Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of cultural anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, who is the author of a dozen popular books, that have sold more than 28 million copies and been published in 17 languages. Castaneda wrote a series of books that describe the supposed training that he received from a wise trickster shaman in Mexico that likely never existed. Despite Castaneda’s accounts probably being fictional, they are still wonderful stories that contain valuable spiritual knowledge, as it seems that the “wise trickster shaman” was Castaneda himself.
Carlos César Salvador Arana was born in Cajamarca, Peru in 1925. Or maybe it was in Sao Paulo, Brazil? Different sources make different claims about his birthplace, and much about his early life remains mysterious because Castaneda offered conflicting autobiographical information. His surname, “Castaneda,” was his mother’s maiden name.
In 1951, Castaneda moved to the U.S., and he became a naturalized citizen in 1957. Castaneda studied anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees. According to Castaneda’s writings, he met an unusual man in Arizona during the early 1960s named Don Juan Matus, who he described as a Yaqui “sorcerer” from Sonora, Mexico, and was supposedly a powerful shaman who could allegedly manipulate time and space. (The Yaqui are a Native American people that are indigenous to Mexico.)
Castaneda said that he became Don Juan’s apprentice, and in 1965 he returned to LA and began writing about his experiences. In 1968, Castaneda published The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, a mass market book that also served as his Master’s thesis in the School of Anthropology at UCLA. The book claimed to document the events that took place during Castaneda’s supposed apprenticeship with Don Juan between 1960 and 1965. The book was not only accepted as Castaneda’s master’s thesis at UCLA, but it also became a New York Times bestseller that sold more than 10 million copies.
This bestselling book was followed by two more books about the teachings of Don Juan, which were also written while Castaneda was still an anthropology student at UCLA, and they became equally successful: A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan. Castaneda was awarded a Ph.D. from UCLA based on the work described in these books. However, these accounts of the legendary Yaqui sorcerer are now considered to be fictional by other anthropologists, as there is no evidence that Don Juan Matus ever really existed.
However, the stories were considered factual at the time that they were published, and they even convinced Castaneda’s doctoral committee at the UCLA School of Anthropology to award him with their highest academic honor. Although many critics have questioned the reality of Don Juan, Castaneda always insisted that everything he wrote was true. Despite this controversy over the authenticity, Castaneda’s books became extremely popular due to their engaging storytelling, and their explorations of consciousness, altered states of mind, and spirituality that dovetailed with the zeitgeist of the time.
Around 1972, Castaneda stepped away from the public eye and bought a large multi-dwelling property in Los Angeles, which he shared with some of his students. Two of his students, Taisha Abelar and Florinda Donner-Grau, also wrote books about their experiences with Don Juan’s teachings from a female perspective. Castaneda endorsed both of these books as authentic reports of Don Juan’s teachings: The Sorcerer’s Crossing and Being-in-Dreaming.
Castaneda became a well-known cultural figure during his life, although he rarely appeared in public forums, and he developed a mysterious reputation. Castaneda was the subject of a Time magazine cover article in 1973 that described him as “an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a tortilla.” In 1974, Castaneda published his fourth book, Tales of Power, which chronicled the supposed end to his apprenticeship with Don Juan, although future books by Castaneda describe further aspects of his supposed training. Castaneda wrote a total of twelve books about the “teachings of Don Juan.”
In the 1990s, Castaneda and his students developed a shamanic system that they called Tensegrity, which is said to be a modernized version of the teachings developed by the Indigenous shamans who lived in Mexico, in times prior to the Spanish conquest. This name for this system was taken from a term coined by the late philosopher Buckminster Fuller to mean “a structural principle based on a system of isolated components under compression inside a network of continuous tension.” In 1995, Castaneda and his students created Cleargreen Incorporated, an organization to promote this shamanic system. Cleargreen continues to teach workshops today.
Castaneda died in 1998 at the age of 72. He died as mysteriously as he had lived. There was no public service; Castaneda was cremated, and the ashes were sent to Mexico. His death was unknown to the outside world until almost two months after he died when an obituary appeared in The Los Angeles Times.
Some of the quotes that Carlos Castaneda is known for include:
You have everything needed for the extravagant journey that is your life.
The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.
The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.
The aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive.
Forget the self and you will fear nothing, in whatever level or awareness you find yourself to be.
All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. … 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.
Life in itself is sufficient, self-explanatory and complete.
Seek and see all the marvels around you. You will get tired of looking at yourself alone, and that fatigue will make you deaf and blind to everything else.