“And you did it? You bent it?”
“Everyone did it,” the firefighter says. Broadman’s bushy eyebrows arch high. This is his first dinner at the Monroe Institute, a cluster of buildings perched on more than 300 acres in the Virginia foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He will spend the next six days here, attending a program that will ask just one thing of him and other participants: to consider that they might be more than their physical bodies.
The institute uses audio technology to help induce different states of consciousness. The technology is touted as creating optimal conditions for the brain, leading to “peak human performance.”
Broadman doesn’t expect much. A self-described “alpha cynic,” he is here for the adventure. In an e-mail his daughter will send — one that he will share with me late one night — she writes, “Hope you’re having fun and don’t come back weird.”
After dinner, Broadman and the rest of the group, 20 people in all, gather in a log cabin. On a mantel sits a bust of the institute’s late founder, Robert Monroe, along with this anonymous quote: “I’ve gone to look for myself. If I should return before I get back, keep me here.”
“This is really about you allowing your perception to be open and determining what for you being more than your physical body is,” John Kortum, one of two facilitators for the week, tells the group.
Kortum, a flight attendant when he’s not at the institute, says he came here after frequent out-of-body experiences.
Broadman’s brows rise again. He has never heard that term. When he’s alone, he types it into Wikipedia, pulling up an adequate definition: An out-of-body experience (OBE or sometimes OOBE) is an experience that typically involves a sensation of floating outside of one’s body.
But he will have to wait a few days before he truly understands what it means to transcend everyday consciousness.
From Washington, the Monroe Institute is a three-hour drive, past Charlottesville and up a steep, tree-lined road removed from the sounds of traffic and the reliability of cellphone service. Where the road dead-ends, three buildings stand within steps of one another: The cabin, quaint and WiFi-wired, where Monroe wrote two of his books, “Far Journeys” and “Ultimate Journey”; the brick house, where he and his wife lived and meals are now shared; and a two-level dormitory, where, two to a room, we will lie in our respective beds, headphones on, exploring the technology Monroe spent decades developing.
Monroe opened the private, not-for-profit institute in 1978. But his interest in using sound patterns to explore the mind began in the mid-1950s, sparked by the possibility that people could learn while asleep. A successful radio-broadcasting executive whose company produced 28 shows a month, Monroe dedicated an arm of his firm to research and development, and volunteered to serve as the chief test subject. It was a decision that would lead to what he described as a “terrifying” experience in 1958.