Shaman U.

Majoring in mojo at Carlos Castaneda workshop

She told me this, however, in Cleargreenese: "The semantics and the syntax of our native language, which happens to be English, doesn't allow for correct interpretation. The most profound misinterpretation is that Carlos Castaneda promotes the use of drugs. He only records drug use in his first two books. At that time, you see, he had a fixed assemblage point, so drugs were used as a shamanic practice to make his assemblage point more fluid." In any case, I couldn't quite grasp how not recording the interview would guard against misrepresentation.

In passing, I also asked the Cleargreen staffer--whose name I won't mention because I don't want to risk getting her assemblage point chewed out for talking to me--how old Carlos Castaneda was. "No one knows, and no one needs to know," she told me sternly.

Actually, I know. If the American Academic Encyclopedia is to be believed, he's 71. Despite his own playful (and canny) attempts to muddy the details of his own biography, a reasonable outline of the life of Carlos Cesar Arana Castaneda can be discerned from a few reliable reference books.

He was born on Christmas Day, 1925, in Cajamarca, Peru, the son of a goldsmith. For the first decades of his life, he appears to have been a perpetual academic. He studied painting at the National School of Fine Arts in Lima, then studied psychology at Los Angeles City College after immigrating to the U.S. in 1951. He eventually received his M.A. in anthropology from UCLA.

Castaneda's master's thesis, an account of his shamanistic tutelage under an elderly Sonoran Yaqui he called Don Juan Matus, was published by the University of California Press in 1968 under the title The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Its quietly charming prose, its dash of post-Beat romanticism, and its depictions of peyote-induced vision combined to make it a surprise best seller in paperback.

The sequel, A Separate Reality: Further Conversations With Don Juan, followed in 1971 and was no less successful. From the third book, 1972's Journey to Ixtlan (which also served as Castaneda's Ph.D.), on through about a half-dozen more titles, the series no longer dealt in hallucinogenic lore.

From the start, there have been those who believed that Castaneda's hero Don Juan was intended simply as a literary conceit--an allegorical figure, or a conflation of more than one person. But the Tensegrity workshops, which Castaneda and fellow shamans Taisha Abelar, Florinda Donner-Grau and Carol Tiggs have been holding about every two months since the early '90s, evidence that Don Juan is meant to be taken for real.

If the Crown Plaza event is at all typical, these workshops are much less like fan conventions or literary-appreciation societies and much more like gatherings of literal-minded aspirants to real secret knowledge. Despite the cheery manner of Brandon and Miles, and despite the striking theatricality of some of their moves, this isn't a show. The nice folks who have come to the grand ballroom are, if anything, even more sober and focused than their instructors--they're there to work.

There were Castaneda followers there--some, I was told, from as far away as Germany and Italy--talking familiarly with one another about "Carlos" and "Taisha." I decided to chat with a few of my fellow newbies.

Naomi, an outpatient nurse--and the only black person I saw in the crowd (the attendees were mostly white, with a smattering of Hispanics)--told me that she had never attended a Castaneda workshop before, but that she had done yoga and Reiki, and was a great believer in movement as therapy. "It really works," she said firmly. Another woman told me that she had been a fan of Castaneda years ago, "in my hippie days." She had come out of nostalgia, she said, but was favorably impressed by the new, clean-and-sober Castaneda.

I asked Stewart, an administrator for a mental-health service, if he was enjoying himself. "'Enjoyable' isn't the right word," he said. "But it's useful. Spirituality is important in my life." Stewart said that he was raised Jewish, believed in God, in some elements of Christianity, and especially in Buddhism, but that he couldn't be a Buddhist because he couldn't live that lifestyle. "I mean, I'm not a vegetarian," he said.

I never did get to talk to Kylie Lundahl, or even to Brandon or Miles. But I was hospitably received by Liz Dawn, the vivacious former actress who heads the local New Age booking agency Mischka Productions (it's named after her beloved, departed dog) in partnership with her mother. Lunching with her and her staff, I watched them fret over the problems faced by any small business on a busy day: who had second shift on the tee-shirt table, how were the videotapes selling.

She fielded a question from a guy annoyed because Cleargreen hadn't refunded his subscription fee on a discontinued newsletter (nothing to do with her firm, of course). And she told me of her fury over Crown Plaza's failure to get a much-needed room-service breakfast to Brandon and Miles before the workshop began, despite nearly two hours' notice. "I chewed the manager on duty a new asshole," said Liz, a little abashed with herself. But this seemed an entirely appropriate response to the situation to me. The New Asshole Chew--a powerful technique in a form of magic no less formidable than that taught by Don Juan: corporate sorcery.

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