“For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length–and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.”
― Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
Recently a name has kept on cropping up that takes me back several decades. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the books of Carlos Castaneda, an intriguing figure who, with the unlikeliest of stories, managed to capture the imagination of a generation of spiritual seekers.
The first books to hit the shelves were written when he was an anthropology student. They purported to be true accounts of a meeting with Don Juan, a Yaqui Man of Knowledge of a lineage of Toltec Seers… and of the author’s training and subsequent journeying into ‘nonordinary reality’. Originally hailed as accurate and authentic, the veracity of these books has since been called into question and opinions are still divided, much as one would expect given the fantastic nature of the experiences recounted by Castaneda. His personal life too has come in for much criticism and speculation and that shadow hangs heavy over his work.
There appears to be an automatic connection between an artist’s way of life and the way we, as a society, value their works. Many much-loved artists, writers and musicians have fallen out of favour when their personal lives have hit the tabloids over the past few decades, although, place a century or two between the work and our sensibilities and we seem less ready to pass sweeping and dismissive judgements. I do not think that there is an automatic correlation between the value of art and the morality and veracity… or otherwise… of its creator. Writers of fiction are not castigated but applauded for invention and yet readers still learn from their books. Had Castaneda’s books been marketed as fiction, he might not have had the same publicity, but what made sense to his readers would still have made sense and changed their world view.
For me, it simply doesn’t matter what kid of man Castaneda was in his personal life or if the actual encounters and events were true or not; what matters is the way that reading those books made me think, feel and question a reality that appeared solidly set in the stone of normality. It matters not at all to me what they were supposed to teach, it matters only what I, personally, was able to learn through my experience and interaction with his words and the way those words opened a door into the world for me. Truth, in this sense, has nothing to do with fact. It is a personal perception.
I have been dealing with a similar dichotomy on my own travels, where the persona of a long-dead seer has made herself felt. Imagination… racial memory…the mind clothing facts in a dramatic scenario? I do not question. It doesn’t matter. The experience allows me to touch something of the past in a way mere facts could not, bringing it to life for me… and, as such, it carries its own truth and teaches me through the way it touches my heart.
Did Castaneda ever meet a Don Juan or a Don Genaro? Or live through the surreal journeys and visions he describes? Perhaps he did… maybe he didn’t… it could be that he only ever met them in his imagination or lived them in dream. To meet those thoughts, speculations and images in the mind, with enough clarity to be able to write them down as a coherent story is, necessarily, to be changed by them. And isn’t that the nature of learning? In that sense reality as we know it ceases to have any bearing. Even if the man was simply deluded, or at worst an out and out charlatan, would it really matter? Not if his words serve to unlock something in the minds of his readers that makes the world a richer, more beautiful place, that brings it to a vibrant life they might otherwise have missed, or allows them to unfold their own inner potential or address their fears?
“All human thought, all our ideas, our aspirations, our dreams, experience and knowledge are recorded in books. All the accumulated wisdom of mankind… you never know what you will find, even in the trashiest romantic novel. Treat books with respect.” – My mother.
There are many such books … fiction presented as fact, fact painted as fiction, teachings hidden in a story. There are also many such teachers, whose personal lives may seem questionable, elusive or remain an enigma, like T. Lobsang Rampa, whose works were amongst the earliest to make me question reality and begin to seek a deeper understanding. Yet through their works perhaps we are able to touch something we would otherwise have missed, something that changes our view of the world, of ourselves, or of life itself. Not through them… fallible human personalities identical to our own, some of whom may not even realise the impact or origin of what they write… but through the response of our own heart and mind and what we alone can bring to that alchemy of understanding. It is only in what we each, as individuals, can do with those teachings, found like stray diamonds on the path, that makes them of value to us… or not.
Does it matter if we view the Holy Books of any religion as factual, allegory or fiction if they change the world for one soul and allow them to live in grace? Or if we have chosen our life path for the love of a Lion, a Yaqui Indian or a Bear of little brain, as long as it guides us to be the best we can be? Personally, I don’t think so. It isn’t the origin of realisation that matters but the resulting change to our heart and soul.
Those changes are not something that can be taught, indoctrinated or imposed, they are unique to each of us and can only be experienced and known. They are a flowering within that comes when the earth of the heart opens to the seeds of understanding, and what grows there sets it roots in the soul, breaking apart our preconceptions and allowing the petals of our being to unfold in the Light.