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9: Having to Believe; Max the Cat; Without the Awareness of Death Everything is Ordinary, Trivial.

(Encounters with the Nagual by Armando Torres)

“The first effect of penetrating the consensus of sorcerers is that those dualities we have always accepted as something self-evident stop being operative, which in the beginning is extremely disconcerting for the reason. In time, sorcerers learn that in a world where there are no solid objects, but rather beings who flow among various states of awareness, it doesn’t make sense to try to separate truth from lies.”

“Don Juan said that the truth is like the cornerstone of a building, a sensible man should not try to remove it! When we surrender to definitions, our energy becomes stagnated, or blocked. The tendency to do that is an imposition of the foreign mind, and we have to put an end to it. To substitute the reason-based consensus with experience was what don Juan called ‘to believe without believing’. For sorcerers, this completely redefines the concept of corroboration.”

“They don’t look for definitions, but for results. If a practice is able to elevate our level of awareness, what does it matter how we explain it to ourselves! The means by which we will start acting to save and increase our energy are not important, because once we are in possession of our totality, we enter a new field of attention where we don’t care about concepts anymore, and things demonstrate themselves.”

“Perhaps you think these statements just give permission to be irresponsible. But a warrior understands the real message: ‘Reality’ is a ‘doing’, and a doing is measured by its fruits.”

“Anyone who judges a sorcerer from an everyday point of view, will judge him to be an irremediable liar, because the universes of both don’t coincide. And if the sorcerer tries to explain inexplicable things with borrowed words, he will inevitably become entangled in contradictions and be seen as a humbug or a lunatic. That’s why I have said that from the point of view of the everyday world, the world of the nagual is a fraud.”

“In fact, this goes for all ‘isms’, nagualism is not an exception. But as opposed to the defenders of reason, who seek followers for their particular kind of agreement, a sorcerer won’t tell you that his vision of the world is the real one; he tells you: ‘I believe because I want to, and you can do it, too’. This expression of will is something very powerful, and will provoke, as an avalanche, events of power.”

“If you pay close attention, you will notice that children don’t just ‘innocently’ believe in the magic of the world; they believe because they are complete and they see! And the same thing happens with sorcerers. The fabulous stories I have told you don’t belong to the plane of reality in which you and I are having this conversation, but they happened!”

“Nagualism is like somebody who inherited a story and a treasure map, but doesn’t believe in it, so he comes to you and gives his secret to you. And you are so clever, or so naive, that you take the story as truth and dedicate yourself to deciphering the map. But the map is coded with various keys, which makes you learn several languages, go to difficult places, dig in the ground, climb mountains, descend into ravines, and dive in deep waters.”

“In the end, after years of searching, you arrive at the place where the treasure should be, and – oh how disappointing! – you just find a mirror. Was it a lie? Well, you are healthy, strong, well educated, full of adventures, and you’ve had a great experience. Truly, there was a treasure there!”

“Keeping in mind that there are neither truths nor lies in the flow of energy, a warrior chooses to believe by predilection, for the excitement of the adventure, and in this way he learns to focus on the world from another point of view – the focus of silence. It is only then that the immense treasure of the teachings is revealed.”


(Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda)

I walked towards downtown on the Paseo de la Reforma. I was tired; the altitude of Mexico City no doubt had something to do with it. I could have taken a bus or a taxi, but somehow in spite of my fatigue I wanted to walk. It was Sunday afternoon. The traffic was minimal and yet the exhaust fumes of the buses and trucks with diesel engines made the narrow streets of downtown seem like canyons of smog.

I arrived at the Zocalo and noticed that the cathedral of Mexico City seemed to be more slanted than the last time I had seen it. I stepped a few feet inside the enormous halls. A cynical thought crossed my mind.

From there I headed for the Lagunilla market. I had no definite purpose in mind. I walked aimlessly but at a good pace, without looking at anything in particular. I ended up at the stands of old coins and secondhand books.

“Hello, hello! Look who’s here!” someone said, tapping me lightly on the shoulder.

The voice and the touch made me jump. I quickly turned to my right. My mouth opened in surprise. The person who had spoken to me was don Juan.

“My God, don Juan!” I exclaimed and a shiver shook my body from head to toe. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” he retorted as an echo.

I told him that I had stopped in the city for a couple of days before venturing into the mountains of central Mexico to search for him.

“Well, let’s say then that I came down from the mountains to find you,” he said, smiling.

He patted me on the shoulder several times. He seemed to be glad to see me. He put his hands on his hips and swelled his chest and asked me whether or not I liked his appearance. It was only then that I noticed he was wearing a suit. The full impact of such an incongruity hit me. I was dumbfounded.

“How do you like my tacuche?” he asked, beaming. He used the slang word “tacuche” instead of the standard Spanish word “traje” for suit.

“Today I’m in a suit,” he said as if he had to explain; and then, pointing to my open mouth, he added, “Close it! Close it!”

I laughed absentmindedly. He noticed my confusion. His body shook with laughter as he turned around so I could see him from every angle. His attire was incredible. He was wearing a light brown suit with pin stripes, brown shoes, a white shirt. And a necktie! And that made me wonder if he had any socks on, or was he wearing his shoes without them?

What added to my bewilderment was the maddening sensation I had had that when don Juan tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around I thought I had seen him in his khaki pants and shirt, his sandals and his straw hat, and then as he made me aware of his attire, and as I focused my attention on every detail of it, the complete unit of his dress became fixed, as if I had created it with my thoughts. My mouth seemed to be the area of my body which was most taxed by the surprise. It opened involuntarily. Don Juan touched me gently on my chin, as if he were helping me to close it.

“You certainly are developing a double chin,” he said and laughed in short spurts.

I became aware then that he did not have a hat on, and that his short white hair was parted on the right side. He looked like an old Mexican gentleman, an impeccably tailored urban dweller.

I told him that to have found him there was so unnerving to me that I had to sit down. He was very understanding and suggested that we go to a nearby park.

We walked a few blocks in complete silence and then we arrived at the Plaza Garibaldi, a place where musicians offered their services, a sort of musicians’ employment center.

Don Juan and I merged with scores of spectators and tourists and walked around the park.

After a while he stopped, leaned against a wall and pulled his pants up slightly at the knees; he was wearing light brown socks. I asked him to tell me the meaning of his mysterious apparel. His vague reply was that he simply had to be in a suit that day for reasons that would be clear to me later.

Finding Don Juan in a suit had been so unearthly that my agitation was almost uncontrollable.

I had not seen him for several months and I wanted more than anything else in the world to talk with him, but somehow the setting was wrong and my attention meandered around. Don Juan must have noticed my anxiety and suggested that we walk to La Alameda, a more quiet park a few blocks away.

There were not too many people in the park and we had no trouble finding an empty bench.

We sat down. My nervousness had given way to a feeling of uneasiness. I did not dare to look at don Juan.

There was a long unnerving pause; still without looking at him, I said that the inner voice had finally driven me to search for him, that the staggering events I had witnessed at his house had affected my life very deeply, and that I just had to talk about them.

He made a gesture of impatience with his hand and said that his policy was never to dwell on past events.

“What’s important now is that you’ve fulfilled my suggestion,” he said. “You have taken your daily world as a challenge, and the proof that you have stored sufficient personal power is the indisputable fact that you have found me with no difficulty whatever, at the precise spot where you were supposed to.”

“I doubt very much that I could take credit for that,” I said.

“I was waiting for you and then you showed up,” he said. “That’s all I know; that’s all any warrior would care to know.”

“What’s going to happen now that I’ve found you?” I asked.

“For one thing,” he said, “we won’t discuss the dilemmas of your reason; those experiences belong to another time and to another mood. They are, properly speaking, only steps of an endless ladder; to emphasize them would mean to take away from the importance of what’s taking place now. A warrior cannot possibly afford to do that.”

I had an almost invincible desire to complain. It was not that I resented anything that had happened to me but I craved solace and sympathy. Don Juan appeared to know my mood and spoke as if I had actually voiced my thoughts.

“Only as a warrior can one withstand the path of knowledge,” he said. “A warrior cannot complain or regret anything. His life is an endless challenge, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges.”

His tone was dry and severe, but his smile was warm and disarming.

“Now that you are here, what we’ll do is wait for an omen,” he said.

“What kind of omen?” I asked.

“We need to find out whether your power can stand on its own,” he said. “The last time it petered out miserably; this time the circumstances of your personal life appear to have given you, at least on the surface, all the necessaries to deal with the sorcerers’ explanation.”

“Is there a chance that you might tell me about it?” I asked.

“It depends on your personal power,” he said. “As is always the case in the doings and not-doings of warriors, personal power is the only thing that matters. So far, I should say that you’re doing fine.”

After a moment’s silence, as if wanting to change the subject, he stood up and pointed to his suit.

“I have put on my suit for you,” he said in a mysterious tone. “This suit is my challenge. Look how good I look in it! How easy! Eh? Nothing to it!”

Don Juan did look extraordinarily well in a suit. All I could think of as a gauge for comparison was the way my grandfather used to look in his heavy English flannel suit. He always gave me the impression that he felt unnatural, out of place in a suit. Don Juan, on the contrary, was so at ease.

“Do you think it is easy for me to look natural in a suit?” don Juan asked.

I did not know what to say. I concluded to myself, however, that judging by his appearance and by the way he conducted himself, it was the easiest thing in the world for him.

“To wear a suit is a challenge for me,” he said. “A challenge as difficult as wearing sandals and a poncho would be for you. You have never had the necessity to take that as a challenge, though. My case is different; I’m an Indian.”

We looked at each other. He raised his brows in a silent question, as if asking for my comments.

“The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge,” he went on, “while an ordinary man takes everything either as a blessing or as a curse. The fact that you’re here today indicates that you have tipped the scales in favor of the warrior’s way.”

His stare made me feel nervous. I tried to get up and walk, but he made me sit down.

“You are going to sit here without fretting until we’re through,” he said imperatively. “We are waiting for an omen; we can’t proceed without it, because it isn’t enough that you found me, as it wasn’t enough that you found Genaro that day in the desert. Your power must round itself up and give an indication.”

“I can’t figure out what you want,” I said.

“I saw something prowling around this park,” he said.

“Was it the ally?” I asked.

“No. It wasn’t. So, we must sit here and find out what kind of omen your power is rounding up.”

He then asked me to give him a detailed account of how I had carried out the recommendations made by don Genaro and himself about my daily world and my relations with people. I felt a bit embarrassed. He put me at ease with the argument that my personal affairs were not private, because they included a task of sorcery that he and don Genaro were fostering in me. I jokingly remarked that my life had been ruined because of that task of sorcery and recounted the difficulties in maintaining my day-to-day world.

I talked for a long time. Don Juan laughed at my account until tears were rolling down his cheeks. He slapped his thighs repeatedly; that gesture, which I had seen him do hundreds of times, was definitely out of place when it was done on the pants of a suit. I was filled with apprehension, which I was compelled to voice.

“Your suit scares me more than anything you’ve done to me,” I said.

“You’ll get used to it,” he said. “A warrior must be fluid and must shift harmoniously with the world around him, whether it is the world of reason, or the world of will.

“The most dangerous aspect of that shifting comes forth every time the warrior finds that the world is neither one nor the other. I was told that the only way to succeed in that crucial shifting was by proceeding in one’s actions as if one believed. In other words, the secret of a warrior is that he believes without believing. But obviously a warrior cannot just say he believes and let it go at that. That would be too easy. To just believe would exonerate him from examining his situation. A warrior, whenever he has to involve himself with believing, does it as a choice, as an expression of his innermost predilection. A warrior doesn’t believe, a warrior has to believe.”

He stared at me for a few seconds as I wrote in my notebook. I remained silent. I could not say that I understood the difference, but I did not want to argue or ask questions. I wanted to think about what he had said, but my mind meandered as I looked around. On the street behind us there was a long line of automobiles and buses, blowing their horns. At the edge of the park, perhaps twenty yards away, directly in line with the bench where we were sitting, a group of about seven people, including three policemen in light gray uniforms, stood over a man lying motionless on the grass. He seemed to be drunk or perhaps seriously ill.

I glanced at don Juan. He had also been looking at the man.

I told him that for some reason I was incapable of clarifying by myself what he had just said to me.

“I don’t want to ask questions any more,” I said. “But if I don’t ask you to explain I don’t understand. Not to ask questions is very abnormal for me.”

“Please, be normal, by all means,” he said with feigned seriousness.

I said that I did not understand the difference between believing and having to believe. To me both were the same. To conceive that the statements were different was splitting hairs.

“Remember the story you once told me about your friend and her cats?” he asked casually.

He looked up at the sky and leaned back against the bench, stretching his legs. He put his hands behind his head and contracted the muscles of his whole body. As it always happens, his bones made a loud cracking sound.

He was referring to a story I had once told him about a friend of mine who found two kittens, almost dead, inside a dryer in a laundromat. She revived them and through excellent nourishment and care groomed them into two gigantic cats, a black one and a reddish one.

Two years later she sold her house. Since she could not take the cats with her and was unable to find another home for them, all she could do under the circumstances was to take them to an animal hospital and have them put to sleep.

I helped her take them. The cats had never been inside a car; she tried to calm them down.

They scratched and bit her, especially the reddish cat, the one she called Max. When we finally arrived at the animal hospital, she took the black cat first; holding it in her arms, and without saying a word she got out of the car. The cat played with her; pawing her gently as she pushed open the glass door to enter the hospital.

I glanced at Max; he was sitting in the back.. The movement of my head must have scared him, for he dove under the driver’s seat. I made the seat slide backwards. I did not want to reach under it for fear that he would bite or scratch my hand. The cat was lying inside a depression on the floor of the car. He seemed very agitated; his breathing was accelerated. He looked at me; our eyes met and an overwhelming sensation possessed me. Something took hold of my body, a form of apprehension, despair, or perhaps embarrassment for being part of what was taking place.

I felt a need to explain to Max that it was my friend’s decision, and that I was only helping her.

The cat kept on looking at me as if he understood my words.

I looked to see if she was coming. I could see her through the glass door. She was talking to the receptionist. My body felt a strange jolt and automatically I opened the door of my car.

“Run, Max, run!” I said to the cat.

He jumped out of the car, dashed across the street with his body close to the ground, like a true feline. The opposite side of the street was empty; there were no cars parked and I could see Max running down the street alone the gutter. He reached the corner of a big boulevard and then dove through the storm drain into the sewer.

My friend came back. I told her that Max had left. She got into the car and we drove away without saying a single word.

In the months that followed, the incident became a symbol to me. I fancied or perhaps I saw a weird flicker in Max’s eyes when he looked at me before jumping out of the car. And I believed that for an instant that castrated, overweight, and useless pet became a cat.

I told don Juan that I was convinced that when Max had run across the street and plunged into the sewer his “cat spirit” was impeccable, and that perhaps at no other time in his life was his “catness” so evident. The impression that the incident left on me was unforgettable.

I told the story to all of my friends; after telling it and retelling it, my identification with the cat became quite pleasurable.

I thought myself to be like Max, overindulgent, domesticated in many ways, and yet I could not help thinking that there was always the possibility of one moment in which the spirit of man might take over my whole being, just like the spirit of “catness” took over Max’s bloated and useless body.

Don Juan had liked the story and had made some casual comments about it. He had said that it was not so difficult to let the spirit of man flow and take over; to sustain it, however, was something that only a warrior could do.

“What about the story of the cats?” I asked.

“You told me you believed that you’re taking your chances, like Max,” he said.

“I do believe that.”

“What I’ve been trying to tell you is that as a warrior you cannot just believe this and let it go at that. With Max, having to believe means that you accept the fact that his escape might have been a useless outburst. He might have jumped into the sewer and died instantly. He might have drowned or starved to death, or he might have been eaten by rats. A warrior considers all those possibilities and then chooses to believe in accordance with his innermost predilection.”

“As a warrior you have to believe that Max made it, that he not only escaped but that he sustained his power. You have to believe it. Let’s say that without that belief you have nothing.”

The distinction became very clear. I thought I really had chosen to believe that Max had survived, knowing that he was handicapped by a lifetime of soft and pampered living.

“Believing is a cinch,” don Juan went on. “Having to believe is something else. In this case, for instance, power gave you a splendid lesson, but you chose to use only part of it. If you have to believe, however, you must use all the event.”

“I see what you mean,” I said.

My mind was in a state of clarity and I thought I was grasping his concepts with no effort at all.

“I’m afraid you still don’t understand,” he said, almost whispering.

He stared at me. I held his look for a moment.

“What about the other cat?” he asked.

“Uh? The other cat?” I repeated involuntarily.

I had forgotten about it. My symbol had rotated around Max. The other cat was of no consequence to me.

“But he is!” don Juan exclaimed when I voiced my thoughts. ”Having to believe means that you have to also account for the other cat. The one that went playfully licking the hands that were carrying him to his doom. That was the cat that went to his death trustingly, filled with his cat’s judgments.”

“You think you’re like Max, therefore you have forgotten about the other cat. You don’t even know his name. Having to believe means that you must consider everything, and before deciding that you are like Max you must consider that you may be like the other cat; instead of running for your life and taking your chances, you may be going to your doom happily, filled with your judgments.”

There was an intriguing sadness in his words, or perhaps the sadness was mine. We remained quiet for a long time. Never had it crossed my mind that I might be like the other cat. The thought was very distressing to me.

A mild commotion and the muffled sound of voices suddenly forced me out of my mental deliberations. Policemen were dispersing some people gathered around the man lying on the grass. Someone had propped the man’s head on a rolled up jacket. The man was lying parallel to the street. He was facing east. From where I sat I could almost tell that his eyes were open.

Don Juan sighed.

“What a magnificent afternoon,” he said, looking at the sky.

“I don’t like Mexico City,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I hate the smog.”

He shook his head rhythmically as if he were agreeing with me.

“I would rather be with you in the desert, or in the mountains,” I said.

“If I were you I would never say that,” he said.

“I didn’t mean anything wrong, don Juan.”

“We both know that. It is not what you mean that matters, though. A warrior, or any man for that matter, cannot possibly wish he were somewhere else; a warrior because he lives by challenge, an ordinary man because he doesn’t know where his death is going to find him.”

“Look at that man over there lying on the grass. What do you think is wrong with him?”

“He’s either drunk or ill,” I said.

“He’s dying!” don Juan said with ultimate conviction. “When we sat down here I caught a glimpse of his death as it circled around him. That’s why I told you not to get up; rain or shine, you can’t get up from this bench until the end. This is the omen we have been waiting for. It is late afternoon. Right now the sun is about to set. It is your hour of power. Look! The view of that man is only for us.”

He pointed out that from where we sat we had an unobstructed view of the man. A group of curious bystanders were gathered in a half circle on the other side of him, opposite us.

The sight of the man lying on the grass became very disturbing to me. He was lean and dark, still young. His black hair was short and curly. His shirt was unbuttoned and his chest was uncovered. He was wearing an orange cardigan sweater with holes in the elbows, and some old beat up gray slacks. His shoes, of some undefined faded color, were untied. He was rigid. I could not tell whether or not he was breathing. I wondered if he were dying, as don Juan had said. Or was don Juan simply using the event to make a point? My past experiences with him gave me the certainty that somehow he was making everything fit into some mysterious scheme of his.

After a long silence I turned to him. His eyes were closed. He began to talk without opening them.

“That man is about to die now,” he said. “You don’t believe it, though, do you?”

He opened his eyes and stared at me for a second. His look was so penetrating that it stunned me.

“No. I don’t believe it,” I said.

I really felt that the whole thing was too easy. We had come to sit in the park and right there, as if everything were being staged, was a man dying.

“The world adjusts itself to itself,” don Juan said after listening to my doubts. “This is not a setup. This is an omen, an act of power.”

“The world upheld by reason makes all this into an event that we can watch for a moment on our way to more important things. All we can say about it is that a man is lying on the grass in the park, perhaps drunk.”

“The world upheld by will makes it into an act of power, which we can see. We can see death whirling around the man, setting its hooks deeper and deeper into his luminous fibers. We can see the luminous strings losing their tautness and vanishing one by one.”

“Those are the two possibilities opened to us luminous beings. You are somewhere in the middle, still wanting to have everything under the rubric of reason. And yet, how can you discard the fact that your personal power rounded up an omen? We came to this park, after you had found me where I had been waiting for you – you found me by just walking into me, without thinking, or planning, or deliberately using your reason – and after we sat down here to wait for an omen, we became aware of that man, each of us noticed him in our own way, you with your reason, I with my will.”

“That dying man is one of the cubic centimeters of chance that power always makes available to a warrior. The warrior’s art is to be perennially fluid in order to pluck it. I have plucked it, but have you?”

I could not answer. I became aware of an immense chasm within myself and for a moment I was somehow cognizant of the two worlds he was talking about.

“What an exquisite omen this is!” he went on. “And all for you. Power is showing you that death is the indispensable ingredient in having to believe. Without the awareness of death everything is ordinary, trivial. It is only because death is stalking us that the world is an unfathomable mystery. Power has shown you that. All I have done myself is to round up the details of the omen, so the direction would be clear to you; but in rounding up the details, I have also shown you that everything I have said to you today is what I have to believe myself, because that is the predilection of my spirit.”

We looked each other in the eye for a moment.

“I remember a poem that you used to read to me,” he said, moving his eyes to the side. “About a man who vowed to die in Paris. How does it go?”

The poem was Cesar Vallejo’s “Black Stone on a White Stone.” I had read and recited the first two stanzas to don Juan countless times at his request.

 I will die in Paris while it rains,

on a day which I already remember.

I will die in Paris – and I do not run away –

perhaps in the Autumn, on a Thursday, as it is today.

It will be a Thursday, because today,

the Thursday that I write these lines,

my bones feel the turn,

and never so much as today, in all my road,

have I seen myself alone.

The poem summed up an indescribable melancholy for me.

Don Juan whispered that he had to believe that the dying man had had enough personal power to enable him to choose the streets of Mexico City as the place of his death.

“We’re back again to the story of the two cats,” he said. “We have to believe that Max became aware of what was stalking him and, like that man over there, had enough power at least to choose the place of his end. But then there was the other cat, just like there are other men whose death will encircle them while they are alone, unaware, staring at the walls and ceiling of an ugly barren room.”

“That man, on the other hand, is dying where he has always lived, in the streets. Three policemen are his guards of honor. And as he fades away his eyes will catch a last glimpse of the lights in the stores across the street – the cars, the trees, the throngs of people milling around – and his ears will be flooded for the last time with the sounds of traffic and the voices of men and women as they walk by.”

“So you see, without an awareness of the presence of our death there is no power, no mystery.”

I stared at the man for a long time. He was motionless. Perhaps he was dead. But my disbelief did not matter any longer. Don Juan was right. Having to believe that the world is mysterious and unfathomable was the expression of a warrior’s innermost predilection. Without it he had nothing.


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