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Thomas A. Murphy
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(c) 1996 Thomas Murphy
September 11, 1996
DON JUAN AND DEATH
by Thomas Murphy
With the 1968 publication of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of
Knowledge, Carlos Castaneda introduced us to a remarkable contemporary practitioner of
an ancient Mesoamerican tradition of wisdom and sorcery. In this and several subsequent
volumes, Castaneda shared his experiences as an apprentice to don Juan Matus, a Yaqui
Indian "man of knowledge."
According to don Juan, painstaking study and experiment,
carried out over a period of
10,000 years by hundreds of generations of seers, had produced a priceless collection of
hard-earned knowledge about the nature of human experience. As one might expect, this
carefully worked out system of knowledge also grew to bear a heavy mantel of rituals,
customs and beliefs. Collectively it was referred to as sorcery.
Then, during the period of the Spanish Conquest, millions of
Mesoamericans died as
the newly arrived Europeans made an all-out effort to annihilate these highly developed
cultures, seemingly in total disregard for their roots in antiquity. Out of this holocaust
emerged a small group of "new seers" who somehow managed to survive while
maintaining the essence of their ancient knowledge. They did so by, among other things,
abstracting the underlying wisdom from its ritualistic, culturally based matrix. Castaneda's
work claims to be devoted to presenting this body of knowledge.
Over the years many questions have been raised about the
validity of Castaneda's work
as both anthropology and autobiography. Even the most casual reader will have noted
numerous factual inconsistencies in Castaneda's writings. In addition, many of his accounts
are bizarre; even incredible.
Yet when his writings are examined solely for their
usefulness, a vast field of diamonds
may be found beneath his lush phantasmagorical descriptions. Without presuming to
defend or justify any aspect of his writings, I can say that my own experience has
convinced me that the underlying ideas, principles and practices that Castaneda presents
can be of inestimable value to anyone who implements them. Beyond appreciating his
skillful expression, I am truly grateful for the humbleness that characterizes his writings, a
quality that, perhaps more than any other, contributes to the mysterious attraction of his
DEATH AT THE SERVICE OF LIFE
Among the most compelling aspects of don Juan's teaching, as communicated by
Castaneda, are those that have to do with death. Don Juan frequently refers to death,
though his comments are invariably intended to enhance life rather than to prepare for an
Death is not an enemy, although it appears to be. Death is not our destroyer,
although we think it is....
Sorcerers say death is the only worthy opponent we have.... Death is our
challenger. We are born to take that challenge, average men or sorcerers.
Sorcerers know about it; average men do not....
Life is the process by means of which death challenges us.... Death is the
active force. Life is the arena. And in that arena there are only two
contenders at any time: oneself and death.... We are passive.... We
move...only when we feel the pressure of death. Death sets the pace for our
actions and feelings and pushes us relentlessly.... (POS: 111-112)
Awareness of death is a central element of don Juan's teachings. He repeatedly
encourages Carlos to use the idea of death as a means of purifying his actions in the
present. He even introduces the potent idea of performing every act as though it were
Focus your attention on the link between you and your death, without
remorse or sadness or worrying. Focus your attention on the fact you don't
have time and let your acts flow accordingly. Let each of your acts be your
last battle on earth. Only under those conditions will your acts have their
rightful power. Otherwise they will be, for as long as you live, the acts of a
timid man. (JTI: 84-85)
Don Juan personifies death to give it greater tangibility as an aid to development in the
warrior's way. Here he emphasizes the need for taking death as an advisor:
Death is the only wise adviser that we have. Whenever you feel...that
everything is going wrong and you're about to be annihilated, turn to your
death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you're wrong; that
nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, "I haven't
touched you yet." (JTI: 34)
Don Juan also says that only an awareness of one's impending death can imbue one's
acts with their rightful power. Such a vantage point inspires the freedom to think and feel
and act with all the fullness of one's being.
In the face of one's death, there is no time for clinging to petty meanings. Awareness of
death gives one the courage to transcend limitations, even if only for a moment--long
enough, perhaps, to flow freely with the prevailing winds of universal intent.
Taking death as one's advisor is, among other things, a means
of withdrawing power
from one's own expectations. Immediate awareness that one has absolutely no guarantee
of life beyond the present moment infuses one with a freedom, courage and vision that can
only be witnessed when one becomes convinced that this is indeed one's last act on earth.
Such moments allow no time for feeble gestures born of doubt, remorse and frustration.
Instead they evoke acts of true largesse.
ACTING WITH IMPECCABILITY
Don Juan has a peculiar but invaluable view of time. It is illustrated by an incident in which
Carlos asks don Juan how he might know whether he is acting impeccably according to
the warrior's code. Don Juan replies:
Impeccability is to do your best in whatever you're engaged in.... The key to
matters of impeccability is the sense of having or not having time. As a rule
of thumb, when you feel and act like an immortal being that has all the time
in the world you are not impeccable; at those times you should turn, look
around, and then you will realize that your feeling of having time is an idiocy.
There are no survivors on this earth! (TOP: 196)
At another point he tells Carlos:
You have little time left, and none of it for crap. A fine state. I would say that
the best of us always comes out when we are against the wall, when we feel
the sword dangling overhead. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way.
In other words, one can never afford the feeling that there is time to waste. With an
immediate awareness of the infinite mystery of existence, there is never any possibility of
boredom or lassitude. At the very least one can patiently wait for realization of one's
Don Juan emphasizes that self-importance is a major consumer of our precious
personal energy and can readily be trimmed to good effect. He insists that we must "lose
our sense of self-importance" to realize our full potential as human beings. This feat too is
aided by awareness of death:
Death is our eternal companion.... It is always to our left, at an arm's
length.... It has always been watching you. It always will until the day it taps
you.... How can anyone feel so important when we know that death is
stalking us? (JTI: 33-34)
In don Juan's view, self-importance limits our perception of ourselves and of our
connection to the limitless source of all energy and awareness. It prevents us from tapping
into the vast ocean of "silent knowledge" that exists within each of us. It blocks us from
perceiving the infinite range of possibilities that is available to us.
There are a number of interesting points here. First is the
idea of our virtually limitless
capabilities--which remain largely untapped during our lives. Next is the idea that we are
blocked from using these capabilities by a blinding sense of self-importance. And finally
there is the notion that we can counteract this fixation on the self only if we are convinced
of how it cripples us.
Don Juan recommends that one act impeccably, without concern
for the outcome.
From one perspective, he might seem to be suggesting that one act without regard for the
effect of one's acts. In my view, a more appropriate interpretation is that one should act
impeccably regardless of the odds, and without worrying whether one will succeed or fail.
If an athlete, for example, is convinced of either his eventual defeat or his eventual victory,
he will probably feel less inclined to play as if everything were on the line.
Thus don Juan says the proper mood of a warrior is one of
fear, respect, complete
awareness, and absolute self-confidence. Fear serves as a powerful spur to action and
helps one to accurately assess the risks; respect for one's opponent elicits the best in
oneself and helps to offset overconfidence and self-importance; and awareness gives one
access to all available options and resources.
Self-confidence, in don Juan's view, consists of impeccability
in one's own eyes. This
suggests the classic psychological distinction between "inner-directedness" and "outer-
directedness." With such self-confidence, the warrior knows he will do his best in any
circumstance. Don Juan contrasts this with the self-confidence of the average person,
which is derived from assessing the probability of success. Such assessments are tied to
the prevailing beliefs of the times -- to "the eyes of the onlooker."
The self-confidence of the warrior is not the self-confidence of the average
man. The average man seeks certainty in the eyes of the onlooker and calls
that self-confidence. The warrior seeks impeccability in his own eyes and
calls that humbleness. The average man is hooked to his fellow men, while
the warrior is hooked only to himself.... The difference between the two is
remarkable. Self-confidence entails knowing something for sure; humbleness
entails being impeccable in one's actions and feelings. (TOP: 6-7)
The self-confidence of a warrior arises from impeccable action -- action taken apart
from the demon of self-importance, which can only distract attention and drain energy.
Don Juan also suggests acting without expectation of reward. This practice is essential if
one is to respond to the solicitations of the Spirit, since the Spirit moves outside the realm
of reason, the arena in which rewards and punishments are weighed.
A teacher must teach his apprentice...the possibility of acting without
believing, without expecting rewards -- acting just for the hell of it. I
wouldn't be exaggerating if I told you that the success of a teacher's
enterprise depends on how well and how harmoniously he guides his
apprentice in this specific respect. (TOP: 237)
Responsibility is another essential attribute of don Juan's warriorship that is given
potency by the notion of death:
When a man decides to do something he must go all the way...but he must
take responsibility for what he does. No matter what he does, he must know
first why he is doing it, and then he must proceed with his actions without
having doubts or remorse about them....
Everything I do is my decision and my responsibility. The
simplest thing I
do...may very well mean my death. Death is stalking me. Therefore, I have no
room for doubts or remorse....in a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is no time for
regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions.... (JTI: 39-40)
You have been complaining all your life because you don't assume
responsibility for your decisions. To assume responsibility for one's decisions
means that one is ready to die for them....
It doesn't matter what the decision is.... Nothing could be more or less
serious than anything else.... In a world where death is the hunter there are
no small or big decisions. There are only decisions that we make in the face
of our inevitable death. (JTI: 43)
This passage refers to an idea that is central to the life of a warrior -- the notion that
everything is equal, and therefore unimportant. Don Juan elaborates this in the following
We must know first that our acts are useless and yet we must proceed as if we
didn't know it. That's a sorcerer's controlled folly.... (SR: 77)
For me, not a single thing is important any longer, neither my acts nor the acts of
any of my fellow men. I go on living, though, because I have my will. Because I
have tempered my will throughout my life until it's neat and wholesome and now it
doesn't matter to me that nothing matters. My will controls the folly of my life.
At this point Carlos objects that certain acts must be regarded as more important than
others because of their sweeping effects. Don Juan replies that one must perceive reality in
an entirely different mode:
Once a man learns to see he finds himself alone in the world with nothing but
Your acts, as well as the acts of your fellow men in general, appear to be
important to you because you have learned to think they are important. We learn to
think about everything and then we train our eyes to look as we think about the
things we look at. We look at ourselves already thinking that we are important. And
therefore we've got to feel important! But then when a man learns to see, he realizes
that he can no longer think about the things he looks at, and if he cannot think
about what he looks at everything becomes unimportant. (SR: 81)
I believe that what don Juan refers to as seeing is a direct perception of the
infrastructure of what is commonly called reality. Everything is seen in its simplest possible
form, devoid of attributed meanings. Yet at the same time one is aware of the myriad
layers of cultural interpretation that ordinarily shroud this inherent simplicity in a web of
THE TONAL AND THE NAGUAL
Don Juan's basic premise is that what is called "the world" is a description that has
been hammered into us since birth. This description, which constitutes the inventory of the
mind, is called the tonal. Thus the tonal is everything we know, including ourselves as
persons. It is associated with the faculties of reason and talking.
Don Juan also introduces a complementary element -- the
nagual. The nagual exists
prior to and outside of the description. Whereas the tonal begins at birth and ends at
death, the nagual never ends. The nagual cannot be described by reason, but it may be
witnessed by the will.
Don Juan states that decisions are in the realm of the nagual,
although the tonal doesn't
know this: "When we think we decide, all we're doing is acknowledging that something
beyond our understanding has set up the frame of our so-called decision, and all we do is
to acquiesce." (TOP: 249) One of don Juan's most explicit references to the afterlife
comes in his discussion of the nagual and the tonal:
The nagual is the unspeakable. All the possible feelings and beings and selves
float in it like barges, peaceful unaltered, forever. Then the glue of life binds
some of them together.... When the glue of life binds those feelings together
a being is created, a being that loses the sense of its true nature and becomes
blinded by the glare and clamor of the area where beings hover, the tonal.
The tonal is where all the unified organization exists. A being pops into the
tonal once the force of life has bound all the needed feelings together. I said
to you once that the tonal begins at birth and ends at death; I said that
because I know that as soon as the force of life leaves the body all those
single awarenesses disintegrate and go back again to where they come from,
the nagual. What a warrior does in journeying into the unknown is very much
like dying, except that his cluster of single feelings do not disintegrate but
expand a bit without losing their togetherness. At death, however, they sink
deeply and move independently as if they had never been a unit....
There is no way to refer to the unknown.... One can only witness it. The
sorcerers' explanation says that each of us has a center from which the nagual
can be witnessed, the will. Thus, a warrior can venture into the nagual and let
his cluster arrange and rearrange itself in any way possible. The expression of
the nagual is a personal matter.... It is up to the individual warrior himself to
direct the arrangement and rearrangements of that cluster. (TOP: 272-273)
Elsewhere don Juan describes a specialized state of attention that involves a complete
alignment of one's entire being with "intent-at-large." This state seems to represent an
alternative to death as commonly known:
The third attention is attained when the glow of awareness turns into the fire
At the moment of dying all human beings enter into the unknowable and
some of them attain the third attention, but altogether too briefly....
The supreme accomplishment of human beings is to attain that level of
attention while retaining the life-force, without becoming a disembodied
awareness. (FFW: 67)
Don Juan does not recommend that a warrior divorce himself from the doings of the
tonal. Rather he encourages us to uphold another view of the world -- one that reflects
our unbending intent.
THE LIMITATIONS OF KNOWLEDGE
Partially as a result of Castaneda's writings, I have become convinced that the world of
possible experience is infinitely vast in scope. If the history of science has taught us
anything, it is that both the complexity and the simplicity of the world extend limitlessly
beyond our current conceptions, regardless of how elaborate and technologically
impressive those mental constructs may have become.
In this regard, don Juan changes the paradigm altogether.
Instead of viewing mankind
as possessing only a small slice of a much larger pie of knowledge, he distinguishes
between knowing and not-knowing -- between engaging in the descriptive act of knowing,
and disengaging this process. He refers to this latter activity variously as "stopping the
world," "shutting off the internal dialog," and "not-doing."
The difference between the two paradigms is dramatic.
Science and reason say there exists apart from us a vast realm of potential knowledge
that might be regarded as "the immutable laws of the universe." Within this realm, we are
continually expanding our knowledge and moving toward what we hope will be a final
comprehension of these ultimate truths. This view reassures us that our current knowledge
is both concrete and accurate, and that it reflects some sort of absolute reality that exists
"out there," independent of us. This paradigm applies not only to the scientific advances of
humankind, but also to the minute-by-minute functioning of each individual as he
negotiates his way through life.
Don Juan, on the other hand, tries to persuade Carlos that his
personal perception of
"reality" conforms to a consensus description shared by all members of his native culture.
This ongoing description is propagated by the faculties of "reason" and "talking." In the
individual it is originally set in motion by myriad acts of will, evoked under the powerful
influence of other wills, especially those of one's parents. These formative acts of will,
uniformly reinforced by all around, quickly became habitual, after which they are exercised
continuously without conscious effort.
This pattern of development is perhaps best illustrated by our
effortless use of language. Despite the monumental effort
required to learn one's native language, for the rest of our
lives we use it more or less automatically. There can be no doubt
that one's entire store of personal
energy as been systematically deployed to maintain a learned mental construct that is codified
in language and that is continually reinforced by its nearly ceaseless expression.
Don Juan proposes that since this ongoing "internal dialog" is unconsciously sustained
by the will, it can also be turned off by a conscious act of will. Under ordinary circumstances, however, silencing the internal dialog is not easy, since it threatens everything one has been taught since birth.
From its inception, reason has sought to invest itself and its works with supreme
control over the entire personality. Among mature modern human beings, it goes without
saying that one must at all times and at all costs remain "reasonable."
Yet this same cherished resource, which at each moment presents itself to us as the
crowning glory of all human achievement, clutches us with an iron grip. It usurps its
proper role as a vigilant guardian of our well-being to become a tyrant, jealously guarding
against any possible threat to its absolute authority. In this way reason blocks us from
fulfilling our rightful role as creators of our experience.
Paying homage to the uncompromising demand for rational
consistency keeps us from
fully exploiting our situation as human beings. We tend to be defeated by the odds as
calculated by reason. We are constrained to think and act according to the limitations
established by our beliefs.
So what is to be done? Obviously we cannot simply decide to
overthrow reason and
start acting irrationally. Without a balanced strategy this would prove just as foolish as it
According to don Juan, the proper course is first to recognize
the dilemma. Next one
must live according to the principles of warriorship. This gradually frees up a reserve of
energy or personal power that is no longer deployed for the works of reason. Over time
this awakens the will, which had hitherto been consumed by the task of maintaining a
ERASING THE PAST,
SHRINKING THE FUTURE
Another way of looking at personal power is to consider warriorship as a means of
shrinking one's investment of energy in the past, the future, and the disastrous sense of
self-importance that afflicts us in the present.
Consider the agglomeration of concepts that make up the
present recollection of one's
life experiences. For many people, even a brief glance reveals that this personal history is
quite mixed -- often large pieces of it directly oppose the smooth realization of one's
intent. For better or worse, this is what is universally regarded as the past.
As an antidote to this seemingly insurmountable obstacle, don
Juan directs us to erase
personal history. This, of course, does not mean to eliminate the ability to recall one's life
experiences. Instead it means reclaiming the energy that one has invested in the past. Don
Juan recommends a practice that he calls "recapitulation" of one's life - a way of loosening
the grip of the past that employs highly focused intent coupled with specific movements
and controlled breathing. Unlike modern psychotherapy, a warrior's recapitulation is a
function of awareness and intent rather than an analytical process.
Beyond the content of one's personal history, however, looms
the much larger issue of
its very existence. Reason tries to convince us that our personal history is absolutely real
and immutable -- a sort of fourth-dimensional appendage that trails behind us wherever we
may go, constraining our movement, limiting our options.
Similarly, one's intent, in consort with current feelings,
hopes, wishes and beliefs --
many often deeply rooted in the past -- produces an image or dream that seems to extend
outward from one's body in the present. Much like the tail of the past that seems to drag
behind us, these tentacles of expectation extend forward, lending feeling, flavor and shape
to the ongoing creative production that is commonly regarded as the future. Don Juan
suggests that this too be eliminated.
What makes us unhappy is to want. Yet if we would learn to cut our wants
to nothing, the smallest thing we'd get would be a true gift. To be poor or
wanting is only a thought; and so is to hate, or to be hungry, or to be in
pain.... They are only thoughts for me now. That's all I know. I have
accomplished that feat. The power to do that is all we have, mind you, to
oppose the forces of our lives; without that power we are dregs, dust in the
wind. (SR: 142)
Incoherence among major elements of the tonal -- one's intent, feelings, history, hopes,
wishes, beliefs -- produces incoherence in perceptions. This, in turn, confounds
understanding, leaving behind poorly digested experience. Undigested experience creates
further dependence upon personal history, siphoning off even more energy and attention.
Gradually we become so encumbered with history and so constrained by automatic
expectation that we have little energy and attention left for anything else. Thus our
faculties for clearly seeing and acting may gradually atrophy, or become buried beneath a
thickening layer of guilt and fear.
Again, an antidote to this slavery is an awareness of one's
impending death; the
realization that at every moment we are a single-pointed awareness surrounded by eternity
in every direction. Obviously, the seemingly immutable past and the all-but-tangible future
continuously emanate from their source in the present. By momentarily interrupting the
automatic process by which they are spun into experience, we may free ourselves long
enough to make a true decision -- a choice made outside the constraints of the tonal; the
planting of intent within the infinite fertility of the nagual.
We came into this world with nothing, and we shall take
nothing with us when we pass
out of it. Don Juan asks: Since we are going to die with the totality of ourselves, why not,
then, live our lives with that totality? (TOP: 132)
THE SECOND ATTENTION
Don Juan suggests that by clarifying our intent and using the "second attention," we
may actually beckon coming events.
The second attention serve[s] the function of a beckoner, a caller of chances.
The more it is exercised, the greater the possibility of getting the desired
result. But that [is] also the function of attention in general, a function so
taken for granted in our daily life that it has become unnoticeable; if we
encounter a fortuitous occurrence, we talk about it in terms of accident or
coincidence, rather than in terms of our attention having beckoned the event.
Here he distinguishes between two types of attention:
The first attention in man is animal awareness, which has been developed,
through the process of experience, into a complex, intricate, and extremely
fragile faculty that takes care of the day-to-day world in all its innumerable
aspects. In other words, everything that one can think about is part of the
The first attention is everything we are as average men.... By
such an absolute rule over our lives, the first attention is the most valuable
asset that the average man has. Perhaps it is even our only asset.
The first attention is the glow of awareness developed to an ultra shine....
It is a glow that covers the known.
The second attention, on the other hand, is a more complex and
specialized state of the glow of awareness. It has to do with the unknown....
The concentration needed to be aware that one is having a dream is the
forerunner of the second attention. That concentration is a form of
consciousness that is not in the same category as the consciousness needed to
deal with the daily world....
The second attention is also called the left-side awareness;
and it is the
vastest field that one can imagine, so vast in fact that it seems limitless.
From these and similar ideas, I have come to regard the experience of dreaming as an
analog to so-called waking experience. In ordinary dreaming the dreamer is more a
participant than an observer. The dreamer is sucked in by the dream, and thus feels subject
to the effects of nightmares or whatever else may be going on. This is not unlike the
waking situation, in which attention is captivated by the content of experience, and one
loses any awareness of oneself as the perceiver. In this case circumstances prevail, and
unconscious reactions produce all-too-familiar messes.
Yet at certain times the dreamer may awaken within the dream,
producing a quite
different sort of experience. Similarly, in the waking state, at times one becomes aware of
oneself as the perceiver instead of mechanically acting out whatever may be programmed
for the circumstances.
The specialized state of dreaming that don Juan calls
"the second attention,"
temporarily disrupts the automatic internal dialog that ordinarily dictates the content of
our perception. In the ensuing calm, a dream of extraordinary lucidity and power wafts
into consciousness. Such dreams can reprogram the otherwise autonomic processes of
perception, so that even ordinary experiences that ensue upon awakening faithfully reflect
the qualities of the dream. This is the basis of what are generally regarded as
"transformative" experiences. As with all dreams, however, any attempt to consciously
manipulate this process immediately causes it to evaporate, causing ordinary
consciousness to return.
In general, dreaming experience reflects the tenor of one's
waking experience and vice
versa. Don Juan suggests that to the extent one's intent is clear, dreams tend to become
lucid and highly functional, even if they remain somewhat fanciful. The key to this process
seems to lie in tending the rootstock from which all dreams are propagated. The way of
the warrior may be regarded as a set of techniques for accomplishing this task.
Eventually, when enough energy has been liberated from the world of the first
attention, one may awaken to a new awareness of the dreamer, the dreamed and the
dreaming -- a quantum leap of sorts. At such moments unbending intent may fertilize the
ovum of the nagual.
Ordinary waking experience is much like ordinary dreaming
experience in that one is
always challenged to remain aware of the perceiver, the thing perceived and the perceiving
itself. Furthermore, as unlikely as it may sound, attempts to directly manipulate waking
dreams are just as futile as attempts to directly manipulate sleeping dreams.
To appreciate this, one need only consider that regardless of
what may be perceived,
either internally or externally, it is finished by the time one knows about it. It is already
done. As don Juan says, we are forever recollecting the event that has just occurred. It can
no longer be changed and may just as well be regarded as ancient history. Given this state
of affairs, anything one may do in response to one's perceptions is necessarily reactive.
Thus the best one can do at any moment is to bear unbiased witness to one's perceptions.
There can be no advantage in either praising or bemoaning them.
Before all else, the way of the warrior is a way of inner
mastery. The practice of
warriorship, along with the resulting accumulation of personal power, ultimately
determines how far one can progress along the path of knowledge. With this newly found
energy and will, one may discover a greater capacity for influencing the course of events
according to one's unbending intent. Even beyond that, however, by combining selfless
will with the clarity of seeing, one may surpass all limitations by aligning one's personal
intent with that of the Spirit.
(SR) A Separate Reality -- Further Conversations With Don Juan. New York: Washington
Square Press, 1991
(JTI) Journey to Ixtlan -- The Lessons of Don Juan. New York: Washington Square Press,
(TOP) Tales of Power. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992
(EG) The Eagle's Gift. New York: Washington Square Press, 1991
(FFW) The Fire From Within. New York: Washington Square Press, 1991
(POS) The Power of Silence -- Further Lessons of Don Juan. New York: Washington
Square Press, 1991