Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998) was a Peruvian-born cultural anthropologist who wrote many books. In these books he described his experiences with a Mexican shaman he called Don Juan. Thanks to the many insights and surrealistic adventures of Castaneda his books became widely popular in the West.
Through his work, many people in the West were introduced to the use of psychedelics. In this way, the books of Carlos Castaneda made a large contribution to the psychedelic revolution. This movement gained popularity in the West halfway during the previous century.
At first, his work was considered non-fiction. Critics soon questioned if everything he described had actually taken place. Exactly what is true and false remains a big mystery. Not only his books are wrapped in mystery, his life is riddle-like. In this article, we will consider his fascinating life, the contents of his books, the criticism of his work and the deeper message which Carlos Castaneda propagated.
First marriage of Carlos Castaneda
Castaneda moved from Peru to the United States at the beginning of the 1950s, where he became an official American citizen in 1957. He studied anthropology at UCLA in Los Angeles According to his ex-wife Runyan they married in 1960. The wedding took place in Mexico. Runyan's son was recognised by Castaneda as his own child, although he was not his biological father. The couple would separate within a year although this was never documented.
Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan
Castaneda wrote three books during his anthropology study: The Teachings or Don Juan: A Yaqui way or knowledge, A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan. These books are logs that he kept during his anthropological study trips in Mexico. At first, he had been especially interested in the medicinal herbs used by the Indians. However, during one of his travels, he came in contact with the shaman Don Juan Matus. This man belonged to the Yaqui Indian tribe of North-Mexico. Castaneda was fascinated by his knowledge, wizardly insights and the psychedelic experiences that he had under his guidance.
Castaneda describes how he became the student of Don Juan. Don Juan supposedly was in continuous contact with a reality unknown to us. He taught Castaneda how he could enter this marvellous world. In his books, Castaneda explains how this realisation process went, which insights he acquired and what he had done. In this way, his readers could also gain deeper insight.
Don Juan also claimed to be a Nagual. This means that he could enter the consciousness of a certain totem animal. Within the shamanistic tradition, this is a rather common phenomenon. As soon as you change into an animal during a vision and see the world through the consciousness of this animal, you will have obtained a higher state of consciousness according to the Indians.
In 1973, Castaneda received his PhD at UCLA. A year later he published the book Tales or power that formed a closure of his period as a student of Don Juan. After this, he retreated completely. He did continue to write books, but no longer presented himself to the general public.
Carlos Castaneda and his three women
In 1973 Castaneda bought a large house where he subsequently lived with three women. They were also called the witches of Castaneda. The women also claimed to be students of Don Juan and Castaneda confirmed this. The three women severed all social ties and changed their names. Regina Thal became Florinda Donner-Grau, Maryann Simko became Taisha Abelar and Kathleen Pohlman became Carol Tiggs. All three had studied anthropology with Taisha Abelar also receiving her PhD. The women of Castaneda refused to be photographed, which means only photographs exist of them from the time before they moved in with Castaneda.
There were also two other women who belonged to his inner circle. However these two had not been students of Don Juan but were very faithful followers of Carlos Castaneda. The first woman was originally called Patricia Partin and adopted the name Blue Scout. She divorced her husband and moved in with Castaneda. In 1995 however she became his legally adopted daughter. According to some she changed a lot since she began living with Castaneda. She behaved like a small child and apparently played with dolls. Possibly she suffered from infantilism. And then there was Kylie Lundahl. About her hardly anything is known. She managed the financial affairs of the group.
Florinda Donner-Grau also wrote the book Shabono: A Visit to a Remote and Magical World in the South American Rain Forest. She describes how she became inspired by the Indian Yanomami culture. Her book does not make clear if she really lived with them. Critics have claimed that she committed plagiarism. In her book many things are described which can also be found in the biography of Helena Valero. She did grew up with the Yanomami Indians. Because Donner-Grau mainly shared her personal experiences, this book is considered of low anthropological value for some. Later she wrote two books on witchcraft and magic.
Tasiha Abalar wrote the book The Sorcerer's Crossing: A Woman's Journey in which she claims to have lived at Don Juan's magical house in Mexico for a year. According to critics, this book is also mainly fictitious.
Carlos Casteneda and Clear Green
In the nineties, Carlos Castaneda for the first time wrote about Tensegrity. He used this term to give the lessons of Don Juan a modern feel. He gave practical tips in the form of certain postures which one had to adopt and psychological exercises which are related to NLP. Through these exercises, one would be able to change consciousness. The postures were also called magical passes. These had been experienced by the seers of ancient Mexico and were subsequently passed on from generation to generation.
Clear Green arose during the 1990s. This is a worldwide network, which is still active and where people can learn to use the magical passes. According to Castaneda if one practices these teachings, it is possible to raise your "kinaesthetic consensus". In this way, the freedom of the seer can be reinforced. The groups are led by volunteers. One only pays the rent of a practising space. Many countries have a Clear Green group that offers to teach.
The mysterious death of Carlos Castaneda
Castaneda died on April 27,
Immediately after his death the five women of his inner circle also disappeared. Because they all had severed the links with their family and former friends it took some time before people noticed that the women were gone. Their disappearance never was properly investigated. There was no indication of foul play so the police thought an investigation to be unnecessary.
However, he car of Partin was found in Death Valley some weeks after Castaneda's death. This desert area is considered very dangerous and it was feared that she had died. Her remains were only found in 2006. This was determined by DNA research. It was concluded that she committed suicide. Possibly she drove into the dessert in order to freeze to death. Up to this day nothing has been heard of the other four women. It is possible that they are still alive or perhaps have committed suicide just like Partin.
Carlos Castaneda bibliography
- The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui way of knowledge (1968) is the first book in which Castaneda describes how he unexpectedly met the old Yaqui Indian, Don Juan, on a study trip. This shaman, or brujo (which also means wizard), appeared to possess an exceptional knowledge. Castaneda became his student for ten years and by means of hallucinogenic substances, such as the peyote cactus, Jimson herb and the Mexican psilocybin mushrooms he got acquainted with another reality. In the first part, Castaneda shares his insights gained during ceremonies and adds the knowledge Don Juan imparted him. Don Juan mainly did this by asking the right questions which got Castaneda thinking. These dialogues are described exhaustively in his books. In the second part, Castaneda orders the insights which he acquired.
- A Separate Reality (1971) is a sequel to the first book. In his first book, he recoiled at end when faced with the ultimate test which a seer, according to the Indians, must undergo. For this reason, Castaneda returned in 1968 to enter a world under the guidance of Don Juan which never had been entered by a westerner. In this book, the mystic experiences and supernatural perceptions are discussed in more detail.
- Journey to Ixtlan (1972) is his third work in which Castaneda shares his lessons concerning the way nature really should be perceived and how one must break with the routines of daily life. Castaneda, for instance, discovers how he can put a stop to the continuous flow of interpretations.
- Tales or Power (1975) describes how Don Juan teaches Castaneda the most powerful lesson of the wizard's heart.
- The Second Ring or Power (1977). Each time there proves to be an even bigger test which Castaneda has to endure if he really wants to transform from insignificant person to a warrior. This way the journey continues.
- The Eagle's Gift (1981) in this book Castaneda continues his work and Don Juan keeps putting the contemporary perception of reality, as most people experience it, to the test. He proves to be the eagle which can give us deep insight. This is a common practice within the shaman tradition of North America.
- The Fire from Within (1984) is an in-depth discussion of the eagle's knowledge.
- The Power or Silence (1987) describes how Don Juan shares the secrets of self-realisation and shows how all power and wisdom lies within us. Castaneda learns what takes place exactly between birth and death, as a result of which his life becomes more meaningful.
- The Art or Dreaming (1993) the subject of this book is the question what dreams can teach us.
- Magical Passes: the practical wisdom of the shamans of ancient Mexico (1999) in this book Castaneda shares a large number of bodily postures and mental exercises which wizards from Mexico have been using for thousands of years. By doing the exercises the reader is able to undergo a change in consciousness. This is a more practical way to gain insight.
- The Active Side of Infinity (1999) in his penultimate work, which appeared posthumously, Castaneda gives a splendid overview of what he has learned during his entire life. This work is very accessible because there is much less confusion than in his earlier works. This book contains no fairy tales, psychedelic experiences and people who change into animals. Don Juan only asks him to just look back on his life in order to gain knowledge. In this way, the old mysticism of the Yaqui Indians comes to life.
- The Wheel of Time: Shamans or Mexico (2000) was composed after the death of Castaneda and contains a selection of quotes from the previous ten books. It does not feature a real story and is more of a summary of all his previous work. For some fans, this was a bit of a disappointment as they had hoped on one last exciting adventure.
The philosophy of Carlos Castaneda
According to Carlos Castaneda, another larger, more meaningful reality exists which exceeds contemporary reality. Through a very dedicated search, it is possible for us to become free people. All our strength and wisdom can be found within ourselves. The resistance we feel towards our surroundings is an illusion because we only wrestle with ourselves.
In many ways, this really is not unique knowledge. Many masters, spiritually teachers and gurus basically claim the same thing, but the way Castaneda shared knowledge was very special. He touched many people with his books and made a large contribution to the New Age movement and psychedelic revolution. He was also able to explain many aspects of mysticism.
Criticism of the work of Carlos Castaneda
Critics seriously doubt the existence of Don Juan. There are several reasons for this view:
- The character of Don Juan is very inconsistent.
- Don Juan sometimes uses English puns although he only spoke Spanish.
- Moreover, the teachings of Don Juan are complete differently from those of the Yaqui Indians.
- Robert Gordon Wasson who first praised the work of Castaneda, later back-tracked. According to Wasson the botanic knowledge presented by Castaneda is incorrect.
- There also are chronological errors. Events are jumbled. This is something which you only realize when you studiously read the first three books in order.
Criticism of Carlos Castaneda as a person
The way Carlos Castaneda led his life has also been criticized. For instance, he propagates the abstention of sex in his books, but never practised abstention himself. He actually had several women living with him. Castaneda also died of liver cancer, whereas in his books he describes a method with which cancer can be overcome through mental concentration. For critics, this is evidence that he did not live according to his own lessons and/or just did not possess the knowledge he claimed.
Amy Wallace, a former follower of Carlos Castaneda, wrote the book Sorcerer's Apprentice about him. She highlights the differences between the public character of Carlos Castaneda and how he really behaved. She observes: "Never give your power away to someone else who claims to have special knowledge. It’s the worst mistake I ever made."
Place Carlos Castaneda's books in the right perspective
It is more or less accepted that the books of Carlos Castaneda are works of fiction. But the question remains if this is so terrible. One could also say that it is particularly brilliant that Don Juan never existed. This would mean that the wisdom Castaneda shares has come from himself. The manner in which he wrote ensured that many were captivated. In his books he presented himself as a student and not as a teacher. In this way his books came to life and readers identified with him.
While reading you observe Castaneda's struggle as a student and how he the obtained insights. This, of course, is more pleasurable than listening to a lesson of a master. For this reason, it should not matter that his books mainly consist of fiction. At the same time, he clearly gravitated towards guruhood and an unhealthy cult was built around him. This can be observed in Amy Wallace's book.
Of course, we see this phenomenon quite often: a charismatic person uses ancient knowledge adds a personal flavour which results in an enlightened ego. With all due consequences.
In short, the things that are found in Castaneda's books can certainly inspire us, but you must not take everything literally. After all, he did not do that himself.