Carlos Castaneda Interviews and Articles
Los Angeles Times - Page: E-1 - Dec 1995
Tuesday, December 26, 1995
Section: Life & Style
The Mystical Man; One of the most elusive writers of our time, Carlos Castaneda returns (briefly) to share a few secrets with devotees. To remain invisible, he says, is the sorcerer's way.
By: Benjamin Epstein
Special to the Times
Carlos Castaneda, the 20th century's own sorcerer's apprentice, has been nearly invisible for 25 years. Not that he was ever exactly in plain view. The author of nine books based on his experiences with Juan Matus, a Yaqui seer, Castaneda has been seen as a bridge to the unknown by millions of spiritual seekers-- especially in the soul-searching '60s and '70s.
Now he's back. Or was back.
Castaneda was center attraction earlier this month in Anaheim at a two-day "Tensegrity" seminar. More than 400 devotees paid $250 each to attend the seminar led by three women, called "chacmools," who taught a series of "magical passes," or movements.
Castaneda has succeeded in being one of the most elusive writers of our time-- to remain invisible, he says, is the sorcerer's way. In the '80s, he effectively vanished altogether. He never allows a photograph or a tape recording of his voice. He only rarely has granted interviews-- but unexpectedly agreed to one in Anaheim. (See accompanying story).
His books continue to sell-- 8 million copies in 17 countries-- and have never been out of print. Did he make up his fantastic desert tales, with their shimmering supernatural events, as his critics maintain?
"I invented nothing," he said at the seminar. "I'm not insane, you know. Well, maybe a little insane. But not ridiculously insane!"
In 1993, his book "The Art of Dreaming" (Harper Collins) was published. The same year, with the assistance of the chacmools, Castaneda and three fellow Don Juan disciples began presenting a few Tensegrity seminars. Tensegrity, Castaneda says, is derived from an architectural term relating to skeletal efficiency and seems to mean a way of tensing and relaxing the body.
Workshops were held in Arizona, Hawaii and at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. This month the show came to Anaheim.
"To be young and youthful is nothing," said Castaneda, exuberantly taking the stage before the devotees. "To be old and youthful, that is sorcery!" Castaneda is both. His hair is gray and cut short; his manner energetic and engaging. He's small and trim. He dresses simply and his olive complexion shows few signs of wear and tear.
The seminar participants, mostly middle aged, came from around the world-- about a third from California-- in hopes of seeing the charismatic Castaneda and to learn about Tensegrity. Many wore Tensegrity T-shirts ("The magic is in the movement").
In an open hall, the chacmools each stood on elevated platforms and demonstrated the elaborate Tensegrity sequences step by step, the seminar attendees following along closely. As each sequence was mastered, everybody stopped to applaud.
While learning Tensegrity filled most of the seminar hours, at least one couple came for another purpose: "We're not disinterested in Tensegrity," the woman said. "But we came to hear Carlos."
Among Castaneda's remarks to those at the seminar:
"We are all going to face infinity, whether we like it or not. Why do it when we are weakest, when we are broken, at the moment of dying? Why not when we are strong? Why not now?"
"We repeat slogans endlessly. We don't know how to think for ourselves... 'We are made in the image and likeness of God?' What does it mean? Nothing. Yet we hold on to it. Why?"
"Me, me, me. Everybody, it doesn't matter, is egomaniacal. The other person tells you what he did, then you say, ah, but I did this..."
It's hard to pin Castaneda down to one answer on points that, for most people, are pretty simply stated.
According to "Contemporary Authors," Castaneda lists his birth date and place as Dec. 25, 1931, in Sao Paulo, Brazil; immigration records indicate Dec. 25, 1925, in Cajamarca, Peru, and other sources the late 1930s. One New York Times article put him at 66 years old in 1981.
Similarly, biographies variously list the years he earned his degrees in anthropology. The records at UCLA, though, show he earned a bachelor's in anthropology in 1962, a doctorate in 1973.
In other words, this is one slippery organic being. (According to Castaneda, he spends a great deal of time among inorganic beings.)
While studying at UCLA, Castaneda traveled to Arizona to research medicinal plants. There he met Don Juan Matus, who sensed in the young man the possibility of a successor. Matus later moved to Sonora, Mexico, and Castaneda followed.
Castaneda's first three books-- "The Teachings of Don Juan" (University of California Press and Ballantine, 1968), "A Separate Reality" and "Journey to Ixtlan" (both Simon & Schuster, 1971 and 1972, respectively)-- describe a rather thickheaded student often bungling his way through a 12-year apprenticeship to become a "Yaqui man of knowledge."
All received enthusiastic reviews and made the bestseller lists. The most respected critics of the day praised them on one hand as "the best that the science of anthropology has produced" and, on the other, said that the tension between academic rationality and the magic of Don Juan's world made them first-rate literature, "remarkable works of art," in the words of Joyce Carol Oates. His more recent works have received somewhat less attention, but sell well nonetheless-- and increasingly well in other countries.
At least two volumes by other authors attempted to debunk Castaneda. One dismissed him as a fraud; the other, "Castaneda's Journey," (Capra Press, 1976) by Richard de Mille, found many discrepancies in his work, but the writer decided early on that Castaneda "wasn't a common con man, he lied to bring us the truth. ...This is a sham-man bearing gifts."
Shaman or sham-man, readers didn't care, and reviewers who saw him as a "trickster-hoaxer" still took him seriously. A Saturday Review critic wrote that Castaneda "works a strange and beautiful magic beyond the realm of belief... Admittedly, one gets the impression of a con artist simply glorifying in the game-- even so, it is a con touched by genius."
At UCLA in the '60s, Castaneda was perceived as "the little brown man with the big smile." Not much has changed; he's about 5 feet, 5 inches, funny and charming.
He can be amazingly convincing when describing some out-there ideas, such as: his life among inorganic beings; the assemblage point, a place about a foot behind our shoulder blades that can be shifted to visit other realms; a predatory universe in which "fliers" incessantly feed on mankind's awareness, taking the sheen off our luminous eggs and leaving only a rubble of self-absorption and egomania.
Back in the three-dimensional world of self-absorption and egomania, Castaneda is represented by talent agent Tracy Kramer. (Kramer also represents "Rug Rats," "Duck Man" and "The Real Munsters," and notes that "somewhere there's a purity about all of them.")
Both Kramer and Cleargreen Inc., which organizes the seminars, are based in Los Angeles. But it's unclear--as is so much else-- where Castaneda is based. Kramer contends that "the majority of [Castaneda's] time is not spent here. And what he does do here he doesn't share with me." Castaneda reportedly bought a home in Malibu sometime in the '70s. If a passing remark at the seminar was to be taken literally, he continues to pay property taxes somewhere.
At the center of Castaneda's books is the premise that the world as we know it is only one version of reality, a set of culturally embedded "agreements" and "descriptions." Time magazine described Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus as "an enigma wrapped in mystery wrapped in a tortilla."
According to Castaneda, Matus gave him psychotropic plants-- peyote, Jimson weed and mushrooms-- only because he was such an intractable student.
Although the use of hallucinogens boosted the popularity of the first two books, they subsequently gave way to nonherbal perception-altering exercises. Castaneda believes that the negative connotations of the words sorcery and magic are rooted in Western man's irrational fear of the unknown. He recommends that people be intrigued rather than terrified by the unknown.
"It is a thinking universe, a living universe, an exquisite universe," he said. "We have to balance the lineality of the known universe with the nonlineality of the unknown universe."
"The Art of Dreaming" ends with Castaneda recounting an episode in the mid-'70s when he and fellow Matus disciple Carol Tiggs were "dreaming" in a hotel room in Mexico City and Tiggs disappeared into those dreams. According to Castaneda, Tiggs reappeared 10 years later in a bookstore in Santa Monica where he was giving a talk. It was the reconstituted Tiggs who provided the impetus to compile the "magical passes" of Tensegrity.
Castaneda and Tiggs were among four disciples of Matus who were each taught a separate line of magical passes. The others, Florinda Donner-Grau and Taisha Abelar, have also published accounts of their apprenticeships, markedly different from Castaneda's but still endorsed by him. Tiggs, Donner-Grau and Abelar attended a bonus Castaneda appearance the final night of the Anaheim seminar but didn't address the group.
The actual teaching of Tensegrity at the seminars and in instructional videos has been carried out by the three chacmools-- Kylie Lundahl, Nyei Murez and Reni Murez. The movements taught to seminar participants were often angular and fierce in character-- less like Yaqui yoga, more like martial arts. Tensegrity videos-- there are two volumes-- were on sale for $29.95.
According to Cleargreen President Talia Bey, proceeds from the seminar will help fund publication of a Castaneda periodical, the Warriors' Way: A Journal of Applied Hermeneutics.
At the close of the seminar, Castaneda delivered remarks both lighthearted and serious, and peppered with his self-deprecating humor.
But then, Castaneda obliquely dropped a bombshell: He was relieving the chacmools of their teaching duties. The announcement left many in the audience unsettled.
"Look, the whole front row is shaking in their boots!" Castaneda said. "The chacmools will be erased today. They go on to something else."
Seminar organizers later clarified: Although "erased," the chacmools will remain on the payroll at Cleargreen in capacities yet to be determined. And the teaching of Tensegrity will apparently continue-- a seminar is planned in Oakland, Feb. 9-11, and a women's workshop in Los Angeles for March 1-3. Said Castaneda: "If the chacmools go away, something else will appear. That is a world that is alive, in flux. ...If I am needed, I will be there. Just call me."
OK, Carlos. But who has your number?
Photo: Carlos Castaneda's "Tensegrity" seminars are led by three "chacmools," Kylie Lundahl, from left, Nyei Murez and Reni Murez, who teach "magical passes," a series of movements, angular and fierce in character.
Photo: Reni Murez, from left, Nyei Murez and Kylie Lundahl teach movements designed to heighten awareness, focus and increase energy.
Photographer: Kari Rene Hall / Los Angeles Times