The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda is a first-hand account, from diligent records kept by the author, of a series of experiences. It is packed to the brim with the wisdoms of a time past and lines that inspire despite having been written from the anthropological angle. The book is divided into two parts with a forward, introduction and an appendixes section, that were overall unnecessary and lackluster when compared to the rest of the book. The forward is written by Walter Goldschmidt. I tore mine out.
The introduction is an explanation of Castaneda’s premise for meeting Don Juan, and how he achieved it. “The importance of the plants was, for don Juan, their capacity to produce stages of peculiar perception in a human being… For the purpose of unfolding and validating his knowledge” (page 21). Afterwards follows a bit of thought on the states of non-ordinary reality and the process of being an apprentice to a brujo, as well as a breakdown of the book before you.
Part one is titled The Teachings, and is the bulk of the book. Broken down into chapters, these are divided by date, beginning with June 23, 1961. This first chapter is about Castaneda’s desire to learn about peyote, or Mescalito, and the task don Juan placed before him to teach him that “nothing in this world was a gift, that whatever there was to learn had to be learned the hard way” (page 30). Chapter 2 follows along nicely, being an account of his experience with the drug. It’s an interesting account, and closes with a discussion with the don on what it all means-
“A man goes to knowledge as he goes to war, wide-awake with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. Going to knowledge or going to war in any other manner is a mistake, and whoever makes it will live to regret his steps.”
I asked him why it was so and he said that when a man has fulfilled those four requisites there are no mistakes for which he will have to account; under such conditions his acts lose the blundering quality of a fool’s acts. If such a man fails, or suffers a defeat, he will have lost only a battle, and there will be no pitiful regrets over that (page 51).
Chapter 3 continues discussing the allies of the brujo: Mescalito and the Devil’s weed, or Jimson weed. Despite personally not being a fan, don Juan introduced the weed to Carlos. In this chapter we also encounter la Catalina, a witch enemy of his. He also begins to teach Carlos about the little smoke, a mushroom mix smoked in a pipe. They plant their own Datura plant and begin working with it as well. And we discover some more about what it is to be a man of knowledge: “A man of knowledge is one who has followed truthfully the hardships of learning… A man who has, without rushing or without faltering, gone as far as he can in unraveling the secrets of power and knowledge” (page 82). This chapter is one of the most important, for here we discover the four enemies of a man of knowledge: fear, clarity, power, and old age, and how we can defeat these enemies, for “a man is defeated only when he no longer tries, and abandons himself” (page 86).
Chapter four begins with a comparison between Mescalito and the Devil’s Weed, and has a focus on Mescalito. Castaneda struggled with Mescalito as a spirit and with his experiences using the drug. They go pick Mescalito, and take some as well. Mescalito is described as a protector, and searches out a strong man who lives a truthful life- one that is “lived with deliberateness, a good, strong life” (page 105).
In chapter five he works with Datura again, learning to care for his plant. Here he is told the plant has a second purpose, seeing. Castaneda has another experience with the drug that involves two lizards. He is also told about paths:
You must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do… Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you (pages 106-7)
Chapter six continues the work with Datura. This time a paste is made, and then applied to the body. Seven is about the mixing of the smoke mixture, and takes place in 1963. This smoke is a new ally for Castaneda. It gives power, and one had to be strong to handle it. Eight is the record of the last time he uses Mescalito at a peyote ceremony for apprentices. Nine is a return to the devil’s weed, and another lizard trial. He is reminded about the path with heart:
“Before you embark on it [the path] you ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path… A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it” (page 160).
Chapter ten turns toward the smoking mixture, and it is here we begin to feel Castaneda’s fear. He learns to shape shift into a crow, like don Juan, and describes the appearance of don Juan as well as dreams and encounters with other crow shape shifters. He becomes obsessed with the concept of shifting and whether it occurred on the physical plane. Eleven is the last entry of the book and deals with a diablera, who assumes the visage of don Juan and tries to steal his soul. Castaneda spends an evening in the dark performing a fighting form in a single spot while don Juan threatened and cajoled him, until he throws a rock. In the morning he says “For me there is only the traveling on the paths that have a heart, on any path that may have a heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge for me is to traverse its full length. And there I travel- looking, looking, breathlessly” (page 185).
Part two is titled A Structural Analysis, and took me all summer to get through because it is dull anthropological analysis. Parts of it are ok, but after just reading the first part, the second was too much. After all, it’s just a rehashing of the first part. But it does have some merit. Page 199 is titled To Become a Man of Knowledge Was an Unceasing Process has ties to the hero’s journal and a ring of universal truth to it. The descriptions of an ally applies to any spirit or ally in magical practice, and “even bodily conditions produced by hunger, fatigue, illness, and the like could have served as allies, for they might have possessed the capacity of transporting a man beyond the realm of ordinary reality” (page 27) sounds a lot like some chaos regimens I have read. Like other magical traditions, “The idea was that upon being defeated an apprentice, besides being incapable of commanding an ally, would be left with only the knowledge of certain manipulatory techniques, plus the memory of the perceived component elements of nonordinary reality, but he would not identify with the rationale that might have made them meaningful in their own terms” (page 232).
I only underlined one thing in the appendixes, and I leave you with this quote, hoping that you all ponder it and its meaning.