The science of dream travel is ancient: in the evolution of our species, it probably predates speech and may have helped to generate language. Dream travel has a fascinating pedigree.
In many human cultures the most profound insights into the nature of the divine and the fate of the soul after physical death have been attributed to ecstatic journeys beyond the body in waking dream or vision.
In most human cultures, the existence of other worlds inhabited by gods, daimons, and spirits of the departed has been accepted as simple fact, a fact of extraordinary importance. Visiting these other worlds was a top priority for our ancestors, as it still is wherever there is living spirituality. From the travel reports of the boldest and most successful journeyers between the worlds, mythologies and religions are born. Soul journeying was understood to be the key to orders of reality, hidden from the five physical senses, that are no less “real” than ordinary reality and may be more so.
For the Jivaro people of South America, everyday life is regarded as “false.” “It is firmly believed the truth about causality is to be found by entering the supernatural world, or what the Jivaro view as the ‘real’ world, for they feel that the events which take place within it are the basis for many of the surface manifestation and mysteries of daily life.”
Among dreaming peoples, the reality of the soul journey and the objective, factual nature of the travelogues brought back are not in doubt. The travel reports will be compared with those of previous explorers.
Shamans ride their drums to the Upper, Middle and Lower Worlds to gain access to sources of insight and healing, to commune with the spirits and rescue lost souls. Aboriginal spirit men journey to the Sky World, climbing a magic cord projected from their own energy bodies, at the solar plexus or the tip of the penis.
Before compass and sextant, before charts, the great open-sea navigators guided their shipmates across the oceans by fine attunement to the patterns of waves and wind and stars and by the ability to scout ahead and consult a spiritual pilot through dream travel. Traditional navigators in the Indian Ocean reputedly had the power to travel ahead of their vessels in the form of seabirds or flying fish to set a safe course. The shipmakers and sea captains of the Bugis of Sulawesi — who once had a fearsome reputation as pirates — still journey to the spirits for guidance on the right trees and natural materials to use in the construction of their prahus as well as on their ocean crossings.
The ancient Taoist masters were known as the feathered sages because of their reputed power of flight, which sometimes involved shape-shifting into the form of cranes.
In ancient Greece, shaman-philosophers were renowned for their ability to travel outside the body, appear in two or more locations at the same time, and commune with their colleagues. The Pythagoreans taught and practiced soul travel and believed that spiritual masters born centuries apart could communicate by this means.
The ability to project consciousness beyond the physical body, to fold space-time, influence events at a distance, and project a double are all recognized siddhis — or special powers — of advanced spiritual practitioners in Eastern traditions. Vedic literature from India is full of vivid accounts of soul-flight by humans and beings-other-than-human. In the Mahabharata, the dream-soul, or suksma atman, is described as journeying outside the body while its owner sleeps. It knows pleasure and pain, just as in waking life. It travels on “fine roads” through zones that correspond to the senses, the wind, the ether, toward the higher realms of spirit.
Shankaracharya, the ascetic exponent of Advaita Vedanta, practiced soul-flight and the projection of consciousness to another body. Challenged to a debate on sex — a subject of which he was woefully ignorant at the time — he is said to have left his body in a cave under the guard of his followers while he borrowed the body of a dying king, whose courtesans schooled him in all the arts of the Kama Sutra.
Soul travel was well understood in the Sacred Earth traditions of Europe, from the earliest times until the murderous repression associated with the witch craze. One of the most fascinating accounts is Carlo Ginzburg’s The Night Battles, a monograph on the Benandanti, or “good-farers” of the Friuli region, who journeyed to defend the health of the community and the crops.
Soul journeying is also central to Christian spirituality. In II Corinthians, Paul refers to his own soul journey when he speaks of “a man who was caught up into the third heaven, whether in the body or out of the body I know not.” Saint Columba, the founder of the great monastery at Iona, regularly traveled outside his body to scout developments at a distance.
Saint Anthony of Padua was renowned for his ability to travel outside the body and appear in two places at once. There are reports of him preaching in two churches at the same time.
In Jewish tradition, the story of Elijah’s chariot of fire is the model for visionary ascent to higher realms. Among the Kabbalists, soul-flight to the higher planes was held to be the reward for long years of study and solitary meditation. A key element in Kabbalist meditation (hitboded) was the chanting and correct vibration of sacred texts. Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–72) recited phrases from the Zohar over and over, as Eastern meditators use their mantras. He entered an altered state in which he received visitations from spiritual teachers — notably Elijah — and could travel freely outside the body, to visit “heavenly academies.”
Soul-flight is not an art reserved for yogis, mystics, and shamans. The projection of consciousness by “remote viewing” or “ traveling clairvoyance” has been central to the history of warfare. Go back through the old battle sagas and you will find tales of warrior shamans who shape-shifted to spy out enemy positions. The druid MacRoth, in the Irish epic the Tain, performs this service for his royal patron, flying over the enemy ranks in the shape of a black warbird. Native American sorcerers were employed by both the French and the English to carry out similar scouts during the French and Indian War.
One of the most famous soul journeyers in European history was the Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), the son of a Lutheran bishop. He was in his fifties when powerful visitations by the spirits transformed his life; he then embarked on repeated journeys into their realms. He encountered angels who escorted him on guided tours of many kinds of heavens and hells..
It is not surprising that the dream explorer who coined the term lucid dreaming was another soul journeyer. Dr. Frederik van Eeden (1860–1932) was a Dutch writer, physician, and member of the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR). In 1913, he gave a lecture to the SPR in which he reported “lucid dreams” in which the dreamer retains the memory of his waking life, remained conscious, and could carry out “different acts of free volition.” He observed that the phenomenon of multiple consciousness and “double memory” — of both waking and dream events — “leads almost unavoidably to the conception of a dream-body.” He later wrote a novel, The Bride of Dreams, about dream travel outside the body.
Frequent flier Robert Monroe asserted with reason that “a controlled out-of-body experience is the most efficient means we know to gather Knowns to create a Different Overview” — a new definition of reality.
Text adapted from Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination and Life beyond Death by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.
Drawing: "Storm Bird Carries Me Home" by Robert Moss