Sham or shaman?

Share on Nextdoor

The recent media commentary about Carlos Castaneda's death was a blast from the '60s past. New Age guru, it said. Mexico. Studied with an Indian shaman. Peyote. Psilocybin mushrooms. Turned into a crow. Grew a beak.

I tried to fix Castaneda on the era's memory scale, with Tang Instant Breakfast Drink at 1 and Martin Luther King Jr. at 10. Castaneda came in around the middle -- high enough to evoke nostalgia for a time when a writer could sell millions of books by urging people to look beneath the everyday surface of things. At least, that's how I understood Castaneda when his work was fresh and still credible. His publishing debut, "The Teachings of Don Juan," appeared in 1968. It was originally published by University of California Press as Castaneda's UCLA master's thesis in anthropology. Its hero, Don Juan, was an aging Yaqui Indian. He and Castaneda supposedly met at a Greyhound station on the Arizona-Mexico border. Don Juan had a local reputation as a peyote shaman, and Castaneda was anxious to experiment with the drug. After hesitating, the old man apprenticed the student, and over the next several years initiated him into the hermetic art of ingesting psychedelic plants.

His mentor's task, Castaneda wrote, was to "disarrange a particular certainty which I share with everyone else, the certainty that our ‘common-sense' views of the world are final." Don Juan spoke about the seen world and the unseen world. "There is a crack between the two," he said. "It opens and closes like a door in the wind. To get there a man must exercise his will. He must, I should say, develop an indomitable desire for it, a single-minded dedication."

This talk of seen and unseen worlds was heady! So heady you find very similar ideas in the writings of Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and a spate of Judeo-Christian mystics from Meister Eckehart to the B'aal Shem-Tov. The noumenon, the thing-in-itself, id, commodity fetishism, Godhead -- all are terms for hidden realms that nevertheless rule our lives. Problem was, they're Western terms. That means they are larded with the disillusioning realia of Western institutions: the authoritarian Church, pricey male-chauvinist psycho-therapy, leftist political movements gone bad and poor Kant, who was so anal-compulsive that you could set your clock by his daily walks.

The bad-cop side of Western culture, of course, is just half the picture. By the '60s, though, a good portion of Western children -- especially middle-class whites -- were in full revolt against everything symbolized by the daily setting of clocks. That is what their fathers were doing in Little Boxes suburban bedrooms, so they could get to their Man-in-the-Grey-Flannel-Suit jobs on time, to make more money to buy more boxes, more clocks -- and send their kids to college to learn more of the same.

Students were looking for alternate visions, and they started the search with a new breed of Western wizards. Aldous Huxley, the English author of "Brave New World," was one. Another of his books, "The Doors of Perception," came out in 1954 and described the author's mind-bending experiments with mescaline (the title would later inspire the name for Jim Morrison's band). Huxley later suggested peyote and LSD could ignite a religious revolution. In his footsteps came Timothy Leary, a straight-laced Harvard psychology professor until he downed his first psychedelic mushrooms in 1960 and became convinced hallucinogens could transform the psyche and end war. Soon Leary was dosing literati like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg with experimental psilocybin. Ginsberg then tried LSD at a psychedelics research center run by the U.S. military.

Yes, the military. As authors Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain note in their book "Acid Dreams," the Department of Defense and CIA played a major part in turning on the country to hallucinogens. In the McCarthyite '50s and early '60s, Uncle Sam's spooks were obsessed with making spies spill the beans, turning foes like Castro into babbling idiots while they were speechifying, even immobilizing, whole enemy populations, simply by dropping LSD in their drinks.

The quest for mind-control drugs led to experiments on mental patients, prostitutes, prisoners and college students. CIA men and federal contract psychologists took their own trips, but instead of control, some felt liberation. When that happened, psychedelics bolted from government sanctums into the culture at large. "Turn on, tell all, step down," was the government's implied message to spies and radical leaders. Leary did major editing and broadcast the new version on campus: "Turn on, tune in, drop out."

By 1968, LSD, psilocybin and mescaline were so popular -- and perceived of as so threatening -- they were outlawed in many states. Confronted with the risk of arrest and hard time, hippies were ripe for experimentation with plant rather than laboratory substances. But even with herbs, tripping could be unpredictable and scary. Hallucinogens sometimes produced profoundly spiritual alterations in time, space and other ordinary realities. On the other hand, people jumped off roofs, turned temporarily psychotic, ended up in emergency rooms, suffered flashbacks. The whole experience seemed too anarchic. Guides were needed: psychedelic gurus.

Enter Carlos Castaneda. In "The Teachings of Don Juan," the book's namesake steers his student through an odyssey of ordeals with peyote cactus, psilocybin mushrooms and toxic jimson weed. At the story's beginning, Castaneda paints himself as a typical anthropology student. He's got lots of book-learning about Native Americans and their psychedelic rituals. But he has no experience with the latter, and doesn't really think he needs it, although he's dying of curiosity to try peyote. Wrinkled, white-haired don Juan is the archetypal wise Indian of white-people fantasy.

He says little in response to Castaneda's intellectualizing; but is full of stern wisdom. (Castaneda: "Is heaven where God is?" Don Juan: "You are being stupid now. I don't know where God is.")

To prepare his pupil to meet "Mescalito," the mystic embodiment of peyote, the Yaqui sorcerer subjects Castaneda to a series of grueling tests that threaten to kill him if they go wrong, but somehow always turn out right. Most start with almost comically detailed minutiae: finding the exact right spot to sit on a floor, for instance (Castaneda rolls around all night, looking for the magic place); locating, harvesting, drying, sowing, watering, then harvesting again the various parts of a jimson weed plant.

Maybe comical isn't the word. Practical is better, because there's something about the excessive detail which makes these exotic tests as mundane as the killer essay questions on an Economics 101 final.

It's this everyday-ness, I think, that made Castaneda's writing so seductive in the '60s. We Americans are a quixotically practical lot. We're hopelessly wedded to the Protestant ethic. A nose to the grindstone will work every time, and if it doesn't something's wrong -- not with society, but with the our individual worth. To do the job right, use the right tools! The author lauded don Juan's can-do teachings in an interview he gave in 1996: "Shamans," Castaneda said, are "essentially practical. To navigate into the unknown like a shaman does, one needs unlimited pragmatism, boundless sobriety and guts of steel. Don Juan's teachings are not spiritual. Spirituality doesn't fit with the iron discipline of a warrior."

Warrior? It was a useful metaphor for students who were protesting Vietnam, yet being derided as peacenik cowards. But Don Juan provided more than assembly instructions and hubris. Better yet, he was right around the corner. Before, when you wanted guidance in breaking on through to the other side, you needed to journey to India, or read people who'd been dead for years. Now you merely had to make a run for the border. Don Juan's friend was named John, his grandson wore cowboy boots, and if you passed out while communing with Mescalito, the old man would dunk you in his irrigation ditch. That's about as American as you can get in the heavily Native American Southwest.

Indeed, the indigenous aspect of Don Juan's teachings was another draw for '60s readers. The country was convulsed with civil-rights struggles, and its original inhabitants laid as weighty a claim to redress as any group. Imputing unique wisdom to Native Americans rehabilitated them in the white mind: As Life magazine put it, Castaneda's adventures revealed "in the trampled culture of the American Indian a secret spiritual tradition that produces men of profound character." "Extraordinary," added The New York Times in its review of "A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan."

That was Castaneda's second book, and by the time it came out in 1971, Don Juan seekers were trekking to Arizona and Mexico. They hoped to find their own shamans and replicate Castaneda's spiritual adventures -- which included speaking with a dog, flying, and, yes, turning into a bird.

But the new searchers couldn't find Don Juan. Nor could they find any other Yaqui peyote shamans. Yaqui culture, it turns out, doesn't use peyote. After awhile some anthropologists figured this out and asked Castaneda for evidence of his sorcerer's existence: tape recordings, photographs and other such items of the fieldworker's trade. He hadn't made any because Don Juan rejected "personal history," Castaneda said. His ex-wife suggested he'd gotten the idea of Don Juan from the couple's pillow talk in the late '50s about metaphysics. Leary remembered that Castaneda had tried to attach himself to Leary's drug experiments in the early '60s.

A bit of soul searching occurred as social scientists rued their romance with grand theory making at the expense of solid data. By the '80s, Castaneda's works had been removed from the Anthropology shelves at bookstores, and repaired to New Age fiction. There, they've prospered -- mainly because, truth be damned, they're a good read. Back in 1972, Joyce Carol Oates couldn't believe Castaneda was writing nonfiction, and it wasn't just because of his talking dogs and visions of Mescalito as a monster more grotesque than the aliens in "Men in Black." Beyond all the macho adventure, there is also deep tenderness, as when Castaneda, miles high on hallucinogens, sees his estranged father standing in a peyote field, and the field becomes Castaneda's childhood home, and the son confides things he has always yearned to tell his father, and the father listens and the son weeps. Castaneda's books, Oates wrote, are exceptionally beautiful and novelistic in their treatment of a young man's introduction to an alternate reality. And, she might have added, in how they reconcile children to their patriarchs.

On the other hand, Castaneda's not for everyone. Ever attuned to shifts in the zeitgeist, he'd already eschewed drug taking in "Journey to Ixtlan," which came out in 1972 (the federal government had banned peyote by then: Was Ixtlan code for Nixon?). Many disillusioned readers abandoned Don Juan then, but the old shaman probably recruited a new, distaff audience in 1977. That's when Castaneda introduced his first female sorcerers -- again, probably no coincidence given the growing popularity of feminism. But I'm sure he also lost readers irritated by Don Juan's claim that women's wombs and ovaries lead them to more exotic forms of awareness than men, though men have more endurance and purpose. Sexist essentialism, this idea is called. Coming from Don Juan, it's no less obnoxious than when it comes from Pat Robertson.

The final chapter of Castaneda's career as shaman was a sad devolution. Up to his death, he was making money off $600 workshops that purported to teach "magical passes" he learned from Don Juan. Look on the Internet, our latest extraordinary bastion of ordinary reality, at the Usenet site alt.dreams.castaneda. There you'll find a claque of women who insist they, not Castaneda, are the true heirs to Don Juan's wisdom. One says Castaneda learned his magic movements at a Bruce Lee Kung Fu school. "Is it finally true?" another skeptic asks of the master's demise. "Or is this just another ploy to sell books from beyond?"

Then you'll see another post. "I used to get such a kick out of him," this one comments, but adds, "I think he tried too hard."

"As you can see for yourself," it concludes, "life still goes on, and ancient sorcery, far from dying with Carlos' retirement to the Unknown, is going to be a continual discovery."

Don Juan once told Castaneda that when he died, he would turn into a black bird.

The post is signed "Carlitos Crow."

Debbie Nathan is author of "Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the U.S.-Mexico Border."

Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.