We have very little information about Castaneda. According to publishing notes, he was born in Cajamarca (Peru’) on Christmas day in 1925; but according to the Spanish Journalist Carmina Fort, who claims to have met and interviewed him, he was actually born in 1935, to a very poor family, in Sao Paulo’s favelas, Brazil. Since early childhood, he got involved in the mysteries of the neo-shamanic currents.
Later he was adopted by a family in Los Angeles, and he probably studied art in Italy (Milan), coming in contact with the bubbling Italian cultural milieu of the sixties and in particular with his friend, Federico Fellini. According to the legend, Fellini went to Mexico years later, to film a documentary on Shamans but he had to give up due to mysterious events that scared his troupe to death.
Back in Los Angeles, Castaneda enrolled at U.C.L.A. and graduated in anthropology. His first book (“The Teachings of Don Juan-A Yaqui Way to Knowledge” 1968) was presented as an ethnologic "in the field” research. In the book, Castaneda described how he went to Arizona to investigate medicinal plants and how he casually met a Yaqui Mexican sorcerer, Don Juan, who opened doors for him to an unknown shamanic tradition.
“The Teachings of Don Juan” became a best seller because of its extraordinary success among the public (it is still printed in dozens of countries around the world), the academic honors, the fame given to it's author, and because of the mass fanaticism especially around young “hippies" pouring into Mexico looking for sorcerers and peyote.
Since then Castaneda's name has been connected, in the collective imaginary, to other sorcerers’ names (some with electric guitars) who became main characters of an instant “worlds alignment” unrepeatable in the history of twentieth century: teens, politics, culture, art, all together announcing the coming of a “free humanity”.
The young author of “Don Juan” was not yet the “politically correct” Castaneda who would blow out the minds of “new agers” in the eighties/nineties. Don Juan of the sixties was an edgy and pitiless character, initiating his disciple to dangerous drugs and sewing lizard mouths, after apologizing for it.
One of the countless critics moved to Castaneda in the following years accused him of creating his shamans according to the cultural trend of the moment. In reality, Castaneda, as a writer, has always been, first of all, very careful of receiving and favoring the interests and opinions of his readers.
But Castaneda was principally a good writer, as was shown in his second book that was honestly introduced as “a fictional story ”. Ten other books followed, all wonderfully written and very successful. Castaneda would describe the vicissitudes of his difficult and splendid twelve year apprenticeship with Don Juan.
In his twelve books, Castaneda gave several versions of his meeting with Don Juan. It is a typical characteristic of his very personal teaching technique, to give different versions of the same episode, all different but without contradicting one another, each moving to a deeper level of narration.
After having casually met Don Juan at a Nogales bus station, Castaneda tells how he couldn’t find peace until the moment he found him, five months later. He was welcomed by Don Juan and he sat on a wooden box under the pergola in front of his house.
“I am Juan Matus, he started, sitting on a wooden box just in front of me.” This is my name, and I say it out loud because thanks to this name, I am creating a bridge which you can cross in order to reach me.”
After having scanned me in silence for a while, he started talking again.
“I am a shaman. I belong to a dynasty of shamans lasting twenty-seven generations. And I am the “nagual ”of my generation.”
He explained to me that the predominant person inside the shaman group is called “nagual”, a generic term that around a single generation was given to somebody having a particular energetic configuration, distinguishing him from all the others.
“Being a shaman doesn’t mean to be a skillful sorcerer and not even working to enchant people or be possessed by demons; instead it means reaching a consciousness level which makes things before considered incomprehensible, easy to be achieved. The term “sorcery” isn’t enough to explain what shamans do, as the word “shamanism“ means very little. Shamans’ action happens only in the realm of abstract, of the impersonal; they fight for a target which is totally different than the vicissitudes of ordinary people. The aim is reaching the infinite and to being aware ”Don Juan said.
He explained that shamans' duty was to face the infinite, in which they daily venture, as fisherman in the sea. It was such an overwhelming and difficult task that shamans had to declare their names before facing it. He reminded me that in Nogales, he declared his name before we would even exchange any words; in this way he had manifested his individuality in front of the infinite.
Don Juan then started explaining to Castaneda the fundamental point of distinguishing shamans from ordinary people: The capacity to perceive energy in the way it directly flows in the Universe; and when a shaman perceives a human being in this way, he sees a luminous ball or an egg shaped figure(...).This sphere of luminous energy is considered as the real self, whose truthfulness is due to the fact to be energetically irreducible: the whole human resources are busy perceiving it directly as an energy.(...)
These shamans discovered than on the back side of the luminous ball there is a point shining brighter: by directly observing the energy, they came to the conclusion that this point is fundamental for transforming the energy in sensorial data and for their further interpretation. This is the reason why they called it “the joining point," and they thought the perception was exactly elaborated there, behind the shoulder-blades, at around one arm distance from them. They also discovered that in the human race the joining point has the same location and gives everybody a similar vision of the world.
For them and the shamans of the next generations, it has been very important to discover that the position of the joining point comes from habits and socialization. This is why they considered it an arbitrary position, giving illusion to be final and definitive. The apparently firm human belief, showing daily world as the only one existing and definitive, comes from this very illusion.
The fundamental human problem is to direct his own energy so as to recover joining point mobility; and perhaps Castaneda’s greatest merit was being able to synthesize the whole transmutatory process by just a few simple and essential words.
According to his shamanic language tradition, Don Juan Matus taught his four disciples (...)a few body movements he called “magic steps”. He showed them to us in the same spirit as the tradition has passed them generation after generation, with only one remarkable difference; he eliminated the excessive ritual which has always been around the teaching and performing of magic steps.(...)
The sorcerers of Don Juan’s language believed each of us has an energy. Its quantity doesn’t increase or decrease because of the presence of external forces. According to them this amount of energy was enough to achieve something which was thought to be man’s obsession on earth, which is the capacity of breaking parameters of normal perception. Don Juan Matus believed our incapacity of achieving such a result was caused by our society and environment. They give out our inner energy completely by imposing already fixed behavioral patters which don’t allow us to interrupt parameters of normal perception.
According to Don Juan, these shamans wearily started to assemble a few movements they remembered and their efforts brought the expected results: they were able to re-create those movements indicating spontaneous body reactions in a state of “intense awareness”. Encouraged by their success, they succeeded in recreating hundreds of fixed movements and they would perform them without trying to classify them under an intelligible scheme.
The titanic task faced by Castaneda and his collaborators was to classify them in various schemes. The most modern among operative transmutatory systems was born. Castaneda called this “tensegrity”, a world belonging to architecture, which means the property of the building system combining components of continuous tension together with components of discontinuous compression, so that each of them functions in the most effective and economical way”.
Tensegrity is taught as a set of movements since it’s the only possible way to deal with the vast and mysterious topic of magic steps in a modern perspective. People practicing magic steps today are not practitioners looking for shamanic alternatives, involving a rigorous discipline, effort and diligence. Therefore the importance of magic steps has to be emphasized on their value as movements and the consequences such movements might involve. Magic steps are divided into six series, or “long groups”:
-First series: in order to prepare the ”aim”(concept which in Castaneda’s terminology means something more than the simple ”will”).
It is divided in four groups: crashing energy for the aim, shaking energy for the aim, gathering energy for the aim, inspiring energy for the aim.
-Second series: the uterus series (dedicated to women only), divided into four groups. Three of those are named after three of Castaneda’s lady shaman collaborators: Taisha Abelar, Florinda Donner-Grau and Carol Tiggs, each one ideally corresponding to three different types of women; the fourth one is named ”Blue Explorer”, a little girl Castaneda met in a “world dream”.
-Third series, or “Westwood series”: is divided into four groups, each one with the purpose of favoring a different aspect of the transmutatory process as Don Juan described it; the center for decisions, summing-up, dreaming and inner silence.
-Fourth series: the separation of the left body from the right one, or “heat series”. This corresponds to an advanced phase of the transmutatory process, when the transmutant performs differently in the real world (in the “right body” which is controlled by the left/rational hemisphere of brain) or in the “dream world”(in the “left body”).
This is divided into four groups as well: stimulating energy on the left and right bodies; mixing the left and right body energies; moving by breathing the left and right body energies ;the predilection of the left and right bodies.
-Fifth series(or “male series”): Divided in three groups: the first one ”magic steps where hands move in perfect unison but are kept separated", the second one, “magic steps to focus the tendon energy”, the third one, “magic steps to create endurance”.
-Sixth series: ”Devices used together with specific magic steps”, gather all the magic steps which are performed with tools.
It is advisable to repeat the sequence of magic steps belonging to each group, but it is not compulsory (perhaps to underline this concept, on the ”tensegrity” video tapes, commercialized for didactic purpose, the ” series” are different.)
“The worries of the disciples dedicating to tensegrity nowadays”, Castaneda wrote, ” exactly reflect what me and other disciples have experienced when we started performing magic steps. They are overwhelmed by the large number of movements, and I convey to them what Don Juan has taught me several times: it is absolutely important to perform any kind of tensegrity sequence one remembers. At the end, the obtained saturation will give the results which have been searched by the shamans of ancient Mexico, which is the re-distribution of energy and its three concomitance: the exclusion of inner dialogue, the possibility of inner silence and the fluidity of joining point”.
After Castaneda’s presence (he passed away in 1998), the world of inner transmutation will be different. Nobody has talked as much or more than he did on the universe of the “dream world” and how to access to it.
Nobody has ever offered the chance to perform a transmutatory work available to everybody as he did, using the most advanced technological aid. Nobody has ever expressed the theory of inner transmutation in such simple and available terms. Nobody has ever dared to get rid of the heavy theoretical apparatus inherited by traditional schools: even Crowley, the great “enfant terrible” of inner transmutation, had to start from Hermetism in order to elaborate his revolutionary system. As far as Gurdjieff is concerned, he was able to do without the Sufi mystical ballast but he could not avoid his pessimism and exasperated selectivity.
Castaneda gets rid of it all at once and goes beyond, he goes to the roots, comes back to a primreview world, he moves from the last glaciating era -and gives us back what it could be the transmutation of that time. Not in terms of glimpses or isolated intuitions but as a very elaborated system with unequalled depth and elegance.
Have Don Juan and the “Toltec” shamans really existed?
As it is now, it won’t make any difference.