"Stopping the world" and "Not-doing" in Journey to Ixtlan


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Fall 1975 (10/30/75)

Philosophy 1520

Dr. Kathy Emmett


The relationship between stopping the world and not-doing in Carlos Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlan[1] is here discussed. I will define these terms and place them properly in the overall scheme that is the philosophy and lessons of don Juan. The interrelation of the concepts can then be shown more clearly. In addition, I will draw parallels between the lessons and other systems of thought in an attempt to clarify points in don Juan's philosophy to my own satisfaction.

A brief summary of don Juan's philosophy follows. We are men born into a world that we cannot possibly comprehend in its awesome totality. We are cultural animals, and so are taught a system of beliefs in a process of conditioning that will allow us to function properly in the society of our fellows. This system is a world-construct, a description of the world and of reality, a paradigm of which we are members. And so, we erroneously think we are able to describe reality the world accurately, thereby comprehending it (see, esp., p. ix). Since we life in the world for only a short time, we should bring quality to our existence by seeking perfection of spirit. This entails living "existentially," being in control of (and having power over) one's situations, and, in short, being as completely aware as possible of one's own conscious, temporary existence. Although there are other aspects of the complete philosophy, the abbreviation of these points is sufficient in order to place the two concepts dealt with in this paper against a conceptual background and therefore demonstrate their relationship on that ground.

Don Juan's existential man seeks to relate directly to the world without the intermediary world-construct; he wants to experience the world directly without thought or language, which normally continuously reinforce the world-construct by presenting one with preconceptions taught to one since infancy. In order to achieve this experience, one must stop thought and thus the flow of preconceptions. Since all life is experience, then the highest quality experiences (direct experiences of the world or reality) are most desirable. From these experiences "knowledge" is gained (cp. the wisdom gained through mystical experiences, e.g., the gyana swaroopa or "perfect experience of consciousness" in Vedanta[2]). Don Juan's "man of knowledge" is the idea of the existential man. The direct experience is called seeing by don Juan. It entails "responding to the perceptual solicitations of a world outside the description we have learned to call reality" (xiv), which requires a stopping of thought. This experience, therefore, is very close to that of superconsciousness in Yoga or Vedanta, wherein thought ceases and the world fades away.[3] This state of consciousness is also seemingly akin to Zen satori, enlightenment, Buddhist samadhi, etc.

Don Juan says, "Seeing . . . is the final accomplishment of the man of knowledge, and seeing is attained only when one has stopped the world" (194). In order to see, one must stop the world or suspend the world-construct operating on one's perceptions and experiences. Stopping the world is "a technique by virtue of which the world as we know it is made to collapses" (104). The world-construct, however, is necessary for life as we know it, and the man of knowledge restores it again "in order to keep on living" (136). The term world-construct can be used interchangeably with the term world when one understands that the world is a way of looking at reality (external reality), a way of ordering experience, a grid projected onto that outside reality. Further, the system of beliefs that comprise a world organizes experience without the use of a controlling imagery that can be called a "mythology" or body of myths. A myth is an attempt to describe or explain reality or phenomena witnessed.[4]

The technique of stopping the world is facilitated by simultaneous membership; the achievement of the technique can also be aided by those who have simultaneous membership. In simultaneous membership, one description of the world is opposed to another, so that perhaps the mechanism in the mind that forces us to experience the world through a filter will be suspended or temporarily knocked-out, allowing us to see. The alternate description is used also in order to stop the world as described by our native culture. In seeing, "one sneaks between the worlds" and does without a world-construct for a while (254)j. In the case of Castaneda, don Juan' teaches him the sorcerer's description. Don Juan and don Genaro, another man of knowledge, both know this other description, and are so able to aid Castaneda in stopping the world as we know it. This alternative description is the only other way don Juan knows to look oat the world (256). It particulars are probably unimportant many descriptions of the world being possible, but just one other than the "normal" is sufficient for stopping the world. To illustrate: seeing the world as we were taught to see it is like a habit. To break this habit, we first exchange it for another habit one more easily controlled; here, that is seeing the world in a different way. We see that both are only habits, and we eventually learn to see without either description.

"In order to stop the world, you must stop doing" (189). Not-doing, or "to not do what you know how to do," is more difficult to understand that seeing (see 180). In fact, to try to understand it is a matter of doing. Clearly, it is easier to explain doing. It seems to be akin to objectivity; for a rock is a rock because of doing "because of all of the things you know how to do to it" (189). This ties in with the preconceptions we must ignore in our direct experience of the world. Looking at the leaves of a bush as a whole, a gestalt, is doing; looking rather at the shadows of the leaves and seeing them as a whole is an exercise in not-doing (see 180-1). Shadows are "the doors of not-doing" (195). Not-doing is done by the body, not with the mind, which explains our difficulty in understanding it fully (180). It would seem, then, that not-doing would be the natural thing to do, so to speak: the advanced animal body of man does it and the culturally condition mind (which is equated to the world-construct in Vedanta) is meanwhile suspended. So it is seen already that not-doing leads to stopping the world.

It is important that without doing nothing is familiar (see 189). If nothing is familiar, everything is new and unknown and experienced for the first time it is unconditioned. When you try "to figure it out, all you're really doing is trying to make the world familiar" (135). This is doing and involves rational activity -- specifically rational or intellectual formulation of experience.[5] As "the world is the world because you know the doing involved in making it so," reasoning or rational explanation is an integral part of being a member (in good standing) of the world or conceptual paradigm. Castaneda's difficulty in stopping the world woes to his conditioned insistence on explaining rationally the phenomena he witnesses (see 246). This insistence prevents seeing (232). The prevention, however, is probably indirect: explaining is doing, which prevents not-doing, which is necessary for stopping the world, the sine qua non of seeing.

Don Juan says: "The most difficult part of the warrior's way is to realize that the world is a feeling. When one is not-doing, one is feeling the world" (193). (The warrior is the existential man striving to be a man of knowledge.) Feeling is done with the body it is like seeing, "responding to the perceptual solicitations of a world outside" the paradigm (xiv). The three techniques of not-doing, stopping the world, and seeing seem to be very close in actuality; it is the difficulty of understanding them which makes them into separate stages in the process of de-conditioning to face the unconditioned. The feeling that is the world would seem to be a single perception and not divided among the traditionally distinguished sense organs.

Acting without belief is not-doing (see 199). Belief, again, orders experience (see note 4) in an attempt to make it meaningful. On the absolute level, there is no meaning; vain attribution of meaning to trivial moods and events and actions is frivolous in the light of our mortality. The technique of not-doing is facilitated by displacement of normal doing by a different doing in a trick analogous to learning an alternative world description. This sis the doing of strategy, in which "there are only actions" (227). That is, there is no meaning attached to the actions. Both doings are unreal, but are useful in attaining what the warrior hunts for: power. (This power is like mental energy; it also allows some deliberate control over situations in reality and, to an extent, over other people, though over-emphasis of the latter leads to a loss of the power.) In the same way, both world the world we all know and the sorcerer's world are unreal, but they are useful i f not necessary models of reality (200).

Power is an important concept in don Juan's philosophy The summary given earlier of the philosophy stresses seeing. This is interpretive. Another, briefer sketch of the philosophy follows in which the concept of power is stressed. With this alternative approach, not-doing and stopping the world are also seen to relate to each other. Don Juan's existential man, the warrior, lives strategically, for he knows his life is in his own hands and he is completely free and complete responsible. To avoid being hunted himself, he lives like a hunter, and he needs power over situations in order to carry out his strategies. Not-doing is the first step toward accumulating power (181). Once he has stored power, the warrior becomes a man of knowledge, and enough power will enable him to stop the word and see. If power were analogous to psychic energy, then stores of power would allow one to raise one's awareness and control one's state of consciousness at will. Thus, one could live as fully as possible in the perfection of spirit that belongs to the man of knowledge.

Within this second sketch of don Jan's philosophy emphasizing power, its hunting and storing not-doing and stopping the world are also clearly related, just as in the first summary emphasizing the almost mystical experience of the unconditioned (reality) through the body (or instincts and intuition, as distinct from mind, intellect, reason, etc.). Both interpretations indicate the worth of the model don Juan offers us.




[1] Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972).

[2] Swami Vishnudevananda, The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga (New York: Pocket Books, 1972), 318.

[3] Several chapters of Swami Vishnudevananda's book deal with this state and its nature to great extent, as it is the very aim of Yoga and Vedanta. The point of thought-suspension is mentioned at least on p. 349; the need to transcend the mind is dealt with on pp. 305f.

[4] Mark Schorer, "The Necessity of Myth." In Henry Murray, ed., Myth and Mythmaking (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 354-8. Includes a discussion of belief, myth, imagery, reality, etc.; see especially 355-6.

[5] Ibid.


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