Carlos Castaneda was a well-known PhD anthropologist and author who published several books on shamanism and ancient Mesoamerican spirituality during the countercultural revolution of the 1960’s and ‘70s. He was awarded his doctorate (and later rose to fame) on the basis of three of these published works: the first, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Castaneda allegedly based on ethnographic work he did as an apprentice to an indigenous Mexican shaman named Don Juan Matus. His next two published works, A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan, catalogued his further spiritual work with Don Juan, much of which involved the use of visionary plants, magic rituals, and of course, dream work. In fact, many people interested in lucid dreaming and dream work are drawn to Carlos Castaneda’s semi-manual on the subject, The Art of Dreaming, which lays out the steps necessary to achieve full awareness within the dream world.
Carlos Castaneda was born on Christmas Day 1925 in the Peruvian city of Cajamarca. He moved to the United States in the 1950s and enrolled in the anthropology program at UCLA in 1962; he would be there his entire academic career, earning a doctorate from UCLA in 1973. As an undergraduate, Castaneda claimed to have met a Yaqui shaman named Don Juan who subsequently took him under his tutelage. Don Juan allegedly introduced the young Castaneda to dream work, visualization and the use of trance states and peyote to access other spiritual realms. In his books about his time with Don Juan, which he presented as factual report logs, Castaneda popularized the idea that these experiences were not merely hallucinations but actual gateways to other worlds.
After Carlos Castaneda’s published works exploded into popular awareness, debate ensued over whether Castaneda had actually conducted the ethnographic work he claimed, or fabricated the whole adventure based on real ethnographic works he had studied as an undergrad at UCLA. At the time, critics such as R. Gordon Wasson (an amateur anthropologist himself) questioned Castaneda’s methodology and anthropological accuracy, as well as shed doubt on whether Don Juan Matus was a real person or an invention of Castaneda’s.
However, other commentators have suggested that Carlos Castaneda’s report logs have value outside of their disputed authenticity: whether or not the meetings with Don Juan Castaneda wrote about actually happened, his narrative of apprenticeship addresses several challenges in the field of anthropology, including how to reconcile perspectives inside and outside a culture when it comes to describing, sharing in and understanding mystical experiences.
For instance, The Art of Dreaming attempts to lie out an integrated step-by-step guide to achieving full awareness inside your dreams and learning to control them. Carlos Castaneda presented this work as a transcription of Don Juan Matus’ lessons in conscious dreaming, handed down from the ancient Toltecs of Mexico into the present day. Regardless of the real provenance of these lessons in dream work, the steps themselves read a lot like the reality checks and awareness training exercises used in the dream work community today. The four steps of conscious dreaming described in The Art of Dreaming—out of what Castaneda termed the 7 Gates of Dreaming— are as follows:
1. Recognizing your hands in the dream world, and being able to shift your gaze from your hands to a dream object and back.
2. Utilizing your dream body, or having control over your actions. Castaneda claimed that you would know you’ve mastered this when dream objects start turning into other things.
3. Traveling, and recognizing a reflection of your dream body. Mastery of this step helps integrate the physical and dream bodies into one.
4. Seeing or otherwise being able to perceive the energetic essence of every dream item.
In 1973, Carlos Castaneda retired from public view to a compound in Westwood, California, where he began to develop a program called Tensegrity that was aimed at raising the spiritual awareness of participants. Part spiritual philosophy, part exercise routine, Tensegrity is composed of a series of stretching exercises, stances and meditational poses designed to encourage spiritual and psychic development. In 1995, Carlos Castaneda founded the Cleargreen Institute in California, an organization dedicated to the promotion, publication, and teaching of Castaneda’s Tensegrity technique. The Institute takes its name from a supposedly Toltec belief, promoted by Castaneda, that energies have different hues: human energy is currently a kind of off-white, but in ancient times used to be clear green.
Carlos Castaneda remained active in promoting Tensegrity and related spiritual teachings up until his death on April 27th, 1998. For better or worse, his work has cast a long shadow over the practice of exploring the alternate realms accessible to human beings through dream, ritual and vision. His thought provoking works, such as The Art of Dreaming, whether factual or not, have still introduced many interested people to the idea of dream work and lucid dreaming. For that reason alone, Castaneda’s books are valuable cultural artifacts for anyone interested in exploring the inner realms of consciousness.