The Teachings of Don Juan is one of the craziest things I’ve read, ever! Carlos Castaneda’s account of his time with Yaqui master Don Juan are attention grabbing, hard to put down, enlightening, and somewhat disturbing.
Castaneda first tries to get close to Don Juan by asking him repeatedly about Peyote, which Don Juan insists he call ‘Mescalito’ or ‘him’. Finally, Don Juan is impressed by Castanedaa’s sincerity and decides to introduce Carlos to ‘him’. During his initial experience with Mescalito, Don Juan is intrigued by how Mescalito plays with Castaneda and decides to take him on as a disciple, or to become his benefactor, as he referred to his master.
The author had no idea what he was getting into by setting forth on the path to becoming a ‘man of knowledge’, but Don Juan introduced him to the path, and told him on this path a man needs an ally. Allies are plants/spirits with powers. Don Juan uses one ally, ‘the little smoke’, but also knows another, ‘the devil’s weed’. Don Juan and Carlos Castaneda start their journey through precise ritual and abundant respect for the plants, the nature around them, and the energies that they carry with them.
Don Juan first decides to teach his disciple about ‘the devil’s weed’, although he does not like the devil’s weed himself. The elaborate ritual of harvesting the weed, boiling and crushing, and then planting a new plant is complicated and takes days to perform, and must be repeated. Further into the teachings involving the devil’s weed it is revealed that one of the powers of this ally is that it is used in divination or sorcery. Describing the process is beyond the scope of this blog, but it is very involved and unique, and certainly not the kind of thing I would consider ordinary from my western cultural viewpoint. The other ally, the “little smoke” also involves elaborate ritual, and takes a year to harvest and prepare the ingredients (hallucinogenic mushrooms and different flowers). Not only is the collecting of the ingredients a year long experience, but Don Juan also progressively allows his apprentice to handle the pipe. At first, Castaneda can only place on hand on the pipe while Don Juan holds it with two, gradually increasing the contact until he is ready to smoke. Smoking the hallucinogenic mixture was another experience all unto itself, and Castaneda has many discussions with Don Juan about if his experience was real, or if the experience was watched by someone else, would they witness what happened to him. Don Juan’s perspective is that it doesn’t matter what others saw, just what he experienced.
In the end, the author ends his apprenticeship with Don Juan. I will leave it to the reader to find out why. If you have indeed read the book, let me just state that I probably would have given in the way Castaneda did long before he did.
This book is very valuable in the fact that it opens up a world and perspective that I think is very unique to the modern western reader. Some things that jump out at me are the pace. There is no urgency for anything in Don Juan’s world, everything must be intentional and at the right time. The fact that hallucinogens are utilized in a way that is most certainly with the aim of learning and spirituality and not as a casual party drug is also a difference in perspective. When I was in my adolescence and experimenting with hallucinogens, although the mind expanding qualities of these drugs was on my mind, my motivation was probably more about escapism, partying, and fitting into the counter culture group. This was not the case with Don Juan or the others who were on the path of knowledge. Mescalito was a teacher and protector according to Don Juan. Another amazing fact is that this book doesn’t take place on the other side of the earth, but in Mexico. Don Juan is an indigenous person of Mexico, yet his mores, traditions, and beliefs are nothing like many of the modern Mexicans around him. It is so beautiful that such unique culture can still be alive after forces such as colonialism, evangelization, capitalism, development, and modernization have changed so drastically the world that surrounds Don Juan and the other people who walk that path.
This was a book I could not put down. While reading I was both enticed and unsettled. I very much enjoyed the first half, which documents Castaneda’s time with Don Juan, much more than the second half, which puts Don Juan’s world view through rigorous analysis. Don’t get me wrong, the analysis is important and enlightening, but it’s not quite the page turning material in the beginning of the book. If you’re looking for a different perspective and a window into a life that is completely different than the modern life that most of us lead, this may be a book for you!