43. Carlos Castaneda – The Teachings of Don Juan (1968)

Burroughs was influenced by a number of shaman and new age spiritualists throughout his life. His mother appears to have followed yogi Sri Aurobindo, Munroe’s Journeys Outside the Body is often referenced by Burroughs, and there is of course the ever-present Hubbard and Reich.

Castaneda is a relative latecomer in the Burroughs New Age pantheon, but he clearly makes a big impression. This book – The Teachings of Don Juan – was an unexpected bestseller and was followed up by a whole range of sequels, some of which Burroughs also read.

It is ostensibly an anthropology student’s report on time spent with a Yaqui shaman. The young white man proves himself through a series of drug-induced visions and ritual transformations, learning to channel his vital forces, experience oneness with the flow of nature and reveal arcane knowledge in the process.

The main problem with the book is that it is almost entirely made up. The main giveaway being that every stage of spiritual growth, according to “Don Juan” the shaman, begins with taking a particular drug. They build up from weed through cocaine, mushrooms and peyote. One becomes the shaman’s “ally” and he proceeds to trip out on it for the rest of his spiritual journey.

If Burroughs wasn’t so big into drugs he might have realised that something was amiss. After all, he quotes from legitimate anthropology texts like Black Elk Speaks and Chukchee Mythology; books that never mention drugs, never mind assigning them a core role in spiritual development.

Certainly he found yage used by shamans in the Yucatan, but then his experiences there were far from positive. He came away “wiser” perhaps, but also much weaker, having spent the majority of time terrified and vomiting.

In later references to Castenada, however, spoken after his “uncovering” as a fraud, Burroughs seems to imply that the fictional nature of Castaneda’s writings did nothing to undermine their potency. As he said of Almayer in An Outcast of the Islands; the natives are just as trapped in their programming as the Westerners, it’s breaking the programming that matters.

As such, we can find some important correlatives between Castenada’s spiritual advice and Burroughs own journey into the outer reaches.

There are some key aspects of Don Juan’s philosophy that would appeal to Burroughs, for a start.

Firstly, its predetermined nature. Everything that happens, Don Juan says, is already written, and so one must act “with purpose” if one wants to use once precognitive visions and change the flow of time.

Secondly, the objective world is subsumed by the subjective world. In a notable exchange after Castenada turns into an eagle and flies around, he asks Don Juan what he was “really doing” when he was out of his body. “You were really an eagle”, Don Juan replies. “But where was my body?” Don Juan shakes his head; it is the wrong question.

Finally, the most useful bit of advice in the book (largely because it’s the only advice that doesn’t require a massive ingestion of psychedelic substances) comes at the start, when Don Juan tells his young disciple to find his “good spot”. This spot is somewhere in every room where one can sit comfortably in one’s own power.

Finding one’s spot and rooting oneself in it gives one tremendous spiritual potency. One is fully defended, impermeable; solidly where one ought to be.

One might think of Bukowski’s story about meeting Burroughs. He got into his motel early evening to find Burroughs sat in a chair on the opposite balcony. He said hello, Burroughs nodded. Bukowski proceeds to have a wild party – drink, drugs, sexy adventures – and, in the early hours, he’s heading to bed only to see Burroughs still there, on his chair, not having moved a muscle the whole time.

Burroughs capacity to sit and do nothing at all is commented upon all over, but this is my favourite version of it. Perhaps Burroughs was in his “good spot”?

The combination of drugs and out-of-body experiences (he often cites Castaneda alongside Monroe, of whom more later in the blog), framed by ideas of mystical wisdom and a warrior spirit, lay the groundwork for the later Red Night trilogy. In fact, one might see all of Burroughs late-stage mythography evolving from this shared root, encountered in the late 1960s, connecting some of his earliest ideas about civilisations, souls and time with his later obsession with the occult, spirits and souls – all done so through his lifelong obsession: drugs.