Shaman U.

Majoring in mojo at Carlos Castaneda workshop

"Can't you feel the weirdness?" asks Brandon Scott.
I'm in the grand ballroom of the Crown Plaza Hotel in downtown Phoenix, in the company of nearly 200 people who have gathered for a sorcerer's apprenticeship. A large percentage are 50ish, balding guys with ponytails, and 40ish women in oversize tie-dye. Most of them look more metaphysically inclined than either Brandon or his pal Miles Reed, who are the instructors, teaching us "magical passes" said to increase well-being.

The slight, boyish Brandon and the fit, handsome, jovial Miles, both of whom have thick Latin accents, wear matching tee shirts and black vests. The moves they demonstrate seem a lot like tai chi or a standup form of yoga, but we're told that with practice and repetition, these gestures will permit us to see "the force that pulls together the universe."

The technique was dubbed "Tensegrity" (tens-egg-ritee), a term borrowed from architecture that relates to tension and integrity, by mystical writer and '60s icon Carlos Castaneda, who claims it is a modernized version of a discipline developed by Yaqui shamans in ancient Mexico.

I'm doing my level, graceless best to reproduce the dancerlike moves Brandon and Miles are showing.

Yes, Brandon, I can feel the weirdness.
Castaneda isn't at this workshop--he rarely appears outside L.A.--but it's his corporation, Cleargreen, that produces it. And it was he who sent Brandon and Miles to the New Age hub that is Phoenix. "Carlos has specifically seen that these are the instructors who need to teach here today," we are told before they take the stage, smiling and clapping and whooping with enthusiasm.

They lecture for a while about how human beings consist of "zillions of energy fields that pull together all the universe. This force is called the binding force, and it goes beyond the boundaries of syntax." It's like hearing the lessons of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back taught by Hans and Franz from Saturday Night Live.

Then it's down to business. After a short warm-up, we are shown the jabs, chops and waves that, performed in sequence, compose the first "series." I try hard to do as they do, and though I have roughly the poise and agility of George Kennedy, I have to admit that, before long, I'm feeling pretty invigorated. In fact, I'm feeling freakin' great--better than I have in months. I can't help but ask myself, though, if I might not feel just as good if I went to a low-impact aerobics class or a community-center stretching group, for considerably less than the $160 that these folks have paid to be here.

Of course, such modest classes rarely teach methods for "the redeployment of the energy which becomes encrusted on the periphery of our beings," as the Tensegrity workshop does. Brandon and Miles show us how to grab hold of the "rotational vortices of energy" around us, and direct them into our vital centers: the liver and gallbladder on one side, the spleen and pancreas on the other, and the kidneys and adrenals on the back. Then comes the stress-relieving "Release Series." "It's a very serious series," says Brandon, though his accent makes it sound like, "Eet's a bery serious serious."

This done, we are invited to sit down and watch as Brandon and Miles demonstrate a long-form series. Long-form it is--it lasts six or seven minutes, consisting of jabs, chops, waves, kicks, steps and body twists. At certain points, the two men shout the word "INTENT!" in unison. "Intent," we later learn, is a name which the Cleargreeners give to the universal binding force. The shouts punctuate the moments in the routine when this force supposedly becomes visible to the sorcerer. Their execution of this long-form series is such an impressive piece of performance art--such a contrast to my cloddish efforts--that I'm sorry to see them finish it. But they do, and then they begin to teach it to us.

At some point during the lengthy process of learning this complex routine, I find I can't concentrate anymore. I'm getting tired and, philistine that I am, a little bored. I slip out of the ballroom and down the escalators to the Crown Plaza's lobby. I find a Time magazine and read an article on the arc of Sylvester Stallone's career.

Ah, back in the real world.

In one of his lectures, Brandon asserted that the aim of practicing the passes is to make your "assemblage point"--a spot that floats about arm's length behind your back, at which your perceptions of the universe are assembled--more "fluid." When this happens, says Brandon, "We find we cease to defend ourselves." A local guy named Peter--a staffer for Scottsdale-based Mischka Productions, who brought the workshop to Phoenix--tells me something similar about the beneficial effects of Tensegrity: "You don't care anymore what somebody else says about you, or thinks about you."

Well, maybe. But this did make me wonder why Castaneda's Cleargreen organization asked me to sign a release before it'd grant me an interview.

The form the organization faxed would have forbidden me from recording a phone chat I had scheduled with shaman Kylie Lundahl. One of Castaneda's closest colleagues, Lundahl was originally slated to teach the Phoenix workshop, before Castaneda specifically saw that Brandon and Miles (normally a Spanish-speaking team) were just the guys for the Crown Plaza gig. I had no problem with honoring the request not to record her, but signing the document was out of the question. When I asked a PR flack at Cleargreen what all the caution was about, she told me that Castaneda and company were sick of getting burned in print.

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.

It occurred to me then that Castaneda and company--whether they know it or not--have become masters of this kind of sorcery. It's by means of corporate magic that a good, rousing workout led by a couple of likable instructors in a hotel ballroom can be shape-shifted into an arcane initiation. There's no earthly harm in it, of course, as long as you can spare 160 bucks and a weekend. There's probably even some benefit. But it's a sort of enchantment all the same, and the Yaqui wizardry has largely been absorbed into it.

On the back of the Tensegrity instructional videos is a disclaimer: "To reduce the risk of injury, consult your physician before beginning this or any other physical movement program. . . ." To the shamans of corporate magic, this is a hex, a talisman, an incantation of exorcism: Get thee behind me, litigants!

And apparently no Yaqui sorcerer, however potent, can speed up room service.

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