Carlos Castanada's Legacy and his Critics by Alan Steinfeld
This article is a reaction to strange pronouncement on a Reality Sandwich Featured post of ST Frequency: Shamans and Charlatans: Assessing Castaneda's Legacy: He said: “..the halls of academia are tarnished with the elevation of charlatans…” I said: "What?! What is this guy talking about? This suposively liberal website has condemmed one of the most open minded writers of our time."
It appears that ST had only read Carlos Castaneda’s (CC) first book,but he seems to have studied more closely the books of the critic and researcher Richard De Mille, The Don Juan Papers and Castaneda’s Journey. This is like reading the cliff notes for Shakespeare from someone who does not understand the dynamics of the English language.
I am a staunch upholder of the CC legend: One that begins with a young anthological student from UCLA, who goes to the Arizona desert to document the uses of psycho-active plants by the native Americans of the southwest. During his early research in the field CC discovered his teacher, the mysterious Don Juan Matus (DJ). In a secluded bus station of a Mexican border town, probably Nogales, he awkwardly introduces himself to the strange old Indian. As their eyes met CC suddenly finds himself captivated. He writes: “It was a formidable look… It was a look that went through me. I became tongue tied and could not continue with the harangue about myself”. Here and throughout the 12 book narrative CC portrays himself as the heavy-handed fool who continuously challenges DJ to explain his definitions and motives. This brilliant device helps to invite the readers to look at their own narrow opinions about what is possible.
Other Ways of Knowing
ST Frequency writes: By accepting such questionable documents as authenticated knowledge, the truth about indigenous peoples becomes diluted with misinformation and (perhaps more lamentable) the halls of academia are tarnished with the elevation of charlatans to pedestals of high esteem.
How many real shamans have passed through those tarnished halls? I would say “very few”. Shamans and in this case sorcerers do not communicate in a paradigm that is limited to the linear level of academic understanding. The predicament that ST and De Mille are in is one that CC himself had to overcome in the early years of his apprenticeship. In his 2nd book, A Separate Reality, DJ tells CC: “Your problem is that you want to understand everything, and that is not possible. If you insist on understanding you’re not considering your entire life as a human being. Your stumbling block is intact…you are chained to reason.” CC later admits that: “Years after the publication of the Teaching of DJ, I realized that what DJ had offered me was a total cognitive revolution.”
In “academia” there is no room for other ways of knowing. The Western tradition of learning says we can only know with our minds -thus we have been robbed of our bodies. Fortunately for CC he discovered that other ways of knowing were possible. For instance: (lets see how many academics can wrap their heads around this one) CC is coached by one of DJ cohorts to know “that human beings have a superb center of perception on the outside of the calves, and that if the skin in that area could be made to relaxed…the scope of perception would be enhanced in ways that would be impossible to fathom rationally.”
In a careful reading of the Castaneda work, from 1968 to 1998 we see his continued extrication from cultural education that formed his (and ours) original worldview. In The Active Side of Infinity, 1999, his last book (not Magical Passes, 1998, as stated by ST) CC acknowledges his hard fought effort. He dedicates this final volume to his original anthology professors at UCLA: “I plugged into a file situation from which I never emerged…. a greater force …called infinity swallowed me before I could formulate clear-cut social scientist’s propositions.”
Throughout the course of CC’s oeuvre he elucidates many techniques and applications that if followed correctly will produce mind blowing (and I don’t mean drugs) results to change your life: “Dreaming”, “seeing”, “stalking”, “re- capitulation”, “controlled folly”, “stopping the world” are all specifically designed to drop below the mask of our personality structure and access deeper ways of knowing the world and ourselves.
CC says that the process of his life with DJ "had to do with the natural give and take of my persona as a socialized being under the impact of new rationals. [Despite] the need of every civilized person to maintain the boundaries of the known world…. After years of struggle to maintain the boundaries of my persona intact these boundaries gave in. Struggling to keep them was a meaningless act.” This was the source of everything that would inform CC’s persona from then on out. One of CC final conclusions was that: “Transformation always occurs as an intellectual allegiance to something that appear to be merely a concept, but which has unsuspected powerful undercurrents.
Anyone who makes it beyond the first two books learns that the real objective of DJ work was much more than to teach the young naïve CC about the use of peyote and other entheogens. In his 3rd book, Journey to Ixlan, 1972, CC goes back to his earlier notes and re-evaluates everything he had learned up until that point. He realizes that DJ gave him those mind-altering plants specifically to break him out of that academic habit of intellectualization. In the forward to his 8th book, The Power of Silence, 1987, CC writes: “It takes years of training to teach us to deal intelligently with the world of everyday life. Our schooling is rigorous, because the knowledge we are trying to impart is very complex. The same criteria apply to the sorcery’s world: their schooling, which relies on oral instruction and the manipulation of awareness, although different from ours is just as rigorous, because their knowledge is as, or perhaps more complex.”
Another way ST and DeMille try to discredit CC is by discussing the falsification of the subtitle of the first book: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. ST writes: Castaneda maintains that it was added per suggestion of the University Press who, prior to reading his manuscript, insisted on its inclusion to help categorize the book. To imply that Don Juan is representative of all Yaquis, he says, was never his intention. This admission stands in stark contrast to a comment made by the associate editor of the University Press who, in a letter to De Mille, states, 'The title of Castaneda’s book and the entire text are the work of the author…. It seems then that Castaneda himself erroneously labeled his work as an exposition of a “Yaqui way of knowledge,” and purposely so – but for what reason?'
In 1968 when his first book was published CC was unaware of DJ’s true lineage. It is only later that he corrects himself by diving deeper into the sorcery’s world. In 1972 he writes: “I have made no attempts to place don Juan in a cultural milieu. The fact that he considers himself to be a Yaqui Indian does not mean that his knowledge of sorcery is known or practiced by the Yaqui Indians in general." Yes DJ is Yaqui but his teaching is from the much older tradition. It is like being Jewish but practicing Buddhism. In the books from the 1980s CC is informed that DJ legacy is not Yaqui at all but Toltec. CC explains that for DJ Toltec was not a culture, but “a man of knowledge.” However DJ could trace this particular lineage back centuries or even a millennia before the Spanish Conquest.
ST also states: "Furthermore, the knowledge of witchcraft is thought by the Yaquis to be “an inborn quality,” a power that cannot be taught or inherited." This statement directly contradicts Castaneda’s accounts of the art of Yaqui sorcery as a cycle of apprenticeship handed down across generations from a “benefactor” to his “chosen man.”
In The Toltec tradition knowledge that was handed down was not based on heritance. The Toltec leader of each generation (DJ & CC) called “the Nagual” passed the teachings only onto those they sensed had certain formation of energy in their body. Many of the naguals in DJ lineage were not even Native America. The nagual Luhan was from China, but he had the right energetic configuration to be the inheritor of this grand tradition. This hopefully answers ST accusation that: ”… The nature of sorcery as practiced by Don Juan, however, differs strikingly from that traditionally understood to exist in Yaqui society. And there is the conspicuous absence of Yaqui terminology in DJ teachings.” The Toltec wisdom is more align to the mystery schools of the West, where the student would undergo certain initiation practices in order to evolve his spiritual knowledge.
In book 7, The Fire from Within, 1984, CC realizes the ultimate goal of the teaching of DJ: He says that DJ and his fellow companion teachers “were not teaching me sorcery, but how to master three aspects of their ancient knowledge they possessed: awareness, stalking and intent, and they were not sorcerers; they were seers. One of the special talents of seers according to DJ is that they are able to see man as a field of energy, which looks like a luminous egg.
This leads to another absurd point ST tries to make by quoting the anthropologist Muriel Thayer Painter. “Painter…. notes that, according to Yaqui belief, those persons that practice witchcraft (i.e., sorcery) are timorous and feeble”– Can any serious researcher really believe such a superstitious description of a cultural knowledge? Painter goes on to say that: “both traits utterly incongruous with Don Juan’s depiction as a man who has ‘vanquished fear’ and is ‘remarkably fit,’ despite his advanced age.
The point is addressed in the introduction to The Power of Silence, 1987. CC states “at various times DJ attempted to name his knowledge for my benefit. He felt the most appropriate name was nagualism, but that the term was too obscure. Calling it simply ‘knowledge’ made it too vague, and to call it ‘witchcraft’ was debasing. ‘The mastery of intent’ was too abstract and the search for total freedom too long and metaphorical. Finally, because he was unable to find a more appropriate name, he called it “sorcery”, though he admitted it was not really accurate. ”
However, almost till the end CC refrained from calling DJ’s teachings “shamanism”. For the anthology doctorate, CC, this term referred to “a belief system…that maintained that an unseen world of ancestral forces, good and evil, is pervasive around us…” This was far too simple a definition for the sophisticated unfolding of DJ’s work, which maintained the existence of a multiplicity of realities. For instance DJ saw the world not just as the solidity of material forms he called the tonal, but as a world of energy, he labeled the nagual. Without going into considerable detail the nagual’s worldview is more right brained. This is opposed to the linear left-brain understanding, which is the only view we are culturally conditioned to see. It was only in the late 1990s when shamanism had gained a more expansive definition did CC refer to DJ a shaman.
Many scholars throughout the course of CC rise to fame have claimed the work was one of forgery and plagiarism from other anthropological studies of Native American culture. However, no one it seems has ever been able to place the exact source of the terminology of many of CC unique concepts. Such phrases as “inorganic beings”, “allies”, “the movement of the assemblage point” and “petty tyrants” do not appear to have any anthropological antecedents.
DJ tells CC that “the definitive journey” is the ultimate task of the seers of his lineage. This means the possibility that individual awareness can be maintained when their consciousness would leave the earth. This means that: “They are warriors of total freedom, that they are such masters of awareness, stalking and intent that they are not caught by death like the rest of mortal men, but choose the moment and the way of their departure from this world. At that moment they are consumed by a fire from within and vanish from the face of the earth, free, as it they had never existed.”
There is nothing like a little “fire from within” to not just tarnish but to burn down the halls of academia. In book 6, The Eagles’ Gift, 1981, CC witnessed such an event as DJ and his warrior party ascended to heaven. Describing the action as a string of lights in the sky he’s reminded of the plumed serpent, Quetzaquotal, of the Toltec legend.
ST also quotes a New York Times article from July 23, 1970 which “describes the plight of Oaxacan Indians suffering from the flood of American “mushroom addicts” and the subsequent crackdown by Mexican authorities; once considered a “great medicine,” the fungi are now contraband in Oaxaca.”
This is mostly likely due to the fact that the so-called seekers went looking for enlightenment in the enthogens of Mexico, because they found only the bland reasons for living in their institutions of higher learning. CC gave people hope in the authenticity and magic of being. The world CC described was not one fabricated on academic concepts but based on experience.
ST also writes: “New Age ‘shamans’ modeled on Castaneda’s sorcerer exist in abundance in today’s society… While some operations offer legitimate and conscientious experiences of traditional shamanism, others are little more than opportunistic scams.” -- Tell us ST who might these pseudo shamans be? Perhaps they are people giving others a real opportunity to have the experience of Native American perceptions as opposed to reading about it in the journals of academia.
In addition ST wrote: "Carlos Castaneda reemerged in the public eye in the early nineties espousing the virtues of a meditation technique he named Tensegrity, after a term coined by R. Buckminster Fuller.”
However, CC did not just “emerge” in the 1990s. He was writing detailed accounts of his own integration into the sorcerer’s world all through the 1970s and 1980s. In Tales of Power, 1974, CC concludes his formal training with DJ with the inconceivable act of jumping off a high mountain plateau and shifting his energy to live and write about it. The Second Ring of Power, 1977, describes CC confrontation with his fellow female sorcerers. The Art of Dreaming, 1993, sums up the steps of lucid dreaming outlined in his previous books. In general, the CC canon is an ongoing narrative of adventures into other realms of existence. The works of his sorcery associates Florinda Donner, Being and Dreaming and Taisha Abelar; The Sorcerer’s Crossing, respectively, matched perfectly CC teachings of dreaming, stalking - and intent.
One thing that remained throughout the 30 years of public life in writing and speaking about his apprenticeship was CC's constant affirmation about the existence of don Juan Matus. Despite the academic claim that he was a conglomerate of different teachers and the mad search by thousand o hippies in pursuit of the seer. CC stuck by the story of Don Juan Matus was indeed a singular real life person. Even in an odd encounter with the Indian guru Muktananda, which must have taken place after DJ and his party of seers made their definitive journey, does CC proclaim the reality of DJ and the consistency of his story: “I have finished my apprenticeship, which lasted 15 years. DJ has left now left me; he has thrown me out into the world. Now everything is up to me…There was a time I could meet DJ in my dreams, but now that he has let me go, I cannot find him anywhere, not even in dreams.”
Alas what became of the CC legend? If we read Amy Wallace’s post-mortem epilogue to the CC phenomena, Sorcery’s Apprentice: my life with CC (2003), we can see how the great master lost his way. Throughout his years of instruction DJ would emphasize that key to true knowledge was impeccability. For him “to be impeccable meant to do one's utmost best, and a bit more.” This is what the Tao Te Ching calls virtue. According to DJ, a lack of ruthless impeccability leads to self–importance, which he explained was really self-pity. It is this condition of the mind that eventually kills most people. This why a true warrior learns to “stalk” himself. Despite the tremendous amount of her own self-importance, in being part of the CC inner circle Wallace steps away from her own drama long enough to observe: “Although Carlos had begun as a genuine seeker, he had ended as a tyrant watching over as cult of terrified followers. Power has wielded its legendary seduction…” In a moment of weakness CC confides in Wallace: “Do what I say, but don’t imitate what I do, because I’m just a human – what do you expect from me? I lack DJ’s power _ I’ve failed sustain impeccability.”
Ultimately CC failed the final task of a warrior: “the definitive journey” - to leave the world as DJ did - as a luminous being. And although it seems that there is no heir apparent to continue the nagual line, CC left an indelible path for others to follow. His books, which DJ urged him to write, contain formulas, that if taken seriously makes it possible for anyone to become a warrior of total freedom.
From the very beginning people have attempted to smother the enthusiasm for the mystery of life that these books have brought. Robert Marshall, in The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda, writes: “in spite of the exhaustive debunking, the CC books still sell well. The University of California Press, which published Castaneda's first book, steadily sells 7,500 copies a year. BookScan, a Nielsen company that tracks book sales, reports that three of Castaneda's most popular titles sold a total of 10,000 copies in 2006. None of Castaneda's titles have ever gone out of print -- an impressive achievement for any author. Today, Simon and Schuster, Castaneda's main publisher, still classifies his books as nonfiction”.
Overall CC books are a concentrated, consistent and comprehensive study of a complex worldview. CC gives us a perspective of non-linear reality that most of us skeptical of anything beyond our narrow perspective in West refuse to explore. In this DeMille, perhaps Frequency, and other debunkers fail to see the solidified spiritual movement emerging in this country. They are “cynics”, which as Oscar Wilde said, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Perhaps CC critics will one day emerge from the ivory towers of their educational institutions to smell the roses and realize its sweet fragrance is more than a list of chemical components. As CC learned in the rules for “stalking”: “For a warrior there is no end to the mystery of being, whether being means being a pebble, or an ant or oneself. That is a warrior’s humbleness. One is equal to everything.”
1. Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan (Simon and Schuster, 1972) p. 18
2. Carlos Castaneda, A Separate Reality (Simon and Schuster, 1971) pp. 310-312
3. Carlos Castaneda, (The Teachings of DJ, (author’s comment on the deluxe 30th anniversary edition University of California Press, 1998) p. xix
4. Carlos Castaneda, The Eagle’s Gift (Simon and Schuster, 1981), p. 257
5. Carlos Castaneda, The Active Side of Infinity, (HarperCollins book, 1999) Dedication, p. v
6. Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of DJ, (1998) p. xiv
8. Ibid, p. xiii
9. Carlos Castaneda, The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of Don Juan (Simon and Schuster, 1987) p. 7
10. Carlos Castaneda, 1972, p 8
11. Carlos Castaneda, The Fire from Within (Simon and Schuster, 1984) p. 18
13. Ibid, p. 10
14. Carlos Castaneda, (1987) 9
15. Carlos Castaneda, The Art of Dreaming (HarperCollins book, 1993) p. vii-viii
16. Carlos Castaneda, (1984) p. 13
17. Carlos Castaneda, (1981), p. 316
18. Swami Muktananda, In the Company of a Siddha: Interviews and conversations with Swami M. (SYDA Foundation, Oakland, 1978) p.150
19. Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of DJ, (1998) xviii
20. Amy Wallace, Sorcerer’s Apprentice: my life with CC (Frog, Ltd distributed by North Atlantic books, 2003), pp 398
21. Ibid, p. 354
22. Robert Marshall, The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda, April 12, 2007 for salon.com http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2007/04/12/Castaneda
23. Carlos Castaneda, (1981) pp. 281-282
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