Plotinus' Practical Mysticism

     When I speak of "practical mysticism," I refer to a teaching which can be used to achieve a definite state of higher consciousness, distinguished from a teaching which merely discusses such a higher state.

      Plotinus (205-270 CE) was born in Egypt and likely studied Semitic and Persian philosophy. From 245 C.E. until his death, he taught Neo-Platonic philosophy in Rome. He was consulted several times by Emperor Gallienus.

     Perennialist teachers, such as Plotinus, distinguish precisely between exoteric (public) and esoteric (covert) teachings reserved for the qualified initiate.

     "This is what the command given in those mysteries intends to proclaim, 'Do not reveal mysteries to the uninitiated.' Because the Divine is not to be revealed it forbids us to declare It to anyone else who has not himself had the good fortune to have achieved spiritual vision.

     "If the initiate has seen, she knows that in the experience there were not two; seer was one with the Seen (it was not really a vision but a unity apprehended). The person formed by this mingling with the Supreme must--if she only remember--carry its image impressed upon her. She is become the Unity, with no distinction in her either in relation to herself or anything else, for there was no movement in her, and she had no emotion, no desire for anything else when she had achieved the ascent, no reason or thought, her own self was not there for her, if we dare say this. She was as if carried away or possessed by God, in a quiet solitude, in the stillness of her being, altogether at rest and having become a kind of rest."

     Plotinus' teaching here constitutes a delightfully amusing paradox. He begins by saying that he cannot reveal the mysteries of spiritual ascent to the initiate who has not achieved initial flashes of spiritual union. But he then continues--and we can almost "see" Plotinus looking at us with heavy eyelashes, knocking off the ashes of his cigar, and rolling his eyes (in true Groucho Marx fashion)--elucidating the precise nature of spiritual "seeing."

     As with all Perennialist savants, the scholastics go beserk trying to tease out some rationalistic explanation of his teachings. Because scholastics and sensation seekers adopt a totally alien viewpoint and methodology, they cannot possibly comprehend a Perennialist teacher such as Plotinus, Plato, Jesus, or Shahabudin Suhrawardi. The uninformed metaphysician attempts to place the teacher on his scholastic Procrustean bed, assuming that he can get at the essence of the teacher's "philosophy" by analyzing the reports of his teachings by equally uninformed chroniclers.

     Sometimes the same scholastic can grasp the outer organization of Perennialist teachings but fail utterly to understand their origin in the teacher's inner, spiritual experiences.

     "Plotinus wrote his treatises to deal with particular points as they arose in the discussions of his school, and during his lifetime they circulated only among its members. In dealing with the particular points, of course, the great principles of his philosophy are always coming in, and we are very conscious that there is a fully worked-out system of thought in the background: but it is presented to us, not step by step in an orderly exposition, but by a perpetual handling and rehandling of the great central problems, always from slightly different points of view and with reference to different types of objections and queries."

A. H. Armstrong. (1962). Plotinus, p. 15

     "The philosophy of Plotinus is in all essentials a development (though sometimes a very bold and original one) of the Middle Platonist school tradition. But there is another philosophical influence on his thought which must not be neglected. Plotinus devotes a great deal of time and energy in his writings to dealing faithfully with Stoicism, and in particular with the curious Stoic way of thinking of spiritual being in terms of body. It was probably the struggle to free his own mind and the minds of his pupils from the very pervasive influence of the Stoic conception of God and the soul as a sort of gas that led Plotinus to the very clear understanding of the difference between spiritual and material being which is such a valuable feature of his thought."

A. H. Armstrong. (1962). Plotinus, p. 19

     So-called Plotinus scholars love to make elaborate metaphysical charts of his supposed spiritual cosmology (as on the left). As Armstrong correctly points out, Plotinus' writings were a part of the complex process in which he provided experiences for his students to learn from. He never intended that his writings be used as a textbook for a college philosophy course.

     If we take care to be awake to the subtleties and nuances of Plotinus' teachings, we can gain a great deal of insight into how to go about developing spiritual discernment and achieving illumination. Below are selected passages of his teachings which help us understand how to achieve "the return to the One."

     "We, in our higher selves, are truly that All, but we do not understand the All, Real Being, or Nous till we radically simplify ourselves and turn away from all considerations of space and quantity and from our lower selves and their concerns in the material world."

     "This is the soul's true end, to touch that Light and set It by Itself, not by another light, by itself, Which gives it sight as well. It must see That Light by which it is enlightened; for we do not see the sun by another light than his own. How then can this happen? Take away everything!"

     "When the soul has good fortune with Him and He comes to it, or rather when His presence becomes manifest, when it turns away from the things present to it and prepares itself, making itself as beautiful as possible, and comes to likeness with Him (those who practise this preparation and adorning know clearly what they are); then it sees Him suddenly appearing in itself (for there is nothing between, nor are they still two, but both are one; while He is present, you could not distinguish them; lovers and those they love here imitate this state in their longing to unite); it is not conscious of being in its body any more, nor does it call itself anything else, human or living being, or being, or all; to contemplate these things does not suit its present state; it has no time for them and does not want them; it seeks the Good and meets It when It is present and looks at It instead of itself; and it has no time to see who it is who looks. There it would not exchange anything in the world for This, not even if you gave it the mastery over the whole heaven, since there is nothing better, no greater good; for it cannot go higher, and everything else, however exalted, only belongs to it when it comes down."