Charisma, controversy & cocaine: a look at the strange world of gurus

A lingering scent of cigar smoke

A few years ago, I visited Freud’s house in London. It’s smaller than you might expect - not tiny, but not an outrageous display of wealth. Most of the house is quite nondescript. Patterned rugs. Bookshelves. Freud’s collection of sculptures. Cream walls. Display cases and signs are sparse enough for it to seem like a place where someone lives.

Then you step into the gift shop and get hit with the sight of a bizarre display of Freud related knickknacks: pairs of ‘Freudian slippers’, pens and notebooks stamped with quotes, endless books, mugs, tote bags, fridge magnets, colouring books, postcards, boxes of mints, sculptures and so on.

The disconnect is profound.

Freud’s beliefs have become so entangled with psychiatry and psychology that it’s hard to disentangle the two. But if you manage to map out the precise parameters of Freud’s belief system (I’m trying to), the extent of his influence is staggering. He's there in popular culture. He's there in the way we speak. The way we think about ourselves. A lingering smell of cigar smoke everywhere you look.

Freud was an extraordinary thinker, perhaps one of the greatest minds of his era. His work helped make it socially acceptable for people to talk about their feelings. To think about the forces that make us who we are. To recognize the links between our past and our present. To understand that our behaviour may have illogical motivations. 

To say that he reshaped Western thought completely might be an overstatement, but it might not be. His impact cannot be understood by thinking of Freud as a medical practitioner or researcher. 

Freud was a guru.

Perhaps the most famous sofa in the world. Source.

Thinking for ourselves is hard. Making our own decisions is hard. Questioning and doubting and pivoting is hard. At times.

This stuff takes up a lot of mental energy. We are primed to look for shortcuts.

So we search for and latch onto people who do the thinking for us. People who tell us the right choices. People who let us stop doubting. Who present us with a cohesive blueprint for living, tied up in a neat bow. We all do this. In every culture, every part of the world, for thousands of years or perhaps for as long as we've been human, you'll find people who take on that role.

We can think of those people in different ways and they vary so much that it's bizarre to use a blanket term. But a term does exist: these people are gurus.

It's impossible to talk about gurus without finding yourself skidding on thin ice. Juggling obvious simplifications of complex people with complex ideas. Trying not to offend anyone - because there are few things that piss people off more than a slight against a guru. So, although I've said before that these kinds of disclaimers are pointless, I will clarify that the term 'guru' is a noun, not a judgment statement, a condemnation or a put-down. It's a category. 

'Guru' is a tricky word. A category which includes both the greatest and worst people to have ever lived. The kindest and the cruellest, the misunderstood and the manipulative. Gurus have shaped our world to an unimaginable extent. Yet we rarely recognise the links between them.

Even if you'd describe yourself as an atheist apolitical sceptical scientific-minded rationalist, you still almost certainly follow people who exhibit the same characteristics and use the same techniques as the gurus you laugh at others for following.

This differs from the kind of stuff I normally write about, but it's interesting and illuminating and (I hope) might shed some light on your own behaviour. It's such a fundamental part of our world, yet I haven't been able to find a single article giving a high-level overview of the topic.

From darkness to light

In broad terms, a guru is a teacher who leads their followers in a particular way of life. The Sanskrit definition is someone who guides us from darkness to light. Religious figures are the most obvious example and are where the term originated. But the basic concept of this type of teacher/leader is far broader.

Politicians, educators, researchers, philosophers, cult leaders, psychologists. Anyone whose life and work is based on spreading a belief system. Today, we also refer to marketing gurus, self-help gurus, motivational gurus. So this is a category encompassing everyone from the Buddha to Jim Jones, and from Freud to Eckhart Tolle. Now that's a dinner party I'd like to attend.

What is interesting about gurus, as people, is that their lives follow a distinctive path. I recently read Feet of Clay by Anthony Storr, a wonderful, wildly underrated author whose work I am devouring. It's a study of gurus, looking at them in a way I've never seen before to draw out an understanding of what they are and how they emerge.

How to become a guru in 10 easy steps

This is an attempt to summarise the life of a guru, based on what Storr writes in Feet of Clay and what I've read elsewhere. Of course, there's no 'typical' or 'average' guru - these are mere commonalities.

Most have lonely or isolated childhoods. Gurus who turn bad later on tend to have been abused as children or experienced a traumatic event. They are intelligent and spend much of their time deep in thought.

At some point, often in their adolescence, they experience a crisis and fall into deep despair. Everyone goes through this to some degree. As with other typical experiences, it's more intense and long-lasting for gurus. They exhibit symptoms which a psychiatrist would diagnose as manic depression or psychosis. (For an excellent personal account of manic depression, read An Unquiet Mind. For a personal account of psychosis, read The Quiet Room. Both are great for understanding what these conditions mean in practice, not just in the abstract.)

This is usually accompanied by what we would consider depressive symptoms (hopelessness, suicidal idealization, withdrawal) and self-destructive behaviour (such as extended fasts, isolating themselves for long periods of time in remote areas, self-harm.) Mainstream western culture condemns these behaviours and symptoms. Other cultures see value in them.

Gurus are rarely diagnosed with any form of mental illness during their lifetimes. How we interpret these signs varies. Whether a particular guru is mentally ill or not is irrelevant. What matters is that there is always a period of confusion and turmoil. How we view that depends on what they do later in life.

In a bid to restore inner harmony, they go on a journey of discovery. Travel is common. So is visiting teachers and spiritual figures. The journey may be an intellectual, inner one or it may involve wandering around. Either way, it's a period of searching for answers, accompanied by psychological disarray. Their search may be prompted in the first place by the collapse of their dominant belief system - as with Jung when he parted from Freudian psychology.

A guru's search culminates with a eureka moment when they discover their answer. A belief system which helps to solve all their problems and restore harmony to their lives. In an instant, they change forever. Or rather, that's the story they tell.

We call this enlightenment, an epiphany, a discovery, rebirth, reinvention, take your pick. This insight is not the same as a scientific discovery which can be tested and proven or disproven- it's an all-encompassing, a new (according to them) way to live our lives.

Gurus have a fascinating tendency to regard their own experience as universal.

We all do this to a degree, but gurus take it to an extreme. They believe that the belief system which works for them is of universal value. Perhaps it is valuable to a lot of people - the difference is that they never question that. They can't imagine anyone could fail to benefit from adopting their beliefs. Many draw heavily on other thinkers without acknowledgement.

Charisma & charm

Left at that, they would be considered crazy or at best idiosyncratic. Some kid wanders off into the mountains and returns unwashed, bearded, emaciated and claiming to have discovered the secrets of the universe. Yeah right. Go take a shower and see a shrink.

But gurus have an advantage: the ability to make other people agree with them. They are extremely charismatic and exhibit total confidence in themselves. Those around them find them magnetic.

Gurus are usually talented orators with the ability to speak for hours without notes. Most are also excellent writers. If they lack in one of those areas, they're twice as good in the other.

So they use that charm to attract followers, disciples, supporters - however you want to word it. Their supporters are convinced by the guru's confidence and the benefits they experience when they adopt their beliefs.

During the early days, gurus are usually a positive force. They may be philanthropic and preach equality - which may attract marginalized groups to follow them. People adore them. Everyone who encounters them is entranced. Anyone who disagrees is an enemy. At no point does the guru critically evaluate their belief system, even if they are presented with evidence to contradict it.

Through talking, writing and rumours, the guru attracts an increasing number of followers. In some cases, these people will follow the guru around or even live with them. Followers frequently give the guru large sums of money and allow them to dictate everything they do, perhaps giving up their possessions or quitting their jobs. Other followers just listen and adopt their ideas from afar.

As the guru accumulates influence, they and their followers clash with other groups. At this point, they may purchase a remote piece of land and move there with their followers. Or they may create some sort of institution. Today, this might mean forums or chat rooms or Facebook groups.

Whatever form this takes, the guru and their followers will often end up isolated. Anyone who doesn't share their belief system is seen with suspicion, pity or hatred. Surrounded by adoring followers, the guru is sheltered from criticism or accountability.

And this is the interesting part.

Some gurus will remain as wonderful, kind people who do benefit their followers. Some will have their teachings twisted after their death. And some, no matter their original intentions, are completely corrupted by this power.

Jim Jones is a good example. Prior to the founding of Jonestown and the truly evil events that happened there, he was an influential civil rights campaigner who risked his own safety to promote racial integration. He comforted victims of racial abuse, helped integrate churches and hospitals, conducted sting operations against racist restaurants, outed Nazis and adopted vulnerable children. It's impossible to say whether this was a deliberate ploy to gain followers, or if his intentions really were pure in the beginning and he was driven insane by absolute power and -surprise!- heavy drug use.

We continue to be surprised each time this happens. We shouldn't be. Absolute power, even over a small group of people, does terrible things to the mind. History has proven again and again that few people can handle it and almost none can handle it long-term. (Dan Carlin goes into this with characteristic panache in his King of Kings podcast series.)


Back to Freud.

Describing him as a guru sounds pretty odd. I was taken aback when I first saw he was included in Feet of Clay. Yet that’s what he was. Freud didn’t develop his theories through rigorous research. Most of his claims are either false or unfalsifiable. Psychoanalysis was the product of a period of inner turmoil, as he searched for something that would both help him make sense of himself, and make his name.

(A Nervous Splendour does a glorious job of describing Freud before psychoanalysis and his struggles to formulate his ideas. If you want to understand the wider cultural context he was working in, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. )

The epitome of narcissism

Eventually, a cocaine-fuelled Freud came up with a belief system that solved his inner dilemmas. His parents were to blame! Ta-dah.

Sure, he did base some of it on techniques that appeared to help his patients. But it’s now thought that this came down to them having, for the first time, an understanding listener and the space to talk. His techniques were irrelevant. And I'm well aware that there is a lot more to psychoanalysis than blaming parents which is precisely the problem.

From there, Freud generalized that the same must apply to everyone. As in, what was true for him was true for all humans which is the epitome of narcissism.

Anthony Storr quotes from a letter where he explains that he had ‘discovered’ within himself the Oedipus complex. Therefore, Freud concluded, it must be a universal fact.

And did I mention he was taking large doses of cocaine the whole time? Which is in long-term heavy use is linked to mania, psychosis, paranoia and tactile hallucinations? Now I'm well aware that the economy would collapse if all of the cocaine addicts disappeared tomorrow - let's just remember that Freud could not have been at his best intellectually. It's also worth pointing out that he nearly killed a patient with a botched operation.

Still, he attracted followers - wealthy people who believed everything he said, didn’t doubt him and shared his belief that psychoanalysis was the solution to their problems.

No one is entirely sure of their own abilities all the time and even gurus must experience self-doubt. It’s the presence of their followers that reinforces their beliefs, creating an echo chamber where everyone agrees with them.

Why can't we give Freud the slip?

It doesn’t make sense to think that unproven, largely false, frequently ludicrous, beliefs of one person could come to dominate something as fundamental as our understanding of the way our minds work. Or that he would remain so influential for so long in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.

Case in point: as I was writing this, I went to write something down and realised I was using one of these pencils.

It comes down to total conviction. Perfect confidence. Complete self-belief. You can feel it emanating from his writing. Freud believed every word he wrote.

I first started reading Freud when I was about 12 and discovered a copy of The Interpretation of Dreams in my high school library. I took to consulting it whenever I had an unusual dream over the following years. Although I haven't reread it since, I recall that it was written like a science textbook - with certainty. So, when I dreamt of chasing a friend through a hall of mirrors on rollerskates, Freud told me I was secretly attracted to them and launched an identity crisis lasting months.

At the time, I was making my first forays into Jung, Kafka, Germaine Greer, Marx, Naomi Wolf, Simone de Beauvoir and the like. The usual teenage favourites. None of them stuck with me like Freud. Their ideas forced you to look outwards, to confront the systematic problems in the world. To make difficult ethical judgments.

Feminist theorists left me shaken and frustrated. Rightly. Marx left me confused as to why his seemingly flawless ideas hadn't worked in real life. Also, the translator's insistence on preserving German syntax gave me a headache.  I couldn't read more than 2 sentences of Jung in school without someone asking "Who the hell is Jug?" Anyway, he gave me questions. Too many.

Freud did the opposite: gave me answers. Wrong answers.

His writing encourages self-examination, introspection, navel-gazing. Self-indulgence. His certainty lets you accept it all at face value, avoiding the effort of doubt. Only years later would I realise how easily I'd bought into a delusional belief system. Religious Studies classes where we diligently copied quotes from Freud into our workbooks and answered test questions on them without any critical commentary from the teacher probably helped with that.


When we wish to understand human nature, the best place to start is always with the extremes. And then to recognise that everything is on a spectrum and the extremes are part of that spectrum, not something disconnected.

The line that separates the normal and the extreme is far finer than most of us would like to imagine. Sometimes it's just luck or coincidence which side of the line we find ourselves on. When you look at the lives of most gurus (excluding the religious leaders), you see a more extreme form of the rest of us.

You see a set of circumstances leading to an understandable outcome. You see behaviours and actions that could be interpreted in a completely contrasting way. You see an ignored discussion about cultural relativism.

What's striking is that gurus become gurus because of their incredible confidence, rather than because of their abilities or insights. A solid argument, tenuously made, means little. A weak argument, made with conviction, is powerful. We all fall for this.

What magnifies and intensifies a guru is having followers who shield them from criticism and believe their every word. By that point, there's no backing down or mind changing. They're cocooned in an echo chamber and everyone outside is wrong. It's simply impossible to keep a balanced perspective in that situation.

The internet lets anyone position themselves as a guru. We all have the ability to voice our opinions and share our belief systems. More so than any other time, we can accumulate followers and supporters. It's become a cliche that there's a forum for literally everything.

Anthony Storr died in 2001 so we don't know how he would feel about the internet. Perhaps he would recognise that we all have a guru shaped hole in our lives and we're just finding new ways to fill it.

The majority of what is written today about gurus focuses on debunking or criticising a particular guru or sharing the not-so-brutal truth that gurus don't have the answers. This is less interesting or useful than considering why we believe them in the first place.

My question is, what is this doing to us? If everyone can find supporters, does that mean everyone can find verification that their ideas are true? Are we all moving towards a point where our beliefs become increasingly divorced from reality? What's the price we pay for escaping uncertainty and doubt?

What are we losing when we outsource our thinking to other people, purely because they sound convincing?

P.S. I said that the desire to follow gurus is a universal human tendency. That's not quite true. One group which appears to be an exception is the Piraha tribe who live in Brazil and who seem to have got everything right that the rest of the world has gotten wrong. The Piraha have no formal leaders, do not give each other instructions, have no social hierarchy and most unusually, no religion. Unless they have personal experience of an event or idea, it doesn't exist. Unlike some indigenous tribes, they also don't particularly admire or glorify Western visitors. Daniel Everett describes his time living with the Piraha in Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes (the title is the Piraha equivalent of 'good night') and they simply seem to be in a separate category to the rest of humanity.