(The Fire from Within by Carlos Castaneda)
He said that there were a series of truths that seers, old and new, had discovered about awareness, and that such truths had been arranged in a specific sequence for purposes of comprehension.
He explained that the mastery of awareness consisted in internalizing the total sequence of such truths. The first truth, he said, was that our familiarity with the world we perceive compels us to believe that we are surrounded by objects, existing by themselves and as themselves, just as we perceive them, whereas, in fact, there is no world of objects, but a universe of the Eagle’s
He told me then that before he could explain the Eagle’s emanations, he had to talk about the known, the unknown, and the unknowable. Most of the truths about awareness were discovered
by the old seers, he said. But the order in which they were arranged had been worked out by the new seers. And without that order those truths were nearly incomprehensible.
He said that not to seek order was one of the great mistakes that the ancient seers made. A deadly consequence of that mistake was their assumption that the unknown and the unknowable are the same thing. It was up to the new seers to correct that error. They set up boundaries and defined the unknown as something that is veiled from man, shrouded perhaps by a terrifying context, but which, nonetheless, is within man’s reach. The unknown becomes the known at a given time. The unknowable, on the other hand, is the indescribable, the unthinkable, the unrealizable. It is something that will never be known to us, and yet it is there, dazzling and at the same time horrifying in its vastness.
“How can seers make the distinction between the two?” I asked.
“There is a simple rule of thumb,” he said. “In the face of the unknown, man is adventurous. It is a quality of the unknown to give us a sense of hope and happiness. Man feels robust, exhilarated. Even the apprehension that it arouses is very fulfilling. The new seers saw that man is at his best in the face of the unknown.”
He said that whenever what is taken to be the unknown turns out to be the unknowable the results are disastrous. Seers feel drained, confused. A terrible oppression takes possession of them. Their bodies lose tone, their reasoning and sobriety wander away aimlessly, for the unknowable has no energizing effects whatsoever. It is not within human reach; therefore, it should not be intruded upon foolishly or even prudently. The new seers realized that they had to be prepared to pay exorbitant prices for the faintest contact with it.
Don Juan explained that the new seers had had formidable barriers of tradition to overcome. At the time when the new cycle began, none of them knew for certain which procedures of their immense tradition were the right ones and which were not. Obviously, something had gone wrong with the ancient seers, but the new seers did not know what. They began by assuming that everything their predecessors had done was erroneous. Those ancient seers had been the masters of conjecture. They had, for one thing, assumed that their proficiency in seeing was a safeguard. They thought that they were untouchable – that is, until the invaders smashed them, and put most of them to horrendous deaths. The ancient seers had no protection whatsoever, despite their total certainty that they were invulnerable.
The new seers did not waste their time in speculations about what went wrong. Instead, they began to map the unknown in order to separate it from the unknowable.
“How did they map the unknown, don Juan?” I asked.
“Through the controlled use of seeing,” he replied.
I said that what I had meant to ask was, what was entailed in mapping the unknown?
He answered that mapping the unknown means making it available to our perception. By steadily practicing seeing, the new seers found that the unknown and the known are really on the same footing, because both are within the reach of human perception. Seers, in fact, can leave the known at a given moment and enter into the unknown.
Whatever is beyond our capacity to perceive is the unknowable. And the distinction between it and the knowable is crucial. Confusing the two would put seers in a most precarious position whenever they are confronted with the unknowable.
“When this happened to the ancient seers,” don Juan went on, “they thought their procedures had gone haywire. It never occurred to them that most of what’s out there is beyond our comprehension. It was a terrifying error of judgment on their part, for which they paid dearly.”
“What happened after the distinction between the unknown and the unknowable was
realized?” I asked.
“The new cycle began,” he replied. “That distinction is the frontier between the old and the new. Everything that the new seers have done stems from understanding that distinction.”
Don Juan said that seeing was the crucial element in both the destruction of the ancient seers’ world and in the reconstruction of the new view. It was through seeing that the new seers discovered certain undeniable facts, which they used to arrive at certain conclusions, revolutionary to them, about the nature of man and the world. These conclusions, which made the new cycle possible, were the truths about awareness he was explaining to me.
Don Juan asked me to accompany him to the center of town for a stroll around the square. On our way, we began to talk about machines and delicate instruments. He said that instruments are extensions of our senses, and I maintained that there are instruments that are not in that category, because they perform functions that we are not physiologically capable of performing.
“Our senses are capable of everything,” he asserted.
“I can tell you offhand that there are instruments that can detect radio waves that come from outer space,” I said. “Our senses cannot detect radio waves.”
“I have a different idea,” he said. “I think our senses can detect everything we are surrounded by.”
“What about the case of ultrasonic sounds?” I insisted. “We don’t have the organic equipment to hear them.”
“It is the seers’ conviction that we’ve tapped a very small portion of ourselves,” he replied.
He immersed himself in thought for a while as if he were trying to decide what to say next. Then he smiled.
“The first truth about awareness, as I have already told you,” he began, “is that the world out there is not really as we think it is. We think it is a world of objects and it’s not.”
He paused as if to measure the effect of his words. I told him that I agreed with his premise, because everything could be reduced to being a field of energy. He said that I was merely intuiting a truth, and that to reason it out was not to verify it. He was not interested in my agreement or disagreement, he said, but in my attempt to comprehend what was involved in that truth.
“You cannot witness fields of energy,” he went on. “Not as an average man, that is. Now, if you were able to see them, you would be a seer, in which case you would be explaining the truths about awareness. Do you understand what I mean?”
He went on to say that conclusions arrived at through reasoning had very little or no influence in altering the course of our lives. Hence, the countless examples of people who have the clearest convictions and yet act diametrically against them time and time again; and have as the only explanation for their behavior the idea that to err is human.
“The first truth is that the world is as it looks and yet it isn’t,” he went on. “It’s not as solid and real as our perception has been led to believe, but it isn’t a mirage either. The world is not an illusion, as it has been said to be; it’s real on the one hand, and unreal on the other. Pay close attention to this, for it must be understood, not just accepted. We perceive. This is a hard fact. But what we perceive is not a fact of the same kind, because we learn what to perceive.
“Something out there is affecting our senses. This is the part that is real. The unreal part is what our senses tell us is there. Take a mountain, for instance. Our senses tell us that it is an object. It has size, color, form. We even have categories of mountains, and they are downright accurate. Nothing wrong with that; the flaw is simply that it has never occurred to us that our senses play only a superficial role. Our senses perceive the way they do because a specific feature of our awareness forces them to do so.”
I began to agree with him again, but not because I wanted to, for I had not quite understood his point. Rather, I was reacting to a threatening situation. He made me stop.
“I’ve used the term “the world,”” don Juan went on, “to mean everything that surrounds us. I have a better term, of course, but it would be quite incomprehensible to you. Seers say that we think there is a world of objects out there only because of our awareness. But what’s really out there are the Eagle’s emanations, fluid, forever in motion, and yet unchanged, eternal.”
He stopped me with a gesture of his hand just as I was about to ask him what the Eagle’s emanations were. He explained that one of the most dramatic legacies the old seers had left us was their discovery that the reason for the existence of all sentient beings is to enhance awareness. Don Juan called it a colossal discovery.
In a half-serious tone he asked me if I knew of a better answer to the question that has always haunted man: the reason for our existence. I immediately took a defensive position and began to argue about the meaninglessness of the question because it cannot be logically answered. I told him that in order to discuss that subject we would have to talk about religious beliefs and turn it all into a matter of faith.
“The old seers were not just talking about faith,” he said. “They were not as practical as the new seers, but they were practical enough to know what they were seeing. What I was trying to point out to you with that question, which has rattled you so badly, is that our rationality alone cannot come up with an answer about the reason for our existence. Every time it tries, the answer turns into a matter of beliefs. The old seers took another road, and they did find an answer which doesn’t involve faith alone.”
He said that the old seers, risking untold dangers, actually saw the indescribable force which is the source of all sentient beings. They called it the Eagle, because in the few glimpses that they could sustain, they saw it as something that resembled a black-and-white eagle of infinite size.
They saw that it is the Eagle who bestows awareness. The Eagle creates sentient beings so that they will live and enrich the awareness it gives them with life. They also saw that it is the Eagle who devours that same enriched awareness after making sentient beings relinquish it at the moment of death.
“For the old seers,” don Juan went on, “to say that the reason for existence is to enhance awareness is not a matter of faith or deduction. They saw it.
“They saw that the awareness of sentient beings flies away at the moment of death and floats like a luminous cotton puff right into the Eagle’s beak to be consumed. For the old seers that was the evidence that sentient beings live only to enrich the awareness that is the Eagle’s food.”
Don Juan’s elucidation was interrupted because he had to leave on a short business trip. Nestor drove him to Oaxaca. As I saw them off, I remembered that at the beginning of my association with don Juan, every time he mentioned a business trip I thought he was employing a euphemism for something else. I eventually realized that he meant what he said. Whenever such a trip was about to take place, he would put on one of his many immaculately tailored three-piece suits and would look like anything but the old Indian I knew. I had commented to him about the sophistication of his metamorphosis.
“A nagual is someone flexible enough to be anything,” he had said. “To be a nagual, among other things, means to have no points to defend. Remember this – we’ll come back to it over and over.”
We had come back to it over and over, in every possible way; he did indeed seem to have no points to defend, but during his absence in Oaxaca I was given to just a shadow of doubt. Suddenly I realized that a nagual did have one point to defend – the description of the Eagle and
what it does required, in my opinion, a passionate defense.
I tried to pose that question to some of don Juan’s companions, but they eluded my probings. They told me that I was in quarantine from that kind of discussion until don Juan had finished his explanation.
The moment he returned, we sat down to talk and I asked him about it.
“Those truths are not something to defend passionately,” he replied. “If you think that I’m trying to defend them, you are mistaken. Those truths were put together for the delight and enlightenment of warriors, not to engage any proprietary sentiments. When I told you that a nagual has no points to defend, I meant, among other things, that a nagual has no obsessions.”
I told him that I was not following his teachings, for I had become obsessed with his description of the Eagle and what it does. I remarked over and over about the awesomeness of such an idea.
“It is not just an idea,” he said. “It is a fact. And a damn scary one if you ask me. The new seers were not simply playing with ideas.”
“But what kind of a force would the Eagle be?”
“I wouldn’t know how to answer that. The Eagle is as real for the seers as gravity and time are for you, and just as abstract and incomprehensible.”
“Wait a minute, don Juan. Those are abstract concepts, but they do refer to real phenomena that can be corroborated. There are whole disciplines dedicated to that.”
“The Eagle and its emanations are equally corroboratable,” don Juan retorted. “And the discipline of the new seers is dedicated to doing just that.”
I asked him to explain what the Eagle’s emanations are.
He said that the Eagle’s emanations are an immutable thing-in-itself, which engulfs everything that exists, the knowable and the unknowable.
“There is no way to describe in words what the Eagle’s emanations really are,” don Juan continued. “A seer must witness them.”
“Have you witnessed them yourself, don Juan?”
“Of course I have, and yet I can’t tell you what they are. They are a presence, almost a mass of sorts, a pressure that creates a dazzling sensation. One can catch only a glimpse of them, as one can catch only a glimpse of the Eagle itself.”
“Would you say, don Juan, that the Eagle is the source of the emanations?”
“It goes without saying that the Eagle is the source of its emanations.”
“I meant to ask if that is so visually.”
“There is nothing visual about the Eagle. The entire body of a seer senses the Eagle. There is something in all of us that can make us witness with our entire body. Seers explain the act of seeing the Eagle in very simple terms: because man is composed of the Eagle’s emanations, man need only revert back to his components. The problem arises with man’s awareness; it is his awareness that becomes entangled and confused. At the crucial moment when it should be a simple case of the emanations acknowledging themselves, man’s awareness is compelled to interpret. The result is a vision of the Eagle and the Eagle’s emanations. But there is no Eagle and no Eagle’s emanations. What is out there is something that no living creature can grasp.”
I asked him if the source of the emanations was called the Eagle because eagles in general have important attributes.
“This is simply the case of something unknowable vaguely resembling something known,” he replied. “On account of that, there have certainly been attempts to imbue eagles with attributes they don’t have. But that always happens when impressionable people learn to perform acts that require great sobriety. Seers come in all sizes and shapes.”
“Do you mean to say that there are different kinds of seers?”
“No. I mean that there are scores of imbeciles who become seers. Seers are human beings full of foibles, or rather, human beings full of foibles are capable of becoming seers. Just as in the case of miserable people who become superb scientists.
“The characteristic of miserable seers is that they are willing to forget the wonder of the world. They become overwhelmed by the fact that they see and believe that it’s their genius that counts. A seer must be a paragon in order to override the nearly invincible laxness of our human condition. More important than seeing itself is what seers do with what they see.”
“What do you mean by that, don Juan?”
“Look at what some seers have done to us. We are stuck with their vision of an Eagle that rules us and devours us at the moment of our death.”
He said that there is a definite laxness in that version, and that personally he did not appreciate the idea of something devouring us. For him, it would be more accurate to say that there is a force that attracts our consciousness, much as a magnet attracts iron shavings. At the moment of dying, all of our being disintegrates under the attraction of that immense force.
That such an event was interpreted as the Eagle devouring us he found grotesque, because it turns an indescribable act into something as mundane as eating.
“I’m a very average man,” I said. “The description of an Eagle that devours us had a great impact on me.”
“The real impact can’t be measured until the moment when you see it yourself,” he said. “But you must bear in mind that our flaws remain with us even after we become seers. So when you see that force, you may very well agree with the lax seers who called it the Eagle, as I did myself. On the other hand, you may not. You may resist the temptation to ascribe human attributes to what is incomprehensible, and actually improvise a new name for it, a more accurate one.”
“Seers who see the Eagle’s emanations often call them commands,” don Juan said. “I wouldn’t mind calling them commands myself if I hadn’t got used to calling them emanations. It was a reaction to my benefactor’s preference; for him they were commands. I thought that term was more in keeping with his forceful personality than with mine. I wanted something impersonal. “Commands” sounds too human to me, but that’s what they really are, commands.”
Don Juan said that to see the Eagle’s emanations is to court disaster. The new seers soon discovered the tremendous difficulties involved, and only after great tribulations in trying to map the unknown and separate it from the unknowable did they realize that everything is made out of the Eagle’s emanations. Only a small portion of those emanations is within reach of human awareness, and that small portion is still further reduced, to a minute fraction, by the constraints of our daily lives. That minute fraction of the Eagle’s emanations is the known; the small portion within possible reach of human awareness is the unknown, and the incalculable rest is the unknowable.
He went on to say that the new seers, being pragmatically oriented, became immediately cognizant of the compelling power of the emanations. They realized that all living creatures are forced to employ the Eagle’s emanations without ever knowing what they are. They also realized that organisms are constructed to grasp a certain range of those emanations and that every species has a definite range. The emanations exert great pressure on organisms, and through that pressure organisms construct their perceivable world.
“In our case, as human beings,” don Juan said, “we employ those emanations and interpret them as reality. But what man senses is such a small portion of the Eagle’s emanations that it’s ridiculous to put much stock in our perceptions, and yet it isn’t possible for us to disregard our perceptions. The new seers found this out the hard way – after courting tremendous dangers.”
Don Juan was sitting where he usually sat in the large room. Ordinarily there was no furniture in that room – people sat on mats on the floor – but Carol, the nagual woman, had managed to furnish it with very comfortable armchairs for the sessions when she and I took turns reading to him from the works of Spanish-speaking poets.
“I want you to be very aware of what we are doing,” he said as soon as I sat down. “We are discussing the mastery of awareness. The truths we’re discussing are the principles of that mastery.”
He added that in his teachings for the right side he had demonstrated those principles to my normal awareness with the help of one of his seer companions, Genaro, and that Genaro had played around with my awareness with all the humor and irreverence for which the new seers were known.
“Genaro is the one who should be here telling you about the Eagle,” he said, “except that his versions are too irreverent. He thinks that the seers who called that force the Eagle were either very stupid or were making a grand joke, because eagles not only lay eggs, they also lay turds.”
Don Juan laughed and said that he found Genaro’s comments so appropriate that he couldn’t resist laughter. He added that if the new seers had been the ones to describe the Eagle the
description would certainly have been made half in fun.
I told don Juan that on one level I took the Eagle as a poetic image, and as such it delighted me, but on another level I took it literally, and that terrified me.
“One of the greatest forces in the lives of warriors is fear,” he said. “It spurs them to learn.”
He reminded me that the description of the Eagle came from the ancient seers. The new seers were through with description, comparison, and conjecture of any sort. They wanted to get directly to the source of things and consequently risked unlimited danger to get to it. They did see the Eagle’s emanations. But they never tampered with the description of the Eagle. They felt that it took too much energy to see the Eagle, and that the ancient seers had already paid heavily for their scant glimpse of the unknowable.
“How did the old seers come around to describing the Eagle?” I asked.
“They needed a minimal set of guidelines about the unknowable for purposes of instruction,” he replied. “They resolved it with a sketchy description of the force that rules all there is, but not of its emanations, because the emanations cannot be rendered at all in a language of comparisons. Individual seers may feel the urge to make comments about certain emanations, but that will remain personal, in other words, there is no pat version of the emanations, as there is of the Eagle.”
“The new seers seem to have been very abstract,” I commented. “They sound like modern-day
“No. The new seers were terribly practical men,” he replied. “They weren’t involved in concocting rational theories.”
He said that the ancient seers were the ones who were the abstract thinkers. They built monumental edifices of abstractions proper to them and their time. And just like the modern-day philosophers, they were not at all in control of their concatenations. The new seers, on the other hand, imbued with practicality, were able to see a flux of emanations and to see how man and other living beings utilize them to construct their perceivable world.
“How are those emanations utilized by man, don Juan?”
“It’s so simple it sounds idiotic. For a seer, men are luminous beings. Our luminosity is made up of that portion of the Eagle’s emanations which is encased in our egglike cocoon. That particular portion, that handful of emanations that is encased, is what makes us men. To perceive is to match the emanations contained inside our cocoon with those that are outside.
“Seers can see, for instance, the emanations inside any living creature and can tell which of the outside emanations would match them.”
“Are the emanations like beams of light?” I asked.
“No. Not at all. That would be too simple. They are something indescribable. And yet, my personal comment would be to say that they are like filaments of light. What’s incomprehensible to normal awareness is that the filaments are aware. I can’t tell you what that means, because I don’t know what I am saying. All I can tell you with my personal comments is that the filaments are aware of themselves, alive and vibrating, that there are so many of them that numbers have no meaning and that each of them is an eternity in itself.”