Seeing Castaneda, by Sam Keen
SAM KEEN: As I followed don Juan through your three books, I suspected, at
that he was the creation of Carlos Castaneda. He is almost to good to be true--a
wise old Indian whose knowledge of human nature is superior to almost
CARLOS CASTANEDA: The idea that I concocted a person like don Juan is
He is hardly the kind of figure my European intellectual tradition would have
to invent. The truth is much stranger. I wasn't even prepared to make the
my life that my association with don Juan involved.
KEEN: How and where did you meet don Juan and become his apprentice?
CASTANEDA: I was finishing my undergraduate study at UCLA and was planning to go
graduate school in anthropology. I was interested in becoming a professor and
thought I might begin in the proper way by publishing a short paper on medicinal
plants. I couldn't have cared less about finding a weirdo like don Juan. I was
bus depot in Arizona with a high-school friend of mine. He pointed out an old
man to me and said he knew about peyote and medicinal plants. I put on my best
and introduced myself to don Juan and said: "I understand you know a great deal
about peyote. I am one of the experts on peyote (I had read Weston La Barre's
Peyote Cult) and it might be worth your while to have lunch and talk with me."
he just looked at me and my bravado melted. I was absolutely tongue-tied and
was usually very aggressive and verbal so it was a momentous affair to be
by a look. After that I began to visit him and about a year later he told me he
decided to pass on to me the knowledge of sorcery he had learned from his
KEEN: Then don Juan is not an isolated phenomenon. Is there a community of
that shares a secret knowledge?
CASTANEDA: Certainly. I know three sorcerers and seven apprentices and there are
many more. If you read the history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, you will
that the Catholic inquisitors tried to stamp out sorcery because they considered
the work of the devil. It has been around for many hundreds of years. Most of
techniques don Juan taught me are very old.
KEEN: Some of the techniques that sorcerers use are in wide use in other occult
groups. Persons often use dreams to find lost articles, and they go on
out-of-the-body journeys in their sleep. But when you told how don Juan and his
friend don Genero made your car disappear in broad daylight I could only scratch
head. I know that a hypnotist can create an illusion of the presence or absence
an object. Do you think you were hypnotized?
CASTANEDA: Perhaps, something like that. But we have to begin by realizing, as
Juan says, that there is much more to the world than we usually acknowledge. Our
normal expectations about reality are created by a social consensus. We are
how to see and understand the world. The trick of socialization is to convince
that the descriptions we agree upon define the limits of the real world. What we
call reality is only one way of seeing the world, a way that is supported by a
KEEN: Then a sorcerer, like a hypnotist, creates an alternative world by
different expectations and manipulating cues to produce a social consensus.
CASTANEDA: Exactly. I have come to understand sorcery in terms of Talcott
idea of glosses. A gloss is a total system of perception and language. For
this room is a gloss. We have lumped together a series of isolated
perceptions--floor, ceiling, window, lights, rugs, etc.--to make a totality. But
had to be taught to put the world together in this way. A child reconnoiters the
world with few preconceptions until he is taught to see things in a way that
corresponds to the descriptions everybody agrees on. The world is an agreement.
system of glossing seems to be somewhat like walking. We have to learn to walk,
once we learn we are subject to the syntax of language and the mode of
KEEN: So sorcery, like art, teaches a new system of glossing. When, for
van Gogh broke with the artistic tradition and painted "The Starry Night" he was
effect saying: here is a new way of looking at things. Stars are alive and they
whirl around in their energy field.
CASTANEDA: Partly. But there is a difference. An artist usually just rearranges
old glosses that are proper to his membership. Membership consists of being an
expert in the innuendoes of meaning that are contained within a culture. For
instance, my primary membership like most educated Western men was in the
intellectual world. You can't break out of one membership without being
into another. You can only rearrange the glosses.
KEEN: Was don Juan resocializing you or desocializing you?
Was he teaching you a new system of meanings or only a method of stripping off
old system so that you might see the world as a wondering child?
CASTANEDA: Don Juan and I disagree about this. I say he was reglossing me and he
says he was deglossing me. By teaching me sorcery he gave me a new set of
new language and a new way of seeing the world. Once I read a bit of the
philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein to don Juan and he laughed and said: "Your
Wittgenstein tied the noose too tight around his neck so he can't go anywhere."
KEEN: Wittgenstein is one of the few philosophers who would have understood don
Juan. His notion that there are many different language games--science,
poetry, religion, metaphysics, each with its own syntax and rules--would have
allowed him to understand sorcery as an alternative system of perception and
CASTANEDA: But don Juan thinks that what he calls seeing is apprehending the
without any interpretation; it is pure wondering perception. Sorcery is a means
this end. To break the certainty that the world is the way you have always been
taught you must learn a new description of the world--sorcery--and then hold the
and the new together. Then you will see that neither description is final. At
moment you slip between the descriptions; you stop the world and see. You are
with wonder; the true wonder of seeing the world without interpretation.
KEEN: Do you think it is possible to get beyond interpretation by using
CASTANEDA: I don't think so. That is my quarrel with people like Timothy Leary.
think he was improvising from within the European membership and merely
old glosses. I have never taken LSD, but what I gather from don Juan's teachings
that psychotropics are used to stop the flow of ordinary interpretations, to
the contradictions within the glosses, and to shatter certainty. But the drugs
do not allow you to stop the world. To do that you need an alternative
of the world. That is why don Juan had to teach me sorcery.
KEEN: There is an ordinary reality that we Western people are certain is 'the'
world, and then there is is the separate reality of the sorcerer. What are the
essential differences between them?
CASTANEDA: In European membership the world is built largely from what the eyes
report to the mind. In sorcery the total body is used as a perceptor. As
we see a world out there and talk to ourselves about it. We are here and the
is there. Our eyes feed our reason and we have no direct knowledge of things.
According to sorcery this burden on the eyes in unnecessary. We know with the
KEEN: Western man begins with the assumption that subject and object are
We're isolated from the world and have to cross some gap to get to it. For don
and the tradition of sorcery, the body is already in the world. We are united
the world, not alienated from it.
CASTANEDA: That's right. Sorcery has a different theory of embodiment. The
in sorcery is to tune and trim your body to make it a good receptor. Europeans
with their bodies as if they were objects. We fill them with alcohol, Bad food,
anxiety. When something goes wrong we think germs have invaded the body from
and so we import some medicine to cure it. The disease is not a part of us. Don
doesn't believe that. For him disease is a disharmony between a man and his
The body is an awareness and it must be treated impeccably.
KEEN: This sounds similar to Norman O. Brown's idea that children,
and those with the divine madness of the Dionysian consciousness are aware of
and of other persons as extensions of their bodies. Don Juan suggests something
the kind when he says the man of knowledge has fibers of light that connect his
solar plexus to the world.
CASTANEDA: My conversation with the coyote is a good illustration of the
theories of embodiment. When he came up to me I said: "Hi, little coyote. How
you doing?" And he answered back: "I am doing fine. How about you?" Now, I
hear the words in the normal way. But my body knew the coyote was saying
and I translated it into dialogue. As an intellectual my relationship to
so profound that my body automatically translated into words the feeling that
animal was communicating with me. We always see the unknown in terms of the
KEEN: When you are in that magical mode of consciousness in which coyotes speak
everything is fitting and luminous it seems as if the whole world is alive and
human beings are in a communion that includes animals and plants. If we drop our
arrogant assumptions that we are the only comprehending and communicating form
life we might find all kinds of things talking to us.
John Lilly talked talked to dolphins. Perhaps we would feel less alienated if we
could believe we were not the only intelligent life.
CASTANEDA: We might be able to talk to any animal. For don Juan and the other
sorcerers there wasn't anything unusual about my conversation with the coyote.
matter of fact they said I should have gotten a more reliable animal for a
Coyotes are tricksters and are not to be trusted.
KEEN: What animals make better friends?
CASTANEDA: Snakes make stupendous friends?
KEEN: I once had a conversation with a snake. One night I dreamt there was a
in the attic of a house where I lived when I was a child. I took a stick and
to kill it. In the morning I told the dream to a friend and she reminded me that
was not good to kill snakes, even if they were in the attic in a dream. She
suggested that the next time a snake appeared in a dream I should feed it or do
something to befriend it. About an hour later I was driving my motor scooter on
little-used road and there it was waiting for me--a four foot snake, stretched
sunning itself. I drove alongside it and it didn't move. After we had looked at
other for a while I decided I should make some gesture to let him know I
for killing his brother in my dream. I reached over and touched his tail. He
up and indicated that I had rushed our intimacy. So I backed off and just
After about five minutes he went off into the bushes.
CASTANEDA: You didn't pick it up?
CASTANEDA: It was a very good friend. A man can learn to call snakes. But you
to be in very good shape, calm, collected--in a friendly mood, with no doubts or
KEEN: My snake taught me that I had always had paranoid feelings about nature. I
considered animals and snakes dangerous. After my meeting I could never kill
snake and it began to be more plausible to me that we might be in some kind of
living nexus. Our ecosystem might well include communication between different
CASTANEDA: Don Juan has a very interesting theory about this. Plants, like
always affect you. He says that if you don't apologize to plants for picking
you are likely to get sick or have an accident.
KEEN: The American Indians had similar beliefs about animals they killed. If you
don't thank the animal for giving up his life so you may live, his spirit may
CASTANEDA: We have a commonality with all life. Something is altered every time
deliberately injure plant life or animal life. We take life in order to live but
must be willing to give up our lives without resentment when it is our time. We
so important and take ourselves so seriously that we forget that the world is a
great mystery that will teach us if we listen.
KEEN: Perhaps psychotropic drugs momentarily wipe out the isolated ego and allow
mystical fusion with nature. Most cultures that have retained a sense of
between man and nature also have made ceremonial use of psychedelic drugs. Were
using peyote when you talked with the coyote?
CASTANEDA: No. Nothing at all.
KEEN: Was this experience more intense than similar experiences you had when don
Juan gave you psychotropic plants?
CASTANEDA: Much more intense. Every time I took psychotropic plants I knew I had
taken something and I could always question the validity of my experience. But
the coyote talked to me I had no defenses. I couldn't explain it away. I had
stopped the world and, for a short time, got completely outside my European
KEEN: Do you think don Juan lives in this state of awareness most of the time?
CASTANEDA: Yes. He lives in magical time and occasionally comes into ordinary
I live in ordinary time and occasionally dip into magical time.
KEEN: Anyone who travels so far from the beaten paths of consensus must be very
CASTANEDA: I think so. Don Juan lives in an awesome world and he has left
people far behind. Once when I was with don Juan and his friend don Genaro I saw
loneliness they shared and their sadness at leaving behind the trappings and
of reference of ordinary society. I think don Juan turns his loneliness into
contains and controls his power, the wonder and the loneliness, and turns them
His art is the metaphorical way in which he lives. This is why his teachings
such a dramatic flavor and unity. He deliberately constructs his life and his
KEEN: For instance, when don Juan took you out into the hills to hunt animals
consciously staging an allegory?
CASTANEDA: Yes. He had no interest in hunting for sport or to get meat. In the
years I have known him don Juan has killed only four animals to my knowledge,
these only at times when he saw that their death was a gift to him in the same
his death would one day be a gift to something. Once we caught a rabbit in a
had set and don Juan thought I should kill it because its time was up. I was
desperate because I had the sensation that I was the rabbit. I tried to free him
couldn't open the trap. So I stomped on the trap and accidentally broke the
neck. Don Juan had been trying to teach me that I must assume responsibility for
being in this marvelous world. He leaned over and whispered in my ear: "I told
this rabbit had no more time to roam in this beautiful desert." He consciously
up the metaphor to teach me about the ways of a warrior. The warrior is a man
hunts and accumulates personal power. To do this he must develop patience and
and move deliberately through the world. Don Juan used the dramatic situation of
actual hunting to teach me because he was addressing himself to my body.
KEEN: In your most recent book, Journey to Ixtlan, you reverse the impression
in your first books that the use of psychotropic plants was the main method don
intended to use in teaching you about sorcery. How do you now understand the
of psychotropics in his teachings?
CASTANEDA: Don Juan used psychotropic plants only in the middle period of my
apprenticeship because I was so stupid, sophisticated and cocky. I held on to my
description of the world as if it were the only truth. Psychotropics created a
in my system of glosses. They destroyed my dogmatic certainty. But I paid a
tremendous price. When the glue that held my world together was dissolved, my
was weakened and it took months to recuperate. I was anxious and functioned at a
very low level.
KEEN: Does don Juan regularly use psychotropic drugs to stop the world?
CASTANEDA: No. He can now stop it at will. He told me that for me to try to see
without the aid of psychotropic plants would be useless. But if I behaved like a
warrior and assumed responsibility I would not need them; they would only weaken
KEEN: This must come as quite a shock to many of your admirers. You are
a patron saint to the psychedelic revolution.
CASTANEDA: I do have a following and they have some strange ideas about me. I
walking to a lecture I was giving at California State, Long Beach the other day
a guy who knew me pointed me out to a girl and said: "Hey, that is Castaneda."
didn't believe him because she had the idea that I must be very mystical. A
has collected some of the stories that circulate about me. The consensus is that
have mystical feet.
KEEN: Mystical feet?
CASTANEDA: Yes, that I walk barefooted like Jesus and have no calouses. I am
supposed to be stoned most of the time. I have also committed suicide and died
several different places.
A college class of mine almost freaked out when I began to talk about
and membership and to explore perception and socialization. They wanted to be
too relax, turn on and blow their minds. But to me understanding is important.
KEEN: Rumors flourish in an information vacuum. We know something about don Juan
too little about Castaneda.
CASTANEDA: That is a deliberate part of the life of a warrior, To weasel in and
of different worlds you have to remain inconspicuous. The more you are known and
identified, the more your freedom is curtailed. When people have definite ideas
about who you are and how you will act, then you can't move. One of the earliest
things don Juan taught me was that I must erase my personal history. If little
little you create a fog around yourself then you will not be taken for granted
you will have more room for change. That is the reason I avoid tape recordings
I lecture, and photographs.
KEEN: Maybe we can be personal without being historical. You now minimize the
importance of the psychedelic experience connected with your apprenticeship. And
don't seem to go around doing the kind of tricks you describe as the sorcerer's
stock-in-trade. What are the elements of don Juan's teachings that are important
you? Have you been changed by them?
CASTANEDA: For me the ideas of being a warrior and a man of knowledge, with the
eventual hope of being able to stop the world and see, have been the most
applicable. They have given me peace and confidence in my ability to control my
life. At the time I met don Juan I had very little personal power. My life had
very erratic. I had come a long way from my birthplace in Brazil. Outwardly I
aggressive and cocky, but within I was indecisive and unsure of myself. I was
making excuses for myself. Don Juan once accused me of being a professional
because I was so full of self-pity. I felt like a leaf in the wind. Like most
intellectuals, my back was against the wall. I had no place to go. I couldn't
any way of life that really excited me. I thought all I could do was make a
adjustment to a life of boredom or find ever more complex forms of entertainment
such as the use of psychedelics and pot and sexual adventures. All of this was
exaggerated by my habit of introspection. I was always looking within and
myself. The inner dialogue seldom stopped. Don Juan turned my eyes outward and
taught me to accumulate personal power.
I don't think there is any other way to live if one wants to be exuberant.
KEEN: He seems to have hooked you with the old philosopher's trick of holding
before your eyes. I was struck with how classical don Juan's approach was. I
echoes of Plato's idea that a philosopher must study death before he can gain
access to the real world and of Martin Heidegger's definition of man as
CASTANEDA: Yes, but don Juan's approach has a strange twist because it comes
the tradition in sorcery that death is physical presence that can be felt and
One of the glosses in sorcery is: death stands to your left. Death is an
judge who will speak truth to you and give you accurate advice. After all, death
in no hurry. He will get you tomorrow or the next week or in 50 years. It makes
difference to him. The moment you remember you must eventually die you are cut
to the right size.
I think I haven't made this idea vivid enough. The gloss--"death to your
left"--isn't an intellectual matter in sorcery; it is perception. When your body
properly tuned to the world and you turn your eyes to your left, you can witness
extraordinary event, the shadowlike presence of death.
KEEN: In the existential tradition, discussions of responsibility usually follow
discussion of death.
CASTANEDA: Then don Juan is a good existentialist. When there is no way of
whether I have one more minute of life. I must live as if this is my last
Each act is the warrior's last battle. So everything must be done impeccably.
Nothing can be left pending. This idea has been very freeing for me. I am here
talking to you and I may never return to Los Angeles. But that wouldn't matter
because I took care of everything before I came.
KEEN: This world of death and decisiveness is a long way from psychedelic
which the vision of endless time destroys the tragic quality of choice.
CASTANEDA: When death stands to your left you must create your world by a series
decisions. There are no large or small decisions, only decisions that must be
And there is no time for doubts or remorse. If I spend my time regretting what I
yesterday I avoid the decisions I need to make today.
KEEN: How did don Juan teach you to be decisive?
CASTANEDA: He spoke to my body with his acts. My old way was to leave everything
pending and never to decide anything. To me decisions were ugly. It seemed
for a sensitive man to have to decide. One day don Juan asked me: "Do you think
and I are equals?" I was a university student and an intellectual and he was an
Indian but I condescended and said: "Of course we are equals." He said: "I don't
think we are. I am a hunter and a warrior and you are a pimp. I am ready to sum
my life at any moment. Your feeble world of indecision and sadness is not equal
mine." Well, I was very insulted and would have left but we were in the middle
the wilderness. So I sat down and got trapped in my own ego involvement. I was
to wait until he decided to go home. After many hours I saw that don Juan would
there forever if he had to. Why not? For a man with no pending business that is
power. I finally realized that this man was not like my father who would make 20
Year's resolutions and cancel them all out. Don Juan's decisions were
far as he was concerned. They could be canceled out only by other decisions. So
went over and touched him and he got up and we went home. The impact of that act
tremendous. It convinced me that the way of the warrior is an exuberant and
way to live.
KEEN: It isn't the content of decision that is important so much as the act of
CASTANEDA: That is what don Juan means by having a gesture. A gesture is a
deliberate act which is undertaken for the power that comes from making a
For instance, if a warrior found a snake that was numb and cold, he might
to invent a way to take the snake to a warm place without being bitten. The
would make the gesture just for the hell of it. But he would perform it
KEEN: There seem to be many parallels between existential philosophy and don
teachings. What you have said about decision and gesture suggests that don Juan,
like Nietzsche or Sartre, believes that will rather than reason is the most
fundamental faculty of man.
CASTANEDA: I think that is right. Let me speak for myself. What I want to do,
maybe I can accomplish it, is to take the control away from my reason. My mind
been in control all of my life and it would kill me rather than relinquish
At one point in my apprenticeship I became profoundly depressed. I was
with terror and gloom and thoughts about suicide. Then don Juan warned me this
one of reason's tricks to retain control. He said my reason was making my body
that there was no meaning in life. Once my mind waged this last battle and lost,
reason began to assume its proper place as a tool of the body.
KEEN: "The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of" and so does the
of the body.
CASTANEDA: That is the point. The body has a will of its own. Or rather, the
the voice of the body. That is why don Juan consistently put his teachings in
dramatic form. My intellect could easily dismiss his world of sorcery as
But my body was attracted to his world and his way of life. And once the body
over, a new and healthier reign was established.
KEEN: Don Juan's techniques for dealing with dreams engaged me became they
the possibility of voluntary control of dream images. It is as though he
establish a permanent, stable observatory within inner space. Tell me about don
Juan's dream training.
CASTANEDA: The trick in dreaming is to sustain dream images long enough to look
them carefully. To gain this kind of control you need to pick one thing in
and learn to find it in your dreams. Don Juan suggested that I use my hands as a
steady point and go back and forth between them and the images. After some
learned to find my hands and to stop the dream. I became so fascinated with the
technique that I could hardly wait to go to sleep.
KEEN: Is stopping the images in dreams anything like stopping the world?
CASTANEDA: It is similar. But there are differences. Once you are capable of
your hands at will, you realize that it is only a technique. What you are after
control. A man of knowledge must accumulate personal power. But that is not
to stop the world. Some abandon also is necessary. You must silence the chatter
is going on inside your mind and surrender yourself to the outside world.
KEEN: Of the many techniques that don Juan taught you for stopping the world,
do you still practice?
CASTANEDA: My major discipline now is to disrupt my routines. I was always a
routinary person. I ate and slept on schedule. In 1965 I began to change my
I wrote in the quiet hours of the night and slept and ate when I felt the need.
I have dismantled so many of my habitual ways of acting that before long I may
become unpredictable and surprising even to myself.
KEEN: Your discipline reminds me of the Zen story of two disciples bragging
miraculous powers. One disciple claimed the founder of the sect to which he
could stand on one side of a river and write the name of Buddha on a piece of
held by his assistant on the opposite shore. The second disciple replied that
miracle was unimpressive. "My miracle," he said, "is that when I feel hungry I
and when I feel thirsty I drink"
CASTANEDA: It has been this element of engagement in the world that has kept me
following the path which don Juan showed me. There is no need to transcend the
world. Everything we need to know is right in front of us, if we pay attention.
you enter a state of nonordinary reality, as you do when you use psychotropic
plants, it is only to draw back from it what you need in order to see the
character of ordinary reality. For me the way to live--the path with heart--is
introspection or mystical transcendence but presence in the world. This world is
warrior's hunting ground.
KEEN: The world you and don Juan have pictured is full of magical coyotes,
crows and a beautiful sorceress. It's easy to see how it could engage you. But
about the world of the modern urban person? Where is the magic there? If we
all live in the mountains we might keep wonder alive. But how is it possible
are half a zoom from the freeway?
CASTANEDA: I once asked don Juan the same question. We were sitting in a cafe in
Yuma and I suggested that I might be able to stop the world and to see, if I
come and live in the wilderness with him. He looked out the window at the
cars and said: "That, out there, is your world." I live in Los Angeles now and I
find I can use that world to accommodate my needs. It is a challenge to live
set routines in a routinary world. But it can be done.
KEEN: The noise level and the constant pressure of the masses of people seem to
destroy the silence and solitude that would be essential for stopping the world.
CASTANEDA: Not at all. In fact, the noise can be used. You can use the buzzing
the freeway to teach yourself to listen to the outside world. When we stop the
the world we stop is the one we usually maintain by our continual inner
Once you can stop the internal babble you stop maintaining your old world. The
descriptions collapse. That is when personality change begins. When you
on sounds you realize it is difficult for the brain to categories all the
and in a short while you stop trying. This is unlike visual perception which
us forming categories and thinking. It is so restful when you can turn off the
talking, categorizing, and judging.
KEEN: The internal world changes but what about the external one? We can
revolutionize individual consciousness but still not touch the social structures
that create our alienation. Is there any place for social or political reform in
CASTANEDA: I came from Latin America where intellectuals were always talking
political and social revolution and where a lot of bombs were thrown. But
hasn't changed much. It takes little daring to bomb a building, but in order to
up cigarettes or to stop being anxious or to stop internal chattering, you have
remake yourself. This is where real reform begins. Don Juan and I were in Tucson
long ago when they were having Earth Week. Some man was lecturing on ecology and
evils of war in Vietnam. All the while he was smoking. Don Juan said, "I cannot
imagine that he is concerned with other people's bodies when he doesn't like his
own." Our first concern should be with ourselves. I can like my fellow men only
I am at my peak of vigor and am not depressed. To be in this condition I must
my body trimmed. Any revolution must begin here in this body. I can alter my
but only from within a body that is impeccably tuned-in to this weird world. For
the real accomplishment is the art of being a warrior, which, as don Juan says,
the only way to balance the terror of being a man with the wonder of being a
© Copyright Psychology Today
Publication Date: Dec 1972