Spiritualism was a popular explosion of occultism that took place in the 19th century. Most spiritualists were industrial-age Christians who did not think of themselves as occultists, despite the fact that they were engaging in the decidedly occult practices of using hypnosis to summon and communicate with spirits, and to induce astral projection. Many spiritualists were heavily influenced by the intellectual climate of 19th century materialism pervading society. They were preoccupied with trying to take physical measurements of spirits that appeared at seances, and also to take measurements of the astral body, which they believed was composed of a subtle energy or substance which could be measured. Because of these beliefs, many spiritualists took a much more methodical approach to their investigation than the occult groups operating at the time.
The Study of Sylvan Muldoon & The Lore of the Silver Cord
The paranormal researcher Hereward Carrington once criticized Theosophists for their tendency to hold forth about astral projection without providing much in the way of practical instruction in how it could be accomplished. (The exception to this, as Carrington himself acknowledged, was the Theosophist Oliver Fox, who had a natural talent for autohypnosis, the key technique that enables astral projection to be accomplished.) To remedy this situation, Carrington undertook a thorough study of the astral voyages of a young man named Sylvan Muldoon in order to learn more about the practice of astral projection.
Muldoon was the most prominent astral projector during the spiritualist era. He was very sickly when he was a youth, and his attenuated physical health made it easier than normal for him to astral project. During Muldoon's first astral projection as a boy, he experienced the classical phenomenon of awaking in a conscious state in the deep liminal trance state between consciousness and dreaming, in which "sleep paralysis" takes place. Muldoon gave this phenomenon the sound name of "astral catalepsy," and — like a great many others who experience it unexpectedly — he found it frightening. Muldoon experienced floating, powerful vibrations, and other strange sensations, and suddenly found himself floating out of his body, viewing his inert physical body lying on his bed.
During his astral projection experience, Muldoon also observed a luminous silver cord stretching between himself and his Third Eye energy center between his eyebrows. This experience was a key factor in popularizing widespread belief in a silver cord that was assumed to be a universal and objective phenomenon. The spiritualists believed that the astral body was composed of subtle energies, and was connected to its physical counterpart by this thin silver cord, giving rise to the popular belief that the physical body might die if the cord was severed in some way, since it was what connected the body to the living spirit. Hereward Carrington may have been the first to popularize this belief when he wrote: "The astral and the physical bodies are invariably connected by means of a sort of cord, or cable, along which vital currents pass. Should this cord be severed, death instantly results. The only difference between astral projection and death is that the cord is intact in the former case, and severed in the latter. This cord — the Silver Cord spoken of in Ecclesiastes — is elastic, and capable of great extension. It constitutes the essential link between the two bodies."
While I agree with the spiritualists that astral and etheric bodies are composed of subtle energies, most of the modern research and insight into astral projection indicates that the alleged silver cord cannot be cut, and that it is not actually an objective link that sustains the life of the body. It is also questionable whether it is the same silver cord in the obscure Biblical passage referenced by Carrington. The thin silver cord is not even seen by many astral projectors. It is difficult to say whether it has any independent existence as an energetic phenomenon, or whether it is generated primarily as a visual metaphor by the subconscious minds of individuals who either expect to see it, or who are looking for some form of "link" back to their physical bodies.
I believe it is more likely that the silver cords seen by some projectors are helpful visual sensory metaphors generated by the subconscious mind to convey the fact that their consciousness is occupying an astral body that is still connected to the physical. Like everything else in the universe, the astral visual image of the silver cord is composed of some degree of subtle energy. However, it is not necessarily anymore substantial than the energy needed to produce a temporary visual hallucination such as a hypnotist might produce, and there is very little evidence that the silver cord plays any role in sustaining life within the physical body.
Autohypnosis and Memory Retention During Astral Projection
Like the spiritualist mediums who went into hypnotic trance to communicate with spirits, Muldoon used self-hypnosis as his primary technique to project his astral body. Just prior to falling asleep (when the mind is naturally inclined to sink into a deep theta state in ancitipation of REM sleep) Muldoon imagined himself in various scenarios involving rising or climbing, including climbing a ladder or lying on an elevator in a tall building. He also came up with a technique to stimulate physical bodily needs that would cause his subconscious mind to initiate a projection. For example, he would consume some salt in a spoon before retiring and then use autohypnosis to visualize walking into another room to get a drink of water. There is actually an old German folk saying describing this same mode of projection, warning people not to go to bed thirsty lest the spirit rise on its own during sleep to go get a drink of water.
Muldoon's first reported astral projection experience is noteworthy for having lasted for a much longer period of time than is common for early projectors. Usually memory of a projection is highly elusive for beginners. The same phenomenon can be readily observed during experiences in a deep state of hypnotic trance, or after dreaming. Extremely profound experiences often take place in such states, but memory of even the most dynamic projections can be surprisingly elusive, probably because the memories taking place in the mind of the astral double are difficult to map onto the physical brain without extra effort— at least initially. This is why journalling the experiences one has under hypnosis or in the astral dimensions (or dreams) is important to fully retain the memories of these experiences.
Allan Kardec's Evokation of Saint Alphonsus
Allan Kardec, another high-profile spiritualist, was interested in the phenomenon of astral bodies that became visible to third party observers, and that in even more rare cases were capable of being felt or touched. In order to learn more about astral projection, Kardec used self-hypnosis to evoke the spirit of Saint Alphonsus, who was famous for his ability to astral project and appear in two places at once — a phenomenon known as bilocation. Whether or not this spirit was actually the Christian saint whose identity it assumed, it appears to have given truthful counsel on the subject of astral projection.
The spirit said that the astral body could be projected just prior to falling asleep while praying to God for the projection to take place. (Prayer, strictly speaking, is not required — but getting the clear intention through to the subconscious mind is. In many cases the two things are the same.) The spirit also told Kardec that astral projection could be accomplished while remaining fully awake, but that the body must be in a trance state to accomplish this. Kardec also asked the spirit about the ancient belief that waking the physical body while the astral body was in flight would result in sudden death. Curiously, this particular belief was extremely common in many different cultures as far back as pagan antiquity. The spirit said that this belief was actually unfounded, since the spirit would always re-enter the physical body before any awakening was capable of taking place.
Ample evidence that this is the case can be found in the various accounts of witches who used powerful narcotic "flying ointments" to astral project, whereupon they collapsed into stupors (deep, physically sedated trances), and could not be reawakened until they had finished their astral voyages. In the case of the witch investigated by Johan Weyer, both Weyer and his colleague even struck heavy physical blows to the witch's body in the attempt to rouse her, but had no success in doing so until she eventually awakened on her own. Far from being killed by the blows stuck by the two men, she enthusiastically related the details of her astral flight over seas and mountains, and then adamantly insisted on the truth of her story when the two men denied it.