by Mike Sager: Castaneda wrote a series of wildly popular books extolling a shaman’s teachings. Was any of it real?
On a winter afternoon in 1973, on a beach near Malibu, Castaneda sat side by side with Gloria Garvin, a blanket wrapped cozily around their shoulders. The sun was low on the horizon, a blood-orange ball. Wispy clouds glowed pink and magenta against the perfect cerulean sky. Seagulls swooped overhead, calling and complaining; sandpipers skittled on stick legs across the sand; surfers in wet suits worked a left-hand break a quarter mile offshore.
Castaneda took Garvin’s hand tenderly in both of his and gazed into her startling, gold-flecked blue eyes.
“You have always been like a bird, like a little bird in a cage,” he said, projecting his voice above the rush and pound of the waves. “You are wanting to fly, you’re ready, the door is open—but you’re just sitting there. I want to take you with me. I’ll help you soar. Nothing could stop you if you come with me.”
Garvin was 26 years old, petite with porcelain skin. She wore her hair in Cleopatra bangs. An attractive young woman who’d heard her share of come-on lines during her hippie wanderings of the late sixties, no one had ever spoken to her quite like Castaneda did. She realized what he was saying, how it sounded—it was kind of corny, really, the sort of drivel usually reserved for the well-thumbed pages of her mother’s romance novels. But somehow . . . somehow, it didn’t come across that way at all. Somehow when the words came from his mouth they were new and magical and moving. She felt transfixed.
Gloria had first heard of Carlos Castaneda on a cold day in early 1969, at a long table in the dining room of an old Victorian townhouse in Haight-Ashbury.
She and her boyfriend had hitch-hiked to San Francisco from LA to see the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West. After the marathon concert, they went to a friend’s group house to crash. There they were greeted with a delicious treat: a pumpkin pie laced with hashish.
After sating themselves on pie, they lay around on pillows on the floor for the rest of the night, reveling in the synchronous pleasure of getting high and satisfying one’s munchies simultaneously, mesmerized by the glowing light from a paper Japanese lantern that seemed to be receiving them all into the universe.
The next afternoon, still pretty wasted, the crew was sitting around the dining room table, drinking coffee and smoking joints, when someone began reading aloud from a review of The Teachings of Don Juan.
A powerful book, simply written yet deeply affecting to some, The Teachings was the first of what would grow into a series of twelve—a groovy trip into the heady netherworld of psychedelic drugs and alternative realities; think Kerouac does psychotropics.
Classified as nonfiction anthropology, the book was issued first by UCLA’s University Press. Shortly thereafter, it was purchased and reissued by Simon & Schuster. Though the book professed to be nonfiction, it read more like a novel, a combination of Hemingway’s bland staccato and García Márquez’s magical realism.
Regardless of its genre—about which there would eventually be much debate—the book was perfectly suited to its times, an era of sex and drugs and flower power, of back-to-the-land innocence and marvelous cosmic yearnings. Offered in the form of journal entries, the story is set in a hard scrabble desert landscape of organ pipe cacti and glittering massifs. The story centers around the strange, difficult, and sometimes antic apprenticeship of a skeptical, slightly annoying young academic to a wily old Yaqui Indian sorcerer named Don Juan Matus, whom Castaneda said he met through a friend in the waiting room of a Greyhound bus station, on the Arizona side of the Mexican border, approximately six months a!er his marriage to Margaret Runyan.
Peopled with indigenous Indians, anthropomorphic incarnations, and spirits both playful and malevolent, the book evokes mysterious winds and terrifying sounds, the shiver of leaves at twilight, the loftiness of a crow in flight, the raw fragrance of tequila, the vile, fibrous taste of peyote. Castaneda writes extensively of his meetings with Mescalito, who comes to him disguised successively as a playful black dog, a column of singing light, and a cricket-like being with a warty green head.
Castaneda hears awesome and unexplained rumblings from dead lava hills; converses with a bilingual coyote; sews shut the eyes of a lizard with a needle and thread harvested from a cactus; meets the guardian of the Second Attention, a hundred-foot gnat with spiky tufted hair and drooling jaws.
In dry, detached, scholarly language, the book details the preparation and ingestion of humito, the little smoke, made from the dust of psilocybin mushrooms. Yerba del diablo, the devil’s weed, is also known as datura. It causes Castaneda’s head to sprout wings, beak and feet, transform into a crow, and fly off into the heavens. At every new obstacle and development, Castaneda plays the skeptical rationalist, a modern Everyman, trying to translate his mystical experiences into the kind of concrete scientific understanding upon which much of Western thought is based.
As such, his only tools are questions—which come in the form of his persistent, fumbling efforts to keep up a Socratic dialogue with Don Juan.
Upon awakening from an experience with the devil’s weed, one of twenty-two drug trips documented in Castaneda’s first two books, he asks the old sorcerer, “Did I take offlike a bird?”
“You always ask me questions I cannot answer,” the old man tells him. “What you want to know makes no sense. Birds fly like birds and a man who has taken the devil’s weed flies as such.”
Beneath the spectral fireworks and psychedelic drama in The Teachings (and in the subsequent eleven volumes to follow over the next thirty years) is Castaneda’s quest to become an Impeccable Warrior, a Man of Knowledge wholly at one with his environment.
Agile and strong, unencumbered by sentiment or personal history, the Warrior knows that each act may be his last. He is alone. Death is the root of his life, and in its constant presence the Warrior always performs “impeccably.” He is attuned to the desert, to its sounds and shadows, animals and birds, power spots and holes of refuge. The Warrior’s aim in becoming a Man of Knowledge, the young academic learns through his apprenticeship, is “to stop the world” and “see”—to experience life directly, grasping its essence without interpreting it, coming eventually to the realization that the universe, as perceived by everyday humans, is just a construct based on shared customs and languages and understandings.
Don Juan tells his bumbling and often frightened student that, in truth, people are not really made of flesh. Human beings, he explains, are actually made of fine filaments of light, glowing white cobwebs that stretch from the head to the navel, forming an egg-shaped assemblage of circulating threads, with arms and legs of luminous bristles bursting in all directions. By these threads, every person is joined with every other, and with their surroundings, and with the universe.
As Don Juan lectures Castaneda: “a man is a luminous egg whether he’s a beggar or a king and there’s no way to change anything.”
Of particular import in this cosmic anatomy is the Assemblage Point, a place of intense luminosity, located about an arm’s length behind the shoulder blades, where perception takes place. By shifting or displacing the assemblage point during dream states, the old Nagual taught, a practitioner could gain entrance into other worlds, something called “The Art of Dreaming.”
When Garvin returned to LA, flush with the new possibilities of Don Juan’s world, she mentioned the far-out book to her aunt, who was working in the graduate research library at UCLA. The author, her aunt happened to know, spent a lot of time in the rare book room of the graduate school library. The married author happened to be dating a library worker the aunt knew well. In short order, a meeting was arranged.
Garvin took her boyfriend as a reinforcement. The couple spent the whole afternoon with the great man in the student union at UCLA. Sitting at a Formica table, amid the hectic bustle of the student body, they spoke about life and death, drugs and sex, meaning and shamanism.
At the end of their time together, Castaneda took Garvin’s hand for the first time. This was a most auspicious meeting,” he said.
Then he nodded his head in the direction of her boyfriend. “Too bad you brought this nincompoop along with you.”
Over the next few years, Garvin and Castaneda stayed in touch by letter and by phone. At his urging, she enrolled in UCLA as an undergraduate anthropology student. Later, also at his urging, she broke offher longstanding engagement to her boyfriend. Castaneda, meanwhile, published his second book, A Separate Reality: Conversations with Don Juan, and then his third, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, which served simultaneously as his doctoral thesis.
In a departure from the first two volumes, Castaneda revealed in Ixtlan that the drug part of the program had ended. A!er ten years of study with the old Indian, he wrote in the introduction to Ixtlan, “It became evident to me that my original assumption about the role of psychotropic plants was erroneous. They were not the essential feature of the sorcerer’s description of the world, but were only an aid to cement, so to speak, parts of the description which I had been incapable of perceiving otherwise. My insistence on holding on to my standard version of reality rendered me almost deaf and blind to Don Juan’s aims. Therefore, it was simply my lack of sensitivity which has fostered their use.”
Now his eyes had been properly opened, he wrote, it was necessary to focus on what the old sorcerer had called the “techniques for stopping the world.” Only then could he become an Impeccable Warrior.
“One needs the mood of a warrior for every single act,” Don Juan tells Castaneda in his typical fashion—harsh and judgmental but with a spirit of love, like a scolding old uncle. “Otherwise one becomes distorted and ugly. There is no power in a life that lacks this mood. Look at yourself. Everything offends and upsets you. You whine and complain and feel that everyone is making you dance to their tune . . . A warrior, on the other hand, is a hunter. He calculates everything. That’s control. But once his calculations are over, he acts. He lets go. That’s abandon. A warrior is not a leaf at the mercy of the wind. No one can push him; no one can make him do things against himself or against his better judgment. A warrior is trained to survive, and he survives in the best of all possible fashions.”
By the time Ixlan was published, Castaneda was indeed surviving in the best of all possible fashions. He had become a cult figure; would-be disciples and counter-culture tourists were flocking to Mexico, combing the deserts for mushrooms and Don Juan. The Teachings was selling an astounding 16,000 copies a week. Ixtlan was a hardback best seller. Sales of the paperback made Castaneda a millionaire. He traded in his old VW bus for a new Audi and then he bought the two-house compound on Pandora in Westwood Village.
Before long, Time magazine came calling. The newsweekly was one of the most influential of its day; you could probably say that getting that the front cover of Time was for decades the equivalent of going viral—with the exception that Time practiced fact-based, textbook journalism.
In what would be his first and last major interview, Castaneda told Time he was born to a well-known family in São Paulo, Brazil, on Christmas Day, 1935. At the time of his birth, he said, his father, who would later become a professor of literature, was seventeen. His mother was fifteen. He was raised by his maternal grandparents on a chicken farm until he was six, at which point his parents took custody. The happy reunion was cut short, however, when his mother died. The doctor’s diagnosis, Castaneda told Time, was pneumonia, but he believed the cause had been acedia, a condition characterized by spiritual apathy. “She was morose, very beautiful and dissatisfied; an ornament,” he told Time. “My despair was that I wanted to make her something else, but how could she listen to me? I was only six.”
Castaneda was left to be raised by his father, a shadowy figure whom he mentions in the books with a mixture of fondness, pity, and contempt. His father’s weakness of will, he told Time, was the obverse to the “impeccability” of Don Juan. In the books, Castaneda describes his father’s efforts to become a writer as a farce of indecision. He told Time: “I am my father. Before I met Don Juan, I would spend years sharpening my pencils and then getting a headache every time I sat down to write. Don Juan taught me that is stupid. If you want to do something, do it impeccably, and that’s what matters.”