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The cognition of the shamans of ancient Mexico; by Carlos Castaneda (1998)

The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge was first published in 1968. On the occasion of its thirtieth year of publication, I would like to make a few clarifications about the work itself, and to state some general conclusions about the subject of the book at which I have arrived, after years of serious and consistent effort. The book came as a result of anthropological field work which I did in the state of Arizona and in the state of Sonora, Mexico. While doing graduate work in the Anthropology Department at the University of California at Los Angeles, I happened to meet an old shaman, a Yaqui Indian from the state of Sonora, Mexico. His name was Juan Matus.
The irreducible description of what I did in the field would be to say that the Yaqui Indian sorcerer, don Juan Matus, introduced me to the cognition of the shamans of ancient Mexico. By cognition, it is meant the processes responsible for the awareness of everyday life, processes which include memory, experience, perception, and the expert use of any given syntax. The idea of cognition was, at that time, my most powerful stumbling block. It was inconceivable for me, as an educated Western man, that cognition, as it is defined in the philosophical discourse of our day, could be anything besides a homogeneous, all-engulfing affair for the totality of mankind. Western man is willing to consider cultural differences that would account for quaint ways of describing phenomena, but cultural differences could not possibly account for processes of memory, experience, perception and the expert use of language to be anything other than the processes known to us. In other words, for Western man, there is only cognition as a group of general processes.
For the sorcerers of don Juan's lineage, however, there is the cognition of modern man, and there is the cognition of the shamans of ancient Mexico. Don Juan considered these two to be entire worlds of everyday life which were intrinsically different from one another. At a given moment, unbeknownst to me, my task mysteriously shifted from the mere gathering of anthropological data to the internalisation of the new cognitive processes of the shamans' world.
A genuine internalisation of such rationales entails a transformation, a different response to the world of everyday life. Shamans found out that the initial thrust of this transformation always occurs as an intellectual allegiance to something that appears to be merely a concept, but which has unsuspectedly powerful undercurrents. This was best described by don Juan when he said, “The world of everyday life cannot ever be taken as something personal that has power over us, something that could make us, or destroy us, because man's battlefield is not in his strife with the world around him. His battlefield is over the horizon, in an area which is unthinkable for an average man, the area where man ceases to be a man.”
He explained those statements, saying that it was energetically imperative for human beings to realise that the only thing that matters is their encounter with infinity. Don Juan could not reduce the term infinity to a more manageable description. He said that it was energetically irreducible. It was something that could not be personified or even alluded to, except in such vague terms as infinity, “lo infinito”.
Little did I know at that time that don Juan was not giving me just an appealing intellectual description; he was describing something he called an energetic fact. Energetic facts, for him, were the conclusions that he and the other shamans of his lineage arrived at when they engaged in a function which they called seeing: the act of perceiving energy directly as it flows in the universe. The capacity to perceive energy in this manner is one of the culminating points of shamanism.
According to don Juan Matus, the task of ushering me into the cognition of the shamans of ancient Mexico was carried out in a traditional way, meaning that whatever he did to me was what was done to every shaman initiate throughout the ages. The internalisation of the processes of a different cognitive system always began by drawing the shaman initiates' total attention to the realisation that we are beings on our way to dying. Don Juan and the other shamans of his lineage believed that the full realisation of this energetic fact, this irreducible truth, would lead to the acceptance of the new cognition.
The end result which shamans like don Juan Matus sought for their disciples was a realisation which, by its simplicity, is so difficult to attain: that we are indeed beings that are going to die. Therefore, the real struggle of man is not the strife with his fellowmen, but with infinity, and this is not even a struggle; it is, in essence, an acquiescence. We must voluntarily acquiesce to infinity. In the description of sorcerers, our lives originate in infinity, and they end up where they originated: infinity.
Most of the processes which I have described in my published work had to do with the natural give and take of my persona as a socialised being under the impact of new rationales. In my field situation, what was taking place was something more urgent than a mere invitation to internalise the processes of that new shamanistic cognition; it was a demand. After years of struggle to maintain the boundaries of my persona intact, those boundaries gave in. Struggling to keep them was a meaningless act if it is seen in the light of what don Juan and the shamans of his lineage wanted to do. It was, however, a very important act in light of my need, which was the need of every civilised person: to maintain the boundaries of the known world.
Don Juan said that the energetic fact which was the cornerstone of the cognition of the shamans of ancient Mexico was that every nuance of the cosmos is an expression of energy. From their plateau of seeing energy directly, those shamans arrived at the energetic fact that the entire cosmos is composed of twin forces which are opposite and complimentary to each other at the same time. They called these two forces animate energy and inanimate energy.
They saw that inanimate energy has no awareness. Awareness, for shamans, is a vibratory condition of animate energy. Don Juan said that the shamans of ancient Mexico were the first ones to see that all the organisms on Earth are the possessors of vibratory energy. They called them organic beings, and saw that it is the organism itself which sets up the cohesiveness and the limits of such energy. They also saw that there are conglomerates of vibratory, animate energy which have a cohesion of their own, free from the bindings of an organism. They called them inorganic beings, and described them as clumps of cohesive energy that is invisible to the human eye, energy that is aware of itself, and possesses a unity determined by an agglutinating force other than the agglutinating force or an organism.
The shamans of don Juan's lineage saw that the essential condition of animate energy, organic or inorganic, is to turn energy in the universe at large into sensory data. In the case of organic beings, this sensory data is then turned into a system of interpretation in which energy at large is classified and a given response is allotted to each classification, whatever the classification may be . The assertion of sorcerers is that in the realm of inorganic beings, the sensory data into which energy at large is transformed by the inorganic beings, must be, by definition, interpreted by them by them in whatever incomprehensible from they may do it.
According to the shamans' logic, in the case of human beings, the system of interpreting sensorial data is their cognition.  They maintain that human cognition can be temporarily interrupted, since it is merely a taxonomical system, in which responses have been classified along with the interpretation of sensory data.  When this interruption occurs, sorcerers claim that energy can be perceived directly as it flows in the universe. Sorcerers describe perceiving energy directly as having the effect of seeing it with the eyes, although the eyes are only minimally involved.
To perceive energy directly allowed the sorcerers of don Juan's lineage to see human beings as conglomerates of energy fields that have the appearance of luminous balls. Observing human beings in such a fashion allowed those shamans to draw extraordinary energetic conclusions. They noticed that each of those luminous balls is individually connected to an energetic mass of inconceivable proportions that exists in the universe; a mass which they called the dark sea of awareness. They observed that each individual ball is attached to the dark sea of awareness at a point that is even more brilliant than the luminous ball itself. Those shamans called the point of juncture the assemblage point, because they observed that it is at that spot that perception takes place. The flux of energy at large is turned, on that point, into sensory data, and those data are then interpreted as the world that surrounds us.
When I asked don Juan to explain to me how this process of turning the flux of energy into sensory data occurred, he replied that the only thing shamans know about this is that the immense mass of energy called the dark sea of awareness supplies human beings with whatever is necessary to elicit this transformation of energy into sensory data, and that such a process could not possibly ever be deciphered because of the vastness of the original source.
What the shamans of ancient Mexico found out when they focused their seeing on the dark sea of awareness was that the entire cosmos is made of luminous filamaents that extend themselves infinitely. Shamans describe them as luminous filaments that go every which way without ever touching one another. They saw that they are individual filaments, and yet, they are grouped in inconceivably enormous masses.
Another of such masses of filaments, besides the dark sea of awareness which the shamans observed and liked because of its vibration, was something they called intent, and the act of individual shamans focusing their attention on such a mass, they called intending. They saw that the entire universe was a universe of intent, and intent, for them, was the equivalent of intelligence. The universe, therefore, was, for them, a universe of supreme intelligence. Their conclusion, which became part of their cognitive world, was that vibratory energy, aware of itself, was intelligent in the extreme. They saw that the mass of intent in the cosmos was responsible for all the possible mutations, all the possible variations which happened in the universe, not because of arbitrary, blind circumstances, but because of the intending done by the vibratory energy, at the level of the flux of energy itself.
Don Juan pointed out that in the world of everyday life, human beings make use of intent and intending in the manner in which they interpret the world. Don Juan, for instance, alerted me to the fact that my daily world was not ruled by my perception, but by the interpretation of my perception. He gave as an example the concept of university, which at that time was a concept of supreme importance to me. He said that university was not something that I could perceive with my senses, because neither my sight nor my hearing, nor my sense of taste, nor my tactile or olfactory senses, gave me any clue about university. University happened only in my intending, and in order to construct it there, I had to make use of everything I knew as a civilised person, in a conscious or subliminal way.
The energetic fact of the universe being composed of luminous filaments gave rise to the shamans' conclusion that each of those filaments that extend themselves infinitely is a field of energy. They observed that luminous filaments, or rather fields of energy of such a nature converge on and go through the assemblage point. Since the size of the assemblage point was determined to be equivalent to that of a modern tennis ball, only a finite number of energy fields, numbering, nevertheless, in the zillions, converge on and go through that spot.
When the sorcerers of ancient Mexico saw the assemblage point, they discovered the energetic fact that the impact of the energy fields going through the assemblage point was transformed into sensory data; data which were then interpreted into the cognition of the world of everyday life. Those shamans accounted for the homogeneity of cognition among human beings by the fact that the assemblage point for the entire human race is located at the same place on the energetic luminous spheres that we are: at the height of the shoulder blades, an arm's length behind them, against the boundary of the luminous ball.
Their seeing-observations of the assemblage point led the sorcerers of ancient Mexico to discover that the assemblage point shifted position under conditions of normal sleep, or extreme fatigue, or disease, or the ingestion of psychotropic plants. Those sorcerers saw that when the assemblage point was at a new position, a different bundle of energy fields went through it, forcing the assemblage point to turn those energy fields into sensory data, and interpret them, giving as a result a veritable new world to perceive. Those shamans maintained that each new world that comes about in such a fashion is an all-inclusive world, different from the world of everyday life, but utterly similar to it in the fact that one could live and die in it.
For shamans like don Juan Matus, the most important exercise of intending entails the volitional movement of the assemblage point to reach predetermined spots in the total conglomerate of fields of energy that make up a human being, meaning that through thousands of years of probing, the sorcerers of don Juan's lineage found out that there are key positions within the total luminous ball that a human being is where the assemblage point can be located and where the resulting bombardment of energy fields on it can produce a totally veritable new world. Don Juan assured me that it was an energetic fact that the possibility of journeying to any of those worlds, or to all of them, is the heritage of every human being. He said that those worlds were there for the asking, as questions are sometimes begging to be asked, and that all that a sorcerer or a human being needed to reach them was to intend the movement of the assemblage point.
Another issue related to intent, but transposed to the level of universal intending, was, for the shamans of ancient Mexico, the energetic fact that we are continually pushed and pulled and tested by the universe itself. It was for them an energetic fact that the universe in general is predatorial to the maximum, but not predatorial in the sense in which we understand the term: the act of plundering or stealing, or injuring or exploiting others for one's own gain. For the shamans of ancient Mexico, the predatory condition of the universe meant that the intending of the universe is to be continually testing awareness. They saw that the universe creates zillions of organic beings and zillions of inorganic beings. By exerting pressure on all of them, the universe attempts to become aware of itself. In the cognitive world of shamans, therefore, awareness is the final issue.
Don Juan Matus and the shamans of his lineage regarded awareness as the act of being deliberately conscious of all the perceptual possibilities of man, not merely the perceptual possibilities dictated by any given culture whose role seems to be that of restricting the perceptual capacity of its members. Don Juan maintained that to release, or set free, the total perceiving capacity of human beings would not in any way interfere with their functional behaviour. In fact, functional behaviour would become an extraordinary issue, for it would acquire a new value. Function in these circumstances becomes a most demanding necessity. Free from idealities and pseudo-goals, man has only function as his guiding force. Shamans call this impeccability. For them, to be impeccable means to do one's utmost best, and a bit more. They derived function from seeing energy directly as it flows in the universe. If energy flows in a certain way, to follow the flow of energy is, for them, being functional. Function is, therefore, the common denominator by means of which shamans face the energetic facts of their cognitive world.
The exercise of all the units of the sorcerers' cognition allowed don Juan and all the shamans of his lineage to arrive at odd energetic conclusions which at first sight appear to be pertinent only to them and their personal circumstances, but which, if they are examined with care, may be applicable to any one of us. According to don Juan, the culmination of the shamans' quest is something to be considered to be the ultimate energetic fact, not only for sorcerers, but for every human being on Earth. He called it the definitive journey.
The definitive journey is the possibility that individual awareness, enhanced to the limit by the individual's adherence to the shamans' cognition, could be maintained beyond the point at which the organism is capable of functioning as a cohesive unit, that is to say, beyond death. This transcendental awareness was understood by the shamans of ancient Mexico as the possibility for the awareness of human beings to go beyond everything that is known, and arrive, in this manner, at the level of energy that flows in the universe. Shamans like don Juan Matus defined their quest as the quest of becoming, in the end, an inorganic being, meaning energy aware of itself, acting as a cohesive unit, but without an organism. They called this aspect of their cognition total freedom, a state in which awareness exists, free from the impositions of socialisation and syntax.
These are the general conclusions that have been drawn from my immersion in the cognition of the shamans of ancient Mexico. Years after the publication of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, I realised that what don Juan Matus had offered me was a total cognitive revolution. I have tried, in my subsequent works, to give an idea of the procedures to effectuate this cognitive revolution. In view of the fact that don Juan was acquainting me with a live world, the processes of change in such a live world never cease. Conclusions, therefore, are only mnemonic devices, or operative structures, which serve the function of springboards into new horizons of cognition.

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (Washington Square Press 1998)

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