a mission.
“I had this wild belief back in the ‘90s that if everybody could have an out-of-body experience, the whole planet would change,” he says by phone from Faber, Virginia, where he has just completed a workshop on intensive out-of-body experience. “It would shift the consciousness of the planet, the ‘hundredth monkey’ thing.”
But as he taught and wrote about the phenomenon of out-of-body experiences, or OBEs, he met with resistance. “Then I realized that’s not going to happen. People are too entrenched in their beliefs. So you do what you can do. Get the information out and try to make it understandable, because some of this information is so beyond people that you have to spoon-feed it. I can’t walk up to people and say, ‘You’re not human. You’re a multidimensional being.’ They think you’re a nut job.”
When William Buhlman was a sophomore at the University of Maryland, a childhood buddy told him about having a spontaneous out-of-body experience, during which he woke from sleep and suddenly found himself floating above his bed, looking down at his dormant body below.
Excited by his friend’s account, Buhlman decided that if his friend could do it, he could do it.
It was the early 1970s and there were few books on the subject. However, he did find one book that suggested using ‘targets’ onto which to direct your attention as a way of urging the mind to separate from your physical body. The book also suggested that you had to try this for at least 30 days to have any chance of actually separating your consciousness — what some might call the mind, but as distinct from the brain — from the physical body.
“I chose some things I had made for my mother — a metal ashtray, a wooden doorstop, a watercolor of the ocean — really silly stuff, child art,” Buhlman says now. “I was dedicated, doing this every night, and as you do it you get better at visualizing. I would imagine myself walking around my mother’s home touching these objects. In retrospect, this is important because you end up focusing your consciousness away from your body just as your body is drifting into the altered state we call sleep.”
Nothing dramatic happened for the first three weeks and he was about to give up, but on the twenty-fifth day he had a strange dream that he was sitting at a round table with several people. “They all seemed to be asking me questions related to my self-development and state of consciousness. At that moment in the dream I began to feel extremely dizzy, and a strange numbness, like from Novocain, began to spread throughout my body. Unable to keep my head up in the dream, I passed out, hitting my head on the table. Instantly I was awake, fully conscious, lying on my side in a small single bed facing the wall. I reached out my arm—and my arm actually entered the wall,” he says.
“I could feel the vibrational energy of it as if I was touching its very molecular structure. That’s when it hit me. I tried to stay calm. And the next thing I know, I’m standing at the foot of my bed, obviously out of my body. I thought, Oh my God, I did it! I started looking around and I was aware that I could see beyond the walls of the room.”
What Buhlman saw next was even more astonishing than the sight of his own slumbering body: the figure of a man with dark hair and a beard in a purple robe who seemed to be observing him. “His presence scared me, and I instantly ‘snapped back’ into my physical body. That strange feeling of numbness and tingling faded as I opened my eyes. It was brief but life-changing because it changed my entire outlook on reality.”
In the forty-five or so years since that first experience, Buhlman developed what some might view as an anomaly into a highly nuanced skill. He discovered that he didn’t even have to wait for nighttime. Coming home from classes around midday, he would lie down, start his target techniques and get results. “I was having a lot of out-of-body experiences, as many as four times a week. And they were just mind-blowing. I was walking through walls. And I went through this whole long sequence of discovering it’s a vast multidimensional universe and we have the ability to explore it firsthand.”
Searching for more advanced books on the subject, Buhlman came across the work of Paul Twitchell, a freelance journalist and seeker from Kentucky who in 1965 had founded an anomalous American spiritual sect he called Eckankar. Here Buhlman’s story intersects with my own. During the late 1980s, a jazz drummer I met by chance introduced me to Eckankar, and I became involved in what Twitchell’s numerous books called “The Science of Soul Travel.” The goal of the practice was to learn to monitor and ultimately become consciously awake in your dreams. Beyond that, things got a bit hazy. Eckankar was the very definition of a syncretic religion, combining aspects of Sufi and Christian love teachings with beliefs and terminology based on a Sikh tradition known as Sant Mat and its practice of Surat Shabda Yoga.
I never achieved the highest goal of Eckankar, to be instructed while in the dream state by the Living Eck Master — originally Twitchell himself and by my time an unassuming gent named Harold Klemp. But I did learn to keep a detailed dream journal and later recognized that I’d had a number of spectacular lucid dreams, learning what they were called only after reading Stephen LaBerge’s and Patricia Garfield’s ground-breaking books on the subject. Buhlman became involved in Eckankar earlier than I did and even led his own Satang, or spiritual group, enjoying the camaraderie because they were the only people he knew with whom he could talk about out-of-body experiences or astral projection without being thought of as a freak.
I confessed to Buhlman that not only had I never succeeded in meeting the Living Eck Master in my dreams (neither did he), but also that the first time I had an out-of-body experience was when I smoked DMT (Dimethayltryptamine) at the age of 18. In the summer of 1965, I’d never smoked anything stronger than a Gauloise, and the parsley flakes on which the psychoactive chemical was sprayed looked innocent enough. One minute I was sitting in my car with my friend Randy, puffing on a cheap corn-cob pipe stuffed with parsley, and in the next instant I was outside the car looking in through the windshield at Randy and me. Some 25 years later, while researching a book on spiritual experience, I had several more brief OBEs when I shared ayahuasca with a Brazilian sect called Santo Daime. (Curiously, DMT is believed to be an active ingredient in ayahuasca.) As a result, I know that OBEs are real, even though I haven’t been able to replicate one on my own since then.
“It’s not easy, just so you know,” Buhlman says in response to my confession. “I must have had 50 to 80 OBEs before I could understand the nature of what was going on. It took me two years at least before I started to break out of our mold.
When I started to prolong my OBEs I discovered that you can live an entire life in five or six minutes.
After a time, I would be out of body for half an hour. But it’s like meditation. How long you meditate means nothing. Then you start to internally change your self-concept. Suddenly you know things. You feel you are exteriorizing. But there’s only one path — the inward path.”
William Buhlman on OBEs at a Monroe Institute Professional Seminar, 2014
That’s a path that Buhlman has worn ragged since his first conscious OBE nearly half a century ago, including entry into dimensions of which he was previously unaware. In 2011, Buhlman was diagnosed with inoperable stage 4 cancer of the tonsil that spread to his lymph nodes. In Adventures in the Afterlife, he writes of his seven-month ordeal with cancer: “The burning question of what occurs after this life inspired my exploration of the afterlife. My lucid dreams and out-of-body experiences provided mind-bending visions that stunned me to the core.” He encountered his deceased mother, who looked much younger and more vibrant than when she died. She led him through a vision of the afterlife that he wrote about in that book in fictionalized form.
“At its core, an OBE is a transition of consciousness inward, from your physical body to some level of your nonphysical self. Then some people experience it as an exteriorization in which they experience their environment from another locale. But it’s all an inner journey. There’s a vibrational change at each level. Density and vibration go hand-in-hand and allow us to move inward so that we can begin to experience these other dimensional realities. Heaven is here. Everything is here now. That was the beauty of the ancient yogis; they began to teach people how to go inward. But people feel the need to attach themselves to an established philosophy, and we forget that consciousness pre-existed all the religions on this planet. Religions come and go. The worship of Athena was a huge religion for a thousand years.”
Realizing that his consciousness had separated from his physical body was, in itself, enormously exciting at first. But as time went on and he experimented further, Buhlman started to go deeper and deeper. “It takes a while to get in deeper and develop the skills,” he says now. “During one of my most important explorations, I began to realize that I was losing all humanoid form. I looked down and began to see that my arms and legs were dissolving. I realized that I wasn’t even a human. Our entire civilization is based on the fact that we’re all biological human beings! It became clear to me that that’s false. I started to question whether everything I learned from childhood is a lie. And then you have to integrate that, and learn how to fit in and play the game of being human. I think that’s what Buddha went through, too.”
As discomfiting as Buhlman’s statement sounds, it recalled to me something the renowned Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace once said about engaging in prolonged deep meditation: that after weeks of meditating for as much as 10 hours a day, he came to a state of mind that he said was ‘not human’.
But what do they mean by this? Isn’t the point of meditation and spiritual practices of all kinds, including conscious OBEs, to realize our humanity at the deepest, or highest, level?
To my mind, it’s actually reassuring rather than disturbing to know that at our core we possess an identity that doesn’t rely on the flimsy vehicle of a human body and our even flimsier brain.
Startling but compelling evidence has been compiled over the past half-century, especially by Dr. Ian Stevenson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies, that rebirth is real and that we have lived prior lifetimes, even if most of us don’t consciously remember. According to most channeled accounts of the afterlife, spirit beings can take on any form they choose, and often appear as human to put the rest of us at ease. Buhlman calls this state of being ‘thought-responsive’ because nonphysical beings, including humans when out-of-body, simply have to visualize a place to go there, or visualize a physical environment to manifest it, including how they appear to others.
Raised a Lutheran, Buhlman doesn’t put any faith in traditional religions. And yet, he believes that the great spiritual masters and founders of the world’s religions had out-of-body experiences that showed them the multidimensional nature of the universe. He names St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus; Muhammad’s night flight “through seven heavens or dimensions”; and the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree as just three examples. “All religions talk about some experience of the founder that lit them up and they became teachers,” he says.
“It all begins with a person’s profound inward journey of consciousness to places that were beyond the body.”
Unfortunately, he adds, “In many cases the followers of enlightened people like Buddha and Jesus were not enlightened. They were trying to make sense of what the leader communicated, and then it ends up being distorted, generation after generation, until you end up with something like Catholicism, which is completely fear-based. That’s not what the original teaching was. The original teaching was ‘Love they neighbor’ and ‘Do unto others.’”
An equal-opportunity skeptic, Buhlman is also dissatisfied with the Theosophical concept, promoted by Madame Blavatsky and others, of seven-dimensional space, which he finds to be “totally inaccurate,” having experienced many more dimensions than that himself. Yet for all his distrust of institutional belief systems, Buhlman does find a lot to like about some of the practices of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the extraordinary guide to making the transition from death to the afterlife and back through rebirth. Also known by its Tibetan title of Bardo Tödol Chenmo, or “The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Between,” the text was designed to help guide spirits of the departed through their transition from this dimension to the next. The text sounds somewhat obscure today, and although Buhlman finds its basic premise absolutely essential, he also thinks the tradition of chanting the lengthy text for 49 days after death is unrealistic.
“When you die, there’s no time!” he says with a trace of exasperation. “That’s a belief system and unfortunately becomes engrained in people’s minds. It’s the same thing in every religion now, and that’s why I’m not a member of any of them. I appreciate some of the things in Buddhism in general. I love the Eightfold Path, but you have to be discerning.”
The eternally compelling question of what happens at — and after — death has become more important for Buhlman than simply the ability to explore other dimensions of consciousness. He accepts the fact that consciousness can exist separately from the brain — still a point of argument for most materialist scientists and atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Because our consciousness will continue after our body dies, we need to know how to navigate nonphysical consciousness without the equivalent of a GPS. If you can’t learn to initiate a conscious OBE, he recommends meditation, lucid dreaming, shamanic journeys, even entheogenic sacraments including ayahuasca.
Given the aging population of baby boomers, this would appear to be a valuable line of research. In The Secret of the Soul: Using Out-of-Body Experiences to Understand Our True Nature, and his most recent book, Higher Self Now: Accelerating Your Spiritual Evolution, Buhlman offers sage advice based on nonsectarian spiritual principles. “Remember, the ultimate journey of soul is not death, but the self-realization of our spiritual essence. Eventually we will make the important transition from religious believer to spiritual explorer.”
Drawing on the wisdom of the Bardo Thödol, Buhlman recommends that we create our own text to be recorded and played back when the time arrives for our ultimate out-of-body experience. It’s not a bad idea. You can purchase CDs of the Bardo Thödol in English, but even though I find it a powerful text I’m not confident that it would be the most effective guide for Westerners. And from everything I’ve read and researched about the progress of the soul or consciousness at death, Buhlman is probably right that it occurs much quicker than the traditional 49-day period of the Tibetan tradition. Indeed, at least two experienced lamas I spoke with agreed that the number was almost certainly a convention designed to limit the period of mourning.
Buhlman’s detailed guidance for dealing with death parallels the Death Positive movement that is seeking to help us get past our denial about the dying process, promoting awareness “that the culture of silence around death should be broken through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship,” according to their website. But Buhlman goes further, focusing on preparing for the transition to the nonphysical state that we will all have to make.
As long as we remain open to accepting full responsibility for every thought and act of our earthly life — and to forgiving ourselves as well as others — the news is basically good.
“Evidence received from near-death and out-of-body experiences suggests a radically different final-judgment scenario than is widely accepted today,” he writes. “At death we are not judged by God or angels on a heavenly throne; instead, we must face the most demanding judge imaginable, our own spiritual self. The pure spiritual essence of our consciousness appraises our development. Our every thought, word, and deed are known. Our life is an open book where every secret, every desire is clear and present. The art of forgiveness is often the practice of self-forgiveness. Don’t underestimate the liberating spiritual power of its use.”
Buhlman teaches worldwide and at the Monroe Institute in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, founded by Robert A. Monroe, who popularized the terms out-of-body experience and OBE. Monroe was a psychospiritual explorer of the first rank who documented his own extraordinary experiences in three books written between 1971 and 1994. His accounts included prolonged communications in the astral plane with nonphysical beings who helped him overcome his initial fears and to develop his skills as a psychonaut. Having worked in the radio business, he developed high-tech gear that allowed students in separate units furnished with a bed, headphones, and speakers to listen to music combined with binaural beats.
This sonic system, which he called Hemi-Sync, short for “hemispheric synchronization,” uses tones measured in cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz), named for the German scientist Heinrich Hertz, the first person to provide conclusive proof of the existence of electromagnetic waves. By sending 100 Hz in one ear and 104 Hz in another, the mind perceives only the difference between the waves—4 Hz, the frequency at which the brain resonates during deep sleep, also known as the Delta state. Entraining to this frequency tends to make the mind more receptive to states of deep concentration, and hopefully to precipitating an OBE.
Buhlman uses similar settings with a combination of verbal induction, music, binaural beats and the students’ intentions to expand their conscious frame of reference. “When we enter altered states — yoga, OBEs, meditation — we are entering a highly thought-responsive environment within ourselves. As we move inward, nonphysical reality becomes increasingly more thought-responsive. We are not observers of reality; we are active participants in the reality that we experience, whether it be kundalini yoga, DMT, it doesn’t matter what inspired the experience. I’ve done shamanic journeys in Peru, I’ve done ayahuasca. To be a teacher you have to experience things yourself.”
In his first book, Adventures Beyond the Body, Buhlman writes, “The journey of inner exploration is not an airy-fairy, Tinkerbell experience. People sometimes have scary experiences. It’s all about confronting your own fear.” He cites Robert Monroe, the renowned OBE pioneer, who was also a licensed pilot. In Monroe’s books, he described OBEs during which he tried to land a plane on a rooftop. “That’s physically impossible and, of course, terrifying. That was his way of confronting his own fears. In history, the inner explorers of consciousness went through their own trials experiencing the manifestations of their own fears. People used to call this initiation because you’re carrying your whole state of consciousness with you.”
Buhlman underwent his own initiation of sorts during one of his early OBEs when he was paralyzed with fear by the appearance of a giant sloth standing nine feet high, with a bear’s head and the face of a dog. “All I can think is, This thing can snap my neck in a heartbeat,” he writes. “Suddenly the creature gives me a warm hug and licks my face like a dog. All my fear dissipates as I realize that this ugly creature is powerless to harm me. An intense feeling of empowerment and joy explodes through me; I feel completely free from my fear and limits.”
Perhaps as a result of feeling liberated by such experiences, he strongly advocates that we all find a method to have our own experience.
“A real scientific approach would be to do the research and find a way to prove to yourself that you do continue beyond the body. Become your own guinea pig. Don’t believe what I say. It’s going to take some effort. Find a method of inner exploration of consciousness that works for you, whether it be raja yoga or ritualized magic. It takes determination, work, focus, and a goal. But this is way more important than having a bunch of letters behind your name. We’re only taking one thing with us when we leave this body, and that’s our state of consciousness and the knowledge we’ve gained from our experience in the physical world. A lot of PhDs attend my workshops because they have gotten to the point where they want to be able to prove to themselves what they’ve heard or read about. That’s a far more scientific approach than saying it doesn’t exist because it isn’t possible.
“A lot of people are stuck in their head. You’ve got to get out of your head. Men have trouble with this. They have been trained to be immensely in their heads because that’s what is needed to succeed and make a living in the Western world. We’re trained to be providers. I’m the same way. Women are far more open, far more adept. I see this in my classes all the time. I have to say, ‘Give up the analyzing. As long as you’re in your head, you’re not going anywhere.’”
Editor’s Note: Wiliam Buhlman’s six-day intensives in out-of-body experience at the Monroe Institute are booked solid through April 2019, and the next openings are in September, a year from now. But he is offering an online course called “Our Incredible Journey: Life, Death and Beyond,” from November 10 to December 2, 2018. It offers to show students how to “practice techniques to control and direct your state of consciousness during altered states; various nonphysical realities and how they function; and how to effectively navigate thought-responsive environments.” Anyone registering during the three weeks of the workshop will have access to all classes. For more information click here.