Castaneda, Modern Shamanism, and the Huicholes


Castaneda 1962

“Shamans have unmasked self-importance and found that it is self-pity masquerading as something else”– Carlos Castaneda, ‘The Power of Silence’  

I just finished reading my first Castaneda book in probably thirty years, ‘The Wheel of Time’–a collection of quotes from all the others–and find it surprisingly compelling.  I know it’s


Huichol yarn art

not real anthropology, much less real philosophy or even real shamanism… but still I find that it frequently resonates with me, just like it did long ago.  I read all of the first half of his ouevre way back when, dropping out sometime around the ‘Power of Silence’ or ‘The Art of Dreaming,’ can’t remember, but I’d never even heard of ‘Magical Passes’ or “The Active Side of Infinity’… until now.  I’d never heard of Amy Wallace or her expose’ of the Castaneda cult, either, nor would I care.  Where a guy parks his penis is none of my business, nor interest.  I do care care about enlightenment, though, and the possibilities for a better life on this earth in this dimension of biological reality. 

Like many others, I was ‘turned on’ to Castaneda around 1973, about the time that he himself began to secret himself away, apparently to avoid the gaze of critiques and critics asking too many questions better left unanswered by his circular logic.  And like them, I, too, was in search of ‘otherness’–anything but the humdrum projection screen of implied existence which seemed to comprise the modern-day common-sense world of ‘burbs and blurbs and curbs on our freedoms as sentient beings on a planet with atmosphere, incidental tourists with much too much baggage.  Enlightenment is a precious commodity, of course, but it made for a lively read.  It also fueled an interest in other countries and other cultures and other belief systems, not to mention Mexico. The rest is history.

But if I was ‘into it’, then others were way over their heads with it.  Disregarding a somewhat forgettable Fleetwood Mac hit in the post-Peter Green/pre-Buckingham Nicks era, it also  spawned a monthly journal–only recently defunct–and more than a few self-styled gringo shamans, with many seminars to teach and celebrate it.  I even went to a few myself, but quickly tired of it, especially when the group leader got everybody prancing around onstage like deer, bears, and other ‘power animals’, especially when the rap seemed lifted verbatim from Castaneda himself. 

The Huichol Indians may have been the greatest beneficiaries of the interest in shamanism, though, they the ‘real’ shamans of modern Mexico and my bet for Castaneda’s model Indians, Yaquis themselves now a pretty ragtag group, and largely Christianized.  Huicholes are the real thing, and still survive in the remote Sierra Madre, and still make their annual pilgrimage for peyote.  They’re way cool.  The verdict is still out on the rest of it.  The best-known of the Gringo shamans, Brant Secunda, still follows his calling, with apparently a great deal of success and much merit accrued to him.  Bravo, Brant.  Other than that, I don’t know, but I suspect the level of interest remains high.  The world still needs it, after all, now more than ever.  I like the combination of Buddhist non-attachment & survival instincts, not to mention healing without hospitals.  I was never much of be-here-now Buddhist, anyway.  Who’s paying the resort bill?

I think I’ll go look for the Huicholes next year.  Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.  I’ve hooked up with many indigenoius cultures around the world in my life, but not the Huicholes.. yet.  Till then re-living the works of Castaneda will have to suffice.