The Problem with Carlos Castaneda

Carlos Castaneda has been called the most controversial figure in the history of anthropology. In some circles, he’s regarded as an academic who stepped over the line and “went native.” (Which is not a bad thing in itself.) Others regard him neutrally. One of Castaneda’s most quoted sayings:

We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.

Castaneda has also been called the Godfather of the New Age. Undoubtedly, his books inspired millions of people to claim the spiritual dimension that had been missing from their lives. Perhaps the most important thing he did was to open people’s minds to the potential for transformation and the idea of seeking out a teacher. His works did shape the culture to a very great extent. What alienated people, in the latter part of his career, was his inner circle of devotees. Much of the evidence for this comes from a memoir written by Amy Wallace, who spent many years as a member of the select group. In Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Wallace says,

Although Carlos had begun as a genuine seeker, a true philosopher, he had ended as a tyrant watching over a cult of terrified followers… I do not believe that Carlos was a con man who callously sought money and women. He made terrible mistakes as the years went by, due to poor judgment, narcissism, and illness; and in his last decade he did create an abusive cult… Carlos was not a shifty huckster but a misguided philosopher whose experience of power was corrupting.

Wallace describes the nerve-wracking techniques by which Castaneda kept a tight rein on his followers. He played them off against each other by creating jealousy; encouraged them to rat on each other for minor behavioral infractions; alternated love-bombs with rejection and banishment to create an atmosphere of psychological and emotional terrorism; and demanded that they cut ties with their families. These alarming machinations were laced with the hypocrisy of pretending in public to adhere to standards that he flouted in private.

The weight of opinion seems to be that he got off to a good start. Even Wallace says that nothing can diminish the beauty of his early works. But something went wrong, and Castaneda jumped the track. It happens.

In Awakening to the Spirit World, Sandra Ingerman, Hank Wesselman, and several others explore various aspects of shamanism. The book is subtitled, “the Shamanic path of direct revelation.” And that’s the crux of the matter. In other words, we need teachers, but then we graduate. There is always more to learn, but a point comes where we rely on our own spiritual resources. The book says,

There is a pervasive tendency for people to give their power away to others. Such seekers often desire to find a teacher who will act as an intermediary between themselves and the helping spirits—

Which is where the trouble starts. Amy Wallace, reflecting on the reasons why she wrote Sorcerer’s Apprentice, said,

If some reader, somewhere, takes a moment’s pause and halts before handing over his or her free will to another, it will all have counted for something.

Strangely, what bothers many people about Castaneda’s books is the very thing he disavowed. People tend to associate his name with hallucinogenics, but during the time when Amy Wallace knew him, she says he “despised” being associated with drug use, and that don Juan had only introduced him to psychedelics because his thought patterns were so rigid they needed to be “blasted with dynamite.”

In his Los Angeles workshops, Castaneda taught a method of energy redistribution he called Tensegrity, a modified version of the magical passes he had been taught as an apprentice. As reported by Castaneda, his teacher don Juan said this practice “starts with an initial act, which by the fact of being sustained breeds unbending intent.” Someone with the pseudonym “el arte de ensonar” has contributed a fascinating piece called “On the relationship between Tensegrity and the Art of Dreaming,” The instructors were a team of three women called the Chacmools, and there are plenty of videos on YouTube where they demonstrate Tensegrity moves. Also worth checking out is a televised interview with the Chacmools in three parts, found on YouTube.

Speaking of online resources, did you know there’s a rock musical about Castaneda? It’s described as “music from the past for the future.” The story behind Diablero and the participation of rock impresario Bill Graham and counterculture figure Ken Kesey, it’s all fascinating. (go to the History page.) And for a really comprehensive video treatment of the saga, see Tales from the Jungle, a BBC production that debuted in 2006.

This quotation isn’t online, it comes from one of Michael Ventura’s books or possibly one of his newspaper columns. After a personal encounter with the sorcerer’s apprentice, Ventura had the prescience to write a line that could have served as Castaneda’s epitaph:

His presence was an admission that every truth is fragile, that every knowledge must be learned over and over again, every night, that we grow not in a straight line but in ascending and descending and tilting circles, and that what gives us power one year robs us of power the next, for nothing is settled, ever, for anyone.

Image courtesy of adKinn via Creative Commons license

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About Pat Hartman

Before publishing the two books "Call Someplace Paradise" and "Ghost Town: A Venice California Life", my main project was "Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics. " I wrote extensively for "Scene," a monthly arts and entertainment magazine with a circulation of 25,000. Also proofread, sold ads, put together the music calendar and, for a couple of years, served as editor. Presided over a couple issues of the local NORML newsletter, as well as being featured speaker at chapter meetings. Wrote a complete screenplay; collaborated on another one; worked on a couple of scripts (additional dialog and general brainstorming) with an indie film producer. Booked the talent for a large music festival. Wrote, designed, illustrated and produced various catalogs and brochures for small businesses. Spoke at a high school as a panelist on Women in the Professions; was a featured speaker at the 1991 Women in Libertarianism Conference; presented public programs on "Success in One Lesson" and "The Bloomsbury Group: What's It To Us?" Created the website VirtualVenice.info and wrote many politically-oriented pieces for Earthblog.net
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4 Responses to The Problem with Carlos Castaneda

  1. Phil Polizatto says:

    I DID NOT KNOW THAT! Like many people, I was swept away by Castaneda’s first book. It seemed to validate everything the “new” culture was embracing. I read the second book and was equally impressed. I never made it through the third or subsequent books. I couldn’t find the soul behind the words. They seemed empty of authenticity. Halfway through the third book I began to think this guy was “milking” the teachings of Don Juan. I even thought (shudder) that perhaps he was a charlatan. Your article showed me why. Now I know there was good reason for my loss of interest. Thank you.

  2. acebackwords says:

    How can you even call Castaneda an “anthropologist”? Novelist would be more fitting. The guy presented zero evidence and zero data — aside from his hand-scribbled “field notes” — to back up any of his claims. The guy is pure charlatan.

  3. Pat Hartman says:

    How? Because Wikipedia says so!
    I don’t have the patience to look up stuff about degrees or whatever. He was an anthropology student and his first book was published by the University.
    Personally, I think Ace Backwords has more of a right to the title of Anthropologist. Castaneda only knew one side of people – how to manipulate them. Whereas Ace, as proven by the extensive body of work known as the Twisted Image comix, knows all sides of people.
    Quod est demonstratum.

  4. Zerrah says:

    He actually wasn’t respected as an anthropologist; this was actually discussed in one of my anthropology classes, one of the big red flags was that he only ever had one informant, impossible with legitimate anthropological fieldwork. There’s evidence that he cobbled together plagiarized material.

    Never search for the truth from a plagiarist and liar. They will only lead you further down that path of illusion.

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