Carlos Castaneda (December 25, 1925 – April 27, 1998) was the author of a series of books that purport to describe his training in traditional Mesoamerican shamanism. The bulk of his work, particularly that of his early career, is argued to have been inspired directly from the teachings of and his experiences with don Juan Matus, the Yaqui shaman with whom Castaneda had a ten-year apprenticeship beginning in the early 1960s. During this time, don Juan, with the aid of various medicinal plants, took Castaneda on a metaphysical journey through an unknown spiritual realm referred to by the author as "nonordinary reality."
Castaneda's descriptions of psychedelic experiences stood apart from others' in an age where such experiences were not uncommon. This was partly due to the fact that they were conducted within an organized system instituted under the discipline of an experienced shaman. In addition, Castaneda possessed the ability to hold a rationalist perspective throughout these fantastic encounters and could thereby capture the attention of psychedelic enthusiasts and intellectuals alike. Several women from Castaneda's inner circle vanished shortly after his death and are presumed dead. While his work has been criticized both on academic grounds and because of its influence in popularizing psychedelic drugs, Castaneda's books continue to be widely read.
Castaneda narrates, in first person, the events leading up to and following his meeting don Juan Matus. He claims to have inherited from don Juan the position of nagual, or leader of a party of seers. (He also used the term "nagual" to signify the part of perception which is in the realm of the unknown yet still reachable by man—implying that, for his party of seers, don Juan, and later Castaneda , acted as links to that unknown.) The term nagual has also been used by anthropologists to mean a shaman, or sorcerer, who is capable of shape-shifting into an animal form and/or to shift into another form through Toltec magic rituals or experiences with psychoactive drugs.
Much debate has arisen concerning the claims of Castaneda in his works, which are written in a lucid, pragmatic style which leads readers to believe that the magical experiences described are supposed to be entirely factual. Supporters claim the books are either factually true or at least valuable works of philosophy and descriptions of practices which enable an increased awareness. Critics claim the books are fictional shams and not empirically verifiable works of anthropology, as claimed.
Castaneda's history remained, for many years, convoluted, as the author emphasized conveying the emotional and psychological experiences of his past rather than the need to provide verifiable details such as names, dates, and places. "To ask me to verify my life by giving you my statistics," Castaneda said, "is like using science to validate sorcery. It robs the world of its magic and makes milestones out of us all."
However, research done by Time magazine in its cover article on Castaneda in March 1973, brought much of the writer's previously gray history to light. According to immigration records, Castaneda was born in Cajamarca, Peru, on December 25, 1925. He was the only child of César Arana Burungaray, a goldsmith, and Susan Castaneda Navoa. The family moved to Lima in 1948, where Castaneda entered the Colegio Nacional de Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe. After graduation, he studied painting and sculpture at the National School of Fine Arts.
At the age of 25, Castaneda entered the United States through San Francisco, in 1951. Between 1955 and 1959, he was enrolled as a pre-psychology major at Los Angeles City College, where he took courses in creative writing and journalism. He also became a U.S. citizen during this time. After graduating, Castaneda entered the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) to study anthropology and received his B.A. 1962, as well as his Ph.D. 1970.
At UCLA, one of his teachers, Professor Clement Meighan, interested him in shamanism. Castaneda decided the best field through which he could legitimately educate himself on the subject was ethnobotany, the classification of psychotropic plants. His work with such plants led him on several trips south to collect and study specimens, and it was supposedly on one of these excursions in the summer of 1960, that Castaneda befriended don Juan Matus, whom he had met at a bus station in the Mexican border town of Nogales, Arizona. After several visits, don Juan revealed that he was in fact a diablero, a sorcerer. The following year, Castaneda became his active apprentice and was introduced to many of don Juan's shaman colleagues, including don Genaro Flores, a Mazatec Indian, who would serve as another tutor.
How, precisely, Castaneda's journey stems from here is a subject of much speculation, but purportedly these years consisted of intense study and practice under the guidance of don Juan. 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 his own subject of study.
In his apprentice years, Castaneda used peyote ("Mescalito"), Jimson weed, and mind-expanding mushrooms. This period of learning lasted from 1961 until the autumn of 1965, when Castaneda decided, out of fear of a psychic breakdown, to discontinue his course with don Juan. These initial experiences with shamanism and psychoactive agents were the basis for Castaneda's first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968), published by the University of California Press.
Castaneda's analysis of the beliefs of Juan Matus was accepted as his master's thesis, although no field notes were submitted at the time, as Castaneda claiming that he had lost them. Meanwhile, as fuel to the budding new age movement of the 1960s, The Teachings of Don Juan gained a reputation as an underground classic before going on to become an international bestseller.
In 1968, Castaneda returned to Mexico and began his second period of learning under Matus, which lasted until 1971. This period produced the follow-up book, A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan (1971). English poet and author, Ted Hughes, wrote in his review of the title:
Castaneda becomes the guinea-pig hero of a modern quest as the weird glamor of the hypnotic, manipulating, profound, foxy old Indian carries him, with his notebooks and tape recorder, into regions where the words "rational" and "scientific" are violently redefined.
Castaneda's third book, also inspired by this second phase of his learning, was Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan (1972) and was accepted as his doctoral dissertation by the UCLA Anthropology Department in 1973. Surprisingly, in Journey, Castaneda disavowed all use of drugs for the purposes detailed in his earlier works:
My perception of the world through the effects of those psychotropics had been so bizarre and impressive that I was forced to assume that such states were the only avenue to communicating and learning what don Juan was attempting to teach me. That assumption was erroneous.
Nevertheless, Castaneda later defended his past use of drugs, stating they were part of his initial phase of apprenticeship, and that don Juan had taught him later to achieve the same results without drugs.
In the early 1970s, the popularity of his books began to create problems for the author, as he was hounded by "very strange people," forcing him to live as a virtual recluse. Castaneda would sink increasingly into isolation over the years, though he still maintained a decent output of writings on the subject of the "nonordinary reality."
Castanada would go on to write a total of 12 books during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, as well as several academic articles detailing his experiences with the Yaqui Indians. Today, these works have sold more than 8 million copies in 17 languages.
In 1960, Castanada married an American woman, Margaret Runyan, who was 14 years his senior. Their marriage lasted only a few months, although it was not until 1973 that they separated officially. According to Castaneda, he had a vasectomy operation previously and the couple's adopted son, named C.J., was fathered by a friend.
In 1993, he married Florinda Donner, a woman he had met in the 70s and who had authored Being-in-Dreaming: An Initiation into the Sorcerer's World in 1991. Also in 1993, he began holding "tensegrity" workshops which educated participants in special shamanistic exercises for the purposes of improving physical health, vigor, and freedom of perception.
In 1997, Castaneda sued Margaret Runyan Castaneda, over her book, A Magical Journey with Carlos Castaneda, but this was dropped when Castaneda died of liver cancer on April 27, 1998, at his home in Westwood. His cremated remains were taken to Mexico. Castaneda's last book was published posthumously. It was entitled The Active Side of Infinity (1999), appropriately about entering life in the Next World.
Castaneda's writings have been criticized by academics, and are seen as highly suspect in terms of strict anthropological fieldwork. As well, many have tried unsuccessfully to corroborate Castaneda's stories with his own personal history and that of his fellow apprentices. Much of his reported happenings remain unclear.
Perhaps the most highly contested aspect of Castaneda's work is the fact that no one except for the author himself has ever met or even seen the storied figure, don Juan. Theories concerning don Juan inlcude that he was a figment of Castaneda's hyper-conscious imagination, a spiritual entity, or a composite of various shamans whom the author met.
Despite Castaneda's convoluted past and the controversy surrounding his books, a strong argument can be made that the author's initial motivations were sincere. His first book was submitted, not to a major publisher, but to the university press, a very unlikely prospect for creating a bestselling author. Secondly, getting an anthropology degree from U.C.L.A. is not so difficult that a student would go through such arduous measures as Castaneda did simply to avoid research.
In a controversy separate from his work, it has been reported that a number of women from Castaneda's inner circle vanished shortly after the author's death and are presumed dead themselves as result of a planned suicide. Only one of these women has been found. The remains of Patricia Partin surfaced in 2004, near to where her abandoned car had been discovered a few weeks after Castaneda's death in the spring of 1998. Her remains were in a condition requiring DNA identification, which was made in 2006. The other women remain missing and are presumed to be deceased.
The nine popular works of Carlos Castaneda are organized into three sets of three, corresponding to a Toltec system dealing with the mastery of awareness, transformation, and intent. For each set, Castaneda also produced a compendium. The three compendiums were published posthumously. Thus, each mastery is described in four works: Three works presented in story form and one work compiled as a cross-set reference. The works are divided as follows:
The Mastery of Awareness entails the shifting of awareness from the world of every day objects to the world of the spirit. During this stage of development the spiritual warrior-traveler endeavors to minimize self importance, and to find and store power. First and foremost, the student is encouraged to take action and assume responsibility for his or her life. The books in this set are:
- The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968)
- A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan (1971)
- Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan (1972)
- Magical Passes: The Practical Wisdom of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico (compilation) (1998)
During the process of the Mastery of Transformation, the warrior-traveler endeavors to cleanse and retrieve energy and to hone his only link to spirit, the intuition. The warrior-traveler becomes impeccable by empirically testing this connection and eventually banishing all doubts, accepting her or his fate, and committing to follow a path with heart. These works include:
- Tales of Power (1975)
- The Second Ring of Power (1977)
- The Eagle's Gift (1981)
- The Active Side of Infinity (compilation) (1999)
Once the warrior-traveler has accumulated enough surplus energy, the dormant "second attention" is activated. In the process of the Mastery of Intent, lucid dreaming becomes possible. The warrior-traveler maintains impeccability, walks the path with heart, and waits for an opening to freedom.
- The Fire from Within (1984)
- The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of Don Juan (1987)
- The Art of Dreaming (1993)
- The Wheel Of Time: The Shamans Of Mexico (compilation)(2000)
The crux Castaneda's philosophy might be summed up in the don Juan's reported words:
- For me there is only the traveling on the paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart.
- There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge for me is to traverse its full length. And there
- I travel—looking, looking, breathlessly.
Don Juan's teachings are reminiscent of various mystical traditions and supernatural beliefs, and include many practices that purport to focus one's energy and awareness into a "second attention," leading to higher consciousness and views of non-ordinary reality outside the bounds of everyday reality. In The Art of Dreaming, Castaneda wrote that don Juan contended that the ordinary world…
…which we believe to be unique and absolute, is only one in a cluster of consecutive worlds, arranged like the layers of an onion. He asserted that even though we have been energetically conditioned to perceive solely our world, we still have the capability of entering into those other realms, which are as real, unique, absolute, and engulfing as our own world is.
According to Castaneda, the most significant quality in a person's life is that of one's dormant awareness. The primary goal of a spiritual warrior is to elevate awareness. To increase awareness in this way requires all of the discipline that constitutes a "warrior's" way of life.
Sufficient personal power leads to the mastery of Intent and awareness. Such mastery is chiefly the controlled movement of what is known as the assemblage point, a center of a bundle or cocoon of energy emanations, called the Eagle's emanations, emerging from the body. When we are young, our luminous cocoon is not yet rigid and the assemblage point flows fluidly. Humans' cocoons are intersected by filaments of awareness, producing perception, but as people grow and live in ordinary existence, they solidify only a small bundle of emanations, which becomes their perceived reality. Excessive attention on only a small area this way limits awareness, which hardens into a narrow world view that excludes reality outside of normal awareness—non-ordinary reality. Ultimately, Castaneda argues, everything we perceive, feel and how we act is determined by the position of the assemblage point. Conscious movement of the assemblage point permits perception of the world in different ways (non-ordinary reality). The goal of the warrior is to achieve totality of the self by illuminating all of the Eagle’s emanations within the cocoon at once and aligning them with the greater whole of existence and experience. Small movements lead to small changes in perception and large movements to radical changes.
Ultimately, most adults can only move or shift their assemblage point by way of drug use, love, hunger, fever, exhaustion, through inner silence, or as is preferred, through "intent of awareness." The most straightforward or common form of movement of the assemblage point can be achieved through dreaming. Descriptions of dreaming in Castaneda's books and the varied techniques he employs to achieve mastery of awareness often resemble lucid dreaming.
In Journey to Ixtlan, don Juan's friend, don Genaro, warns that “intent is not intention. Our energy body, as a metaphysical entity, is composed of Intent." Through techniques such as stalking the self (recapitulation of one's life experience, erasing personal history and developing the warriors mood), dreaming, and handling Intent (changing awareness), the warrior aims at regaining the luminosity that has been lost through the ordinary awareness of everyday life, and ultimately to control Intent.
Castaneda's legacy is a mixed one. He impacted a widespread movement toward spiritual awareness that rejected the superficial material values of the 1950s and early 60s in favor of an active search for spiritual truth. However, because of his emphasis on the use of psychedelic drugs in his early works, he also contributed significantly to the widespread use of these substances in the youth culture of the late 60s and early 70s. More recently, Castaneda's ideas have indirectly or directly spawned a number of organized spiritual awareness movements emphasizing such concepts as the "spiritual warrior" and the "shaman's journey." These movements are also reflected in various musical and artistic genres.
- The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968) ISBN 0-520-21757-8
- A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan (1971) ISBN 0-671-73249-8
- Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan (1972) ISBN 0-671-73246-3
- Tales of Power (1975) ISBN 0-671-73252-8
- The Second Ring of Power (1977) ISBN 0-671-73247-1
- The Eagle's Gift (1981) ISBN 0-671-73251-X
- The Fire from Within (1984) ISBN 0-671-73250-1
- The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of Don Juan (1987) ISBN 0-671-73248-X
- The Art of Dreaming (1993) ISBN 0-06-092554-X
- Readers of Infinity: A Journal of Applied Hermeneutics (1996) Number 1/2/3/4
- Magical Passes: The Practical Wisdom of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico (1998) ISBN 0-06-092882-4
- The Active Side of Infinity (1999) ISBN 0-06-092960-X
- The Wheel Of Time: The Shamans Of Mexico (2000) ISBN 0-14-019604-8
- www.netscape.com, Salon Magazine: The Dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- de Mille, Richard, ed. The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies. Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1990. ISBN 0534121500
- Donner-Grau, Florinda. Being-In-Dreaming: An Initiation into the Sorcerers' World. HarperOne, 1992. ISBN 0-06-250192-5
- Goodman, Martin. I Was Carlos Castaneda: The Afterlife Dialogues . Three Rivers Press, 2001. ISBN 0-609-80763-3
- Kane, Graham. Toltec Dreamer: A Collection of Memorable Events from the life of a Man-of-Action. Little Big Press, 2002. ISBN 0-9543630-0-0
- Noel, Daniel C. The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities. Continuum Publishing Group, 1999. ISBN 978-0826410818
All links retrieved November 27, 2023.
- Don Juan's Teachings. www.prismagems.com.
- Carlos Castaneda's Tensegrity. www.castaneda.com.
- The Skeptic's Dictionary on Castaneda. www.skepdic.com.
- Marshall, Robert. The dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda. www.salon.com.
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