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.
My wife recently bought and read this book and told me she thought I would like it. Since it is short (only 150 pages) I decided to squeeze it in between my other reading projects, and am very glad I did. The book provides practical, spiritual suggestions that are pertinent to coping with the stresses that we have all been dealing with during these chaotic times.
In her introduction, Ms. Chödrön encourages you to allow this book to help you to:
… settle down with your life and take these teachings on honesty, kindness, and bravery to heart. If your life is chaotic and stressful, there’s plenty of advice here for you. If you’re in transition, suffering from loss, or just fundamentally restless, these teachings are tailor made. The main point is that we all need to be reminded and encouraged to relax with whatever arises and bring whatever we encounter to the path.
Pema eloquently reminds us that these difficult times can actually impart important life lessons to us if we allow them to teach us.
Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors—people who have a certain hunger to know what is true—feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.
And it’s not just difficult times that teach us. All of life’s experiences, all of our spiritual learning and seeking, ultimately help us to discover who we are and instruct us on how to navigate the world around us.
Listening to talks about the dharma, or the teachings of Buddha, or practicing meditation is nothing other than studying ourselves. Whether we’re eating or working or meditating or listening or talking, the reason that we’re here in this world is to study ourselves. In fact, it has been said that studying ourselves provides all the books we need.
There is a wealth of wisdom in this small book, and it is written in a style that is easy and conversational. We can all benefit from the insights that Pema shares, and I encourage you to read this book if you even have the slightest bit of interest. I am sure that, like me, you will be glad you did.