For more than eight years I’ve been a close friend of a long-dead Greek philosopher, Plotinus. Obviously I haven’t sat down and talked with him directly, but I feel like I have, so intensely and intimately have I studied his teachings in the course of writing a book: “Return to the One: Plotinus’s Guide to God-Realization.”
Plotinus is the last of five mystics that I’ve been writing about. Each is a worthy “patron saint” for the churchless, and each exhibits a special quality that I try to describe in a single word. For Plotinus it is vision.
I’ve read countless religious, philosophical, metaphysical, and mystical books. My bookshelves are full of attempts to make sense of the vast cosmos. Most writers don’t come close. They present compelling (or, not so compelling) descriptions of some particular aspect of the big picture, while ignoring what falls outside of their particular purviews.
What I love about Plotinus is that he doesn’t leave anything important out of his mystic philosophy. His focus is on the One, what many call “God,” the unity that underlies everything else. By definition, a thought of the One draws our attention to everything rather than this thing or that thing. Plotinus urges us to ponder what lies beyond the time and space with which we are familiar now.
This can be nothing less than really real reality. In “The Elegant Universe,” physicist Brian Greene describes cutting-edge research into string theory and the origins of our universe. Strings, amazingly small one-dimensional bits of vibrating energy, are theorized to be the rock-bottom foundation of physical reality.
But what does that foundation rest on? What is the resting place of strings before they produce a home for material entities, and themselves, to live in? Greene writes (p. 378):
“In the raw state, before the strings that make up the cosmic fabric engage in the orderly, coherent vibrational dance we are discussing, there is no realization of space or time….Imagining such a structureless, primal state of existence, one in which there is no notion of space or time as we know it, pushes most people’s powers of comprehension to the limit (it certainly pushes mine)….We run up against a clash of paradigms when we try to envision a universe that is, but that somehow does not invoke the concepts of space or time.”
About seventeen hundred years ago Plotinus presented just such a vision in his “Enneads.” He and his philosophical forebear, Plato, foreshadowed modern physics in conceiving of an unchanging spiritual realm that is the source of the material universe. This world, the World of Forms, is the immaterial original and our world is the physical reflection. Plotinus says, “All that is here below comes from there, and exists in greater beauty there. For here it is adulterated [by matter], but there it is pure.”
Plotinus’s vision of reality is wonderfully scientific. It isn’t founded on a personal God but on the universal consciousness of the One and spirit, termed “Nous” in Greek. Nous contains the Forms that comprise the blueprint of our reality. Even more, Nous or Spirit is those Forms.
Creation is seen as a continuous cascading flow of conscious energy. From the Source (the One) emanates Spirit (Nous); and from Spirit emanates Soul, which includes the particularized bits of consciousness that we know so well as “me,” “you,” and every other living thing. There are no gaps in Plotinus’s grand conception of the cosmos. All fits together in a compelling rational schema that I am barely hinting at (if you want the full philosophical meal deal, buy my book—I note that “Return to the One” is now selling at a nice discount on Amazon).
I could go on and on about Plotinus’s mystic teachings, but I’ve already done that to the tune of 338 pages. So I’ll content myself with sharing a few of my favorite Plotinus quotations. In these passages he cuts to the core of how to know the One, or God.
The One isn’t something separate from ourselves, for it is, obviously, One. If there was anything else in existence then we’d have the One and that other entity, which would make at least two. Science and mysticism each have a decided fondness for simplicity and unity. One it is, then. And we are part of it. More simply, we are it.
Plotinus advises: If you seek to know God, the most direct approach is to know the seeker.
I’ll end with a paragraph from my book that I wrote, followed by two wonderful quotations from Plotinus. There isn’t anything more than this to spirituality, when you eliminate everything that isn’t essential. Namely, not One.
“Plotinus tells us that the means by which we now know the creation must become the end that we seek. Like a snake that swallows its own tail, the sage turns his attention back upon the consciousness that usually attends to outer things and thoughts. Uniting within himself the knower and the known, the One is revealed as the ground of the sage’s own self.”
We must believe that we have seen him [the One] when, suddenly, the soul is filled with light, for this light comes from him and is identical with him….This is the real goal for the soul: to touch and behold this light itself, by means of itself. She does not wish to see it by means of some other light; what she wants to see is that light by means of which she is able to see. What she must behold is precisely that by which she was illuminated …..How, then, could this come about? Eliminate everything [that is not light]!
For this reason the vision is hard to put into words. For how could one announce that as another when he did not see, there where he had the vision, another, but one with himself?