Category Archives: Don Juan
“Maya” is a concept many of us are familiar with. If we are learning and studying spirituality within an Eastern (India-originating) milieu we may get hit with this idea over and over, so much so we might become frustrated with it and it’s obscurity. So here’s another take on it that may help.
“Maya” is the idea that the world that our senses perceive is an illusion. Going beyond “maya” is synonymous with “waking up” or “liberation” in that it means that we are no longer fooled by our senses. But understanding exactly what this all means is no easy task as many who have tried can testify. It really seems that our lives are “real” and if they are not, then what is?
If you have heard of “maya” and have wondered about it then perhaps Don Juan’s take on the idea can help. Don Juan also taught Carlos Castaneda (as he reported in his books) that the world is not real in the sense that we take it to be but his explanation is a little different than others. The crux of Don Juan’s argument about the “reality” of the world hinges on the importance of perception. Don Juan said that perception is everything and if we perceive something in a certain way we are fixing it in that way but it is not that way inherently. Therefore, according to Don Juan, we are a victim of our our way of perceiving if we perceive ourselves to be limited in some way or if we perceive the world to be against us in some way. Neither we are nor is the world necessarily so, but our perception creates that “reality.” So, Don Juan explains that the world is not “real” in the way that we perceive it to be. It is, in fact, much more flexible, inclusive than our perception may define it.
Don Juan attributed the pattern of our perception to a particular attribute that we each carry called the “assemblage point.” For Don Juan, all sensory data goes through this point and how we interpret that data is the determined by the point’s functioning. If that assemblage point is locked into place, the same place for everyone, then life takes on the appearance of a fixed “reality” that everyone can universally verify. This is what “maya” means for Don Juan: the illusion of a fixed set of possibilities for life, shared by everyone and defended by everyone. Don Juan’s actual words were,
“The position of the assemblage point is everything, and that the world it makes us perceive is so real that it does not leave room for anything except realness.” pg. 216
This is a beautiful way of describing “maya.” Because perception has been almost universally fixed to the same methods and parameters, the world has taken on fantastically solid, incredibly “real,” qualities. That “realness” is, however, nothing other than the product of our choices to live within carefully defined limitations. As a species we have chosen to limit ourselves in order to bond together within a common “reality.” We therefore now live within a prison of our own chosen patterns of perception.
Don Juan doesn’t stop there, fortunately, leaving us helplessly depressed by the knowledge that it is our own inherited patterns of perception that doom us to a life tricked by “maya.” He teaches the importance of sadhana, or sustained spiritual practice in order to accomplish a switch in the way that we perceive.
The real obstacle to “switching” in this way, ironically, is another inherited element of our consciousness that does not want to switch. In other words, a very strong part of our mind is addicted to the solidity of the “reality” in which we live and doesn’t want to “realize” its illusive nature. Don Juan says,
“The strangest part of this mystery [of “maya”] is that the change [“waking up”] is so easy to accomplish [at least momentarily]. But what is not so easy, is to convince ourselves that it is possible. There, right there, is our safety catch. We have to be convinced [that life is more than what we have been taught it is]. And none of us wants to be.”
Don Juan identifies our need for “safety” as the main obstacle to switching our perception into a more expanded one. We have agreed not to expand our consciousness in exchange for a sense of “safety.” Possibly, this can be summarized by that age old saying, “The devil that we know is better than the devil that we don’t.” We don’t want an expanded consciousness because the one we have feels difficult enough.
“Warriors prepare themselves to be aware, and full awareness comes to them only when there is no more self-importance left in them. Only when they are nothing do they become everything.”
From The Fire Within by Carlos Castaneda, pg.134
Something similar to this has been said in many different spiritual traditions by many different spiritual masters. I especially love, however, how Don Juan explains the emptying out process that must happen to spiritual seekers as an eradication of “self-importance.” As Don Juan explains, it is our self-importance that makes us heavy and sluggish in life and takes away the possibility for enjoyment in moment after moment. Instead of laughing, we get angry or we pout when we feel we have been insulted, all because we feel that we are so important that everyone SHOULD respect us at all times. How dull! How boring! We must, instead, become empty cups so that we can be filled with a new light, a new love, a Divine Love and to become empty is to become humble, to be able to laugh at ourselves.
“Self-importance is the motivating force for every attack of melancholy. Warriors are entitled to profound states of sadness but that sadness is there only to make them laugh.”
From The Fire Within by Carlos Castaneda, pg.134
For an emptied-out spiritual warrior even sadness is no longer a problem. Sadness, even profound sadness, is taken in stride because without a sense of self-importance even sadness can be an opportunity to laugh. How can sadness be funny? Sadness is funny, Don Juan explains, because the spiritual warrior knows that it is only the residue of the ridiculous sense of self-importance that is sad. Who we truly are, free from self-importance, is never sad because it has become everything after realizing that it is truly nothing.
Don Juan teaches a very interesting way of looking at mental derangement. He teaches that mental derangement has to be considered quite differently when it happens to a spiritual seeker verses an ordinary person. Don Juan teaches that every spiritual seeker will, at some point, bump up against and experience a mental derangement that would be properly be diagnosed as a mental illness or abnormality if it occurred in an ordinary person and was assessed by an ordinary psychologist. But we should know, Don Juan teaches, that mental derangement means something completely different when it happens in a spiritual seeker. He calls this experience of mental derangement a normal process for a spiritual seeker and even a necessary test.
Don Juan explains that spiritual seekers experience mental derangement for many reasons but the principle one is to test their sobriety and detachment. When an abnormal mental experience happens to a spiritual seeker the important point is to remember to remain detached, unemotional and patient. Don Juan explains that the mind of a spiritual seeker will sometimes just go haywire because of the pressure it is under to break out of conventional and limited viewpoints. The process of expansion naturally leads to moments of mental disconnect.
[When the central viewpoint loses its rigidity] if they’re not [spiritual] warriors then they think they’re losing their minds . . .
If they’re warriors, they know they’ve gone crazy but they patiently wait. You see, to be healthy and sane means that [your view] point is immovable. When it shifts, it literally means that one is deranged.
There are two options [open] to warriors whose [view] points have shifted. One is to acknowledge being ill and to behave in deranged ways, reacting emotionally to the strange worlds that their shifts force them to witness; the other is to remain impassive, untouched, knowing that the [view] point always returns to its original position.
From The Fire From Within by Carlos Castaneda, pg. 126.
According to Don Juan, sanity always returns naturally to a spiritual seeker if he or she can remain impassive and patient (sober) even when feeling, perceiving or even seeing strange things. Of course, when sanity does return it is never the same. The new found sanity is from that point forward imbibed with an expanded awareness of what’s possible and what’s real. And the new found sanity does not forget the strange points of view experienced so that such a spiritual seeker will always consider him or herself partially insane even when his or her actions start becoming far more reasonable that the average person. The spiritual seeker becomes a model of correct behavior only after having experienced a period of near insanity, assuming they were able to make it through that experience using their utmost self-control.
“The first truth of awareness is that the world out there is not really as we think it is. We think it is a world of objects and it’s not.”
“It’s not as solid and real as our perception has been led to believe, but it’s not a mirage either. The world is not an illusion as it has been said to be; it’s real on the one hand, and unreal on the other.”
“We perceive. This is a hard fact. But what we perceive is not a fact of the same kind because we learn what to perceive. Something out there is affecting our senses. This is the part that is real. The unreal part is what our sense tell us is there. . . . our senses perceive the way they do because a specific feature of our awareness forces them to do so.”
From The Fire Within by Carlos Castaneda from pg. 49.
As modern humans we know a lot about perception. Science tells us that what we consider to be our environment is not actually there in the way that our senses tell us. Something stimulates our senses and a signal is sent to our brain and that signal is interpreted as feeling water or seeing the moon. But the fact is that the snapshot which our senses take of our environment is always in the past by the time our brains interpret it as some reality or another. What we see may be already gone by the time we “see” it.
Additionally we already know that our senses can be wrong. Our nose may tell us that the food in front of us is edible and wholesome despite the fact that it contains some poison. Our eyes may send our brain signals telling us that a snake is approaching us when actually we are looking at a rolled up newspaper. Our senses can be wrong, sometimes very wrong. When ancient mariners looked out over the ocean their senses told them that there was nothing but ocean there. They didn’t know that the earth curves thereby hiding what is ahead. They didn’t know there was an island straight ahead of them because their senses couldn’t see it.
Modern science has taken this awareness of the limitations of the senses even further. We now know that our eyes see light of a very small range of possible spectrum; therefore there are many, many colors which our eyes cannot see. We call those colors radio waves or X-rays or ultraviolet and we can’t see any of them. The science of neurology today is also telling us that we can’t trust our senses with even the small spectrum of sensations that they claim to be able to see. Neurology has uncovered many types of situations in which the brain doesn’t function normally and interprets things wrongly because of a “bad wiring” so to speak. Some people who had their arm amputated are known to still “feel” and “touch” things with that arm. No, the arm is not there according to our eyes but according to their other senses it is.
Don Juan says that it all boils down to a single fact that we “perceive.” Beyond that, he says, there is a broad range of possibilities. And the most important thing about perception, Don Juan teaches, is that it is limited by our ideas about what is possible to perceive. Something in our minds, our conditioning, controls the scope of our perception in a way that is more important than the limitations of the tools of perception, our sense organs.
So Don Juan maintains that there is a real world to perceive but it is not as limited as we think. He teaches that in order to see more of this world we need to change our minds: to turn around our conditioned beliefs about what is possible, what we, as humans, are capable of. But what do we need in order to be able to do that? Faith, of course.
We must have some faith in order to leave behind the limited but cozy-because-familiar picture of what the world actually is. And where does this faith come from? For Don Juan, faith is the logical conclusion to a careful consideration of the facts of life. He teaches that if you look closely at life you see two main things. First you see that death is the irrevocable end of life and second you see that your life doesn’t seem to be worth very much in the big picture of things. You live and you die, and life goes on, virtually unaffected. The only rational response to this situation is faith, Don Juan teaches, because anything else is in alignment with death. To come into alignment with death makes no sense, Don Juan teaches, because death is already the only thing we know for sure coming, so to hasten it is to bargain away our only asset.
Out of those conclusions Don Juan teaches that we must choose faith, drop our sense of self-importance, become humble, take responsibility for our life and carefully review our conditioning in order to root out its weeds. Don Juan taught that a careful review of our life can see where we have been given ideas that are limiting, dogmatic and arbitrary. Without these ideas and without the heavy ballast of our self-importance, Don Juan teaches, our senses can take a leap into the unknown.
“The trump card of the warrior is that he believes without believing. But obviously a warrior can’t just say he believes and let it go at that. That would be too easy. To just believe without any exertion would exonerate him from examining his situation. A warrior, whenever he has to involve himself with believing, does it as a choice. A warrior doesn’t believe, a warrior has to believe.” -Don Juan
from “The Wheel of Time” pg. 141, by Carlos Castaneda.
I think that Socrates would have liked and got along well with Don Juan. They both believed that an essential task in life was to become paragons of reason. They both held logical thinking to be their religion. And ironically there conclusions about how to live life were remarkably similar. Both of them are only known to us through the reports of their disciples, neither of them having been interested in posterity.
This above quote from Don Juan is central to the teachings he gave Carlos Castaneda over a ten year period. It is a very interesting take on faith, for those of us with some experience studying and examining faith within religious milieus. Don Juan’s faith is logical; that is, he asserts that if one truly is a deep thinker one will come to the conclusion inevitably that to have faith is the only logical choice in life. A human really has no other logical choice than to believe in life, as fully as possible, because the opposite is to believe in death and to believe in death makes no sense because it is definitely coming anyway.
A warrior doesn’t believe, he has to believe, Don Juan teaches. I believe this is another way of describing the perspective of the mahatma. Krishna gives a description of the mahatma within the Bhagavad Gita and I believe it is congruous with Don Juan’s statement about faith. Krishna describes the mahatma to be someone of infinite care, concern and attention but with no preferences. I believe that is the same thing as saying that the mahatma “does not believe, he or she has to believe.” In other words the mahatma doesn’t believe because believe would involve giving the ego an importance that it doesn’t have but a mahatma has to believe because he or she is made up of love.
Faith, if we have it, is somewhat blind for most of us. We believe in something that seems right and good but is really beyond our capacity to understand. The warrior, in Don Juan’s descriptions, doesn’t however make anything out of his or her lack of capacity to understand. He knows that his lack of mental facility is inherent to his condition as a human and so doesn’t think he or she will ever have the capacity to understand so deeply that his belief will ever not be blind. But at the same time the warrior concludes that belief or faith is a fundamental component of true living. There is no way that a warrior can engage life fully without encountering what is beyond his intellectual faculty and so faith must be invoked or else he becomes a convention person, willfully denying the existence of what doesn’t fit his fixed world view. No, a warrior refuses to deny anything because that is death and so a warrior recognizes that he or she must believe. But because he or she will never have sufficient knowledge to truly believe (without a doubt) the warrior chooses to believe knowing that he or she cannot ever fully believe. Thus the warrior admits his or her limitations but pledges him or herself to the side of truth and goodness.
As I describe in detail in my book, THE SCORPIO RING OF FIRE, this type of logic made sense to me when I came to an impasse in my life over 20 years ago. I knew then that I didn’t believe because I didn’t understand. I also saw that my lack of faith translated directly into self-destructive behavior and that self-destructive behavior, even when it was small and minor, was cumulative in life and would lead prematurely to death. Acknowledging, as Don Juan teaches, that death was the only certainty in life, I saw that my lack of belief was the height of foolishness and ignorance. From that point on I didn’t believe but I made the decision to believe because there really isn’t another logical choice in life. I didn’t really think that I could make something positive of my life, something that would make a difference somehow on this planet, but I knew that I had to act as if I did. Giving lip service to a faith is not enough, I realized. In fact, I didn’t actually have to believe but I did actually have to live as if I did. I had to live a life of faith despite my doubt because maybe, just maybe, I was wrong and miracles can happen.
“Death is the indispensable ingredient in having to believe. It is only because death is stalking him that a warrior has to believe that the world is an unfathomable mystery.
Having to believe in such a fashion is the warrior’s expression of his innermost predicament.” -Don Juan
“The Wheel of Time,” pg. 142.
“A warrior thinks of his death when things become unclear.
The idea of death is the only thing that tempers our spirit.”
—Don Juan quoted within
The Wheel of Time by Carlos Castaneda, pg.39.
The Wheel of Time by Carlos Castaneda, pg.39.
“One of the great aids that the shamans of ancient Mexico employed in establishing the concept of the warrior was the idea of taking our death as a companion, a witness to our acts. Don Juan said that once that premise is accepted, in whatever mild form, a bridge is formed which extends across the gap between our world of daily affairs and something that is in front of us, but has no name; something that is lost in a fog, and doesn’t seem to exist; something so terribly unclear that it cannot be used as a point of reference and yet it is there undeniably present.”
Some of you may have already read my book, THE SCORPIO RING OF FIRE, in which I describe how I came to realize the importance of the idea of death to living life and also how I began to develop a personal relationship to that idea. As I outline in that book, I took Don Juan up on his advice to consider my own death when making decisions in life. I also took his advice on different types of exercises designed to help make such a difficult consideration. I can certainly say that Don Juan’s promises were not empty; they did deliver on their promises to me.
The most valuable result of a healthy relationship to my own death has been what Castaneda calls in that above quote, the formation of “a bridge.” If I had to describe that bridge in the simplest terms I would call it a connection, or a junction, created between the practical, subjective reality and the Absolute, objective one. Don Juan was not the first spiritual teacher to impress me with the importance of creating such a bridge. I had imagined that anything that could shift my consciousness out of the “me-first” orientation that was its default would be valuable in providing relief to the heaviness of life. Religions often describe this same bridge in terms of the figure of God. They describe it as a connection to God, developing faith in God, deriving joy in God, etc.
But this “bridge” is not confined to the simply religious. In Plato’s works Socrates continually implored everyone to re-orient their lives in the same way. Socrates asked his fellow citizens to reground their lives in the Absolutes of philosophy and rational thinking. By considering the Absolutes of philosophy we come to identify with them and then we eventually change our ideas about death. Thus, Plato quotes Socrates in his work “Phaedo:” “Is not philosophy the practice of death? . . . . What does [success for the soul] mean other than she [the soul] has been a true disciple of philosophy and has practiced how to die easily?”
Knowing “how to die easily” is valuable for the reasons that Castaneda gives above: it creates that valuable “bridge” between this fixed and limited world and the other, unseen and yet ever-present and completely perfect one. Spiritual practices are thus practices in “dying easily” and have as their first goal, overcoming fear, as their second, overcoming the false ideas about death that created those fears, and then as their third, building the “bridge” to the Absolute, to the Divine, to the Eternal.
Then Jesus goes with them to a place called Gethsemane and he says to the disciples, “Sit down here while I go over there and pray.”
And taking Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to feel dejected and full of anguish. He says to them, “I’m so sad I could die. You stay with me and be alert!”
“Sorcerers believed that there is a sadness in the universe, as a force, a condition, like light, like intent, and that this perennial force acts especially on sorcerers because they no longer have any defensive shields. They cannot hide behind their friends or their studies. They cannot hide behind love, or hatred, or happiness or misery. . . .
Sadness is abstract. It doesn’t come from coveting or lacking something or from self-importance. It doesn’t come from me. It comes from infinity.”
quoting Don Juan from
“Active Side of Infinity” by Carlos Castaneda, pg. 101
Many spiritual seekers have at one time or another been slammed against a wall by a wave of sadness and under that pressure they have let go of their spiritual practices. Sadness is a common experience on the spiritual path and it is difficult to understand or to overcome. Many times we are unable to understand even what we are sad about. When we are able to feel a connection between our sadness and an event or a memory of an event we may notice that the emotion seems out of proportion to the event. Even when we have some clarity about the sadness that we are experiencing we are mostly unable to control it.
Sometimes spiritual seekers experience a strong burst of sadness that knocks them out of a newly created habit of meditation or some other yogic practice. All the enthusiasm for their new habit and for even for life itself suddenly disappear or get sucked up into some void. During these times a spiritual seeker may find him or herself slipping backwards into old habit patterns that were already recognized as unhealthy.
In my life as a spiritual seeker I have experienced this wave of sadness many times. Often it felt like a kick-back given to my spiritual life by my ego. Instead of throwing things around the room, like a two year old might, I was overwhelmed by a deep sadness that threatened to undermine everything I was working so hard to change in my life. Many times I tried to figure out what the sadness was about and where it came from. Sometimes that seemed to work. I remember, about 10 years ago, being suddenly hit by a wave of sadness after a particularly upbeat period. I had been practicing a new type of sadhana or spiritual exercise and I was happy with it and the results. Then suddenly I was weeping almost continually for three days.
That was certainly an extreme example but I remember many other times that I was meditating very strongly and regularly and then suddenly, bamb! I got hit with sadness and it made me stop my new practice. After I while I started to distrust the apparent reasons that I was feeling the sadness. Many times the reasons my emotions gave for the sadness didn’t quite add up or make sense. Often the sadness was overblown and so, it didn’t fit the reasons my mind gave. Other times the sadness was pegged to something someone else experienced. Sometimes it was connected to insults from people I didn’t even know or particularly like. Other times I felt sad because I felt I was losing something but I couldn’t identify what that was.
I had become suspicious of the excuses that my emotions were giving for my feelings of sadness. And that’s when I stumbled across this quote of Don Juan from Carlos Castaneda’s book. The more I read, thought about and analyzed this quote about sadness the more I liked it. It made sense to me. It solved so many questions I had about these experiences of sadness. It helped me to begin to view my emotional episodes from an impersonal standpoint. There is a force called sadness that exists as part of all of life. Most of the normal habits we are given by our conventional (nonspiritual) training help us to shield us from this force of sadness. It isn’t pleasant and so, we block it. But sadness is there, nonetheless, waiting for us to come out from behind our defenses. Don Juan explains that spiritual seekers voluntarily relinquish their defenses against the cosmic forces of the universe and so, we become vulnerable to bouts of intense sadness when we are most strongly engaged in our spiritual practices.
Of course, sadness is not actually harmful. Once I started to see the sadness that I would feel as a type of mud that I had walked through and that had clung to my shoes and my pants then I could experience it without much discomfort. My lack of concern over it unplugged its energy and it would soon dissipate on its own. And then I could laugh about how ridiculous the excuses had been that my mind gave for it.