Unearthing The Teachings of Don Juan: An unexpected discovery!

It seems that most often in life it is not the most expensive or sought after things which fulfill us, but the smallest and unexpected. The worn and unassuming paperback, The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, hidden at the bottom of a Book-Cycle donations box was certainly unexpected. My eyes were immediately drawn by its beautiful cover; an illustration by Wilson McLean. Two faces are interlinked, joined by a rainbow, one representing the internal body, its brain a flower laced with the spectrum of the rainbow, the other simply a seemingly ordinary man.

I had never heard of Carlos Castaneda before (despite The Teachings being first published in 1968) and opened the book at random. It was not like anything I had ever read before; a heady, frank account of an entirely unfamiliar philosophy. As I was flipping through it, another volunteer spotted what I was reading, exclaiming, ‘That book changed my life -’ although she then hurriedly admitted, ‘but perhaps you might not learn anything from it’. Challenge accepted.

This book would be easy to simply disregard as meaningless fantasy. In fact, there is debate as to whether the content of Castaneda’s work is fact (having been originally published as non-fiction) or fiction. Admittedly, the debate seems to be leaning towards the side of fiction. However, to argue either way about the validity of the book’s content seems to me to miss the true value of the text. As does hiding it away within the restricting category of ‘New Age’, in which some may be tempted to confine it. Regardless, be it fact or fabrication, Castaneda’s writing will pull you in: either he has one fantastically crazy imagination, or he has recorded a refreshingly unique way of perceiving and interacting with the world.

For me there is only the traveling on the paths that have a heart, on any path that may have a heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge for me is to traverse its full length. And there I travel–looking, looking, breathlessly.

The text follows Castaneda’s journey to become a Man of Knowledge. What begins as a simple desire to study peyote (a hallucinogenic drug) turns into encountering the god of peyote, Mescalito, and learning how to use jimson weed and humito mushrooms to discover a new way of ‘seeing’. However, The Teachings is not all hallucinogen-fueled experiences and philosophical revelations. Castaneda offers a lively, vivid portrayal of his relationship with Don Juan, an inevitably likable and endlessly interesting man, as well as Castaneda’s spiritual teacher. The text follows Castaneda’s supposed experiences during his explorations into shamanism, with many nuggets of insight along the way that have a striking relevance to our own everyday life.

Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realises that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.

(However, it’s worth noting that there are a few dozen or so detailed descriptions of ritual preparations to pick through, which may not be to everyone’s tastes.)

Needless to say, I ended up leaving Book-Cycle with both The Teachings and its sequel in hand. Now, having read them both, I will be keeping an eye out for more of the series. If you are looking for something a bit different to read, this is a psychedlic and intriguing escape from the mundane. More than that, if you approach it with an open mind, Castaneda’s writing allows you to explore a new way of perceiving the world around you.  At the very least, you will be left wanting to read more about the mysterious Don Juan and his philosophy.


My Graduate-Blues Antidote: Volunteering at Book-Cycle!

One of the best decisions I have made since leaving university has been volunteering at Book-Cycle.  There is always the potential for feeling a little purposeless and downtrodden when on the search for employment and living back with your parents, but volunteering has honestly been the best antidote. Not only because it gives me something to do with myself (surprisingly, having oodles of free time is not as fun as it sounds), but also because of the new people and experiences it has already brought into my life.

This illustration by Renate Belina caught my eye!

This illustration by Renate Belina caught my eye!

For starters, Book-Cycle is an absolutely fab charity! I can’t sing its praises enough; it enriches local communities, educates children in developing countries, plants trees across England, (to name just a few Book-Cycle ventures), all whilst providing people with access to a fantastic array of second-hand books in local stores. I have to exercise a ridiculous amount of restraint not to come home with armfuls of books; there is always something interesting to discover – from UFO theories to bestselling fiction. (The more I think about it; perhaps these interesting finds could be incorporated into Miscellaneous Me… Watch this space!)

There’s something about Book-Cycle that attracts not just an amazing variety of books, but people too. At Exeter’s High Street store one day, in between swapping uncanny experiences with a knowledgeable, chilled out dude and a business-man, I met a woman who speaks nine languages, a charming old man interested in military history and the most adorable little girl, her newly-purchased picture book clasped tightly in hand.

Book-cycle is all about environmental sustainability and the power of words for universal educational empowerment, and I can’t think of a more vibrant, worthwhile organisation to give my time to. I highly recommend checking out their website – it is a gargantuan fount of knowledge! There are tons of ways to get involved; you don’t have to be close by. So, have a read, spread the word, and remember:

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” — Lemony Snicket