Erasing Personal History

(Tales of Power)

“Together with the right way of walking,” don Juan went on, “a teacher must teach his apprentice another possibility, which is even more subtle: the possibility of acting without believing, without expecting rewards – acting just for the hell of it. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you that the success of a teacher’s enterprise depends on how well and how harmoniously he guides his apprentice in this specific respect.”

I told don Juan that I did not remember him ever discussing “acting just for the hell of it” as a particular technique; all I could recollect were his constant but loose comments about it.

He laughed and said that his maneuver had been so subtle that it had bypassed me to that day. He then reminded me of all the nonsensical joking tasks that he used to give me every time I had been at his house. Absurd chores such as arranging firewood in patterns, encircling his house with an unbroken chain of concentric circles drawn in the dirt with my finger, sweeping debris from one place to another, and so forth. The tasks also included acts that I had to perform by myself at home, such as wearing a black cap, or tying my left shoe first, or fastening my belt from right to left.

The reason I had never taken them in any other vein except as jokes was that he would invariably tell me to forget about them after I had established them as regular routines. As he recapitulated all the tasks he had given me I realized that by making me perform senseless routines he had indeed implanted in me the idea of acting without really expecting anything in return.

“Stopping the internal dialogue is, however, the key to the sorcerers’ world,” he said. “The rest of the activities are only props; all they do is accelerate the effect of stopping the internal dialogue.”

He said that there were two major activities or techniques used to accelerate the stopping of the internal dialogue: erasing personal history and dreaming. He reminded me that during the early stages of my apprenticeship he had given me a number of specific methods for changing my “personality.” I had recorded them in my notes and had forgotten about them for years until I realized their importance. Those specific methods seemed at first to be highly idiosyncratic devices to coerce me into modifying my behavior.

He explained that the art of a teacher was to deviate the apprentice’s attention from the main issues. A poignant example of that art was the fact that I had not realized until that day that he had actually tricked me into learning a most crucial point: to act without expecting rewards.

He said that in line with that rationale he had rallied my interest around the idea of seeing, which, properly understood, was the act of dealing directly with the nagual, an act that was an unavoidable end result of the teachings but an unattainable task as a task per se.

“What was the point of tricking me that way?” I asked.

“Sorcerers are convinced that all of us are a bunch of nincompoops,” he said. “We can never relinquish our crummy control voluntarily, thus we have to be tricked.”

His contention was that by making me focus my attention on a pseudo task, learning to see, he had successfully accomplished two things. First he had outlined the direct encounter with the nagual, without mentioning it, and second he had tricked me into considering the real issues of his teachings as inconsequential affairs. Erasing personal history and dreaming were never as important to me as seeing. I regarded them as very entertaining activities. I even thought that they were the practices for which I had the greatest facility.

“Greatest facility,” he said mockingly when he heard my comments. “A teacher must not leave anything to chance. I’ve told you that you were correct in feeling that you were being tricked. The problem was that you were convinced that that tricking was directed at fooling your reason. For me, tricking meant to distract your attention, or to trap it as the case required.”

He looked at me with squinting eyes and pointed all around us with a sweeping gesture of his arm.

“The secret of all this is one’s attention,” he said.

“What do you mean, don Juan?”

“All of this exists only because of our attention. This very rock where we’re sitting is a rock because we have been forced to give our attention to it as a rock.”

I wanted him to explain that idea. He laughed and raised an accusing finger at me.

“This is a recapitulation,” he said. “We’ll get to that later.”

He asserted that because of his decoy maneuver I became interested in erasing personal history and dreaming. He said that the effects of those two techniques were ultimately devastating if they were exercised in their totality, and that then his concern was the concern of every teacher, not to let his apprentice do anything that would plunge him into aberration and morbidity.

“Erasing personal history and dreaming should only be a help,” he said. “What any apprentice needs to buffer him is temperance and strength. That’s why a teacher introduces the warrior’s way, or living like a warrior. This is the glue that joins together everything in a sorcerer’s world.

Bit by bit a teacher must forge and develop it. Without the sturdiness and level-headedness of the warrior’s way there is no possibility of withstanding the path of knowledge.”

Don Juan said that learning the warrior’s way was an instance when the apprentice’s attention had to be trapped rather than deviated, and that he had trapped my attention by pushing me out of my ordinary circumstances every time I had gone to see him. Our roaming around the desert and the mountains had been the means to accomplish that.

The maneuver of altering the context of my ordinary world by taking me for hikes and hunting was another instance of his system that had bypassed me. Context disarrangement meant that I did not know the ropes and my attention had to be focused on everything don Juan did.

“What a trick! Uh?” he said and laughed.

I laughed with awe. I had never realized that he was so aware.

He then enumerated his steps in guiding and trapping my attention. When he had finished his account he added that a teacher had to take into consideration the personality of the apprentice, and that in my case he had to be careful because I was violent and would have thought nothing of killing myself out of despair.

“What a preposterous fellow you are, don Juan,” I said in jest, and he exploded in a giant laugh.

He explained that in order to help erase personal history three other techniques were taught. They were: losing self-importance, assuming responsibility, and using death as an adviser. The idea was that, without the beneficial effect of those three techniques, erasing personal history would involve the apprentice in being shifty, evasive and unnecessarily dubious about himself and his actions.

Don Juan asked me to tell him what had been the most natural reaction I had had in moments of stress, frustration and disappointment before I became an apprentice. He said that his own reaction had been wrath. I told him that mine had been self-pity.

“Although you’re not aware of it, you had to work your head off to make that feeling a natural one,” he said. “By now there is no way for you to recollect the immense effort that you needed to establish self-pity as a feature of your island. Self-pity bore witness to everything you did. It was just at your fingertips, ready to advise you. Death is considered by a warrior to be a more amenable adviser, which can also be brought to bear witness on everything one does, just like self-pity, or wrath. Obviously, after an untold struggle you had learned to feel sorry for yourself.

But you can also learn, in the same way, to feel your impending end, and thus you can learn to have the idea of your death at your fingertips. As an adviser, self-pity is nothing in comparison to death.”

Don Juan pointed out then that there was seemingly a contradiction in the idea of change; on the one hand, the sorcerers’ world called for a drastic transformation, and on the other, the sorcerers’ explanation said that the island of the tonal was complete and not a single element of it could be removed. Change, then, did not mean obliterating anything but rather altering the use assigned to those elements.

“Take self-pity for instance,” he said. “There is no way to get rid of it for good; it has a definite place and character in your island, a definite facade which is recognizable. Thus, every time the occasion arises, self-pity becomes active. It has history. If you then change the facade of self-pity, you would have shifted its place of prominence.”

I asked him to explain the meaning of his metaphors, especially the idea of changing facades. I understood it as perhaps the act of more than one role at the same time.

“One changes the facade by altering the use of the elements of the island,” he replied. “Take self-pity again. It was useful to you because you either felt important and deserving of better conditions, better treatment, or because you were unwilling to assume responsibility for the acts that brought you to the state that elicited self-pity, or because you were incapable of bringing the idea of your impending death to witness your acts and advise you.

“Erasing personal history and its three companion techniques are the sorcerers’ means for changing the facade of the elements of the island. For instance, by erasing your personal history, you have denied use to self-pity; in order for self-pity to work you had to feel important, irresponsible, and immortal. When those feelings were altered in some way, it was no longer possible for you to feel sorry for yourself.

“The same was true with all the other elements which you’ve changed on your island. Without using those four techniques you never could’ve succeeded in changing them. But changing facades means only that one has assigned a secondary place to a formerly important element.

Your self-pity is still a feature of your island; it will be there in the back in the same way that the idea of your impending death, or your humbleness, or your responsibility for your acts were there, without ever being used.”

Don Juan said that once all those techniques had been presented, the apprentice arrived at a crossroad. Depending on his sensibility, the apprentice did one of two things. He either took the recommendations and suggestions made by his teacher at their face value, acting without expecting rewards; or he took everything as a joke or an aberration.