On the spiritual path, especially if a novice or receiving no guidance, one can sometimes confuse true transpersonal experiences with those of a poorly formed or weakened ego condition, a phenomenon called the pre-trans fallacy (Wilber, 2000). Two of the most common ones occur when one concludes one has had an out-of-body experience (OOBE) when one has actually experienced a psychological symptom of anxiety called depersonalization or derealization. In both cases one feels oneself to be in a different reality and divorced from one’s body. Another form occurs when cognitive awareness is altered but one does not distinguish between focused mind and non-focused mind, rationality and irrationality, and distorted versus objective reality. Rather than the transcendence it is believed to be it is actually only a misrepresentation of everyday identity and reality.
That one’s worldview is not as severely challenged with depersonalization as it is with the OOBE is one factor that distinguishes the two. Depersonalization often occurs in a stressful situation. Like an OOBE it feels surreal, but unlike the OOBE it is accompanied by significant discomfort or nervousness prior to, during, and after the experience. Also, depersonalization can usually be linked to previous long-standing anxiety complaints and symptoms. There is frequently anxiety after the OOBE but it tends to be associated with difficulty comprehending an experience that is counter to one’s understanding of reality, or an uneasiness associated with realizing you no longer know the world as you once did or the way others do. Whether or not one sees one’s body and/or moves about in a different landscape are two more significant factors in distinguishing between the two phenomena. Depersonalization does not involve actually observing one’s body, but is only an “as if” experience occurring in the mind as vivid imagination, while the true OOBE involves observing one’s body and/or finding oneself in another landscape different from the one just prior to the event. And this may even involve control of the experience, similar to lucid dreaming and astral travel in which one explores and interacts with the environment in which one finds oneself. In contrast, the interaction with, and change in one’s surroundings in depersonalization are limited to efforts to cope with familiar consensus reality
Spiritual practice across traditions emphasizes alteration of conscious awareness in which one’s cognition, sense of self, and reality is altered. In one’s eagerness to achieve this state of mind one can misidentify poor concentration with its long succession of associations, that usually generate confusion and minor separation from logic or one’s surroundings, as raised awareness. In actuality this is what is commonly referred to as being spaced out. This occurrence of losing continuity of one’s experience because of poor concentration, and then perceiving reality in an altered fashion, is misconstrued as positive while in actuality it is only a distortion of reality, e.g. a play on words that may be novel but does not reveal spiritual truth, misheard and misunderstood auditory stimuli, altered visual perceptions due to unusual light and shadow. One can be said to be out of one’s mind, irrational and out of touch, rather than in a focused transcendent mental state or expanded mind. The true experience of raised awareness, whether transpersonal or nondual, is one of presence with concentration on, and receptivity to, immediate experience. Cognition ranges from quiet stillness to non-thinking to direct knowing of truth in a given circumstance, and is experienced without conscious intent. Additionally, one experiences an alteration in mind in which one feels one has been moved more deeply into reality, that is, into archetypal and/or superconscious awareness. In sharp contrast to the spaced out condition there is an emergent wisdom in which all objects and phenomena are relationally integrated. Worldly phenomena and objects are understood as empty of inherent meaning and are formed by, and arising in reality due to Ultimate Consciousness, the Source, of which one now recognizes one is a part. Experiencing this subjective expansive feeling of one’s individual self transcendently merging with the “other” as union, or as fully experiencing nondual being the Source, is a second distinguishing factor in validating true spiritual self and reality change. Mundane understanding and rationality is maintained while simultaneously experiencing the world through the dominant raised awareness of the a-rationality of the nondual cosmology as noted above. And rather than willful action or reflection on this, one simply abides in this process of expanded identity and manifestation, commonly referred to as being in the now, or Being. Now truly altered, reality is markedly different, revealing nondual mind-matter memory and creation.
As one considers these distinctions between pre-ego and transpersonal/nondual events an important caveat cannot be ignored. It is that there are times when one’s experience is characterized by elements of both conditions, e.g. an OOBE can be preceded by an anxiety attack . Integrating the experience then requires addressing one’s psychological character and functioning and also one’s spiritual experiences, knowledge, and development so one may correctly understand and follow-up on the experience in the most beneficial manner. This also stands as an argument for the integration of psychology and spirituality, and for the advocacy of psychological wellbeing as part of any spiritual practice.