I should begin this post by confessing that I think I have read this book more times than any other book. Not that it is Castaneda’s best book (that would be Journey to Ixtlan, in my humble opinion), but because I credit this book for putting me on the spiritual path. For that reason, I have gone back to it several times over the years. And now, since I have a desire to re-read all of Castaneda’s works, I figured I should start again at the beginning.
Before I share my thoughts on this book, I want to share a little personal history regarding how I was introduced to Carlos Castaneda. Back in my younger and crazier days, there was a biker bar a few blocks from where I lived called JR’s Tavern. Now this was the type of biker bar that you see depicted as a stereotype in films: small, grungy, smelly, couple pool tables, and frequent brawls. I at the time was under age, but there was a barmaid there named Troubles, and she liked me, so she would let me come in and drink, provided I sat near the back door so I could abscond quickly should there be a raid. One evening, after closing, Troubles invited me to stay and drink with her. We talked for a while, and the details are fuzzy, but at one point she started telling me about Carlos Castaneda. She said she was a “warrior” and followed the teachings of Castaneda, and based upon how well she knew me, she thought I should read his books. Wanting to impress the cool barmaid, I soon went to the bookstore and found a boxed set containing Castaneda’s first four books:
- The Teachings of Don Juan
- A Separate Reality
- Journey to Ixtlan
- Tales of Power
I started reading, and blew right through all four texts, and the impact they had on my life cannot be understated.
OK, now to discuss The Teachings.
In the early 1960’s, Carlos Castaneda was an anthropology student at the University of California. He was introduced to a native Mexican sorcerer named don Juan Matus, who was supposed to be knowledgeable in regard to psychotropic plants, particularly peyote. Castaneda wanted to do research on the use of these hallucinogenic plants in native religious practices, but ended up becoming don Juan’s apprentice. Castaneda’s books are his accounts of his apprenticeship.
Carlos Castaneda, under the tutelage of don Juan, takes us through that moment of twilight, through that crack in the universe between daylight and dark into a world not merely other than our own, but of an entirely different order of reality. To reach it he had the aid of mescalito, yerba del diablo, and humito—peyote, datura, and mushrooms. But this is no mere recounting of hallucinatory experiences, for don Juan’s subtle manipulations have guided the traveler while his interpretations give meaning to the events that we, through the sorcerer’s apprentice, have the opportunity to experience.
Early in Castaneda’s apprenticeship, don Juan tells him that to follow the path of knowledge is no trivial matter and must be approached as such.
“A man goes to knowledge as he goes to war, wide-awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. Going to knowledge or going to war in any other manner is a mistake, and whoever makes it will live to regret his steps.”
Throughout my life, I have explored numerous spiritual paths. Don Juan explains that there are many paths to follow on your quest, and the only correct path is the one that feels right to you. And, it is OK to change paths if one no longer serves you well.
“… Anything is one of a million paths [un camino entre cantidades de caminos]. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young, and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it. Now I do understand it. I will tell you what it is: Does the path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths, but I am not anywhere. My benefactor’s question has meaning now. Does the path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, and the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.”
I suppose any discussion of Castaneda’s early work should include a quote where he details his experience using an hallucinogenic substance. In the following, quote, Castaneda describes his experience having smoked a mixture made with psylocibin mushrooms.
Don Juan sat next to me, to my right, and without moving held the pipe sheath against the floor as though keeping it down by force. My hands were heavy. My arms sagged, pulling my shoulders down. My nose was running. I wiped it with the back of my hand, and my upper lip was rubbed off! I wiped my face, and all the flesh was wiped off! I was melting! I felt as if my flesh was actually melting. I jumped to my feet and tried to grab hold of something—anything—with which to support myself. I was experiencing terror I had never felt before. I held onto a pole that don Juan keeps stuck on the floor in the center of his room. I stood there for a moment, then I turned to look at him. He was sitting motionless, holding his pipe, staring at me.
(p. 106 – 107)
My interpretation of this is that when an individual shifts to a non-ordinary state of awareness, reality as we have been trained to perceive it melts away, and we are confronted with a new reality that does not conform to our established mental construct. It is a frightening experience when it happens, but can have profound spiritual effects afterwards.
I will conclude this post with a few words about the second section of the book: “A Structural Analysis.” This was Castaneda’s attempt to analyze his experiences through the lens of academic logic. The result only serves to demonstrate that what he experienced cannot be classified or understood though our ordinary thought processes. I probably should have skipped it on this reading, but I did re-read it just to reinforce my thoughts on it.
As I mentioned earlier in the post, I plan on re-reading all of Castaneda’s books, although I will likely intersperse other books in there. Stay tuned for my thoughts on his second book: A Separate Reality.