Thursday, March 23, 2006


Strange to revisit this beloved book of my youth. Back then my favorite album was An American Prayerand the idea that Jim Morrison was possessed by dying Indians as a child seemed the coolest thing imaginable. More than 20 years later I've got a wealth of exploration under my belt and therefore my POV and understanding of what Castenada was doing are radically different. I've seen the Simpsons episode where Homer goes on his own spiritual trip after eating Guatemalan chillies, and his spirit-guide fox is voiced by John R. Cash; no greater evidence exists of the cultural impact of Castenada's work. Homer even has his own carved spoon in a sack, exactly as don Juan carries his own pipe.

At 16 I'd not yet used hallucinogens, and the florid, frightening descriptions of non-ordinary reality drove my interest in Castenada's apprenticeship to don Juan. I also enjoyed the impish, often bullying character of the Yaqui sage. The series reminded me of Madeleine L'Engle and C.S. Lewis--stories of a slippage between worlds always piqued my interest.

Now I bring more to the table. I've used psilocybin, salvia, and have met Mescalito. I've also read widely in myth and spirituality and comparative religion, and have a grounding in the esoteric traditions of "perennial philosophy." I'm also aware that Castendada's work has been mercilessly (and perhaps correctly) attacked by anthropologists for its distortions and omissions and un-scientific approach.

The story still moves me. Perhaps Castenada did raid other spiritual traditions and mix them up into the teachings of his Yaqui Indian Man of Knowledge. I don't care, because there's still wisdom here whether it's "true" or not. Like don Juan says when Castenada asks if he actually turned into a crow: "Such questions are meaningless. Did you fly?"

Plus, there's a rip-roaring and scary battle against a witch at its climax--and many of the hallucinations are so vividly realized I remembered them clearly decades later. Read The Teachings of Don Juan as a fantasy novel, as a hippy sacred text, as an allegory, or as avant-garde anthropology--it's a fun book no matter your take. I'll likely do the whole series again.

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