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Plotinus and the Transcendent Journey: Exploring Parallels with Out-of-Body Experiences

In chapter four of the Enneads (eighth tractate), debating the teachings of Empedocles, Pythagoras and Plato about the "descent of the soul into the bodies", which in modern terms refers to the concept of metempsychosis or transmigration, Plotinus (205-270 A.D.), seems to account to some autobiographical spiritual awakening one could describe as an Out-of-Body Experience (OBE):

"Lifted out of the body becoming external to all other things and self-centered; beholding a marvellous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the divine; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine; stationing within it by having attained that activity; poised above all else in the realm of the intellect: yet, there comes the moment of descent from intellection to reasoning, and after that sojourn in the divine, I ask myself how it happens that I can now be descending, and how did the soul ever enter into my body, the soul which, even within the body, is the high thing it has shown itself to be".

The Enneads is a collection of writings by the philosopher Plotinus—considered one of the most important figures in the development of Neoplatonism. This philosophical school drew heavily from the ideas of Plato. The Enneads consist of six groups of nine treatizes. In the passage, Plotinus feels lifted out of his body and connected to a higher order of reality. He experiences the non-ordinary expansion of his consciousness and its contraction, a condition similarly reported during modern OBEs (a condition not referred as related to metempsychosis but associated to the coming back to the body). Although it was not explicitly stated as such, translations used the term "out-of-the-body" while others used the term "lifted out of the body", as in the 1917 translation of Stephen MacKenna and B. S. Page; certainly, this extract reflects Plotinus' belief in the transcendent nature of the soul and its potential to unite with the divine. If historians and philosophers will find agreement on the personal nature of these experiences or not, and if Plotinus's language may not or not necessarily correspond to literal, empirical experiences of the time, there is no doubt his descriptions often aimed to convey a sense of the soul's ascent to higher levels of reality.

There is equally no doubt that modern OBE accounts touch upon themes of unity, transcendence, and the sense of a connection with something greater within oneself touched upon during such experiences. Descriptions include the described shift of the "descent" from a state of non-duality ("community with the divine") to a state of duality. Indeed, in Plotinus' metaphysics, intellection (or the realm of the Intellect) represents a higher, more unified state of consciousness where the soul has a direct and intuitive apprehension of the divine and universal truths— a state of non-duality and unity, where the soul is absorbed in pure contemplation and free from the limitations of individuality and discursive reasoning which is equally reported in evolutionary, or advanced OBEs. In contrast, the concept of the "descent from intellection to reasoning" described by Plotinus could be understood within his metaphysical framework and his philosophy of the soul as a descent from this higher state of unity into a more fragmented and individuated mode of consciousness—seen by Plotinus as a necessary movement for the soul but which is paradoxical essential to reinstate the previous state and ascend again to the world of Ideas. Indeed, Plotinus refers to the "failing of the wings" as the cause, and which can be understood as a failure or deficiency in the soul's ability to maintain its higher, transcendent state of connection to ideas (connection to the divine).

In conclusion, the writings of Plotinus in the Enneads, particularly in the fourth Ennead's eighth tractate, provide descriptions that can be seen as resonating with aspects of OBEs reported in contemporary accounts. Plotinus discusses the soul's ascent to higher levels of reality, the experience of unity with the divine, and the subsequent descent from non-duality to duality which both Plotinus' writings and modern OBE accounts touch upon (e.g., themes, such as transcendence, experiencing absolute knowledge and feeling interconnected with the universe). Indeed, Plotinus' metaphysical framework emphasizes the soul's connection to the divine and its potential to unite with higher realities, and although such philosophy may not have used the specific modern terminology of OBEs, his metaphysical framework and emphasis on the soul's connection to the divine align with the experiences described by experiencers. Both emphasize the potential of our consciousness to transcend physical limitations and unite with higher realities. True or not, throughout history and across different cultural and philosophical traditions, there has been a shared motivation for exploring the profound nature of human consciousness, the quest for unity with the divine, whichever one may call it, and the potential within us for transcendence. That is the voyage of discovery. This is the expedition, the possibility within us—the challenge of advanced OBEs.

MSc. Neuroscience,

Sleep Consciousness Researcher,

PhD Candidate.


MacKenna, S. and B. S. Page (2016). Plotinus Enneads, Lulu Press, Incorporated.

Montenegro, R. (2015). The Out-of-Body Experiences – An Experiential Anthology, Imagens & Letras.

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