Castaneda Illusions or Insights. Hailed by many as a hero of a new age, criticised by others as a fake and a fraud. Regardless of your opinion of the author, scholar and anthropologist, his books are no less than thought-provoking. Castaneda’s tales of wandering the Mexican desert as an apprentice shaman, experimenting with psychedelics are enthralling. Delving into an ancient culture Castaneda tell with such believability it opens a door to a whole other world.
Castaneda Illusions or InsightsHe published his first three books as nonfiction while an anthropology student at University of California. Castaneda wrote them as a record of his research and apprenticeship of an unusual kind. Of time spent with the traditional shaman from northern Mexico, don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian. Based on these stories Castaneda received his bachelor and doctoral degrees. It is the nonfiction claim of these works that earn Castaneda harsh criticism. If only he had done what James Redfield did with the Celestine Prophecies. Present his stories as a philosophy, a shift in perception, a new way of seeing.
Castaneda early yearsThere is no real information about Castaneda as a child. It is as if he reinvented himself when he moved to America. While he claimed to be born on December 25, 1931, he was actually born in 1925. In his third book, Journey to Ixtlan, The lessons of don Juan he talks about erasing personal history.Don Juan tells him that ‘personal history is crap’ and it is better to leave the past in the past, to recreate yourself every day. Don Juan admits to creating illusions around his personal life as there is freedom in being an unknown. He does not want the thoughts and emotions of others to influence his life.
History of CastanedaCastaneda grew up as Carlos Arana in Cajamarca, Peru and studied at the School of Fine Arts in Lima. Carlos changed his name when moving to America in 1951 hoping to become a sculptor, and became a US citizen in 1959. He studied literature, philosophy and creative writing at Los Angeles Community Center. He then went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts at the University of California in Los Angeles. He graduated in 1962 and went on to study anthropology earning his doctorate degree in 1973. There was always mystery around whether Castaneda ever married. Margaret Runyan says they married in 1960 in Mexico. Her son’s birth certificate carries his name as his father. Though Castaneda was not his biological father. Yet, Castaneda’s death certificate listed him as a bachelor and never married when he died in 1998. So, it is unclear whether he ever divorced Runyan. It was a complete mystery. Some believed they separated almost straight away, others say it was in 1973 when he bought the Westwood estate. Others believe they never divorced.
Cataneda’s FollowersCastaneda moved a group of his female followers into the Westwood estate. In line with erasing the past, they took on completely new identities. Kathleen Pohlman became Carol Tiggs; Regina Thal became Florinda Donner-Grau; Patricia Partin became Blue Scout; and Maryann Simko became Taisha Abelar.
A career creating illusionsCastaneda wrote 12 books, with the most successful his first, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. It began as an assignment for University, where he was studying the medicinal plants used by the Native Indian people. He had to interview a Native Indian. Castaneda crosses paths with Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian shaman from Mexico. They meet by chance at a bus stop near the Mexican border. His apprenticeship under Don Juan takes him into a whole new reality that sets his path for the rest of his life.
The Teachings of Don JuanHe embarks on a 10-year leaning path in the way of ‘brujo’ (shaman, sorcerer, medicine man). During this time Castaneda abandoned any conventional way of reporting the facts for his doctoral thesis. The study evolved. So, instead of an objective study, Don Juan turned it around so the study was about the author himself.On its release in 1968 as a nonfiction book, The teachings of Don Juan thrilled readers with its page-turning adventures. Stories assisted by psychotropic drugs like peyote, magic mushrooms and Datura. When people hear Castaneda’s name, they associate it with peyote. But, in fact, it was the Sacred Datura used in sacred ceremonies and learning in his books. You can find it in the deserts of New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Arizona, Mexico, southern California, and the West Indies. It is also known as jimsonweed and devil’s weed. It was Datura rather than peyote he used to explore other word realities.
‘Seeing’ other realitiesCastaneda’s critics actually turned his use of Datura into peyote. It is true that his first experience taking mind altering plants was peyote in 1961. There was nothing ceremonious about it. In fact, it was a fluke and a test by Don Juan. It was on a day when Juan was sitting around drinking tequila with some friends. Someone produces a coffee can with peyote buttons. They offer the peyote is to Castaneda to try. And, he did. After taking it, he ran around and round the house behaving like a dog – barking, peeing and throwing up. He writes of seeing a big black dog called Mescalito.Don Juan explains Mescalito is a plant spirit, and he wanted to see if the spirit liked Castenada. Note, there is no ceremony in the use of peyote. Castenada simply chose peyote buttons from an old coffee jar and ate them.
Sorcerer’s apprenticeSatisfied at Castenada’ experience with peyote, Don Juan takes Castaneda on as a sorcerer’s apprentice. A month later, Castaneda took his first Datura brew. But, this time there was a long ceremony surrounding the brewing and taking the tea. Harvested using great ceremony, plants are carefully selected. Don Juan uses sacred digging and handling methods the plants when preparing them for consumption.It was 18 months later, at another Datura ceremony in 1963, that Castaneda told the story his most highly criticized experience. The experience where he claims to have turned into a crow and flew. This time there were even more complex rituals before taking the Datura. Mixing the prepared Datura with lard to create a flying ointment. Don Juan tells Castaneda to use it. He does, and has his first lesson in flying and loses three days in the process.
The Power of Sacred DaturaIf you are wondering why, Datura was the most powerful of all plants. The most respected. Peyote does not contain the sought after high levels of tropane alkaloids. Atropine, Hyoscyamine, and Scopolamine are all elements of Datura. These are the main ingredients shamans seek for their unusual ceremonious practices.When using Datura as a drug it is very toxic and powerful. You need to be careful as you can poison yourself. It is best not to try this drug at all. But if you have to, make sure you understand the consequences and possible outcomes if you do.
Devil’s WeedCastaneda says that Don Juan was not very interested in what he called the devil’s weed (Datura). Don Juan likens Datura to the power of a woman.“She (Datura) is as powerful as the best of allies, but there is something I personally don’t like about her. She distorts men. She gives them a taste of power too soon without fortifying their hearts and makes them domineering and unpredictable. She makes them weak in the middle of their great power.”from Chapter 3, The Teachings of Don JuanOn the scale of psychotropic drugs, peyote is not as harsh as Datura. It is much easier to use and understand.
Learning to flyWhether Castaneda flew in the physical or not, divides people. Remember, his books were sold as nonfiction and Castaneda maintained he flew in the physical. Causing much confusion. But, then as he asks Don Juan if what he is experiencing is real. And Don Juan asks him what is reality? He then tells him reality is another way of seeing.A few days later, Castaneda again takes a psychotropic mix of plants. This time he inhales the smoke. He watches as Don Juan drops the plant dust over the coals. Castaneda watches as the plants glow in the coals and “crack into an intricate pattern of lines”. Do Juan tells him to watch the patterns in the coals and then tells him to inhale the smoke.
Castaneda Transforms Into a CrowAlready feeling the effects of smoking an initial mix earlier, Castaneda immediately feels its effects. Making him numb while feeling a heaviness. Castaneda transforms into a crow and flies away. Discussing this a few days later Don Juan and Castaneda argue about objective reality. Castaneda questions whether he flew in the physical reality or not. Don Juan explains it to him.“Anybody who learns to become a crow can see it. You will see it yourself.”At this point I asked don Juan the unavoidable question.“Did I really become a crow? I mean would anyone seeing me have thought I was an ordinary crow?”“No. You can’t think that way when dealing with the power of the allies. Such questions make no sense, and yet to become a crow is the simplest of all matters. It is almost like frolicking; [* frolicking- playing in a carefree manner] it has little usefulness. As I have already told you, the smoke is not for those who seek power. It is only for those who crave to see.
Learned to Become a Crow“I learned to become a crow because these birds are the most effective of all. No other birds bother them, except perhaps larger, hungry eagles, but crows fly in groups and can defend themselves. Men don’t bother crows either, and that is an important point. Any man can distinguish a large eagle, especially an unusual eagle, or any other large, unusual bird, but who cares about a crow? A crow is safe. It is ideal in size and nature. It can go safely into any place without attracting attention.“On the other hand, it is possible to become a lion or a bear, but that is rather dangerous. Such a creature is too large; it takes too much energy to become one. One can also become a cricket, or a lizard, or even an ant, but that is even more dangerous, because large animals prey on small creatures.”I argued that what he was saying meant that one really changed into a crow, or a cricket, or anything else. But he insisted I was misunderstanding.
It Takes a Very Long Time to Learn to be a Proper Crow“It takes a very long time to learn to be a proper crow,” he said. “But you did not change, nor did you stop being a man. There is something else.”“Can you tell me what the something else is, don Juan?”“Perhaps by now you know it yourself. Maybe if you were not so afraid of becoming mad, or of losing your body, you would understand this marvellous secret. But perhaps you must wait until you lose your fear to understand what I mean.”from Chapter 11, The teachings of Don Juan.
Learning to seeSo, what do you think? Did Castaneda fly in the physical? Or is this one of the earliest recorded lessons in changing perception? Learning to see? As, in hindsight all these decades later, we see the New Age movement works on this type of perception. Or, is this an account of how taking psychotropic drugs can change your reality? How you see and perceive the world? This could be one of the earliest records of seeing that has become common these days in meditation, though without the use of mind altering drugs.
Castaneda Invites ControversyAlmost everything about Castaneda invites controversy. Whether his writings are true in the sense of an unaltered reality or not is becomes unimportant. What is important is what you take away from the teachings of his 12 books. Whether you believe in the truth. His books were so successful he became a best-selling author and, over the years, they have never been out of print. Which is a huge achievement and a testament to the constant demand new generations have for his knowledge even though his writings were nonfiction. He claimed that what he wrote was true. Maybe that was the appeal. New generations seeking his knowledge. His book has sold more than 28 million copies translated into 17 languages.
The Castaneda LieSeveral years after publishing his first book, Castaneda revealed he had lied about his past. This threw doubt on the authenticity of his writings and people began to take a closer look at what Castaneda calls the truth. This put him under even closer scrutiny and he retired from public life in the 1990s.Whether you love Castaneda or hate him, there is no denying his writings have lived on through half a century as a hallmark of what is now known as New Age thinking. Deepak Chopra said of Castaneda – ‘Carlos Castaneda is one the most profound and influential thinkers of his century. His insights are paving the way for the future evolution of human consciousness. We should all be deeply indebted to him’.
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