This is the fourth book in Castaneda’s series detailing his apprenticeship with the Yaqui sorcerer don Juan Matus. The concepts presented in this volume are infinitely more complex than those addressed in the first three books. Castaneda goes deep into explanations of the nagual and the tonal, shamanic terms used to describe the levels of reality available to a sorcerer. This information is far too dense for me to cover in a short blog post, so I won’t even attempt to do so. Instead, I want to discuss a passage that resonated with me and that I think can be adequately explored in a post.
“At this precise point a teacher would usually say to his disciple that they have arrived at a final crossroad,” he continued. “To say such a thing is misleading, though. In my opinion there is no final crossroad, no final step to anything. And since there is no final step to anything, there shouldn’t be any secrecy about any part of our lot as luminous beings. Personal power decides who can or who cannot profit by a revelation; my experiences with my fellow men have proven to me that very, very few of them would be willing to listen; and of those who listen even fewer would be willing to act on what they listened to; and of those who are willing to act even fewer have enough personal power to profit by their acts. So, the matter of secrecy about the sorcerers’ explanation boils down to a routine, perhaps a routine as empty as any other routine.”
The crossroads is one of my favorite symbols. In addition to representing a choice, it is also the intersection between the material and the spiritual planes. Combining these two interpretations, the crossroads can become a symbol for a choice as to whether to take a spiritual path or a material path. Echoing what don Juan says, there is never a final crossroad; every moment of your life provides you with an opportunity to make a decision which path you will follow. I will even be so bold as to assert that after taking your last breath, you are still at a crossroad where you will have to decide a path to take. Crossroads, like the circle, are infinite.
The other thing I found interesting in the cited passage is the secrecy associated with occult and mystical teachings. In the past, when certain teachings and ideas could land someone on a rack or in a bonfire, the need for secrecy was vital. But this is not the case anymore. Yet, some groups and societies still adhere to the practice of secrecy. I suspect this is habit or routine, as don Juan says, or out of greed for holding on to power, which I personally feel is the primary motivator. And I completely agree with the explanation that most people choose not to listen to esoteric teachings, and of those who do, few choose to practice and fewer still have the ability to be successful in the mystical pursuits. There is more information available for seekers than any one person can consume, and most of this is ignored or rejected.
I have been really enjoying rereading Castaneda’s works, but I think I am going to take a little break and catch up on some other reading before I dive into the fifth book: The Second Ring of Power. Thanks for stopping by and have a great day.
This has always been my favorite of Castaneda’s books, primarily because the focus is on perception, and how once our perception is shifted, we are able to access other layers of reality that are beyond our “normal” levels of consciousness. This book goes into detail about how Carlos was instructed, under the guidance of the Yaqui sorcerer don Juan, in the methods of shifting perception, which don Juan refers to as “stopping the world.” In the introduction to the text, Castaneda provides a nice summary of the technique.
“Stopping the world” was indeed an appropriate rendition of certain states of awareness in which the reality of everyday life is altered because the flow of interpretation, which ordinarily runs uninterruptedly, has been stopped by a set of circumstances alien to that flow. In my case the set of circumstances alien to my normal flow of interpretations was the sorcery description of the world. Don Juan’s precondition for “stopping the world” was that one had to be convinced; in other words, one had to learn the new description in a total sense, for the purpose of pitting it against the old one, and in that way break the dogmatic certainty, which we all share, that the validity of our perceptions, or our reality of the world, is not to be questioned.
(pp. xiii – xiv)
According to don Juan’s teachings, there are myriad worlds layered upon our perceived reality, and these can be accessed by radical shifts in awareness. After one experience where Carlos experienced an alternate world, he questions don Juan about the “reality” of what he had experienced.
“And what is real?” don Juan asked me very calmly.
“This, what we’re looking at is real,” I said, pointing to the surroundings.
“But so was the bridge you saw last night, and so was the forest and everything else.”
“But if they were real where are they now?”
“They are here. If you had enough power you could call them back. Right now you cannot do that because you think it is very helpful to keep on doubting and nagging. It isn’t, my friend. It isn’t. There are worlds upon worlds, right here in front of us. And they are nothing to laugh at. Last night if I hadn’t grabbed your arm you would have walked on that bridge whether you wanted to or not. And earlier I had to protect you from the wind that was seeking you out.”
Toward the end of the book, don Genaro, a sorcerer friend of don Juan’s, shares a story with Carlos about a point in his life when he reached a certain stage on his path. In the story, he tells Carlos that after the experience, he tried to return to his home in Ixtlan, but was unable to return to his village.
“Genaro was telling his story for you,” don Juan said, “because yesterday you stopped the world, and he thinks that you also saw, but you are such a fool that you don’t know it yourself. I keep telling him that you are weird, and that sooner or later you will see. At any rate, in your next meeting with the ally, if there is a next time for you, you will have to wrestle with it and tame it. If you survive the shock, which I’m sure you will, since you’re strong and have been living like a warrior, you will find yourself alive in an unknown land. Then, as is natural to all of us, the first thing you will want to do is to start on your way back to Los Angeles. But there is no way to go back to Los Angeles. What you left there is lost forever. By then, of course, you will be a sorcerer, but that’s no help; at a time like that what’s important to all of us is the fact that everything we love or hate or wish for has been left behind. Yet the feelings in a man do not die or change, and the sorcerer starts on his way back home knowing that he will never reach it, knowing that no power on earth, not even his death, will deliver him to the place, the things, the people he loved. That’s what Genaro told you.”
This is a painful truth for all those who are on a mystical path. At some point, our lives will change in such a way that we can never return to our old life. How can someone who touched the Divine go home and watch Netflix? How can a person who has glimpsed the infinite look at a table the same way again? How can anyone who has visited another realm of reality trust our perceptions of our “normal” world? It is impossible, yet nostalgia drives us to attempt a return to our old reality, but that reality will never exist for us again.
Thanks for taking the time to share in my musings. I hope you found them interesting. Comments are open for two weeks following post date, so feel free to share any thoughts you may have.
This is the second book in Castaneda’s account of his apprenticeship with the sorcerer don Juan. Chronologically, the events recounted in this text occur some years after the events recorded in The Teachings of Don Juan. Castaneda needed to take time away from the lessons because it seems he was having difficulty coming to terms with a new way of perceiving reality.
This book essentially deals with what don Juan terms “seeing,” which, in simplified terms, is a way of perceiving levels of reality that are beyond the comprehension of our ordinary states of consciousness.
Don Juan’s particular interest in his second cycle of apprenticeship was to teach me to “see.” Apparently in his system of knowledge there was the possibility of making a semantic difference between “seeing” and “looking” as two distinct manners of perceiving. “Looking” referred to the ordinary way in which we are accustomed to perceive the world, while “seeing” entailed a very complex process by virtue of which a man of knowledge allegedly perceives the “essence” of the things of the world.
Don Juan asserts that humans know very little about reality, and unlike certain animals, we are fooled by what our limited consciousness perceives.
“We men know very little about the world. A coyote knows much more than we do. A coyote is hardly ever fooled by the world’s appearance.”
Later, don Juan states that we maintain our limited view of reality through our internal dialog. Essentially, our minds are constantly talking to us, and this internal chatter defines our view of reality. Thus, by silencing our internal dialog, we are able to catch glimpses of how the world truly is.
“I’ll tell you what we talk to ourselves about. We talk about our world. In fact we maintain our world with our internal talk.”
“How do we do that?”
“Whenever we finish talking to ourselves the world is always as it should be. We renew it, we kindle it with life, we uphold it with our internal talk. Not only that, but we also choose our paths as we talk to ourselves. Thus we repeat the same choices over and over until the day we die, because we keep repeating the same internal talk over and over until the day we die.”
Don Juan continues by asserting that once we stop telling ourselves how the world is, our minds shift and we see the world differently.
“The world is such-and-such or so-and-so only because we tell ourselves that that is the way it is. If we stop telling ourselves that the world is so-and-so, the world will stop being so-and-so. At this moment I don’t think you’re ready for such a momentous blow, therefore you must start slowly to undo the world.”
Although I have read this book twice before, I got a lot out of it on this reading. This is one of those books that takes on other levels of meaning as we progress along our individual paths.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. Have a great day!
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.
This is the first book that Susanna Clarke has published since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which was published in 2004. I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, so I was eager to read Ms. Clarke’s latest, which although not as great as her first novel, it is still very good.
Piranesi is the story about a person living in an alternate reality, and the text is structured as journal entries. There are some interesting and creative aspects to the book, structurally, but I should say up front that my wife listened to the text as an audiobook and did not enjoy it. I can see how this text would not translate well to spoken word. So, if you are planning to read this book, you should read it and not listen to it.
That said, I figure we can look at a couple passages.
These are the Drowned Halls.
On the Periphery of this Region the Waters are shallow, tranquil, and covered with water lilies, but in the centre they are deep and treacherous, full of broken Masonry and drowned Statues. The majority of the Drowned Halls are inaccessible, but some can be entered from the Upper Level.
(pp. 34 – 35)
The dimension where Piranesi exists is a kind of labyrinthine house, which contains animals and water and statues. What is interesting about this passage is the implication that the house, with its rooms of water, represents the subconscious, the aspects of the psyche which grant individuals glimpses of other dimensions. The deeper you go into the waters of the subconscious mind, the more treacherous it becomes. One runs the risk of “drowning” in this other realm. And the line “The majority of the Drowned Halls are inaccessible, but some can be entered from the Upper Level” implies that most areas of the subconscious mind are not accessible to us, but some may be entered by exiting our normal state of awareness, or the Upper Level. Interestingly, certain words are capitalized, giving them a sense of being proper nouns, or names. Most intriguing is Masonry. While this might be coincidental, I could not help wondering whether it is an allusion to the secret rites of the Masonic order. Ritual is often used to evoke non-ordinary states of consciousness in individuals.
At one point in the story, Piranesi meets a “Prophet” who offers to tell Piranesi how his world came into existence.
He looked gratified by my interest. ‘Then I will tell you. It began when I was young, you see. I was always so much more brilliant than my peers. My first great insight happened when I realised how much humankind had lost. Once, men and women were able to turn themselves into eagles and fly immense distances. They communed with rivers and mountains and received wisdom from them. They felt the turning of the stars inside their own minds. My contemporaries did not understand this. They were all enamoured with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. As if merit was a function of chronology! But it seemed to me that the wisdom of the ancients could not have simply vanished. Nothing simply vanishes. It’s not actually possible. I pictured it as a sort of energy flowing out of the world and I thought that this energy must be going somewhere. That was when I realised that there must be other places, other worlds. And so I set myself to find them.’
(pp. 88 – 89)
This is an interesting concept, and it is one which I have pondered. If everything is energy, and the First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed from one form to another, and if thoughts and consciousness are forms of energy, then what happens to our collective consciousness? Does it take on new forms, or does it flow somewhere else? What is the effect of conscious energy on other forms of energy? If the energy patterns still exist, can the be “re-collected”? These are deep questions about the very fabric of our reality. I don’t claim to have any answers, but this is one of those cases where the answers are not as important as the questions.
Anyway, to close, I will say I enjoyed this book. I would recommend both of Susanna Clarke’s books.
In his introduction to this volume, Gene Wolfe beautifully sums up why reading Gaiman is so important.
What is important and central is that, time after time, the stories themselves are true. I don’t mean simply that Neil Gaiman’s history is good history and that his myth is good myth – although they are. I mean that you will understand yourself and the world better for having read them, and that you will have been both ennobled and troubled by the experience; that this is not just art – all sorts of ugly and foolish things are art – but great art.
I completely agree. The stories and myths that Gaiman presents in this book convey truths that can only be expressed through symbols and metaphors. And because Gaiman is such a master of his craft, the stories come to life in a way that feels authentic and personal. While I probably connected with the tale of Haroun al Raschid the most, I also found his interpretations of the Orpheus myth and the Adam and Eve myth to be powerful and inspiring.
Not surprising, but the importance of dreams and the subconscious is a theme that runs through all the tales in this volume, so rather than look at the specific tales, I figured I would share some of the dream-related quotes that particularly stood out for me.
Value’s in what people think. Not in what’s real. Value’s in dreams, boy.
While this statement seems paradoxical, the more you think about it, the more truthful it appears. So often, people place value on tangible things and material possessions. But these things are ephemeral. Eventually, all our material stuff turns to dust, or we die and then our material things are useless to us. But our dreams are internal. They make up who we are on a spiritual level. This is what matters in the end, whether we lived our lives in accordance with our dreams. Additionally, it is from dreams that our creativity grows. Without dreams, there can be no imagination.
Ah. Many dreams come through the Gates of Ivory, Lycius, and they lie. A few dreams come through the Gates of Horn, and they speak to us truly.
Have you ever woken from a dream and had the feeling that some deep truth was conveyed to you through the dream? I have. Usually, I wake up and even if I have had a vivid dream, I know it is just my subconscious processing thoughts. But on those rare occasions, the dreams do seem to come through the “Gates of Horn.” It’s like, while in the dream state, your psyche connects with some divine intelligence. I cannot think of any other way to describe it.
Let’s go and find somewhere comfortable to wait until we wake. It’s so rare to realize that you’re dreaming when you are.
I’ve experienced this phenomenon, also, where I was dreaming and somehow knew I was dreaming. It is a very strange feeling. It is almost like the threshold between the dreaming state and the waking state dissolves, and you are essentially embodying both states of consciousness simultaneously. I recall feeling disoriented after waking from this type of dream.
Time at the edge of dreaming is softer than elsewhere, and here in the soft places it loops and whorls on itself. In the soft places where the border between dreams and reality is eroded, or has not yet formed… Time. It’s like throwing a stone into a pool. It casts ripples. Hoom. That’s where we are. Here. In the soft places, where the geographies of dream intrude upon the real.
I am fascinated by the space between the conscious and the subconscious, between ordinary and non-ordinary realities, the threshold between what we assume is real and what we assume is illusion. How can we really know what is real? Our reality is a construct. And time? I think somewhere, deep inside, we all feel that time is an illusion, that there is a deeper reality which exists beyond time and space. Sometimes I think that during states of deep meditation, during profound mystical experiences, or in this case, during certain dream states, we enter the “soft spaces” where the world we perceive dissolves and the ripples of hidden realities flutter across our consciousness.
I am only halfway through this series of books (there are 12 volumes of Sandman, not including the Overture, which I read in serialized form), and already I feel like my life has changed as a result of reading these works. There are some books that you cannot read without having them affect you on a deep level, and I think the Sandman series falls into this category. I highly recommend that you read these books, and be prepared to have your beliefs challenged.
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The other day I visited the local comic store and discovered the first three issues of Neil Gaiman’s latest Sandman series. I nearly swooned with excitement. I have to say that Gaiman is one of my favorite writers. I have loved everything that I have read by him. I immediately picked up the three issues and my friend at the checkout informed me that it is a short series with only three more issues due out. I plan on reading them all.
The writing and artwork in this first issue is other-worldly. It is like stepping into the surreal realm of dreams, where everything is alien and yet feels familiar, as if tapping into some primordial part of the psyche. As I read the pages and allowed the images to draw me in, I felt like I was slipping into a world of non-ordinary reality.
To briefly sum up the events that transpire, Dream is about to uncreate Corinthian, a bizarre being with sets of teeth instead of eyes who inhabits the subconscious but appears to have taken an interest in inflicting physical harm. I found the character to be very symbolic of using vision to consume images, ultimately digesting what we see around us and what we envision in our subconscious minds. But before Dream can uncreate Corinthian, he is summoned to another dimension at the far side of the universe, where he encounters a most unusual host. Corinthian, meanwhile, escapes with the intention of inflicting harm and then running from Dream to avoid his uncreation.
There is an amazing section where Destiny is depicted holding a large book that contains the secrets to all existence: past, present, and future. The text that accompanies the lush illustration is as evocative as the image itself.
Imagine a book.
Imagine a book that contains everything that is happening, everything that has happened, everything that will happen. There is nothing that exists that is not written in this book.
The book is heavy. It is bound in leather, made from the hide of a beast that has never existed.
The only eyes that read the book are blind. They see only darkness and the contents of the book.
The book is the universe, and only blind Destiny sees how the universe shapes itself into stories. Perhaps he is the only one who reads all the stories the universe forms.
I love the idea of stories shaping our reality. Stories connect us to the past, define our present, and allow us to glimpse our possible futures. The story is eternal and it is the foundation of our existence.
I am really, really excited about this series. As I said earlier, I already have issues 2 and 3, so you can expect my thoughts on those soon. Thanks for stopping by and allowing me to share my thoughts. Read on!!
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