I am having a hard time with Castaneda himself. Maybe this is a generational thing since I know a lot of boomers embraced him (I'm Gen X); or maybe it’s an artifact of my academic training, not being able to see the forest for the trees (but these are some massive trees).
It’s quite likely that I’m missing information, since The Eagle’s Gift is the first of his books that I’ve read but the sixth that he wrote. However, I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching him now, and the more I do, the more uncomfortable I become. This article at Salon.com is a good summary of the events I refer to here.
I realize that what I’ve written below is harsh, and I do not mean to detract from anyone’s experience. We find doors to growth wherever they appear. I am simply putting forward my own encounter with the material and the questions that surfaced through it. I would gladly listen to alternate points of view and hope they are forthcoming.
To begin, the experience of reading the book was not rewarding. I felt like I was slogging through miles of literary shallows to get to one piece of rehashed spiritual philosophy. When there was something new, it was often disturbing, especially those claims that advocate manipulation: statements such as stalkers are “consummate artists in bending people to their wishes.” And “a teacher must trick the disciple.”
Plus, there is this merciless attitude toward “humans” and “human-ness” throughout, as well as a division of the sexes that characterizes most of the females as crazy or lacking in intellect. Not all, but most. I get that he was talking about losing the ego when he said he and others were becoming less human, and that’s not my problem. My problem is that there’s no compassion for anyone outside of the characters in the groups, and little even for them.
The part where he implies that “don Juan” was not celibate, even though he claimed to be, smacked of revisionism of his own created mythology and led me to wonder how much of this and his other books were written with his harem and cult followers in mind, to continue to bend them to his will.
Don Juan never existed. Castaneda’s master’s thesis, which became his first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge, (as well as everything that followed and hinged on it) was at least in great part fabrication. He stitched together elements from the research of other anthropologists, as well as the philosophies of phenomenology and existentialism, to create a tapestry of beliefs and then passed them off as authentic indigenous spirituality. I find this mortifying. He purposefully misrepresented the sacred traditions of indigenous people for his own gain. (He backpedaled on the Yaqui derivation of his mythology early on and in The Eagle’s Gift as well.)
I get that many people have been deeply influenced by Castaneda’s works. They contend that there’s still merit in his books regardless of them being based on lies for profit. But because of his methodology of lifting the actual practices and philosophy from several traditions and schools, I doubt he presents anything new that we can’t find somewhere else in a more honest and encompassing way.
That he used his fame and charisma to become a manipulative cult leader only takes me past discomfort into full blown disgust. Like the imaginary don Juan, Castaneda claimed to be celibate while using his position of power to lure young women into his sphere, and then flattered and seduced them - bending them to his wishes. Not only did he have sex with them, but he dictated their appearance and created an atmosphere of jealousy and rivalry through his distribution of affection.
Our discussion group has talked before about finding value in the message regardless of the messenger. But when does it just become too much? Should we trust an author like Castaneda when we know what we do about him?
I am reminded of the ethical dilemma that scientists faced after WWII: should we or should we not use the findings of the grotesquely horrible experiments Nazi doctors performed on concentration camp inmates? The fact that this even comes to mind says something about how repelled I am by Castaneda.
And that was science—where it is conceivable on some level to separate results of at least certain kinds of experiments from their circumstances; and where those who were experimented on may have found at least a modicum of solace had they known their suffering would benefit future generations.
But this is spirit—and we’re back to the same question: can you separate the message from the messenger? The sacred journey is an aspect of the human experience that has universally (?) held honesty and compassion as foundational. Can someone lacking those qualities be a worthy guide? (I'm open to examples of spiritual paths that disregard honesty and compassion. None come to mind, but that doesn't mean that none exist.)
I spend a lot of time in the yogasphere, where we are up against this question all the damn time. Bikram is only the loudest current example of it; for decades the people around him advocated tuning in to “the message not the man.” And during all of that time, the abuse persisted.
There is much more to this story but for now and for the purposes of discussion here, my question to you is, what if any redeeming value is there in Castaneda’s work?