Interview with Michael Harner http://www.shamanism.org/articles/article16page5.htmlCarlos Castaneda renewed interest in shamanism and had a tremendous influence on contemporary psychedelic culture. What do you think of Castaneda?
He performed an important role. He showed the Western world that non-Western peoples could have a fascinating and radical perspective on reality, even if they were barefoot. And he also helped provide some sort of framework for people in the psychedelic movement who were having a hard time figuring out how to organize their experiences.
As a matter of fact, Carlos himself had quite a difficult time organizing his own early experiences. That’s how we first met. After I came back from the Conibo to a position at the University of California at Berkeley in 1962, I gave a talk one evening on “Drugs and Reality in the Upper Amazon.” Carlos was a graduate student, and he read about that talk, so he looked me up at the 1963 meeting of the American Anthropological Association. He said he was curious about how I organized these experiences conceptually, because as yet he had no framework. So I shared with him the Upper Amazon perception of reality through ayahuasca and other substances.
Then when I heard him start talking, I was blown away by his accounts, because they were so beautiful. In fact, I encouraged him to write them up. So within a few weeks he came back to Berkeley with an account of his first peyote experience, which later became a chapter in his book. It was great, and I encouraged him to write more, and he brought some more a few weeks later. At that time, I think he was pretty much on the level about what had happened to him.
I encouraged Carlos to write a book-length manuscript, which he then did. He eventually published it with the University of California Press, because the New York commercial publishing establishment wasn’t ready for it, and couldn’t cope with it. In fact, the first review in the New York Times of Carlos’ book, The Teachings of Don Juan, was written by a specialist on the don Juan of Europe, of the Renaissance! He wrote a short, very critical, uncomprehending review of it. The Times had no idea of what was happening. Much later, after Carlos was popular, the New York Times assigned more appropriate reviewers.
One of Carlos’ most important contributions was introducing the terms “ordinary/nonordinary” reality, which remain immensely useful. The American anthropologist Robert Lowie had earlier used “ordinary and extraordinary,” but nothing quite works like “ordinary/nonordinary.” Unfortunately, in later books Carlos didn’t really distinguish adequately between those anymore. The first two books were closer to shamanism and to what I consider to have been experiences with a psychedelic base. Later, Carlos shifted more into his own world. His later books have very little to do with shamanism and a lot to do with Carlos’ own world, such as his construct of Toltec shamanism—nobody knows who the Toltecs really were. It’s simply an archaeological concept.Many today believe that most of what Castaneda wrote was a sham. Do you think that don Juan, his mentor shaman, was a real person?
I think don Juan was real. However, I think some aspects of him described by Carlos were composites, and other aspects, described in the later books, were “dreamed” by Carlos. Early on, Carlos invited me to go visit don Juan. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to travel with him down to Mexico, and I’ve kicked myself ever since. But don Juan and I were in contact through Carlos. Carlos wanted to get that book published. When he mentioned this, don Juan said that he didn’t really know if it was important, but if Carlos really wanted it, he’d help. So he had three power masks made. One was for Carlos’ literary agent, one was for Carlos, and one was for me. I can tell you that these masks are the real thing. They are, in fact, very dangerous masks.These are actual physical masks? Why are they dangerous?
Yes. I can show you mine if you want to see it. I just ask you not to handle it, okay? They are dangerous because they have immense spiritual power that’s of the Middle World.
Carlos never got out of the Middle World. You’ll never find any reference to the Lower World or the Upper World in his books, nor do you find any reference to healing. He was in the world of the sorcerer. Not surprisingly, the people that are attracted to his disciples’ workshops often are not people who are oriented toward compassion and healing, but rather to power alone.They’re trying to amass power?
Yes. However, power alone is not shamanism. But I loved Carlos. He was a great raconteur, and he spoke the way he wrote, but with humor. You could sit for hours listening to him. You would have been enthralled. But Carlos was really not interested in shamanism, per se.Many today believe that most of what Castaneda wrote was a sham. Do you think that don Juan, his mentor shaman, was a real person?
Not in recent years. I haven’t felt that they are important anymore. I felt that they were important at one time—useful as an entree. But these days I don’t want to get too deeply in there, except when I’m working. And then I usually like to get out after half an hour or so.
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Interview with Michael Harner from Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob, eds. 2005. Albany: State University of New York Press.