Interview 1997 Carlos Castaneda, Thomas Ropp

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Part 1

Arizona Republic (1) - Aug 1997

Thirty years later, author's ideas still not easy to label.

Catching up with Castaneda

By Thomas Ropp

The Arizona Republic

August 1, 1997

Sidebar: Castaneda's books

Carlos Castaneda has published nine best-selling books about his apprenticeship to the Yaqui shaman Don Juan Matus. They have been translated into more than 17 languages.

My suggestion is to read them in order because concepts are built upon from one book to the next. Published by Washington Square Press (Simon & Schuster), all nine books are still available at local bookstores:

"The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge" (1968) "A Separate Reality: Further Conversations With Don Juan" (1971) "Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan" (1972) "Tales of Power" (1974) "The Second Ring of Power" (1977) "The Eagle's Gift" (1981) "The Fire From Within" (1985) "The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of Don Juan" (1987) "The Art of Dreaming" (1993) "Magical Passes: The Practical Wisdom of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico" (to be published by HarperCollins in 1998) "The Active Side of Infinity" (no publisher or publishing date as of yet)

-Thomas Ropp

In 1960, Carlos Castaneda met an elderly Yaqui Indian, Juan Matus, in Nogales, Ariz. Castaneda was an anthropology student at the University of California- Los Angeles, collecting information for his Ph.D. on the use of hallucinogenic peyote cactus by indigenous peoples. He was told by a mutual friend that Matus was an expert on peyote.

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of Castaneda's first book, "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of knowledge."

Unbeknownst to Castaneda, don Juan Matus was also a sorcerer- a descendant of a long line of Mexican seers.

Don Juan is said to have recognized a "peculiar energy alignment" in Castaneda and slowly reeled him into an apprenticeship. In 1961, Castaneda the anthropologist became Castaneda the sorcerer's apprentice. The relationship continued off and on until 1973, when don Juan and his group are said to have completed their destiny by evanescing-- disappearing like mist-- from this world to become navigators into infinity.

Before that, don Juan encouraged Castaneda to write about his world of Mexican shamanism. And for three decades the debate has raged: Are his nine bestsellers fiction or non-fiction?

The books are often found in the New Age section of bookstores, that quasi-reality genre that may or may not be real depending on your current state of perception. The Los Angeles Times once referred to Castaneda as one of the godfathers of tile New Age movement.

But that's not a description Castaneda is fond of. He puts it this way: "For 30 years people have accused Carlos Castaneda of creating a literary character simply because what I report to them does not concur with the anthropological a priori, the ideas established in the lecture halls or in the anthropological fieldwork," Castaneda said.

"The cognitive system of the Western man forces us to rely on preconceived ideas. What is orthodox anthropology? What is a shaman's behavior? To wear feathers on one's head and dance to the spirits?"

It's unfortunate that most people familiar with Castaneda's books are familiar with only the first two: "A Yaqui Way of Knowledge" and "A Separate Reality." Both focus heavily on the use of hallucinogenic plants, which the Yaqui shaman don Juan called upon to help "unstick" Castaneda's rather narrow social scientist's perceptions.

The drugs were only an initial tool of Don Juan. Castaneda's next seven books focused on Don Juan's world of shamanic energy, intent, dreaming and impeccability-- not drug experiences. Nevertheless, Castaneda's writings became synonymous to some with drugs and psychotropic plants like peyote and magic mushrooms.

But readers who have gone beyond the first two books-- particularly those who are interested in Southwestern culture, shamanism and Native American spirituality-- have been rewarded with an enthralling, if romanticized, anthropological adventure.

Understanding Castaneda's world of the old Mexican shamans is a lot like the classic perceptual test of seeing a face in a drawing. At first it's not there, but if you stick with it, concentrating all your attention on a focal point, the face eventually emerges and, from that moment on, every time you look at the picture you see the face within.

As for being instigated by money, as some of his critics contend, Castaneda could have done a lot better in this area if he'd desired.

He smiles big and tells the tale of one venture in particular he rejected. "American Express and my literary agent, wanted in me to do a commercial for them," Castaneda said. "That one where they go, 'Do you know me?' A million dollars for 10 seconds. Only after I declined did my agent begin thinking I really was nuts."

Copyright August 1997 The Arizona Republic

Part 2

Arizona Republic (2) - Aug 1997

Luminous Encounter: Elusive Castaneda remains complex man.

Ordinary 'egg' catches up with literary sorcerer Carlos Castaneda

By Thomas Ropp

The Arizona Republic

August 3, 1997

Los Angeles

I could have asked him anything.

"I am your prisoner," Carlos Castaneda said.

We talked about ravens. I specifically wanted to know how one could tell when a raven wasn't really a raven.

"You look at its energy," Castaneda said. "A raven that's a sorcerer glows amber."

He didn't tell me what color a regular raven glowed. But then, it wouldn't have mattered anyway since I don't see pure energy. Castaneda does-- says he has for many years. He began seeing humans as energy forms, or "luminous eggs," in the cafeteria of UCLA when he was working on his doctorate in anthropology some 30 years ago.

That's how my lunch with Carlos Castaneda began. It was a Thursday, 2 p.m. We met at a Cuban restaurant near West Hollywood. I didn't know till the last moment where I'd be meeting Castaneda. His staff said that's how Castaneda does it. He reads energy to determine meeting locations and most other matters.

"Everything that we know is an interpretation of energy," Castaneda said. For the longest time I feared I'd have to find Castaneda in L.A. without directions as a test of my unbending intent and worthiness to speak to the enigmatic cult legend and author of nine bestsellers, including his classic "The Teachings of don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge."

So there we were, just two luminous eggs having lunch. In my best Spanish I ordered moros y cristianos (what Cubans call white rice and black beans) y tostones (fried plantains). He looked up from his menu and in perfect English ordered: "Number 12." Steak and potatoes.

I felt muy estupido.

The interview came about because of Castaneda's Tensegrity workshop, which is coming to Phoenix next weekend. I was told by his people that I would have to fly to L.A. because Castaneda does not do interviews over the phone. In fact he rarely does interviews at all. Whole decades have passed without a glimpse of Castaneda. Then he'd surface. A lecture here. A lecture there. Only to disappear again.

Having read all nine of his books (several times) and sharing a common interest in cultural anthropology, metaphysics and, especially, Yaqui mysticism, my assemblage point-- a Castaneda term for perception center-- was all aquiver at this rare opportunity.

However, I was told there were ground rules, including no photos and no tape recorder. I was allowed to use a laptop, but opted to just listen and remember (although I did take a few notes blindly under the table on a reporter's notebook).

In retrospect, and in the tradition of shaman synchronicity, I suppose this lunch wasn't really an accident at all, Just two weeks before the interview I had mentioned to someone that I was surprised my path had not yet crossed Carlos Castaneda's.

And then there was this raven.

Several days before I learned of the interview, I was awakened at six in the morning by the booming caw-caw-caw of the largest raven I had ever seen. It was sitting on the top stalk of a soaptree yucca outside my screened patio. Its call was so loud that the echoes reverberated off nearby mountains, creating an effect similar to thunder.

I approached the bird but it was not afraid. It looked at me once then focused its total attention back to filling the air with vocalizations. I took my eye off the bird for only a moment to see how my cats were reacting.

When I looked up the raven had disappeared.

Castaneda was interested in my raven story, but he didn't offer an explanation.

Ravens and crows, as all shape shifters know, are popular forms of travel in the Americas.

Relatively little is known about Castaneda. De-emphasizing self and erasing personal history is the way Castaneda's line of seers has evolved into warriors of true knowledge. It's also why photos and voice imprints are prohibited.

"There is nothing to Carlos Castaneda," he said. "Personality is a pretense. Fame? Success? Who gives a (expletive)? If we weren't so involved in ourselves, we wouldn't do such barbaric things to ourselves."

Yet, there are some records, and Castaneda himself lets slip a personal fillip now and then. Apparently Castaneda was born around 70 years ago in Peru and was reared by a hedonistic grandfather. But he has spent most of his life in Los Angeles. He graduated from Hollywood High School and received his Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA. For a brief time, he taught cultural anthropology at the University of California-Irvine.

Castaneda does not stand out in a crowd. In fact, you probably wouldn't even see him in a crowd. He's diminutive, not much taller than 5 feet and probably less than 90 pounds. His substantial hair is mostly gray and brushed forward.

He likes to joke about how people have described him as looking like someone's gardener or chauffeur or a Mexican waiter. L.A. writer Bruce Wagner once asked Castaneda how he should describe what he looks like. Castaneda suggested Lee Marvin.

Sitting across from me, dressed in an amber, short-sleeve buttoned shirt and khaki pants, hair mussed, he reminded me of an iconoclastic professor retired, the professor of not doing, doing lunch. Except this professor has the eye of the sorcerer, the left one, that grabs at your awareness with unimaginable force.

But all the descriptions are deceptive and fragile. Castaneda doesn't have one look. He has many. His appearance changes with his moods, which shuffle easily. Like his teachers don Juan and don Genero, he laughs, he curses, he makes unearthly voices and exaggerated smacking sounds with his lips. Then he turns fierce as he cogently and eloquently pours out his thoughts on the nature of things.

Castaneda is complex, I expected that. At times he talks in a different language. I expected that, too. It's impossible for most of us luminous eggs to understand all the ideas. Don Juan said that we understand nothing anyway, and that true knowledge is not accomplished through our intellects.

I didn't expect Castaneda's immense humor. "We must laugh to balance us," he said.

He told stories, that cannot be repeated in this publication. I believe he keeps up on current events. He was especially interested in the story of Virginia fertility specialist Cecil Jacobson, who is now in prison for using his own semen to impregnate up to 70 of his patients.

There was no discussion of peyote or Mescalito or little smoke, but he did illustrate for me on a napkin how to cut off the top of a barrel cactus and recover its juice.

"You drink just a little for rejuvenation," Castaneda said, and smacked his lips approvingly.

Arizona is particularly prominent in the Castaneda saga. He met Don Juan in Nogales, Ariz., and spent much time in our state during his apprenticeship and even later. Castaneda's eyes became moist when he recalled the Arizona years.

"Arizona is a magical place," Castaneda said. "The Sonoran Desert has a specific confluence." He said he could not go back to Arizona because it brings back too many strong and poignant memories.

"A warrior knows whatever he sees he will not see again," Castaneda said. "I would seriously weep. I need all my strength.

We are all alone.

Castaneda didn't like his steak. He said it smelled like excrement. He dismissed it, then plowed on to another thought: "The universe is not predictable no matter what scientists tell you," Castaneda said.

It's a theme he hits hard upon, and that we are truly all alone. "God doesn't love, you, believe me." The problem, Castaneda insists, is that we're so trapped in our own egos, we never see the bigger picture of existence. We are not individuals surrounded by other individuals or houses or shopping malls. We are individuals surrounded by infinity."

Castaneda is vague on how he spends his day, but he still writes. Next year Simon & Schuster will issue a 30th-anniversary edition of "The Teachings of Don Juan A Yaqui Way of Knowledge," with a new foreword by Castaneda. There will also be a new book next year published by HarperCollins, "Magical Passes: The Practical Wisdom of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico." Castaneda has also completed what he calls his "last book" with the working title "The Active Side of Infinity."

"I don't think I can write anymore," Castaneda said. "The universe is predatorial. It produces profound waves of sadness that are homing in on me. This ontological sadness, you see it coming, then you feel it on top of you."

Even the path with heart is no cakewalk. Castaneda may not be with us much longer. He has told his staff as much. "But he won't die a physical death," said Tensegrity instructor or "energy tracker" Kylie Lundahl. "He will disappear the way Don Juan did. He knows there isn't much time left before that happens."

The goal of don Juan's line of Mexican seers has been to complete what they call the "abstract flight," to "evanesce with the totality of their beings" into infinity-- disappear with their boots on, so to speak. Castaneda's teacher don Juan and his party are supposed to have done this in 1973.

But Castaneda may have a problem in this regard. One gets the feeling from reading his later books and from personal conversation that something is wrong, and that Lee Marvin is scared.

Before he left this world don Juan Matus made it clear to Castaneda and his other apprentices that this line of Mexican seers of antiquity would end with Castaneda, the last nagual. Something in the energy configuration of the seers left behind was not propitious to continue the line. So, in essence, Castaneda and his party were left with the task of "closing out" the line.

Is it possible that Castaneda, like E.T., has been stranded in this world? Is there something don Juan neglected to tell him about storing enough personal energy for the abstract flight?

During our lunch, which lasted nearly three hours, I couldn't help but disengage myself occasionally from his left eye and wonder what he saw irradiating from my energy body-- no doubt something nasty and pink from all the years of loading up on diet colas and sugar-free gum.

I also wondered whether he knew more about that raven than he was letting on.

We said our good-byes in the restaurant's parking lot. He said he liked me and enjoyed our conversation. I said: Somos monos extranos. We are strange apes.

He smiled, but didn't answer. He didn't need to. For a moment Castaneda's predatorial universe hooked me with one of its waves of sadness as I remembered what he had said about a warrior knowing whatever he sees he will not see again.

I took a few steps toward my rental car, wondering whether Castaneda would indeed make that connection with his abstract flight. I sincerely hoped so.

When I looked back, Castaneda, like the raven, had vanished.

Sidebar: "This Is The One You Have Been Waiting For!"

Copyright August 1997 The Arizona Republic