Art & Creativity
Culture & Community
Education & Training
Media & Communication
Mind & Body
People & Life
Philosophy & Wisdom
Science & Nature
Soul & Spirit
Trade & Commerce
Work & Career


Web This Site


creative commons.png
Creative Commons 2.5

Narrative: Carlos Castaneda - The World We All Know Is Only A Description

Carlos Castaneda is known for his books describing his personal experiences with don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. In Journey to Ixtlan I found the following statement in the introduction:

For the purpose of presenting my argument I must first explain the basic premise of sorcery as don Juan presented it to me. He said that for a sorcerer, the world of everyday life is not real, or out there, as we believe it is. For a sorcerer, reality, or the world we all know, is only a description.
This idea of "the world we know is only a description" is captures an important aspect of learning...

The Units of Description

In The Silent Language Edward Hall noted, "The fact is, however, that once people have learned to learn in a given way it is extremely hard for them to learn in any other way." Castaneda is saying something very similar:

The idea that the perceptual interpretations that make up the world have a flow is congruous with the fact that they run uninterruptedly and are rarely, if ever, open to question...

My [i.e. - Castaneda] difficulty in grasping his [i.e. - don Juan] concepts and methods stemmed from the fact that the units of his description were alien and incompatible with those of my own.
- Journey to Ixtlan

For Carlos Castaneda to be able to understand "the units of his description" is, I think, one of the most significant underlying themes of his work, and is a clear example of what Edward Hall meant in describing the problems inherent with "learning in a given way." There is also a connection here to Gregory Bateson's comment about the lack of certain tools of thought in the educated individual: "it is lack of knowledge of the presuppositions not only of science but also of everyday life."

Castaneda admits much the same problem in his own experiences with don Juan, that is, he was intellectually ill-equipped to comprehend what don Juan was teaching conceptually as well as the method/process he was employing. At the same time, what we see throughout Castaneda's books are vivid descriptions of how he learned knowledge of new presuppostions, learning in an new/alien way, altering his status quo perceptual interpretations of the world, and gradually beginning to comprehend and apply new units of description.

For example, in the first lesson don Juan attempts to convey the importance of erasing all personal history. Castaneda's agenda for the first interview was to reconstruct don Juan's personal history by recording his family lineage. Don Juan felt this to be irrelevant:

It is best to erase all personal history because that would make us free from the encumbering thoughts of other people.
- Journey to Ixtlan

The engagement between the two is quite interesting. Castaneda seemed clearly surprised by don Juan's ability to openly question if not completely undermine the presuppositions and assumptions in Castaneda's thought processes. More simply, don Juan did not engage in intellectual logictics, but instead focused on the assumptions being made. Further, don Juan seemed impatient with certain kinds of questions. For example, questions about learning seemed to result in short, yet precise, answers:

"Where did you learn it?" "I learned it during the course of my life." "Did your father teach you that?" "No. Let's say I learned it by myself..."
- Journey to Ixtlan

This is an appealing view of learning since most of what we value in life we probably have not been taught in an educational sense of the word, but have learned it for ourselves through experience.

The idea of erasing our personal history is alien to a culture that embraces the collection and distribution of information. Yet there is something shared here I believe, and that is the idea of being "free from the encumbering thoughts of other people." Further, the idea of "encumbering thoughts" can be illusive since it is often that the most encumbering thoughts we carry within ourselves exist at the level of assumption, and are frequenty out of awareness. To complicate matters, we have a tendency to build complex and sophisticated layers of rationalizations to explain why we do the things we do, yet the presuppositions and assumptions these layers are built upon frequently lie hidden underneath an immense pool of information.

Losing Self-Importance

This flow of thought ties into the second "lesson"about losing self-importance. Don Juan makes an interesting comment: "He stressed that if I really wanted to learn, I had to remodel most of my behaviour." Essential to this remodeling is losing one's self-importance:

"You take yourself too seriously," he said slowly. "You are so damn important in your own mind. That must be changed! You are so goddamn important that you feel justified to be annoyed with everything. You're so damn important that you can afford to leave if things don't go your way. I suppose you think that shows you have character. That's nonsense! You're weak, and conceited!"

... "Your cleverness makes you more silly than I thought."
- Journey to Ixtlan

In this sense, the kind of learning don Juan asks us to consider embraces the risk of the unknown, the mystery that is in each of us, and happily living with uncertainty.

Death Is An Advisor

The third lesson, and the final one I will explore here, is called Death is an Advisor. It is somewhat curious to see the wealth of information being poured out about lifelong learning without any reference to death. For this reason I wrote Death and Lifelong Learning in which I recounted an experience in which a student of mine died tragically at a very young age. To be honest, I think our culture is extremely immature when it comes to understanding the value of death. Don Juan states:

"The thing to do when you're impatient," he proceeded, "is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that your companion is there watching you."

...And I argued that it would be meaningless for me [i.e. - Castaneda] to dwell upon my death, since such a thought would only bring discomfort and fear.

"You're full of crap!" he exclaimed. "Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you're about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if it is so. Your death will tell you that you're wrong.
- Journey to Ixtlan

Routine Prey: Connecting Hunting to Learning

An underlying theme in Carlos Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlan connects the idea of hunting to learning. In other words, a learner is a kind of warrior that seeks power. In this context, the idea of power largely refers to dealing with fear and learning to accept and embrace the unavoidable reality of being in a mysterious and unfathomable world. The power of don Juan's warrior is one that speaks not about materialism and the acquisition of things, but the abandonment of routine existence:

All of us behave like the prey we are after. That, of course, also makes us prey for something or someone else.
- Journey to Ixtlan

This quote comes from a chapter entitled Disrupting The Routines Of Life. The disruption being referred to is not merely one of daily routine, although that is a significant aspect, but also of disrupting the ways in which we perceive (i.e. - expanding the ways in which our sensory perception works), the ways in which we think (i.e. - altering if not transforming the presuppositions in our thoughts), and the ways in which we believe (i.e. - changing our belief systems). Perhaps it is the idea of personal transformation or transcendence that captures the underlying direction momentum of this learning experience. To do anything less than this would mean that we in some manner fall prey to routine.

In modern society, this idea of not merely breaking from routine but consciously eliminating it would seem alien. Throughout much of our lives, the way in which we live is closely connected to the accepted patterns, norms, and routines of our cultural context. For example, we might think about the general pattern of birth to infancy to pre-school to schooling to work/employment to retirement to death as a general routine that is largely prescribed by cultural assumptions about how life should be experienced. This routine for living is something that we shape our behaviour and intentions around and become the presuppositions for what become the assumptions in our lifestyle. If these assumptions lie outside of our awareness, there is a possibility that we in fact have become prey to them.

A warrior in this sense is an individual that seeks not merely to destroy assumptions, but to bring them into precise focus so that their effect on living can be comprehended with clarity and with the purpose of fundamentally changing our orientation to life.

I [Castaneda] insisted that to be bored with the world or to be at odds with it is the human condition.

"So, change it," he [don Juan] replied dryly. If you do not respond to the challenge you are as good as dead." ...

"There is one simple thing wrong with you - you think you have plenty of time." ...

"There is no power on earth that can guarantee that you are going to live one more minute."
- Journey to Ixtlan

In don Juan's sense of the phrase, the idea of believing we have plenty of time is closely aligned with an exaggerated sense of self-importance. I would also suggest that this is perhaps an attempt to combat fear, that is, ignoring the more mercurial realities of living in preference for routines that afford us, however fragile and fleeting, a comfortable sense of routine. To believe that we have "plenty of time" in this context is a form of avoidance in which our deep and intuitive connection with the mystery of life is sacrificed for accepted norms and patterns of living. To be living is not the same thing as embracing life itself.

Routines are, of course, not always negative or destructive. What is brought into question throughout Journey to Ixtlan are the kinds of routines we subject ourselves to, knowingly or unknowingly. If we routinely believe that we have "plenty of time" we are in fact living under a complete delusion. In this sense we become prey to time itself.

One notion closely tied to the delusion of having plenty of time is that we can change in degrees, or little by little:

The change I'm [i.e. - don Juan] talking about never takes place by degress: it happens suddenly. And you are not preparing yourself for that sudden act that will bring a total change."

I [i.e. - Castaneda] believed he was expressing a contradiction. I explained to him that if I were preparing myself to change I was certainly changing by degrees.

"You haven't changed at all," he said. That is why you believe you're changing little by little."
- Journey to Ixtlan

The contrast in interesting. Don Juan speaks of change as an immediate form of transformation in which our thoughts, beliefs and actions become something new. Castaneda, in his own "units of description," is living under a delusion that change is something that is methodical, sequenced, gradual and staged. To emphasize his pont, don Juan references the discussion to the ultimate change in life, and that is death: "I have just said that change comes suddenly and unexpectedly, and so does death." Castaneda's perception of death, throughout the book, moves from fear and avoidance to embracing it as a trusted advisor. This, for me, is one of the fundamental changes in his own learning since it alters his basic presuppositions about life and therefore changes the ways in which he perceives, thinks, believes and acts.

I sometimes wonder if we have so sterilized learning by confusing it with education and training that we have fallen prey to the routine of avoidance. There is a tendency to strip learning of its life force in an attempt to make things "safe." However, safety is not achieved in any sustainable way by avoidance. It may buy us some time in a superficial sense, but the inevitables of life eventually make their presence known and will change our world as we know it, or think we know it. Safety comes from preparing ourselves as best we can, then embracing the mystery, and risk, for what has yet to happen. Unlike education and training, learning is not always a safe thing to do, and this lack of "safety" is a quality that must be preserved if we are to value learning in any meaningful way.

Theme: People & Life | (Nov14/04) | Home | About | References | Site Index | Other Features | feed2.png |

Bookmark: | Connotea | Delicious | Digg | Furl | Y! MyWeb |


Recent Entries

Theme: People & Life | (Nov14/04) | Home | About | References | Site Index | Other Features | feed2.png |

Copyright: Creative Commons 2.5