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The Strange Life of a Cultist Author and His Mystical Shamanic Journey

Carlos Castaneda
Carlos Castaneda

With literature, it is sometimes difficult to separate possible fact from fiction. Throughout the ages there have been those works that either intentionally or unintentionally blur the lines, presenting themselves as real accounts but with no way to really be sure. There have been countless books and short stories that have toed this line between fact and fantasy, leaving readers wondering if what they are reading is true or not, with fiction being interpreted as fact and alternately fact interpreted as fiction. One very curious case of this happening is a strange series of books by an enigmatic author who would claim to have learned many secrets and magical practices from a shaman, before going on to found his own full-fledged cult and die without providing any real answers.

The life of the writer Carlos Castañeda is rather mysterious and murky from the very beginning. Although his birth record says he was born Carlos César Salvador Arana, on December 25, 1925, in Cajamarca, Peru, he would later claim that he had actually been born in São Paulo, Brazil in 1935. He also would say that he was born to a 17-year-old father and 15-year-old mother, and that was raised by his maternal grandparents on a chicken farm until he was six, after which he was put into the custody of his parents. His mother would die soon after and he was raised by his father, at that time a professor of literature and failed writer, described as a distant and secretive. Castaneda studied sculpture at the School of Fine Arts in Lima, after which he moved to the United States in 1951, and it is here where his life would get truly weird.

In the States, he worked a series of odd jobs and took classes at Los Angeles Community College in philosophy and literature, hoping to one day become an artist and writer. It was during this time that he would meet his soon-to-be wife, Margaret Runyan, and the two of them would become fascinated by the occult. They began reading anything they could on the occult, esoteric practices, and powers of the mind, even conducting their own ESP experiments. When Carlos enrolled as an anthropology student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1959, they took their weirdness with them, in particular Carlos, who would often disappear for days on end to go into the desert on “vision quests.” It was during this time that he began writing a very bizarre series of books that he would claim narrated his own experiences with a powerful shaman out in the desert.

The books, which would eventually encompass four volumes titled The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, A Separate Reality, Journey to Ixtlan, and Tales of Power, are written in the form of journal entries, and chronicle the odyssey of Carlos coming across a mysterious stranger who identifies himself as a Yaqui Indian from northern Mexico and a shaman and “man of knowledge” by the name of Don Juan Matus. According to Carlos, he claims to have met Don Juan in the waiting room of a Greyhound bus station on the Arizona side of the Mexican border, and that this Don Juan apparently recognized Carlos as the new nagual, or leader of a party of seers of his lineage, and so took him under his tutelage. Together, they would allegedly go on a surreal and bizarre spiritual journey through the desert, involving vision quests, magical training, and the liberal ingesting of peyote, magic mushrooms, “devil’s weed,” also known as datura, and various herbal concoctions.

In the books, almost immediately upon taking peyote for the first time, Carlos proves himself as the “chosen one” when a spectral black dog called Mescalito visits him, deemed by Don Juan to be a very powerful spiritual entity. It would not be the first strange entity Carlos would meet, and through his time using these various mind-opening substances he would have conversations with a luminous bilingual coyote, a “column of singing light,” a “cricket-like being with a warty green head,” and a hundred-foot-long gnat with spiky tufted hair called “the guardian of the Second Attention,” among others. Although Carlos himself at first writes of these as being merely drug-induced hallucinations, he claims that Don Juan insisted that he was seeing real spiritual beings, and that they were trying to help him find the way towards becoming “an Impeccable Warrior.” Eventually, Carlos would begin to accept them as real and not just figments of his drug-addled imagination.

Besides meeting these various otherworldly entities, Carlos goes on to describe myriad other supernatural experiences during his time with Don Juan. He describes learning how to levitate and even fly, shapeshifting into a crow, talking to various animals, and other vague concepts such as “becoming inaccessible,” “erasing personal history” and “techniques for stopping the world.” He also describes his mentor as teleporting from place to place, conjuring up winds, and starting his stalled car, among various other magical acts. Much of this is described as happening in “a separate reality,” and there comes a time when Carlos is able to perform these feats without the use of drugs, something that Don Juan tells him are only needed by beginners. Castaneda would write of this:

It became evident to me that my original assumption about the role of psychotropic plants was erroneous. They were not the essential feature of the sorcerer’s description of the world, but were only an aid to cement, so to speak, parts of the description which I had been incapable of perceiving otherwise. My insistence on holding on to my standard version of reality rendered me almost deaf and blind to Don Juan’s aims. Therefore, it was simply my lack of sensitivity which had fostered their use.

Mystical Shamanic JourneyHis training and apprenticeship with Don Juan would allegedly last from between 1960 and 1965, and culminate with him passing a final test to become a true sorcerer, which entailed jumping from a high cliff in a leap of faith, which Carlos does and succeeds. The books are all written as a factual account, written as an actual ethnographical study, even going so far as to include an appendix that holds an official-looking 50-page “structural analysis” to make it seem more authentic. Indeed, when the first book was released in 1968, it was widely accepted as a real chronicle of events, earning praise from the UCLA anthropology department and it even contains a foreword by anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, who was a professor of anthropology at UCLA during the time the books were written. Published as non-fiction and widely accepted as factual, the books captured the imagination and became huge bestsellers, propelling Carlos Castaneda to fame and making him one of the best-selling nonfiction authors in the country. He was even awarded his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees based on what was contained in these books.

It was this widespread belief that the accounts given in the books were real that drew to him a huge number of followers, and the next chapter of his strange life would begin. Would-be disciples and counter-culture tourists began flocking to Carlos’ new two-house compound in Westwood Village, while others were scouring the area mentioned in the books looking to meet the mysterious Don Juan for themselves. He was soon a sort of cult figure, although he largely remained reclusive and shunned the public eye. For five years the books were accepted as serious anthropology and were hardly challenged, receiving lavish praise from the public and scholars alike, but cracks would start to appear in the story. Several vocal critics began to start wondering why the books were being so widely sold and accepted as nonfiction, even by scholars, and began picking apart Castaneda’s work to find things that tarnished its veracity.

Mystical Shamanic JourneyIt would be found that not only had Castaneda lied about several details of his life, but that he had also plagiarized certain portions from other works. On top of this, there were numerous internal contradictions in Castaneda’s field reports and a lack of accurate details, the complete lack of Yaqui vocabulary or terms for any of his experiences or the things he described, as well as the fact that many parts are simply just too fantastical to be taken seriously. In particular, the famous film director Richard de Mille relentlessly sought to debunk it all as a hoax, writing numerous articles deriding it and even two books railing against Castaneda’s work, titled Castaneda’s Journey: The Power and the Allegory, and The Don Juan Papers. Yet even in the face of this blistering assault of scathing, exhaustive criticism and skepticism, at the time many anthropologists continued to defend the work, and it was still largely accepted as real by most of the public.

Castaneda himself dropped off the radar in 1973 in light of this criticism, disappearing from public view to become a recluse, refusing to be photographed, and cutting ties to his past. However, this didn’t stop him from popping up again in the 1990s to start a new movement called Tensegrity, which he claimed had been passed down by 25 generations of Toltec shamans and was billed as “the modernized version of some movements called magical passes developed by Indian shamans who lived in Mexico in times prior to the Spanish conquest.” Thousands of people attended the various Tensegrity workshops, which were promoted by a company called Cleargreen, and countless people clamored to join, partly due to the popularity of the books, but also largely due to Castaneda’s mesmerizing, magnetic charm and presence. Simon and Schuster’s new editor in chief, Michael Korda, would say of the author’s profound effect on people:

He was a robust, broad-chested, muscular man, with a swarthy complexion, dark eyes, black curly hair cut short, and a grin as merry as Friar Tuck’s … I had seldom, if ever, liked anybody so much so quickly … It wasn’t so much what Castaneda had to say as his presence — a kind of charm that was partly subtle intelligence, partly a real affection for people, and partly a kind of innocence, not of the naive kind but of the kind one likes to suppose saints, holy men, prophets and gurus have.

The movement, which some already likened to a cult, was pretty odd when one looked under the surface. The inner cabal was run by a group of women called “witches,” who had all been Carlos’ lovers at some point or another, and in fact most of those in the group closest to him were women. Stories began to trickle out of the compound of strange initiation ceremonies, such as having to sleep with Castaneda, being ordered to attack a family member, or other strange acts, which they would do without question. Members were also reportedly made to sever all ties with their families and previous attachments, with acolytes allegedly told to tell their families, “I send you to hell” before departing for good. In some cases, they were forbidden from having phones or told to quit their jobs, and it seems that things were geared towards making members wholly financially and psychologically dependent on the group. They would also purportedly be punished for being sick, as this was seen as a sign of weakness, or for myriad other infractions. In addition, there was allegedly much manipulation and mental abuse going on, with one of the ways used to control initiates being the ever present threat of being banished from the group. Despite the supposed abuse going on in the group, being kicked out was feared, and it could happen at any time. One former follower has explained:

You never knew where you stood. He’d pick someone, crown them, and was as capable of kicking them out in 48 hours as keeping them 10 years. You never knew. So there was always trepidation, a lot of jealousy. In a weird way, the worst thing that can happen is when you’re loved and loved and then abused and abused, and there are no rules, and the rules keep changing, and you can never do right, but then all of a sudden they’re kissing you. That’s the most crazy-making behavioral modification there is. And that’s what Carlos specialized in; he was not stupid.

Mystical Shamanic JourneyThroughout all of this, Castaneda was himself so secretive and reclusive that when he died of liver cancer in 1998, it took two months for the public to realize it. Indeed, no one had even known he was sick at all, even those within his own group, since because they shunned sickness so much he had kept it a closely guarded secret. Tensegrity itself would continue on without him, but would have some sinister shadows hanging over it as well. On the very day after Castaneda died, two of his “witches” by the names of Florinda Donner-Grau and Taisha Abelar, along with Cleargreen president Amalia Marquez and Tensegrity instructor Kylie Lundahl, vanished without a trace after cryptically saying they were going on a “long journey,” and would never be seen again. Not long after that, Castaneda’s adopted daughter Patricia Partin also disappeared into thin air. Her car would be found abandoned in Death Valley, and in 2003 her sun-scorched, desiccated corpse would also be found in Death Valley’s Panamint Dunes area. The cause of death could not be determined. Why did she disappear, how had she died, and did this or the other vanishings have anything to do with Castaneda’s cult? No one knows, but it is widely believed that they had all committed suicide in the wake of their leader’s death to join him in the spiritual realm he often talked about.

Despite this tragic series of events, there has never been found any concrete link to the movement, and they are still holding seminars and events to this day. As for Castaneda’s book and Don Juan, today there is little argument that they were ever more than a fiction, exaggerated at best and just plain made-up at worse. Castaneda insisted to the end that it was all true and that Don Juan was real, not some allegorical tale, but a genuine account, some of the general public still debate it, and amazingly the original publisher of the books, Simon and Schuster, still publish it as nonfiction and continue to claim its authenticity, but it has largely been debunked and dismissed by serious anthropologists. William W. Kelly, chair of the anthropology department at Yale University, has said of it:

I doubt you’ll find an anthropologist of my generation who regards Castaneda as anything but a clever con man. It was a hoax, and surely don Juan never existed as anything like the figure of his books. Perhaps to many it is an amusing footnote to the gullibility of naive scholars, although to me it remains a disturbing and unforgivable breach of ethics.

It is unknown just how much any of what Castaneda wrote of was true, or how much he really believed what he was selling. He was either privy to certain secrets that evaded everyone, a conman, or a madman, it is hard to say which. What everyone can probably agree on is that he certainly had a bizarre and colorful life, and whether you choose to call him a sorcerer, cultist, maniac, or just a flat out liar, there is no denying that for a time he was able to dupe everyone, successfully blurring the lines between fiction and fact.

By Brent Swancer
Mysterious Universe

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