Castaneda, Carlos

Castaneda, Carlos

(1931–  ) cultural anthropologist, author; born in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Educated at the University of California: Los Angeles (B.A. 1962; Ph.D. 1970), he published The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968), which he claimed was based on his five-year apprenticeship with a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. (The Yaqui live in northwestern Mexico and bordering U.S. states.) Because Castaneda was so elusive, and because the book was taken up by young people at a time when numerous such mystical traditions were in fashion, many professionals cast doubt on the authenticity of the book's contents. When he followed it with a series of equally popular books, including A Separate Reality (1971) and Tales of Power (1975), even more questions were raised as to how much of his work was true anthropology and how much was his own creation.

Castaneda, Carlos

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In the 1960s Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of books beginning with the cult classic, The Teachings of Don Juan. Don Juan was a Yaqui Indian shaman, or medicine man, who lived in the Sonoran desert, practicing his art in several mountain retreats. Because the books were full of mystical, obscure spiritual teachings involving psychedelic mushrooms and religious "trips," they fit right into the spiritual and religious drug culture of the 1960s. The main teaching was that the mind had to be "altered" in order to see reality. Western-oriented culture had so conditioned people to perceive life within a narrow band of reality that the only way to break out was to change frequencies, so to speak. Some Indian cultures had accomplished this with ascetic vision quests. Others, according to Don Juan, used peyote.

There was historic truth in this argument. People in many parts of the world have injested plants that produce hallucinogenic effects for religious ceremonies. When Dr. Timothy Leary of Harvard University urged a generation of young Americans to "tune in, turn on, and drop out," many of them used Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan as their spiritual guide.

But from within the Indian community there was quite a different response. At this time the American Indian movement was fighting a political battle for freedom and rights. Many of them did not want their movement sullied by white, middleclass (some would have said "pampered") college students following a fad and becoming "armchair Indians" by reading a book.

Vine Deloria Jr., in his book God Is Red, said it this way:

The Don Juan books were just what young whites needed to bolster their shattering personal identities, and the books were extremely popular.... [But] people appeared to be divided on whether or not Castaneda had actually met any Indians, let alone studied under Don Juan. The consensus is that the religious experiences were either made up or came out of a sugar cube somewhere on the West Coast.

Castaneda, Carlos

(dreams)

Carlos Castaneda (1925–1998) is a popular writer trained as an anthropologist. He wrote a series of books recounting his training as a “sorcerer” under Don Juan, a Yaqui Ian shaman, in which he presents himself as a skeptical social scientist who gradually enters into Don Juan’s world, eventually taking on the goals and values of his Yaqui mentor. In the first few volumes of the best-selling series, Don Juan attempts to shatter Castaneda’s conventional worldview through controlled experiences with psychedelic substances. Initially published during the peak of the sixties drug culture, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge became an overnight sensation because of the support it seemed to offer for the drug culture’s contention that psychedelics opened the mind to new realities. In later volumes, however, the importance of drugs is diminished, relativized as rather crude tools necessary for piercing Castaneda’s stubborn grip on ordinary reality.

Critics have dismissed Castaneda’s work as pure fiction, exploiting a gullible public’s desire for ancient wisdom, myth, and magic in a guise palatable to modern temperaments. Native American critics in particular have harshly attacked Castaneda for exploiting the New Age’s interest in romanticized and sensationalized American Indian religious practices. However, whether fictional or not, Castaneda’s books have created an appealing world in which an entire generation of readers have vicariously participated.

Beyond psychedelics, Don Juan instructed Castaneda in other techniques for “stopping the world” (interrupting the plausibility structure of ordinary reality). One of these approaches is what is today called lucid dreaming, becoming aware that one is dreaming during a dream and exercising control over the dream. As an initial technique for accomplishing this, Castaneda was instructed to try to remember to gaze at the palms of his hands during a dream. More advanced techniques involve what the Western occult tradition would call astral projection— separating one’s consciousness from the body and gazing back at one’s physical form. Don Juan, however, gives a unique interpretive twist to this experience, instructing Castaneda that his double is dreaming him at the same time he is dreaming his double. Thus, the out-of-body experience is placed in the context of the sorcerer’s larger worldview, relativizing ordinary reality and emphasizing the individual’s ability to exercise control over his or her world.