Understanding the Meaning of Understanding: My Take on Carlos Castenada

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Carlos Castenada
Carlos Castenada

I’ve been reading “The Active Side of Infinity” by Carlos Castenada, which I find ponderous but rewarding. I’m at a disadvantage because I haven’t read any of his earlier works, which were much more famous and swept through the counterculture like a whirlwind back in the 1970s.

The idea, I gather, is that there is a tradition of sorcery among the Yaqui people of Mexico, which teaches the warrior/traveler — no teach is not the right word — which enables the warrior/traveler to arrive at… what?

Let’s take another run at this. The traditional practices provide a bridge to what the uninitiated would call ‘the supernatural,’ but which is actually a new view of the same old natural world, just, you know, super.

Human beings share a world we call reality, but different people see very different things. My own daughter is a knower who sees lots of things most people can’t see. Young Michael Metallica was 15 when he met my friend Beth Hapgood, and he thought he was crazy because he could see people’s auras. He didn’t know what they were, they just looked like trippy radiance.

The sorcerers that Castenada describes see the energy that pulses through the universe and they understand that the natural world is supernatural because it transcends our abilities to explicate or quantify or understand. Reminds me of another book called The Cloud of Unknowing.

So, to sum up clumsily, the supernatural world, or what we call the supernatural world, and the natural world are one and the same, and what is called supernatural by some people is perfectly natural to others who are viewing it on a different plane.

Viewed backwards and upside down, this means we have the key to the supernatural — or at least what some people call the supernatural — right in our own heads: we just need to change our point of view and our method of viewing.

You might think, as I always have, that this is achieved by increasing our understanding, but like Castenada, I have gradually changed my view about this. I have come to see we need to better understand the meaning of understanding and even let go of our need for understanding as we used to understand it.

Knowledge is not like nuts and berries which you go out and gather. It’s more like rain that will fill any vessel that is left out in it. Which means enlightenment is achievable by anyone who is too dumb to come in out of the rain.

The general concensus is that Castenada’s books about the teachings of don Juan Matus, originally published as anthropological research, are actually largely fictional, and Castenada, with his three girlfriends who all changed their names and cut off ties with friends and family, and his Tensegrity (TM) movement and its corporate side, Cleargreen Inc., seems a little like L. Ron Hubbard.

But I like the idea that a person can cook up a sorcerer in his own imagination who can teach his readers more than all the scholars in the world. I’m planning to cook up a supernatural imp myself and see what kind of trouble I can get into.