A Separate Reality by Carlos Castaneda
In A Separate Reality Carlos Castaneda begins by attempting to reasonably objectify a combined group experience of peyote, the perception of Mescalito, the embodiment of the peyote cactus. He tries to explain it in terms of what he calls “manipulating social cues” as a method of agreement between those people involved in a peyote session.
The book is primed academically at the start with a reasoned, objective assault on the experience. It is, however, a well executed narrative device employed in order that reason itself may become the subject of challenge. (The questionable historic truth of Castaneda’s account was dealt with in our review of The Teachings of Don Juan.)
The teaching framework in the second of Castaneda’s books is the concept of ‘seeing’. According to don Juan Matus, Castaneda’s teacher, the ability of ‘seeing’ is not a trick of sorcery but of personal perception, ‘A separate reality’. Practically speaking then, book two is made up of a series of lessons concerned with the ability to shift perception between two perspectives.
It is Castaneda’s own reason that holds back his learning throughout the book. His reason itself is built from the same conceptual frameworks which make up his original perspective. He is then, in this regard, trapped by his own reason and in attempting to make objective sense of the tricks and teachings of don Juan, he misses the point of the lessons; which is to ‘see’.
Don Juan, by frequently attacking the reason of Castaneda, makes an important distinction between the two perspectives: Each has it’s own make-up of conceptual frameworks. Consequentially the task of ‘changing perception’ is made up of two elements. Firstly, breaking down old frameworks and, secondly, building up completely new ones.
The shift of perception, between the ordinary sensual and reasonable awareness and the ability of ‘seeing’, is illustrated clearly on a number of occasions during Castaneda’s apprenticeship. For example, the interpretation and representation of a ‘gnat’ as the guardian between worlds, under the influence of the ‘little smoke’. The perception shift from an ordinary gnat entering Castaneda’s awareness, into a 100 foot monster.
There are hints of progress, like Castaneda’s ability to quickly perceive the gnat’s transformation, but it is largely fleeting hope and failure in Castaneda’s effort of ‘seeing’. However, the process is a very useful narrative device and manages to confer some difficult imagery and idea very deftly, especially in the words and actions of don Juan.
There appears to be an appreciation for the philosophy of Heraclitus in the dialogue of don Juan. The theory of ‘the unity of opposites’ is regularly referred to. For example, Castaneda asks him about the nature of ‘seeing’ and don Juan replies that when one ‘sees’ a tree “it changes yet remains the same.”
An idea, also connected with Heraclitus, which is worth noting in this preliminary examination is what is “common”. According to don Juan “The only thing that is common to all of us is that Mescalito reveals his secrets privately to each man.” For Heraclitus, the Logos was common to us all. A specific look at the pre-Socratic philosopher is definitely called upon for the future.
The narrative framework of having two perspectives relies on there being only a single reality. It does have a hint of idealism (indeed further research using Kant seems applicable) but when examined more fully it also seems obvious that it is actually combined with a form of perspectivism. As opposed to there being a platonic ‘world of ideals’, there is an ‘ideal perspective’ in which don Juan places ‘truth’ on a single ‘being of reality’. One perspective provides a broader range of knowledge than the other.
There are some important avenues of research revealed in connection between the psychedelic literature of Castaneda and Timothy Leary. Don Juan says: “It’s true that Mescalito drives people crazy, as you said, but that’s only when they come to him without knowing what they are doing.” Both authors recognise the importance of knowledge and respect for psychedelic substances; they both recognize that amateur intake can have extremely negative effects. Leary called for a guide socio-politically, whilst Castaneda does so in the esoteric realm of Nagualism (this name is not used explicitly by Castaneda till later in the series.)
A direct comparison between Castaneda’s “state of non-ordinary reality” and Leary’s “ecstatic experience”, and the way in which one uses the states, might well provide a further correspondence as to the nature of the psychedelic trip in each genre. As well as illuminating some of the key differences in the epistemology of psychedelic literature.
A number of other important ideas are revealed and explored by don Juan throughout the book. For example, the ‘will’, death, ‘controlled folly’ and the ‘internal dialogue’. Many of these concepts lay the epistemological and ethical groundwork for Castaneda’s philosophy and will provide important intertextual comparison with other genres of psy-lit. What all these ideas have in common though is their connection with the “path of knowledge.”
“The path of knowledge is a forced one. In order to learn we must be spurred. In the path of knowledge we are always fighting something, avoiding something, prepared for something; and that something is always inexplicable, greater, more powerful than us.”
The first two books in Castaneda’s series have psychotropic drugs as the premise for changing perspectives. However, from book three onwards the emphasis is changed and it is revealed that it is not necessary to take drugs in order to understand, or to be aware of ‘seeing’. For this reason, I am going to treat the first two as a distinct single inquiry themselves and examine, in my review of book three, how the premise shifts.
A Separate Reality is a much more literary affair than Castaneda’s first book: ‘Don Juan; a Yaqui way of knowledge’. However, saying that, the two work together beautifully as an examination of the psychedelic experience and what it represents in regard to cultural and spiritual use. It would seem wrong to read either in isolation precisely because they compliment one another so well, in both theory and style.
 Castaneda, Carlos: ‘A separate reality’. Penguin. 1975. Page 220