Beyond Castaneda and don Juan



Even though Carlos Castaneda is now dead (he died in 1998), his adventures with a Yaqui Indian brujo or sorcerer, don Juan Matus (a pseudonym), continue to excite the imagination of devoted readers. The Wikipedia article on Castaneda states: “His 11 books have sold more than 28 million copies in 17 languages.” That is no mean achievement, and a well-deserved one: those accounts can only be described as gripping.

donjuancastanedaTimecoverBefore going further, I should clarify that most of the ideas in this article belong to a friend of mine, who did an in-depth study of Castaneda and don Juan. I too had read many of Castaneda’s works, but they had not struck me as being germane to Sufism. (In particular, the use of psychedelic substances is totally alien to Sufism.) This friend, who wishes to remain strictly private (not unlike Carlos and don Juan!), told me that he was able to understand certain facts and concepts of Sufism only by reference to similar ones he had encountered earlier in Castaneda’s works. Since Truth is One, I do not find it surprising that widely divergent cultures should have stumbled upon the same—or similar—realities. Perhaps the Toltecs even had a prophet of their own once.


In an interview with Sam Keen, Castaneda said: “The idea that I concocted a person like don Juan is inconceivable.” He stated in the prologue to The Eagle’s Gift that “this is not a work of fiction.” It will probably always be debated whether Castaneda’s accounts were fact, fiction, or partly fact and partly fiction. (I have seen the suggestion of 70 percent fact and 30 percent fiction.) As to their veracity, I frame no hypothesis. What is relevant for us here is to explore how these can help elucidate, or act as bridges to, the phenomena, concepts, and experiences of Sufism. In the present context, whether these are factual or fictitious accounts makes no difference.

As for Castaneda’s claim in his later books that he remembered things about don Juan that he had totally forgotten, I find this not implausible. I remember the experience of a friend with Master Ahmet Kayhan. He had asked the Master: “Sir, what will we do after you go?” The Master took out a book, folded over a page in it, and gave him the book, saying: “Read this when the time comes.” The friend, of course, had no intention of doing that: he was going to read it immediately as soon as he got home. Yet when he got home, it had totally slipped his mind. And he did not remember it until—years later and after the Master had passed away!—the book was brought out of his library by a visiting friend, with the original fold in the book still there. The friend then remembered at once, opened the fold, and read: “Seek no other Master after I’m gone.”

Another point that needs clarification is the mixed nature of the phenomenon we are faced with. Etymologically, Nagual (the g sometimes pronounced as h) means “man of knowledge,” from the root na, “to know.” But it also means “sorcerer” and sometimes the sorcerer’s familiar spirit (or, in Castaneda’s terminology, “Ally”). The knowledge involved, therefore, is not just mystical in nature; it is also magical.

Now there is an inherent opposition, and therefore tension, between religion/mysticism and magic. Magic, like technology, aims to bend nature to one’s will, one’s intent. Its purpose is to make the ego, the Base Self (nafs al-ammara), victorious over external events. There is something Faustian or Nietzschean in this. The aim of mysticism and Sufism, on the other hand, is an experience of God by dissolving the ego and purifying the Base Self. In other words, one yields respectfully to God: “Not my but Thy will be done.” In Castaneda/don Juan’s worldview (I sometimes use “don Carlos” to underline the inseparability of the two), magical knowledge mingles with mystical knowledge. In any case, we shall confine ourselves to the mystical part of the teachings of don Carlos.

The following passages, then, are excerpts from a conversation recorded with my friend on March 29, 2014. Normal text is his speech, bold or bracketed text belongs to me.



I think the greatest takeaway lesson from the Castaneda-don Juan saga is that reality is not what you think it is. The Prophet says: “This world is not what you think it is,” he says “People are asleep, they wake up when they die.” If you realize this, it means you have begun to wake up. I think that’s the most important message: The world is other than you think it is, you’re asleep even when you’re awake.

Why did I read those books? Not because I believed in them, but because I wanted to decide whether or not they were convincing. When they convinced me, parallels with Islam came only then.

Let’s start at the beginning. You knew a few things about Islam…

I knew very little, I knew what everyone knows. I didn’t know anything extra beyond that. This started in 1983-84 and continued for ten years. I met Master Ahmet Kayhan in 1993.

What attracted me to Carlos? I heard about him from a person who had taken LSD. He mentioned The Teachings of Don Juan. There are power plants, substances in it. I started reading the book and couldn’t put it down. I don’t really read novels or things like that, I don’t like novels. They’re things made up by somebody. Here he’s telling these things, and telling them as true events. He says so at the start of every book.

In my view, what Carlos is really successful at is that he relates these things. He doesn’t teach, he tells. When you’re in a teaching position, everybody slams on the brakes. That’s why Master Kayhan says, “Be friends with your children, don’t be parents.” Because parents teach. They add a superior status to themselves. If you’re friends, the relationship is on the same level, so you can be of more help there.

Now Carlos does this exceedingly well. He tells of his inner world, his conflicts. If you experienced those things, you’d feel the same. This lends an unbelievable attractiveness. If you learn by experiencing, that becomes yours. You own it. In living it, it becomes engraved in stone. Otherwise, it’s engraved on ice.

This kind of training takes a long time, because there’s so much to be experienced. As he relates what he lived, he automatically makes you live it, too. That’s why understanding the heart of the matter comes after the first six books, the real summaries and so on.

As I’m reading Carlos, I’m at the stage of becoming convinced. I’m not yet at the point of establishing a connection with Islam. I haven’t decided yet, I haven’t believed. I’m looking at the extent to which these books preserve internal consistency. I’m looking at the earnestness of the man.


Before that, I went to the Snake-healer Hajji (Yilanci Haci). This is in 1980, before I started to read Castaneda. I first saw it on the TV program “Arena” dealing with out-of-the-ordinary phenomena. This man heals snakebites and scorpion stings. He lives in the south of Turkey [Taci Macit (1930-2009) of Dörtyol/Hatay]. A snake bites you, the venom begins to spread in your blood.

Snake venom causes blood to solidify into a gel. Without an antidote, the process is irreversible.

This man, he recites a prayer and strokes the vicinity of the affected area. The venom gathers together and flows back out of the wound. There’s something there that violates the second law of thermodynamics. A drop of ink dissolving in water has only an infinitesimal chance of gathering together again. Entropy always increases with time, here it decreases within a matter of minutes, every time he does it. It’s in direct contradiction to the laws of physics.

So I investigate, because we’ve received a scientific training. I go to this man’s hometown. Everybody knows him there. When there’s a case of snakebite or a scorpion stings you, the local hospital makes an announcement and summons him. He’s accepted by the local medical establishment. I see that man, I become convinced. He says he recites a prayer that traces back to the illustrious Sufi saint, Abdulqader Geylani. That’s when I first hear about the Grand Saint.

He lived nearly a thousand years ago.

He says he received this “hand” from his predecessor, and will pass it on to a successor before he dies. He claims he can heal a person even across a distance of hundreds of miles. He recites on honey, you eat it, you’re immune against snakebites and scorpions for a year.

Later he started using salt instead of honey.

That’s how I read Castaneda, too. I sense an earnestness in his narration. A person can have an experience, but may not be able to analyze it correctly himself, yet there may be something there. I encountered examples like that, too. I could have denied right from the start, but I didn’t. You don’t understand acupuncture, but there’s something there. You don’t understand quantum mechanics, but there’s something there. Your understanding of a matter or the lack thereof, and there being something to it, are two different things.

People may say things because circumstances force them to, their opponents pounce on it and say, “Aha! I’ve caught him in a lapse.” This isn’t the important thing. What’s important is the fullness or emptiness of the concepts. The truth or falsehood of something, not in terms of form, but conceptually. My effort is to draw lessons from the stories. That’s my only concern.


And a mouse… is miracle enough… to stagger sextillions of infidels.—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

How did you establish the connection with Islam and Sufism?

I didn’t actually set out to prove a connection with Islam. I started to believe in God when I was 18. No matter where you look, there’s so much evidence of intricate design in nature. You don’t need mathematics or physics to see that, it’s obvious to any discerning eye. Disorder is what you expect, it’s what’s normal. Order is something unexpected. Design in nature is extraordinarily surprising. You can see it in terms of mathematics, of art, of engineering… And a mathematical order coded into nature is something truly unexpected. Only through mathematics are we able to reach a deeper understanding of nature’s inner workings.

Now mathematics is the concrete form of logic, of the mind. Mathematics is a manifestation of the mind. Hence nature, too, must be the manifestation of a mind—an infinite mind.

And Einstein spoke of “the mind of God”…

That caused me to believe in God, but it left the concept of prophethood unaccounted for, because I don’t understand that yet.

You’ve arrived at “the God of the philosophers,” but not at “the God of the prophets”…

I hadn’t believed in the Prophet yet, that was in suspension. I hadn’t denied it, but I didn’t have any conception of prophethood, of sainthood. He was an intelligent man and all that. But was he, really?

After those books, I became convinced that there can be such a thing as prophethood, as sainthood. Then I began to read this side (Islam, Sufism) and study this side as well. And I saw the similarities. Now I’m at the stage of: “there are saints in Islam, but not in our day.” We can’t see them, it’s impossible for me to find one. That is, the books awaken you, they awaken you to reality. And then, I finally met the Master.

What really got to me was this: we have saints. What is a Sufi sage, what is a Friend of God? Now that man (don Juan) has attributes of that sort. After you read those books, you become convinced that saints can exist. If such a thing can exist there, it can also exist here, in this culture. Then you arrive at the stage of not rejecting.


Why does don Juan give Carlos psychedelic substances?

To “blow his mind.” The purpose of experimenting with power plants is to shatter his worldview. Because our most important predicament is that we think we know everything. So nothing can attract our attention, because we already know everything there is to know. I already know everything, what can you teach me? Then, I begin to look for other goals in life: I’ll become a football player, I’ll become a physicist, and so on.

But those substances break down your self-confidence. Because you observe different things. You have to empty your cup before it can be filled. But we don’t empty our cup, because we’re sure of it.


The main thing is to become a “man of knowledge.” Now it only becomes clear after the third book that this is the real goal. But our young people get stuck there. Because you experience different things when you take those substances, you enter different worlds. Don Juan guided Carlos with substances, but he also guided him out of them. He prevented him from becoming an addict.

Don Juan uses various terms like “hunter, nagual, sorcerer, man of knowledge.” Talk about these. How are they different?


Men generally have a predilection, a weakness, for hunting. Don Juan sees that weakness in him, he tries to teach him through that weakness. For instance, you have to learn the habits of the animal you’re hunting: where it sleeps, what it eats, what it drinks. That is, you have to observe it. Then you can develop tactics for hunting it. He calls this “stalking.”

Now the lesson here is this: in the end, you stalk yourself. You observe the undesirable qualities in your self. That is, in the end you hunt yourself, you corner your own self. Don Juan tells him that only at the very end. He tries to teach him something by using his weakness for hunting. But being a hunter is not an important objective in itself. A good hunter, “a warrior stalks himself.”


Next, sorcerer. That’s another bait. You want to be an illusionist, right? It attracts his attention. Practising sorcery, magic is a sin in Islam. Because you override the free will of another person, and that’s magic. It’s a form of power, power over the other person.

But that, too, is a bait. His interest has to be attracted, so that it becomes possible to teach him other things via that attraction. He wants to lead him somewhere by employing the attraction, the weakness, of the ego for power. This is like trying to teach Sufism to a person who has no religious grounding whatsoever. You have to start them off with something else. The purpose is to make a man of knowledge out of him. Sorcery is not the goal, but he keeps saying “sorcerer, sorcerer.” That’s not the real aim.


Warrior corresponds to our mujahid, or “struggler.” The warrior eats slowly, not fast. If he catches two fish, he eats one and throws the other fish back in the water. He breaks the power of the Base Self. And what do they say in Sufism? “For those who want Observation, struggle is necessary.” And that means being a warrior, a warrior against one’s self. The aim here is not to draw the sword and behead someone else. In our terms, it is to show your own self, your ego, no respite.

But once the goal is reached, you no longer need to be a warrior. You’ve won the war, the war is over. As the Master put it: “It’s difficult until one becomes a saint. It’s easy afterwards.”

It’s like this Sufi story: The Grand Saint, Abdulqader Geylani, was eating at a table laden with food. The mother of a youth in training arrives. The youth has crumbs for food, the Saint is eating lavishly. The woman can’t understand this, she can’t stand it. The Saint says to a fried chicken, “Rise up and walk.” The chicken immediately reconstitutes and “cluck, cluck,” struts away. Then the Saint says, “If you hadn’t interfered, your son would have been able to do this, too.” But he’s enjoying all kinds of blessings there. So once the real goal is obtained, the rest is of no importance.


A person has four natural enemies: fear, clarity, power, and old age. A man of knowledge can defeat the first three, he can’t defeat old age. But in that list, power is interesting, because a sorcerer seeks power. There was a final obstacle in Hermeticism, the Master said, “That’s the real trial.” As the Turkish Sufi poet Yunus Emre says: “We crossed the Sea of Power, thanks be to God.”



Everything you know is within the tonal. So what is the nagual? Everything that’s beyond that. That is, the nagual is outside the totality of everything you know. If you think you know it, it’s not the nagual. That includes what you know conceptually. Like in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave—everything inside the cave is the tonal, everything outside the cave is the nagual.

So that’s the nagual. To me, it seems like being conscious of God, or like cosmic consciousness. Now the human being who has attained that consciousness, who is in that consciousness, is the human nagual.

When you’re a nagual, there’s something different there. The mind has stopped, it has nothing to do with the mind. It has transcended the intellect. It’s beyond anything you know.

Nowhere does Carlos say: “I’ve reached this consciousness.” Under certain conditions, extraordinary things manifest from him. But those around him treat him as the nagual after don Juan and his company depart.

The nagual is a person who has transcended our level of consciousness, who has attained a consciousness we’re not capable of. Who has annihilated himself, at least for the moment. Now this can change. For instance, Adam fell out of that state. With the nagual, everything is possible in terms of that person’s performance. He gives many examples of that.


In The Eagle’s Gift, don Juan says his benefactor, the nagual Julian, told him that “there is no God.” This has always bothered me. What do you make of that?

Actually, it’s the Christian conception of God that they seem to be opposed to. As you know, Christianity is part of their culture. They have been taught that God has a son, a wife, in the sense of a human female who gives birth to God’s child. That’s what they’ve learned to understand when they use the word “God.” Don Genaro, a sorcerer friend of don Juan, even makes fun of the Trinity at one point. They reject that.

The following conversation takes place in Tales of Power:

“Is the nagual the Supreme Being, the Almighty, God?” I asked.

“No. God is also on the table. Let’s say that God is the tablecloth.” …

“But, are you saying that God does not exist?”

“No. I didn’t say that. All I said was that the nagual was not God, because God is an item of our personal tonal and of the tonal of the times. The tonal is, as I’ve already said, everything we think the world is composed of, including God, of course.” …

“In my understanding, don Juan, God is everything. Aren’t we talking about the same thing?”

“No. God is only everything you can think of, therefore, properly speaking, he is only another item on the island. God cannot be witnessed at will, he can only be talked about. The nagual, on the other hand, is at the service of the warrior. It can be witnessed, but it cannot be talked about.”

You can see here that don Juan is treating God as a concept. God is a part of our conceptual system, of what is known to us, and hence of our tonal. He includes God in that, because it’s a concept. In the end, the concept of God is a concept. And yet, we know from Sufism that the reality that is God “can be witnessed, but cannot be talked about.” It’s like this: God is beyond anything you can conceive, “different from whatever comes to your mind.” God cannot be comprehended, reduced to logic, to an intellectual format. Or, “He who knows does not speak, he who speaks does not know.” Because it’s nothing that can be told. It’s a tremendous mystery (mysterium tremendum). If it were anything that could be told, it would’ve been told by now. And those who try to talk about it are like those who ventured out of Plato’s Cave and came back to tell it. It’s nothing that can fit into the perception of those remaining inside. Hence, in that respect at least, Absolute Reality is like the nagual.

What we would call “God,” they call “the Eagle.” A little further on in the same book, don Juan says that the Eagle bestows awareness through its emanations. Carlos says this is like what a religious man would say about God, that God bestows life through love. Don Juan says he thinks the two statements mean the same thing.

And in The Eagle’s Gift, don Juan says: “There is nothing visual about the Eagle. The entire body of a seer senses the Eagle. … man’s awareness is compelled to interpret. The result is a vision of the Eagle and the Eagle’s emanations. But there is no Eagle and no Eagle’s emanations. What is out there is something that no living creature can grasp.” That sounds a lot like an experience of God to me.



In nature, eagle and snake are mortal enemies. And the serpent is a symbol for both Satan and the Base Self. So perhaps the eagle is a symbol both for God, and for the warrior who has succeeded in vanquishing his Base Self. What does the Prophet say? “The greatest battle is the war against one’s self.” And the Grand Saint Abdulqader Geylani was called “the white falcon” (baz al-ash’hab), which is similar to an eagle.

The Eagle exists. It’s not an idol. Seeing the Eagle is a very dangerous thing. It burns people. At the edge of finitude, the archangel Gabriel tells the Prophet: “One more step and I’ll burn.” There’s that analogy, too. But seeing, of course, is not seeing with the physical eye. The eagle is not the eagle you or I know. It’s something infinite, something infinite-dimensional.

They call it “the Eagle” only to be able to describe it. They could have called it anything else as well. They could have called the Eagle “snow.” People can interpret it in different ways. That’s a matter of interpretation. But here’s the truth: human beings have extraordinary abilities, and there are extraordinary things in the external world. They’re not as we think they are.

In The Eagle’s Gift, we’re told that everything is made out of the Eagle’s emanations. God’s light is everywhere, right? It’s like seeing everywhere bathed in light.


In The Power of Silence, don Juan tells a story. Once upon a time there was a man, an average man without any special attributes. He was a channel for the Spirit, like everyone else. And like everyone else, he was part of the Spirit, part of the abstract. But he didn’t know it. The world kept him so busy that he had neither the time nor the inclination to really examine the matter.

The Spirit tried, without success, to reveal their connection. Using an inner voice, the Spirit disclosed its secrets, but the man was incapable of understanding the revelations. He heard the inner voice, but he believed it to be his own feelings he was feeling and his own thoughts he was thinking. The Spirit physically crossed the man’s path in the most obvious manner. But the man was oblivious to anything but his self-concern.

In Sufism there’s a saying, “If God didn’t desire to give, He wouldn’t give you the desire”—the desire to search for God. And the Master said, “God gave even Himself” to humankind.


The Eagle’s gift is a concept that I later discovered in Islam. You have to die. For example, prior to their departure, don Juan and Carlos have a talk that summarizes everything. There, Carlos says that it was as if don Juan suddenly became capable of speech. Until then, he doesn’t say anything, but he’s aware of everything. It turns out that the man was totally in control. That is, the qualifications come much later. The pieces of the puzzle settle into place at a very late stage. But this is normal. Don’t we ourselves meet lots of people who learn about Sufism by reading books, who think they understand everything, yet understand nothing?


When people die, the Eagle swallows their spirits. A few, a very few, the Eagle spits out again. Then you revive. That’s the Eagle’s gift. And it’s the Sufic concept: “Die before you die.” That’s a saying of the Prophet. I didn’t know it back then, but it’s the essence of Sufism.

Now this isn’t asceticism. This isn’t a diet. This is to go to and return from the very brink of death. These are the real naguals, this is the true goal. Don Juan says: “Only when they are nothing do they become everything.” All the examples he gives are of this sort. All the naguals have stories like that. And so do the sages of Sufism.

For example, Abdulqader Geylani doesn’t eat for more than thirty days. They place food in front of him, he doesn’t eat. He’s right at the brink. In ordinary terms, he may as well be dead. The analogies are similar. But the real task begins after that. In Sufism, too, you have to die before you die, only then is Spirit breathed into you.

Now, the concept of the Eagle’s gift is in Book 6. But so many years have passed until Carlos gets there. There are traces of it in the earlier books, but he can’t express them well because he hasn’t understood them well. He understands only after that.

Are you saying that there’s an exact match between Sufism and don Juan?

No. There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between don Juan’s teachings and those of Sufism. Yet there are many parallels, too many to be ignored. For instance, the notion of an “assemblage point” is not found in Sufism. By shifting his assemblage point, a sorcerer assembles different worlds. And yet, this concept helped me to understand the Sufi shaykh Ibn Arabi’s concept of “the Five Presences” (hazarat al-hamsa). I was able to understand that, by shifting his state of consciousness,  a Sufi sage is able to perceive alternate realities here and now.

Are there any parallels with Islam and Sufism that can’t be found with other religions or traditions?

Yes. I can think of at least three.


There’s an account in the Koran of Moses on Mount Sinai:

“When Moses came at Our appointed time and his Lord spoke with him, he said, ‘My Lord, show me Yourself, so that I may behold You.’ Said He, ‘You cannot see Me; but look at the mountain—if it remains firm in its place, then you may see Me.’ But when God manifested Himself on the mountain,  it crumbled to dust; and Moses fell down unconscious. When he awoke, he said, ‘Glory be to You! I repent to You; I am the first of the believers.’” (7:143)


Now one of the concepts in Castaneda is “jumping into the abyss.” He says: “I jumped together from the top of the mountain into an abyss.” This occurs at the end of the fourth book, but is explained only at the beginning of the fifth. There Carlos says that he disintegrated.

And the Master explained that the mountain had an esoteric meaning, that it was actually Moses’s “head,” Moses’s “mountain,” that disintegrated.

Then Carlos reintegrates. He finds himself in one place, he becomes whole again. But the process continues. His body disintegrates, he goes 17 times between the tonal and the nagual.

Now you can’t find this in Buddhism, you can’t find this in Christianity. The closest thing to this is the disintegration of Moses’s mountain in the Koran.


Here’s another example. The Death Defiers are first introduced in Book 7, The Fire From Within. There are more than one of them. Now in Islamic lore, Khidr and Elias (Elijah) drink the Water of Life, the elixir of immortality. They’re shorn of human attributes and clothed in divine attributes.


Now, the death defier: there’s this man, he’s immortal. The naguals have extraordinary personal power. They can impart personal power by touching you. There’s an energy transfer. To use our word for it, that energy attracts Khidr, too. And the nagual gives him energy. These meetings continue from nagual to nagual. The thing about the death defier is this: he has thousands of years of accumulated knowledge. But this knowledge is not knowledge of the sort we know, it’s not book-knowledge. The death defiers make gifts of power: “The mystery about the gifts is that no one on this earth, with the exception of the death defier, can give us a sample of that knowledge.” (Book 9, The Art of Dreaming.) And in the Koran, what does God tell Moses? Even though Moses is endowed with deep knowledge, God still tells Moses to meet up with Khidr, who has “knowledge from Our side” (ilm al-ladun, 18:65)—that is, hidden knowledge. And in Sufism, Khidr reports to the Saint of the Age.

Now there’s no such thing in Christianity, nor in Buddhism. The closest is with us. You think Khidr is a fairy tale, but it tells you Khidr is real. Not just a “Khidr manifestation,” not just a saving grace from God when you’re in dire straits. Khidr is a real person, a concrete person. And he has the ability to take on any form. You and I both know a person who encountered him—not once, but several times.


Our internal dialog doesn’t leave us alone. Stopping the world is to stop the internal dialog, to stop the incessant chatter of the mind. One of the books is The Power of Silence. After you stop the internal dialog, that silence has a power. Now, to stop this during Formal Prayer (salat, namaz). But I can’t stop it!

There’s a Tradition of the Prophet about that. The Prophet said: “Whoever doesn’t bring anything to mind during Prayer, I’ll give him my cloak.” None of them succeeded. The Prophet turned to his beloved cousin and son-in-law: “How about you, Ali?” Ali said, “I thought about which of your cloaks you were going to give.” So it’s easier said than done.

Those are the Base Self’s distractions it throws up as obstacles during Prayer.

Stopping the internal dialog is a major step all by itself. The methods the Master advises during Prayer—holding your breath, squeezing your torso with your clasped arms—are all just to stop the internal dialog. That has to happen so that something else can emerge from the power of silence. But I don’t know what that thing is. In a sense, stopping the world is to tie up the devil, but that’s another story.

Now let’s see: is “stopping the world” in Christianity? Is it in Buddhism? No. Only in Islam and Sufism can you find it.


What does it say in the Koran? In Paradise, you don’t get hungry, you don’t get cold, you don’t get tired (20:117-119). The implication is that you suffer all those things if you get cast out of Paradise.

Now, there’s a woman. I know her. Her grandfather was one of the great Sufi saints. That woman doesn’t eat or drink for 17 days, she says “I’m not hungry.” Of course with the aid of her grandfather, from the other side. But then, she can’t stand that state. She sees the truth of everyone, she sees them for what they are: some look like wolves, others like jackals. She can’t bear it. Finally, she prays, and they remove it from her. But for those 17 days, she didn’t sleep at all, she didn’t get tired at all.

What does this mean? She’s in a different state of consciousness. When she looks, she sees. She entered a state that’s reserved for great saints. But she couldn’t bear it, because it’s not the right time. She hasn’t matured enough to withstand it. It’s like the Master says: “Don’t ask for Unveiling, you’ll beg.” Because you’re not in a position to handle that fire, you haven’t become ashes.  You have to be ash to hold fire in your hands. You’re raw, unripe. How will you bear it?

So I’m trying to draw a parallel with the Verse. No hunger, no thirst, no sleep. And not the slightest sign of being tired physically. For 17 days. How can this be? I don’t sleep for a night, it hits me like a ton of bricks.


Then there’s Adam. The fall of Adam from Eden: self-importance developed in man, he lost that property. Otherwise, the human was doing just fine.

Now Don Juan says he believes that the Christian idea of being cast out from the Garden of Eden sounds like an allegory for losing our silent knowledge, our knowledge of intent. Sorcery, then, is a going back to the beginning, a return to paradise. In time, self-importance developed, and this self-importance causes a fall into the normal state. In the Koran, God says: “Get down from there.” Does that mean to get down from Paradise to earth, or to get down from that state? At that time I’m just getting acquainted with the Koran, I became convinced that it was a fall out of a state. “I’ll create a vicegerent on earth,” “I’ll create him of clay,” it’s all happening on earth. When you look at the Koran, he wasn’t created in Paradise and didn’t fall to earth. How can he be in Paradise and on earth at the same time? He’s in another state.


Don Juan says: “Self-importance is man’s greatest enemy.” And: “full awareness comes to [warriors] only when there is no more self-importance left in them.”

In Satan’s case, it’s totally self-importance. He says: “You created me from fire, Adam from clay. Fire is superior to clay.” That’s the reason he was cast out. You were the leader of the angels, you become the devil. You’re expelled from Paradise.

The nagual Julian speaks of self-importance as a three-thousand-headed monster. Now in Sufism, it is the Base Self (nafs al-ammara) that is regarded as the monster with multiple heads. Self-importance, or arrogance, is merely one of the “foot-soldiers” of the Base Self, such as rage, jealousy and greed. So when he says self-importance, Julian actually means the Base Self, though he lacks the technical vocabulary to articulate it. What we have here is an introduction to the Sufic teachings regarding levels of selfhood in rudimentary form.


cc7a1Personal power corresponds to divine light. Personal power or light is very important. And this involves struggle. For that, you have to be a warrior. Don Juan places great emphasis on this, he says all sorcerers strive to accumulate personal power. They shun illegal sex because it reduces personal power. And the Sacred Verses state that light is accumulated in this world. The unbelievers will say, “draw close so we can benefit from your light.” The believers will say, “You can’t, it could only be gathered while in the world” (57:12-13).

In time, I made these connections. The importance of divine light in Islam and personal power are parallel, they have different purposes. The sorcerer wants to save himself, to enter paradise while on earth. The Master says the intention should be to save everyone.


The man tries his hardest, but his heart isn’t in it. That is, not to put it in your heart, not to have your heart set on it.

Now this is an interesting concept. He gives him nonsensical tasks. For instance, “Walk forty times around this house.” It later emerges that the reason for this is to do something without having one’s interest in mind. And with us? To do something for God’s sake. Not necessarily for one’s personal benefit. But people don’t do anything unless it’s in their interest. So it turns out that it was being done to break that. To do something without personal gain. But people can’t do that. So that’s what it was for.

Medicinal plants, we have that. I don’t know it at that time, but there’s Prophetic medicine.

In Islam there’s seven heavens, there you have the “seven worlds” of a sorcerer (in The Fire From Within). You have different rates of time flow, like “a day is 50 thousand of your years,” as it says in the Koran.


Some of the training is conducted in a normal state of consciousness. But some of it takes place in what Carlos calls the “left side awareness.” When you analyze that, it corresponds to a hypnotic state. Not a trance state, but a hypnotic state. Carlos never calls it that, he calls it “left side awareness.” Training can be enormously accelerated in that state, because your focus reaches an unparalleled intensity. The downside is that you don’t remember what you learned in that state when you’re in your normal state of consciousness. The sorcerers have the ability to put you in that state immediately. You remember, but only in later years.

In the case of Sufism, you have training in sleep states, even if you don’t remember your dreams and even when the Master has passed away. The ones you do remember offer a clue as to what is actually going on during deep sleep.

What about the differences?


One of the contrasts with us is that don Juan does not emphasize courtesy (adab). They’re not discourteous, but courtesy isn’t emphasized. And the same with morality: they’re not immoral, they don’t steal, but they live isolated from the world. There’s no worship, of course. There’s no understanding of revelation as we know it, and hence no knowledge of life after death, of the Judgment Day. They seem to be discovering things themselves as they go along.

waywithheartAnother main difference is that don Juan’s “path with heart” is holistic in theory but atomistic in practice, while Islam is holistic both in theory and in practice.

What do I mean by that? They’re interested only in their  personal salvation. They’re out to save their own skin. In Islam, on the other hand, individual and social salvation go hand in hand: both the individual and society are emphasized. In the Koran, almost every Verse dealing with Prayer also mentions the Alms-tax (zakat, a form of charity) in the same breath. The aim is not just the improvement of a very few, but “the greatest good of the greatest number.” And martyrs (shahid: “witness”) who die in combat are said to be not dead, but alive in the Koran. Because they have made the greatest sacrifice, their own lives, to save their society.

In his second book (Spirit and Body), the Master approvingly quoted an anecdote by the Sufi Shaykh Sadi of Shiraz: “A dervish left the convent and enrolled at the university (madrasah). I asked him why he had forsaken dervishhood and come over to the ranks of the scholars. He replied: ‘A dervish tries to pull his own prayer mat out of the water. A scholar tries to rescue those being drowned.’”

That sounds a lot like the boddhisattvic ideal found in Buddhism. Except that a Sufi knows that one can’t save others unless one is first enlightened oneself. The boddhisattva says, “I forsake enlightenment until all sentient beings are enlightened.” But the Sufi couplet goes, “Until the candle was kindled / it did not burn the moth.” As Jesus—whom we may consider a Sufi of his time in this respect—said: “I, if I be lifted up, will lift up all humankind with me” (Jn. 12:32).

A true Sufi saint or sage is a conduit for divine gifts to society. The Master always said that becoming a teacher, an enlightener of others, was superior to one’s own enlightenment. Madmen of God (majzubs) can do that, too. One’s success should result in the restoration of society. In rejuvenating a waste land. That is, personal Attainment is incomplete unless one also becomes a boon to one’s fellow human beings. To revive one’s society, planet, or universe, as the case may be. In the frontispiece to his first book (Man and Universe), the Master said: “Love, give joy. Know, make known. See, try to show.”


There are cases of spacefolding (tayy al-makân) in Carlos. In an instant, he finds himself somewhere else. They discuss this. What emerges from these discussions is that something does astral traveling. And then there’s the body. Is the body dominant, or is the spirit dominant? Are we bodies, dreaming we’re somewhere else, or are we spirits, dreaming that we have bodies? Which is dominant, which one is real? If you’re powerful enough, you can carry your body where you want by means of the other.


Now at this point, the term used by the Master assumes importance: “the precursor of spacefolding.” Not spacefolding (teleportation) itself, but something goes out and roams: you sit here and you wander in Istanbul. Don Genaro sits here, his double, the dreaming body, wanders somewhere else. The Master’s term is critically important. I heard it for the first time from him: “the precursor of spacefolding.” I had never heard of it before. That’s what pulls the body there. If he wants to wake up there, he can wake up with the body. The spirit goes there first, it draws the body there if it wants. Perhaps this is for beginners, and the two can happen at the same time later on. But in principle, the spirit does the pulling. In those stories of don Juan, that’s what happens: first it goes, then the body goes. That’s why I think the expression used by the Master is extraordinary. In our terms, astral traveling is the precursor of teleportation.

There are times when you “wake up” within a dream. You’re sleeping, you know you’re dreaming, but you’re awake within your dream. It’s called a “lucid dream.” You’re in command of your rational faculties within the dream. Then you can do anything within your dream. There was an astral traveler, Oliver Fox, who started out with lucid dreams and progressed to out-of-body experiences (OOBEs or OBEs). So in the Master’s terms, astral traveling is the precursor of spacefolding, and lucid dreams are the precursor of astral traveling. One leaves the body. The trip of our Prophet from Mecca to Jerusalem in an instant was the precursor of the Ascension (miraj). Then you automatically make the connection.


Carlos couldn’t understand what being impeccable was. When he finally understood, it turned out to mean doing something flawlessly, perfectly.  As don Juan says: “Impeccability is to do your best in whatever you’re engaged in.” Now that’s the situation of the Perfect Human (insan al-kâmil) in Sufism: that person does everything impeccably. But there’s no chance of being impeccable without dying. And this can only happen by experiencing it, not by sitting on your couch.

There you have the conceptual analogies. How can so many correspondences exist? But reading these books, really understanding them, takes a very long time.

So in my case, don Juan and Castaneda proved to be a temporary bridge for understanding Sufism and Islam.



After this conversation, I, too, remembered two things that my friend had not mentioned, but were in line with Sufism.

In Journey to Ixtlan, don Juan tells Carlos: “One of us has to change… And you know who.” This is exactly the nature of the Sufi Master/student relationship.

As I recalled, he also said: “Touch your world lightly.” (His actual words in the same book are, “touch the world around you sparingly. You don’t eat five quail; you eat one.” This ties in with what my friend said about the fish.) And the Koran instructs us: “Eat, drink, but do not waste” (7:31). Take only what you need: this is the first principle, not only of economy, but also of ecology, to ensure that we live in a sustainable world.

“Erasing personal history” is a part of this, too. Self-effacement is a way of fighting one’s arrogance  (self-importance), and it has something of the Sufi courtesy (adab) and humility (tawazu) in it.


Castaneda and don Juan are no longer with us. But Sufism lives on.

It is peaceful in the desert now. The sun is setting. Quiet has settled over the landscape.

We can finally leave Carlos, Don Juan, and the Toltecs to enjoy their peace.




UPDATE Oct. 2, 2015:

Further Parallels: Stopping the Internal Dialogue

Here is “don Carlos” on stopping one’s internal talk:

“The internal dialogue is what grounds people in the daily world. The world is such and such or so and so, only because we talk to ourselves about its being such and such and so and so.” (Tales of Power)

“The essential feature of sorcery is shutting off the internal dialogue… Once we stop our internal dialogue we also stop the world.” (The Second Ring of Power)

“When a warrior learns to stop the internal dialogue, everything becomes possible… Sorcerers call it stopping the internal dialogue, and they are convinced that it is the single most important technique that an apprentice can learn.” (Tales of Power)

And here is Ibn Arabi on “not speaking with oneself”:

“As for being silent in oneself from the chatter of the self… If one gets used to the chatter of the self, it prevents remembrance [Invocation] of God in the heart, because the heart cannot include both chatter and remembrance together.”

(Futûhat, Chapter 53, 1.277-8.)

For Ibn Arabi, “stopping the world” is the starting point of mystical consciousness: “We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and in themselves” (41:53).

2 comments on “Beyond Castaneda and don Juan

  1. Ahmed Sharaf on said:

    Peace be with you dear brother,

    Thank you for this article. In fact, I’ve been reading Carlos Castaneda for the last 6-7 years. The irony is that I work as an Islamic bookshop manager. Here we sell all sorts and branches of Islamic sciences. A lot of Islamic Spirituality/esoteric/Sufism books included. I find it fascinating to perceive the whole of existence or being by putting together all these world views/paradigms/perceptions from various cultures. Have you looked into Ramana Maharshi from South India? I am originally from South India. One can reach a lot deeper if we broaden and deepen our reading list.

    Unfortunately, what I experience in the bookshop is very sad. Most of my customers never even heard about (let alone think about) Castaneda or any of the Indian Gurus. You see, my understanding of God and existence changed significantly. But I wear a mask to satisfy the public because I am a public figure as well and I have to meet the expectations of the Muslim community… I want to be that Madman mentioned by Khalil Gibran… Not so easy, brother.

    • Dear Ahmad Sharaf,

      I looked into Ramana Maharshi, as well as many other teachers, a long time ago. Other religions and paths can be an aid in appreciating the full depth and breadth of Sufism. But this is not for everyone. Nor, strictly speaking, is it necessary, for Sufism is a self-sufficient system. Few people have the time, resources, or inclination to pursue such matters. You seem to have had them all, and in that respect, we must consider you very lucky indeed. Do not lament; rather, give thanks and rejoice. For you have been favored by God with a deeper understanding. Take care!