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Discovering Carlos Castaneda

July 30, 2013

All paths are the same, leading nowhere. Therefore, pick a path with heart!

I discovered Carlos Castaneda in 1991 when I was 20 years old. I had already spent about a year in Zagreb, the capital of the republic of Croatia; the Serbs were fighting the Croats and the Federation of Yugoslavia was collapsing all around me.

After spending a year learning the Croatian language (which had been called Serbo-Croat when I had started learning it), I had failed to gain admission to the Zagreb Film Academy, which had been my purpose for going abroad, and I found my world collapsing around me. It was during these turbulent times, between bomb shelters and blackouts that I received a call from my brother, Usama, who was still soul-searching somewhere in Russia.

“What are you reading these days?” He asked me.

“Reading!” I answered, “My world is collapsing around me!”

“Hmm, have you ever come across Carlos Castaneda? I can highly recommend him,” he said nonchalantly.

I had always looked up to my elder brother, who used to have all sorts of interesting adventures while travelling around in Russia, meeting strange and fascinating people; and my mind was ‘unhinged’ enough, to be able to consider new avenues of thinking. I immediately joined the American Center Library in Zagreb, which was one of the few places that one could get books in English at the time, and borrowed “The Fire Within”, by Carlos Castaneda.

I started reading the forward, “I have written extensive descriptive accounts of my apprentice relationship with a Mexican Indian sorcerer, Don Juan Matus. Due to the foreignness of the concepts and practices Don Juan wanted me to understand and internalize, I have had no other choice but to render his teachings in the form of a narrative, a narrative of what happened, as it happened.

I continued reading, “…That apprenticeship ended with an incomprehensible act that both Don Juan and Don Genaro led me to perform. They made me jump from the top of a flat mountain into an abyss.

I was hooked … and went on to read, nay devour, all of Castaneda’s books that I could find.

Carlos Castaneda was born in Peru in the 1920s but migrated to the US where he started studying anthropology. His research on ‘the use of hallucinogenic plants amongst native American tribes’ took him to Mexico, where he was introduced to the shaman, Don Juan.

While spending time with Don Juan and his group of fellow ‘sorcerers’ and apprentices, Castaneda realised what had started out as a research project was actually his initiation into a new method of cognition – a new way of perceiving life and everything, which Don Juan called ‘the Sorcerer’s world’. His subsequent years of apprenticeship led him to have miraculous and inexplicable interactions with Don Juan and his group, which Castaneda wrote about in 11 books – which are now bestsellers in several of the world’s languages.

Castaneda’s critics argue that he was a charlatan, who passed off works of fiction as autobiography; or worse that he was a madman and the dangerous head of a suicidal cult. His death is certainly mysterious, as is the disappearance of his fellow apprentices, Florinda Donner-Grau and Taisha Abelar, who also both wrote books about their interactions with the ‘Sorcerer’s world’. There are other’s who consider Castaneda’s writings as an account of his hallucinations while under the influence of various psychedelic drugs.

Whether truth or fiction, I still find his books inspiring because they provide a new vocabulary of interpreting the world and one’s experiences – something that I have also come across in various religious scripture. For example, according to the sorcerer’s description, this life and the world are composed of the Tonal and the Nagual. The Tonal represents material objects, as well as all the concepts that arise from them. The Nagual represents the world of the spirit and all that is beyond. Human beings today are conditioned into interpreting and thus perceiving the world in material forms, which Don Juan calls the realm of the First Attention. Only ‘sorcerers’, by making their lives impeccable in every respect, manage to store enough energy to be able to shift their point of awareness, and arrive at the Second Attention or the realm of the Nagual.

Only as a warrior can one withstand the path of knowledge. A warrior cannot complain or regret anything. His life is an endless challenge, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges.

Don Juan tells Castaneda that his knowledge comes from Sorcerers of the pre-Aztec, Toltec culture of Central America, whom he calls ‘the warriors of the old cycle’. But Don Juan also says that he belongs to warriors of the new cycle, who are actually ‘men of knowledge’ because they seek the freedom of the Third Attention, and are not caught up by the magical powers and ensnarement of the Second Attention.

I am already given to the power that rules my fate. And I cling to nothing so I will have nothing to defend. I have no thoughts so I will see. I fear nothing so I will remember myself. Detached and at ease, I will dart past the Eagle to be free.

To guide him into the Sorcerer’s World, Don Juan and his companions, the most memorable of which is the frightening and hilarious Don Genaro, initially make Castaneda go through several shamanist ceremonies of consuming various hallucinogenic plants, mainly Peyote and Datura. This, they say, is necessary for him, in order to shake him loose from his obstinate and fixed conceptions about the world. Once the ‘point’ of assemblage in his energetic body is freed, they push his awareness into the Second Attention and make him interact with the Sorcerer’s world and its entities. The only way to do this by himself, they say, is if he becomes a warrior and starts to lead an impeccable life in order to store up enough of his own personal power.

A warrior must make every act count, since he is going to be here in this world for only a short while, in fact too short for witnessing all the marvels of it.

When Castaneda’s books became popular he shifted into a large property in Los Angeles together with his three female companions, where they lived a mostly reclusive life. Later, Castaneda began appearing in public lectures, to promote his spiritual system of Tensegrity, composed mostly of certain physical movements and breathing exercises. After his death in 1998, his three companions disappeared and there are various theories about their outcomes.

Whether a teacher, a guide, a man of knowledge, a seer; or a charlatan, a drug addict, a manipulator or a madman, Carlos Castaneda remains an enigma. While many of the New Age movements in the world consider him to be their godfather, his writings are far from trivial. They can either inspire or antagonise, but one thing I can promise they will not do, is to leave one feeling indifferent.

To achieve the mood of a warrior is not a simple matter. It is a revolution. To regard the lion and the water rats and our fellow men as equals is a magnificent act of a warrior’s spirit. It takes power to do that.