In the 1970s I was heavily influenced by the works of Carlos Castaneda based on the teachings of a Yaqui shaman named Don Juan Matus. The first book, whose cover is shown above, hit me between the eyes. And for years afterwards, I was kept in a high state of excitation by the books that followed. Although I was deeply influenced by the teachings described by Castaneda, one thing I was not affected by was the taking of mescaline, which played a major part in the teachings.
At the time, I considered myself lucky to be alive. In 1966 I had major brain surgery (a pituitary tumor, or chromophobe adenoma); and I knew I had to take steroids as long as I lived, as my body no longer produced any. So taking mescaline, LSD, cocaine, psilocybin, opium, and what not were strictly out of the question. (I did, however, take marijuana socially, especially in the form of brownies—smoking always made me go into asthmatic spasms.) But, other than that damnable mescaline, the concepts that Castaneda came up with were so damned brilliant that I was in thrall.
This evening, I had an interesting conversation with my friend Peter about those days. It has been years since I even thought about Castaneda. Now I want to re-read his books, which I still have on my back shelves, just to reacquaint myself with the young man that was me some forty plus years ago.
Carlos was actually born in Cajamarca, Peru, and came to this country in the early 1950s, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1957. As critics started looking at his books as works of fiction, it became evident that he had done some cross-cultural comparisons. In place of the Amazonian tribes that take ayahuasca to produce visions, he set his works among the Yaqui Indians of Northern Mexico. Unfortunately, he used Spanish terms that were not common among the Yaqui, arousing suspicions.
There is an anecdote about a patient describing his life to a psychiatrist, who keeps nodding his head and saying, “That’s very interesting!” Finally, the patient gets angry and says, “Well, that’s all a pack of lies which I just made up. What do you think of that?” The psychiatrist does not miss a beat: “That’s even MORE interesting!” That, in the end, is my reaction to Castaneda. I think there are some fascinating truths to be found in his books, along with some things that were just made up.
I will return to the subject as I re-read his books.