Recently I started re-reading the book I wrote about Plotinus' teachings, Return to the One, because someone had told me they'd ordered it, and I wanted to see if I still agreed with what I said about this Neoplatonist Greek mystic philosopher.
After all, I hadn't taken a look at the book for several years. It brings in a modest amount of Amazon royalties each month, but when I'm occasionally asked about the book, my typical response is along the line of "I still agree with much of it, but my views have changed quite a bit since I wrote it."
So the game I've been playing with myself these past few days is to find what still resonates with me in Return to the One.
One rule of that game is this: taking the advice I offered to readers in the "Preliminaries" section of the book, I'm trying to take a Big Picture view of Plotinus and what I wrote about his teachings, rather than a literal view where every word means just what it says and nothing more.
Be more concerned with grasping the broad outlines of Plotinus's philosophy than the specifics. It is better to comprehend the treatises in the Enneads as a whole, in an almost intuitive fashion, than to try to assemble a logical understanding bit by bit.
Having finished re-reading that Preliminaries section, I was struck by some passages relating to the self, a subject I'm fascinated by, because I'm convinced that neither I nor anyone else has an enduring self or soul, in line with Buddhism and modern neuroscience.
Plotinus said this, according to his student Porphyry, quoting from my book.
In like fashion, we're told that Plotinus refused a request made by one of his students to have a portrait made of him, explaining: "Isn't it enough that I have to bear this image with which Nature has covered us? Must I also consent to leaving behind me an image of that image -- this one even longer-lasting -- as if it were an image of something worth seeing?"
Thus Plotinus viewed his genuine being as something other than his physical form. This wasn't a self, though. Here's how I put it.
The primary goal of the mystic philosopher, as Plotinus teaches in the Enneads, is to bring the movable center of his or her consciousness into alignment with the unmoving center of existence, the One. A person's illusory and shifting sense of individuality thus must be distinguished from a true sense of self. If one traces his or her I-ness back to its source, as one would trace a line (or radius) back to the center of the circle from which it emanates, then the core of one's self will be found to be identical with the core of everything.
That's a nondual sort of philosophy, which makes sense, since Plotinus viewed the One as the essence of existence.
But it struck me that since Plotinus was writing in a pre-scientific age (the 3rd century), he had no idea of how the brain functioned. So in reclaiming Plotinus' teachings for our modern age, I took a look at what I said about the self in the initial part of Return to the One, viewing those statements as a neuroscientist or secular Buddhist might.
Here's the passages I came across.
Thus something can exist, yet barely be. And this, of course, includes one's own self.
Our goal is to be one, not many. In reality, for each of us there is only one being thinking thoughts and acting our actions. So whenever someone thinks one way and acts another a division is created that is at odds with the true nature of both the self and the cosmos. Truth is One, not multiple.
Whatever I am, I am not an object that I can look upon, separate from the consciousness doing the looking.
In the Enneads, Plotinus points us toward the only way of unmasking the deepest mysteries of life: become the mystery you wish to unmask and be nothing else. If you want to know what the essence of life is, simply be alive. If you want to know what the essence of consciousness is, simply be conscious. If you want to know what the essence of the One is, simply be the One.
Sam Harris, echoing Buddhist teachings that he is intimately familiar with, likes to say in the guided meditations on his Waking Up app, things such as:
Look at something. Be aware of that perception. Then briefly look for an entity that is doing the looking which is separate from the perception. In the moment where you don't find such an entity, that not-finding is what you're looking for.
Which sure sounds similar to the nondual Oneness at the core of Plotinus' teachings. Anyway, I'm going to continue re-reading my book, looking for more connections to my current atheist frame of mind in Return to the One.