13 July 2006

(100) Castaneda and the Raven

Los Angeles, August 3, 1997

I could have asked him anything.
"I am your prisoner," Carlos Castaneda said.
We talked about ravens. I specifically wanted to know how one could tell when a raven wasn't really a raven.
"You look at its energy," Castaneda said. "A raven that's a sorcerer glows amber."

He didn't tell me what color a regular raven glowed. But then, it wouldn't have mattered anyway since I don't see pure energy. Castaneda does, says he has for many years. He began seeing humans as energy forms, or "luminous eggs," in the cafeteria of UCLA when he was working on his doctorate in anthropology some 30 years ago.

That's how my lunch with Carlos Castaneda began. It was a Thursday, 2 p.m. We met at a Cuban restaurant near West Hollywood. I didn't know till the last moment where I'd be meeting Castaneda. His staff said that's how Castaneda does it. He reads energy to determine meeting locations and most other matters.

"Everything that we know is an interpretation of energy," Castaneda said. For the longest time I feared I'd have to find Castaneda in L.A. without directions as a test of my unbending intent and worthiness to speak to the enigmatic cult legend and author of nine bestsellers, including his classic "The Teachings of don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge."

So there we were, just two luminous eggs having lunch. In my best Spanish I ordered moros y cristianos (what Cubans call white rice and black beans) y tostones (fried plantains). He looked up from his menu and in perfect English ordered: "Number 12." Steak and potatoes.

I felt muy estupido.

The interview came about because of Castaneda's Tensegrity workshop, which is coming to Phoenix next weekend. I was told by his people that I would have to fly to L.A. because Castaneda does not do interviews over the phone. In fact he rarely does interviews at all. Whole decades have passed without a glimpse of Castaneda. Then he'd surface. A lecture here. A lecture there. Only to disappear again.

Having read all nine of his books (several times) and sharing a common interest in cultural anthropology, metaphysics and, especially, Yaqui mysticism, my assemblage point-a Castaneda term for perception center-was all aquiver at this rare opportunity.

However, I was told there were ground rules, including no photos and no tape recorder. I was allowed to use a laptop, but opted to just listen and remember (although I did take a few notes blindly under the table on a reporter's notebook).

In retrospect, and in the tradition of shaman synchronicity, I suppose this lunch wasn't really an accident at all, Just two weeks before the interview I had mentioned to someone that I was surprised my path had not yet crossed Carlos Castaneda's.

And then there was this raven.

Several days before I learned of the interview, I was awakened at six in the morning by the booming caw-caw-caw of the largest raven I had ever seen. It was sitting on the top stalk of a soaptree yucca outside my screened patio. Its call was so loud that the echoes reverberated off nearby mountains, creating an effect similar to thunder. I approached the bird but it was not afraid. It looked at me once then focused its total attention back to filling the air with vocalizations. I took my eye off the bird for only a moment to see how my cats were reacting. When I looked up the raven had disappeared.

Castaneda was interested in my raven story, but he didn't offer an explanation. Ravens and crows, as all shape shifters know, are popular forms of travel in the Americas.

Relatively little is known about Castaneda. De-emphasizing self and erasing personal history is the way Castaneda's line of seers has evolved into warriors of true knowledge. It's also why photos and voice imprints are prohibited.

"There is nothing to Carlos Castaneda," he said. "Personality is a pretense. Fame? Success? Who gives a (expletive)? If we weren't so involved in ourselves, we wouldn't do such barbaric things to ourselves."

Yet, there are some records, and Castaneda himself lets slip a personal fillip now and then. Apparently Castaneda was born around 70 years ago in Peru and was reared by a hedonistic grandfather. But he has spent most of his life in Los Angeles. He graduated from Hollywood High School and received his Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA. For a brief time, he taught cultural anthropology at the University of California-Irvine.

Castaneda does not stand out in a crowd. In fact, you probably wouldn't even see him in a crowd. He's diminutive, not much taller than 5 feet and probably less than 90 pounds. His substantial hair is mostly gray and brushed forward. He likes to joke about how people have described him as looking like someone's gardener or chauffeur or a Mexican waiter. L.A. writer Bruce Wagner once asked Castaneda how he should describe what he looks like. Castaneda suggested Lee Marvin.

Sitting across from me, dressed in an amber, short-sleeve buttoned shirt and khaki pants, hair mussed, he reminded me of an iconoclastic professor retired, the professor of not doing, doing lunch. Except this professor has the eye of the sorcerer, the left one, that grabs at your awareness with unimaginable force.

But all the descriptions are deceptive and fragile. Castaneda doesn't have one look. He has many. His appearance changes with his moods, which shuffle easily. Like his teachers don Juan and don Genero, he laughs, he curses, he makes unearthly voices and exaggerated smacking sounds with his lips. Then he turns fierce as he cogently and eloquently pours out his thoughts on the nature of things.

Castaneda is complex, I expected that. At times he talks in a different language. I expected that, too. It's impossible for most of us luminous eggs to understand all the ideas. Don Juan said that we understand nothing anyway, and that true knowledge is not accomplished through our intellects.

I didn't expect Castaneda's immense humor. "We must laugh to balance us," he said.

He told stories, that cannot be repeated in this publication. I believe he keeps up on current events. He was especially interested in the story of Virginia fertility specialist Cecil Jacobson, who is now in prison for using his own semen to impregnate up to 70 of his patients.

There was no discussion of peyote or Mescalito or little smoke, but he did illustrate for me on a napkin how to cut off the top of a barrel cactus and recover its juice.

"You drink just a little for rejuvenation," Castaneda said, and smacked his lips approvingly.

Arizona is particularly prominent in the Castaneda saga. He met Don Juan in Nogales, Ariz., and spent much time in our state during his apprenticeship and even later. Castaneda's eyes became moist when he recalled the Arizona years.

"Arizona is a magical place," Castaneda said. "The Sonoran Desert has a specific confluence." He said he could not go back to Arizona because it brings back too many strong and poignant memories.

"A warrior knows whatever he sees he will not see again," Castaneda said. "I would seriously weep. I need all my strength.

We are all alone.

Castaneda didn't like his steak. He said it smelled like excrement. He dismissed it, then plowed on to another thought: "The universe is not predictable no matter what scientists tell you," Castaneda said.

It's a theme he hits hard upon, and that we are truly all alone. "God doesn't love, you, believe me." The problem, Castaneda insists, is that we're so trapped in our own egos, we never see the bigger picture of existence. We are not individuals surrounded by other individuals or houses or shopping malls.

"We are individuals surrounded by infinity. Castaneda is vague on how he spends his day, but he still writes. Next year Simon & Schuster will issue a 30th-anniversary edition of "The Teachings of Don Juan A Yaqui Way of Knowledge," with a new foreword by Castaneda. There will also be a new book next year published by HarperCollins, "Magical Passes: The Practical Wisdom of the Shamans of Ancient Mexico." Castaneda has also completed what he calls his "last book" with the working title "The Active Side of Infinity."

"I don't think I can write anymore," Castaneda said. "The universe is predatorial. It produces profound waves of sadness that are homing in on me. This ontological sadness, you see it coming, then you feel it on top of you."

Even the path with heart is no cakewalk. Castaneda may not be with us much longer. He has told his staff as much. "But he won't die a physical death," said Tensegrity instructor or "energy tracker" Kylie Lundahl. "He will disappear the way Don Juan did. He knows there isn't much time left before that happens."

The goal of don Juan's line of Mexican seers has been to complete what they call the "abstract flight," to "evanesce with the totality of their beings" into infinity-disappear with their boots on, so to speak. Castaneda's teacher don Juan and his party are supposed to have done this in 1973.

But Castaneda may have a problem in this regard. One gets the feeling from reading his later books and from personal conversation that something is wrong, and that Lee Marvin is scared.

Before he left this world don Juan Matus made it clear to Castaneda and his other apprentices that this line of Mexican seers of antiquity would end with Castaneda, the last nagual. Something in the energy configuration of the seers left behind was not propitious to continue the line. So, in essence, Castaneda and his party were left with the task of "closing out" the line.

Is it possible that Castaneda, like E.T., has been stranded in this world? Is there something don Juan neglected to tell him about storing enough personal energy for the abstract flight?

During our lunch, which lasted nearly three hours, I couldn't help but disengage myself occasionally from his left eye and wonder what he saw irradiating from my energy body-no doubt something nasty and pink front all the years of loading up on diet colas and sugar-free gum.

I also wondered whether he knew more about that raven than he was letting on. We said our good-byes in the restaurant's parking lot. He said he liked me and enjoyed our conversation. I said: Somos monos extranos. We are strange apes.

He smiled, but didn't answer. He didn't need to. For a moment Castaneda's predatorial universe hooked me with one of its waves of sadness as I remembered what he had said about a warrior knowing whatever he sees he will not see again.

I took a few steps toward my rental car, wondering whether Castaneda would indeed make that connection with his abstract flight. I sincerely hoped so.

When I looked back, Castaneda, like the raven, had vanished.

Sidebar: "This Is The One You Have Been Waiting For!"

Thomas Ropp.