Anthony Storr’s Solitude is a basic and reliable descriptive approach to the topic by a psychologist, a book that can be highly recommended. But another Storr book also of compelling interest is Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners, and Madmen: A Study of Gurus (1995).

Feet of Clay offers the same calm and open-minded approach from its author. Like Oldham’s methodology. Storr uses the premises of modern psychiatry — wherein mental illnesses, objectively defined and characterized, can then be placed on the extreme end of a spectrum, with characteristics identified for the opposite functional end of the spectrum for personality. Storr is writing biography as much as psychology, however, so an apparatus is not obvious, and like Oldham, his method is sound and information, even entertaining.

What is a guru? Storr’s approach is comparative psychohistory or psycho-biography that identifies what gurus have in common. Storr begins at the dysfunctional end with Jim Jones and David Koresh, and works his way back to personality characteristics. Creativity is an important criteria for functionality in Storr (see his The Dynamics of Creativity) and places an important role in the development of the unique ideas of the gurus he discusses: Gurdjieff, Rajneesh, Rudolf Steiner, Jung, Freud, Ignatius Loyola, Paul Brunton. Creativity, indeed, is the touchstone of sanity in Storr’s estimate. The eccentricity of ideas have their sphere for criticism, but it is the integrity of their creators’ personalities that makes them creative versus dysfunctional — or, rather, may make their followers dysfunctional as well.

The gurus all grew up solitary, if not actually under difficult circumstances. They learned early to rely on their own imagination and vision of life, seldom fitting their family, peer, or societal expectations of worldly success. They learned to communicate their vision of life, to refine, share, and persuade others of its validity, regardless of content, because they had an undaunted confidence that their unique vision was an answer, a holistic solution, a subjective but valid and exciting if mysterious view of the universe.

Thus Gurdjieff, Rajneesh, Steiner, and Brunton developed systems of cosmogony unique to themselves. Why did people believe them, follow them, cling to them? Perhaps these gurus fulfilled in their own selves what others wanted fulfilled in themselves as well. And the gurus projected this resolution of their life problems with great success — given the disciples they attracted, which would comprise a whole separate treatment, though Storr cites many testimonies.

Gurdjieff, and the less persuasive Brunton, never revealed details of their alleged travels and “meetings with remarkable men.” Rajneesh developed his own Eastern-styled philosophy but quickly fell into hopeless corruption. Steiner, despite the eccentric details of his elaborate Anthroposophy, lived a morally impeccable life, that of a “saint” in Storr’s estimation. And though not intentional gurus, Freud and Jung attracted strong-minded disciples who often exceeded the enthusiasm of their presumed gurus. Loyola inverted his amoral hidalgo life into an austere discipline that at first was suspect by the Inquisition.

One characteristic of each guru was a major illness or medical incident in childhood or youth. Not only did incapacity alienate them from their peers but it also gave them a perspective on what matters. The incidents compelled them to create a system viable to themselves first and foremost. Often the ramifications of this incident were postponed to midlife (thirty to forty years of age), when they developed symptoms of mental illness, usually approximating schizophrenia. This diagnosis (Storr is excellent at sorting out the symptoms and relating them to behaviors) fits the now standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders perfectly, while the author points out how the gurus remained (except, of course, Jones and Koresh) quite socially functional.

The ideas of the gurus can be discussed independently, so that the guru characteristics of these figures do not impinge on the validity or utility of the ideas. Eccentric or different ideas cannot be dismissed based on the personalities presenting them. On the contrary, the fascinating interplay of personality, behaviors, and ideas makes for a truly functional person, independent of the average, the mundane, the thoughtless.

Creativity is a kind of madness, as the cliche goes, and one expects a quirkiness from those who argue a new vision of reality. What we need to remember, as Storr reminds us, is that those who espouse ideas — any ideas — have feet of clay, just as much as the rest of us. What we can imitate from those who seem unique in history is the creative process that heals our lives, not the sin and madness of gurus — or their disciples.


Mysticism in the West has always been looked upon with suspicion by Church authorities because premises of mysticism, often not developed or articulated fully, suggested bypassing sacraments, ritual, and dogma in attaining union with God. Western mysticism offered no methodology (a dangerous act had it done so) but the experience itself was probably offensive enough to authorities, the emotional and passionate experience, let alone the subjectivity.

Ecstasy of St. TeresaBernini captured this dangerous form of expression in his classic portrait of St. Teresa of Avila. Even if he honestly believed this experience a visionary rather than erotic one, who can doubt that the Church would not want it to reflect some goal or norm? Or to have the faithful read lines like these of Teresa:

I saw in his [the angel’s] hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. (Autobiography, 29, 17).

How far away from otherwise prosaic voices, from the measured tones of Meister Eckhart to the ruminations of Freud on the pleasure principle versus the reality principle, or phenomenological explorations of Heidegger on openness to mystery. As mentioned in an earlier post, the pleasure principle is the pursuit of excitation, the presumed eros underlying the human psyche that Freud himself came to reject in favor of the reality principle, the underlying trajectory of the psyche for stability, balance, and equanimity.

This divergence is familiar in the East, where popular religion often rides on the crest of ecstasies — as in Rumi or Ramakrishna or Abhishiktananda. Without doubting the authenticity of the experiences or the motives of pursuants, East or West, there is left a begging for credibility mixed with genuine perturbation and a tinge of envy in the lay people who watch as spectators this sport of gods and their chosen ones. Ecstasy becomes a commodity to revive flagging logic and dogged but monotonous asceticism. Ecstasy substitutes for introspection, for self-understanding, a one-time stand that does not prove love but only the pleasure of experience.

Thomas Merton offers wise insight in his Wisdom of the Desert:

Obviously such a path could only be traveled by one who was very alert and very sensitive to the landmarks of a desert wilderness. The hermit had to be a man mature in faith, humble and detached from himself to a degree that is altogether terrible. … The Desert Father could not afford to be an illuminist. He could not dare risk attachment to his own ego, or the dangerous ecstasy of self-will.

No wonder that the hermit, those who are already attracted to solitude, will naturally pursue a path that eschews ecstasy. I am not ready to divest mysticism from mystery, but the wisdom of practice forces consideration of methodology.

A wise voice on navigating practice is a lay person’s: Katsuki Sekida is the author of the invaluable Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy. Sekida distinguishes what we call the ecstatic state (kensho or satori) from a more refined and ongoing state of stillness (samadhi), as his editor A.V. Grimstone points out:

He [Sekida] by no means ignores or belittles kensho, but he does not place it before the student as something he must strive for in his practice of zazen. It is not merely that, like some other writers on Zen, he regards kensho as something that must be allowed to come naturally, in its own time, rather than be sought or induced by artificial methods. For Mr. Sekida the primary, initial aim of zazen is the attainment of the state of absolute samadi: the condition of total stillness, in which “body and mind are fallen off,” no thought stirs, the mind is empty, yet we are in a state of extreme wakefulness. “In this stillness, or emptiness, the source of all kinds of activity is latent. It is this state that we call pure existence.”

Solitude is not merely the condition of physical aloneness nor of psychological alienation but a state of potentiality, wherein the self can work toward self-realization by using the humble and slow techniques or methods of desert hermits and zazen practitioners, among others. The “illuminist” search for ecstasy is not the path of nature, which transforms slowly and leaves room for discovery and reflection long after the excitation of ecstasy has faded into a haunting memory.

Camus, nature, self

French writer Albert Camus exemplifies the ability to carve out a philosophy of life, a philosophy of solitude, from experience and nature. Not that all his writings don’t likewise brim with intellectual concerns and a passionate awareness of what matters in the world. It is, rather, that a purity and heartfelt sense of presence, especially in the earlier “lyrical” essays, conveys a fullness, even a sensual quality. For Camus, born in Algeria and a child of the Mediterranean Sea, that quality is best conveyed by climate and the sea.

Camus does not like cold northern cities: Prague, Paris, New York. Of Prague he writes: “I was suffocating, surrounded by walls.” In New York, high atop a skyscraper hotel where he sleeps fitfully, Camus writes that he hears a far-away tugboat and is relieved to remember that the city is on an island and that the sea is not far away.

“Nuptials at Tipasa” is full of the scent and wild colors of flowers, glaring stone ruins, the shadow of distant desert hills. Nature is sufficient to bring Camus life and philosophy. The ancient mystery religions of Greece only required that aspirants open their eyes to what was around them. Does not the “Hymn to Demeter” cry: “Happy is he alive who has seen these things on earth.”

Plunging into the warm salty sea is a rhapsodic venture:

The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. Yet people have often told me: there’s nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow. … Everything here leaves me intact, I surrender nothing of myself, and don no mask: learning patiently and arduously how to live is enough for me, well worth all their arts of living.

And this is the gist of what we call too pretentiously “personal development”: to life surrendering nothing, to “don no mask.”

Camus haunts the villages and towns of North Africa, the grand cities of Europe, alone. He exemplifies the alienated, the existential, the “stranger” or “outsider” of the title of his most famous novel (“The Stranger”) who is too dazzled by the natural elements to understand the madness of society around him. Not that Camus did not understand it thoroughly. Rather, he did not abide by it, suffering the loss of his compatriots’ esteem even while gaining the esteem of the whole world for his fierce defense of the individual and of liberty. (He wanted France and Algeria to be reconciled, but no one in France or Algeria wanted it.)

Camus wrote no essay or fiction on solitude as such, but he touched upon the ultimate solitude of existence in every page he presented. Wrapped in nature and what he called the “absurd” makes hard work to extract an easy summary of his philosophical impact on this topic of solitude. But solitude is linked to death, and to the meaninglessness of society and its delusions. A person is obliged to make his or her own meaning, and therein discovers not only freedom but the despair and tragedy of everyone else. At once a rebel from contrivance, a solitary becomes conscious of what binds everyone in a common but futile task. Self-realization, not mindless conformity, is the ironic (“absurd”?) way to reach out to others in the world and make a solidarity that will last at least a short time.

In a later essay, “The Sea Close By,” Camus writes of an ocean voyage where self is consumed by the vastness of the ocean, prompting reflection on our own final consumption.

Knowing that certain nights whose sweetness lingers will keep returning to the earth and sea after we are gone, yes, this helps us die. Great sea, ever in motion, ever virgin, my religion along with night! It washes and satiates us in its sterile billows, frees us and holds us upright. Each breaker brings its promise, always the same. What does each say? If I were to die surrounded by cold mountains, ignored by the world, an outcast, at the end of my strength, at the final moment the sea would flood my cell, would life me above myself and help me die without hatred.


If the prospect of mass extinction described by scientists like Peter Ward (previous entry) engenders gloom, one must reflect further on the sense of solitude that science confirms. The demise of a treasured Earth as it is known by human beings ought to compel us to reflect on what, after all, we always needed to reflect upon even without the image of mass extinction: that which is impermanent and evanescent versus that which we may grasp and clutch and try to turn into an essence, at least for one’s own solitude and inspection. Like a drifting apart, we reach helpfully beyond our sphere, hoping to salvage what floats past and away from us, but are left empty and wondering.

But this solitude is ironic. We must place our Earth, our very selves, into this category of evanescence. We contemplate our own emptying and that emptying which our own species engenders. And that solitary part of us sees the epic of life and existence around us and wonders how it can be conscious of itself as distinct, apart, and yet aware and complicitous in small incremental ways.

Such is the sorrow that underlies the poem of Issa when his little daughter died:

This world
is a dew-drop world —
and yet.

Solitude is sharpened by the further realization of scientists (again, like Peter Ward) who offer no contextual relief from the bleakness of the grand cycle of mass extinctions. For some time, especially in recent decades, there was an absurd expectation even on the part of scientists that life in the rest of the universe was somehow more persistent, more intelligent, more hopeful.

Looking to popular culture, illustrating this hope was the classic 1950’s science fiction story in the film “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” conjuring hope, a hope in redemption. Plunged into the prospect of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War era, an alien from a distant planet comes to Earth to warn its inhabitants to stop their ways. Most reviewers saw the story as an analogy: Christ comes to Earth to tell humans to stop what they are doing. But nobody listens — or at least one is left wondering at the end of the film if ever they will. We have our message so it isn’t our ignorance or misunderstanding that impedes us. The story isn’t over yet — but the prospect of mass extinction, the acceleration of those factors bringing the next cycle into being, remain and intensify.

So a message from beyond will not change things, and it hasn’t for thousands of years. Clinging to the possibility of external salvation, though ruthlessly thwarted since the dawn of humanity, was a hope evident in the notion of extraterrestrial life, of intelligent life in the universe. Carl Sagan popularized the Drake equation to postulate a the existence of a very high number of intelligent life forms in the universe, and from this drew a measure of hope that humans could not be the highest form. Surely Leibnitz was wrong to say that we lived in the best of all possible worlds — but, argued Sagan or others, should this dissuade optimists from expecting that grander worlds flourish beyond the stars?

Peter Ward (in his book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe – 2000) points out the simple fact that intelligent life means complex life, highly complex life. What Sagan and others postulated as life may certainly be widespread: microbes and simple forms. But the factors that turn these simple forms into evolved products such as plants, animals, and consciousness is extremely rare.

Here is a partial list of necessary factors enumerated by Ward:

  • right distance from a star
  • right star mass
  • right galaxy
  • right planetary mass
  • stable planetary orbit
  • stable satellite(s)
  • right plate tectonics
  • right atmosphere
  • right magnetic field
  • right temperatures
  • right chemicals and minerals
  • right water at surface
  • right atmospheric pressures
  • right biotic diversity

And so forth … not even entering into the subject of biology and the excruciating complexity of DNA and similar factors. And ultimately we don’t even know if these factors necessarily add up to anything except by chance. The cycles of mass extinction are also cycles within an Earth that is incredibly benign to life, and recovers over the eons. Whatever comfort that is to the notion that life (if not intelligent life) is salvageable despite the cycles of extinction.

Buddhism always reminds us that it is a very rare thing to be born a human being. And science certainly demonstrates that insight today in a forceful way not appreciated by cultures and societies of the past. Or indeed still not appreciated today, when the life of individuals and whole peoples, let alone plant and animals species, are expended in the same futile drive to demonstrate survival. Being conscious of this flaw in human behavior is itself a very rare thing. Otherwise, one might see it addressed at last, if only by diligent individuals seeking enlightenment. But let us not take the simple-mindedness of Leibniz and transmute it into projections of extraterrestrial salvation, either scientific or otherwise.

We are rare beings on a rare earth, and it is only our solitude as individuals — not our hard and futile work with others to redeem the world, which is culture and societies — that can open our minds and hearts. We require a rare understanding, a sense, an inkling, of understanding. Only hard work on our consciousness, and a deep appreciation of our solitude, can bring some semblance of order to that rare thing we call life — our lives.