(The Power of Silence by Carlos Castaneda)
Don Juan and I were sitting at the table in his kitchen. It was early morning. We had just returned from the mountains, where we had spent the night after I had recalled my experience with the jaguar. Recollecting my split perception had put me in a state of euphoria, which don Juan had employed, as usual, to plunge me into more sensory experiences that I was now unable to recall. My euphoria, however, had not waned.
“To discover the possibility of being in two places at once is very exciting to the mind,” he said. “Since our minds are our rationality, and our rationality is our self-reflection, anything beyond our self-reflection either appalls us or attracts us, depending on what kind of persons we are.”
He looked at me fixedly and then smiled as if he had just found out something new.
“Or it appalls and attracts us in the same measure,” he said, “which seems to be the case with both of us.”
I told him that with me it was not a matter of being appalled or attracted by my experience, but a matter of being frightened by the immensity of the possibility of split perception.
“I can’t say that I don’t believe I was in two places at once,” I said. “I can’t deny my experience, and yet I think I am so frightened by it that my mind refuses to accept it as a fact.”
“You and I are the type of people who become obsessed by things like that, and then forget all about them,” he remarked and laughed. “You and I are very much alike.”
It was my turn to laugh. I knew he was making fun of me. Yet he projected such sincerity that I wanted to believe he was being truthful.
I told him that among his apprentices, I was the only one who had learned not to take his statements of equality with us too seriously. I said that I had seen him in action, hearing him tell each of his apprentices, in the most sincere tone, “You and I are such fools. We are so alike!” And I had been horrified, time and time again, to realize that they believed him.
“You are not like any one of us, don Juan,” I said. “You are a mirror that doesn’t reflect our images. You are already beyond our reach.”
“What you’re witnessing is the result of a lifelong struggle,” he said. “What you see is a sorcerer who has finally learned to follow the designs of the spirit, but that’s all.”
“I have described to you, in many ways, the different stages a warrior passes through along the path of knowledge,” he went on. “In terms of his connection with intent, a warrior goes through four stages. The first is when he has a rusty, untrustworthy link with intent. The second is when he succeeds in cleaning it. The third is when he learns to manipulate it. And the fourth is when he learns to accept the designs of the abstract.”
Don Juan maintained that his attainment did not make him intrinsically different. It only made him more resourceful; thus he was not being facetious when he said to me or to his other apprentices that he was just like us.
“I understand exactly what you are going through,” he continued. “When I laugh at you, I really laugh at the memory of myself in your shoes. I, too, held on to the world of everyday life. I held on to it by my fingernails. Everything told me to let go, but I couldn’t. Just like you, I trusted my mind implicitly, and I had no reason to do so. I was no longer an average man.
“My problem then is your problem today. The momentum of the daily world carried me, and I kept acting like an average man. I held on desperately to my flimsy rational Structures. Don’t you do the same.”
“I don’t hold onto any structures; they hold onto me,” I said, and that made him laugh.
I told him I understood him to perfection, but that no matter how hard I tried I was unable to carry on as a sorcerer should.
He said my disadvantage in the sorcerers’ world was my lack of familiarity with it. In that world I had to relate myself to everything in a new way, which was infinitely more difficult, because it had very little to do with my everyday life continuity.
He described the specific problem of sorcerers as twofold. One is the impossibility of restoring a shattered continuity; the other is the impossibility of using the continuity dictated by the new position of their assemblage points. That new continuity is always too tenuous, too unstable, and does not offer sorcerers the assuredness they need to function as if they were in the world of everyday life.
“How do sorcerers resolve this problem?” I asked.
“None of us resolves anything,” he replied. “The spirit either resolves it for us or it doesn’t. If it does, a sorcerer finds himself acting in the sorcerers’ world, but without knowing how. This is the reason why I have insisted from the day I found you that impeccability is all that counts. A sorcerer lives an impeccable life, and that seems to beckon the solution. Why? No one knows.”
Don Juan remained quiet for a moment. And then, as if I had voiced it, he commented on a thought I was having. I was thinking that impeccability always made me think of religious morality.
“Impeccability, as I have told you so many times, is not morality,” he said. “It only resembles morality. Impeccability is simply the best use of our energy level. Naturally, it calls for frugality, thoughtfulness, simplicity, innocence; and above all, it calls for lack of self-reflection. All this makes it sound like a manual for monastic life, but it isn’t.
“Sorcerers say that in order to command the spirit, and by that they mean to command the movement of the assemblage point, one needs energy. The only thing that stores energy for us is our impeccability.”
Don Juan remarked that we do not have to be students of sorcery to move our assemblage point. Sometimes, due to natural although dramatic circumstances, such as war, deprivation, stress, fatigue, sorrow, helplessness, men’s assemblage points undergo profound movements. If the men who found themselves in such circumstances were able to adopt a sorcerer’s ideology, don Juan said, they would be able to maximize that natural movement with no trouble. And they would seek and find extraordinary things instead of doing what men do in such circumstances: craving the return to normalcy.
“When a movement of the assemblage point is maximized,” he went on, “both the average man or the apprentice in sorcery becomes a sorcerer, because by maximizing that movement, continuity is shattered beyond repair.”
“How do you maximize that movement?” I asked.
“By curtailing self-reflection,” he replied. “Moving the assemblage point or breaking one’s continuity is not the real difficulty. The real difficulty is having energy. If one has energy, once the assemblage point moves, inconceivable things are there for the asking.”
Don Juan explained that man’s predicament is that he intuits his hidden resources, but he does not dare use them. This is why sorcerers say that man’s plight is the counterpoint between his stupidity and his ignorance. He said that man needs now, more so than ever, to be taught new ideas that have to do exclusively with his inner world – sorcerers’ ideas, not social ideas, ideas pertaining to man facing the unknown, facing his personal death. Now, more than anything else, he needs to be taught the secrets of the assemblage point.
With no preliminaries, and without stopping to think, don Juan then began to tell me a sorcery story. He said that for an entire year he had been the only young person in the nagual Julian’s house. He was so completely self-centered he had not even noticed when at the beginning of the second year his benefactor brought three young men and four young women to live in the house. As far as don Juan was concerned, those seven persons who arrived one at a time over two or three months were simply servants and of no importance. One of the young men was even made his assistant.
Don Juan was convinced the nagual Julian had lured and cajoled them into coming to work for him without wages. And he would have felt sorry for them had it not been for their blind trust in the nagual Julian and their sickening attachment to everyone and everything in the household.
His feeling was that they were born slaves and that he had nothing to say to them. Yet he was obliged to make friends with them and give them advice, not because he wanted to, but because the nagual demanded it as part of his work. As they sought his counseling, he was horrified by the poignancy and drama of their life stories.
He secretly congratulated himself for being better off than they. He sincerely felt he was smarter than all of them put together. He boasted to them that he could see through the nagual’s maneuvers, although he could not claim to understand them. And he laughed at their ridiculous attempts to be helpful. He considered them servile and told them to their faces that they were being mercilessly exploited by a professional tyrant.
But what enraged him was that the four young women had crushes on the nagual Julian and would do anything to please him. Don Juan sought solace in his work and plunged into it to forget his anger, or for hours on end he
would read the books that the nagual Julian had in the house. Reading became his passion. When he was reading, everyone knew not to bother him, except the nagual Julian, who took pleasure in never leaving him in peace. He was always after don Juan to be friends with the young men and women. He told him repeatedly that all of them, don Juan included, were his sorcery apprentices. Don Juan was convinced the nagual Julian knew nothing about sorcery, but he humored him, listening to him without ever believing.
The nagual Julian was unfazed by don Juan’s lack of trust. He simply proceeded as if don Juan believed him, and gathered all the apprentices together to give them instruction. Periodically he took all of them on all-night excursions into the local mountains. On most of these excursions the nagual would leave them by themselves, stranded in those rugged mountains, with don Juan in charge.
The rationale given for the trips was that in solitude, in the wilderness, they would discover the spirit. But they never did. At least, not in any way don Juan could understand. However, the nagual Julian insisted so strongly on the importance of knowing the spirit that don Juan became obsessed with knowing what the spirit was.
During one of those nighttime excursions, the nagual Julian urged don Juan to go after the spirit, even if he didn’t understand it.
“Of course, he meant the only thing a nagual could mean: the movement of the assemblage point,” don Juan said. “But he worded it in a way he believed would make sense to me: go after the spirit.
“I thought he was talking nonsense. At that time I had already formed my own opinions and beliefs and was convinced that the spirit was what is known as character, volition, guts, strength. And I believed I didn’t have to go after them. I had them all.
“The nagual Julian insisted that the spirit was indefinable, that one could not even feel it, much less talk about it. One could only beckon it, he said, by acknowledging its existence. My retort was very much the same as yours: one cannot beckon something that does not exist.”
Don Juan told me he had argued so much with the nagual that the nagual finally promised him, in front of his entire household, that in one single stroke he was going to show him not only what the spirit was, but how to define it. He also promised to throw an enormous party, even inviting the neighbors, to celebrate don Juan’s lesson.
Don Juan remarked that in those days, before the Mexican Revolution, the nagual Julian and the seven women of his group passed themselves off as the wealthy owners of a large hacienda. Nobody ever doubted their image, especially the nagual Julian’s, a rich and handsome landholder who had set aside his earnest desire to pursue an ecclesiastical career in order to care for his seven unmarried sisters.
One day, during the rainy season, the nagual Julian announced that as soon as the rains stopped, he would hold the enormous party he had promised don Juan. And one Sunday afternoon he took his entire household to the banks of the river, which was in flood because of the heavy rains. The nagual Julian rode his horse while don Juan trotted respectfully behind, as was their custom in case they met any of their neighbors; as far as the neighbors knew, don Juan was the landlord’s personal servant.
The nagual chose for their picnic a site on high ground by the edge of the river. The women had prepared food and drink. The nagual had even brought a group of musicians from the town. It was a big party which included the peons of the hacienda, neighbors, and even passing strangers that had meandered over to join the fun.
Everybody ate and drank to his heart’s content. The nagual danced with all the women, sang, and recited poetry. He told jokes and, with the help of some of the women, staged skits to the delight of all.
At a given moment, the nagual Julian asked if any of those present, especially the apprentices, wanted to share don Juan’s lesson. They all declined. All of them were keenly aware of the nagual’s hard tactics. Then he asked don Juan if he was sure he wanted to find out what the spirit was.
Don Juan could not say no. He simply could not back out. He announced that he was as ready as he could ever be. The nagual guided him to the edge of the raging river and made him kneel. The nagual began a long incantation in which he invoked the power of the wind and the mountains and asked the power of the river to advise don Juan.
His incantation, meaningful as it might have been, was worded so irreverently that everyone had to laugh. When he finished, he asked don Juan to stand up with his eyes closed. Then he took the apprentice in his arms, as he would a child, and threw him into the rushing waters, shouting, “Don’t hate the river, for heaven’s sake!”
Relating this incident sent don Juan into fits of laughter. Perhaps under other circumstances I, too, might have found it hilarious. This time, however, the story upset me tremendously.
“You should have seen those people’s faces,” don Juan continued. “I caught a glimpse of their dismay as I flew through the air on my way to the river. No one had anticipated that that devilish nagual would do a thing like that.”
Don Juan said he had thought it was the end of his life. He was not a good swimmer, and as he sank to the bottom of the river he cursed himself for allowing this to happen to him. He was so angry he did not have time to panic. All he could think about was his resolve that he was not going to die in that frigging river, at the hands of that frigging man.
His feet touched bottom and he propelled himself up. It was not a deep river, but the flood waters had widened it a great deal. The current was swift, and it pulled him along as he dog- paddled, trying not to let the rushing waters tumble him around.
The current dragged him a long distance. And while he was being dragged and trying his best not to succumb, he entered into a strange frame of mind. He knew his flaw. He was a very angry man and his pent-up anger made him hate and fight with everyone around. But he could not hate or fight the river, or be impatient with it, or fret, which were the ways he normally behaved with everything and everybody in his life. All he could do with the river was follow its flow.
Don Juan contended that that simple realization and the acquiescence it engendered tipped the scales, so to speak, and he experienced a free movement of his assemblage point. Suddenly, without being in any way aware of what was happening, instead of being pulled by the rushing water, don Juan felt himself running along the riverbank. He was running so fast that he had no time to think. A tremendous force was pulling him, making him race over boulders and fallen trees, as if they were not there.
After he had run in that desperate fashion for quite a while, don Juan braved a quick look at the reddish, rushing water. And he saw himself being roughly tumbled by the current. Nothing in his experience had prepared him for
such a moment. He knew then, without involving his thought processes, that he was in two places at once. And in one of them, in the rushing river, he was helpless.
All his energy went into trying to save himself.
Without thinking about it, he began angling away from the riverbank. It took all his strength and determination to edge an inch at a time. He felt as if he were dragging a tree. He moved so slowly that it took him an eternity to gain a few yards.
The strain was too much for him. Suddenly he was no longer running; he was falling down a deep well. When he hit the water, the coldness of it made him scream. And then he was back in the river, being dragged by the current. His fright upon finding himself back in the rushing water was so intense that all he could do was to wish with all his might to be safe and sound on the riverbank. And immediately he was there again, running at breakneck speed parallel to, but a distance from, the river.
As he ran, he looked at the rushing water and saw himself struggling to stay afloat. He wanted to yell a command; he wanted to order himself to swim at an angle, but he had no voice. His anguish for the part of him that was in the water was overwhelming. It served as a bridge between the two Juan Matuses. He was instantly back in the water, swimming at an angle toward the bank.
The incredible sensation of alternating between two places was enough to eradicate his fear. He no longer cared about his fate. He alternated freely between swimming in the river and racing on the bank. But whichever he was doing, he consistently moved toward his left, racing away from the river or paddling to the left shore.
He came out on the left side of the river about five miles downstream. He had to wait there, sheltering in the shrubs, for over a week. He was waiting for the waters to subside so he could wade across, but he was also waiting until his fright wore off and he was whole again.
Don Juan said that what had happened was that the strong, sustained emotion of fighting for his life had caused his assemblage point to move squarely to the place of silent knowledge.
Because he had never paid any attention to what the nagual Julian told him about the assemblage point, he had no idea what was happening to him. He was frightened at the thought that he might never be normal again. But as he explored his split perception, he discovered its practical side and found he liked it. He was double for days. He could be thoroughly one or the other. Or he could be both at the same time. When he was both, things became fuzzy and neither being was effective, so he abandoned that alternative. But being one or the other opened up inconceivable possibilities for him.
While he recuperated in the bushes, he established that one of his beings was more flexible than the other and could cover distances in the blink of an eye and find food or the best place to hide. It was this being that once went to the nagual’s house to see if they were worrying about him.
He heard the young people crying for him, and that was certainly a surprise. He would have gone on watching them indefinitely, since he adored the idea of finding out what they thought of him, but the nagual Julian caught him and put an end to it.
That was the only time he had been truly afraid of the nagual. Don Juan heard the nagual telling him to stop his nonsense. He appeared suddenly, a jet black, bell-shaped object of immense weight and strength. He grabbed don Juan. Don Juan did not know how the nagual was grabbing him, but it hurt in a most unsettling way. It was a sharp nervous pain he felt in his stomach and groin.
“I was instantly back on the riverbank,” don Juan said, laughing. “I got up, waded the recently subsided river, and started to walk home.”
He paused then asked me what I thought of his story. And I told him that it had appalled me. “You could have drowned in that river,” I said, almost shouting. “What a brutal thing to do to you. The nagual Julian must have been crazy!”
“Wait a minute,” don Juan protested. “The nagual Julian was devilish, but not crazy. He did what he had to do in his role as nagual and teacher. It’s true that I could have died. But that’s a risk we all have to take. You yourself could have been easily eaten by the jaguar, or could have died from any of the things I have made you do. The nagual Julian was bold and commanding and tackled everything directly. No beating around the bush with him, no mincing words.”
I insisted that valuable as the lesson might have been, it still appeared to me that the nagual Julian’s methods were bizarre and excessive. I admitted to don Juan that everything I had heard about the nagual Julian had bothered me I so much I had formed a most negative picture of him.
“I think you’re afraid that one of these days I’m going to | throw you into the river or make you wear women’s clothes,” he said and began to laugh. “That’s why you don’t approve of the nagual Julian.”
I admitted that he was right, and he assured me that he had no intentions of imitating his benefactor’s methods, because they did not work for him. He was, he said, as ruthless but not as practical as the nagual Julian.
“At that time,” don Juan continued, “I didn’t appreciate his art, and I certainly didn’t like what he did to me, but now, whenever I think about it, I admire him all the more for his superb and direct way of placing me in the position of silent knowledge.”
Don Juan said that because of the enormity of his experience, he had totally forgotten the monstrous man. He walked unescorted almost to the door of the nagual Julian’s house, then changed his mind and went instead to the nagual Elias’s place, seeking solace. And the nagual Elias explained to him the deep consistency of the nagual Julian’s actions.
The nagual Elias could hardly contain his excitement when he heard don Juan’s story. In a fervent tone he explained to don Juan that his benefactor was a supreme stalker, always after practicalities. His endless quest was for pragmatic views and solutions. His behavior that day at the river had been a masterpiece of stalking. He had manipulated and affected everyone. Even the river seemed to be at his command.
The nagual Elias maintained that while don Juan was being carried by the current, fighting for his life, the river helped him understand what the spirit was. And thanks to that understanding, don Juan had the opportunity to enter directly into silent knowledge.
Don Juan said that because he was a callow youth he listened to the nagual Elias without understanding a word, but was moved with sincere admiration for the nagual’s intensity.
First, the nagual Elias explained to don Juan that sound and the meaning of words were of supreme importance to stalkers. Words were used by them as keys to open anything that was closed. Stalkers, therefore, had to state their aim before attempting to achieve it. But they could not reveal their true aim at the outset, so they had to word things carefully to conceal the main thrust.
The nagual Elias called this act waking up intent. He explained to don Juan that the nagual Julian woke up intent by affirming emphatically in front of his entire household that he was going to show don Juan, in one stroke, what the spirit was and how to define it. This was completely nonsensical because the nagual Julian knew there was no way to define the spirit. What he was really trying to do was, of course, to place don Juan in the position of silent knowledge.
After making the statement which concealed his true aim, the nagual Julian gathered as many people as he could, thus making them both his witting and unwitting accomplices. All of them knew about his stated goal, but not a single one knew what he really had in mind.
The nagual Elias’s belief that his explanation would shake don Juan out of his impossible stand of total rebelliousness and indifference was completely wrong. Yet the nagual patiently continued to explain to him that while he had been fighting the current in the river he had reached the third point.
The old nagual explained that the position of silent knowledge was called the third point because in order to get to it one had to pass the second point, the place of no pity.
He said that don Juan’s assemblage point had acquired sufficient fluidity for him to be double, which had allowed him to be in both the place of reason and in the place of silent knowledge, either alternately or at the same time.
The nagual told don Juan that his accomplishment was magnificent. He even hugged don Juan as if he were a child. And he could not stop talking about how don Juan, in spite of not knowing anything – or maybe because of not knowing anything – had transferred his total energy from one place to the other. Which meant to the nagual that don Juan’s assemblage point had a most propitious, natural fluidity.
He said to don Juan that every human being had a capacity for that fluidity. For most of us, however, it was stored away and we never used it, except on rare occasions which were brought about by sorcerers, such as the experience he had just had, or by dramatic natural circumstances, such as a life-or-death struggle.
Don Juan listened, mesmerized by the sound of the old nagual’s voice. When he paid attention, he could follow anything the man said, which was something he had never been able to do with the nagual Julian.
The old nagual went on to explain that humanity was on the first point, reason, but that not every human being’s assemblage point was squarely on the position of reason. Those who were on the spot itself were the true leaders of mankind. Most of the time they were unknown people whose genius was the exercising of their reason.
The nagual said there had been another time, when mankind had been on the third point, which, of course, had been the first point then. But after that, mankind moved to the place of reason.
When silent knowledge was the first point the same condition prevailed. Not every human being’s assemblage point was squarely on that position either. This meant that the true leaders of mankind had always been the few human beings whose assemblage points happened to be either on the exact point of reason or of silent knowledge. The rest of humanity, the old nagual told don Juan, was merely the audience. In our day, they were the lovers of reason. In the past, they had been the lovers of silent knowledge. They were the ones who had admired and sung odes to the heroes of either position.
The nagual stated that mankind had spent the longer part of its history in the position of silent knowledge, and that this explained our great longing for it.
Don Juan asked the old nagual what exactly the nagual Julian was doing to him. His question sounded more mature and intelligent than what he really meant. The nagual Elias answered it in terms totally unintelligible to don Juan at that time. He said that the nagual Julian was coaching don Juan, enticing his assemblage point to the position of reason, so he could be a thinker rather than merely part of an unsophisticated but emotionally charged audience that loved the orderly works of reason. At the same time, the nagual was coaching don Juan to be a true abstract sorcerer instead of merely part of a morbid and ignorant audience of lovers of the unknown.
The nagual Elias assured don Juan that only a human being who was a paragon of reason could move his assemblage point easily and be a paragon of silent knowledge. He said that only those who were squarely in either position could see the other position clearly, and that that had been the way the age of reason came to being. The position of reason was clearly seen from the position of silent knowledge.
The old nagual told don Juan that the one-way bridge from silent knowledge to reason was called “concern.” That is, the concern that true men of silent knowledge had about the source of what they knew. And the other one-way bridge, from reason to silent knowledge, was called “pure understanding.” That is, the recognition that told the man of reason that reason was only one island in an endless sea of islands.
The nagual added that a human being who had both one-way bridges working was a sorcerer in direct contact with the spirit, the vital force that made both positions possible. He pointed oat to don Juan that everything the nagual Julian had done that day at the river had been a show, not for a human audience, but for the spirit, the force that was watching him. He pranced and frolicked with abandon and entertained everybody, especially the power he was addressing.
Don Juan said that the nagual Elias assured him that the spirit only listened when the speaker speaks in gestures. And gestures do not mean signs or body movements, but acts of true abandon, acts of largesse, of humor. As a gesture for the spirit, sorcerers bring out the best of themselves and silently offer it to the abstract.