Two Conversations with Carlos Castaneda on the Teachings of don Juan

By Jelena Galovic, Belgrade

Somehow at the same time when the Belgrade weekly NIN published an article doubting the existence of don Juan (July 1984), Carlos Castaneda had two encounters with the public in Mexico City. These meetings happened on the occasion Part 4:  We All Gotta Go Sometimeof his latest book on the teachings of don Juan published in the United States under the title The Fire from Within. The appearance of Carlos Castaneda in Mexico and his conversations with the audience had not been announced or advertised, but in spite of this, the interest and enthusiasm of all those intrigued by him were enormous. These meetings were not lectures in the ordinary sense, but mostly his answers to many questions posed by the audience on the teachings of don Juan, on Castaneda’s books and his personal experience. The purpose of his coming from Los Angeles to Mexico City was to point out again to the world, and especially to the Mexicans, the treasure and values they have, i.e. to the wisdom transmitted orally from a nagual to an apprentice, of which the Mexicans are not generally aware. Castaneda’s presentation and explanations of the teachings of don Juan were very straightforward, cogent and convincing. His demeanor and words didn’t betray anything of the fame, which surrounds him. For Castaneda, writing books has never been a means to achieve fame and popularity; fame came about independently of his will. The only purpose of his writing has been a part of his own path to perfection, the mission with which don Juan agreed. At these two meetings Castaneda said that his present work with don Juan has taken him to a certain point of development. He himself does not know what his next step will be, he only feels with certainty that he must pass don Juan’s teachings on to others, he is not sure in what way he will do it. Perhaps he will pass it on working with a group, and in that case this book will be his last.

At these meetings Castaneda began his presentation by explaining why he refused to use the microphone and why he did not allow to be photographed. His refusal to speak through the microphone he explained by saying that on that occasion he was not using his own energy, of which he had not sufficient amount, but that he was using the energy borrowed from don Juan which is incompatible with electromagnetic properties of the device. He was adamant in refusing to use the microphone in spite of the protests from the audience because many of the people present could not hear him properly in the far ends of the room. He likewise refused to be photographed quoting don Juan’s stand on that question: “When we are being photographed, don Juan used to say to me, large quantities of energy are consumed and wasted”. “To my objection that nothing happened to me although I had been photographed many times, don Juan replied: “That’s exactly why you are such a nincompoop!”

“Since I haven’t been convinced to the contrary, Castaneda went on, I respect his advice and since then I haven’t allowed to be photographed.” Resuming his discussion on his books, Castaneda explained that he had written in them only what don Juan had conveyed to him in terms of the premises implying a whole system of the complex path to perfection leading to absolute freedom. Simply and with modesty he said of himself that until he met don Juan he was an “idiot”, blind and ignorant, in spite of his brilliant studies in anthropology. “In my books I haven’t made up anything nor it is my literary imagination, because I have no talent for creativity and fictional inventions. I simply lack imagination. The outstanding ideas and the whole system of man’s personal perfection, described in my books, belong to don Juan. My role has been to bring them to the light of day and make them accessible to people, so that they too are able to find the lost path to freedom, to report on my own experience and that of don Juan’s other apprentices which we have subsequently exchanged among ourselves and tried to complete.” Some members of the official scientific community who are insufficiently acquainted with Mexican shamanism and tradition have been highly critical of Castaneda’s works.

“They are waiting for me to get angry”, said Castaneda, “but don Juan’s most important message and the cornerstone of his teachings is that one should overcome negative emotions and properly distribute energy, which is achieved through the erasure of personal self-importance and absence of anger. The fact is that anger consumes the energy, which enables us to work on ourselves and to achieve the second attention. A great nagual, as was don Juan, sees people as an inexhaustible field of energy with unheard-of and incomprehensible possibilities and potentialities. He saw man as a luminous egg, but for anybody to see it as such, it takes energy that we waste irreparably by getting angry because somebody has hurt our pride and our self-importance.”

“If I got angry every time people say that I am short or ugly, Castaneda went on, I would waste so much energy that I couldn’t be able to do anything else but to indulge in being angry and thus would have no energy left for dreaming. Therefore, you should start by not getting angry”,

— and then, addressing to an elderly lady from the audience, he said: “Don’t get angry even if you are told that you are a useless old woman! We, don Juan’s apprentices, are not enlightened, but we have lost the feeling of self-importance and we don’t get angry even with the criticisms prying into unimportant details of our private lives.” Asked to say something on don Juan’s end and on the work of his apprentices after don Juan’s departure, Castaneda said: “After he was consumed by the fire from within, don Juan went to another plane in 1974. For the leader of our group he left a woman-warrior, Florinda. She is an unheard-of tyrant, torturing and humiliating us and thus destroying the remnants of our self-importance. For this purpose she assigned for me two exercises. The first, to enter the office of an important businessman, Smith, and answer a telephone call for him. Until that moment my moral beliefs would not have allowed me to do this, but having been forced to commit such an act, I have destroyed the false image of myself as a good, honest and decent man. The other test was even harder. Thinking that the name Carlos Castaneda has become too well-known and important, Florinda sent me to work as waiter in an inn in a USA town bordering with Mexico, in the area where Mexicans are hated very much. I worked there under the name of Perez, one of the commonest Mexican surnames. I was doubly devalued by this new name: first, this Mexican surname made me to be detested by the Americans; and second, by having a surname possessed by every other Mexican, I fell into anonymity. I was working hard for about a year, preparing food and serving the customers, who even threw fried eggs into my face. When I complained to Florinda that people were throwing plates at me, she said quietly and curtly: “Well, then duck your head, so that they may miss you!” “When I started this second test, Florinda told me that she didn’t know how long it was going to take, one year, maybe two or even ten years. After a year and a half, she suddenly appeared, told me that the work was finished and that we were going back immediately. »I can’t leave just like that, I said to her. I have to take leave of my friends, to give notice to my boss and to settle accounts with him.« »Nobody will notice that you are not there, she retorted. Do you think that you are so important that they can’t do without you? To numerous questions on the nature of the nagual and on how he chooses his apprentices, Castaneda said: »The Spanish conquest of America has completely changed the naguals and their teachings. Before the advent of the Spanish, they had been working on the encounter with the ”unknown”, trying to create the inner fire and melt with the cosmic energy. The arrival of the Spaniards introduced a new element: they had to face the conquerors who were tyrants and for whom they were no match. A majority of them succumbed, they were not able to endure the test, because it proved much harder to use the tyrants for accumulation of personal power than to face the unknown and master the forces of nature. The new generation of naguals that has emerged after the Spanish conquest, has changed the system of teaching: the first thing to do was to face the tyrants and their harsh character. By enduring the tyrant such as he is, a warrior learns patience, forbearance; he becomes invincible and erases his self-importance. Only when he has achieved all this can he face the unknown. Thus the Spanish invaders helped in the creation of a new, invincible nagual, man of knowledge, and warrior to whom everything is a challenge.

“The new naguals, of which don Juan was one, actually have no apprentices. I lived long in the conviction that I was don Juan’s disciple, and only at the end of our joint work I realized that he was using me to “focus” himself. For all my stupidities and nonsense, because I was a “moron”, difficult for myself and others, don Juan never lost his patience, perfecting thereby his own impeccability. Thus, early on in the beginning of our joint work, one day don Juan and I set out to the mountains in search of medicinal plants. He was walking lightly and quickly, like a young man, while I was suffocating and losing breath, because I was a heavy smoker at that time. Having run out of cigarettes, I became nervous and was pestering him demanding from him to divert to the nearest village to buy cigarettes. Don Juan kept pacifying me by claiming that we were in immediate vicinity of a village where I would be able to buy some cigarettes. For fifteen days we were walking through the mountains and when we finally reached a village I had no more desire to smoke or buy tobacco. That was the way don Juan made me give up smoking, without telling me once to relinquish it. “I am not a nagual, Castaneda went on. Why should I boast of something I am not? I have met naguals, and don Juan was one of them. He had for me a charted path and a task, but I refused to carry it through. Since I am not an Indian like him, my path cannot be the same as his. I still have many things to do and from now on I will be going my own way, although under the guidance of Florinda. Not even I myself know what is in store for me on that way; the only thing I know for sure is that I have to pass on to others the knowledge don Juan left to us. This knowledge is accessible to everyone through my books; they should be read carefully and the practices described therein should be applied in one’s personal life. However, not everybody will experience what I have experienced, because people are different, but everyone should start by saving energy which is lost through giving exaggerated importance to one’s personality.” In discussing the disciple-master relationship, one of the questions put to Castaneda was:

“How does a nagual choose his apprentices?”

Since Castaneda remained silent, someone from the audience replied that it is destiny that determines this relationship. To this Castaneda lively reacted, explaining that don Juan’s whole teachings were a struggle against destiny and how to overcome it. “It can be said that initially it is destiny that determines whether someone will embark on to the road to perfection, but in the course of further study everything depends on the apprentice, on his strength, will and perseverance. If someone succumbs on this road due to difficulties or his own weaknesses, he can justify that by invoking destiny, while it is only due to his weakness. The apprentice must not depend on his master’s approval or disapproval; nobody can tell him what is his next step, the disciple has to feel it and find in himself. It is false and preposterous the way some disciples are subjected to their gurus who tell them even who they are going to marry. The way of don Juan is not the way of dependence, either on the master or on destiny, but his way is one of personal responsibility. By applying in everyday life some of the tenets of don Juan’s teachings, even my books can, for a time, substitute a teacher. Then they can stop being merely interesting and become an instigation to action.” The last statement of Castaneda caused many people from the audience to ask him to form a group with which to work. At that moment he had to refuse this, because, as he said, he had several unsuccessful attempts in this regard. “Many, especially the young, come to the group believing that the doors of perception will open instantly to them as soon as they have ingested a couple of hallucinogenic mushrooms or cacti. “New arrangement of energy which is saved through the control of negative emotions, without its being wasted on anger or sulkiness, Castaneda went on, must be performed every day, step by step. That’s how we progress. In the beginning we still get angry sometimes, but gradually we learn how to refrain from anger. The new way of living, without anger, can’t be achieved overnight, that’s why we have to pass through an intermediate period in which we try to dissipate our anger and forget the insult. “One day, at the very beginning of our companionship, don Juan and I set out to the mountains. On the way, he suddenly asked me:

What do you think, are we equal?

Since don Juan was just one of so many humble Indians I knew, I said to him, patting him reassuringly on the shoulder: “Of course we are equal!”

Don Juan first remained silent, then after some time he answered: “No, we aren’t. You are a nobody. You are too full of self-importance, and according to the values of the nagual you haven’t even started on his way. I am, however, an impeccable warrior with perfect forbearance and control, whose life is so ordered that nobody can disturb it.” “These words of don Juan made me so angry that I sat down quite a distance from him, without uttering a single word for several hours. Then I suddenly felt fear, I was afraid that he might part leaving me all alone in the mountains from which I wouldn’t know how to find the way back. That time fear taught me how to dispel my anger and that was the first step to a new way of living.”

Stopping one’s internal dialog is also related to the feeling of self- importance: “For what does a man keep talking about, but about himself and always himself, don Juan would say to me. At the time when I was still making sculptures, he suggested to me that I should make a figure of man and put a magnetic tape into his mouth that would repeat incessantly “me, me, me”. “Erasing self-importance is the first step in the proper arrangement of energy. Without savings in energy, further work on development of the second attention can’t continue. One of the exercises, Castaneda went on to say, for accumulation of this power is dreaming which don Juan taught us. The exercise consists of sustaining the image of a dream, any one that appears, and the dreamer then tried to sustain it and prolong with volitional effort. In the beginning each apprentice has his own dream image, but when the dreamers have sufficiently practiced, the whole group dreams the same image. Dreaming develops the second attention, which every man possesses, but few people use.”

To the question on the similarities of don Juan’s teachings with other practices of Mexican shamanism, Castaneda pointed out that knowledge about these concepts is without major significance if based only on intellectual and theoretical information. By way of an example, he mentioned his own professor of anthropology to whom, although he spent twenty-five years with Yaqui Indians, this knowledge in terms of inner development was not of great value, because when he grew old his abilities and powers declined so much that he died powerless, as most people do. In contrast to this purely theoretical knowledge of Mexican shamanism, don Juan’s teachings are intended for a practical purpose and they can be, if applied in everyday life, of greater use than enormous erudition in matters of Indian customs. Castaneda refused to discuss similarities between don Juan’s teachings and some other esoteric teachings, because such talks, in his opinion, only lead to theoretical intellectualization.

“I haven’t come here to compare with you various teachings, but to show the Mexicans the way which is within the grasp of their hands.”

While he was explaining how one should conquer one’s own anger, a girl from the audience stood up and said:

“What you are talking about is already contained in the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.”

Castaneda’s reply was silence, and then he turned to the audience, saying: “Let’s continue with questions.”

A young sociologist from the audience, well versed in Mexican shamanism which he specifically studied with the Huichol Indians, was trying to provoke Castaneda with many questions on the use of peyote and on Huichol mara’akames. All these questions were answered with examples of shamanistic practice. He explained that hallucinogenic substances were necessary for some insensitive people, such as he was himself, as a means helping them to move the point of assemblage between individual and cosmic energy. Once this has been achieved, no additional means was necessary, because this assemblage is attained in a different way. The only thing necessary is to save energy in order to move the assemblage point, which enables man to see a separate reality.

Since among the audience there were several members of Mexican Concheros groups, when asked to say what he thought of their Aztec dances, Castaneda said: “Their dances, songs and music are the most perfect way in which a man can move the point of assemblage between individual and cosmic energy. If the Concheros were only aware during their dancing of their ability to move the assemblage point, they would fly into the air together with their guaraches. But most of the dancers are not aware of this. A few years ago I enthusiastically accepted the idea of joining a group of Conchero dancers, but I saw that even some of their leaders were full of the feelings of self-importance and I realized that I would be wasting my time.”

He said that don Juan himself had pointed out to him the Aztec dancing, explaining that he lacked the energy of dance. “I was contemplating to write about Mexican Concheros in my latest book. For now, I have given up the idea, because I noticed the vanity of some Concheros, which is incompatible with basic premises of don Juan’s teachings. Recently I myself have entered into a crisis with energy, and now a Chinese is teaching me how to replenish it.

“The teachings of don Juan are not the only way of the Red race, as claimed by some Aztec dancers. Don Juan had disciples from various parts of the world, and therefore this knowledge belongs to everyone, regardless of one’s race or nationality.”

Castaneda further discussed other ways of assembling individual and cosmic energy. One of the techniques is a blow in the place where people’s assemblage point is located on the luminous egg. La Gorda knows how to deliver this blow perfectly, but if someone does not know how to do it, this blow can be lethal:

“La Gorda is an exceptional being, an Indian from the Mazatec tribe”, was Castaneda’s answer to the request to say something more about her. She can break from the first attention at any moment, and with the help of the second attention she can become invisible whenever she likes to.

“During one of my earlier periods of energy crises, don Juan recommended to me sexual continence. In his words people who are born from a “bored marriage” haven’t got sufficient energy, so they need additional resources. A “bored marriage” is one in which there is no genuine relationship between the man and the woman, and consequently there is no attraction or “fire”, and thus after years of boredom, a child is born, such as I was, bored and without energy. Any differences among the people start with the amounts of energy they get when they are born. But you, Castaneda went on, addressing to the members of the audience, you who have plenty of energy, you need not use the means I used, neither sexual continence nor drugs.”

As an example of a man with an abundance of energy he mentioned don Juan’s benefactor, the nagual Julian: “He had so much energy that he traveled from one end of the earth to another, from America to Asia, transmitting the knowledge to those who were ready for it.”

There were some questions which Castaneda, for reasons unknown, did not want to answer in detail. Such were the questions on the double man and woman, on the diet and food of brujos, on the allies. The question on the double man and woman he deemed too esoteric; concerning the brujos’ food he said that he had no special diet, because everything that he eats is transmuted into energy:

“During the difficult exercises of attention we had to eat large quantities of food to make up for the lost energy, without putting on a gram of weight.”

As for the allies, he explained that they nowadays, in the process of the emergence of the new naguals, have no major importance. They belong in the tradition of the ancient Toltec warriors, which is radically different from the practice of today. Some Toltec warriors knew about the existence of the hole in the luminous egg, somewhere in the region of man’s belly, where death is lurking. They also knew how to seal it and thus they became immortal, alive even today as “death deifiers”.

“Although they possess great knowledge and power, they do not help people to find the way of liberation, neither they themselves go to the other plane, but chose to remain on the earth harmfully influencing people. They gather around the pyramids which radiate their negative energy. To avoid meeting them one should avoid these dangerous places. Don Juan thought of himself as an inheritor of the Toltec tradition. I think that the origin of this tradition is Asia. At the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City there is a statue of a man in the posture of a “horse”, one of the postures from the Eastern martial arts, which the archeologists have named “The Hunchback Boy”, but the traits of this statue are definitely Chinese.”

The points and holes mentioned by Castaneda do not correspond to Hindu chakras or to the Chinese acupuncture points. While the latter ones are located within the confines of the human body, the major energy centers, according to don Juan, are on the luminous egg, i.e. around the human body. Don Juan used to massage his liver by movements of the hand at some distance from his body, but these movements touched his luminous egg.

Answering a question on don Juan’s attitude towards everyday matters, such as houses and cars, Castaneda said: “If you have a car and a house, it’s good; if you don’t have them, even better. Don Juan used to say that the world we perceive is not the only world there is, but only a part of reality. Those who don’t see due to their lack of energy consider this world to be the only reality. I was myself like that before I met don Juan. I used to get up always at the same time, used to do always the same things and days for me had no importance. Don Juan made me break the learned predictability and taught me how to experience the unexpected. One should disrupt one’s everyday habits in the most imaginable ways. A different arrangement of energy means a new way of life with great possibilities.”

Asked to comment on the relation between psychoanalysis and don Juan’s teachings, Castaneda told about an incident which happened to him a couple of years ago. At a similar promotion, somebody had asked him whether don Juan was his unconscious. ”In the teachings of don Juan there is no room for Sigmund Freud.” With this answer Castaneda made it known once more that one should not look for connections which were not there and that don Juan’s teachings should be viewed as an independent whole.

In addition to the testimonies of Carlos Castaneda on the existence of don Juan, there are some more people in Mexico who were in contact with him. Several members of a group of Mexican Concheros saw him at the healer Magdalena’s who was leading the healers of Mexico and who is invoked after her death by the Concheros as the “conquering soul” during their veladas. She treated don Juan during the last years of his life in this world and then she introduced him to Andres Segura, one of the outstanding living shamans and the leader of a group of Concheros. On that occasion don Juan pointed Castaneda to his future teacher, Andres Segura. Castaneda has met Segura several times, in the presence of some members of the Segura group.