45 years since the publication of ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’, Castaneda’s impact continues to be relevant.
Carlos Castaneda: the warrior between two worlds /
A man goes to knowledge as he goes to war: wide-awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. Going to knowledge or going to war in any other manner is a mistake, and whoever makes it might never live to regret it.
Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
Counterculture and the New Age movement of the 1970s could not be understood without the presence of Carlos Castaneda and his books. Starting with the publication of The Teachings of Don Juan in English in 1968, the Anthropology PhD candidate of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) shook the academic and literary world of his time, by retelling his experiences with the Yaqui Shaman, Don Juan Matus.
More books were to come with the passing of the years, for example: Tales of Power, A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan, which were translated into many languages and read by thousands, and continue to be re-edited and sold to this day. Skeptics would also appear with the passing of the years, researchers and documentaries that would try to “unmask” Castaneda for being a phony, or at least would try to find traces of the real man hiding behind the myth.
45 years since the book was originally published, The Teachings of Don Juan remains an excellent literary piece, beyond academia and the anthropological studies —which at first welcomed it— and later turned their backs on it. In the book we get to experience Castaneda’s encounter with the Yaqui shaman Juan Matus, who Castaneda seeks out as part of an anthropological investigation about the “power plants” the indigenous people of northern Mexico and southern United States used. After a series of initiation tests, Castaneda realizes he is no longer part of an academic investigation, and that in turn, he has embarked on a journey for power and a personal mission to vanquish his fears and the occidental paradigms of nature and reality.
As a matter of fact, Don Juan did put Castaneda in touch with the power plants he was seeking; these were humito (a mushroom from the Psylocybe genre), Devil’s herb (Datura inoxia) and mescalito, the cactus known as peyote (Lophophora williamsii), plants that allow the user to experience an organised disarray of the senses, while partaking in the shamanic traditions of the indigenous peoples of the continent.
When it comes to speaking of Castaneda’s work, the focus is usually the uses of the power plants, however, according to Don Juan, the plants are only useful when the “path of the warrior” has been taken, they are a way of becoming “men of knowledge”, a sorcerer. The psychoactive effects of the plants can be terribly dangerous if they are not consumed within a ritual, and even within it the effects they will have on each person are unpredictable. Their importance however, lies in the possibility of aiding everyday reality from a completely different optic, allowing us to glance at the crack that separates the unconscious world from consciousness, erasing the frontier between the visible world and the invisible.
While Octavio Paz later criticised the steps that the Castaneda phenomenon was taking, when The Teachings of Don Juan, were first published in Spanish (the original version was in English), he wrote a prologue where he affirmed that the Yaqui shamans had not given Castaneda any ethnographic information, but that they had instead taught him how to see himself and his reality from otherness; they taught him to see, Paz says, poetically, meaning from a place in which the poet is a witness of his reality —a reality verbally consigned and in which the reader can also participate.
Just like the poet is at once protagonist and a witness, Castaneda is torn between the narration of his anthropological and scientific vision of the experiences Don Juan teaches him, and the purely magic vision, when he discovers by participating in rituals that show him that the frontier between our quotidian reality and the other can be crossed, and by crossing it the apprentice commits to following the path of knowledge —meaning, the path with a heart.
Don Juan, Castaneda’s main source, believed that above all else, a man of knowledge was he who sought a path with a heart:
All paths are the same. They lead nowhere. They are paths going through the brush... The only question is: Does this path have a heart? If it does, then it is a good path. If it doesn’t, then it is of no use.
A path with a heart is that which we feel naturally inclined towards, effortlessly, as if we were answering a call that comes from deep inside us and which guides us in the right direction. To choose it, it is essential to lose two things: fear and ambition. Fear is the illusion of the mistake, and nothing in the universe happens by mistake; ambition, on the other hand, is identifying with the world, which can only lead to the world making us its slaves. To Don Juan, the paths of the heart are simply travelled because they bring joy to life, because they give strength and allow us to get to know ourselves and to help others. That is the meaning of the expression “no road leads nowhere” since every single one of man’s paths lead to death; however, we can reach that final destiny through a path with a heart, or by following a path without a heart; a path with a heart will allow us to enjoy the journey and learn from it; the other, on the other hand, will gradually weaken us.
It is said that Castaneda was elusive to the degree nobody could recognize him when he walked into a room; he would not allow anyone to film or photograph him; that through what he called “The Pull” a man could cross kilometers with a single leap, that he was a Toltec Nahual and that he could become a raven; that his meditation in movement techniques (a combination of Tai-Chi and Kung Fu according to some, nonsense according to others), have nothing to do with the Yaqui teachings he learnt during his first stage with Don Juan; that in his last years of life (he died in 1998 due to cancer in LA), he had a harem with six women, some of whom committed suicide after his death. Simply reviewing some of the myths surrounding his life provide sufficient material to write a book, the worst thing is, we would be left standing in the same place: without really knowing who Carlos Castaneda was, if he was born in Peru, Mexico, Brazil or in the States. Nonetheless his oeuvre is vast, possessing great beauty and literary value, its power leads us to imagine and expand the frontiers of our perception and it continues to be experienced by readers of every tongue: warriors seeking a path with a heart.Carlos Castaneda, Warriors & Rebels, metafísica y misticismo, libros