Health and wellness

What causes an out-of-body experience? Two women from Hong Kong on their life-changing episodes

Anita Moorjani’s tale of beating cancer after an out-of-body experience has got Hollywood interested. Rosalie e’Silva can have one almost any time she wants. Meanwhile, new research reveals the people most likely to have an OBE

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 November, 2017, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 12:19pm

On February 2, 2006, Anita Moorjani’s organs shut down and she slipped into a deep coma. Doctors at the Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital in Happy Valley called her family to her bedside. It looked like her four-year battle with lymphoma – a cancer of the lymphatic system – was over.

“I was suffering from a lot of pain, a lot of fear,” said Moorjani this week from her home in Los Angeles. “The cancer had spread – I had tumours the size of golf balls in my breasts, in my skull. My lungs were filled with fluid, my hair had fallen out and I was hooked up to oxygen.”

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Then something happened that would change the course of her life. While in a 30-hour coma, Moorjani had an out-of-body experience (OBE) – a feeling of floating outside her body. OBEs have baffled and intrigued doctors in equal measure. Research says they can be triggered by a variety of situations including brain traumas, psychedelic drugs, dehydration, sensory deprivation and, as in Moorjani’s case, a near-death experience.

“I left my body and could hear and see all that was going on – I even saw my dead father. My physical eyes were closed but I had clarity like never before. I understood why I had cancer and I knew it was not just a physical disease but an emotional one. I knew I had to return to my body, I knew I would heal.”

Moorjani also knew what the doctors and her family members were discussing while she was in her coma – even conversations that took place outside her room. “This freaked out everyone,” she said. She also knew which doctor and nurse had performed what procedures.

Doctors said she should have died. Instead she made a full recovery after just five weeks. “Billions of cancer cells just left my body.”

Moorjani, now 58, detailed her experience in Dying to be Me, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller. It will soon be adapted for the big screen, with Ridley Scott, of Alien and Gladiator fame, tipped to direct. Moorjani moved to America three years ago and now spends her time as an author and speaker.

Read an excerpt from Dying to be Me

She is also on a quest to learn more about OBEs. Once the domain of spirituality and mysticism, OBE research has also crossed into a more scientific side, where studies into the phenomenon continue. Moorjani’s quest has taken her down the path of quantum physics, the science of the very small that looks at how matter interacts with energy.

In August, a study by Aix-Marseille Université in France suggested that people have a “significantly higher occurrence” of OBEs if they suffer from dizziness and inner ear problems, known as peripheral vestibular disorders.

“Altogether, our data indicates that OBE in patients with dizziness may arise from a combination of perceptual incoherence evoked by the vestibular dysfunction with psychological factors (depersonalisation-derealisation, depression and anxiety) and neurological factors (migraine),” the study concluded.

It’s good to be sceptical – just stay open to this being a possibility … Everyone is capable of having [an OBE]
Rosalie e’Silva

Hong Kong-based Rosalie e’Silva says she can enter an OBE state almost any time she wants to. All she needs to do is get horizontal in a calm and quiet environment.

At October’s Garden Gathering event at Sai Yuen Farm on Cheung Chau island, e’Silva sat cross-legged on a smooth wooden floor inside a geodesic stargazing dome, sharing her experiences with OBEs. Outside, severe tropical storm Khanun was signalling its arrival, sending the dome’s entrance into a flapping frenzy, the trees outside blowing dangerously downwards (day three of the event was cancelled due to bad weather). The mood was atmospheric, elemental – and entirely appropriate.

E’Silva told her audience she started having OBEs as a young girl. “I always had weird experiences when I was young, even at the age of five. I was scared of falling asleep so I’d put all my energy into my big toe. I have no idea why! I would then transfer my body’s energy to different parts of my body. Unwittingly I was practising yoga nidra,” she said, referring to the type of yoga that puts a person in a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping, also known as yogic sleep.

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“Many people think this experience is just a very vivid dream,” she continued. “But it is much more than that – it feels incredibly real and it can be life changing. It shows you that you are more than your physical body – your awareness can live outside of your physical body. And that’s really powerful.”

E’Silva wants people to be sceptical, to question what she is saying – a trait born out of many years in journalism working for CNN, Al Jazeera and NBC.

“It’s good to be sceptical – just stay open to this being a possibility,” she said. “To really know this is a truth; you have to experience OBEs for yourself. Everyone is capable of having them.”

A few weeks later at the SharedSpace studio in Causeway Bay, e’Silva – who is also a certified yoga teacher – shared more about OBEs and her time at The Monroe Institute (TMI), a charity in the US state of Virginia that specialises in OBE induction.

TMI was established by the late Robert Monroe, a radio broadcasting executive known for his studies into altered consciousness. He wrote the 1971 book Journeys Out of the Body and is credited with coining the phrase “out-of-body experiences”. Since the early 1950s, Monroe’s pioneering research linked sound patterns with behaviour, claiming certain combinations of frequencies can enhance alertness while others can induce sleep.

Monroe developed Hemi-Sync, a patented audio technology comprising beats that are claimed to help people experience enhanced OBEs. E’Silva said she has successfully used this technology, and that gong baths, flotation tanks and yoga nidra also help her enter an OBE state.

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Another person with a lot to say on the subject is American doctor Eben Alexander. After spending more than 25 years as an academic neurosurgeon, dealing with patients rendered comatose by trauma, brain tumours, ruptured aneurysms, infections and strokes, Alexander thought he had a good idea about the workings of the brain. Then on November 10, 2008, he fell into a coma caused by a rare and mysterious bacterial meningoencephalitis. He spent a week in a coma on a ventilator, his survival prospects bleak.

On the seventh day, to everyone’s surprise, he awoke, his memory wiped. What he recalled, however, was an odyssey deep into another realm that was “more real than this earthly one”.

“Out-of-body experiences are one example of non-local consciousness – when our consciousness transcends the natural boundary of our physical body – and are often a component of near-death experiences,” Alexander said by email from the US.

Alexander, who wrote the 2012 bestseller Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, says neuroscience is gradually unravelling the fundamental relationship between mind and brain. However, the evidence and its best interpretations, “which deeply involve the interpretation of the measurement paradox in quantum physics”, are contrary to the conventional scientific model of materialism.

“[The interpretations] hint at a more profound connection between all sentient beings and the universe, in a way that greatly enhances our ability to influence emerging reality,” Alexander said.

He added that his newest book, Living in a Mindful Universe, addresses the current status of this exciting discussion. “I would love to come to Hong Kong and discuss these important matters of consciousness. There is really no cultural difference in OBE experiences.”