ONE AFTERNOON, Tonjia, a 32-year-old Korean American musician, found herself in the apartment of a friend on whose answering machine she'd left a message before falling asleep. She watched her friend come home, check his messages and pick up the receiver to call her; then she woke up in her own bed. A few seconds later, her friend called and described his last few minutes exactly as she'd seen them.
Although "astral travel", "astral projection" and "out-of-body travel" are the most commonly used terms for the experience of leaving one's body and traveling to another world, Tonjia (whose last name has been withheld at her request) prefers to think of it as the "dream realm that [her] subconscious explores." To her there is nothing awe-inspiring or particularly spiritual about these journeys. They're no more spiritual, she says, than eating a bowl of cereal-or, one might presume, her physical travels in the conscious realm, in cars or on buses or trains. She remembers each journey in crisp detail, but no more or less so than any perceptive traveler.
Take, for example, her descriptions of the otherworldly landscapes she says she would never be able to imagine: a hill under a purple paisley sky; rambling architectural structures in giant, self-sufficient compounds; and recently, an open, vaguely Japanese building of reddish wood. Of this last journey, Tonjia remembers every moment, beginning with the distinct physical sensation of being pulled into the other realm by a friend. It was when she felt that pull, she recalls, that she emerged into a lucid state: alert, inquiring, fully aware of what was happening to her.
"What's going on?" she said to her friend. "Everything's dark."
"No, it's okay," he said. "Everything's fine. Just relax. Calm down and everything will become clear."
Indeed, as soon as Tonjia calmed down, she could see her surroundings.
She leads me through that visit as if we were watching a video she shot:
First, the uncanny coincidence of seeing her dad, uncharacteristically wearing a suit and tie and leaning oddly to one side, as she walked across a grass field, still shaken from the brief spell of darkness. Moving on from her father's banal attempt at conversation, she and her friend then passed three elderly Korean nuns, one of whom looked eerily like her mother. Again, there was a sense of a missed or incomplete connection. "She was so close," Tonjia remembers. "I could see her skin and her eyes, but she wouldn't make eye contact with me, like she didn't want to see me."
Behind the red wood building, Tonjia and her friend encountered creatures far less familiar: a shriveled, blackened figure that appeared to have been mummified by the elements, and a pretty woman making jerky, unnatural movements while laughing maniacally. When the mummy made eye-contact with her, she was frightened; she's generally afraid, she says, when strange beings in another realm acknowledge her presence.
People who say they experience astral projection often use ethereal notions of a soul to explain lucid dream journeys, or see in them evidence of parallel lives in alternate universes. But to Tonjia, these are all theories, plausible in parts, but incomplete. She does believe "there are connections we don't understand yet between people," a conviction that seems to be borne out by the occasions on which, upon meeting someone for the first time in her waking life, she recognizes them from her journeys.