(Radio interview with Carlos Castaneda – 1968)
Interviewer (Q): For six years, from 1960 to 1966, Carlos Castaneda served as an apprentice to a Yaqui Indian brujo, or sorcerer, named don Juan. During those years, Mr. Castaneda was a graduate student in Anthropology at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). His experiences with don Juan led him into a strange world of shamanistic lore and psychedelic experience and adventures in what Mr. Castaneda calls states of non-ordinary reality, some of which were frightening in the extreme, and all of which are fascinating in the extreme. His experiences with don Juan are recounted in a book which has been published this year by the University of California Press called “The Teachings of don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge”. Mr. Castaneda is with us here at KPFA today and has agreed to discuss the book and his experiences with don Juan.
Let me begin by asking you how you managed to meet this remarkable personality, don Juan, and can you give us some idea what sort of a person he is?
Carlos Castaneda (CC): I met don Juan in a rather fortuitous manner. I was doing, at the time in 1960, I was doing, I was collecting ethnographic data on the use of medicinal plants among the Arizona Indians. And a friend of mine who was my guide on that enterprise knew about don Juan. He knew that don Juan was a very learned man in the use of plants and he intended to introduce me to him, but he never got around to do that. One day when I was about to return to Los Angeles, we happened to see him at a bus station, and my friend went over to talk to him. Then he introduced me to the man and I began to tell him that my interest was plants, and that, especially about peyote, because somebody had told me that this old man was very learned in the use of peyote. And we talked for about 15 minutes while he was waiting for his bus, or rather I did all the talking and he didn’t say anything at all. He kept on staring at me from time to time and that made me very uncomfortable because I didn’t know anything about peyote, and he seemed to have seen through me. After about 15 minutes he got up and said that perhaps I could come to his house sometime where we could talk with more ease, and he just left. And I thought that the attempt to meet him was a failure because I didn’t get anything out of him. And my friend thought that it was very common to get a reaction like that from the old man because he was very eccentric. But I returned again perhaps a month later and I began to search for him. I didn’t know where he lived, but I found out later where his house was And I came to see him. He, at first, you know, I approached him as a friend. I liked, for some reason, I liked the way he looked at me at the bus depot. There was something very peculiar about the way he stares at people. And he doesn’t stare, usually he doesn’t look at anybody straight in the eye, but sometimes he does that and it’s very remarkable. And it was more that stare which made me go to see him than my interest in anthropological work. So I came various times and we developed a sort of friendship. He has a great sense of humor and that eased the things up.
Q: About how old a man was he when you met him?
CC: Oh he was in his late 60’s, 69, or something like that.
Q: Now, you identify him in the book as a brujo. Can you give us some idea of what this means, and to what extent don Juan is connected, if at all, with some sort of an ethnic background, a tribal background, or is he pretty much of a lone wolf?
CC: The word brujo, the Spanish conception, it could be translated in various ways, in English could render a sorcerer, witch, medicine man or herbalist or curer, and, of course, the technical word shaman. Don Juan does not relate, or does not define himself in any of those ways. He thinks of himself, perhaps, as a man of knowledge.
Q: That’s the term he uses, man of knowledge?
CC: He uses man of knowledge or one who knows. He uses that interchangeably. In as far as his tribal allegiances, I think he, don Juan, is very much, I think his emotional ties are with the Yaquis of Sonora since his father was a Yaqui from one of the towns in Sonora, one of the Yaqui towns. But his mother was from Arizona. Thus he has sort of a divided origin which makes him very much a marginal man. At the present he has family in Sonora, but he doesn’t live there. He lives there part of the time, perhaps I should say.
Q: Does he have any formal livelihood? How does he earn his way in the world?
CC: I wouldn’t be able to discuss that, rather I don’t think that I could at the moment.
Q: One point I’d like to clear up – it’s something that I wondered about as I read the book. The book consisted in large part of recordings of your own experiences in using the herbs and mushrooms and so on that don Juan introduced you to, and long conversations with don Juan. How were you able, just as a technical problem, how were you able to keep track of your experiences over such a long period of time. How were you able to record all of this?
CC: It seems difficult, but since one of the items of the learning process of recapitulation of whatever you experience, in order to remember everything that happened, I had to make mental notes of all the steps, of all the things that I saw, all the events that occurred during the states of, let’s say, expanded consciousness or whatever. And then it was easy to translate them into writing after, because I had them all meticulously filed, sort of, in my mind. That’s as the experience itself goes, but then the questions and answers I simply wrote them down.
Q: You were able to take notes while you were….
CC: Not at the very beginning of our relationship I never took any notes. I took notes in the covert manner. I had a pad of paper inside my pockets, you know, big pockets on my jacket. I used to write inside my pockets. It’s a technique ethnographers use sometimes that they convert notes and then, of course, you have to work very hard to decipher the way they’re written. But it has to be done very quickly, very fast. As soon as you have time; you cannot postpone anything. You cannot let it go for the next day, cause you lose everything. Since I think I work compulsively, I was capable of writing everything that took place very, very shortly after the events themselves.
Q: I must say that many of the dialogues are extremely fascinating documents. Don Juan, as you record his remarks, has a certain amount of eloquence and imagination.
CC: Well, one thing, he’s very artful with usual words and he thinks of himself as a talker, although he doesn’t like to talk. But he thinks that talking is his predilection, as other men of knowledge have all the predilections like movement, balance. His is talking. That is my good fortune to find a man that would have the same predilection that I have.
Q: Now, one of the things that’s most impressive about the book is the remarkable chances that you seem to have taken under don Juan’s tutelage; that is, he introduced you to various chemicals, substances, some of which, clearly I suppose could have been fatal if they had not been used carefully. How did you manage to work up sufficient trust in this man to down all of the concoctions that he put before you?
CC: The way the books present it seems to heighten some dramatic sequences, which is, I’m afraid, not true real life. There are enormous gaps, in between which ordinary things took place, that are not included. I didn’t include in the book because they did not pertain to the system I wanted to portray, so I just simply took them away, you see. And that means that the gaps between those very height states, you know, whatever, says that I remove things that are continuous crescendos, in kind of sequence leading to a very dramatic solution. But in real life it was a very simple matter because it took years in between, months pass in between them, and in the meantime, we did all kinds of things. We even went hunting. He told me how to trap things, set traps, very old, old ways of setting a trap, and how to catch rattlesnakes. He told me how to prepare rattlesnakes, in fact. And so that eases up, you see, the distrust or the fear.
Q: I see. So there was a chance for you to build up a tremendous amount of confidence in this man.
CC: Yes, we spent a lot of time together. He never told me what he was gonna do, anyways. By the time I realized, I was already too deep into to turn back.
Q: Now, the heart of the book, at least as far as my reading was concerned, certainly the most fascinating part of the book, has to do with your experiences with what you term non-ordinary reality, and many of these experiences as you recount them have a great deal of cogency to them; that is, they are experiences that seem to come very close to demonstrating the validity of practices like divination, and then on the other hand you have experiences that, at the time, seemed to have been tremendously vivid experiences of flight and of being transformed into various animal forms, and often you suggest a sense of some ultimate revelation taking place. What sense do you make of these experiences now as you look back on them all? What seems to have been valid about them and how was don Juan, do you feel, seem able to control or predict what these experiences would be?
CC: Well, in as far as making sense out of them, I think as an anthropologist, I think, the way I had done it, I could use them as grounds for, say, set up a problem in anthropology, but that doesn’t mean that I understand them or use them in any way. I could just employ them to construct a system, perhaps. But if I will view them from the point of view of a non-European man, maybe a shaman or perhaps a Yaqui, I think the experiences are, they are designed to produce the knowledge that reality of consensus is only a very small segment of the total range of what we could feel as real. If we could learn to code reality or stimuli the way a shaman does, perhaps we could elongate our range of what we call real.
Q: What do you mean by that, how does a shaman like don Juan code stimuli?
CC: For instance, in the idea that a man could actually turn into a cricket or a mountain lion or a bird, is to me, this is my personal conclusion, it’s a way of intaking stimuli and readapting it. I suppose the stimuli is there, anybody who would take a hallucinogenic plant or a chemical produced in a laboratory, I think will experience more or less the same distortion. We call it distortion of reality. But the shamans, I think, have learned through usage in thousands of years, perhaps, of practice, they have learned to reclassify the stimuli encoded in a different way. The only way we have to code it is as hallucination, madness. That’s our system of codification. We cannot conceive that one could turn into a crow, for instance.
Q: This was your experience under don Juan’s tutelage?
CC: Yes. As a European I refuse to believe that one could do it, you see. But…
Q: But it was a tremendously vivid experience when you had it…
CC: Well it was hard to say, it was real, that’s my only way of describing it. But now you see the thing’s over, if I would be allowed to analyze it, I think, you know, what he was trying to do was to teach me another way of coding reality, another way of putting it into a propitious frame that could turn into a different interpretation.
Q: I thought the passage in the book where these very different orientations toward reality that you had, and don Juan had, the point at which it came through most clearly to me, was the point in which you question him about your own experience of apparent flight. And you finally came around to asking if you had been chained to a rock, would don Juan feel that you still had flown, and his answer was, in that case you would have flown with the chain and the rock.
CC: He alludes, you know, that, I think what he means, what he meant to say is that one never really changes. As a European my mind is set, my cognitive units are set, in a sense. I would admit only a total change. For me to change would mean that a person mutates totally into a bird, and that’s the only way I could understand it. But I think what he means is something else, something much more sophisticated than that. My system’s very rudimentary, you see, it lacks the sophistication that don Juan has, but I cannot pinpoint actually what he means like, things like what he means that one never changes really, there’s something else, another process is taking place.
Q: Yes, it is difficult to focus on this. I think I remember don Juan’s line was, you flew as a man flies. But he insisted that you flew.
Q: There’s another remarkable statement he makes. It is in a discussion of the reality of the episode. He says, that is all there is in reality, what you felt.
CC: Uh-huh. Yea, he, don Juan’s a very sophisticated thinker, really, it’s not easy to come to grips with him. You see, I had tried various times to wrestle with him intellectually and he always comes the victor, you know. He’s very artful. He posed once the idea to me that the whole, the totality of the universe is just perception. It’s how we perceive things. And there are no facts, only interpretations. And those are nearly, I’m merely paraphrasing him as close as I can. And perhaps he’s right, the facts are nothing else but interpretations that our brain makes of stimuli. So that such whatever I felt was, of course, the important thing.
Q: Now, one of the aspects of what we normally call reality that seems most important to us is that of coherence or consistency from experience to experience, and I was impressed by the fact that the experiences you had under peyote seemed to have in your recordings a remarkable coherence from experience to experience. I’d like to question you about this. There is an image that appeared in the experiences which you called mescalito. And it seems as if this image appears again and again with great consistency, that the general sense of the experience, the sound of it, the feel of it, is very much the same from time to time. Am I accurate in saying that?
CC: Yes, very, very much.
Q: Well, how do you make sense of that fact?
CC: Well, I’d, its the, I’d have two interpretations. Mine being it’s the product of the indoctrination I went through, those long periods of discussions, where instruction was given.
Q: Did don Juan ever tell you how mescalito was to look?
CC: No, no not that level. Once I constructed, I think, the composite in my mind, the idea that it was a homogenous and totally a protector and a very sturdy deity, may have held me to maintain that, that mental composite, or perhaps the deity exists outside of ourselves as he says. Completely outside of me, as a man, as a feeler, and all it does is manifest itself.
Q: Now, I thought your description of this image, of mescalito, was very vivid and very impressive. Do you think you could possibly, just to draw out one aspect of the book, describe what this figure seemed like to you?
CC: It was truly an anthropomorphic composite as you say. It was not truly a man, but it looked like a cricket, and it was very large, perhaps larger than a man. It looked somehow like the surface of a cactus, the peyote cactus. And that was the top looked like a pointed head, but it had human features in the sense of eyes and a face. But it was not quite human either. It was something different about it and the movements, of course, were quite extraordinary because it hopped.
Q: Now, when you described this experience to don Juan, how did he deal with it, was this the right image.
CC: No, no. He didn’t care at all about my description of the form. He’s not interested at all. I never told him what the form, he discarded it all. I wrote it down because it was quite remarkable for me as the man who experienced it. It was just extraordinary. It was truly a shocking experience. And as I recalled everything that I experienced, but insofar as telling him, he didn’t want to hear about it. He said that it was unimportant. All he wanted to hear was whether I had, how close he let me come in this anthropomorphic composite at the time I saw it, you know, let me come very close and nearly touch him. And that, in don Juan’s system, I suppose, was a very good turn. And he was interested in knowing whether I was frightened or not. And I was very frightened. But insofar as the form, he never made any comment, or he didn’t even show any interest in it.
Q: I’d like to ask about one particular set of experiences. We don’t have to go into them in detail here. I think we might simply tempt the listeners to look at the book, and read the actual details of the experiences. But, your final experience with don Juan is one of extreme fearfulness. Why do you think he led you into this final situation, at least final in your relationship with him in which, I mean, he very literally just scared the hell out of you. What was the purpose of that? It seemed almost as you record it, it seemed at points almost deliberate cruelty. What do you think he was up to when he did that?
CC: When he had previous to that last incident, or right before it, he taught me some position that it’s proper of shamans to adopt at moments of great crises, the time of their death, perhaps. It’s a form that they would adopt. And it’s something that they would use, it’s a sort of validation, a signature, or to prove that they have been men. Before they die they will face their death and do this dancing. And then they will yell at death and die. And I asked don Juan what could be important, you know, since we all have to die, what difference does it make whether we dance or we cry or scream or yell or run, and he felt that the question was very stupid because by having a form a man could validate his existence, he could really reaffirm that he was a man, because essentially that’s all we have. The rest is unimportant. And at the very last moment, you see, the only thing that a man could do was to reassert that he was a man. So he taught me this form and in the course of the event, this very frightening set of circumstances, or actions, I was forced nearly to exercise this form and use it. It brought a great amount of vigor to me. And the event ended up there, “successfully”. I was successful. And perhaps staying away from death, or something like. The next day, the next night he took me into the bushes, and what I was gonna do was, he was gonna teach me how to perfect this form, I thought was neat. And in the course of teaching me, I found myself alone. And that’s when the horrendous fear attacked me really. I think what he had in mind was for me to use this form, this position, this posture that he had taught me. And he deliberately scared me, I suppose, in order for me to test that. And that was my failure, of course, cause I really succumbed to fear instead of standing and facing my death, as I was supposed to as a, let’s say apprentice of this way of knowledge, I became a thorough European man and I succumbed to fear.
Q: How did things actually end then between you and don Juan?
CC: They ended that night I think, you know, I suffer a total ego collapse because the fear was just too great for my resources. And it took hours to pull me back. And it seems that we came to an impasse where I never talk ever again about his knowledge. That’s almost three years ago, over three years ago.
Q: You feel then he had finally led you up to an experience that was beyond your capacity to grapple with?
CC: I think so. I exhausted my resources and I couldn’t go beyond that and its coherent with the American Indian idea that knowledge is power. See you cannot play around with it. Every new step, you see, is a trial and you have to prove that you’re capable of going beyond that. So that was my end.
Q: Yes, and over the six year period don Juan led you through a great number of terribly trying and difficult experiences.
CC: Yes, I should say, I would. But he does nothing that I haven’t, that I finished, I don’t know, by some strange reason he has never acted as though I’m through. He always thinks that this is a period of clarification.
Q: Did he ever make it really clear to you what it was about you that led him to select you for this vigorous process.
CC: Well, he guides his acts by indications, by omens, if he sees something that is extraordinary, some event that he cannot incorporate into his, possibly his categorization scheme, if it doesn’t fit in it, he calls it a portentous event or an extraordinary event and he considers that to be an omen. When I first took that cactus, the peyote, I play with a dog. It was a very remarkable experience in which this dog and I understood each other very well. And that was interpreted by don Juan as an omen, that the deity, mescalito, peyote, had played with me, which was an event that he had never witnessed in his life. Nobody has ever, in his knowledge, nobody has ever played with the deity, he told me. That was extraordinary, and something was pointing me out, and he interpreted it as I was the right person to transmit his knowledge, or part it or whatever.
Q: Well, now after spending six years in apprenticeship to don Juan, what, may I ask, what difference this great adventure has made to you personally?
CC: Well it has, certainly has given me a different outlook in life. It’s enlarged my sense of how important today is, I suppose. I think, you know, I have, I’m the product of my socialization, I, like any other person of the western world, I live very much for tomorrow, all my life. I sort of save myself up for a great future, something of that order. And it’s only, it was only, with the, of course, with the terrible impact of don Juan’s teaching that I came to realize how important it is to be here, now. And it renders the idea of entering into states of what I call non-ordinary reality instead of disrupting the states of ordinary reality, they render them very meaningful. I didn’t suffer any disruption or any disillusion of what goes on today. I don’t think it’s a farce. While I’ll say I tended to think that it was a farce before. I thought that I was disillusioned as I was an artist to do some work in art, and I felt, you know, that something was missing with my time, something is wrong. But as I see it, you know, nothing is wrong. Today I can’t conceive what’s wrong anymore. Cause it was vague to begin with, I never thought exactly what was wrong. But I alluded that there was a great area that was better than today. And I think that has been dispelled completely.
Q: I see. Do you have any plans of ever seeking out don Juan again?
CC: No, I see him as a friend. I see him all the time.
Q: Oh, you still do see him?
CC: Yes I do. I’m with him, I have been with him lots of times since the last experience that I write in the book. But as far as seeking his teachings, I don’t think I would. I sincerely think that I don’t have the mechanics.
Q: One final question: you make a heroic effort in the book to make sense of don Juan’s world view. Do you have any idea of whether don Juan took any interest or takes any interest in your world, the one you’re calling that of a European man?
CC: Well, no I think he’s versed, don Juan’s very versed in what we, the Europeans, stand for. He’s not handicapped, in that sense, he makes use, he’s a warrior and he makes use of his, he sets his life as in a strategic game, he makes use of everything that he can, he’s very versed in that. My effort to make sense of his world is, it’s my own way of, let’s say, paying back to him for this grand opportunity. I think if I don’t make the effort to render his world as coherent phenomena, he’ll go by the way he has for hundreds of years, as nonsensical activity, when it is not nonsensical, it’s not fraudulent, it’s a very serious endeavor.
Q: Yes. Well the outcome of your experiences with don Juan is a really fascinating book and, after reading it myself, I can certainly recommend it to the Pacific audience. It is an adventure in a very different world than we ordinarily live in. I’d like to thank you, Mr. Castaneda, for making this time available to talk about the book and about your adventures. This is Theodore Rosack.
CC: Thank you.