Carlos Castaneda was an anthropology student at UCLA when he first began writing about his experiences with the elusive Don Juan, an Indian medicine man he met at a bus depot on the Mexican border. These peyote-fuelled “field notes” and quasi-spiritual ramblings would later become Castaneda’s Master’s thesis. In 1968 his thesis was published to critical acclaim under the title: “The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui way.” By the early 1970’s Castaneda had become a best-selling author and new-age spiritual celebrity.
I was handed this book when I was 21 by my good friend Paul, who was disappointed when I handed it back to him a month later, confessing that I couldn’t manage to get through it. I told him I’d eventually pick it up again, but years went by. Paul eventually moved to Japan and before he left he smugly handed it back to me and said: “Here’s a copy, if ever you decide to read it again.”
I realize now that the problem was not the book; the problem was the environment in which I attempted to read it. The Teachings of Don Juan is not one to be read in a busy cafe or in a sweaty, cramped street car. This book is to be enjoyed outdoors, in the wild, perched on a rock, under the stars, or under the oppressive heat of a mid-day sun.
If you’re not into mystical things or hallucinogenic herbs or stories about killer seaweed and talking bilingual coyotes, that’s OK; because at the core of this book are important philosophical teachings that even a staunch Catholic like my Nana would appreciate:
“A path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you . . . Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself alone, one question . . . Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t it is of no use.”
― Carlos Castaneda