Carlos Casteneda and the Second Attention
I was impressed (again). The book is a very clear and well-argued account of the reality(ies) that mainstream Western culture denies and/or ridicules, and which La Madre Ayahuasca can show us. As a bonus, Carlos writes like an angel.
Wondering what had happened to Carlos Castenada, as I had lost track of him over the years, I researched him on the internet. For this kind of purpose, the internet is indeed a thing of wonder.
The article about him on Wikipedia refers to the controversy in which he and his work became embroiled in the seventies. In particular, there was a book published in 1976 called ‘Castaneda’s Journey: The Power and the Allegory’ by Richard De Mille – adopted son of the famous Cecil B. De Mille, and an early convert in 1950 to Scientology to boot, (though he and L. Ron Hubbard later parted company for reasons of “mutual dislike”).
Richard de Mille claimed that Castenada was a charlatan and plagiarist. This was based on the painstaking detective work he had done, going over the library records in UCLA, where Carlos had done his PhD, and showing that at the exact times in his books that Carlos was claiming to be with his teacher, Don Juan Matuas, in Mexico or Arizona, he was actually taking out library books in California.
This study did a lot to damage Castenada’s reputation and raise questions about the veracity of the accounts of his time with Don Juan. Reading ‘A Separate Reality’, I have to say that I find the accounts completely convincing. If they are indeed made up, it is still a beautiful and astonishing work of fiction.
A couple of months ago, I came across one of Castenada’s later books, ‘The Eagle’s Gift’ (1981). This book begins after the time that his teacher Don Juan has vanished – it is suggested into another dimension – with his group of eight female warriors, three male warriors and four couriers.
Initially, I found the book heavy-going and somewhat incredulous, but then began to suspend judgement and enter into the story. Carlos has been made leader of a group of seven people, all of whom, including himself, are massively disoriented because of the disappearance of Don Juan.
The book turns into a gripping account of his attempt, aided by La Gorda, one of the group, to recover his memory about everything that had happened leading to the disappearance of Don Juan and his group.
About two thirds of the way through ‘The Eagle’s Gift’, I started to look into Carlos Castenada again on the internet and came across this excellent article on Salon.com, written in April 2007, called ‘The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castenada.’
The basic argument of the article, to quote the summary at the beginning, is as follows:
“The godfather of the New Age led a secretive group of devoted followers in the last decade of his life. His closest “witches” remain missing, and former insiders, offering new details, believe the women took their own lives.”
This article is disturbing. It says that Castenada vanished from public view in 1973 and devoted his time to accumulating a cult-like group of women followers. In the 1990s he once again began appearing in public to promote Tensegrity, a group of movements that he claimed had been passed down to him by 25 generations of Toltec shamans.
More disturbing is the fact that when Castenada died in April 1998 of liver cancer, within a few days five women from his inner circle disappeared. In 2006, the remains of one of them, Patricia Partin, found in Death Valley, were identified using DNA analysis. The others vanished without trace.
The article in Salon.com gave me a more troubling perspective on what I was reading in ‘The Eagles Gift’. Carlos’ desire to lead a group of seven other apprentices of Don Juan to enter another dimension – mirroring the path that Don Juan had followed with his group – began to seem like an eerie presentiment of the negative cult-like aspects of Casteneda’s later years and death.
Despite this, however, there are some exceedingly interesting passages in Chapter Eight of the book, called “The Right and the Left Side Awareness”, about the nature of perception.
“Don Juan told us that we are divided in two. The right side, which he called the tonal, encompasses everything the intellect can conceive of. The left side, called the nagual, is a realm of indescribable features: a realm impossible to contain in words. The left side is perhaps comprehended, if comprehension is what takes place, with the total body; thus its resistance to conceptualization.”
The left side is the site of what Don Juan calls “the second attention”. To quote at greater length:
“Another feature of those states of heightened awareness was the incomparable richness of personal interaction, a richness our bodies understood as a sensation of speeding. Our back-and-forth movement between the right and left sides made it much easier for us to realize that on the right side too much energy and time is consumed in the actions and interactions of our daily life.
La Gorda [Castenada’s companion] could not describe what this speed really was, and neither could I. The best I could do would be to say that on the left side I could grasp the meaning of things with precision and directness. Every facet of activity was free of preliminaries or introductions. I acted and rested; I went forth and retreated without any of the thought processes that are usual to me.”
I think those with more than a passing familiarity with La Madre Ayahuasca will recognize the accuracy and subtlety of this description.
“We became cognizant then that in these states of heightened awareness we had perceived everything in one clump, in one bulky mass of inextricable detail. We called this ability to perceive everything at once intensity. For years we had found it impossible to examine the separate constituent parts of those chunks of experience; we had been unable to synthesize those parts into a sequence that would make sense to the intellect. Since we were incapable of those syntheses, we could not remember.”
This paragraph offers a brilliant and remarkable explanation as to why, in some encounters with La Madre, I feel I am having significant experiences but afterwards cannot remember them.
He goes on to say that our incapacity to remember is because we cannot order these experiences in a linear sequence. “The task of remembering“, he writes, “was properly the task of joining our left and right sides, of reconciling those two distinct forms of perception into a unified whole.”
When I read these lines, I felt very excited because they re-connected me to the fascinating and erudite book by Iain McGilchrist called ‘The Master and the Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern Western World’ (2009), which I have raved about before.
McGilchrist’s basic proposition is that the right and left hand brain hemispheres represent two distinct modes of ways of being and perception – what we pay attention to and how we do that. In brief, the right side of the brain (in Don Juan’s terms the nagual) is able to be present to the world as a whole, in its flux and embodied particularity, whilst the left side of the brain (the tonal in Don Juan’s language) represents this experience to us one-step removed so that we can control and manipulate it.
The world of the left side, in McGilchrist’s words, is “explicit, abstracted, compartmentalized, fragmented, static (though its bits can be re-set in motion, like a machine), essentially lifeless. From this world we feel detached, but in relation to it we are powerful.“
McGilchrist adds that the world of the left side of the brain is the world of the ego, of survival. His basic thesis is that contemporary culture has come to be overly-dominated by this side of the brain. Instead of serving the right side of the brain, the left side has usurped control.
Casteneda was writing about this in his own language 28 years before McGilchrist’s book was published. I find it hard to credit that he was able to make all this up. His work may well be a combination of fiction and non-fiction but, 45 years after his first book was published, his work is still an eloquent and creative exploration of non-ordinary states of consciousness, which continues to inspire others and show that another world is possible.
It’s worth remembering too that Castenada was originally Peruvian, from Cajamarca. He was born in 1925 and moved to the USA in the 1950’s so he is writing in his non-native language which makes his writing style all the more remarkable.
One final point about Castenada. The basic quest of Don Juan is for power, not in a narrow egoistic sense, nor power over other people, but still power. But to what end was this power used for? In Casteneda, it seemed to be an end in itself rather than to be used for healing others. Castenada and Don Juan would probably reply that it is in service of the evolution of the universe.
ADDENDUM: for a reasonably good BBC documentary (apart from the amateurish psychedelic graphics) about Castenada which includes interviews with people who studied with him, click here.