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Bruce Wagner remembers the "simple but not easy" lessons of his teacher, Carlos Castaneda
And I say to you: When someone leaves, someone remains. The point through which a man passed is no longer empty. The only place that is empty, with human solitude, is that through which no man has passed. —César Vallejo
We sometimes passed a billboard in L.A. that digitally tallied how many had died that year—thus far—from smoking. (It is there still.) If I was driving, he’d literally cover his eyes when we approached, wincing in disapproval. Each time he made that gesture, I was surprised and moved: yes, it was true, he’d endlessly instructed how one should use death as an advisor—“I have said it until I am blue in the face”—but the roadside version wasn’t at all what he meant. No learning, no urgent poetics came from numbers that might well have been a telethon’s tote, and nothing evoked the teachings of his lineage: to intend awareness with each breath, for such is the birthright of the impeccable being who is going to die. None: merely another ad, a crude binding upon the clear green chakra of the heart, and it filled him with sorrow . . .
Today the winds are high and piercing. They shake the house and shiver the skin: ineffable, gusty, gutsy, merciless. They come in wild, majestic packs—from left field—at once sentimental and indifferent. They do not care.
They blow in from the ocean of awareness.
From “the border” . . .
Their respirations conjure a major melancholy: my teacher. He is ten years gone—or something like that—I’m incapable of taking measurement. Of crunching the numbers. The space they whistle through isn’t really about my teacher anyhow, though I do miss him at this precise moment, terribly, which is unusual, because most times I feel like he was never here, and also that he never left.
He assuredly did not believe in goodbyes.
He used to speak of ontological sadness, what he called “the sadness of the microbe,” lost in the nebulae.
Perhaps it was this too: I once heard a rinpoche talk about the mixture of joy and sadness befalling those who take responsibility for the wellness, pain and ignorance of sentient beings. How to lead the blind?
There is a chant that begins with the Tibetan word kyema. Sadness, weariness, wariness. A certain sorrow.
The wind is haunting and brings its own effulgence:
The unbearable clear light-ness of being.
The Nagual used to begin lectures with this simple entreaty: “Please suspend judgment.”
How harshly I have judged those who were privileged to write of their teachers, some in these very pages! I viewed such essays as pretentious exercises in false humility—anecdotal rose petals of self-importance flung at the sangha. Now here I am, writing of my “root guru,” the Nagual Carlos Castaneda, with whom I studied, so to speak, for ten years. He always told me I was arrogant, and back then I wondered: But how? In what possible way? How could he even think this?
One day my teacher said that he was compelled to bring me “to the border.” He said he had failed to do that very thing, long ago, with another, and his debt must be paid.
Egotistically, I thought, “I have entered one of his Tales of Power. I might even rate a chapter in a new book.”
Sometimes it is a great teaching to be so wrong.
Only now am I beginning to understand the potent elegance of the phrase’s impossible simplicity: to the border.
The Nagual Carlos Castaneda was not an easy man to find, especially if one went looking. It is curious that our first encounter was at a brunch in Santa Monica.
I should briefly explain: nagual can denote many things. In my teacher’s case, the word was associated with the leaders of a distinct ancient lineage of Mexican sorcerers. For me, it is an honorific of great respect and affection as well, equivalent to rinpoche or roshi. He also used nagual in his books, to denote the realm of dreaming—“the second attention”—as opposed to “the first attention” of everyday life, or tonal.
I’ve always liked the employment of that word, attention. He told me that his teacher, the Nagual don Juan Matus, had literally saved his life. Carlos Castaneda asked what he could do to repay him. Don Juan Matus answered, “Give me your full attention.”
In my teens, transfixed by Henry Miller’s Big Sur, I threw away my wallet and hitched a ride north, winding up in a halfway house. In that place, I became obsessed with stowing away on a freighter to Peru. After this phase ended, I watched Kwaidan and read the ghost stories of Lafcadio Hearn, cultivating a sudden, powerful desire to move to Honshu, where it seemed that both the living and the dead were startled to discover they had somehow changed places. I sobbed over Tobias Schneebaum’s flamboyant attempts to obliterate his identity in Keep the River on Your Right. Even though this gorgeous memoir contained a well-known epigram from The Teachings of Don Juan, I had not yet read Carlos Castaneda. I was seventeen.
The quote Schneebaum chose was this:
Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question. This question is one that only a very old man asks. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young, and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it. Now I do understand it. I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths, but I am not anywhere. My benefactor’s question has meaning now. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, the path is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.
I’ve left the passage intact because Mr. Schneebaum’s instincts were correct. The phrase “path of the heart” is too often removed from its original context. Torn from its nest, the abbreviated bird still sings the loveliest of songs, yet too easily becomes the dove of peace, a slogan, a greeting card emblem.
The Nagual told me that I needed energy to even find such a path. To do so, he encouraged me to recapitulate my life. While such a discipline has a parallel in meditation—the ends are the same, the means different—the energetic act of recapitulation remains unique to his tradition. During the recapitulation, attention is paid to inbreath and outbreath as one performs a studied remembrance of every single being one has ever known or encountered, from parents to intimates, lovers to friends, acquaintances to strangers. You begin by compiling a list; many of those on that list have names—many cannot. The compilation itself can take months. The very act of list-making distracts the mind; the recapitulation is a lifelong preparation for entering silence. (It was of curious note for me to read a lecture in which Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche spoke of a practice “known as smrti, which means 'recollection.'”) Another activity exclusive to Carlos Castaneda’s lineage is the discipline called tensegrity, a word my teacher borrowed from Buckminster Fuller to describe the vast suite of physical movements called “magical passes” that don Juan Matus taught his students, and which are taught to this day. The modern version of those ancient passes is another way of quieting the inner dialogue in order to court silence.
One night at dinner I told him, as Almodóvar put it, “todo sobre mi madre”—all about my mother. Afterward, we wandered outside. He pointed to the night sky and spoke with casual scholarship and warmth, as if the stars were old friends. He showed me Coma Berenices. Such was my ignorance that I’d never even heard of this constellation, yet I was touched because my mother’s birth name, a name she ultimately rejected, was Bernice. Again, he spoke about the act of energetically recapitulating one’s life, and I was reminded of a stunning chapter in The Autobiography of a Yogi called “Outwitting the Stars.” Paramhansa Yogananda wrote that man can escape the destiny imposed on him by the stars, the constellations of which were actually there as a goad and reminder from his moment of birth. “The soul,” Yogananda wrote, “is ever free; it is deathless because birthless. It cannot be regimented by stars.” The shamans of Carlos Castaneda’s lineage described a force called the Eagle that devoured awareness as our bodies came to the end of their usefulness. The recapitulation provided a facsimile of one’s life experience that the Eagle accepted, allowing one to enter the realm of pure consciousness and be free.
I have always been devastated by the beauty of that.
Time is spherical. Now I was thirty-five and writing my first novel. Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby Stories, it was about an aspiring screenwriter whose spirit was broken by Hollywood. I met the Nagual at brunch in a private home. He was ebullient, gem tlich, gregarious. I liked him instantly. He told me of the studios’ attempts—even Fellini’s—to adapt his books. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation with the man who wrote Journey to Ixtlan.
We had many lunches after that, and I slowly came to understand he was and would be my teacher.
We traveled to Mexico. He showed me places that had been of great significance on his journey. We visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; the pyramids of the sun and the moon; the caves of Cacahuamilpa; and Tula, the Toltec capitol that figured in The Eagle’s Gift and The Art of Dreaming. At dusk, the church opposite our small hotel and the benches of the town square filled one with longing, blurring the borderlines.
But what were his teachings?
“They are simple,” he said, “but not easy.”
Last year, I had a pivotal dream. I was set upon by dogs that threatened to tear me apart if I mistepped. I was able to remain relatively calm; eventually, with the help of bystanders, I escaped. But just before awakening, a voice informed, “These dogs are from another dimension. This is how it is going to feel—and this is how it is going to smell. This is the beginning of how it is going to be.”
In shock, I lurched to the computer and wrote everything down. What set this apart from a “normal” dream was this: rather than being feral, the dogs were bizarrely composed of purebreds, including poodles and chihuahuas. (The Nagual had spoken to me of just such incongruous indicators. He called them scouts or “foreign energy” that invited one to a broader awareness.) Since the vision had terrified me so, it needed to be closely examined, and manipulated by intent. I remembered something extremely useful he had said: One can change the course of dreaming through intent, just as the course of rivers are changed by the erosion of wind and Time. Through the act of recording my dream, I could see how my initial interpretation was malevolent, yet it slowly became clear that the dogs were bringing an enticement to awareness. This was their gift.