For me the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being here in this marvelous world, in this marvelous desert, at this marvelous time. I want to convince you that you must learn to make every act count since you are going to be here for only a short while; in fact, too short for witnessing all the marvels of it.
-from Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda
The death of Carlos Castaneda was officially announced on the evening of June 18. According to his death certificate, the best-known proponent of “non-ordinary reality” passed out of this world nearly two months earlier, on April 27, at his home in Westwood. According to his attorney, Deborah Drooz, Castaneda had been ill with liver cancer for some time, and it was his wish to leave his death unpublicized. The news leaked out when Adrian Vashon, the son of his former wife, received a court letter indicating he was mentioned in Castaneda's will. Vashon subsequently called the Los Angeles Times.
“Carlos Castaneda left the world the same way that his teacher, Don Juan Matus, did: with full awareness,” read a prepared statement that appeared four days later on the Web site maintained by Cleargreen (www.castaneda.com), the corporation formed by Castaneda and his associates. “The cognition of our world of everyday life does not provide for a description of a phenomenon such as this. So in keeping with the terms of legalities and record-keeping that the world of everyday life requires, Carlos Castaneda was declared to have died.”
I first met Carlos Castaneda in the spring of 1972. I was 24 years old and working for Seventeen magazine. Carlos was a doctoral student in the UCLA Department of Anthropology and already famous. His first two books, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (his master's thesis) and A Separate Reality, both detailing his apprenticeship to Don Juan Matus, a Mexican Indian shaman, had sold nearly half a million copies in paperback. Journey to Ixtlan, the doctoral dissertation he was completing at the time we met, would later put him, or a drawing of him – he would allow no recognizable photographs – on the cover of Time.
At this point, the Vietnam War was still in full swing, and Nixon was about to be re-elected. Like many young men and women of the period, I was terrified and alienated by the actions of the prevailing culture, which seemed to have gone mad; the Castaneda books were a desperately needed antidote to a world view that felt increasingly mechanistic and dispiriting.
Many of the concepts in the books – the notion of turning off one's internal dialogue in order to apprehend an expanded reality, dispensing with one's ego in order to follow “a path with heart,” having an awareness of one's death in order to live life fully – each had direct parallels in other philosophical and religious disciplines. Yet there was an aggressive emotional imperative with which Castaneda wrote that suited the tenor of the times. He painted himself in his stories as a frightened naif bumbling through a magical yet deeply ethical spiritual system that could be taught and transferred. For a generation trying to account for its religious feelings outside the constrictions of conventional dogma, Castaneda's work had immense appeal.
Anxious to meet him, I talked my bosses at Seventeen into letting me interview Castaneda. By then he was already refusing all interviews, yet I was naively convinced he would see me. I badgered his editor at Simon & Schuster, Michael Korda, until his secretary took pity and pointed me to Castaneda's literary agent, a man named Ned Brown, whose office was in Beverly Hills. The curmudgeonly Brown agreed to pass the message on to Castaneda only because, he said, I reminded him of his daughter, adding that there was no hope of Carlos replying. Two weeks later, however, Brown called back to say that Carlos had consented to see me. Castaneda never showed for the meeting, but a week later, he called me at the office. “My cousin used to read Seventeen!” he said brightly. “So I thought the message from you was a very good omen. When would you like to meet?”
Though he became a distinguished-looking man with age, in those days Castaneda would have been hard to pick out in a crowd. He was, according to his own description, “a plain, brown man,” 5-foot-5 and sturdy, with an unremarkable sort of face. His eyes – supremely watchful, intensely alive, often projecting an improbable combination of grief and amusement – were the most remarkable thing about him.
Our initial interview – at Cafe Figaro, or was it the Source? – stretched into a year-and-a-half-long conversation, during the course of which Castaneda became a mentor, uncle and friend. Platonic in his attentions, he was elaborately mysterious about the machinations of our meetings. I could only reach him by leaving messages at the anthropology department. He would call me back from some pay phone in order to arrange a time. At the appointed moment, I would stand outside my West Hollywood apartment building and wait for him to drive up in his dusty tan van – inevitably at least half an hour late.
It was also typical that at some point during the afternoon or evening he would gasp with alarm, slap his palm to his forehead with sitcom-style dismay and rush to the nearest pay phone. Then he would call someone – often a university colleague – with whom he had an appointment. He was always enormously apologetic, offering an impressively dramatic excuse for the oversight. “I'm calling you from Mexico City,” he might shout into the receiver, from a gas station in Pacific Palisades. “I feel terrible! But I was unexpectedly detained by power!”
Generally, though, our outings seemed quite ordinary. We would sometimes go to the movies. Often we simply went for lunch or dinner, then for a walk. Once he took me to see a display of masks at UCLA, and afterward presented me with two Yaqui masks. But each encounter was in fact a teaching exercise. Along the bluffs above the ocean, he taught me how to run in the dark without tripping, lecturing me genially on the necessity of living my life more “impeccably.” As we emerged into the brightness of a theater lobby after seeing Auntie Mame, he turned to me and said with great poignancy: “I took you to see this movie because I wanted you to know that you must use the world. In fact, it's absolutely essential to do so! But you must remember to use it with love.”
In the mouth of anyone else, these words would have sounded hopelessly sentimental. But Carlos imbued such pronouncements with a ferociously poetic force. Some of his sorcerer's tips were more practical than philosophical. When I complained to him how I'd run out of gas the night before, for example, he told me that Don Juan had told him that if he anthropomorphized his car, it would never run out of gas again. (I took the advice to heart and chatted up my Karmann Ghia, which obliged me by running on fumes, if necessary, for the next 13 years.) Another day, he gave me a compass and told me I should turn my bed around, head to the west (or was it the east?) to increase my energy.
Other instructions were not quite so straightforward. One day, he gave me an unpolished rock the color of ochre, half the size of my hand. He said Don Juan had given it to him to give to me with explicit directions as to how I must polish it. With great seriousness, I polished the rock for hours until I passed into a sort of waking dream state. The long-term significance of this event, I couldn't tell you. But I still have the rock.
In addition to trying to help me “collapse the parameters of normal perception,” Castaneda talked about personal concerns, such as his worry that his doctoral thesis might not be approved. He often seemed to be in a state of tremendous anguish over his apprenticeship. “Don Juan wants me to attempt to stop the world, but if I don't have the energy to do it I may die,” he would say. In Don Juanian terms, “stopping the world” was letting go of the last vestiges of cultural preconceptions. “Maybe I should stay here in L.A. But how can I?”
There was a wildly funny side to Carlos as well. He was a wicked gossip and loved regaling me with tales of his encounters with other luminaries of the so-called consciousness movement. He recounted how famous gestalt therapist and “horny old goat” Fritz Perls had barged unwittingly into Castaneda's darkened bedroom at Big Sur's Esalen Institute, mistakenly thinking it empty, and proceeded to have a noisy, amorous tryst with a young acolyte – much to Castaneda's amusement. On another occasion, he gleefully described a dinner that he and the guru Ram Dass (former Tim Leary associate Richard Alpert) had both attended, at which Ram Dass had gotten roaring drunk and begun shouting boisterously, “That's what they call me, 'Baba ram de ass!' Get it? 'Baba ram de ass!'”
In the spring of 1973, the article appeared in Seventeen, and soon after, I left the magazine. With the publication of Journey to Ixtlan, Castaneda was swept further into the maelstrom of his fame and field work, and became much harder to reach. Eventually we lost contact.
During all the time I spent with Castaneda, it never occurred to me that he wasn't representing himself and his apprenticeship truthfully. Not that I took every wrinkle of his stories to be literal fact. A few of my friends who knew of our acquaintance asked if I thought he had really turned into a crow, as was suggested in one of the books. Such questions struck me, even at the time, as ridiculous. His work wasn't about metaphysical parlor tricks, I would reply, nor was it about psychotropic drugs. It was a system for living, a way of deconstructing consensus reality in order to conceive of a world of unimaginable possibilities.
There had been occasional mutterings in the mainstream press about Castaneda's books being metaphorical in nature, but the first serious attempt to debunk his work came in 1976, when author-psychologist Richard de Mille (son of Cecil B.) wrote a book called Castaneda's Journey: The Power and the Allegory. De Mille painstakingly combed through Castaneda's four published volumes, trolling them for inconsistencies, cross-referencing his ethnographic data with other spiritual and philosophical disciplines from which de Mille felt Carlos had stolen. He also suggested that the standards applied by Castaneda's doctoral committee had not been sufficiently rigorous.
Castaneda fans and a majority of his colleagues at UCLA dismissed the de Mille book as ax grinding. However, by 1978 there was growing disagreement in anthropology circles. Yaqui expert Dr. Ralph Beals asked to see Castaneda's field notes and was unhappy when Carlos continually dodged the request. Dr. Jacques Maquet, then head of UCLA's Department of Anthropology, also objected to the fact that no hard evidence had ever been presented to back up Castaneda's accounts. “What is essential is not simply to have the experience,” says Maquet today, “but, if it is anthropology, to make it possible for other anthropologists to repeat the experience. Castaneda never did that. He never presented Don Juan. What he has done is not anthropology simply because he has kept it secret. He has created a brilliant fiction based on something real, but fiction nonetheless.”
Further complicating matters, in 1982, a woman named Florinda Donner published a book called Shabono, in which she described dramatic, Castaneda-like experiences with the Yanomama Indians of Venezuela. The normally reclusive Carlos wrote a glowing blurb on the jacket cover, and soon the news circulated that Donner was claiming to also be an apprentice to Don Juan. A single academic apprenticed to an unseen sorcerer was one thing; a second began to stretch the credulity of all but the most ardent believers.
I met Donner in 1982 when she accompanied Castaneda to a dinner party given by Jacques Barzaghi, Jerry Brown's longtime adviser. Carlos, whom I hadn't seen in years, was distant; Donner wasn't, and we chatted for much of the evening. I found her stories of her time with the Yanomama convincing.
When I saw her a few years later at Barzhagi's wedding, she confided that all the apprentices – Castaneda, herself and several other Anglo women – were in a terrible emotional state. She described fantastic incidents – about how, for example, one of their sorcery teachers had turned old before their eyes, she said. “Like the picture of Dorian Gray. It was like something you'd imagine seeing in a science-fiction movie, but we actually saw it happen.” Now Carlos was very ill and living in Arizona. “We don't know what to do,” she said. “We are waiting for him to lead us. But he doesn't know what to do either, so we just have to wait.”
It was difficult to know what to make of such a story. As with Castaneda, Donner's emotional turmoil seemed intense and genuine. But these increasingly fantastic stories of multiple sorcerer's apprentices were hard to swallow whole, leading some to conclude that many of Castaneda's stories also may have been stupendous falsehoods. Even those of us who'd been believers, or nearly so, couldn't help but wonder if we hadn't, in fact, simply been audience members to a sort of Truman Show in reverse, a troupe of actors who had infiltrated the real world, staging a magical theater that had lasted for decades.
After years of inaccessibility, Castaneda began making public appearances in what would be the last decade of his life. At first they were small interactive gatherings held without fanfare at various bookstores; later he led occasional martial-arts classes and seminars in a form of movement Castaneda called “tensegrity,” billed as ancient “shamanistic” exercises designed to increase awareness. These were presented by Donner and the various other women who surrounded Castaneda. Through Cleargreen, these women have announced that they will be keeping the work going. With corporate efficiency, Tensegrity seminars are scheduled for July and August, with more seminars and videos planned for the future.
If anything, the controversies surrounding Castaneda are greater than ever. But some of those who knew him well have arrived at a provisional answer. “He had a genius for introducing people to the possibility of seeing other realities,” says Gloria Garvin, a former member of Castaneda's inner circle, “but there was never a Don Juan. He knew shamans. He did a great deal of research over the years, often under other names. And he would journey and dream, and stimulate amazing journeys and dreams in the people around him. ”
“I had astonishing experiences with Carlos that are difficult to explain,” says Douglass Price-Williams, professor emeritus in anthropology and psychiatry at UCLA. “You see, you can't say his work is factual, but you can't say it's false either. It's so much more complex than that. He did have profound experiences of his own. And he had a great deal of ethnographic knowledge. He also engaged in elaborate role-playing that he pushed to the point that I think he could no longer tell the difference. But the thing that set Carlos apart was his genius for taking all this and communicating it in a way that truly moved people.”
Larry Peters, an anthropologist and psychotherapist who has done extensive field work with Nepalese shamans, puts it another way: “Carlos was an expert navigator of that other world. Frankly I believe Don Juan was an entity – a spirit, if you will – that Carlos encountered while dreaming. There is a deep wisdom in his texts that cannot be regarded as either fiction or knowledgeable fabrication.”
The last time I saw Castaneda, in late 1993, it was at one of those bookstore events. “We are all beings who are going to die,” he told an attentive invited group (which included Tom Hayden). “We must live our lives with that knowledge, with that harshness. Don Juan used to say to me, 'What have they done to you? What have they done to you?' He meant that I was so captured by my ideologies that I could not be a man. I could not truly live the wonder that it is to be a human being. We are travelers, as humans. We are adventurers, struggling to perpetuate, to better, to evolve our species. But unless we break free of the prison of our ideologies, we will come to the end of our lives and wonder what we have lived for.”
I returned home that evening feeling awakened, as if my most essential self had been dashed with ice water. Not that I imagined I could ever wholly follow his sorceric dictums; understanding the secrets of the universe is one thing, getting one's kid to bed at the proper time is quite another. And yet, for weeks after, I was better able to address my individual days and nights with less fear, fewer preconceptions, more clarity and compassion.
In the end, it's the work that mattered, whatever its provenance. In the end, it was the man who mattered; for those of us lucky enough to come within his range, nothing was ever the same again.
And if, in the end, Don Juan never existed?
For my own provisional answer, I think of Peter A. Bien, translator of Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, who dealt with a similar question when asked whether he believed in all the miracles associated with Jesus. “I realize much of what we know about him is novelistic,” said Bien. “But I act as if it isn't.”
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.