William Blake, Eckhart Tolle, and the Obstacle to God
“Imagine a chief of police trying to find an arsonist when the arsonist is the chief of police” (Tolle)
I am your Rational Power O Albion & that Human Form
You call Divine, is but a Worm seventy inches long
That creeps forth in a night & is dried in the morning sun
In fortuitous concourse of memorys accumulated & lost …
So spoke the Spectre to Albion. he is the Great Selfhood
Satan: Worshipd as God by the Mighty Ones of the Earth
Having a white Dot calld a Center from which branches out
A Circle in continual gyrations (Blake, Jerusalem)
“The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man,” Blake succinctly notes in Jerusalem, and throughout his works he consistently links the “spectral” or compulsive aspect of divided and divisive rationality with the contemporary form of human reason itself:
… it is the Reasoning Power
An Abstract objecting power, that Negatives every thing
This is the Spectre of Man, the Holy Reasoning Power
And in its Holiness is closed the Abomination of Desolation.
The “objecting power” of such rationality neatly describes the way in which fallen egoic reason operates and processes experience: it captures both its objectifying stare and stance, and also its tendency to “object to” everything—to judge, to dissect, to criticise, and to accuse. And the unexpected use of the word “holy” here to convey Reason’s pontificating authority is also apposite: in one stroke Blake suggests both the deceitful and hypocritical pretence of orthodox religion (its rationalising, judgmental basis) and also the sanctimonious “more rational than thou” pontificating of so many recent high priests of science (Voltaire, Bacon, and Locke for Blake, or perhaps Boyer, Humphrey, and Dawkins more recently).
Blake repeatedly shows how left-hemispheric rationality “creates” or conceives for itself an abstract, virtual world within its own conceptual void by detaching itself from reality, and therefore abstracting reality from itself: in the passage above, Blake’s term “Negatives” succinctly conveys this rather lifeless, reversed, and representational “anti-” world that constitutes the mental abode of Urizenic programming. The Reasoning Power, divided from its original bodily sources and imaginative roots (the basis of its humanity), sets itself up as “God” to the disconnected world it now seeks to rule over. However, in such a situation it inevitably becomes not a deity but a “Spectre”.
I am your Rational Power O Albion & that Human Form
You call Divine, is but a Worm seventy inches long …
So spoke the Spectre to Albion.
The god-like and unquestioning authority of this new power of processing information within the human psyche, and its determination to establish itself as the sole mode of interpretation on the throne of the ego, is coupled with its fierce, almost Thatcherite assault on an earlier and less aggressive mode of imaginative and empathic apprehension, one which it now dismisses as “a World of Phantasy”. Blake here encapsulates the brutal logic of this new high-powered calculating machine within the brain.
The Spectre in Blake therefore signifies the dissociated nature of human reason, severed and detached from the imagination and from its empathic and social roots within what modern neuroscience terms the right hemisphere. The “divided” and isolated nature of rationality is the cause of its compulsive character, which is what the term “Spectre” in Blake chiefly represents. As Damon comments, the Spectre denotes the “compulsive machinery” of the fallen rational mind. It is “the incessant stream of mind, of compulsive thinking” that Tolle defines as the essential nature of the modern egoic rational mind (Tolle, A New Earth). Indeed, Tolle provides a particularly useful description of the processes of the dysfunctional egoic “Selfhood” and its intimate connections with the incessant rationalising “thinking” to which human reason has become enslaved:
Most people are so completely identified with the voice in the head—the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it—that we may describe them as being possessed by the mind. As long as you are completely unaware of this, you take the thinker to be who you are. This is the egoic mind. We call it egoic because there is a sense of self, of I (ego), in every thought—every memory, every interpretation, opinion, viewpoint, reaction, emotion. This is unconsciousness, spiritually speaking.
A symptom of this “possession” is the divided mind’s image of itself as a sort of computer “program”, which is how of course many people today regard their own brain processes: what this metaphor more accurately describes is the feeling of “possession” that the egoic mind casts over the individual. It is running the individual, instead of the individual running it.
The Spectre is thus the rational power of the divided man, but this “Reasoning Power” is consistently linked with what Blake terms the “Self” or “Selfhood”, a dysfunctional egoic state that is in effect the default identity of the rational, thinking mind. It is precisely the divided and self-enclosed nature of Reason which explains its identification with the rationalising “Selfhood”. As Damon notes, “being separated from its Emanation, the Spectre is completely unable to sympathize with any other person, and therefore becomes the self-centred Selfhood. This identification with the Selfhood reveals the Spectre’s true nature”.
Indeed the two are so closely bound together and entwined within the fallen psyche (the brain of man) that it is sometimes hard to distinguish between Spectre and Selfhood. And as such they appear in Blake: “So spoke the Spectre to Albion. he is the Great Selfhood”. Both the Spectre and the Selfhood denote the compulsive and egoic nature of contemporary rationality, and are thus frequently associated in Blake’s verse: “Furious in pride of Selfhood the terrible Spectres of Albion/Rear their dark Rocks among the Stars of God” (Jerusalem).
This constant linking of Selfhood with the Spectre of a self-enclosed, obsessive rationality is one of the most profound aspects of Blake’s cognitive framework. Urizen’s egoic basis is the key to why it is so disturbed and dysfunctional, and for human Reason to finally free itself from its compulsive and authoritarian character Blake suggests that the individual must recognise and cast off (or dis-integrate) its false egoic self that has got entangled with these rationalising processes. He thus observes that “the Reasoning Power in Man” is “a Selfhood, which must be put off & annihilated alway” (Milton). It is this connection with the compulsive egoic “Selfhood” that characterises and, indeed, is the character of fallen Urizen.
The rationalising and judgmental Selfhood is, in other words, the entity commonly known as “I”: the apparently personal but at the same time completely abstract pronoun that many people consider to be their actual identity. It is one of the ironies of this sense of “identity” that all such egos are essentially the same: as Tolle suggests, every ego possesses exactly the same structure and the same disturbed character.
Indeed, the “ego” is nothing but the “identification” with the fallen rationalising programs, and because the rational mind is so profoundly divided and self-enclosed, its “ego” is an intrinsically compulsive identity. In such a state one’s sense of identity becomes completely rationalistic, and one’s rationalising becomes completely egoic. Tolle notes that this sense of Selfhood might more properly be seen as a state of “possession”: the compulsive ego becomes a colonising entity attaching itself to the living individual, rather like a computer virus that takes over the host operating system. It is this process of “identification with your mind, which causes thought to become compulsive” (Tolle, The Power of Now).
Some people have claimed that Man has made “God” in his own image; unfortunately here it is the other way round: all egos are similar constructs, made according to the dominant drives and values, the program and “personality” of the dysfunctional Urizenic mind or motherboard, and they all sound the same. This feature of egoic identity might help to explain the striking and apparently paradoxical homogeneity of the cult of modern “individuality”. All such egos are “identical”.
The nature of Selfhood: “I want! I want!”
The egoic mind is founded or premised upon three basic wants or needs, as Tolle observes: the need to stand out; the need to feel superior (either morally or intellectually); and the need to identify with “things”. These needs currently constitute much of human conversation, such is the nature of their reach and possession.
By identifying with “things”— that is to say, by trying to achieve an internal sense of identity through the pursuit of external “objects”—the ego remains in a permanent state of want (the basis of its “ideal” of possessiveness). One of Blake’s most poignant and memorable engravings depicts this psychological state of wanting: in his illustration for The Gates of Paradise (captioned “I want ! I want !”), Blake depicts a youth about to climb a ladder that reaches to the moon, a traditional symbol for love. As Damon comments: this “represents the adolescent’s craving for love—physical love, because he starts to ascend the ladder with his left foot”.
But it also powerfully evokes the more general state of “wanting”, and the erroneous attempt to seek the objects of want “without”. The night sky that surrounds the moon is dotted with stars, which are the post-Sumerian symbol or psychological trigger for evoking “want” within the ego (Tweedy, The God of the Left Hemisphere). And the moon is presented in its “crescent” or horned form, a reference perhaps to Babylonian cults of the moon and Ishtar (later called “Venus”).
Behind all these wants and needs is a fundamental absence: the fear, based on a reality, that this wanting “ego” is actually nothing. “The underlying emotion that governs all the activity of the ego is fear. The fear of being nobody, the fear of nonexistence, the fear of death. All its activities are ultimately designed to eliminate this fear” (Tolle, A New Earth).
This Urizenic fear of (or realisation of) being a nobody lies behind many of the left brain’s defining characteristics and compulsive drives and ambitions. Its perpetual need to compensate for this fear or anxiety manifests most obviously in an unconscious obsession with status, power, fast cars, big buildings, big bonuses and so on—with “having”, and therefore with identifying with anything that might help make it feel bigger, or more powerful. Of course, this merely reveals how lacking and empty the residing ego actually is.
Tolle makes a profound link between egoic wanting and egoic “having”, the basis of its need to possess, to own, and to manipulate. These are clearly processes that operate, and are reinforced psychologically, through contemporary economic practices, as egos in a permanent state of want are so easy to manipulate and are therefore serviceable to the Urizenic “agenda”. As McGilchrist notes, “modern consumers everywhere are in a ‘permanent state of unfulfilled desire’” (The Master and his Emissary). Behind the unconscious contemporary compulsions of ownership and consumerism is an addictive drive “for more”.
It is not that some egos own more than others: all ownership is egoic, that is to say, dysfunctional: “The ego wants to want more than it wants to have. And so the shallow satisfaction of having is always replaced by more wanting” (Tolle, A New Earth). The ego is in a permanent state of dissatisfaction, not because it doesn’t have what it wants, but because what it wants is to want more. Its job is to make your life miserable and unsatisfied.
Tolle observes that there are two aspects to this process of identification: content and structure. Content concerns the “objects” which are being identified with (for example, a toy that a child wants, or a smartphone in the case of an adult), and structure relates to the unconscious processes through which this process of identification occurs.
Tolle presents this paradoxical situation with regards to the egoic “rational” mind in a striking and powerful image: “the mind can never find the solution, nor can it afford to allow you to find the solution, because it is itself an intrinsic part of the ‘problem.’ Imagine a chief of police trying to find an arsonist when the arsonist is the chief of police” (Tolle, The Power of Now). Tolle’s understanding and analysis of the nature of the egoic mind is one of the most lucid and sophisticated accounts available, and provides a constructive alternative to the abyss towards which the left brain is currently heading. His work not only helps to elucidate but also dovetails in many remarkable ways with Blake’s own understanding both of the rationalising “Spectre” and the egoic Selfhood.
“The State called Satan”
“In the Individual,” notes Damon, “Satan is the principle of selfishness (the Selfhood) and the function of rationalizing (the Spectre)”. Here Damon deftly connects two of the fundamental processes within the Urizenic brain: rationalising and egoic compulsion. The immense power or “principle of selfishness” that frequently takes hold of or “possesses” an individual is the same principle or power as that designated by earlier poets and prophets by the term “Satan” (which simply means “to accuse”, “to obstruct”, or “to resist”). As Damon again observes, “the cause of Urizen’s downfall into the state of Satan or error (Milton) was that of the traditional Satan: the desire for dominion”. However, in Blake’s cognitive framework, “Satan” must be understood not as a “Person”, mythological or otherwise, but as a “State”.
Distinguish therefore States from Individuals in those States.
States Change: but Individual Identities never change nor cease …
Satan & Adam are States Created …
“Satan” is always a tricky subject to bring up, especially at dinner parties. This is partly because of the accumulated misconceptions and literalist interpretations of this figure. Blake therefore repeatedly challenges these rather crude and erroneous interpretations, insisting that the term “Satan” refers not to a real person but to a real State:
There is a State namd Satan learn distinct to know O Rahab
The Difference between States & Individuals of those States.
Blake believed that it was important to recognise this distinction because, as Los informs the proud and accusing Rahab in the passage above, if one personalises the psychological State that the term “Satan” traditionally signifies, one merely strengthens it within oneself. “Satan” is precisely the program within the brain responsible for accusation, moral judgment, and intellectual superiority—everything, in fact, that gets in the way of our humanity connecting and communing with another human being.
It is nonetheless a hugely powerful, controlling force within the psyche of every individual: an enormously destructive, temporarily appealing power that seems to “take possession” of the mind, as Tolle observes, with the most terrifying and destructive results. Humans will murder other human beings rather than relinquish it; will refuse to talk to a friend ever again because of it; will endorse the most grotesque and inhumane social and economic practices because of it.
In many situations it works because it seems to deliver what might best be called an “Ego Rush”: a momentary left-brain “high” that boosts the program of separation and superiority within the brain. This “Ego Rush” is apparently a common experience amongst the financial sector, and other religious institutions.
But fortunately, as it is also only a State through which we pass, we can walk out of it as well. Moreover, the recognition that egoic consciousness, or “Selfhood”, is a State into which individuals may enter, frees that individual from being forever trapped within it, from being forever identified with that State. It also, equally importantly for Blake, liberates the perceiver. To accuse someone of being selfish is to enter into the state of moral judgment and accusation, which is itself the state of Selfhood. In this sense, “Selfhood” in Blake might be seen as similar to such states as “Childhood”, or “Innocence”, through which the individual necessarily passes. “Learn therefore O Sisters to distinguish the Eternal Human … from those States or Worlds in which the Spirit travels:/This is the only means to Forgiveness of Enemies” (Jerusalem).
It is this capacity for forgiveness that is the crucial aspect of Blake’s psychology here. It is hard (at least for the egoic rational mind) to forgive another human being for being selfish. It is perhaps less hard if one understands that all human beings are liable to enter this State, and that this is something in fact that all of us, as human beings, necessarily will do. This is the point: to “distinguish the Eternal Human” from those States through which we all pass. Damon helpfully provides a clarification of the nature of these States in Blake’s work:
States are stages of error, which the Divine Mercy creates (or defines) so that the State and not the Individual in it shall be blamed. Each period of life has its own peculiar errors; as one grows out of one period into another, one is maturing. “Man Passes on, but States remain for Ever; he passes thro’ them like a traveler”.
It is unfortunate in this respect that so many people have regarded such States, for example those referred to in the Bible by the terms “Adam” or “Satan”, as actual, literal “people”. Of course literalisation is a characteristic of the left hemisphere, one shared by both literalist secular and religious interpretations.
Blake therefore continually urges us to adjust our vision and perception of these States, and to realise the powerful and profound psychological processes signified by these terms. Thus, in his description of the Biblical figures in his painting A Vision of the Last Judgment, he notes that “it ought to be understood that the Persons Moses & Abraham are not here meant but the States Signified by those Names the Individuals being representatives or Visions of those States”. So too with the State that Blake terms the “Selfhood”. Both in his poetry and his artwork, Blake gives a particular form to the State called “Satan” both to humanise it, that is to say, to reveal its inner human aspect, and to embody it: as the Hebrew poets also found, it is both useful and inevitable in certain contexts to individualise these States, just as one might represent the state of “Childhood” by visualising a single child. As Blake himself notes, “these various States I have seen in my Imagination when distant they appear as One Man but as you approach they appear Multitudes of Nations”. This is a striking analysis and insight into the nature of imaginative perspective.
In Blake’s poems, it is the rational Selfhood that is the primary cause of alienation and violence within the psyche. The left-hemispheric ego is not simply a complementary “identity” to balance a more empathic and contextual sense of self that the right brain delivers. It is “a ravening devouring lust continually craving” (The Four Zoas). Eckhart Tolle is one of the very few contemporary thinkers to have understood and articulated this, and his work is immensely useful in clarifying Blake’s similar vision of human consciousness, and the intimate connections between “thinking” and “ego”. As Tolle notes, “the ego itself is pathological” (Tolle, A New Earth) and is based on a profound absence, as well as a profound fear, both of which lie behind its overcompensating drive for power which McGilchrist defines as the basic “will” and character of the left hemisphere.
Fortunately, the left-hemispheric sense of “self” is not the only available sense of identity that the individual possesses, and may indeed be a false and destructive one. As McGilchrist suggests, it is the right hemisphere “which is responsible for ‘maintaining a coherent, continuous and unified sense of self’”: self-awareness is not a product of the rationalising left brain, whose motto tends to be that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.
Nobel-Prize winning scientist Roger Sperry has hypothesised that “it is a right-hemisphere network that gives rise to self-awareness”. But in order to access this alternate sense of who one really is, the individual must let go of the ego: this is necessary because the ego is actually the cause of the inhibiting, hardening, moralising, confabulating, manipulating compulsions of the psyche, not the solution to them. Blake refers to this process of letting go of the Selfhood as a “casting off”:
Each Man is in his Spectre’s power Untill the arrival of that hour When his Humanity awake
And cast his Spectre into the Lake
Intriguingly, Blake writes this enigmatic and powerful quatrain in reverse handwriting, in an illustration to Plate 41 of Jerusalem, and as such it does not appear in many textual reprints of the poem. Perhaps this suggests that man is not ready to read this writing, or that in order to read it one must look at things in a slightly different way, as it were back to front. One must “awake”: from the state of what is normally called “consciousness”, but which is also a profound state of unconsciousness, of sleep-walking.
It is striking in this respect that the “conscious” ego for Freud is the “unconscious” ego in Tolle. McGilchrist also characterises the rational, “conscious” left hemisphere as an insouciant sleepwalker, walking towards the abyss. Only by making the unconscious and compulsive nature of the divided or fallen rational mind truly “conscious” (or perhaps more accurately, by becoming aware of these false and destructive drives), can the individual truly awake. What is stopping this process, as always, is the “ego”: the hardening Selfhood, the covering Cherub, the rationalising Angel.
Thus was the Covering Cherub reveald majestic image
Of Selfhood, Body put off, the Antichrist accursed
Coverd with precious stones, a Human Dragon terrible …
His Head dark, deadly, in its Brain incloses a reflexion
Of Eden all perverted
Here again we meet the real “Dragon” of the human brain, the actual rather than the PR form of divided rationality. Blake specifically locates this Urizenic Dragon within the “Brain”, and within the brain of the Dragon itself is reflected a memory of a reality that it has long ago cut itself off from: “Eden”. The left-brain world is a world of mirrors and narcissism, “a reflexion … all perverted”. This “Cherub” or “Selfhood” is both covering and covered: Blake uses the Biblical descriptions of this figure to emphasise the “hardening” or incrusting aspect of this fake identity within the psyche, dressing itself up as if it was something precious and wonderful, and hard and protective. But it is a void, and it knows it. It is presented as “Covering”, but it conceals and guards the entrance to the garden, which is imagination.