Feet of Clay



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Every generation has its charismatic spiritual leaders, its gurus. Some are true saints while others conceal unspeakable depravity. Anthony Storr, Oxford professor of psychiatry, analyzes an interesting array of gurus and finds many commonalities among them – an isolated childhood, a need for certainty, a demand for obedience. He also elucidates aspects of this psychological profile in various intellectual, artistic, and political figures of history. This eye-opening book invokes a larger issue: in our search for guidance and truth, when and why do we cross the line from reasoned inquirer to unquestioning follower?




Critical examination of the lives and beliefs of gurus demonstrates that our psychiatric labels and our conceptions of what is or is not mental illness are woefully inadequate. How, for example, does one distinguish an unorthodox or bizarre faith from delusion?


Feet of Clay










GURDJIEFF CLAIMS OUR INTEREST because he, or his doctrines as propounded by his disciple Ouspensky, bewitched so many interesting and intelligent people, including the writer Katherine Mansfield, A. R. Orage, the distinguished socialist editor of The New Age, Margaret Anderson, the editor of the Little Review, and her friend and co-editor Jane Heap; the surgeon and sexologist Kenneth Walker; Olgivanna, the third wife of Frank Lloyd Wright; John Godolphin Bennett, later to become something of a guru himself. The psychiatrists James Young and Maurice Nicoll, and the psychoanalyst David Eder were also followers. T. S. Eliot, David Garnett and Herbert Read intermittently attended Ouspensky’s meetings. Ouspensky, who first encountered Gurdjieff in 1915, became chiefly based in London and was therefore more accessible to interested English people than the guru himself.


The date of Gurdjieff’s birth is uncertain. Some say 1866; others quote one of his several passports, which showed December 28, 1877. James Moore,1  Gurdjieff’s latest biographer and the author of Gurdjieff and Katherine Mansfield, argues that the earlier date is the more probable. Gurdjieff was secretive about this as he was about so many features of his background. He died on October 29, 1949. His birthplace was Alexandropol (formerly Gumru) in Russian Armenia, in the land lying between the Black Sea on the West and the Caspian Sea on the East, south of the Caucasus mountains. His father was Greek, his mother Armenian. Armenian was spoken at home, but he also learned some Greek, some Turkish, and the local dialects. In his autobiographical memoir, Meetings with Remarkable Men, he claimed to know eighteen languages, but there is no evidence to support this. Throughout his life, he continued to speak both Russian and English incorrectly.


Gurdjieff was the eldest of six children; he had a brother and four sisters. One of the sisters died young. In Gurdjieff’s early childhood, the family moved to the near-by city of Kars, shortly after the defeat of the Turkish forces there in 1878 by the Grand Duke Michael Niklayevich, brother of the Russian Tsar. The boy Gurdjieff was accepted as a chorister at Kars military cathedral, and being obviously intelligent, attracted the notice of Father Dean Borsh, who helped to educate him. He developed a passion for learning, read widely in Greek, Armenian, and Russian, and began to harbour a wish to find some answer to the problem of ‘the meaning of life’. He resembles other gurus in going through a period of doubt which was succeeded by the revelation which manifested itself in his new cosmogony and his teaching. Why his perplexity was so extreme as to propel him into a search for truth which lasted twenty years is not apparent.


Gurdjieff’s esoteric knowledge and status as a guru were attributed to his discoveries during his travels in Central Asia, but we are entirely dependent upon his own inaccurate account. The period 1887–1911 remains unsubstantiated and mysterious. Gurdjieff claimed to have learned much from a three months’ stay in ‘the chief Sarmoung monastery’, belonging to a brotherhood which he said taught him secret wisdom derived from traditions dating back to 3500 B.C., including physical techniques for self-transformation, and sacred dances. Gurdjieff was careful never to be specific about the exact location of these teachers of secret knowledge, although he later stated that he had a teacher from whom he was never separated, and with whom he constantly communicated, presumably telepathically. The Sarmoung monastery cannot be identified, and even disciples of Gurdjieff regard his account of it as an allegory rather than literal truth. His own autobiographical account, in Meetings with Remarkable Men, is contradictory and chronologically unreliable. What does emerge from that book is his resourcefulness and his capacity to survive, both physically and financially. He sold carpets and antiques; repaired sewing machines; bought quantities of old-fashioned corsets and remodeled them to suit current taste; traded in oil and fish, and claimed that he cured drug addicts by hypnosis. His prowess as a healer was, he wrote, unprecedented (Gurdjieff never exhibited false modesty). When asked by Ouspensky about his studies and discoveries, he said that he travelled with a group of specialists in various subjects who eventually pooled their knowledge; but he did not vouchsafe their names or say where they were, nor did he answer direct questions about where he had been. ‘About schools and where he had found the knowledge he undoubtedly possessed he spoke very little and always superficially.’ It is hardly surprising that there were rumours that he was a secret agent employed by the Russians.


Gurdjieff established himself as a guru in Moscow in 1912. His principal contention was that man does not know himself, and is therefore not what he should be. He considered that modern civilization had made it difficult to co-ordinate the physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects of personality, which he believed were controlled by three separate centres. He thought that the majority of people were ‘asleep’, and behaved like machines reacting blindly to external forces. His training was designed to awaken selected followers to a higher level of consciousness and a new perception of reality.


A modern man lives in sleep, in sleep he is born and in sleep he dies. About sleep, its significance and its role in life, we will speak later. But at present just think of one thing, what knowledge can a sleeping man have? And if you think about it and at the same time remember that sleep is the chief feature of our being, it will at once become clear to you that if a man really wants knowledge, he must first of all think about how to wake, that is, about how to change his being.3


By participating in what became known as ‘The Work’, the fortunate few might become more able to co-ordinate the three centres through self-observation. Instead of living in a dream in which a series of fleeting ‘I’s’ succeeded one another, the awakened individual would cease living ‘in quotation marks’, achieve a new unity, and, by means of this, direct his own destiny, or become able to do, as Gurdjieff phrased it. ‘To do means to act consciously and according to one’s will.’ 4  This change in consciousness, like everything else, has a material basis, which in this case manifests itself as a trace chemical compound in the brain.


The keystone of his teaching, of course, was that no progress – no human progress, that is – can be accomplished except on an individual basis. Group work is valuable only in the sense that it helps the individual to achieve individual self-perfection.5


J. G. Bennett, who died in 1974, first met Gurdjieff in 1920. In his book Gurdjieff: Making a New World, Bennett devoted three chapters to Gurdjieff’s travels and search for esoteric wisdom. Both J. G. Bennett and James Moore have to admit that it is impossible to trace Gurdjieff’s travels with any degree of accuracy. Although careful never to commit himself whole-heartedly, Bennett clearly believed in the literal truth of the tradition that, somewhere in Central Asia, there is a group of wise men or ‘Masters of Wisdom’ who watch over the destiny of mankind and intervene from time to time to alter the course of events by introducing new ideas and new modes of thinking. Bennett suggests that Gurdjieff made contact with such a group; an ‘Inner Circle of Humanity’, perhaps the Sarmoung brotherhood, whose members were highly developed spiritually and able to generate higher energies. Bennett wrote:


The true significance of such a group must lie in its mission. The more that one becomes aware of the spiritual realities, the more convinced does one become that a very great action is now proceeding in the world. The task before us is to help mankind to make the difficult and dangerous transition to a new epoch. If we find evidence that Gurdjieff was concerned in this task and more-over that he opened the way for us to participate in it, we shall have gone a long way to connecting him with the ‘Inner Circle’.6


We shall again encounter the idea that mankind is on the threshold of a new epoch when discussing the ideas of Jung.


Bennett was a long-term disciple of Ouspensky, and was therefore at one removed from the master himself. But he remained intermittently in touch with Gurdjieff, and saw him frequently during the last two years of his life. Bennett believed that Gurdjieff’s ideas and teachings had transformed his own life, and himself ran groups along Gurdjieffian lines in London, sometimes with dire effects upon participants, as I remember from seeing one or two of them as psychiatric patients. Nevertheless, Bennett followed a path characteristic of those who constantly search for esoteric wisdom without ever quite finding what they want.


Bennett . . . broke from the Gurdjieffian mainstream in 1955 to pursue eclectic affiliations (being inter alia ‘opened’ into Subud by Hosein Rofe, initiated by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, received into the Roman Catholic Church, and introduced to the ‘Invisible Hierarchy’ by Idries Shah).7


The Russian revolution of 1917 caused Gurdjieff to move to Tiflis in Georgia and then to Constantinople and on to Berlin. His exhausting and sometimes dangerous journeys are chronicled by his biographer, James Moore. His close associates Thomas and Olga de Hartmann joined him in one of his stopping places: Essentuki in the Caucasus. This was in August 1917, not long after Kerensky had been announced as Prime Minister of the coalition government which followed the abdication of the Tsar. Gurjdieff then suddenly announced that he was going to Tuapse, on the Black Sea. The dutiful de Hartmanns followed. Their account of an exhausting nocturnal walk forced on them by Gurdjieff in spite of the fact that they were unsuitably clad and also dead tired is a striking example of the autocratic and unreasonable demands which Gurdjieff made on his followers which they nevertheless slavishly obeyed. Olga de Hartmann’s feet were so swollen and bleeding that she could not put on her shoes and had to walk barefoot. Thomas de Hartmann had missed a night’s sleep because he had been ordered to stay on guard. Their limbs ached and they were both exhausted; but they went on nevertheless.


Mr. Gurdjieff demanded from us a very great effort, especially difficult because we did not know when it would end. We suffered and would have been only too happy to rest; but there was no protest in us, because the one thing we really wished to do was to follow Mr. Gurdjieff. Beside that, everything else seemed unimportant.8


It was a recurrent pattern of behaviour. The de Hartmanns claim that these demands were made upon them as a way of teaching them to overcome emotional and physical difficulties. Gurdjieff certainly pushed people to the limit of their physical capacities; and some discovered that they had more powers of endurance than they had ever suspected.


When short of money, he survived by dealing in caviar and carpets.  He had hoped to settle in England, but the Home Office were suspicious of him and would not permit him to stay unless he did so as a private individual, which would have meant abandoning his nucleus of followers. Eventually, the generosity of Lady Rothermere, the estranged wife of the newspaper magnate, together with funds from other wealthy supporters, made it possible for him to set up his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Chateau de Prieurè, a large estate near Fontainebleau, in France.


 ‘The Work’ was carried out in groups and included special exercises and dances, exhausting physical work, training in memory and self-observation, together with lectures given by Gurdjieff at irregular intervals.  Some of those who participated in the so-called ‘Sacred Dances’ found them more valuable than Yoga or any other training affecting physical awareness. Complete concentration on whatever was being carried out at the time was an essential part of Gurdjieff’s message and of his own behaviour. Insistence on living intensely in the present moment and discarding the concern with past or future which interferes with fully experiencing the here-and-now, is not confined to Gurdjieff’s teaching. Zen also treats the past and future as fleeting illusions.  It is only the present which is eternally real.9


Gurdjieff was a dictator. He had the capacity so completely to humiliate his disciples that grown men would burst into tears. He might then show the victim special favour. He demanded unquestioning obedience to his arbitrary commands. For example, he once suddenly announced that none of his followers might speak to each other within the Institute. All communication must be by means of the special physical movements he had taught them. Gurdjieff sometimes imposed fasting for periods up to a week without any lessening of the work load. His authority was such that his followers convinced themselves that these orders were for their own good. Those less infatuated are likely to think that, like other gurus, Gurdjieff enjoyed the exercise of power for its own sake. There were also dinners at which large quantities of alcohol were drunk, and large sums of money extracted from the diners.


Gurdjieff also developed an elaborate cosmology. His picture of the universe and man’s place in it is complex, and unsupported by any objective evidence. It is deliberately obscure and often incoherent. Yet, because Gurdjieff was a powerful guru whose followers included some sophisticated, intelligent people, attempts have been made by his followers to make sense out of what appears to the sceptical reader to be a psychotic delusional system. The task is rendered more difficult by the numerous ludicrous neologisms which Gurdjieff introduced. It is appropriate to remind the reader that chronic schizophrenics often invent words which carry a special meaning for them but which others find hard to understand. Eugen Bleuler, the famous director of the Burgholzli mental hospital in Zurich and the originator of the term ‘schizophrenia’, quotes a patient who wrote:


At Apell plain church-state, the people have customs and habits partly taken from glos-faith because the father wanted to enter new f. situation, since they believed the father had a Babeli comediation only with music. Therefore they went to the high Osetion and on the cabbage earth and all sorts of malice, and against everything good. On their inverted Osetion valley will come and within thus is the father righteousness.10


Another patient referred to being tormented by ‘elbow-people’. As Bleuler notes, wording is preferably bombastic. ‘The patients utter trivialities using highly affected expressions as if they were of the greatest interest to humanity.’11  I am not suggesting that Gurdjieff was schizophrenic, but his use of language resembled that employed by some psychotics.


For example, Gurdjieff is said to have believed in God, to whom he referred as ‘Our Almighty Omni-Loving Common Father Uni-Being Creator Endlessness’.12  This description may fairly be described as bombastic. In the beginning was the ‘Most Most Holy Sun Absolute’ in space which was also endless, but which was charged with a primordial cosmic substance Etherokilno. ‘Because this nebulous Etherokilno was in static equilibrium, the super-sun existed and was maintained by our Common Father, quite independently of outside stimulus, through the internal action of his laws and under the dispensation termed Autoegocrat (I keep everything under my control).’13


However, Time, that villain who attacks us all, appeared in the shape of the merciless Heropass, which so threatened to diminish the volume of Sun Absolute that steps had to be taken to forestall this action. Thereupon Common Father issued from himself a creative World-God named Theomertmalogos which interacted with Etherokilno to produce our universe Megalocosmos. This creation is maintained by a principle or law named Trogoautoegocrat – by eating myself, I am maintained: ‘In the cosmic sense, God feeds on the Creation and the creation feeds on God.’14  So God and his creation become separate entities, which are only distantly related to each other, and creation is maintained by new laws; Triamazikamno, the law of Three, and Heptaparparashinokh or Eftalogodiksis, the law of Seven.


The law of Three is relatively straightforward. ‘The higher blends with the lower in order to actualise the middle.’ For example, sperm and ovum merge to create the embryo. This formula can be applied to many situations in which opposites require a third – Moore gives as an example a judge resolving a case between plaintiff and defendant.


The law of Seven is more complex, and, in my view, incoherent. Gurdjieff tried to relate cosmology with the musical scale, believing that every completing process has seven discrete phases corresponding to an ascending or descending series of notes, including the two semitonal intervals, which constitute necessary irregularities. Gurdjieff represented the universe in a diagram called the Ray of Creation which begins with the Absolute and ends with the moon.


Gurdjieff taught that a collision between a comet named Kondoor and the earth gave rise to two orbiting bodies, Loondeiperzo (later known as the moon) and Anulios. After the shock ‘a whole commission consisting of Angels and Archangels, specialists in the work of World-creation and World-maintenance, under the direction of the Most Great Archangel Sakaki, was immediately sent from the Most Holy Sun Absolute to that solar system “Ors”.’15  Gurdjieff’s beliefs about the moon were even more eccentric. He claimed that the moon was still an unborn planet which was gradually becoming warmer and more like earth, just as the earth was becoming warmer and more like the sun. Anulios became forgotten but the moon required energy to assist its evolution. Sakaki therefore arranged that the planet earth should send to the moon the ‘sacred vibration askokin’. Askokin was liberated when organic life on earth dies. According to Ouspensky’s report in In Search of the Miraculous, Gurdjieff said:


The process of the growth and the warming of the moon is connected with life and death on the earth. Everything living sets free at its death a certain amount of the energy that has ‘animated’ it; this energy, or the ‘souls’ of everything living – plants, animals, people – is attracted to the moon as though by a huge electro-magnet, and brings to it the warmth and the life upon which its growth depends, that is, the growth of the ray of creation. In the economy of the universe nothing is lost, and a certain energy having finished its work on one plane goes to another.16


He then went on to say that the moon influences everything that happens on earth.


Man, like every other living being, cannot, in the ordinary conditions of life, tear himself free from the moon. All his movements and consequently all his actions are controlled by the moon. If he kills another man, the moon does it; if he sacrifices himself for others, the moon does that also. All evil deeds, all crimes, all self-sacrificing actions, all heroic exploits, as well as all the actions of ordinary life, are controlled by the moon.17


And J. G. Bennett wrote:


At a certain point in the history of the earth it was perceived by the Higher Powers that a very undesirable and dangerous situation was developing on the planet earth which could endanger the equilibrium of the entire solar system and, in particular, the evolution of the Moon.18


If men realized that, because they were controlled by the moon, their personal efforts were unavailing, might they not be tempted to mass suicide, and so deprive the moon of the askokin needed for its development? To guard against this possibility, the Higher Powers implanted an organ at the base of man’s spine delightfully named by Gurdjieff ‘the organ Kundabuffer’.* This had the effect of ensuring that man would base his values solely on satisfying his own desires and the pursuit of happiness by making him perceive reality as topsy-turvy. So man would serve the moon blindly, unaware that, by embarking on the path of self-development, he could free himself from the moon altogether. Once the moon crisis had passed, the organ Kundabuffer was removed; but the majority of mankind still behave blindly, selfishly, and without insight as if the organ was still there. This is actually necessary if the purposes of nature are to be fulfilled. According to Ouspensky, Gurdjieff said that the evolution of humanity as a whole might be injurious.


For instance, the evolution of humanity beyond a certain point, or, to speak more correctly, above a certain percentage, would be fatal for the moon. The moon at present feeds on organic life, on humanity.

    Humanity is part of organic life; this means that humanity is food for the moon. If all men were to become too intelligent they would not want to be eaten by the moon.19


The majority of human beings provide askokin for the moon after death, and are then condemned to obliteration. However, some few who follow the path of self-development and self-realization prescribed by Gurdjieff create askokin during life. Such people may finally develop a soul which can survive and may even reach Objective Reason and attain a form of immortality by being reunited with the Most Most Holy Sun Absolute.


* Many of Gurdjieff’s neologisms have fairly obvious derivations. Since the organ Kundabuffer is supposed to have been inserted at the base of the spine, it appears probable that the name is derived from Kundalini yoga, in which a serpent is pictured as coiled in a similar position.


How can anyone ever have taken this kind of thing seriously?  Some have referred to Gurdjieff’s teachings as myths, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh claimed that Gurdjieff was joking about the moon, but J. G. Bennett wrote that Gurdjieff certainly intended his account of the historical appearance and disappearance of the organ Kundabuffer to be taken literally.20  He also quotes the author Denis Saurat, then Director of the French Institute in London, as believing that Gurdjieff’s teaching ‘could not be of terrestrial origin. Either Gurdjieff had revelations vouchsafed only to prophets or he had access to a school on a supernatural level.’21  Although writers about Gurdjieff tend to distance themselves from his most extravagant propositions, Philip Mairet, an intelligent literary figure who was editor of the New English Weekly, and who was also well acquainted with the works of Freud, Jung, and Adler, is reported as saying: ‘No system of gnostic soteriological philosophy that has been published to the modern world is comparable to it in power and intellectual articulation.’22  Having read Ouspensky’s exposition of Gurdjieff’s teaching in his book In Search of the Miraculous, and having attempted to read Gurdjieff’s own book All and Everything, I can only wonder at Mairet’s opinion. Perhaps I have extracted enough to give the reader some idea of Gurdjieff’s picture of the cosmos, and to demonstrate that Gurdjieff’s own writings are both voluminous and obscure. Even his devotees say that All and Everything has to be read several times if its meaning is to be grasped; and some claim that Gurdjieff’s obscurity was deliberate; a device adopted to ensure that the disciple would have to make a considerable effort at understanding on his own account rather than be spoon-fed with clear statements and doctrines.


 At first sight, it is difficult to believe that Gurdjieff’s elaborate cosmology was anything other than a planned, comical confidence trick designed to demonstrate how far the gullibility of his followers could be tested. His own account of how he survived his early wanderings reveals how expert he was at deception. Gurdjieff wrote that he coloured sparrows with aniline dyes and sold them as ‘American canaries’ in Samarkand. He tells us that he had to leave quickly in case rain washed the sparrows clean. When people brought him sewing machines and other mechanical objects for repair, he was often able to see that the mere shift of a lever would cure the problem. However, he was careful to pretend that such repairs were time-consuming and difficult, and charged accordingly. He also wrote that he found out in advance which villages and towns the new railway would pass through, and then informed the local authorities that he had the power to arrange the course of the railway. He boasted that he obtained large sums for his pretended services, and said that he had no pangs of conscience about doing so.23


We know from J. G. Bennett that, when he and his followers were in danger from the conflict between the Cossacks and the Bolsheviks, Gurdjieff managed to get transport from the Provincial Government by spreading a rumour that he knew of enormously rich deposits of gold and platinum in the Caucasus mountains which would fill the Government’s coffers. Bennett wrote:


In all this, he was also demonstrating to his pupils the power of suggestion and the ease with which people could be made to ‘believe any old tale’.24


Fritz Peters recounts an elaborate hoax in which Gurdjieff diluted a bottle of vin ordinaire with water, and then covered it with sand and cobwebs. Two distinguished women visitors were tricked into believing that Gurdjieff was serving them with wine of a rare vintage, and dutifully pronounced it the most delicious which they had ever tasted.25


Fritz Peters recalled an occasion on which a rich English lady approached Gurdjieff as he was sitting at a cafe table and offered him a cheque for £1,000 if he would tell her ‘the secret of life’. Gurdjieff promptly summoned a well-known prostitute from her beat in front of the cafe, gave her a drink, and proceeded to tell her that he was a being from another planet called Karatas. He complained that it was very expensive to have the food he needed flown in from this planet, but urged the prostitute to taste some which he gave her. When asked what she made of it, she replied that he had given her cherries, and went on her way with the money Gurdjieff pressed upon her, obviously believing that he was mad. Gurdjieff turned to the English lady and said: ‘That is the secret of life.’ She appeared to be disgusted, called him a charlatan, and went off. However, she reappeared later on the same day, gave Gurdjieff the cheque for £1,000, and became a devoted follower.26


He became skilled at extracting money from Americans to support his enterprises at the Chateau du Prieurè, and referred to this activity as ‘shearing sheep’. For example, an American woman travelled from the United States to the Prieurè to seek Gurdjieff’s advice about her chain smoking, which she said was a phallic activity connected with her marital sexual difficulties. After a pause for thought Gurdjieff suggested that she should change her brand of cigarette to Gauloises Bleus, and charged her a large fee for this advice, which she gladly and gratefully paid. There is no doubt that Gurdjieff could be a convincing confidence trickster when he so wished and that he did not hesitate to mislead the gullible when it suited him. He was always a wonderful storyteller who held his audiences entranced.


He told Peters, ‘I not make money like others make money, and when I have too much money I spend. But I never need money for self, and I not make or earn money, I ask for money and people always give and for this I give opportunity study my teaching.’27  However, he contradicted himself a moment later by saying that he owned a business making false eyelashes and another business selling rugs. When he went to New York in 1933, he demanded coaching in the use of four-letter words in English from Fritz Peters before giving a dinner for some fifteen New Yorkers. When the diners had drunk a certain amount, Gurdjieff began to tell them that it was a pity that most people – especially Americans – were motivated only by genital urges. He picked out a particularly elegant woman and told her in crude terms that she took so much trouble with her appearance because she wanted to fuck. The guests were soon behaving in an uninhibited fashion and become physically entangled with each other. Gurdjieff then announced that he had proved his point that Americans were decadent and demanded that he be paid for his lesson. According to Peters, he collected several thousand dollars.


Yet confidence trickery cannot be the whole explanation of Gurdjieff’s teaching. If Gurdjieff could support himself so easily by deception, why should he bother to invent a cosmogony? Gurdjieff found writing a burden. He was much more impressive as a lecturer than he was as a writer. All and Everything is enormously long, and, although it was dictated to Olga de Hartmann rather than written, it must have demanded considerable dedication to complete. Gurdjieff began his dictation on 16 December 1924. He completed the dictation of Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson (the first part of All and Everything) in November 1927. Could anyone devote so much time and energy to creating something in which he did not believe himself, with the deliberate intention to deceive? We hover on the borderline between confidence trickery and psychosis.  Gurdjieff’s propositions about the universe were totally at variance with the discoveries of astronomers and other scientists, and can only be compared with science fiction, but I think he believed in them, just as paranoid psychotics believe in their delusional systems.


Gurdjieff’s arrogance and disregard of established experts were extraordinary. When he visited the caves of Lascaux, he told J. G. Bennett that he did not agree with the Abbè Breuil’s dating of the rock paintings at thirty thousand years ago because he had concluded that the paintings were the work of a brotherhood that existed after the loss of Atlantis some seven or eight thousand years ago. He also told Bennett that he intended that his Institute would become ‘a centre of training and research not only into the powers of man himself, but into the secrets of the solar system. He said he had invented a special means for increasing the visibility of the planets and the sun and also for releasing energies that would influence the whole world situation.’28


Gurdjieff’s complete disregard for science and for the views of generally accepted experts is narcissistic in the extreme. But he did, at times, show considerable interest in other people, and compassion for those who were suffering. He sometimes exhibited a capacity for intense concentration upon individuals, which was certainly one component of his undoubted charisma. Fritz Peters, whose parents were divorced, was legally adopted by his mother’s sister, Margaret Anderson and her friend Jane Heap, who were mentioned earlier as adherents of Gurdjieff. Peters, who was brought to Le Prieurè when he was a boy of eleven and stayed there until he was fifteen, described Gurdjieff’s behaviour to himself.


Whenever I saw him, whenever he gave me an order, he was fully aware of me, completely concentrated on whatever words he said to me; his attention never wandered when I spoke to him. He always knew exactly what I was doing, what I had done. I think we must all have felt, certainly I did, when he was with any one of us, that we received his total attention. I can think of nothing more complimentary in human relations.29


This intense concentration, as we have seen, was an important part of Gurdjieff’s teaching. It entered into everything he did. His ability to mobilize and direct attention may have accounted for his extraordinary effect on other people.


When you do a thing, do it with the whole self. One thing at a time. Now I sit here and eat. For me nothing exists in the world except this food, this table. I eat with the whole attention. So you must do – in everything . . . To be able to do one thing at a time . . . this is the property of Man, not man in quotation marks.30


In movement, he gave the impression of complete co-ordination and integrated power. ‘His gait and his gestures were never hurried, but flowed in unison with the rhythm of his breathing like those of a peasant or a mountaineer.’31  Peters writes that Gurdjieff’s presence and physical magnetism were ‘undeniable and generally overwhelming’. When, in the late summer of 1945, long after he had left the Prieurè, Peters suffered from severe depression with insomnia, anorexia, and loss of weight, he sought Gurdjieff in Paris. Gurdjieff realized that he was ill, forbade him to talk and at once offered him a bedroom for as long as he needed it. He made Peters drink strong, hot coffee, and concentrated upon him intensely. It seemed to Peters that a violent electric blue light emanated from Gurdjieff and entered himself. Whatever the reason, Peters promptly recovered from his depression.


     However, not everything about Gurdjieff was so impressive. His personal habits could be disgusting. One of the jobs that Peters was given when he was still resident at the Prieurè, was to clean Gurdjieff’s rooms.


What he could do to his dressing room and bathroom is something that cannot be described without invading his privacy; I will only say that physically, Mr. Gurdjieff, at least so I gathered, lived like an animal . . . There were times when I would have to use a ladder to clean the walls.32


Gurdjieff generalized from his own experience in that he set himself up as a teacher who could train others to attain the wisdom and autonomy which he believed himself to possess. But such teachings could only be assimilated by the chosen few. As we saw earlier, Gurdjieff did not believe that mankind as a whole was capable of development, or that it was desirable that any attempt should be made in this direction, lest the development of the moon might suffer. Gurdjieff, like many other gurus, was unashamedly elitist and authoritarian.


Gurdjieff’s sexual behaviour was unscrupulous, in that he coupled with any female disciple whom he found attractive, and not infrequently made her pregnant. When Fritz Peters went to the Chateau du Prieurè at the age of eleven, there were about ten other children there, some of whom were undoubtedly fathered by Gurdjieff.


Like other gurus whom we have encountered, Gurdjieff enjoyed the exercise of power. We saw earlier what physical demands he made on the de Hartmanns. He was not directly cruel, but the regime he imposed upon his disciples was rigorous to the point of physical exhaustion.


The daily routine was exacting in the extreme. We woke up at five or six in the morning and worked for two hours before breakfast. Afterwards there was more work: building, felling trees, sawing timber, caring for the animals of almost every domestic species, cooking, cleaning, and every kind of domestic duty. After a quick light lunch and a period of rest, one or two hours were devoted to ‘exercises’ and ‘rhythms’ accompanied by music usually played by Thomas de Hartmann on the piano. Sometimes there would be fasts lasting one, two, three or even up to seven days during which all the work continued as usual. In the evening, there would be classes in rhythms and ritual dances which might go on for three, four or five hours until everyone was totally exhausted.33


It is not surprising that one disciple who was fixing trusses twenty-five feet above the ground fell asleep whilst precariously balanced on a narrow beam and had to be rescued by Gurdjieff.


Bennett does not point out that, whether or not this regime assisted spiritual development, it was certainly a convenient way of obtaining free labour to run the Prieurè. Moreover, Gurdjieff, as an experienced hypnotist, would have realized that physical exhaustion makes people more suggestible, although one of his avowed aims was to discover some means of ‘destroying in people the predilection for suggestibility’.34  He once ordered Orage to dig a ditch to drain water from the kitchen garden. Orage worked extremely hard for several days. He was then told to make the edges of the ditch quite equal, and did so after more labour.  Immediately after he had finished, Gurdjieff ordered him to fill in the ditch because it was no longer needed.


One of Gurdjieff’s disciples was Olgivanna Ivanovna Lazovich, who became the third wife of the American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. She first encountered Gurdjieff in Russia in 1917 at a time of crisis in her life. She was nineteen years old and was just about to have a child. Her first marriage was failing, her father was ill, her mother far distant. When Gurdjieff moved to the Prieurè, she joined him, became one of his best dancers, and an assistant instructor in The Work. In 1924, Gurdjieff suggested that she join her brother in America for no obvious reason. Shortly after her arrival, she encountered Frank Lloyd Wright at a ballet performance in Chicago and fell in love with him. Gurdjieff visited the Wrights on more than one occasion. Finding that Wright was seriously worried about his digestion, Gurdjieff invited them both out to dinner and served a series of extremely hot and indigestible dishes followed by the inevitable draughts of Armagnac. Wright felt terrible, but woke up the next morning to find that his fears about his digestion had disappeared.35  On another occasion,


Wright grandly remarked that perhaps he should send some of his pupils to Gurdjieff in Paris. ‘Then they can come back to me and I’ll finish them off.’
    ‘You finish! You are idiot,’ said Gurdjie angrily. ‘You finish!  No. You begin. I finish.’ It was clear that Wright had met his match.36


Wright had many guru-like characteristics himself, so that it is not surprising to learn that these two autocrats found themselves in competition. Even so, Gurdjieff won Wright over. Shortly after Gurdjieff’s death, when Wright was receiving a medal in New York, he interrupted proceedings to announce: ‘The greatest man in the world has recently died. His name was Gurdjieff.’37


Olgivanna appears to have acquired or developed a number of Gurdjieff’s less engaging traits. Draftsmen, apprentices and their wives were supposed to sit at Olgivanna’s feet whilst she gave them instructions and mercilessly criticized their failings. They even had to undergo the ordeal of listening to Wright reading from Gurdjieff’s writings.38  As she became older, she became more and more dictatorial, and, after Wright’s death, became a ‘despotic and jealous’ widow with whom scholars and instructors preferred not to negotiate.39


Adherents of Gurdjieff’s teaching recount with satisfaction that he did not bring pressure upon followers to stay with him, and in fact often dismissed them. This is interpreted as indicating his desire that they should become independent of him. In some cases, it may rather have been his perception of impending apostasy: gurus generally prefer to rid themselves of potential dissidents rather than be deserted. Ouspensky, Gurdjieff’s more devoted disciple and interpreter, began to lose confidence in him as a person as early as 1917. This seems to have been precipitated by Gurdjieff’s arbitrary dispersal of the group he had assembled around him in Essentuki. Ouspensky continued to believe in the authenticity of Gurdjieff’s vision and teaching which he accepted as having been handed down from some ancient, esoteric source, but found the man himself more and more intolerable. Ouspensky formally broke off relations in January 1924, and forbade his own pupils to communicate with Gurdjieff or refer to him.40


A. R. Orage, the talented editor of the New Age, had abandoned literary life in London for life at the Prieurè, and later moved to New York, where he set up his own Gurdjieffian groups, and whence he sent large sums of money to Gurdjieff. During the seven years of his close involvement with Gurdjieff, he produced practically no work of his own. As John Carswell puts it: ‘The most notable English editor of his time had become a mysterious exile owing obedience to an Armenian magus.’ 41  Orage’s devotion was tested to the limit by Gurdjieff’s incessant demands for money, and by the abuse heaped upon him when he did not instantly obey. His allegiance was further undermined by his wife, Jessie Dwight, whom he married in 1927, and who had hated her visit to the Prieurè. Eventually, Gurdjieff, realizing Orage’s disillusion, turned up in New York when Orage was temporarily absent, assembled Orage’s group, denounced Orage and required each member to sign a written declaration that they would have nothing further to do with their instructor. Some did so; others refused. Orage, summoned back from England, demanded to see Gurdjieff, and, after remarking that he too repudiated the Orage created by Gurdjieff, signed the document denouncing his own teaching.


J. G. Bennett gives a list of close adherents whom Gurdjieff deliberately dismissed. Bennett himself left the Prieurè in 1923 and did not see Gurdjieff again until 1948, the year before he died. Even Fritz Peters, who had been greatly influenced by Gurdjieff in childhood, and who, as we have seen, turned to Gurdjieff when he was seriously depressed as an adult, wrote: ‘He began to seem to me in a very excellent phrase “a real, genuine phony.'” 42


By the beginning of 1932, it became clear that the Chateau du Prieurè was no longer financially viable. Gurdjieff habitually over-reached himself financially and American support fell away after the crash of 1929. The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man finally closed in May. But Gurdjieff himself continued to flourish. He lived in Paris throughout the German occupation of the city during the Second World War. Characteristically, he obtained credit from various food shops by persuading them that an American pupil had given him an oil well in Texas which would ensure that their bills would be settled as soon as the war was over.


Gurdjieff’s cosmogony can only be described as fantastic. Reviewing his picture of the universe, it is hard to understand that any intelligent, educated person could believe in it. Yet disciples struggled to read All and Everything as if its incoherence must contain esoteric wisdom; as if it was their fault if they did not understand it rather than the author’s inability to construct a credible picture of man and the universe or to write intelligibly. When Gurdjieff had a car accident in July 1924 which nearly killed him, he said that this accident was ‘the manifestation of a power hostile to his aim, a power with which he could not contend’.43  This suggests an underlying paranoid belief system. In reality, he was so dangerous a driver that his followers avoided being driven by him whenever possible. Perhaps he was referring to the adverse planetary influences which, he claimed, had caused the First World War. Gurdjieff had the bizarre notion that, from time to time, planets might approach each other too closely. The resulting tension would cause human beings to slaughter each other without their realizing that they were merely pawns in a cosmic game.


Although Gurdjieff’s picture of the universe can confidently be dismissed as rubbish, it is possible to salvage a few valuable ideas from what he taught. Gurdjieff believed that man had obligations as well as rights. He did not think that the world was made for man, or that progress consisted in further technological domination of the environment. He considered that man had lost touch with the meaning of his existence, which was to fulfill a cosmic purpose rather than merely to satisfy his desires. Now that we realize that we are destroying the earth we live on, Gurdjieff’s view that man should serve the world rather than exploit it seems apposite. His notion that most people are ‘asleep’ and are driven by their instincts to behave automatically rather than with conscious intention is probably true of the majority. Some of the charisma which Gurdjieff undoubtedly manifested sprang from his own capacity to live intensely in the moment. One pupil recalled his saying:


You live in the past. The past is dead. Act in the present. If you live as if you have always lived, the future will be like the past. Work on yourself, change something in yourself, then the future perhaps will be different.44


Some of those who practised Gurdjieff’s techniques for awakening people and transforming them into beings who could direct their own destinies certainly claimed benefit, but Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Katherine Mansfield, is almost certainly right in her summing up.


Whether Gurdjieff’s methods for righting the internal balance of his disciples had much, or any, merit is another matter. Since the whole thing depended on his personality, and made no scientific claims (as psychoanalysis did) or cosmological and moral claims (as most brands of Christianity did), it remained an amateur, ram-shackle affair, and although Gurdjieff aroused passionate hate as well as love, his system seems to have done little lasting damage, and obviously allowed some people to change direction in a way that seemed helpful to them.45


As we have seen, Gurdjieff was, by his own admission, an accomplished confidence trickster who had no hesitation in deceiving other people and extracting money from them when he needed to do so. Confidence tricksters are successful at deception because they are more than halfway to believing in their own fictions. Was Gurdjieff anything more than this? I suggested earlier that he could not have constructed his elaborate cosmogony merely in order to deceive. Gurdjieff’s picture of the universe, whether learned from esoteric sources or constructed by himself, provided him with his own myth, his own answer to the problem of the meaning of life for which he had sought a solution during his twenty years of travel. This myth was akin to a religious revelation. It gave him the certainty of faith. It was his own conviction that he had discovered the answer which made him charismatic and persuasive. Even if some of his followers could not accept or understand all his cosmic doctrines, they still believed that he knew, a phenomenon which we shall encounter when discussing other gurus.











THROUGHOUT HIS LONG life, Freud claimed to be a scientist. He would have indignantly repudiated the title of guru, and dismissed any suggestion that he was promulgating a faith. Yet psychoanalysis is partly based on personal revelation and is neither a science nor merely a method of treatment. Ernest Gellner’s brilliant book The Psychoanalytic Movement is an inquiry into how psychoanalysis so quickly became the ‘the dominant idiom for the discussion of the human personality and of human relations.’ 1  He calls psychoanalysis ‘a theory, a technique, an organization, a language, an ethos, an ethic, a climate.’ 2  Freud was far more of a guru than his followers have acknowledged.


It is true that, in German speaking countries, the word ‘science’ has different overtones from those to which we are accustomed in England. Naturwissenschaft is what we call science; Geistwissenschaft refers to the humanities. But the same word Wissenschafter is used for both scholar and scientist, which somewhat blurs the distinction. Freud certainly began his professional career as a scientist in the English sense, for he carried out anatomical and physiological research in the laboratories of Ernst Brucke, who was a notoriously hard-headed determinist. Freud remained a determinist, believing that all psychological phenomena are rigidly determined by the principle of cause and effect. If he could have afforded to do so, Freud would have preferred to spend his life in scientific research; but his wish to get married compelled him to qualify in medicine and embark upon medical practice as a way of making a living. Freud cannot be accused of not understanding the requirements of science, although he himself abandoned them.


It can be argued that Freud spent most of his life in work which is as difficult to quantify or replicate as is philosophy. But he insisted on calling psychoanalysis a science, in spite of the fact that very few of the hypotheses of psychoanalysis can be subjected to scientific scrutiny and proved or disproved. Observations made during the course of psychoanalytic treatment are the basis for most psychoanalytic theories; but each psychoanalytic session is unique and cannot be replicated. Moreover, observations made during the course of psychoanalytic treatment are inevitably contaminated with the subjective prejudice of the observer. This is why philosophers and scientists have generally rejected psychoanalysis as scientifically unsound. If Freud had been content to maintain that psychoanalysis was a hermeneutic system, a historical way of interpreting human behaviour in terms of past events and influences, he might have kept the respect of scientists.


However, the fact that Freud was not the scientist which he claimed to be does not diminish his importance. He is rightly linked with Marx and Darwin as being one of the three original thinkers who have most altered man’s view of himself in the twentieth century. Even if every theory which Freud advanced could be proved wrong, it would still be the case that Freud caused a revolution in the way we think. Freud did not invent the concept of the unconscious, but he applied it clinically and made it operational. His reductive approach to the mind tended to interpret highly complex behaviour in terms of simple, biological origins. He was an expert at undermining pretensions, and at reducing all human striving to the lowest common denominator. The founder of psychoanalysis had a low opinion of the majority of human beings. As he remarked in one of his letters to Fliess, he became a therapist against his will, and was not inspired by any altruistic desire to relieve suffering. But the fact that he remained detached and impersonal when treating patients contributed to his insights, especially to his discovery of transference. Freud was a remarkably perceptive observer whose detailed accounts of mental states like melancholia and obsessional neurosis are still illuminating. Many of his original papers are classics, which should be read and re-read because of the excellence of Freud’s clinical descriptions. It is his psychoanalytic causal explanations in terms of infantile experience and phantasy which make us incredulous, not Freud’s portrayals of psychiatric phenomena. 


It is still insufficiently appreciated that some of the most fundamental hypotheses of psychoanalysis had nothing to do with objective observation of clinical cases. As with the revelations of the gurus whom we have already examined, they had a purely subjective origin, and followed upon a period of mental and physical distress; Freud’s ‘creative illness’. The Oedipus complex and the theory of dreams were the product of Freud’s own self-analysis. As Ellenberger points out:


Over a period of about six years (1894 to 1899) four events are inextricably intermingled in Freud’s life: his intimate relationship with Wilhelm Fliess, his neurotic disturbances, his self-analysis, and his elaboration of the basic principles of psychoanalysis.3


During these years, Freud broke with Josef Breuer, his first collaborator. He also wrote, and then abandoned, his Project for a Scientific Psychology, which was his attempt to link psychological and neurological mechanisms. He suffered from a recurrent cardiac arrhythmia, shortness of breath, and disturbing doubts alternating with the conviction that he was on the brink of making great discoveries. He brooded constantly on the problems of the neuroses. His letters to Fliess reveal a recurrent state of mental torment. His distress was increased by the death of his father in October 1896.


The publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in November 1899, the book which more than any other enshrines Freud’s ‘revelation’, can be taken to mark the end of his creative illness. He was convinced that he had indeed discovered a new theory of the mind. As Peter Gay puts it: ‘By the time he published The Interpretation of Dreams at the end of 1899, the principles of psychoanalysis were in place.’ But these principles were based more upon Freud’s own subjective experience and his own dreams than upon clinical observation. He himself recorded the subjective origin of his dream theory. While staying at the Schloss Bellevue outside Vienna in July 1895, Freud dreamed his famous dream of ‘Irma’s injection.’ The details of this famous dream, which has provoked a vast literature, can be found in The Interpretation of Dreams. In this context, it is enough to say that Freud interpreted the dream as an attempt to absolve him from mishandling the treatment of a patient, and therefore concluded that the dream represented the fulfillment of a wish. When he stayed again at the Schloss Bellevue in 1990, he wrote to his friend Fliess:


Do you suppose that someday one will read on a marble tablet on this house:

                             Here, on July 24, 1895,
                             the secret of the dream
                     revealed itself to Dr. Sigm. Freud.5



Freud’s creative illness was followed by the conviction that he had indeed discovered a new theory of the mind. He continued to believe that The Interpretation of Dreams contained the most valuable of all his insights. It was because so many of his ideas originated from his self-analysis that Freud was certain that they were valid. For example, he wrote to Fliess:


A single idea of general value dawned on me. I have found, in my own case too, [the phenomenon of] being in love with my mother and jealous of my father, and I now consider it a universal event in early childhood.6


This is how the Oedipus complex became established as a cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory!


We have already observed that one of the characteristics of gurus is that they generalize from their own experience. Freud is a prime example. As Breuer wrote to Auguste Forel:


Freud is a man given to absolute and exclusive formulations: this is a psychical need which, in my opinion, leads to excessive generalization.7


A good example of this is Freud’s theory of dreams. Freud stated that, with very few exceptions, dreams were disguised, hallucinatory fulfillments of repressed sexual wishes of an infantile kind. In spite of a good deal of evidence to the contrary, Freud tenaciously held to this theory, providing many extremely ingenious interpretations of dreams to support it. There is ample reason to suppose that dreams are of many different varieties, but once Freud had formulated a theory, he was so convinced that he was right that no criticism by others was able to shake him. Again, we encounter a belief system rather than a scientific theory which can be proved or disproved.


Freud originally thought that hysteria was caused by premature sexual experience in the early years of childhood, and that this was the result of seduction by a parent or other adult. In his paper The Aetiology of Hysteria, he wrote that, on the basis of eighteen cases,


Whatever case and whatever symptom we take as our point of departure, in the end we infallibly come to the field of sexual experience.8


This was the last time Freud attempted to give any figures concerning aetiology, and, even in this instance, there were no controls. There is also no evidence that the analysis of any of these cases was completed or that any of the patients were actually cured. Freud went on to say:


I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood, but which can be reproduced through the work of psychoanalysis in spite of the intervening decades. I believe that this is an important finding, the discovery of a caput Nili in neuropathology.9


He believed that the repression of such incidents prevented the adult from achieving a normal sex life, but that psychoanalysis could bring the traumatic events back to consciousness, and, by abreacting the emotions connected with them, free the patient of their malign effects.


    There are in fact a variety of reasons why patients develop hysterical symptoms. One such reason is the necessity of escaping from an intolerable situation. Soldiers exposed to long periods of stress in the trenches during the First World War sometimes developed paralyses, blindness, or other symptoms for which no organic cause could be discovered, but which had the result of temporarily removing them from the front line. Sexual trauma is not the only kind of trauma to give rise to hysterical symptoms; but Freud gave sexuality so central a place in psychoanalytic theory that he paid scant attention to other factors. It was Freud’s insistence that sexuality was the causal factor in every case of hysteria that brought an end to Josef Breurer’s collaboration with him.


Freud came to believe that his first theories were wrong; that not all cases of hysteria could be explained by actual sexual seduction in early childhood. Although he recognized that such seductions undoubtedly occurred, and might cause lasting damage, he could not believe that they happened quite as frequently as his growing practice suggested. Moreover, he had observed that his brother and sisters exhibited some hysterical symptoms. If actual seduction was the cause, Freud would have had to incriminate his own father, who, he was sure, could not have behaved in such a fashion. It took him a long time and a great deal of dedicated self-analysis before he could construct alternative theories which satisfied him. As his own childhood memories emerged, he became gradually more aware of his own early sexual phantasies. This led him to conclude that neurotic symptoms were more closely related to phantasies than to actual events.


Freud’s original aim was to establish psychoanalysis as a method of treatment comparable with the medical treatment of disease.  He believed that he had discovered the cause of neurotic symptoms, and also a technique for getting rid of them. After abandoning the seduction theory, he concluded that what was subjected to repression were instinctual impulses manifesting themselves as phantasies. If a patient could be helped to overcome the blocks imposed by repression, and recall his or her earliest infantile sexual impulses, these could be brought into consciousness and abreacted, thus opening the previously impeded path toward sexual maturity. If this goal was reached, neurosis must disappear; since, according to Freud, all neuroses were the indirect expression of repressed infantile sexual impulses and mature sexual satisfaction was incompatible with neurosis.


If Freud’s original model had been true, psychoanalysis could have been taught and learned like any other medical or surgical technique, and the analyst could have remained a detached, skilled practitioner who simply observed his patient’s behaviour and interpreted his verbal communications. There were three main reasons why this hope remained unfulfilled. First, to Freud’s initial distress, he encountered the phenomena of transference. Although Freud tried to maintain his preferred role of being no more than a ‘mountain guide’, he found that, inevitably, he patients put him in the position of a father-figure, an idealized lover, or even a saviour. What his patients wanted was far more than the abolition of their neurotic symptoms: they wanted his understanding, his appreciation of them as individuals, his concern, even his love.


Second, as Freud developed psychoanalytic theory, he spread its net wider and wider, until it included art, literature, religion, humour, and anthropology. In other words, psychoanalysis became a generalized psychology which purported to explain the normal human being as well as the neurotic, and which could be applied to the whole of human culture.


    Third, the type of patient seeking psychoanalytic treatment changed. Many of Freud’s early patients were hysterics of a type rarely encountered today. Others were obsessionals with clear-cut symptoms in the shape of compulsive rituals or thought. As psychoanalysis became established, the boundary between psychological health and illness became blurred, so that more and more patients consulted psychoanalysts about what have been called ‘problems in living’; difficulties in relationships, or a generalized dissatisfaction with life. Some analysts believed that, if men and women were to be able to reach their full potential, everyone should be analysed. For many who volunteered to lie on the couch, psychoanalysis was no longer a technique of abolishing neurotic symptoms. It had become a way of making sense out of life and giving it meaning.


In the early days there was no question in Freud’s mind of psychoanalysis becoming a substitute for religion, since he himself rejected religious belief as a disguised infantile longing for a father’s protection, and interpreted religious observances as ritual ways of defending the self against the incursion of unacceptable instinctive forces. In Freud’s view, religion was no more than a universal obsessional neurosis. The last sentence of his book The Future of an Illusion is:


No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.10


However, Freud’s belief in psychoanalysis went far beyond any scientific evidence which might support it. In May 1913 he wrote to his disciple Ferenczi, ‘We possess the truth; I am sure of it as fifteen years ago’ 11 (when he was writing The Interpretation of Dreams).


Although Freud continued to proclaim that psychoanalysis was a science, psychoanalysis became a movement which more closely resembled a secular religion than a set of scientific theories. It may have been inevitable, though regrettable, that a theory which apparently comprehended so much of that which constitutes human life should itself become a way of life, and, since Freud was its originator, that he should be regarded as someone who knew and taught how life should be lived; a guru rather than merely a physician. But Freud was certainly not averse to adopting this role.


If we compare Freud with the other gurus whom we have considered, we can say that he was less isolated in childhood and adolescence than some. But he confessed that he was bored by most of his contemporaries, and concentrated on one or two intimates. One such was Eduard Silberstein, a young Romanian whom Freud met when in his early teens. They learned Spanish together, and formed a kind of secret society for two with its own private terms of reference. Freud’s friendship with Silberstein is the nearest he came to a relationship on equal terms. However, as Phyllis Grosskurth points out, ‘it is clear that for Freud letters were more important than actual encounters.’ 12   Freud suggested that a weekly exchange of letters describing each other’s activities would be more revealing than meeting. When Silberstein admitted his infatuation with a girl whom Freud considered his inferior, Freud exhibited considerable jealously. Siberstein later married a wife who became so severely depressed that he sent her to Freud for treatment. Whether Freud actually saw her or not is unclear; but she committed suicide on May 14, 1891 by throwing herself down the stairwell of the building in which Freud practised.


     Another intimate was Wilhelm Fliess, the recipient of the famous series of letters from Freud which have thrown so much light upon the history of psychoanalysis. Although Fliess was a little younger than Freud, Freud looked up to him, idealized him, and was sometimes embarrassingly sycophantic. As Fliess practised as a surgeon in Berlin and Freud lived in Vienna, their relationship was chiefly epistolary. Freud’s dependence on Fliess gradually diminished until their friendship came to an end by the beginning of 1902. Freud’s masochistic submission, in the example, can be seen as the reverse of the dominance which he later established over his pupils and disciples. Like other gurus, Freud found it difficult to achieve relationships on equal terms. It is interesting and relevant that An Autobiographical Study concentrates almost exclusively on the development of psychoanalysis, and tells us hardly anything about his personal life or relations with other people.


 Freud also resembled other gurus in being intolerant of criticism. He treated disagreement as personal hostility. He remained the dominant figure in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, and maintained his ascendancy by keeping a distance between himself and other members. Even his earliest and most faithful adherents could claim Freud only as a Master, not as a friend.


Although Freud revised his ideas on a number of occasions throughout his life, the revisions were always brought about by new insights of his own rather than as a consequence of criticism by others. It has often been remarked that the squabbles about psychoanalytic theory which resulted in so many members of Freud’s early circle resigning or being expelled as heretics seemed like doctrinal disputes within a Church rather than scientific disagreements. The latter can certainly be bitter; but seldom involve the character assassination and pejorative language which Freud used to describe those adherents who later disputed his theories. Freud’s dogmatism and intolerance of disagreement led to the departure of many colleagues, including Adler, Stekel, Jung, and eventually Rank and Ferenczi, from the psychoanalytic movement. When his associates remained faithful disciples, Freud gave them his approval; but when they disagreed, he abused them, or accused them of being mentally ill. Adler was described by Freud as paranoiac; Stekel as unbearable and a louse; Jung as brutal and sanctimonious. Psychoanalysis became more and more like a religious cult, and Freud himself applied the term heretics to defectors.
     Although Freud dismissed religion as an illusion, his conviction that he was right was a matter of faith rather than of reason. As Richard Webster aptly observes:


What is remarkable about Freud’s leadership of the psychoanalytic movement is that although he quite clearly did not believe in any kind of supernatural creator, he adopted almost without exception the strategies of those who did. In effect he treated his own theories as if they were a personal revelation granted to him by God and demanded that others should accord to them the reverence which the sacred word usually commands.13


As Freud himself might have remarked, but did not do so in his own case, this insistence that disciples accept a guru’s message without criticism argues that the guru himself has secret doubts. We have already observed that gurus need the reassurance which disciples provide, just as disciples need the guru as leader.


Freud was certainly deeply disturbed by the defection of Jung. However, he was somewhat mollified by the suggestion, advanced by Ernest Jones and Sandor Ferenczi, that a secret committee of true believers should be formed which would preserve and protect both Freud and his theories. The committee consisted of Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, Ernest Jones, Hanns Sachs, Sandor Ferenczi, and Otto Rank, who were selected as especially dependable, although as noted earlier, the last two eventually defected.


Like other gurus, Freud possessed considerable charisma, based upon his certainty that he was right. His ideas began to spread throughout the western world, partly because he was a gifted writer and speaker. Freud’s literary style was commented upon favorably while he was still at school. In 1930, he was awarded the Goethe prize for literature. Even in translation, Freud’s writings are a pleasure to read. He is persuasive because he is at pains to disarm possible critics, and because he presents his conclusions as the only sensible deductions from the facts. The reader is lulled into accepting Freud’s conclusions because his literary skill has made them appear more reasonable than they are. 


He was equally persuasive as a speaker. Freud was never a demagogue, but he was a fluent lecturer who could hold forth coherently without notes for as long as four hours to an audience who listened enthralled, He did not harangue, but spoke slowly, clearly, and energetically. Often, he would interrupt his discourse to invite questions. His Introductory Lectures, delivered in three series at the University of Vienna, and subsequently published, were among the most commercially successful of his writings. His biographer, Peter Gay, admired his persuasive skills and wrote:


The very sequence of the lectures was a cunning effort at seduction: by beginning with slips, Freud introduced his audience to psychoanalytic ideas through ordinary, often amusing, mundane events; moving on to dreams, another mental experience familiar to all, he departed from the solid ground of common sense, slowly, deliberately.14


As we have seen, Freud exhibited a number of the typical features of gurus, but virtually none of their corrupt or disreputable characteristics. He charged high fees to those who could afford them, but was also generous to those in need. He himself lived simply; and apart from his obsessional accumulation of antique statuettes, showed no evidence of extravagant tastes or of personal concern with accumulating money. It may have been different where funding the movement was concerned. Frederick Crews has disinterred a disagreeable story of Freud suggesting to a colleague that he should proceed with his aim of divorcing his wife and marrying an heiress in order to get hold of some of her money for the ‘Psychoanalytic Funds’.15  But the tone of Freud’s reported letter about this is ironic and facetious, and it would be unwise to read much into it.


Freud was dogmatically sure of his theories; but, unlike some of the gurus whom we have considered, exhibited no features of psychotic illness like delusions or hallucinations. He may sometimes have over-emphasized the antisemitism which had delayed his professional promotion, and which, in his view, also posed a threat to psychoanalysis; but it could not possibly be alleged that he was seriously paranoid. For antisemitism in Vienna was an ever-present reality. It markedly increased during the latter years of the nineteenth century. A stock market crash, for which the Jews were blamed, occurred in 1873, the year in which Freud went to university. Karl Lueger, who became Mayor of Vienna in 1897, had made antisemitism a feature of his election campaign. When Hitler marched into Austria in March 1938, the Viennese Nazis were amongst the most virulent of his antisemitic followers.


Freud was not above enlisting the help of former patients to gain advancement, but this hardly amounts to corruption. Frau Elise Gomperz and the Baroness Marie von Ferstel both approached the Minister of Education on Freud’s behalf, asking that he should be given the position of associate professor, for which he had been repeatedly rejected over several years. The Baroness presented the Minister with a painting for the new gallery he was intending to establish, which may have been a token of gratitude.16


Freud may or may not have had an affair with his sister-in-law, but there is no evidence, so far as I know, that he abused his position by seducing either patients or psychoanalytic colleagues. He was certainly attracted to Lou Andreas Salomé – who wasn’t? – but he did not meet her until 1911, when she was fifty and he was fifty-five. Her picture adorned his study wall, and he conducted a long correspondence with her. Judging by what we know of Freud’s character, it is unlikely that he was sexually active outside marriage. He was busy with patients during the day, and then wrote late into the night.



Although many of Freud’s ideas were unsound, I think his influence upon the way we think about ourselves has, on the whole, been beneficial. Psychoanalysis has increased tolerance of unconventional behaviour and has banished some forms of prudery. Freud’s technique of listening to distressed people over long periods rather than giving them orders or advice has formed the foundation of most modern forms of psychotherapy, with benefit both to patients and practitioners. But the fact that Freud became elevated into a guru and that psychoanalysis became a way of life has had a number of undesirable consequences from which we have not fully recovered.


In the 1930s and well into the 1950s, psychoanalysts considered themselves, by virtue of their training, to have acquired a unique insight into human nature from which those who had not been analysed must always be excluded. Psychoanalytic training offered membership of an elite circle claiming superior knowledge and status. Those who questioned psychoanalytic theory or practice were said to be insufficiently analysed. As an inevitable consequence of faith combined with intolerance, psychoanalytic societies and institutes, on both sides of the Atlantic, became divided into splinter groups and warring factions, each claiming possession of ‘the truth’, exactly as happens in religious movements. Freud was more of a messianic figure than many people realize; but some of his disciples became deluded fanatics.


Many psychoanalysts, convinced of their own superior wisdom and insight, became as intolerant as their Master toward any who disagreed with them, including their own colleagues. The history of the internal quarrels in the British Psycho-Analytical Society between orthodox Freudians and the adherents of Melanie Klein is both absurd and intensely depressing. Here were supposedly adult, intelligent people who all professed a special understanding of human nature and considered themselves qualified to help others resolve their emotional problems, vilifying each other and tearing the Society in pieces, because of disputes about psycho-analytic doctrine which seem as ridiculous to the non-believer as do the disputes about homoousia and homoiousia, the Arian controversy which divided the Christian church in the fourth century.


One of the regrettable aspects of becoming a psychoanalyst was, and maybe still is, a tendency to become more and more isolated from the ordinary world. Janet Malcolm, describing a New York emigrée analyst, wrote:


Her entire life was taken up with psychoanalytic concerns: during the day she saw patients, at night she went to meetings at the Institute, and when she and her husband went out to dinner or entertained at home it was always with analysts. Other people fall away, she explained. There is less and less to talk about with people on the ‘outside’ who don’t look at things the way analysts do.17


This is a danger affecting all esoteric groups. Just as disciples reinforce a guru’s belief in himself and his mission, so disciples reinforce each other’s beliefs and allegiance. Esoteric groups become mutual reassurance systems, confirming each disciple’s conviction that he or she has special insights as to how life should be lived which are denied to the ordinary person.


     Since psychoanalysis became a faith rather than a form of medical treatment, it was indiscriminately applied by its practitioners to all kinds of psychiatric cases, whether they showed benefit or not. One does not expose ‘the truth’ to the dangers of critical evaluation. The length of time required for ‘complete analysis’ became more and more extended. Obsessional patients, if they have the money, are notoriously liable to continue with analysis for ever, since they are often in search of a perfection which is unattainable. Since such patients provide analysts with a long-term income, it is unsurprising that their analyses may go on for ten years or more with minimum benefit. Other psychoanalysts have specialized in treating psychotic patients whom Freud himself would have refused to take on for treatment. As early as 1904, Freud specifically advised that analysts should only take on patients who exhibited some degree of normality from which morbid manifestations could be differentiated. This is not the case in the major psychoses. Although it is certainly true that patients suffering from schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness benefit from less doctrinaire forms of psychotherapy combined with medication, the long-term attempts of psychoanalysts to cure psychotics by Freudian psychoanalysis alone have proved so unsuccessful that some psychiatrists consider such attempts malpractice. These abuses are a direct result of psychoanalysis having been elevated into a faith, rather than remaining a treatment for illness which can be criticized, modified, or replaced by something better.


Psychoanalysis was acclaimed in the United States with particular enthusiasm. Its pre-eminence as an article of psychiatric faith was greatly increased by the influx of refugees from Central Europe who fled the Nazis. For a time, it became difficult for an aspiring psychiatrist to attain a leading position unless he had been trained as a psychoanalyst and had been accepted by one of the recognized psychoanalytic organizations. Now that psychoanalysis has been largely discarded in favour of biological psychiatry, which takes the view that mental illness depends upon physical malfunction of the brain, exactly the opposite state of affairs prevails. Freudian psychoanalysis has been so discredited that the value of psychotherapy of any kind tends to be underestimated. The prescription of drugs is easily learned, but it can never wholly take the place of psychotherapy. In the training of psychiatrists, the wheat has been thrown out with the chaff, the baby with the bath-water. This is another unfortunate consequence of psychoanalysis having become a belief system rather than remaining a heuristic discipline.  


It was Freud who taught us how to listen; and, as I have already observed, his technique of giving undivided attention to the problems of distressed people over long periods of time has had a strikingly beneficial effect upon many forms of psychotherapy which do not accept the doctrines of psychoanalysis in their original form. People who are mentally ill or who are suffering from severe emotional stress are in need of understanding and acceptance, whether or not they require medication. Psychotherapists should learn to listen without passing judgement; to accept without issuing orders or proffering direct advice; to be both objective and compassionate. Some other gurus who were not psychoanalysts seem to have adopted this attitude to their followers when the latter needed help, as we noted in the example of Gurdjieff. The story of the rise and fall of psychoanalysis has much to teach us about those who need gurus.


Many of those who have been psychoanalytic patients do not lose all their symptoms or accept the psychoanalytic interpretation of those symptoms. Yet a number will persist with analysis in spite of not being ‘cured’. I think this is because the psychoanalytic procedure provides valuable experiences which are not easily available in ordinary social life. First, simply talking about personal problems with the minimum of interruption objectifies those problems and, in doing so, may make them more easily soluble. Nearly everyone who has been in analysis gains some increase in self-understanding, because talking clarifies the issues. It could be argued that keeping a detailed diary might have the same effect; and I certainly support the idea that diaries can increase insight. But keeping a diary does not give a distressed patient the sense of being accepted as a person which a favourable experience of analysis brings. Many of those who seek analysis feel that they have never been accepted or valued for what they are. The discovery that another human being is prepared to listen, to get to know one intimately and still not reject one, is a revelation to some people.


What Freud believed he was providing is very different from what he actually provided. He thought that he had found both an explanation of neurosis and a way of curing it. But only one of the four cases which he treated personally and described in detail could be said to be cured, and we have no long-term follow-up of this patient (the ‘Rat Man’).18  What he did provide was tolerant, continuing care over a long period, which in itself is therapeutic. The so-called ‘Wolf Man’ exemplifies this conclusion. He was first seen by Freud in 1910 and treated by him until July 1914. He returned to treatment with Freud from November 1919 until February 1920, and was later treated by at least four other psychoanalysts. A series of interviews with him when he was in his eighties revealed that he actually rejected the causal interpretations which Freud made about the origin of his disorder, rightly calling them far-fetched. What he valued was Freud’s personal care of him. The ‘Wolf Man’s’ considerable improvement after his first period of treatment with Freud had nothing to do with Freud’s reconstruction of his supposed infantile sexuality, but depended upon his finding in Freud an understanding father-figure upon whom he could rely.


The last of Freud’s New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis is given the title ‘The Question of a Weltanschauung.‘ It is an enthralling piece of writing which strives to persuade us that psychoanalysis is a specialist branch of science which accepts the scientific view of the universe and which is therefore quite unsuited to construct a Weltanschauung of its own. Freud rightly affirms that science


asserts that there are no sources of knowledge of the universe other than the intellectual working-over of carefully scrutinized observations – in other words, what we call research – and along-side of it no knowledge derived from revelation, intuition or divination.19


But as we have seen, revelation played a vital part in Freud’s original formulations. Freud then claims that psychoanalysis has extended scientific research to the mental field; a claim which cannot be substantiated. He goes on to point out that Marxism, having begun as a social science, developed into a Weltanschauung.


Any critical examination of Marxist theory is forbidden, doubts of its correctness are punished in the same way as heresy was once punished by the Catholic Church. The writings of Marx have taken the place of the Bible and the Koran as a source of revelation, though they would seem to be no more free from contradictions and obscurities than those older sacred books.20


If we substitute the word ‘psychoanalysis’ for ‘Marxist theory’ in the first sentence of this passage, and the name ‘Freud’ for that of ‘Marx’ in the second sentence, we have an exact description of what happened to psychoanalysis, especially in its early days; but Freud was unable to see this.


Freud ostensibly rejected the role of guru, but in fact exemplified it. As is the case with other gurus, his legacy is mixed. He conformed to the Sanskrit definition of ‘one who brings light out of darkness’; and although the light which he brought is not so bright as his disciples claimed, it has nevertheless illumined some dark corners of human behaviour, increased tolerance, contributed to the technique of psychotherapy, and revolutionized the way we think about our own behaviour. Twentieth-century man is greatly indebted to Freud.








READERS OF THIS BOOK who are not professionally involved in psychiatry are likely to conclude that, although they exhibit considerable variations in personality, the majority of gurus are madmen. What other explanation can there be to account for someone who alleges that he has special powers of clairvoyant perception, or who claims that he himself is God, or who advances absurd theories about the universe which command neither scientific support nor general acceptance? (p. 152)


Can gurus be diagnosed as schizophrenic? Acute episodes of schizophrenia are distressing experiences which, more frequently than manic-depressive illness, leave behind permanent traces. Are the extraordinary views of themselves and the world which are propagated by gurus like Steiner and Gurdjieff the consequence of a schizophrenic illness?
    Elizabeth L. Farr gives an unusually articulate account of her schizophrenic illness which demonstrates how bizarre experience prompts bizarre explanations. From the age of sixteen, she was ill for eight years, in and out of hospital, suffering from distorted perceptions, hallucinations, and delusions of a characteristic kind. She heard voices speaking her thoughts and believed that her thoughts were audible to others because they were being broadcast. She also had visual hallucinations in which coloured designs which she called ‘interference patterns’ intruded themselves between her and whatever she was looking at. She began to think that she was a particularly sensitive person who perceived things which other people could not see. At times impersonal objects like lamps or chairs appeared to have personalities and to be trying to communicate with her. Her account of her high school search for an explanation demonstrates how urgent the need for the discovery of some sort of order becomes when the mind itself is chaotic.


In high school I became engrossed in religion, the occult, and the arts, as a possible way to help explain what was going on. The central driving force was to understand my experiences. The delusions started insidiously. I do not know where religion, the occult, and the arts left off and where the crazy ideas started. All I know was that there had to be an explanation for my experiences and I had to be active in my pursuit of an Enlightenment to resolve the conflict between my reality and the reality that everybody else seemed to be experiencing. Everything had to be connected up somehow, I thought.2


In the context of a book about gurus, it is particularly interesting that she came to believe that she was approaching an ‘enlightened state’. She believed that she would be required to leap from the seventh floor of a building and land on her head. She would then be put at a ‘cosmic junction’, at which her spirit would be taken from her body and transported to a parallel world in which she would receive the ultimate enlightenment. Ultimate enlightenment is exactly what many gurus claim to possess, and it is tempting to assume that such a claim is a consequence of an illness of schizophrenic type. (pp. 155-56)











. . . Gurus are isolated people, dependent upon their disciples, with no possibility of being disciplined by a Church or criticized by contemporaries. They are above the law. The guru usurps the place of God. Whether gurus have suffered from manic-depressive illness, schizophrenia, or any other form of recognized, diagnosable mental illness is interesting but ultimately unimportant. What distinguishes gurus from more orthodox teachers is not their manic-depressive mood swings, not their thought disorders, not their delusional beliefs, not their hallucinatory visions, not their mystical states of ecstasy: it is their narcissism.


The reader will have understood that I am not a Freudian disciple, but this does not prevent me from appreciating many of the ideas which Freud had to offer. His paper On Narcissism: An Introduction is considered by his editors to be among the most important of his writings. Freud begins his discussion of narcissism with a discussion of paranoid schizophrenia (he actually uses the term ‘paraphrenia’, but this is no longer current usage).


Such patients, Freud claims, ‘display two fundamental characteristics: megalomania and diversion of their interest from the external world – from people and things.’ 17  He goes on to say that this interest, or libido, which has been withdrawn from the external world is directed toward the subject’s own ego. It is this which warrants the use of the term ‘narcissism’. Freud proposes that the narcissism of paranoid schizophrenics is a secondary phenomenon; an exaggeration of the self-absorption found in normal children which he names primary narcissism. ‘The charm of a child lies to a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey.’18  We expect small children to be self-absorbed and demanding. A baby has to be the centre of attention if its needs are to be met, and we do not assume that small children will be in any way concerned about how the adults who look after them are feeling or what their needs may be. All babies are megalomaniacs. Small children require a great deal of love without being able to reciprocate. A small child loves its mother so long as she provides what the child needs; but we do not expect the child to show the kind of concern for its mother’s feelings which we do expect an adult lover to show toward the object of his love. At this narcissistic stage in emotional development the aim is to be loved rather than to love anyone else.


Those who remain narcissistic in adult life retain this need to be loved and to be the centre of attention together with the grandiosity which accompanies it. This is characteristic of gurus. Even ostensibly humble gurus like Rudolf Steiner retain grandiose beliefs in their own powers of perception and their own cosmogonies. The need to recruit disciples is an expression of the guru’s need to be loved and his need to have his beliefs validated; but, although he may seduce his followers, he remains an isolated figure who does not usually have any close friends who might criticize him on equal terms. His status as a guru demands that all his relationships are de haut en bas, and this is why gurus have feet of clay. (pp. 210-11)











EURIPIDES PUTS INTO the mouth of Orestes the precept which constitutes the epigraph to this book. ‘The wisest men follow their own direction and listen to no prophet guiding them.’ But this is a counsel of perfection, more honoured in the breach than in the observance. The fact is that many, if not most, human beings sometimes feel the need for someone to whom they can turn when perplexed. Of course we all need experts to guide us through the mazes of civilized living; accountants, solicitors, electricians, plumbers. But the perplexities which concern us here are to do with the meaning of life. Why is it that human beings, even when fully adult, look to others for guidance rather than making up their own minds about problems to which there are no unequivocal answers?


Perhaps it is inappropriate to call any human being ‘fully adult.’ The term neoteny refers to the evolutionary process by which human beings have retained certain characteristics into adult life which, in other primates, belong to an early stage of development. Thus, mature human beings have the facial appearance and relatively large brains which are found in the foetuses of subhuman primates. Neoteny is sometimes called foetalization. It preserves the flexibility which tends to disappear with full maturity. We remain malleable because we retain some of our childhood characteristics in adult life. This ensures that old humans are better at learning new tricks than old dogs.


One of the defining characteristics of human beings is that their adaptation to the world depends principally upon learning rather than upon those built-in behaviour patterns which govern the lives of creatures lower down the evolutionary scale. The development of speech has made possible the transmission of culture. Man’s infancy and childhood, relative to his total life-span, has been prolonged by evolution, with the consequence that there is additional time for learning to take place. Learning does not cease with the end of childhood. Many of us continue to learn all our lives, and enjoy doing so. Now that so many people are surviving into old age, a modern western society cannot be considered advanced unless it provides adequate facilities for adult education.


Our predisposition to go on learning is adaptive, but remaining teachable into adult life demands the retention of some characteristics of childhood, amongst which is a tendency to overestimate the teacher. Children learn best from teachers they respect and look up to. Although adults can make use of teachers merely as technical experts, they probably learn faster if they like their instructor and are impressed with his or her knowledge and expertise. If a pupil is learning carpentry or the use of computers, the personal qualities and sensibilities of the teacher may be relatively unimportant. This is not so when the pupil studies subjects more closely connected with human emotions. Although musicologists may be able to teach their subject as an intellectual exercise, the appreciation and performance of music itself cannot be effectively taught except by someone to whom music is emotionally meaningful. Musical executants who may long have outstripped their teachers technically often look back on those teachers with deep admiration and affection. Musical insight is akin to ‘spiritual’ insight: the teacher who has it is revered or even idolized. This is even more clearly the case with gurus who profess insight into life itself and teach how it should be lived. Disciples often attribute almost magical powers to their gurus. It is a form of idealization which is even more dangerous than falling in love.


Psychotherapists are familiar with the occurrence of transference, a phenomenon first described by Freud as the process by which a patient attributes to his analyst attitudes and ideas that derive from previous authority figures in his life, especially from his parents. Later, the term became extended to include the patient’s total emotional attitude toward the analyst. Freud at first regarded transference with distaste. He wanted psychoanalysis to be an impersonal quest for truth in which the relationship between patient and analyst was entirely professional and objective rather than personal. The role he wanted to assume was that of a mountain guide. Instead, he found that his patients made him into an idealized lover, a father figure, or a saviour.


The phenomenon of transference is not confined to the relationship between a psychotherapist and a patient. We are all liable to project subjective feelings of love and hate upon authority figures, whether these be gurus, political leaders, or teachers. I think that this is an inevitable though undesirable consequence of retaining the ability to learn into adult life. It is one striking aspect of our ‘immaturity’. Madame Cornuel wrote ‘No man is a hero to his valet’; but leaders are inevitably regarded as heroes or villains by those who do not know them intimately. In the United States, President Kennedy was absurdly overestimated both during his lifetime and posthumously. It is only quite recently that his character and achievements have been called into question and accorded objective scrutiny by historians. In Great Britain, although their numbers are shrinking, there are still people who idealize the Queen and other members of the royal family. The tendency to overestimate prominent persons is not confined to the disciples of gurus; it is a human failing shared by us all.


Certainty is hugely seductive, and certainty is offered by all successful leaders: it is an important part of their charisma. This is a book about spiritual rather than political leaders, but successful politicians share some of the characteristics of gurus, even if they preach no gospel. As every politician realizes, the image is more compelling than the reality. Charles de Gaulle was a charismatic politician who believed in himself as a personification of France. Winston Churchill was, as he said himself, the roar of the lion, the voice of England. Both de Gaulle and Churchill were superb orators, but it was their inner conviction, comparable with that of gurus, which made them charismatic. When Churchill finally became Prime Minister in 1940 at the age of sixty-five, he said to his doctor: ‘This cannot be accident, it must be design. I was kept for this job.’Like religious gurus, political leaders sometimes believe that they are chosen by God. If they had been total failures, we might well dismiss both de Gaulle’s and Churchill’s beliefs about themselves as grandiose delusions.


In Britain during the Second World War, Winston Churchill was idolized as the saviour of the country. When Britain faced Nazi Germany alone in 1940 and the threat of imminent invasion hung over us all, Churchill’s dogged courage, resilience, defiance, and gift for rhetoric braced and invigorated a people who might rationally have concluded that they were bound to be defeated. ‘Churchill’s well-nigh miraculous achievement during the dire summer months of 1940 was to convert the nation to a mystical faith in its own providential destiny.’ The study of Churchill throws light on that mysterious quality of charisma which is so characteristic of gurus, and also shows that idealization may, under certain circumstances, have positive uses. Churchill, like some of the gurus we have been looking at, found reality in what his doctor called his ‘inner world of make-believe’.3  Because this inner world was clearly one in which he had a heroic mission to fulfil, he was able to impose it upon almost the whole British population at a time when a hero was desperately needed. Churchill was intensely narcissistic. Although many of those who worked with him and for him adored him, he showed an extraordinary obtuseness about the feelings of other people. As I wrote in my essay on Churchill:


In 1940, Churchill became the hero that he had always dreamed of being. It was his finest hour. In that dark time, what England needed was not a shrewd, equable, balanced leader. She needed a prophet, a heroic visionary, a man who could dream dreams of victory when all seemed lost. Winston Churchill was such a man; and his inspirational quality owed its dynamic force to the romantic world of fantasy in which he had his true being.4


At the end of the war, Churchill was rejected by the electorate in favour of a Labour administration which, it was widely felt, would better tackle the task of reconstruction. Churchill felt this rejection as a base ingratitude, but I think that the electorate were percipient in realizing that Britain no longer needed a prophet or a saviour.


I recall meeting Sir Oswald Mosley. His political stance and particularly his antisemitism were anathema to me; but, at a dinner party, the first impression he made was of a courteous, old-fashioned aristocrat with beautiful manners. Mosley had immense charm. The conversation turned from family matters to Northern Ireland. I forget what Mosley said, but he instantly propounded a series of measures which he insisted that the British government ought at once to adopt if they were ever to solve this long-running, apparently insoluble problem. That evening, I saw charisma in action. Although Mosley had long been discredited, I began to understand why, in his early days, he had been hailed as a future Prime Minister. He was so convincing that one began to feel that he might be right. After all, no politician had any idea how to deal with the I.R.A. or what should be done about Ulster. Perhaps, I felt, we should follow Mosley’s lead in dealing with this particularly intractable problem, even though we might recoil in distaste from his Fascist past; perhaps Mosley really knew. Against my own better judgement, I became fleetingly impressed by a man whose former policies I hated, simply because he appeared so sure that he was right.


I have not listed Hitler as a guru because he does not qualify as a spiritual teacher, but he manifested many of the characteristics of the worst gurus, including the use of apocalyptic language and a paranoid insistence on the Jews as the evil enemy, the Anti-Christ striving to destroy the noble Aryan Redeemer. As J. P. Stern points out, Hitler’s speeches used ‘a solemn declamatory style superimposed upon the intimately personal language of Luther’s New Testament’. His rhetoric persuaded his audience to [collude with] his self-dramatization as a messianic figure: his portrayal of the Jew as the source of all evil provided them with a scapegoat who could be blamed for the problems and failures of society. Given the state of Germany during the 1920s and early ’30s, it is not surprising that Hitler attracted an enthusiastic following.


Creative artists who found new movements may also exhibit some of the characteristics of the guru, although their message is aesthetic rather than religious. The composer Richard Wagner displayed many of the characteristics of the disreputable type of guru. He was unscrupulous financially, insisting on luxury even when he had no money to pay for it. He was also unscrupulous sexually, although, like Rajneesh, he was probably no great performer. He craved adulation and demanded that his adherents should afford him devotion and complete fidelity. Even as a boy of seventeen, he was looking for a companion ‘to whom I could pour out my inmost being to my heart’s content, without my caring what the effect might be on him’. Wagner had to dominate and was incapable of a relationship on equal terms. He had only disciples, no true friend. After he had parted from his first wife, there was no one who could criticize him or contradict him without being deemed a traitor.


Characteristically, he exploited his disciples. When Nietzsche was temporarily bewitched by him, Wagner used him to run errands, buy Christmas presents, and undertake other menial chores. As soon as he had completed the poem of the Ring, he insisted on reading all four sections over two days to patient followers, and repeated these readings over and over again to any who would listen. This was Wagner’s form of the interminable haranguing to which some gurus submit their disciples. Wagner was widely cultured, hugely well-read, marvellously gifted as a composer, and extraordinarily imaginative. He was one of the most charismatic human beings who have ever lived. Even those, like Nietzsche, who rebelled or became disillusioned with him, acknowledged that they could never forget the magic of his personality or the enchantment of his music. Wagner was also narcissism personified. He had to be right: he knew.


These four examples of charismatic people who were not gurus in the sense of preaching a religious message, underline the disagreeable fact that many of those who are most obviously charismatic are, from the human point of view, deeply flawed characters who should be regarded with extreme caution. Their persuasive, impressive power is a product of their grandiose conviction of their own importance. They need to dominate in order to confirm their own status. David Aberbach has suggested that, in many cases, charisma is related to bereavement or other personal traumata within the family. The new identity which emerges from the personal crisis through which charismatic gurus pass may be of someone who belongs to the whole world rather than to a secure family; someone who belongs to everyone, and therefore to no one. This certainly explains the charismatic person’s lack of close personal relationships in some instances.7  But the millions who flocked to support Hitler from 1933 onwards would not have been deterred by the suggestion that they were being misled by the charisma of a paranoiac. Social disruption and misery invariably throw up leaders of this type, as Norman Cohn has demonstrated.8  Both Churchill and Hitler, in their entirely different ways, demonstrate the accuracy of Norman Cohn’s observation. If a society is sufficiently disrupted, or seriously threatened, politicians who promise to restore order or save the society from its enemies become transformed from men of affairs into magical, guru-like saviours.


In psychoanalytic terms, the desire to submit to a guru’s guidance or to acquire a religious faith is conventionally explained as the persistence of a childhood need for a father. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud wrote:


The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate. I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.9


We expect that a child who is inexperienced in the ways of the world to turn to a parent for guidance. The very young perceive that their parents know more about life’s problems than they do, and it may take years for a child to realize that his parents are not omniscient but fallible. A lingering hope that somewhere there is someone who knows persists in the recesses of the minds of most of us, which manifests itself more obviously when people are distressed or ill. As I wrote earlier, the compelling need to attract disciples demonstrates that the certainty exhibited by gurus is more apparent than real, but it is difficult for someone who is seeking spiritual guidance to appreciate this. Is it possible to distinguish the kind of guru who should be regarded with suspicion from someone to whom it is reasonable to turn as a genuine guide? It is easier to point to those who should be avoided than to recommend reliable mentors.


The gurus who should be regarded as potentially dangerous are those who are authoritarian and those who are paranoid. These two characteristics march hand in hand. I would like to add another: the capacity for oratory; perhaps the most dangerous weapon in a guru’s armory. Gurus like Koresh and Jones harangued their disciples into submission, submerging them in a flood of words. Since many gurus are concerned far more with their own dominance than with anything else, it is not surprising that many become corrupt, both sexually and financially. As I have indicated, surrender to God or to some abstract guiding principle is not only seductive but understandable and, in some instances, valuable. Surrender to a human guru is fraught with risk. Rajneesh required complete surrender of all that had previously been held dear, even a follower’s former identity, which is why his disciples were given new names. Even Ignatius demanded unquestioning obedience to religious superiors.


Eileen Barker, who has done so much to dispel the mystery surrounding new religious movements, and who draws attention to their virtues as well as to their dangers, agrees that gurus who make important decisions about converts’ lives should be regarded with caution. Gurus who exercise personal control over their disciple’s money, dress, personal possessions, and sexual partners are particularly to be avoided. The same is true of leaders who claim divine authority, and leaders or movements who pursue a single goal in a single-minded manner. We should be alert to situations in which converts are dependent on the movement for definitions and the testing of reality. A movement which cuts itself off, either geographically or socially, from the rest of society is suspect. So is a ‘movement drawing sharp, unnegotiable boundaries between “them” and “us”, “godly” and “satanic”, “good” and “bad” – and so on.’10  These boundaries are characteristic of the paranoid picture of the world which I outlined earlier. The movements led by Jim Jones and David Koresh provide obvious examples.


Some gurus become more and more inaccessible, even to their disciples, because they are primarily self-absorbed and not really concerned with friendship or the problems of their followers. Rajneesh is a striking example. Gurdjieff’s intense concentration on Fritz Peters when the latter was severely depressed is one example of a guru manifesting personal concern. But this encounter was a matter of forceful persuasion rather than exploration and personal understanding. Gurus who are never personally available should be avoided. Rudolf Steiner continued to be able to devote himself to others even when he had achieved a large following, and so did Ignatius and Jesus. But both Freud and Jung became more concerned with theory and less interested in therapy as they got older.


Self-surrender to a guru who will relieve one from the burdens of personal responsibility and provide a new belief system is not the only attraction of joining a new religious movement. It is heartening for many people to belong to a group professing the same allegiance. The survivors of Jonestown did not regret their stay in that disastrous settlement, and some recalled it as a paradise. Many of the young followers of Rajneesh enjoyed the companionship, as well as the sexual freedom, which they experienced at the ranch in Oregon. The mostly young, mostly middle-class English disciples of the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon welcomed the feeling of belonging to a movement which aimed at spiritual ideals not envisaged by ordinary Western society. They seem to have been initially attracted by the happy atmosphere, smiling faces, and apparently loving community. The Moonies share the belief that Moon is a messiah who can lead the way to establishing the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth.


In any society, there will always be people who are disillusioned with what the orthodox churches have to offer. Many who join new religious movements are young idealists who rightly feel that modern western society is so materialistic and competitive that spiritual values have been shelved in favour of the pursuit of wealth. It is surely significant that the phrase ‘standard of living’ is always taken to indicate a material standard, more champagne and smoked salmon; not a spiritual standard, which would include better education and greater cultural opportunities.


There is no doubt that joining a group of like-minded contemporaries working toward a common end is life-enhancing. As we have seen, it is possible to become completely disillusioned with a particular guru and yet look back with nostalgia on the exhilaration which accompanies comradeship and being welcomed into a community. As Eileen Barker wrote in her book New Religious Movements (NRMs):


Perhaps those who are willing to learn from the NRMs could become more aware of the desire of many young people to give. In a world of specialisation, bureaucracy and social welfare, it is not always easy for young people with idealism to know how to expend their undirected energy for the good of others. Some churches, some schools and some community centres do tap this energy. So do some NRMs.11


But such movements are bound to have leaders, and as my accounts of some of these leaders have demonstrated, they vary in quality and in integrity to an astonishing extent.


    There is another aspect of group membership which is sometimes deplorable. Disciples who are certain that their particular guru has revealed ‘the truth’ are apt to become arrogant, insensitive, and dismissive of those who do not share their beliefs. The sannyasins of Rajneesh behaved badly both in India and Oregon, thinking themselves superior to the local residents.


Edmund Gosse’s description of being brought up by parents who were ardent Plymouth Brethren is an unsurpassed account of a childhood overshadowed by bigotry. An early interest in literature prompted Gosse to buy a book containing the poetry of Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe. The latter poet entranced him, but his father denounced the book as abominable. The Plymouth Brethren seriously believed that only members of their tiny sect were sure of salvation and eternal life, and that all Catholics, for example, were doomed to perpetual torment after death.12  One might assume that modern esoteric groups were more tolerant, until one recalls the teaching of David Koresh, who persuaded his followers that a Second Coming was imminent in which he himself would become king of Israel, while God and his army of immortals slaughtered all the wicked of the earth, beginning with the Christian church.


However, one can say something about the qualities of teachers and spiritual guides who can be relied on. The best teachers of adults are non-authoritarian. They may inform, suggest, advise; but they realize that every individual is different and that, in the end, men and women have to discover their own paths and form their own opinions. The word education is related to the Latin verb educere, which means ‘bring out, develop from a latent condition’.13  The teaching enterprise is exactly that; and the good teacher is delighted when a former pupil goes beyond what has been taught to make some original contribution which may be more important than anything the teacher has achieved. This desirable outcome requires a certain modesty on the part of the teacher, combined with a capacity to relate to the pupil as an individual. The same considerations apply, or should be applied, to analytical psychotherapy. Jung’s description of how an analyst should behave to his patient is as far removed from the didactic stance of authoritarian gurus as it is possible to be. The following quotation is from a lecture given in 1932, when he was still very interested in psychotherapy.


If the doctor wants to guide another, or even accompany him a step of the way, he must feel with that person’s psyche. He never feels it when he passes judgment. Whether he puts his judgments into words, or keeps them to himself, makes not the slightest difference. To take the opposite position, and to agree with the patient offhand, is also of no use, but estranges him as much as condemnation. Feeling comes only through unprejudiced objectivity. This sounds almost like a scientific precept, and it could be confused with a purely abstract attitude of mind. But what I mean is something quite different. It is a human quality – a kind of deep respect for the facts, for the man who suffers from them, and for the riddle of such a man’s life. The truly religious person has this attitude.14


The good teacher retains integrity because he is more interested in his subject and in his pupil than in himself. If a scholar is dedicated to the study of history, or mathematics, or philosophy, his enthusiasm will communicate itself to the pupil, and both will be embarked together on a search for the truth which transcends personal considerations. The same applies, with even more cogency, to a religious or spiritual quest. This obedience to ‘something transfiguring, refined, mad and divine’, as Nietzsche put it,15 tends to protect the teacher-pupil relationship, although transgressions sometimes occur. Mutual concern with something greater than the individual tends to prevent too much concentration on the interpersonal relationship and exploitation of the weaker by the stronger.



It might be assumed that good teachers or spiritual guides lack charisma because of their modesty; but this is not always the case. My friend, the composer Alan Ridout, wrote to me while I was engaged on this book:


I think it highly necessary to draw a distinction between human beings such as you are describing – ones riddled with narcissism – and the genuinely holy ones who also have ‘charisma’.


He describes attending a service in Canterbury Cathedral when the Pope visited England. He was duly impressed with the Pope,


But the figure who really shook me I was not expecting at all. I hadn’t even thought about him. It was Cardinal Hume. He was neither looking about him nor behaving in any abnormal, or even special, way. Yet as he passed I felt an aura of extraordinary ‘holiness’ about him. Something marked him as quite, quite special – to me anyway. And thinking about it, as I have often done in the year since, it was that he lacked any kind of self-consciousness – such as most people would feel if having to process before a huge crowd with every ‘big name’ in the land. In fact his manner was characterised by a genuine humility which, in the context, was sufficiently different from the others to be tremendously striking.16


I am inclined to agree with this assessment of Cardinal Hume, who is said to have been reluctant to assume high office when first appointed Cardinal. What is particularly interesting is that so apparently selfless a person is perceived as charismatic. In the introduction I said that genuine virtue is usually unobtrusive, and that morally superior individuals influence others by their private behaviour rather than by haranguing crowds or acquiring disciples. This example shows that there is a charisma of goodness, as well as a charisma of power.


Sometimes what the potential disciple is seeking from a guru is maternal love, especially if death or separation has deprived a young child of the mother’s presence. In his book Hidden Journey, Andrew Harvey gives an extraordinarily interesting and moving account of a series of ecstatic experiences which were induced by his meetings with a seventeen-year-old girl called Meera. Since she remained silent during their first meetings, she was far from behaving like a conventional guru, but his experience with her throws light upon devotion to gurus in general. Sceptics might allege that she was no more than a beautiful living image upon which devotees could project their needs and wishes; and it is the case that Andrew Harvey has since repudiated her on the grounds that she does not accept his homosexuality as a valid way of life. But there is no doubt that, at the time, Andrew Harvey found something for which he had been looking since childhood; something which, as he freely admits, was akin to the peace and security which he had felt in the presence of his mother when he was a small child in Delhi, but which had been taken from him when, at the age of six-and-a-half, she left him at boarding school a thousand miles away.


India gave me a mother, then took her away. Years later, I found in India another Mother in another dimension, and the love I had believed lost returned. Without that first wound I would not have needed love so much or been prepared to risk everything in its search. Without the memory of a human tenderness I might never have accepted the passion that awoke in my being when I met the woman who has transformed me. From the deepest wound of my life grew its miraculous possibility.17


At the age of nine, Harvey left India for fifteen years to be educated in England. Since he was highly intelligent, he won a scholarship to Oxford, gained a first-class degree, and was elected a Fellow of All Souls; perhaps the highest academic accolade which is ever granted to a young person in England. But the wound remained, and neither the poetry he wrote, the alcohol he drank, nor the sexual relationships upon which he embarked, did anything to heal it. Recurrent thoughts of suicide drove him, when he was twenty-five, to return to India. He was not seeking salvation, but simply hoping to recapture some of the happiness he remembered from childhood, which had never returned. Psychiatrists are familiar with the plight of English children who have been prematurely removed from home in order that they may be sent to a boarding school. The misery is often prolonged; the damage done is sometimes irreparable.


A chance meeting with Jean-Marc Frechette, a French Canadian who was visiting an ashram in Pondicherry ripened into friendship. Following his example, Harvey began regular meditation, and was at last rewarded with a ‘consolation’, as Ignatius would have called it; a kind of joy which he had never before experienced. He began to hear strange sounds, to see visions, and to realize that he was embarked upon a journey of discovery for which the sophisticated rationalism of intellectual life in Oxford had been no preparation.


Harvey began to read the works of Aurobindo, the deceased guru to whose ashram his friend Jean-Marc was attached. Sri Aurobindo, born in 1872, had been educated in Cambridge, where he obtained a senior scholarship in classics, and won many prizes. He later became professor of English literature in Baroda College. After involvement in India’s struggle for independence, during which he was arrested, he abandoned politics and spent the rest of his life in the pursuit of enlightenment and in writing books on his religious quest. To Harvey’s surprise and delight, one of Aurobindo’s books was The Mother; ‘a vision of the Divine Mother, of God as the mother, so radical, so potent, so all-embracing that it overturned and transformed completely everything I had hitherto understood of God’.18  Jean-Marc told him:


This is the time of the return of the Mother. Goethe foresaw it at the end of Faust when Faust was redeemed by the Mothers. Ramakrishna knew it. Even the Catholics seem to know it in the increasing sacred importance they are giving to Mary. She is returning to save a tormented creation.19


Had he known it, Jean-Marc Frechette could have added Jung to his list. Jung thought that the proclamation by Pope Pius XII in 1950 of the dogma of the bodily Assumption of the Virgin into heaven was the most important religious event since the Reformation.


The logical consistency of the papal declaration cannot be surpassed, and it leaves Protestantism with the odium of being nothing but a man’s religion which allows no metaphysical representation of woman .  . . Protestantism has obviously not given sufficient attention to the signs of the times which point to the equality of women.20


Jung, who died in 1961, might have been pleased to see that English Protestantism took a step toward recognizing the equality of women by allowing their ordination as priests in 1994.


Jean-Marc believed that the return of the Divine Mother would be manifested by her actual embodiment in a human being. When he suggested this, Andrew Harvey responded by saying that he did not believe in reincarnation. Harvey returned to academic life, but, in November 1978, received a letter from Jean-Marc summoning him back to India in order to meet a young woman whom he described as a Master. On Christmas Day 1978, Jean-Marc took Harvey to the house in Pondicherry in which Meera was living. Eight or nine others awaited her appearance. When she came, she sat on a chair, saying nothing.


One by one, in silence, the people in the room went up to kneel to her and let her take their heads between her hands and then look into her eyes. The silence she brought with her into the room was unlike any I had ever experienced – deeper, full of uncanny, wounding joy.21


Andrew Harvey knelt in his turn, and had a vision of Velasquez’s painting Mary as Queen of Heaven, but with Meera taking the place of the Spanish woman in the original. The eyes which stared into his were calm and compassionate. Later, he had a vision of Aurobindo’s face in golden light. Each evening he returned for the same ritual. As a poet, a novelist, and an intellectual, nearly everything he had learned had come to him through words.


But in Meera’s silence I returned to a deeper learning, the one I experienced in music when my whole being was addressed, the one I had known as a child, sitting reading by my mother as she slept, or playing canasta with her on the beach, watching the sea.

    Fears struck at me, and doubts, but always every evening Meera would remove them, simply by being herself, seated in her chair with such simple love. I had no idea who or what she was; I knew only that she was something I had never seen before, and that I was more at home with her than with anyone else.22


Harvey was far too intelligent not to know how his repeated mystical experience would appear to others.


I had lost a mother as a child, and now, with suspicious completeness, found another one who would never abandon me and on whom I could project any magical fantasy I wished because she was remote and silent and herself engaged in a fantasy that matched mine. That this interpretation was absurd didn’t stop it from being powerful; its cold voice tormented me.23


Harvey presumably rejects this interpretation as absurd because he believes that accepting it would invalidate his experience as ‘magical fantasy’. But others who have had closely similar experiences know that they can occur with other people who are not perceived as reincarnations of the Divine Mother but simply as loving and beloved human beings.


When Harvey asked Meera’s guardian what her teaching actually was, since she did not speak, Mr. Reddy replied: ‘Union in silence with all Being and action flowing from that Silence in enlightened joy . . . What the soul wants is ecstasy and knowledge; the Mother gives both’.24  Harvey repeatedly refers his experiences with Meera back to his childhood experiences with his mother, and then seems to reject the idea that they can be interpreted in this way. But many children who are lucky enough to have mothers to whom they are very close, and who seem to understand them completely, are likely to feel a sense of unity with the mother and the same sense of unity with a world in which they are cared for and free from anxiety about the future. This is surely the reason that Jesus said:


Let the little ones come to me; do not try to stop them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you that whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.25


As we saw in Chapter 9, Freud considered ecstatic experiences of unity to be an extreme regression to an early infantile state; that of the infant at the breast who has not yet learned to distinguish between himself, the mother, and the external world; a state already described by Tennyson.


The baby new to earth and sky,

What time his tender palm is prest

Against the circle of the breast,

Has never thought that ‘this is I’.

But as he grows he gathers much

And learns the use of ‘I’ and ‘me’,

And finds ‘I am not what I see,

And other than the things I touch.’26


It does not seem to me that Harvey’s mystical experiences are invalidated if some of them can be interpreted as recapturing a state of bliss experienced in early childhood.


Meera’s silence is the most riveting thing about her. All the other gurus whom we have considered, with the possible exception of Ignatius, were fluent speakers who were able to preach, harangue, or talk without notes, sometimes for hours at a time. But Meera said nothing, thus opening the path to self-discovery rather than proclaiming a doctrine. It may sound ridiculous to suggest that, if someone must seek a guru it is best to choose one who does not speak, but I mean it at least half seriously. I am reminded of a patient whom I was treating who once lay on the couch for fifty minutes without saying anything at all. Partly out of curiosity, partly out of a sense that something important was taking place, I also said nothing. The atmosphere was peaceful and happy. At the end of the session, she said that this had been the best of all our meetings so far.


I am inclined to think that when psychotherapy heals, as it sometimes does, it may be because the psychotherapist has provided a secure haven, a maternal enclave, in which the patient is for a time removed from the troubles of the world, and, like a happy child, can feel totally accepted, confident, and free to grow. It seems to me that psychotherapists, of whichever sex, are often cast in the role of the perfect mother – the Divine Mother or archetypal mother, if you prefer to call her so – and that this may be a necessary part of the healing process. I don’t think that this way of looking at the process of healing diminishes its importance; nor do I think that such an interpretation diminishes Meera. The fact that so young a girl can play such a role at all argues that she must be a remarkable person with an intuitive understanding of others and a wonderful serenity. Those who believe her to be a reincarnation of the Divine Mother will no doubt dismiss what I have written as crassly imperceptive; but I am not in any way questioning the validity of that which Meera made possible for Harvey, only its interpretation.


We live at a time when, in England, belief in orthodox Christian doctrine is in decline. Less than 2.5 per cent of the population regularly attend church on Sunday. As the Bishop of Oxford said in an interview: ‘We in Western Europe are now in a post-Christian society.’27  It might be assumed that, as a consequence, more people are susceptible to the allure of new religious movements and the teachings of gurus. I am not convinced that this is the case. In the United States, where it is said that a far higher proportion of the population go to church than do so in this country, new religious movements flourish with more vigour than they do in England. So do television evangelists, from whose dubious ministrations we in England have so far been spared. Most of the new religious movements which have emerged since the 1950s originated in North America or India. Moreover, history reveals that the guru with a new revelation is a perennially recurring figure. Some have been even more bizarre than David Koresh. Aldous Huxley records the case of the Swiss Anabaptist Thomas Schucker, who claimed that he was divinely guided to cut off his brother’s head, and did so in the sight of a large audience which included his father and mother. Those who are tempted to follow a guru often seem to try one after another, for ever looking for a new revelation or a new path to salvation which they never quite reach. Gurus will continue to flourish as long as they can gain disciples; but those disciples are, in my view, looking for what they want in the wrong place.


If there is one lesson I have learned from writing this book, it is that one should never judge a person to be insane or even unreliable only because he holds bizarre beliefs. Most people in the world subscribe to belief systems for which there is no evidence and which do not stand up to critical evaluation. The diagnosis of insanity must include an assessment of the individual’s social behaviour and relationships with other human beings.


If there is one message I want to convey, it is to distrust characters who are both deeply self-absorbed and also authoritarian. No one knows in the sense that Gurdjieff or Rajneesh or Jung believed that they knew and were supposed to know by their disciples. All authorities, whether political or spiritual, should be distrusted, and extremely authoritarian characters who divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, who preach that there is only one way forward, or who believe that they are surrounded by enemies, are particularly to be avoided. It is not necessary to be dogmatic to be effective. The charisma of certainty is a snare which entraps the child who is latent in us all.


If anyone is in urgent need of help or guidance, let him find someone who will listen rather than preach; someone who will encourage him to look inward and find out what he as a unique individual thinks and believes, rather than accepting some guru’s dogma. If anyone is looking for the joy of working with others toward a common goal, let him join one of the many organizations devoted to helping refugees, the poor, the sick, and the unfortunate. Such organizations need no guru, and those who join them need have no religious affiliation. The wish to help one’s fellow men is not confined to believers.


It is over a hundred years since Nietzsche first published Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science), but what he wrote is an appropriate note on which to end this book.


The meaning of our cheerfulness. – The greatest recent event – that “God is dead,” that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable – is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe . . . Why is it that even we look forward to the approaching gloom without any real sense of involvement and above all without any worry and fear for ourselves?  Are we perhaps still too much under the impression of the initial consequences of this event – and these initial consequences, the consequences for ourselves, are quite the opposite of what one might perhaps expect. They are not at all sad and gloomy but rather like a new and scarcely describable light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn.

    Indeed, we philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ship may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never been such an “open sea”.28