Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlan


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Winter 1979 (2/20/79)

Religious Studies 3011: Phenomenology of Religion

Dr. Jay Kim


This is Castaneda's third volume on his experiences with Yaqui sorcerer don Juan Matus (and company). The key concept is seeing, which is don Juan's version of the living, growing mystical experience of life in which there is true perception of realty and of oneself (in relationship to that reality)(etc.). In don Juan's particular terminology, seeing involves stopping the world or the interruption of the constant flow of interpretation (internal dialog) that creates our (phenomenal) world through description in accordance with the belief system which we have been taught since childhood. This description/projection of the world as we know it involves particular conceptions of the things of the world, and the self-concept seems to be an important (but often overlooked) part of the picture. People who live in such a closed world in which there is almost no self-awareness (or any attempt to either corroborate or invalidate the belief in a "self" by openly observing the fact) are called "phantoms" by those (such as don Juan and don Genaro) who are not trapped by the world. To be able to untrap oneself, or collapse the world, one first has to question the worldview that has been assumed all along to be reality itself. For don Juan, this is accomplished by learning a different description or away of perceiving the world (the sorcerer's description). When one's conviction in one's very own "reality" (world-construct including self-conception) is shaken, it is hoped that one will catch a glimpse of the fact, the truth, the actually real world that is there beyond our projections. This is what don Juan calls seeing. Don Juan's sole concern is to help Castaneda through this process, and various techniques are taught to aid in stopping the world. There is something of a progression in the experiences Castaneda has when he is with don Juan, and don Juan unfolds the sorcerer's description in the lessons he draws from these experiences (which he takes at least some part in creating). I will discuss these experiences, lessons, and techniques, together with the development of Castaneda's understanding, in terms of seeing.

Insofar as don Juan intends almost all along to initiate Castaneda into "the path of knowledge" (which leads to seeing, not as an end but as a beginning), their entire relationship is pertinent to the study of mysticism. At first, Castaneda does not really have much of a purpose in life he is an anthropology student interested in the ritual use of psychotropic plants among Indians. In asking don Juan to teach him about these plants and their use, he doesn't know what he's getting himself into! Don Juan's whole approach to Castaneda is very subtly geared toward helping him open up to what is real, and as such the program is tailor-made and, as one can appreciate more in Tales of Power (Castaneda's fourth book), is a work of considerable genius. In the course of mystifying and horrifying experiences, Castaneda becomes dependent on don Juan as a teacher and guide, as well as becoming aware that don Juan is a rare and very real individual.

Don Juan's "lessons" take place in the field. They are not intellectual or academic (despite Castaneda's note-taking), but are geared to awaken a part of the human being that is dormant namely, the body, which has an innate intelligence (will) apart from the intellect (reason). In the course of these lessons, the sorcerer's worldview is revealed. The basic premise of the view concerns views: "the world of everyday life is not real, or out there, as we believe it is" but is merely a description, a view (viii). Therefore, plants are not "just" plants but are sensitive and might become malevolent if we are ungrateful fro their generosity (6, 25). Likewise, crows become more than "just" crows but are also omens, giving important indications for those to whom they are friendly (19-20, 49). And there are other ways (than crows) that a man can get "agreements from the world" the wind in the leaves, a falling rock, a jet flying over, the "comments" of a coffee percolator, etc. (6-8). In thinking that the world is only the way we think it is (which is arrogant and involves self-importance), we prevent ourselves from appreciating the vastness and awesomeness of life and of ourselves. IN fact, the self-concept is evidently a very important part of the world-construct. In erasing or dropping personal history, one frees oneself from the encumbering thoughts of others who, purposefully or not, seek to contain one in the conception they have of one (11-16). One is not one's name, national origin, past history; one is the world about oneself at any moment i.e., one is mysterious, unknowable, unpredictable, always new (14). The new self-concept that don Juan teaches Castaneda is that of the "hunter" or "warrior."

The anxiety that Castaneda seems to habitually experience is probably related to death, which makes a reflection on the impermanence (thus, vitality) of the self. The warrior is aware of his own death as a presence that he uses as an "advisor." Facing the fact of one's death, one begins to see all things as equal, for nothing matters outside of death's touch. This requires one to assume responsibility for one's actions and decisions for each act might result in death. As each act could be the last, the warrior rids his life of pettiness and focuses his attention on the present moment. Impeccable, he does his best in whatever he does: he is tremendously aware of the finality, the serious actuality of his engagements. Castaneda is definitely not a warrior: he frets and moans, doesn't want to think about death, doesn't assume responsibility for himself. He often feels that the path of the warrior is too arduous for him.

In the course of their activities in the desert, Castaneda experiences intense fear as well as exquisite well-being. The fear is not only for physical safety but is also a supernatural fear, as when he encounters "allies" and other forces. Once, he his so afraid that his thoughts cease and fear is purely a physical sensation, which is unusual for him (175). When lying on a "bed of strings" which d don Juan made for him, he experiences "quietness, an exquisite sense of well-being," in which thought also stops (148). This experiences borders on the mystical.

Not-doing is a mode of relating and perceiving in which the body becomes more sensitive to its surroundings. One technique is to focus on the shadows of the leaves on a tree (rather than the leaves and branches themselves) until they are perceived in a gestalt-like whole. The sorcerer learns much from shadow-gazing. Castaneda practices not-doing for hours on end under don Juan's supervision and finds it enjoyable and relaxing. Meandering in the desert is another form of not-doing. Doing, on the other hand, involves relating to something as a thing brining to gear all the knowledge one has about it within one's paradigm.

As a lesson in the power of interpretation, don Juan appears to Castaneda and four other sorcerer's apprentices in such a way that each of them describes his dress and manner in a completely different way. They are, of course, mystified when they share their descriptions (207-8). Another time, don Juan and don Genaro make Castaneda's car "disappear" and then "reappear" in a different place (though it never "really" moved). don Genaro makes a kite out of his hat and it falls on the car or turns into the car and this ambiguity indicates the insufficiency of conceptual interpretation (244). The experience of the unexplainable forces one to question one's conviction in one's worldview.

In the next to last chapter, Castaneda goes into the mountains alone to stop the world. Watching a dung beetle, he realizes that there are worlds upon worlds before us and that death makes him and the beetle equal in importance. He experiences overwhelming joy and elation. A coyote comes along and talks to him and makes his mind "wobble;" the animal turns into an iridescent being, but Castaneda thinks that this is a projection form the memory of his first peyote experience. Then he has what is surely a mystical experience, "a state of ecstasy for what appeared to be an endless time," etc. (252). The talking coyote was a perception according to the sorcerer's description; the familiar world had stopped. But the luminous being and the perception of the lines of the world, although explained by sorcerers, were apparently perceptions that were not filtered by any conceptualization or interpretation: Castaneda saw.

At the end, Castaneda realizes that he is not prepared to "meet the ally" (a magical being he is sent into the desert to meet) or accept full responsibility for his being-here (mortally)(alone)(etc.). He has not, by the end of his volume, "achieved" the full development of his understanding; he has not arrived at the reality of the self in the real world. This reality is not "achieved" by any doing (which merely s sustains the world-construct), but is arrived at naturally through not-doing (which stops the world). The real world is perceived in not-doing; the real self is realized spontaneously in the not-doing of the self. This real self is one with the world, which is the mystical state of being.


Castaneda, Carlos. Journey to Ixtlan: Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.


Professor's Comment: Grade B+. Perceptive but disjointed. Also, too facile equation of the "real world" with the sorcerer's world. [Dr. Kim.]


Alan Gullette > Essays