Carlos Castaneda and the Magic of Don Juan

I tend to read Carlos Castaneda on full alert, looking out for statements that will reveal that his tales of sorcery and magic are not only fictional, for after all fiction may be a good vehicle for conveying facts, but are not well informed. His discussions with his teacher, the shaman and sorcerer don Juan, require that a coherent worldview is presented, as if the sorcerer really does know how the world works. So the question is, can this worldview stand up to analysis?

The only people who claim to know how the world works are the mystics, the Buddhists, Taoists, Sufis, Theosophists, Kabbalists and their like, who, so they claim, investigate beyond the phenomenal world and thus become able to see the true nature of phenomena. As a consequence, don Juan is required to speak about the nature of phenomena not only with more knowledge than can be acquired in physics but must do so without contradicting the findings of the Buddha, Lao Tsu and Al-halaj. Were he to present a different view of reality it would be easy to dismiss don Juan as a fictional fraud. So, how well does the sorcerer do when he is put on the spot?

It seems to me he does just fine. Maybe it is a cobbling together of thoughts about Brentano’s ‘intentional’ consciousness, string theory and Buddhism’s doctrine of the unreality of sensual phenomena, maybe it’s a genuine sorcerer’s insight into the true nature of things, but whatever it is here are some extracts from Castaneda’s Magical Passes: The Practical Wisdom of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico.

“Don Juan Matus stated that human beings as organisms perform a stupendous manoeuvre of perception which, unfortunately, creates a misconception, a false front; they take the influx of sheer energy and turn it into sensory data, which they interpret according to a strict system of interpretation that sorcerers call the human form. This magical act of interpreting pure energy gives rise to the misconception, the peculiar conviction of human beings that their interpretation system is all that exists.

Don Juan elucidated this phenomenon with an example. He said that tree, as tree is known to human beings, is more interpretation than perception. He pointed out that for human beings to establish the presence of tree, all they need is a cursory glance that tells them hardly anything. The rest is a phenomenon which he described as the calling of intent, the intent of tree; that is to say, the interpretation of sensory data pertaining to the specific phenomenon that human beings call tree. He declared that the entire world of human beings, just as in this example, is composed of an endless repertoire of interpretations where human senses play a minimal role. In other words, only the visual sense touches the energy influx which comes from the universe at large, and it does so only in cursory fashion…

…Since the theme of the first series of Tensegrity ( a system of physical movements designed to bring certain changes to our state of being – ed.) is preparing the practitioners for intending, it is important to review the sorcerer’s definition of intending. For don Juan, intending was the tacit act of filling out the empty spaces left by direct sensory perception, or the act of enriching the observable phenomena by means of intending a completeness that doesn’t exist from the point of view of pure perception.

The act of intending this completeness was referred to by don Juan as calling intent. Everything he explained about intent pointed to the fact that the act of intending is not in the realm of the physical. In other words, it is not part of the physicality of the brain or any other organ. Intent, for don Juan, transcended the world we know. It is something like an energetic wave, a beam of energy which attaches itself to us…

…He pointed out that because of the predominance of of sight in our habitual way of perceiving the world, the shamans of ancient Mexico described the act of directly apprehending energy as seeing. For them to perceive energy as it flowed in the universe meant that energy adopted nonidiosyncratic, specific configurations that repeated themselves consistently, and that those configurations could be perceived in the same terms by anyone who saw.

The most important example that don Juan could give of this consistency of energy in adopting specific configurations was the perception of the human body when it was seen directly as energy. As it was already said, shamans like don Juan perceive a human being as a conglomerate of energy fields that gives the total impression of a clear cut sphere of luminosity. Taken in this sense, energy is described by shamans as vibration that agglutinates itself into cohesive units. Shamans describe the entire universe as being composed of energy configurations that appear to the seeing eye as filaments, or luminous fibres that are strung in every which way without ever being entangled. This is an incomprehensible proposition for the linear mind. It has a built-in contradiction that can’t be resolved: How could these fibres extend themselves every which way and yet not be entangled?…

…Don Juan taught me that the limits of man’s capabilities of perceiving is called the band of man, meaning that there is a boundary that marks human capabilities as dictated by the human organism. These boundaries are not merely the traditional boundaries of ordinary thought, but the boundaries of the totality of resources locked within the human organism. Don Juan believed that these resources are never used, but are kept in situ by preconceived ideas about human limitations, limitations that have nothing to do with actual human potential.

Don Juan stated, as categorically as he was able to, that since perceiving energy as it flows in the universe is not arbitrary or idiosyncratic, seers witness formulations of energy that happen by themselves and are not moulded by human interference. Thus, the perception of such formulations is, in itself and by itself, the key that releases the locked-in potential that ordinarily has never entered into play. In order to elicit the perception of those energetic formulations, the totality of human capabilities to perceive has to be engaged.”

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