“I’m going to teach you how to set up dreaming,” the old Yaqui Indian sorcerer told his apprentice. It was the early 1960s and don Juan Matus and Carlos Castaneda were out in the wilds of the Mexican desert. Don Juan was attempting to teach Castaneda the “first step to power,” which entailed becoming consciously aware during dreams.
“You must start by doing something very simple,” said don Juan. “Tonight in your dreams you must look at your hands.”
Castaneda found the idea preposterous and laughed out loud.
“Why do you laugh?” asked don Juan, impatiently.
“Seriously, how can you expect me to do that,” asked Castaneda.
“The way I’ve told you,” don Juan snapped. “You can, of course, look at whatever you goddam please – your toes, or your belly, or your pecker, for that matter. I said your hands because that was the easiest thing for me to look at. Don’t think it’s a joke. Dreaming is as serious as dying or any other thing in this awesome, mysterious world.”
Finding his hands in his dreams was no easy task for Castaneda. Once he succeeded, he found that he could stay focused on specific events in his dreams or even change the content altogether. But this was just the beginning. When Castaneda became experienced in the art of dreaming he was able to explore other worlds (which don Juan insisted were every bit as real as this one).
At one stage, while exploring these other worlds, Castaneda encountered alien entities, described as “inorganic beings” by don Juan. These creatures existed in shadowy tunnels and tried to trap Castaneda in their world. But after a struggle, and with the help of don Juan, he was able to escape their clutches.
Techniques of sorcery
Dreaming was just one of the techniques taught to Castaneda by don Juan. Others included “stopping the internal dialogue,” stalking and recapitulation. Like dreaming, these were methods of going beyond ordinary reality.
Stopping the internal dialogue basically meant not thinking in words, and was geared towards shaking off the restrictions imposed by language. Stalking entailed recognising habitual behaviour and eradicating it in favour of unpredictability. Recapitulation consisted of recalling everyone met during one’s life, while at the same time performing a breathing exercise intended to remove the emotional hold of each memory.
Castaneda’s apprenticeship lasted from 1961 to 1973, which was when don Juan reportedly turned into a “blob of luminosity” and vanished from this world. But it all began in the summer of 1960 when, as an anthropology student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Castaneda travelled to the Mexico-Arizona desert to study how the local Indians used certain plants and herbs.
While waiting for a greyhound bus in the town of Nogales in Arizona, he was introduced to a Yaqui Indian brujo, or sorcerer (whom he called ‘don Juan Matus’ in his books to protect his teacher’s privacy).
A friendship developed and eventually the first stage of the apprenticeship began. This involved extensive use of psychotropic plants, including peyote and jimson weed. Under the influence of these drugs the bemused anthropologist encountered, amongst other things, columns of singing light, a talking coyote and a 100-foot tall gnat.
Don Juan explained that these were manifestations of power which Castaneda had to learn to use if he were to become a Man of Knowledge.
These early experiences were later detailed in Castaneda’s first two books, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way Of Knowledge (1968) and A Separate Reality (1971). With their psychedelic content, both books fitted the times perfectly and fast became cult best sellers.
The third book Journey to Ixtlan (which was published in 1972 and in 1973 won Castaneda his PhD from the UCLA), however, marked a departure from hallucinogenic drug use in favour of more disciplined magical techniques, such as dreaming and stalking. This thread continued into the next two decades with such books as The Fire from Within (1984), The Power of Silence 1988) and The Art of Dreaming (1993).
Although Castaneda achieved wealth and fame (his books sold more than eight million copies worldwide), he shunned publicity. From the outset of his career he drew a veil around himself, either fictionalising his personal details or refusing to talk about them altogether.
“To ask you to verify my life by giving you my statistics is like using science to validate sorcery,” he once said. “It robs the world of its magic and makes milestones out of all of us.”
Consequently, the world had to remain content with various versions of Castaneda’s past, which either had him born in Peru in 1925, or in Brazil at any time up to ten years later. Also a matter of dispute was whether his mother had died when he was seven or twenty four, or whether his father was a professor of literature or a goldsmith.
Fact or fiction?
But the biggest controversy that surrounded Castaneda was the suspicion that his books may have been elaborate works of fiction. In 1976, a teacher of psychology named Richard de Mille (the son of Cecil B.) published Castaneda’s Journey: The Power and the Allegory, which was the first comprehensive critique of the don Juan books.
It not only detailed certain discrepancies in the chronology of Castaneda’s accounts of the time he spent with don Juan, but also highlighted inconsistencies in the way that don Juan spoke. One minute, says de Mille, he was intoning sonorous desert utterances, the next joshing in American slang, and the next assuming the stilted jargon of a professor of philosophy.
De Mille concluded that Don Juan was a fictional creation, but added that Castaneda “wasn’t a common con-man, he lied to bring us the truth. This is a sham-man bearing gifts.”
Another angle on the don Juan controversy was provided in 1993 by the anthropologist Jay Courtney Fikes. In Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties, he suggests that don Juan may have been an amalgam of two or possibly three authentic Indian shamans, including a Mazatec healer called Maria Sabina, who had also collaborated with the anthropologist Gordon Wasson on his study of psychedelic mushrooms in the 1950s.
“There is a residue of authenticity there,” Fikes says. “I think he did make trips to Mexico, and he had some interesting experiences, and he then fictionalised them and called then non-fiction. I don’t think he set out in 1960 to create a massive hoax. The first book took off, it was a bestseller; there were very few people who publicly expressed scepticism at that point, so he just kept going.”
Despite such allegations, Castaneda insisted that he “invented nothing.”
So far as he was concerned his books presented “a true account of a teaching method that don Juan Matus, a Mexican Indian sorcerer, used in order to help me understand the sorcerers’ world.”
In the early 1990s, Castaneda made an unprecedented move. He suddenly emerged into the public eye with what he claimed was the culmination of the sorcerer’s arts – a system of body positions and movements known as Magical Passes.
These were presented in the book Magical Passes (HarperCollins 1998) and in a series of videos entitled Carlos Castaneda’s Tensegrity (Tensegrity being an architectural term meaning a combination of tension and integrity).
Castaneda claimed that these movements had been handed down to initiates over 27 generations and, in their turn, had been passed on to him by don Juan before his death. The performance of the Magical Passes, said Castaneda, enabled sorcerers to achieve “indescribable feats of perception” and experience “unequalled states of physical prowess and well-being.”
Death of a sorcerer
Castaneda died on April 27th, 1998, at the age of 72 (although no one can be certain of his correct age). The cause was reportedly cancer of the liver. Curiously, it was to be another two months before the news of his demise became public. There was no announcement, no press report, and no funeral or service of any kind.
According to Culver City mortuary, which handled his remains, Castaneda’s body was cremated at once, and his ashes spirited away to the Mexican desert. In a statement to the press, his agents, Toltec Artists, said that, “In the tradition of the shamans of his lineage, Carlos Castaneda left this world in full awareness.”
In the end, whether Castaneda’s opus of work was fact or fiction is beside the point; his books outlined both a sophisticated philosophy and a workable system of sorcery.
As Mexican anthropologist and shamanic practitioner, Victor Sanchez, puts it in his book The Teachings of Don Carlos (Bear Co 1995): “The question of whether don Juan existed or not seems to me insignificant in comparison with the ideas set forth in Castaneda’s books. The fact is (the ideas) exist – and most important – they work.”
Promise of power
In 1972, an enigmatic Latino character who calls himself “Tomas” was on the brink of suicide, due to financial ruin and frustrated ambition. After deciding to empower his life rather than destroy it, he chanced across Carlos Castaneda’s first book The Teachings of Don Juan.
He was intrigued and went on to read and reread the Castaneda books as they came out. Eventually Tomas set about putting the Castaneda/don Juan system of sorcery into practise.
For ease of reference he compiled an extensive index of Castaneda’s books. During the early 1990s, urged by friends, he reluctantly agreed to this being published as The Promise of Power (Hampton Roads 1993) – on the proviso that he remain anonymous and that all royalties went to charity.
Neither his friends, nor anyone concerned with the project, ever knew where Tomas lived or anything about his background. When the book came out, Tomas disappeared completely. Although he did later send a new manuscript to his editors – a profound meditation on the abstract nature of Castaneda/don Juan sorcery called Creative Victory (Weiser 1995).
Return of a sorceress
Carlos Castaneda was not the only student of the mysterious sorcerer don Juan. Three women – Carol Tiggs, Florinda Donner-Grau and Taisha Abelar – were also apprenticed to him (although they knew the Yaqui Indian under different names).
Unlike Castaneda, all three remained anonymous for years. But then a strange event occurred which prompted them to go public.
Recounted in Carlos Castaneda’s book The Art of Dreaming is how, during the mid-1970s, Carol Tiggs disappeared into the “Second Attention” (or supernatural realm), apparently for good.
Ten years later, however, she returned to this world. Feeling groggy and disorientated, she couldn’t think how to get in touch with Castaneda or the other two.
Eventually, she located Castaneda at the Phoenix Bookstore in Santa Monica, where he was giving a lecture. Her return was seen as a sign that don Juan’s sorcery teachings should be made more accessible. Consequently, Donner-Grau published Being in Dreaming (HarperSanFrancisco 1991) and Abelar The Sorcerer’s Crossing (Arkana 1992), which recounted their experiences with don Juan and his party of sorcerers.
Don Genaro, a Mazatec Indian sorcerer and friend of don Juan’s, was also actively involved in Carlos Castaneda’s apprenticeship. He was something of a trickster and regularly terrified Castaneda with his apparently miraculous powers. One time he made Castaneda’s car disappear, which had been parked on the other side of a small hill, close to don Juan’s house.
Genaro, don Juan and Castaneda were sitting outside the house, when don Juan urged Genaro to take Castaneda’s car away.
Genaro furrowed his brow in mock concentration, then said, “It’s done!”
Don Juan suggested they all go and examine the car. When they reached the top of the hill, they saw that the car had gone. Castaneda ran down the hill, but his car was not anywhere in sight.
It just didn’t seem possible, as the vehicle had been securely locked. Eventually, after a long search, Genaro made a kite out of his hat, cast it into the air, and when it hit the ground, it apparently transformed into Castaneda’s car.
Margaret Runyan Castaneda
In his determination to create a fog around his past, Castaneda never made any reference to a wife. But according to 77 year-old Margaret Runyan Castaneda, author of A Magical Journey with Carlos Castaneda (Millennia Press/Gazelle 1997), she and Castaneda were married in Tijuana in 1960, and although they only lived together for six months, their divorce did not become absolute until 1973.
Furthermore, she claims that Castaneda insisted she sign documents with the California Department of Public Health making him the legal father of her son, Carlton Jeremy, or CJ, whom she’d had by another relationship.
But one of Castaneda’s most marked eccentricities, recalls Margaret, was to suggest that he had a double. She tells the story of meeting him in New York, having not seen him for some years. They had dinner and spent the night in a hotel room, talking about CJ. A few months later, she writes, Castaneda denied having been with her at all.
Active Side of Infinity
The Active Side of Infinity was Castaneda’s last book, written just before his death, and was published in January 1999 by HarperCollins. The first part of the book was a retrospective of his apprenticeship with don Juan. While the second part was a meditation on death, as perceived by don Juan’s lineage of shamans.
Books by Carlos Castaneda
Teachings of Don Juan (1968)
A Separate Reality (1971)
Journey to Ixtlan (1972)
Tales of Power (1974)
Second Ring of Power (1977)
The Eagle’s Gift (1981)
The Fire From Within (1984)
The Power of Silence 1987)
The Art of Dreaming 1993)
Magical Passes: The Practical Wisdom of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico (1998)
The Teachings of Don Juan: New 30th Anniversary Edition (1998)
The Wheel of Time (1998)
Tensegrity Volume One: Twelve Basic Movements To Gather And Promote Well-Being.
Tensegrity Volume Two: Redistributing Dispersed Energy
Tensegrity Volume Three: Energetically Crossing From One Phylum To Another