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The Gnostic Castaneda

The Sham and the Slither

Introduction, continued

Lynn Andrews

Shamaism today is a morass of claims that appear to be more and more reasonable, more taken-for-granted as they proliferate, more banal as the moments pass. Trance states, channeling, and healing are now almost routine acts in certain circles. (The role of these activities is central to indigenous shamanism of the past, and likewise today, but in quite a different way than before, I would suggest.) Consider also the claim or confession of many rock musicians to be inspired by demonic spirits, to channel entities from beyond, i.e., to act as shamans do in indigenous cultures. Such accounts are manifold leading concerned Christians to conclude that rock music is the product of devil worship, if not of possesson by Satan himself. Testimony from David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and many others is convincing, hard to pass off as fake, or just weird pretence. Even Carlos Santana has testifed to this efectt, claiming that the music and lyrics of his sensational comeback album Supernatural (1999) were dictated by demonic or otherworld spirits.

Four Criteria

Back in the 1980s when Lynn Andrews became all the rage, she used to come to Santa Fe to visit friends, and perhaps for another reason as well. Back in the 1980s when Lynn Andrews became all the rage, she used to come to Santa Fe to visit friends, and perhaps for another reason as well. She was seen eating blue corn chicken enchiladas at the Guadelupe Cafe across from the train station—fabulous fare! Some hard-ass Castaneda readers like myself shared the view that her books were written by a reclusive person who lived in the area. I once guessed who it might be and my interlocuter stopped chomping his enchilada in mid-bite and confirmed it was so. So I have this information by word of mouth, enchilada-filled. It could be wrong but I don't think so.

Now that's shamming, passing off someone else's work as your own, but since it was fictional work made out to be factual, it was a double sham. Many of us at that time had been pondering for a decade already if Castaneda was inventing like a schizophrenic, or reporting like an anthropologist, as he appeared to claim to do. We could smell shammingism a coyote mile away. Physically, cosmetically, Lynn was a way too beautiful to be for real, even on strictly human terms. Not that there is not an element of glamour in shamanism. There certainly is. But not the glamour befitting an ad for Prell shampoo.

So, who's faking or not? How can anyone tell? I would guess that most of the genuine fakers don't know they are faking, and wouldn't be fazed to find out. It's like when a man pretends to enjoy the company of my mother-in-law, in order to please his wife and ease a situation, and ends up fooling himself into believing that he actually does like the old bag. Castaneda cites examples of this aberration: pretending becomes real in the behavioral antics of stalking detailed in his later books.

What, pray tell, are the criteria for veracity in experiences that are authentically shamanic, and not merely shammed?

As far as I know, the telestai of the Pagan Mysteries proposed something like an answer to that question. Their millenial tradition provided a solid benchmark for veracity: the ability to encounter with the Organic Light in a steady and consistent manner. As I wrote in Not in His Image:

The epopteia, seeing aided by the hierophant, was carefully gauged to meet the capacities of the supplicant. The autopsia, direct and independent seeing of the Organic Light, came in its own time to those who had trained their powers of attention for it. The epiphany of the Organic Light induced a soft rush of somatic intensity that saturated the witness with bliss and brought attention to pitch-perfect lucidity. In the Mysteries, mystae who had steadily beheld the Light were welcomed into the company of the initiated with the beneditory greeting, “A kid, thou has fallen into milk.”

This encounter is not explicitly and specifically described in Castaneda's books, but various approaches or allusions to it can be found there, I believe. As far as I know, along with Lydia who backed me all the way, I am so far the sole exponent of free-style shamanism to describe this encounter in full and explicit detail, even explaining its source and ramifications. I propose witnessing the Organic Light as a baseline for authenticity in Gaian, Goddess-oriented shamanism.

I wouldn't condemn anyone for dismissing this criterion, but you won't find that particular person at my next excursion. Not that I would exclude them, but they wouldn't want to join. A good example of self-elimination.

I can think of other criteria as well. Quite a few, in fact. But it would probably be wise to limit the list to four: witnessing the Organic Light, taking dakini instruction, undergoing bilocation, and perceiving the earth as a serpentine body moving in massive undulations: the Slither. These are basic marks of veracious attainment in Gaian shamanism or Planetary Tantra. Proposed, not imposed.

The Slither is a superb test because it requires an exceptionally steady gaze on the Nagual, a steady stomach!, and a precise, casually braced stance. The Slither takes you on board: it will introduce you to the torrential power of Mahakundala, planetary kundalini which becomes configured in the Shakti Cluster. Castaneda does describe this telluric phenomenon, calling it "the earth's boost" (The Eagle's Gift). I have explained in Planetary Tantra on this site that the Shakti Cluster imparts a boost to perception, emotion, intent. It amplifies everything you can realize, feel, know, and imagine. The boost confers a sense of euphoria, a taste of deathless and everlasting joy. Don Juan said that reaching the experience of joy is the final success of a warrior on the path of freedom. I agree. The euphoric joy engendered by the Shakti Cluster is not so difficult to reach, but to stay with it is one monumentally big challenge. Most people simply do not believe it is possible to sustain awareness as that level of joy. It is, but you exclude yourself from the thrill by not daring to imagine that it really is sustainable.

The tantrika dedicated to Gaian practices never backs off. Anything. The prospect that you will die from your own intensity is one of the rare certainties of this path.

New Age Trend

Following the success of his comeback album Supernatural (1999), Carlos Santana came out with Shaman. It had to happen that way, at that moment on the eve of the millenium. In music or mysticism, shamanism today is inescapable, having entered the mainstream. It comes with a motley array of suppositions and pretensions. Mainly, the claim that the shaman is the inspired instrument for occult forces, the powers of the Beyond. But when I listened to Santana's "Black Magic Woman" back in the 1970s, I just wanted to run into a lascivious witch who would work a magic spell on me. Such was my humble disposition. Little did I suspect that witchcraft aka shamanism would become the most widespread New Age trend of the 21st Century.

But what does the revised shamanism of Castaneda and those who came after him have to do with witchcraft as such? Wicca and Neo-Paganism look vapid and amateurish compared to the intricate and far-reaching strategies of Castaneda's horde of sorcerers. Pagan "nature worship" is a febrile retro-hobby compared to exporing the Nagual and teleporting to other worlds. With its emphasis on the earth as goddess, Planetary Tantra ought to be quite appealing to neo-Pagans. But it goes way beyond nature worship and seasonal rites. It expands as far as Castaneda sorcery, but in different directions....

Planetary Tantra could, I guess, be regarded as an extrapolation of traditional Wiccan earth magic, "drawing down the moon," for the Shakti Cluster is in telluric terms driven by the moon, entrained by the lunar cycles.

Supernatural, the title of Santana's 1999 album, was also the title of the book by my friend and colleague, Graham Hancock. It came out in 2006, about a month before Not in His Image. Graham doesn't say so in the acknowledgements, but I steered him in the direction of psychoactive plants around 2000. This was when I visited him at his house in Devon, before he moved to Bath. He complained of back problems due to the sitting posture he assumed while writing, day after day, under certain influences. I may not have been the first associate to point him in the direction of psychoactive fungi, but my suggestions were clear and deliberate at the time. He saw exactly where I was pointing.

Graham's gifts for rehashing and popularizing other people's work are unsurpassed, as far as I can tell. But Supernatural is well-informed reportage that doesn't touch the essential question of criteria in shamanic experience.

Shamanism and Sex

Love him or hate him, Castaneda, remains (to my mind) the singular outstanding figure in a forty-year adventure of shamanism updated, revised, extrapolated. For my money, it is still hard to beat many of his dicey and outrageous propositions. Nevertheless, I have two strong beefs with Castaneda:

First, he repudiated the use of psychoactive plants or sacred medicine plants, and relegated such practices to an early, immature phase of shamanic training. (This position recalls Eliade's view that visionary trance induced by psychoactive plants belongs to a late, decadent phase of shamanism—a view he later recanted.) I totally disagree. I maintain that learning from sacred teacher-plants is central and essential in the orientation of Gaian shamanism. It is not the exclusive way to learn about the Supernatural, but it is a sophisticated and privileged way.

The ancient rites celebrated at Eleusis and elsewhere required a sacrament to dissolve the ego and induce nonordinary perception: the potion brewed from the white barley. This practice explains the third image on the Eleusis pediment: the sheaf of cut wheat. The sacramental vision of nature has to be induced by the sacrament given by nature because the requisite surrender of ego cannot be achieved voluntarily, and for other reasons as well. The telestai used a brew of psychoactive plants to temporarily loosen and lift the cognitive filters that block direct perception of the Organic Light. Doing so, they followed the ages-old wisdom of indigenous people around the world. Andy Fisher observes in Radical Ecopsychology:

Our life among others is one of “constant spiritual interchange,” where through various kinds of contact-making the powers of meanings of nature are transmitted. Thus, a person may acquire the powers of a plant or animal by eating it. . . . A common Native American belief is that our “humanity remains incomplete and unhinged” until we have received such empowerment from other-than-human beings.

Initiates in the Mysteries realized that the Goddess requires of those to whom she reveals herself the humility to admit that they cannot fully know what it means to be human without the inspired guidance of nonhuman beings, including plants.
- Not in His Image, Ch. 16, A Sheaf of Cut Wheat

Second, Carlitos was perversely and deliberately (I believe) misleading on the issue of sexuality, perhaps in a lame attempt to conceal his own Don Juanism, i.e., sexual addiction. As a dedicated Don Juan myself (more precisely, a confessed sex-and-romance addict), I find this tactic craven, if not deplorable. In The Shell and the Shawl, a short book in progress that I may post on Planetary Tantra, I argue that

Sexuality and shamanism are complementary and ought to be developed together, otherwise the free-form experimental approach to the Supernatural gets skewed and goes out of balance.

CC was seriously out of balance on this issue. His hypocrisy screams from the pages of his books. For a good part of the series of eleven books, he makes out that the sorcerers of don Juan's lineage are "impeccable warriors" who wouldn't think of dabbling in low-life sexual antics. But against this negative characterization of sex, The Eagle's Gift introduces a complete anomaly: "the Nagual woman," female counterpart and companion of his mentor, don Juan. Castaneda strongly implies that the relation of don Juan to the Nagual woman, who is far younger than he, is one of sexual intimacy, affection, and tenderness. In later volumes Castaneda sets up Cheryl Tiggs as the Nagual woman of his party, with whom he appears to have an erotic or sexual connection at moments. This conflicting material is deliberately confusing, a ploy of concealment, I believe. The ambivalent treatment of sex in shamanism is totally unacceptabe. It is way too sleazy and specious for my taste. Worst of all, it is blatantly dishonest.

In Kalika practice of Gaian shamanism, sexual behavior is totally transparent, out in the open. The Mahanirvana Tantra, 70 - 80:

Truth is the appearance of the Supreme Brahman. Truth is the most excellent of all exertions. Every genuine act is rooted in Truth. Than Truth there is nothing more excellent.

Therefore has it been said by Lord Shiva that when the degenerate Kali Age is dominant, Kalika ways should be practised truthfully and without concealment. Truth is divorced from concealment. There is no concealment without untruth. Therefore the tantrika dedicated to Kali should treat sexual rites with candor. What has been said in other Tantras about the concealment of sexual teachings not being blameworthy is not applicable when the Kali Age comes to its end.

In Planetary Tantra, sexual practice is optional, but in Kala Tantra it is central. Isuspect that the Shakti Cluster is loaded with surprises, especially when it comes to boosting the sexual-erotic dispositions of human beings.

I hope for nothing in this respect, for the degeneration of Kali Yuga is so profound and widespread that sacred and magical acts are readily and inevitably shammed and slandered, skewed, disguised, and concealed. In this age everything can be falsified except the encounter with the Organic Light. I ardently wish that my flawed contributions in this vein may afford a clear and direct passage from the current morass toward verifiable Gaian shamanism in balance with earth-grounded sexuality.


jll: with Kurukulla breathing down my neck, November 2009, Andalucia


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.