Interview 1996 Castaneda, Nina Wise

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The Sun Magazine - Feb 1996

Luck Disguised as Ordinary Life

By Nina Wise

My fortieth birthday was approaching like a tidal wave. I was single, childless, and questioning my life as a performance artist with a cult following but no steady income. I lacked the requisite evidence of adulthood: a couch, a dining-room table, a matched set of dishes, a color television. Although I tried to convince myself that this was because I had recently separated from a lover who owned nearly all of the furniture and electronic devices I had used for seven years, I knew the real problem was that I'd dedicated my life to my work and I wasn't getting famous fast enough. There were no book contracts, no movie deals, no television appearances coming my way. I needed help, a map to guide me through the midlife moonscape of defeat.

One of the great benefits of disappointment is that it drives you to religion- usually not the one you were raised with; if that had worked, you wouldn't be in this condition. It would take an exorcism to stave off the demons who had caught wind of my approaching birthday and were flicking their icy tongues in my ear, chanting a liturgy of symphonic discontent. I decided to learn to meditate, discovered a Vipassana Buddhist teacher in my neighborhood, and began to sit every morning on my purple zafu.

One afternoon, my friend Martina called to tell me the Dalai Lama was coming to Santa Monica to give the Kalachakra Initiation. I'd met Martina when she came backstage after one of my performances. "That sex fantasy with the refrigerator was divine," she'd told me later at one of her Pacific Heights dinner parties, while butlers carrying silver trays of smoked salmon and caviar toasties waded through an effervescent crowd of environmentalists, publishers, writers, and philanthropists. Martina had grown up in Argentina, where it was traditional for the wealthy to create around themselves an international milieu of royalty, intellectuals, and artists. Her warm brown eyes exuded confidence, her cheeks were aphrodisiac, and she wore a silver streak in her brown hair to show that, even though she was holding forth on a white rug arrayed with priceless antiques, she was really a rebel. Over champagne, Martina and I discovered that we were both seekers. We began going to retreats, dharma talks, satsangs, and darshans together.

"Do you want to go to Santa Monica with me and be my roommate?" Martina now asked over the phone.

The Kalachakra Initiation is one of the most esoteric and advanced practices in Tibetan Buddhism. During the ceremony, participants vow to devote their lives to altruism and to become bodhisattvas, enlightened people who, instead of stepping off the wheel of incarnation upon their death, return to earth to serve all living beings. Normally, the initiation is given only to students with years of preliminary practice under their belts, but, because the world was in such an escalated state of environmental devastation, the Dalai Lama had decided to offer the transmission to Anyone who felt moved to participate. Many of my friends were heading to southern California for this event. I accepted Martina's invitation without pause.

When I arrived at the Shangri La, an upscale, art deco hotel on Ocean Boulevard, Martina was spread out on the king-sized bed balancing Mothering magazine on her stomach, which rose like a whale from a calm ocean. She was expecting her fifth child after a twelve-year hiatus, and she needed to get current on parenting. I lay down next to her and pulled out the forty-page text we'd been given for the five-day initiation process:

From this time until enlightenment, I will generate the altruistic intention to become enlightened, Generate the very pure thought, And abandon the conception of I and mine.

I wasn't sure I was following this. "Martina, what's 'the very pure thought'?" I asked, hoping for an in-depth dharma discussion.

"It doesn't matter. We'll get it by osmosis. Do you think I should get a diaper service!"

"Definitely", I said, turning back to the incomprehensible text.

In the morning, we waited in a line that stretched around the block until it was our turn to take three mouthfuls of saffron-blessed water and spit out our mental and emotional toxins into an enormous white plastic bucket.

"I'm going to throw up," Martina groaned, covering her eyes so she didn't have to look at the frothy, urine-colored spittle.

We did three prostrations as we entered the hall-- one for the Buddha, one for the teaching, and one for the community of seekers. As we searched for our places in the crowded auditorium, I tried not to stare at the celebrities.

We settled into velvet seats, pulled out our books, and studied the stage, where monks in one-armed wine-colored robes and buttercup yellow chicken-comb headpieces chanted a multi-octave, deep-throated drone, and the Dalai Lama recited detailed instructions in Tibetan.

"What page are we on?" I asked Martina.

"It doesn't matter," she said, waking from a nap. "Just breathe. Meditate."

"But we're supposed to be visualizing some deity with green arms and a flower on his forehead."

"Relax," she said as she closed her eyes again, stretched out her legs, and leaned her head back against the seat.

But I couldn't relax. This was my opportunity to receive an important transmission. I struggled to follow the text:

Within the great seal of clear light devoid of the elaborations of inherent existence, in the center of an ocean of offering clouds of of Samantabhadra, like five-colored rainbows thoroughly bedecked...

At the break, people dashed to the lobby, where sinuous lines radiated like Medusa's hair from the pay phones. Men in denim jeans and Izod shirts paced outside in the Santa Monica sunshine, portable phones pressed against their ears:

"Did you get directions to Richard Gere's party for the Dalai Lama?"

"Has my agent called?"

"Cancel my 2:30. This is tedious, but I think I'll stick it out. Say I had an emergency or something."

"He said he would sign? Fantastic. Maybe this stuff works."

"I hear there are three parties tonight, and a tea somewhere. Isn't Barbra Streisand involved? Find out."

At the sound of the gong, people rushed back into the auditorium. Steeped in the summer heat, we planted ourselves in the plush seats and prayed to be truthful, kind, compassionate. Two thousand of us vowed together to dedicate our lives to the well-being of others.

On the way back to the hotel, Martina whispered in a conspiratorial tone that her friend Carlos Castaneda was coming to join us for tea. "Don't tell anyone. It's just for us. He's a bit finicky about who he hangs out with."

We had only half an hour to prepare. Like college roommates getting ready for a double date, we took turns in the shower, hovered shoulder to shoulder in front of the bathroom mirror with our blow-dryers and lipstick, and finessed each other's outfits. Our wrists were still moist with Martina's French perfume when we heard a knock. Martina glided across the room with cultivated poise and opened the door. A short, gray-haired man in a wrinkled polyester suit and dusty cowboy boots embraced her in the hallway.

That can't possibly be him, I thought. I had imagined someone tall, with broad shoulders and a swatch of thick dark hair-- an air of Mexican aristocracy steeped in shamanism and desert ravines. In college, I had read all of Castaneda's books, and they had affected me more than anything I'd studied.

Castaneda's accounts of his encounters in Mexico with the Yaqui Indian sorcerer don Juan Matus had informed my entire generation. My friends and I would quote don Juan to each other. "Follow a path with heart," we would say. "Keep death over your left shoulder." We were taking psychedelics and trying to change the world into a place that valued love over materialism and magic over science. Castaneda and don Juan were our guides through a terrain outside the law-- one that our parents were too conservative and too terrified to explore.

Castaneda was our surrogate father, don Juan our spiritual teacher, our prophet.

"Carlos, this is Nina," Martina said, smiling with seamless grace. "Nina, Carlos Castaneda."

Like earth opened by a plow, Carlos's face fell into a wide grin as he shook my hand. His hand was as warm as a chicken's nest. He sat down in a floral-print easy chair and asked for a glass of water. I could hardly believe I was in the same room with this man.

Martina dove right in. "I've been waiting to ask you for ages: what really happened to don Juan? Did he die?"

"No, no," Carlos said with a chuckle, "he didn't die. He disappeared. He went to the other place. I am learning this, too: to become immortal. This is my work now. Most people think that their work is what they do during the day, but the real work happens after dark. Most people waste their lives because they forget they are going to die. It is at night, in dreams, that I practice. When you learn how to die, you learn to live forever.

"After don Juan crossed over, La Gorda became my benefactor," he went on, leaning forward and looking us both directly in the eye. "She was fat and ugly, with coal black hair and dark eyes. I was completely under her spell."

I was completely under his spell by now. His voice, the lilt of his Spanish accent cradling impeccable English, hypnotized me. His eyes glowed with the satisfaction of our capture.

"And anything La Gorda wanted me to do, I had to do it. One day, when I was preparing to leave Mexico and go back to Los Angeles, she told me to go to Tucson instead. She said I should work as a cook in a cafe.

"No," I said to her, "I like my life in Los Angeles. I like my friends. I'm not going to Tucson. I don't know how to cook."

"I got into my truck, and I drove off. Six hours outside of Nayarit, I was thinking, 'My life in Los Angeles isn't that great.' Twelve hours outside of Nayarit, I was thinking, 'My life in Los Angeles has its ups and downs.' Eighteen hours outside of Nayarit, on the border of Arizona, I found myself thinking, 'My life in Los Angeles is completely miserable.' I drove to Tucson, pulled up to the first greasy spoon I laid eyes on, walked in and asked for a job."

At this point in the story, Carlos crossed his arms, puffed up his chest, and deepened his voice.

"Do you know eggs?" the boss said. "You see, hamburgers and fries are easy, but we serve breakfast all day, and you've got to know eggs."

"I didn't know eggs, so I found a studio apartment, and I practiced cooking eggs for two weeks - scrambled, over easy, over hard, soft-boiled, hard-boiled, omelets, poached. Then I went back to the cafe. " 'Do you know eggs?' the boss asked me again.

"Yeah, I know eggs," I said.

"So I got the job. After a month, they promoted me, put me in charge of hiring and firing. One day, this young girl named Linda came in and wanted a job as a waitress. She seemed bright, so I hired her. We got to be friends, and she told me she was a fan of Carlos Castaneda. She gave me a couple of his books to read. I didn't know what to say. I took the books, and a couple of days later I gave them back. I told her I didn't really understand them."

Carlos chuckled, enjoying the story. I sat with my legs pulled up on the pastel hotel couch and studied his face. Critics in the press had recently tried to discredit his claims to have apprenticed with a witch doctor in Mexico.

Sympathetic critics suggested it was poetic license. Harsher ones accused him of fraud. I listened to Carlos's story like a detective, seeking factual flaws. I examined his brown and wrinkled face, his eyes, for evidence of deception. But I was seduced by his enthusiasm, his sunny chuckle, his intelligence, and I fell into the story as if carried away by rushing water.

"One morning," he continued, "Linda came into the cafe and was very jumpy."

"What's going on?" I asked. "Que pasa?"

Carlos sat up straight in his chair, crossed his legs tightly together, and spoke in a high-pitched voice.

"'He's here,' she said. 'Carlos Castaneda. In the alley. There's a tall, dark Mexican man sitting in a white limousine with the windows rolled up, and he's scribbling notes on a yellow pad. I'm sure it's him-- there are rumors that Castaneda is in Tucson. What should I do?'

"I didn't know what to say. I told her to just go out there and introduce herself. She thought she was too fat, and that Castaneda would never fall for a waitress at a greasy spoon. I looked at her standing there in her cap and apron. She looked beautiful to me, radiant. She was young and lively and had a quick mind. 'You're perfect just the way you are,' I told her.

"So she put on lipstick and fixed up her hair and went out to the alley. Two minutes later, she came back with tears streaming down her face.

"'What happened?' I asked. She could hardly talk.

"'I knocked on his window... and he rolled it down... and I said "Hi," and told him my name was Linda... but he just rolled the window up... and wouldn't even talk to me.'

"I felt real bad," said Carlos, sadness darkening his eyes. "Of course I knew it wasn't Castaneda, but I'd thought maybe she'd meet some guy who'd take her out to dinner. I didn't know what to do. I took her in my arms, and I held her." He paused, looking out the window at the silhouettes of palm trees lining the street.

"And I started to cry, too. You see, I'd come to really love this girl. We'd been best friends for nearly a year. I wanted to tell her who I was, but I knew she'd never believe me. She'd think I was making it up to make her feel better. You see, for all this time, she'd known me as Joe Gomez.

"Carlos Castaneda, the man she dreamed of meeting, was holding her in his arms, crying with love for her. But she didn't recognize him. Love slips by with an alias. I'm like Linda, I realized, thinking that what I long for is something other than this life unfolding moment to moment in ways I could never plan or even imagine."

Carlos paused and looked at me. Outside, seagulls cried, and the sun went down, marbling the sky. We sat in the dim pink of sunset. No one moved.

"When I got back to my studio apartment, La Gorda was sitting there, waiting for me. I don't know how she got in, but she always did, always found me. I told her what had happened and asked what I should do."

"'Vamanos,' she said.

"'But I can't just leave,' I told her. 'I have to give two weeks' notice, train a replacement, say goodbye to my friends.'

"'What's the matter?' she said. 'You're afraid no one can cook eggs as good as Carlos Castaneda? Vamanos.' And we got into my truck and drove off."

Carlos got up to go, shook out his suit, and extended his arms. I walked right into his strong hug, and a happiness moved through me like moonlight sweeping the horizon.

Several days later, as the Kalachakra Initiation was drawing to a close, Martina and I sat in our velvet seats in the dark, sweltering Santa Monica auditorium. We tied red blindfolds over our eyes. We cast toothpicks into the air seven times. We visualized ourselves as the four-faced Kalachakra deity with twenty-four arms embracing his four-faced, eight-armed, saffron yellow consort. We licked sweet yogurt out of our right palms. We imagined red dots moving up our spines and mingling with white dots moving down our spines.

The Tibetan monks chanted their polytonal drone, pounded drums, banged gongs, crashed cymbals, and blew seven-foot horns in a symphony that vibrated out bones. We vowed to tell the truth, to be kind, to be generous, to cultivate love, and to dedicate ourselves to the enlightenment of all beings.

On the way back to the hotel, Martina, a mischievous grin on her full lips, told me that Carlos was going to pay us another visit tonight. We put out a plate of crackers and cheese, a bowl of fruit, and bottles of mineral water. As the sun hovered on the horizon, we heard his knock.

Carlos was wearing the same wrinkled suit I'd seen him in several days earlier. He placed his hands on Martina's bulging belly and leaned over. "Hola, chica. Que tal?" he purred to her unborn child. "Tienes una madre muy bonita, muy sympatica, y muy especial." He closed his eyes and stood there silently for a moment, then turned to me and gave me a rugged hug.

Martina propped herself against a mound of pillows on the bed, I sat on the couch, and Carlos took his seat in the easy chair. He asked Martina about her husband, her children, their mutual friends. We talked about the weather; he was theatrical even when discussing smog, switching from precise, lucid language to a stream of amused profanity in an instant. His liveliness warmed the room like an open fire.

"Tell me more about La Gorda," Martina finally ventured, leaning back against the pillows like a child wanting a favorite bedtime story.

Carlos paused for a moment, his gaze lingering on each of ours a second too long, the way you look into the eyes of a potential lover.

"Another time, I was getting ready to leave Nayarit," he said, "and La Gorda gave me these instructions."

Carlos leaned back in his chair, spread his knees apart, pushed his belly out, and spoke in a high voice. I could see La Gorda, fat and dark.

"'Carlos, go to Escondido. Check into a motel room, the kind with olive green carpets stained with coffee and cigarette burns, and cigarette smoke smelling up the furniture.'

"'How long do I have to stay there?' I asked.

"'Until you die,' she said with a smile that made my bones shiver.

"'I'm not doing it,' I told her. 'I like my life in Los Angeles. I like my friends. I like my apartment.'

"I got in my old truck, and I drove off. After a few hours on the Mexican highway, I started thinking my life in Los Angeles wasn't that great. After a few more hours, I started thinking my life in Los Angeles had its unpleasant aspects. As I approached the border at Tijuana, my life in Los Angeles seemed completely miserable. I drove to Escondido, pulled into the first motel I could find, and checked into a room. It had an olive green carpet with coffee stains and cigarette bums, and reeked of stale smoke. I stayed alone in that room for weeks. Maybe months." Carlos sighed.

I had recently completed a performance work about solitude. To develop the piece, I had studied my private gestures: the way I ate meals in front of the television; the way I stood in the light of the open refrigerator, staring at a carton of milk, a bottle of orange juice, tofu floating in a bowl of water; the intonations and language used when I talked to myself, the way my body curled up in bed; the melody of my tears. I was trying to unravel loneliness so I could examine its core. I thought then the pain might disappear, the way particles of matter transform into waves of light upon examination under electron microscopes. The work had received rave reviews, but loneliness still assaulted me. I needed advice.

"What did you do?" I asked Carlos, hardly able to contain my curiosity. "Did you watch television, listen to the radio, read books, talk on the telephone?"

"Nothing," Carlos said quietly, catching my eye for a moment and then letting his gaze fall onto his folded hands. "I did... nothing." He spoke slowly. "I studied the patterns of cigarette burns on the carpet. I stared at the ceiling. I watched motes of dust dance in the light that came through the sliding glass doors. I drank coffee. I ate. Fear would come, and I'd huddle under the bedcovers-- Sometimes the heat of anxiety made me sweat so much I threw the blankets on the floor. At times, the terror was so strong I curled over the edge of the bed and pressed the corner of the mattress against my belly, my solar plexus, just trying to stay alive. I felt for sure I would die. Then one day, finally... I let go."

He paused and looked at me, and I looked back at him, the way you lock eyes with a deer until one of you moves.

"Suddenly, something shifted," he continued. "The fear lifted. And everything I'd ever cared about-- the pain of childhood, the struggles of my career, fame, money, romance, the women who had left me, the ones I still wanted, the past, the future, the 'Do you like me?, Does he like me!, Does she like me?': how we waste our lives... it all fell away. In an instant, I was completely free. And I had never felt so happy in my entire life."

Carlos took a sip of water and gazed out the window. The sky was dark, and the night sounds of traffic invaded the room.

"I called my friends in Los Angeles," he said, smiling.

"'Divide my things,' I told them. 'I'm not coming back.' They thought I was drunk.

"'I'm not drunk,' I assured them. 'I'm perfectly sober. If you don't take my things, the landlady will.'

"The next morning, I checked out of the motel, got in my truck, and drove off. I didn't know where I was going, and I didn't care. I'd never been happier in my entire life.

"You see," Carlos said, settling back again in his chair, "the difference between me and most people is that most people look at their lives as if they're on a train and they're sitting in the caboose. They watch the tracks sweep out behind them and see that this has happened and that has happened, and they're disappointed. But they adjust. And they know exactly what will happen next because of what's happened before. They believe their future will be just like their past-- the same box of disappointments, the same box of pleasures."

"But me, I look at my life as though I'm sitting in the locomotive. Ahead of me, the landscape disappears into the distance. I don't know where I'm going, and I have no idea what's going to happen next. No matter what went on yesterday, I know that today anything can happen. That's what keeps me happy. That's what keeps me alive."

Carlos sparkled with energy and ease. His well-being was contagious. "You have to listen to the quiet callings of the heart", he said, his voice calm and private. "Ambition: it's the enemy of intuition. You have to be silent. You have to listen to the quiet callings of the heart and know that anything can happen."

I sat quietly, listening. It was as if Carlos's words had devoured the demons of despondency who had made their home on the walls of my chest like mollusks. I have to remember this story, I thought to myself.

"Es muy tarde," Carlos said, standing up and stretching his legs. "Martina, you have to get some sleep. And me, I work at night, so I have to move along."

"Right, immortality practice. Look, do me a favor and don't disappear from this plane before you visit me in San Francisco," Martina said, grinning.

"Don't worry," Carlos reassured her, placing his hand again on her belly. We accompanied Carlos to the door, and he gave me a final hug. He whistled as he walked down the hall. I longed to run after him, to fall to my knees and beg him to take me along. I wanted to enter the dream world and wend my way through the postdeath realms with Carlos as my guide. I wanted to learn how to die without dying.

"Martina' can't we go with him?" I pleaded.

"Are you kidding? I'm exhausted," she groaned, collapsing onto the bed and grabbing the phone. "Let's order hot-fudge sundaes, crawl under the covers, and watch David Letterman."

That did sound like a good idea.

A wave of ordinary-world glee took hold of me. As Martina dialed room service, I walked to the window and sighted Carlos walking at a brisk pace under the arcade of palm trees. No one stopped to stare, or took his picture, or asked him for his autograph. He was completely anonymous. I followed his progress down the sidewalk until he climbed into his old truck and drove off.

Copyright February 1996 Sun Magazine