(The Fire from Within by Carlos Castaneda)
“Did you find a petty tyrant yourself, don Juan?”
“I was lucky. A king-size one found me. At the time, though, I felt like you; I couldn’t consider myself fortunate.”
Don Juan said that his ordeal began a few weeks before he met his benefactor. He was barely twenty years old at the time. He had gotten a job at a sugar mill working as a laborer. He had always been very strong, so it was easy for him to get jobs that required muscle. One day when he was moving some heavy sacks of sugar a woman came by. She was very well dressed and seemed to be a woman of means. She was perhaps in her fifties, don Juan said, and very domineering. She looked at don Juan and then spoke to the foreman and left. Don Juan was then approached by the foreman, who told him that for a fee he would recommend him for a job in the boss’s house. Don Juan told the man that he had no money. The foreman smiled and said not to worry because he would have plenty on payday. He patted don Juan’s back and assured him it was a great honor to work for the boss.
Don Juan said that being a lowly ignorant Indian living hand-to-mouth, not only did he believe every word, he thought a good fairy had touched him. He promised to pay the foreman anything he wished. The foreman named a large sum, which had to be paid in installments.
Immediately thereafter the foreman himself took don Juan to the house, which was quite a distance from the town, and left him there with another foreman, a huge, somber, ugly man who asked a lot of questions. He wanted to know about don Juan’s family. Don Juan answered that he didn’t have any. The man was so pleased that he even smiled through his rotten teeth.
He promised don Juan that they would pay him plenty, and that he would even be in a position to save money, because he didn’t have to spend any, for he was going to live and eat in the house.
The way the man laughed was terrifying. Don Juan knew that he had to escape immediately.
He ran for the gate, but the man cut in front of him with a revolver in his hand. He cocked it and rammed it into don Juan’s stomach.
“You’re here to work yourself to the bone,” he said. “And don’t you forget it.” He shoved don Juan around with a billy club.
Then he took him to the side of the house and, after observing that he worked his men every day from sunrise to sunset without a break, he put don Juan to work digging out two enormous tree stumps. He also told don Juan that if he ever tried to escape or went to the authorities he would shoot him dead – and that if don Juan should ever get away, he would swear in court that don Juan had tried to murder the boss.
“You’ll work here until you die,” he said. “Another Indian will get your job then, just as you’re taking a dead Indian’s place.”
Don Juan said that the house looked like a fortress, with armed men with machetes everywhere. So he got busy working and tried not to think about his predicament. At the end of the day, the man came back and kicked him all the way to the kitchen, because he did not like the defiant look in don Juan’s eyes. He threatened to cut the tendons of don Juan’s arms if he didn’t obey him.
In the kitchen an old woman brought food, but don Juan was so upset and afraid that he couldn’t eat. The old woman advised him to eat as much as he could. He had to be strong, she said, because his work would never end. She warned him that the man who had held his job had died just a day earlier. He was too weak to work and had fallen from a second-story window.
Don Juan said that he worked at the boss’s place for three weeks and that the man bullied him every moment of every day. He made him work under the most dangerous conditions, doing the heaviest work imaginable, under the constant threat of his knife, gun, or billy club. He sent him daily to the stables to clean the stalls while the nervous stallions were in them. At the beginning of every day don Juan thought it would be his last one on earth. And surviving meant only that he had to go through the same hell again the next day.
What precipitated the end was don Juan’s request to have some time off. The pretext was that he needed to go to town to pay the foreman of the sugar mill the money that he owed him. The other foreman retorted that don Juan could not stop working, not even for a minute, because he was in debt up to his ears just for the privilege of working there.
Don Juan knew that he was done for. He understood the man’s maneuvers. Both he and the other foreman were in cahoots to get lowly Indians from the mill, work them to death, and divide their salaries. That realization angered him so intensely that he ran through the kitchen screaming and got inside the main house. The foreman and the other workers were caught totally by surprise. He ran out the front door and almost got away, but the foreman caught up with him on the road and shot him in the chest. He left him for dead.
Don Juan said that it was not his destiny to die; his benefactor found him there and tended him until he got well.
“When I told my benefactor the whole story,” don Juan said, “he could hardly contain his excitement.
“That foreman is really a prize,” my benefactor said. “He is too good to be wasted. Someday you must go back to that house.”
“He raved about my luck in finding a one-in-a-million petty tyrant with almost unlimited power. I thought the old man was nuts. It was years before I fully understood what he was talking about.”
“That is one of the most horrible stories I have ever heard,” I said. “Did you really go back to that house?”
“I certainly did, three years later. My benefactor was right. A petty tyrant like that one was one in a million and couldn’t be wasted.”
“How did you manage to go back?”
“My benefactor developed a strategy using the four attributes of warriorship: control, discipline, forbearance, and timing.”
Don Juan said that his benefactor, in explaining to him what he had to do to profit from facing that ogre of a man, also told him what the new seers considered to be the four steps on the path of knowledge. The first step is the decision to become apprentices. After the apprentices change their views about themselves and the world they take the second step and become warriors, which is to say, beings capable of the utmost discipline and control over themselves. The third step, after acquiring forbearance and timing, is to become men of knowledge. When men of knowledge learn to see they have taken the fourth step and have become seers.
His benefactor stressed the fact that don Juan had been on the path of knowledge long enough to have acquired a minimum of the first two attributes: control and discipline. Don Juan emphasized that both of these attributes refer to an inner state. A warrior is self-oriented, not in a selfish way, but in the sense of a total and continuous examination of the self.
“At that time, I was barred from the other two attributes,” don Juan went on. “Forbearance and timing are not quite an inner state. They are in the domain of the man of knowledge. My benefactor showed them to me through his strategy.”
“Does this mean that you couldn’t have faced the petty tyrant by yourself?” I asked.
“I’m sure that I could have done it myself, although I have always doubted that I would have carried it off with flair and joyfulness. My benefactor was simply enjoying the encounter by directing it. The idea of using a petty tyrant is not only for perfecting the warrior’s spirit, but also for enjoyment and happiness.”
“How could anyone enjoy the monster you described?”
“He was nothing in comparison to the real monsters that the new seers faced during the Conquest. By all indications those seers enjoyed themselves blue dealing with them. They proved that even the worst tyrants can bring delight, provided, of course, that one is a warrior.”
Don Juan explained that the mistake average men make in confronting petty tyrants is not to have a strategy to fall back on; the fatal flaw is that average men take themselves too seriously; their actions and feelings, as well as those of the petty tyrants, are all-important. Warriors, on the other hand, not only have a well-thought-out strategy, but are free from self-importance. What restrains their self-importance is that they have understood that reality is an interpretation we make. That knowledge was the definitive advantage that the new seers had over the simple-minded Spaniards.
He said that he became convinced he could defeat the foreman using only the single realization that petty tyrants take themselves with deadly seriousness while warriors do not.
Following his benefactor’s strategic plan, therefore, don Juan got a job in the same sugar mill as before. Nobody remembered that he had worked there in the past; peons came to that sugar mill and left it without leaving a trace.
His benefactor’s strategy specified that don Juan had to be solicitous of whoever came to look for another victim. As it happened, the same woman came and spotted him, as she had done years ago. This time he was physically even stronger than before.
The same routine took place. The strategy, however, called for refusing payment to the foreman from the outset. The man had never been turned down and was taken aback. He threatened to fire don Juan from the job. Don Juan threatened him back, saying that he would go directly to the lady’s house and see her. Don Juan knew that the woman, who was the wife of the owner of the mill, did not know what the two foremen were up to. He told the foreman that he knew where she lived, because he had worked in the surrounding fields cutting sugar cane. The man began to haggle, and don Juan demanded money from him before he would accept going to the lady’s house. The foreman gave in and handed him a few bills. Don Juan was perfectly aware that the foreman’s acquiescence was just a ruse to get him to go to the house.
“He himself once again took me to the house,” don Juan said. “It was an old hacienda owned by the people of the sugar mill – rich men who either knew what was going on and didn’t care, or were too indifferent even to notice.
“As soon as we got there, I ran into the house to look for the lady. I found her and dropped to
my knees and kissed her hand to thank her. The two foremen were livid.
“The foreman at the house followed the same pattern as before. But I had the proper equipment to deal with him; I had control, discipline, forbearance, and timing. It turned out as my benefactor had planned it. My control made me fulfill the man’s most asinine demands. What usually exhausts us in a situation like that is the wear and tear on our self-importance. Any man who has an iota of pride is ripped apart by being made to feel worthless.
“I gladly did everything he asked of me. I was joyful and strong. And I didn’t give a fig about my pride or my fear. I was there as an impeccable warrior. To tune the spirit when someone is trampling on you is called control.”
Don Juan explained that his benefactor’s strategy required that instead of feeling sorry for himself as he had done before, he immediately go to work mapping the man’s strong points, his weaknesses, his quirks of behavior.
He found that the foreman’s strongest points were his violent nature and his daring. He had shot don Juan in broad daylight and in sight of scores of onlookers. His great weakness was that he liked his job and did not want to endanger it. Under no circumstances could he attempt to kill don Juan inside the compound in the daytime. His other weakness was that he was a family man.
He had a wife and children who lived in a shack near the house.
“To gather all this information while they are beating you up is called discipline,” don Juan said. “The man was a regular fiend. He had no saving grace. According to the new seers, a perfect petty tyrant has no redeeming feature.”
Don Juan said that the other two attributes of warriorship, forbearance and timing, which he did not yet have, had been automatically included in his benefactor’s strategy. Forbearance is to wait patiently – no rush, no anxiety – a simple, joyful holding back of what is due.
“I groveled daily,” don Juan continued, “sometimes crying under the man’s whip. And yet I was happy. My benefactor’s strategy was what made me go from day to day without hating the man’s guts. I was a warrior. I knew that I was waiting and I knew what I was waiting for. Right there is the great joy of warriorship.”
He added that his benefactor’s strategy called for a systematic harassment of the man by taking cover with a higher order, just as the seers of the new cycle had done during the Conquest by shielding themselves with the Catholic church. A lowly priest was sometimes more powerful than a nobleman.
Don Juan’s shield was the lady who got him the job. He kneeled in front of her and called her a saint every time he saw her. He begged her to give him the medallion of her patron saint so he could pray to him for her health and well-being.
“She gave me one,” don Juan went on, “and that rattled the foreman to pieces. And when I got the servants to pray at night he nearly had a heart attack. I think he decided then to kill me. He couldn’t afford to let me go on.
“As a countermeasure I organized a rosary among all the servants of the house. The lady thought I had the makings of a most pious man.
“I didn’t sleep soundly after that, nor did I sleep in my bed. I climbed to the roof every night.
From there I saw the man twice looking for me in the middle of the night with murder in his eyes.
“Daily he shoved me into the stallions’ stalls hoping that I would be crushed to death, but I had a plank of heavy boards that I braced against one of the corners and protected myself behind it.
The man never knew because he was nauseated by the horses – another of his weaknesses, the deadliest of all, as things turned out.”
Don Juan said that timing is the quality that governs the release of all that is held back.
Control, discipline, and forbearance are like a dam behind which everything is pooled. Timing is the gate in the dam.
The man knew only violence, with which he terrorized. If his violence was neutralized he was rendered nearly helpless. Don Juan knew that the man would not dare to kill him in view of the house, so one day, in the presence of the other workers but in sight of his lady as well, don Juan insulted the man. He called him a coward, who was mortally afraid of the boss’s wife.
His benefactor’s strategy had called for being on the alert for a moment like that and using it to turn the tables on the petty tyrant. Unexpected things always happen that way. The lowest of the slaves suddenly makes fun of the tyrant, taunts him, makes him feel ridiculous in front of significant witnesses, and then rushes away without giving the tyrant time to retaliate.
“A moment later, the man went crazy with rage, but I was already solicitously kneeling in front of the lady,” he continued.
Don Juan said that when the lady went inside the house, the man and his friends called him to the back, allegedly to do some work. The man was very pale, white with anger. From the sound of his voice don Juan knew what the man was really planning to do. Don Juan pretended to acquiesce, but instead of heading for the back, he ran for the stables. He trusted that the horses would make such a racket the owners would come out to see what was wrong. He knew that the man would not dare shoot him. That would have been too noisy and the man’s fear of endangering his job was too overpowering. Don Juan also knew that the man would not go where the horses were – that is, unless he had been pushed beyond his endurance.
“I jumped inside the stall of the wildest stallion,” don Juan said, “and the petty tyrant, blinded by rage, took out his knife and jumped in after me. I went instantly behind my planks. The horse kicked him once and it was all over.
“I had spent six months in that house and in that period of time I had exercised the four attributes of warriorship. Thanks to them, I had succeeded. Not once had I felt sorry for myself or wept in impotence. I had been joyful and serene. My control and discipline were as keen as they’d ever been, and I had had a firsthand view of what forbearance and timing did for impeccable warriors. And I had not once wished the man to die.
“My benefactor explained something very interesting. Forbearance means holding back with the spirit something that the warrior knows is rightfully due. It doesn’t mean that a warrior goes around plotting to do anybody mischief, or planning to settle past scores. Forbearance is something independent. As long as the warrior has control, discipline, and timing, forbearance assures giving whatever is due to whoever deserves it.”
“Do petty tyrants sometimes win, and destroy the warrior facing them?” I asked.
“Of course. There was a time when warriors died like flies at the beginning of the Conquest.
Their ranks were decimated. The petty tyrants could put anyone to death, simply acting on a whim. Under that kind of pressure seers reached sublime states.”
Don Juan said that that was the time when the surviving seers had to exert themselves to the limit to find new ways.
“The new seers used petty tyrants,” don Juan said, staring at me fixedly, “not only to get rid of their self-importance, but to accomplish the very sophisticated maneuver of moving themselves out of this world. You’ll understand that maneuver as we keep on discussing the mastery of awareness.”
I explained to don Juan that what I had wanted to know was whether, in the present, in our times, the petty tyrants he had called small fry could ever defeat a warrior.
“All the time,” he replied. “The consequences aren’t as dire as those in the remote past. Today it goes without saying that warriors always have a chance to recuperate or to retrieve and come back later. But there is another side to this problem. To be defeated by a small-fry petty tyrant is not deadly, but devastating. The degree of mortality, in a figurative sense, is almost as high. By that I mean that warriors who succumb to a small-fry petty tyrant are obliterated by their own sense of failure and unworthiness. That spells high mortality to me.”
“How do you measure defeat?”
“Anyone who joins the petty tyrant is defeated. To act in anger, without control and discipline, to have no forbearance, is to be defeated.”
“What happens after warriors are defeated?”
“They either regroup themselves or they abandon the quest for knowledge and join the ranks of the petty tyrants for life.”