In 1960, Carlos Castaneda was an anthropology student at the University of California in Los Angeles. His chosen area of study was medicinal plants used by the Indian people in the deserts of southwest United States and Mexico. On one of his trips he found himself at a bus station near the border. A colleague introduced him to an old Yaqui Indian man who had extensive knowledge of these plants. The man, 'don Juan Matus', agreed to tell him what he knew.
So began a ten-year apprenticeship into the way of a brujo (medicine man or sorcerer) that forced Castaneda to ditch the idea that he was a scientist reporting the facts for some dissertation. Castaneda later admitted that what began as an objective study evolved more into an autobiography, as under don Juan's direction the author himself became the subject.
Castaneda's first account of this experience, The Teachings of Don Juan, electrified readers on its release in 1968 because it offered an alternative reality to modern civilization. In tune with the times, the author's initiation was assisted by psychotropic drugs (datura, peyote and 'magic' mushrooms), experiences also described in the follow-up A Separate Reality. However, by Journey to Ixtlan, the third book in the series, Castaneda had realized that natural chemicals were only a spur to spiritual development. More important were the principles don Juan reveals for becoming a 'man of power', and Journey to Ixtlan is arguably the clearest expression of his wisdom.
The seemingly endless trials and weird experiences that the author goes through makes for gripping reading.
In the first pages of Ixtlan, don Juan explains that the world we take to be real is only a description of it, a consensually created reality, programmed into us from birth. The ultimate purpose of his training is to be able to 'stop the world', to suspend normal perception so that truth can be perceived. Castaneda does not at first understand such strange ideas, but is willing to humor the old man. All the while, though, it is don Juan who is laughing at Castaneda's fixed, narrow understanding of the world.
Don Juan tells Castaneda that 'personal history is crap'. It is better just to leave one's past alone and concentrate on being a new person every day, to have the freedom of not being predictable. Don Juan admits he has created a fog around his life on purpose, because there is great freedom in being anonymous. In contrast, his younger charge is fully known and therefore taken for granted. The thoughts of other people continue to shape his identity, and everything he does he must explain to others.
Don Juan tries to explain the concept of being inaccessible, or removing yourself 'from the middle of a trafficked way'. He seems to know a lot about Castaneda that the author has never revealed to him, such as the fact that he still regrets the loss of a girlfriend. Don Juan suggests that she left him because he was always available to her, which led to routine and boredom. He needs to adopt the mindset of a hunter, who is never a slave to routine. If a hunter knows the routines of their prey, they have them cornered. To avoid becoming prey ourselves, we must break our routines - become less easily placed. If we don't do this, don Juan tells Castaneda, ".we end up bored to death with ourselves and with the world". In his eyes, the younger man has committed two interrelated sins: he has little appreciation of the mystery of the universe, and consequently is too obvious a person.
Seeing beyond the self
At the heart of don Juan's wisdom is that people take themselves too seriously. He notices that Castaneda flares up at the slightest provocation, and gets 'peeved like an old lady'. To help him get rid of his self-importance, don Juan makes him talk to plants - they are, after all, his equals. He wants to break down Castaneda's belief that he is a man in control with a clear agenda.
Don Juan shocks Castaneda by describing him as a 'pimp' who hasn't properly engaged with life and who has no precision in his actions. His self-importance has prevented him from really seeing the world: "You are like a horse with blinders", Don Juan tells him, "all you see is yourself apart from everything else."
The author is taken aback when the old man tells him to constantly be aware of Death lurking behind him. If he has this awareness, he will live differently. Out in the desert, put through various trials by his mentor, Castaneda cannot be blamed for being almost driven mad. But he comes round to the idea that death can be his best adviser, admitting: "The pettiness of being annoyed with him was monstrous in the light of my death." Don Juan teaches him to live as if these were his last days or hours on earth. This will make him love life. Thinking he had plenty of time had turned him into a timid half-man.
Journey to Ixtlan brings surprising lessons for a spiritual book: to be tough with yourself, to be decisive, to be fully responsible for your actions. We have the bodies of adults but not the mind of a real man or woman. The great sin, don Juan teaches us, is ever to think that life itself is not good. Whether in failure or success, we must never take our eyes from the fact that it is an amazing world, and we must rise to its challenges and love life.
There has been much controversy over whether don Juan was a real person and whether the don Juan books were based on real events. Castaneda maintained that they were not fiction, yet because their contents seem so unreal, they could easily be taken as such. You are unlikely to understand everything in the Castaneda books, but they stir something in us, a reminder of a body of learning that predates the written word. Sorcery harks back to a time in human history when people were ironically more open, willing to accept that there may be realities beyond those that we perceive before our eyes.
50 Spiritual Classics, the book:
|"What an uplifting journey I had reading 50 Spiritual Classics! If you only ever read one spiritual book, let is be this one. Tom Butler-Bowdon's insightful and inspirational commentaries cover an amazing range of ideas and writings. I predict that 50 Spiritual Classics will become a classic in itself.|
Susan Jeffers PhD, author of
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway and Embracing Uncertainty
|"A kaleidoscope of inspiration ...insightful commentaries on each classic and biographical information on the authors. A unique overview of spirituality.|
Watkins Review, Summer 2005
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Other books include Tales of Power, The Second Ring of Power, The Eagle's Gift, Magical Passes and The Active Side of Infinity, published after the author's death in California in 1998.