(non)ordinary reality: the teachings of don juan

i recently read this book, the teachings of don juan, by carlos castaneda, for a class, and any page numbers i give here refer to the 40th anniversary edition (cover will look exactly like the image above). it’s the account of a young-ish anthropologist who wants to learn from an native sorcerer. in mexico, he is introduced to don juan, who at first is not impressed with this non-indian wanting native knowledge. however, after some time he does agree to teach him. 
the lessons are very tactile, very physical and experiential, which stands in real contrast to the academic and scientific concept of learning the apprentice has. i find it a little sad that even at the end (imho) he is unable to think outside of his usual notions of learning. the tension between don juan and carlos is based on their different understanding of what is real. don juan’s reaction to carlos’ obsession with whether he really did fly, whether he did or did not lose his body during his vision, and if he did, where that body went, is a good illustration of this. (see pp.110-111)
in any case, this is one of the “study aids”:
source: http://www.botanical.com/

datura, also known as thorn apple or devil’s weed, is one of three psychoactive substances the apprentice is taught to use. it is one way of moving from ordinary to non-ordinary reality, as carlos expresses it. don juan’s teachings about the devil’s weed are laden with gender bias. (see pages 38, 47, 81, 127 and 165) for the sorcerer, or, man of knowledge, as he refers to himself, the poisonous plant datura is

like  a woman, and like a woman she flatters men. She sets traps for them at every turn. […] I warn you against it. Don’t take her with passion; the devil’s weed is only one path to the secrets of a man of knowledge. There are other paths. But her trap is to make you believe that hers is the only way. (p.127)

another substance used in don juan’s teachings is peyote, which don juan will only refer to as mescalito, an entity who appears to be male. carlos’ first encounter with mescalito is full of interesting impressions and images, much like his later encounters will be, and – unlike his later encounters – has a rather funny side to it. also, having read carlos’ vivid and detailed descriptions of the effects this drug has on his body, i know i certainly would not be tempted to try it. (some passages about peyote: p.29, 69, 73ff)

the third substance is a particular type of mushroom smoked as part of a mixture (the “little smoke”), the ritual preparation of which takes up to three years. i thought his process of “getting to know” the pipe to smoke this with was also interesting (intro to the pipe: p.51, 3rd smoke: p.103, transfer of pipe: p.105, other ref: pp.166-167).

over the course of his apprenticeship, carlos flies, becomes a crow, urinates on a dog, and almost has his soul stolen (pp. 142-147) (that part would make a great scary story / movie by itself!).

throughout the narrative part (which makes up the bulk of the book), carlos’ descriptions of bodily sensations and visions are powerful and interesting. i have to say that the “analytical” part at the end of the book was, to me, boring and dry, and an exercise in futility: in this part he tries to fit his experiential learning under the guidance of don juan into a hierarchical “syllabus” type structure.

in any case, this book makes for an interesting read, although if you are very sensitive toward violence against animals (i know i am…) you might be upset by what is being done to lizards in the name of spiritual growth.

let me finish with a lovely passage that i think is my favorite in the whole book:

“Things that are alive,” he said, “move inside, and a crow can easily see when something is dead, or about to die, because the movement has stopped or is slowing down to a stop. A crow can also tell when something is moving too fast, and by the same token a crow can tell when something is moving just right.” […]

“It means a crow can actually tell what to avoid and what to seek. When something is moving too fast inside, it means it is about to explode violently, or to leap forward, and a crow will avoid it. When it moves just right, it is a pleasing sight and a crow will seek it.”

[… Rocks or dead animals or dead trees do not move inside.] But they are beautiful to look at. That is why crows hang around dead bodies. They like to look at them. No light moves inside them.” (pp.139-140)


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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