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81: The First Attention; Bridging the Contradictions

(The Fire from Within by Carlos Castaneda)

The following day we ate breakfast at dawn, then don Juan made me shift levels of awareness.

“Today, let’s go to an original setting,” don Juan said to Genaro.

“By all means,” Genaro said gravely. He glanced at me and then added in a low voice, as if not wanting me to overhear him, “Does he have to. . . perhaps it’s too much. . .”

In a matter of seconds my fear and suspicion escalated to unbearable heights. I was sweating and panting. Don Juan came to my side and, with an expression of almost uncontrollable amusement, assured me that Genaro was just entertaining himself at my expense, and that we were going to a place where the original seers had lived thousands of years ago.

As don Juan was speaking to me, I happened to glance at Genaro. He slowly shook his head from side to side. It was an almost imperceptible gesture, as if he were letting me know that don Juan was not telling the truth. I went into a state of nervous frenzy, near hysteria – and stopped only when Genaro burst into laughter.

I marveled how easily my emotional states could escalate to nearly unmanageable heights or drop to nothing.

Don Juan, Genaro, and I left Genaro’s house in the early morning and traveled a short distance into the surrounding eroded hills. Presently we stopped and sat down on top of an enormous flat rock, on a gradual slope, in a corn field that seemed to have been recently harvested.

“This is the original setting,” don Juan said to me. “We’ll come back here a couple more times, during the course of my explanation.”

“Very weird things happen here at night,” Genaro said. “The nagual Julian actually caught an ally here. Or rather, the ally …”

Don Juan made a noticeable gesture with his eyebrows and Genaro stopped in midsentence. He smiled at me.

“It’s too early in the day for scary stories,” Genaro said. “Let’s wait until dark.”

He stood up and began creeping all around the rock, tiptoeing with his spine arched backward.

“What was he saying about your benefactor’s catching an ally here?” I asked don Juan.

He did not answer right away. He was ecstatic, watching Genaro’s antics.

“He was referring to some sophisticated use of awareness,” he finally replied, still staring at Genaro.

Genaro completed a circle around the rock and came back and sat down by me. He was panting heavily, almost wheezing, out of breath.

Don Juan seemed fascinated by what Genaro had done. Again I had the feeling that they were amusing themselves at my expense, that both of them were up to something I knew nothing about.

Suddenly, don Juan began his explanation. His voice soothed me. He said that after much toiling, seers arrived at the conclusion that the consciousness of adult human beings, matured by the process of growth, can no longer be called awareness, because it has been modified into something more intense and complex, which seers call attention.

“How do seers know that man’s awareness is being cultivated and that it grows?” I asked.

He said that at a given time in the growth of human beings a band of the emanations inside their cocoons becomes very bright; as human beings accumulate experience, it begins to glow. In some instances, the glow of this band of emanations increases so dramatically that it fuses with the emanations from the outside. Seers, witnessing an enhancement of this kind, had to surmise that awareness is the raw material and attention the end product of maturation.

“How do seers describe attention?” I asked.

“They say that attention is the harnessing and enhancing of awareness through the process of being alive,” he replied.

He said that the danger of definitions is that they simplify matters to make them understandable; in this case, in defining attention, one runs the risk of transforming a magical, miraculous accomplishment into something commonplace. Attention is man’s greatest single accomplishment. It develops from raw animal awareness until it covers the entire gamut of human alternatives. Seers perfect it even further until it covers the whole scope of human possibilities.

I wanted to know if there was a special significance to alternatives and possibilities in the seers’ view.

Don Juan replied that human alternatives are everything we are capable of choosing as persons. They have to do with the level of our day-to-day range, the known; and owing to that fact, they are quite limited in number and scope. Human possibilities belong to the unknown.

They are not what we are capable of choosing but what we are capable of attaining. He said that an example of human alternatives is our choice to believe that the human body is an object among objects. An example of human possibilities is the seers’ achievement in viewing man as an egglike luminous being. With the body as an object one tackles the known, with the body as a luminous egg one tackles the unknown; human possibilities have, therefore, nearly an inexhaustible scope.

“Seers say that there are three types of attention,” don Juan went on. “When they say that, they mean it just for human beings, not for all the sentient beings in existence. But the three are not just types of attention, they are rather three levels of attainment. They are the first, second, and third attention, each of them an independent domain, complete in itself.”

He explained that the first attention in man is animal awareness, which has been developed, through the process of experience, into a complex, intricate, and extremely fragile faculty that takes care of the day-to-day world in all its innumerable aspects, in other words, everything that one can think about is part of the first attention.

“The first attention is everything we are as average men,” he continued. “By virtue of such an absolute rule over our lives, the first attention is the most valuable asset that the average man has. Perhaps it is even our only asset.

“Taking into account its true value, the new seers started a rigorous examination of the first attention through seeing. Their findings molded their total outlook and the outlook of all their descendants, even though most of them do not understand what those seers really saw.”

He emphatically warned me that the conclusions of the new seers’ rigorous examination had very little to do with reason or rationality, because in order to examine and explain the first attention, one must see it. Only seers can do that. But to examine what seers see in the first attention is essential. It allows the first attention the only opportunity it will ever have to realize its own workings.

“In terms of what seers see, the first attention is the glow of awareness developed to an ultra shine,” he continued. “But it is a glow fixed on the surface of the cocoon, so to speak. It is a glow that covers the known.

“The second attention, on the other hand, is a more complex and specialized state of the glow of awareness. It has to do with the unknown. It comes about when unused emanations inside man’s cocoon are utilized.

“The reason I called the second attention specialized is that in order to utilize those unused emanations, one needs uncommon, elaborate tactics that require supreme discipline and concentration.”

He said that he had told me before, when he was teaching me the art of dreaming, that the concentration needed to be aware that one is having a dream is the forerunner of the second attention. That concentration is a form of consciousness that is not in the same category as the consciousness needed to deal with the daily world.

He said that the second attention is also called the left-side awareness; and it is the vastest field that one can imagine, so vast in fact that it seems limitless.

“I wouldn’t stray into it for anything in this world,” he went on. “It is a quagmire so complex and bizarre that sober seers go into it only under the strictest conditions.

“The great difficulty is that the entrance into the second attention is utterly easy and its lure nearly irresistible.”

He said that the old seers, being the masters of awareness, applied their expertise to their own glows of awareness and made them expand to inconceivable limits. They actually aimed at lighting up all the emanations inside their cocoons, one band at a time. They succeeded, but oddly enough the accomplishment of lighting up one band at a time was instrumental in their becoming imprisoned in the quagmire of the second attention.

“The new seers corrected that error,” he continued, “and let the mastery of awareness develop to its natural end, which is to extend the glow of awareness beyond the bounds of the luminous cocoon in one single stroke.

“The third attention is attained when the glow of awareness turns into the fire from within: a glow that kindles not one band at a time but all the Eagle’s emanations inside man’s cocoon.”

Don Juan expressed his awe for the new seers’ deliberate effort to attain the third attention while they are alive and conscious of their individuality.

He did not consider it worthwhile to discuss the random cases of men and other sentient beings who enter into the unknown and the unknowable without being aware of it; he referred to this as the Eagle’s gift. He asserted that for the new seers to enter into the third attention is also a gift, but has a different meaning, it is more like a reward for an attainment.

He added that at the moment of dying all human beings enter into the unknowable and some of them do attain the third attention, but altogether too briefly and only to purify the food for the Eagle.

“The supreme accomplishment of human beings,” he said, “is to attain that level of attention while retaining the life-force, without becoming a disembodied awareness moving like a flicker of light up to the Eagle’s beak to be devoured.”

While listening to don Juan’s explanation I had again completely lost sight of everything that surrounded me. Genaro apparently had gotten up and left us, and was nowhere in sight. Strangely, I found myself crouching on the rock, with don Juan squatting by me holding me down by gently pushing on my shoulders. I reclined on the rock and closed my eyes. There was a soft breeze blowing from the west.

“Don’t fall asleep,” don Juan said. “Not for any reason should you fall asleep on this rock.”

I sat up. Don Juan was staring at me.

“Just relax,” he went on. “Let the internal dialogue die out.”

All my concentration was involved in following what he was saying when I got a jolt of fright. I did not know what it was at first; I thought I was going through another attack of distrust. But then it struck me, like a bolt, that it was very late in the afternoon. What I had thought was an hour’s conversation had consumed an entire day.

I jumped up, fully aware of the incongruity, although I could not conceive what had happened to me. I felt a strange sensation that made my body want to run. Don Juan jumped me, restraining me forcefully. We fell to the soft ground, and he held me there with an iron grip. I had had no idea that don Juan was so strong.

My body shook violently. My arms flew every which way as they shook. I was having something like a seizure. Yet some part of me was detached to the point of becoming fascinated with watching my body vibrate, twist, and shake.

The spasms finally died out and don Juan let go of me. He was panting with the exertion. He recommended that we climb back up on the rock and sit there until I was all right.

I could not help pressing him with my usual question: What had happened to me? He answered that as he talked to me I had pushed beyond a certain limit and had entered very deeply into the left side. He and Genaro had followed me in there. And then I had rushed out in the same fashion I had rushed in.

“I caught you right on time,” he said. “Otherwise you would have gone straight out to your normal self.”

I was totally confused. He explained that the three of us had been playing with awareness. I must have gotten scared and run out on them.

“Genaro is the master of awareness,” don Juan went on. “Silvio Manuel is the master of will. The two of them were mercilessly pushed into the unknown. My benefactor did to them what his benefactor did to him. Genaro and Silvio Manuel are very much like the old seers in some respects. They know what they can do, but they don’t care to know how they do it. Today, Genaro seized the opportunity to push your glow of awareness and we all ended up in the weird confines of the unknown.”

I begged him to tell me what had happened in the unknown.

“You’ll have to remember that yourself,” a voice said just by my ear.

I was so convinced that it was the voice of seeing that it did not frighten me at all. I did not even obey the impulse to turn around.

“I am the voice of seeing and I tell you that you are a peckerhead,” the voice said again and chuckled.

I turned around. Genaro was sitting behind me. I was so surprised that I laughed perhaps a bit more hysterically than they did.

“It’s getting dark now,” Genaro said to me. “As I promised you earlier today, we are going to have a ball here.”

Don Juan intervened and said that we should stop for the day, because I was the kind of nincompoop who could die of fright.

“Nah, he’s all right,” Genaro said, patting me on the shoulder.

“You’d better ask him,” don Juan said to Genaro. “He himself will tell you that he’s that kind of nincompoop.”

“Are you really that kind of nincompoop?” Genaro asked me with a frown.

I didn’t answer him. And that made them roll around laughing. Genaro rolled all the way to the ground.

“He’s caught,” Genaro said to don Juan, referring to me, after don Juan had swiftly jumped down and helped him to stand up. “He’ll never say he’s a nincompoop. He’s too self-important for that, but he’s shivering in his pants with fear of what might happen because he didn’t confess he’s a nincompoop.”

Watching them laugh, I was convinced that only Indians could laugh with such joyfulness. But I also became convinced that there was a mile-wide streak of maliciousness in them. They were poking fun at a non-Indian.

Don Juan immediately caught my feelings.

“Don’t let your self-importance run rampant,” he said. “You’re not special by any standards. None of us are, Indians and non-Indians. The nagual Julian and his benefactor added years of enjoyment to their lives laughing at us.”

Genaro nimbly climbed back onto the rock and came to my side.

“If I were you, I’d feel so frigging embarrassed I’d cry,” he said to me. “Cry, cry. Have a good cry and you’ll feel better.”

To my utter amazement I began to weep softly. Then I got so angry that I roared with fury. Only then I felt better.

Don Juan patted my back gently. He said that usually anger is very sobering, or sometimes fear is, or humor. My violent nature made me respond only to anger.

He added that a sudden shift in the glow of awareness makes us weak. They had been trying to reinforce me, to bolster me. Apparently, Genaro had succeeded by making me rage.

It was twilight by then. Suddenly Genaro pointed to a flicker in midair at eye level, in the twilight it appeared to be a large moth flying around the place where we sat.

“Be very gentle with your exaggerated nature,” don Juan said to me. “Don’t be eager. Just let Genaro guide you. Don’t take your eyes from that spot.”

The flickering point was definitely a moth. I could clearly distinguish all its features. I followed its convoluted, tired flight, until I could see every speck of dust on its wings. Something got me out of my total absorption. I sensed a flurry of soundless noise, if that could be possible, just behind me. I turned around and caught sight of an entire row of people on the other edge of the rock, an edge that was a bit higher than the one on which we were sitting. I supposed that the people who lived nearby must have gotten suspicious of us hanging around all day and had climbed onto the rock intending to harm us. I knew about their intentions instantly.

Don Juan and Genaro slid down from the rock and told me to hurry down. We left immediately without turning back to see if the men were following us. Don Juan and Genaro refused to talk while we walked back to Genaro’s house. Don Juan even made me hush with a fierce grunt, putting his finger to his lips. Genaro did not come into the house, but kept on walking as don Juan dragged me inside.

“Who were those people, don Juan?” I asked him, when the two of us were safely inside the house and he had lit the lantern.

“They were not people,” he replied.

“Come on, don Juan, don’t mystify me,” I said. “They were men; I saw them with my own eyes.”

“Of course, you saw them with your own eyes,” he retorted, “but that doesn’t say anything. Your eyes misled you. Those were not people and they were following you. Genaro had to draw them away from you.”

“What were they, then, if not people?”

“Oh, there is the mystery,” he said. “It’s a mystery of awareness and it can’t be solved rationally by talking about it. The mystery can only be witnessed.”

“Let me witness it then.” I said.

“But you already have, twice in one day,” he said. “You don’t remember now. You will, however, when you rekindle the emanations that were glowing when you witnessed the mystery of awareness I’m referring to. In the meantime, let’s go back to our explanation of awareness.”

He reiterated that awareness begins with the permanent pressure that the emanations at large exert on the ones trapped inside the cocoon. This pressure produces the first act of consciousness; it stops the motion of the trapped emanations, which are fighting to break the cocoon, fighting to die.

“For a seer, the truth is that all living beings are struggling to die,” he went on. “What stops death is awareness.”

Don Juan said that the new seers were profoundly disturbed by the fact that awareness forestalls death and at the same time induces it by being food for the Eagle. Since they could not explain it, for there is no rational way to understand existence, seers realized that their knowledge is composed of contradictory propositions.

“Why did they develop a system of contradictions?” I asked.

“They didn’t develop anything,” he said. “They found unquestionable truths by means of their seeing. Those truths are arranged in terms of supposedly blatant contradictions, that’s all.

“For example, seers have to be methodical, rational beings, paragons of sobriety, and at the same time they must shy away from all of those qualities in order to be completely free and open to the wonders and mysteries of existence.”

His example left me baffled, but not to the extreme. I understood what he meant. He himself had sponsored my rationality only to crush it and demand a total absence of it. I told him how I understood his point.

“Only a feeling of supreme sobriety can bridge the contradictions,” he said.

“Could you say, don Juan, that art is that bridge?”

“You may call the bridge between contradictions anything you want – art, affection, sobriety, love, or even kindness.”

Don Juan continued his explanation and said that in examining the first attention, the new seers realized that all organic beings, except man, quiet down their agitated trapped emanations so that those emanations can align themselves with their matching ones outside. Human beings do not do that; instead, their first attention takes an inventory of the Eagle’s emanations inside their cocoons.

“What is an inventory, don Juan?” I asked.

“Human beings take notice of the emanations they have inside their cocoons,” he replied. “No other creatures do that. The moment the pressure from the emanations at large fixates the emanations inside, the first attention begins to watch itself. It notes everything about itself, or at least it tries to, in whatever aberrant ways it can. This is the process seers call taking an inventory.”

“I don’t mean to say that human beings choose to take an inventory, or that they can refuse to take it. To take an inventory is the Eagle’s command. What is subject to volition, however, is the manner in which the command is obeyed.”

He said that although he disliked calling the emanations commands, that is what they are: commands that no one can disobey. Yet the way out of obeying the commands is in obeying them.

“In the case of the inventory of the first attention,” he went on, “seers take it, for they can’t disobey. But once they have taken it they throw it away. The Eagle doesn’t command us to worship our inventory; it commands us to take it, that’s all.”

“How do seers see that man takes an inventory?” I asked.

“The emanations inside the cocoon of man are not quieted down for purposes of matching them with those outside,” he replied. “This is evident after seeing what other creatures do. On quieting down, some of them actually merge themselves with the emanations at large and move with them. Seers can see, for instance, the light of the scarabs’ emanations expanding to great size.”

“But human beings quiet down their emanations and then reflect on them. The emanations focus on themselves.”

He said that human beings carry the command of taking an inventory to its logical extreme and disregard everything else. Once they are deeply involved in the inventory, two things may happen. They may ignore the impulses of the emanations at large, or they may use them in a very specialized way.

The end result of ignoring those impulses after taking an inventory is a unique state known as reason. The result of using every impulse in a specialized way is known as self-absorption. Human reason appears to a seer as an unusually homogeneous dull glow that rarely if ever responds to the constant pressure from the emanations at large – a glow that makes the egglike shell become tougher, but more brittle.

Don Juan remarked that reason in the human species should be bountiful, but that in actuality it is very rare. The majority of human beings turn to self-absorption.

He asserted that the awareness of all living beings has a degree of self-reflection in order for them to interact. But none except man’s first attention has such a degree of self-absorption. Contrary to men of reason, who ignore the impulse of the emanations at large, the self-absorbed individuals use every impulse and turn them all into a force to stir the trapped emanations inside their cocoons.

Observing all this, seers arrived at a practical conclusion. They saw that men of reason are bound to live longer, because by disregarding the impulse of the emanations at large, they quiet down the natural agitation inside their cocoons. The self-absorbed individuals, on the other hand, by using the impulse of the emanations at large to create more agitation, shorten their lives.

“What do seers see when they gaze at self-absorbed human beings?” I asked.

“They see them as intermittent bursts of white light, followed by long pauses of dullness,” he said.

Don Juan stopped talking. I had no more questions to ask, or perhaps I was too tired to ask about anything. There was a loud bang that made me jump. The front door flew open and Genaro came in, out of breath. He slumped on the mat. He was actually covered with perspiration.

“I was explaining about the first attention,” don Juan said to him.

“The first attention works only with the known,” Genaro said. “it isn’t worth two plugged nickels with the unknown.”

“That is not quite right,” don Juan retorted. “The first attention works very well with the unknown. It blocks it; it denies it so fiercely that in the end, the unknown doesn’t exist for the first attention.”

“Taking an inventory makes us invulnerable. That is why the inventory came into existence in the first place.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked don Juan.

He didn’t reply. He looked at Genaro as if waiting for an answer.

“But if I open the door,” Genaro said, “would the first attention be capable of dealing withwhat will come in?”

“Yours and mine wouldn’t, but his will,” don Juan said, pointing at me. “Let’s try it.”

“Even though he’s in heightened awareness?” Genaro asked don Juan.

“That won’t make any difference,” don Juan answered.

Genaro got up and went to the front door and threw it open. He instantly jumped back. A gust of cold wind came in. Don Juan came to my side, and so did Genaro. Both of them looked at me in amazement.

I wanted to close the front door. The cold was making me uncomfortable. But as I moved toward the door, don Juan and Genaro jumped in front of me and shielded me.

“Do you notice anything in the room?” Genaro asked me.

“No, I don’t,” I said, and I really meant it.

Except for the cold wind pouring in through the open door, there was nothing to notice in there.

“Weird creatures came in when I opened the door,” he said. “Don’t you notice anything?”

There was something in his voice that told me he was not joking this time.

The three of us, with both of them flanking me, walked out of the house. Don Juan picked up the kerosene lantern, and Genaro locked the front door. We got inside the car, through the passenger’s side. They pushed me in first. And then we drove to don Juan’s house in the next town.


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