Stopping the World: Psychological Reflections on The Teachings of Don Juan

Jungian analyst Gary Toub reviews Carlos Castaneda's classic The Teachings of Don Juan.

Psychological Reflections on the Teachings of Don Juan

Carlos Castaneda:  The Teachings of Don Juan.  New York, Pocket
Books, 1968; A Separate Reality. New York, Pocket Books, 1971;
Journey to Ixtlan. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1972; Tales of
Power. New York, Pocket Books, 1974. 

Reviewed by Gary S. Toub

My renewed interest in this topic began a couple of years ago, when the C. G. Jung Institute of Colorado requested analysts to submit subjects for upcoming classes.  I wasn't working on anything at the time, so I decided to wait and see if anything came to me.  Perhaps the unconscious would suggest something.  I was thinking I might have a dream, but I knew from experience to be alert for the unexpected.  Soon after that one of my analysands brought in the following dream:

I am walking on a road, approaching an intersection.  The cross street is very busy—so not sure how I will get across.  The closer I get, the more I feel myself slowing down.  It gets harder and harder to walk.  Finally, I stop altogether, unable to walk at all, completely frozen in place.  Then I notice everything around me has stopping moving as well.  I am then aware that I must wait.  Someone is coming and once he arrives, I will be able to move again.  The rest of the world will remain stopped, however, so that I will be able to easily cross the road ahead of me.

We analyzed what the dream meant for my client's personal psychology and life situation.  As the dream indicated, he was on a journey with a major transition ahead.  The dream added an additional perspective--he was approaching a crossroads that his ego did not know how to traverse.  Something would have to radically change for him to make it across.  The dream seemed to insist that he would have to stop until something came to him.  Even more, it indicated that his whole world had to come to a halt. Among other things, my analysand's dream brought to mind stopping the world, a concept discussed in Carlos Castaneda's (Journey) account of his apprenticeship with Yaqui sorcerer, don Juan.  My analysand was also acquainted with Castaneda's writings, so together we reflected on what stopping the world meant.  We realized it involved leaving behind an old version of reality for a new one, the old one being collective, the new one extraordinary and magical.

After the session, I decided to dig deeper into stopping the world, which was the central topic of Castaneda's third book, Journey to Ixtlan.  Re-reading this book brought back memories of how helpful don Juan's concepts had been during my training analysis in the 70's and 80's.  I had read Castaneda's books in the 60’s & 70’s, when they first came out and made the bestseller list.  I remember them being entertaining, but little more.  It wasn't until a decade later that don Juan's teachings became meaningful to me as practical guides to living with the unconscious.  For example, according to Castaneda (Teachings), don Juan believed that knowledge was gained through direct experience, not through gathering facts intellectually.  I found it fascinating that a dream of mine provided the same message when I began my training to become a Jungian analyst:

I walk to a classroom to start a new class I am taking.  When I get there, I see that all the seats are taken—there is no room for me.  I consider some ways I might be able to get in the class, but finally accept the situation.  I then walk over to the school cafeteria, where there is lots of room and a selection of many foods to choose from.

With the assistance of my analyst, I recognized that the dream was letting me know that I would not learn about the unconscious through my familiar route of intellectual understanding.  It would have to come through the integration of direct experience.

Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan
In 1960, Carlos Castaneda was a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA.  For his master's thesis, he was studying medicinal plants used by Native Americans of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.  That summer, he was with a friend gathering specimens and information about the plants.  As they waited for a bus in the intense heat of an Arizona border town, Carlos' friend recognized a 70-year-old, deeply wrinkled, white haired man.  This was the eccentric old yerbero (a person who gathers and sells medicinal herbs) he had heard about.  He was said to be very learned about plants, especially peyote.  The old man was Juan Matus, or don Juan, a Yaqui brujo, a "medicine man, curer, witch, sorcerer, person with extraordinary powers" (Castaneda, Teachings, p.14).   

Although he really knew very little, Carlos introduced himself to don Juan as someone very knowledgeable about peyote.  He said he was interested to learn what don Juan knew.  Carlos's attitude was one of condescension and manipulation.  He assumed that his graduate school education would enable him to understand better than this old man whatever they discussed.  The brief encounter ended quite strangely, though--don Juan unsettled Carlos with an arresting stare.  Don Juan's shining eyes looked straight through Carlos, as if to say he knew better than Carlos what was at stake in the study of these plants.

A few months later, the two met at don Juan's home in the Sonoran desert where they again discussed Carlos’ request for information.  Don Juan explained to Carlos that learning about hallucinogenic plants required more than just intellectually gathering facts—it required Carlos being willing to change his personality--and his entire outlook on life.  Carlos just shrugged this aside.

Finding One’s Spot

Don Juan finally agreed to teach Carlos what he knew, but only if Carlos passed a test.  This shows that don Juan believed that pursuing knowledge is not simply the ego's choice—it must be confirmed by the unconscious.  Jung felt the same way (Jeffrey Raff, personal communication, 1980).  He did not think everyone should explore the unconscious or be in analysis.  Like many analysts, Jung looked for signals from the unconscious to comment on beginning such an endeavor.  During Carlos' apprenticeship, don Juan frequently paid attention to the nagual, or the unconscious, for omens, or agreements--the timely rattling of a bush, the unexpected roar of a jet, or the sudden appearance of a crow.

In this initial test, Carlos had to find his spot on don Juan's porch.  Don Juan explained that there was a beneficent spot, which would provide happiness and strength, and an enemy spot, which could weaken or kill him.  At first, don Juan gave Carlos no clues on how to find his spot.  Carlos futilely crawled around on his hands and knees for hours.  Eventually, don Juan took pity on him and gave Carlos a hint.  He told him he needed to feel the spots with his eyes not looking directly into things.

Don Juan's advice can be seen as a basic instruction for perceiving the unconscious.  By psychologically looking less directly, we bypass the directed, outward-focused rationality that obscures the unconscious.  We can then perceive positive, restorative energies in the unconscious and negative, destructive ones.  Like Carlos, we can benefit from differentiating the contents of the unconscious, knowing where in our psyche to consciously center ourselves.  In Jungian language, this would mean avoiding destructive complexes that deplete or destroy us and connecting with the Self, where we are nourished and restored.

Carlos finally succeeded in finding his spot by falling asleep on it.  He was not overjoyed with his success, however.  He questioned the validity of the experience, thinking don Juan had made up the whole thing:

I could not avoid feeling that the whole experience was forced and arbitrary.  I was certain that don Juan had watched me all night and then proceeded to humor me by saying that wherever I had fallen asleep was the place I was looking for.  Yet I failed to see a logical reason for such an act, and when he challenged me to sit on the other spot I could not do it.  There was a strange cleavage between my pragmatic experience of fearing the “other spot” and my rational deliberations about the total event. (Castaneda, Teachings, pp. 34-35)

The Reality of the Unconscious

Questioning the reality of his experience was an issue with which Carlos struggled repeatedly.  For example, after don Juan gave him a hallucinogenic potion of jimson weed (devil’s weed, as don Juan called it), Carlos had his most significant experience to that point--he flew:

My speed was extraordinary….  I enjoyed such freedom and swiftness as I have never known before.  The marvelous darkness gave me a feeling of sadness, of longing, perhaps.  It was as if I had found a place where I belonged—the darkness of the night.  I tried to look around, but all I sensed was that the night was serene, and yet it held so much power.  (Castaneda, Teachings, pp. 126-127)

Never content without asking don Juan to explain things, Carlos later tenaciously pursued the question, “Did I really fly?”

"Did I really fly, don Juan?

"That is what you told me.  Didn't you?"

"I know don Juan.  I mean, did my body fly?  Did I take off like a bird?

"You flew….  That is all I can tell you.  What you want to know
makes no sense.  Birds fly like birds and a man who has taken the
devil's weed flies as such."

"As birds do?"

"No, he flies as a man who has taken the weed."

"Then I didn't really fly, don Juan.  I flew in imagination, in my mind
alone.  Where was my body?"

"The trouble with you is that you understand things in only one way. 
You don't think a man flies; and yet a brujo can move a thousand
miles in one second to see what is going on.  He can deliver a blow
to his enemies long distances away.  So, does he or doesn't he
fly?"  (p. 129)

This is not far off from what actually happens with many of us.  When we first contact the unconscious, we have difficulty acknowledging its reality.  I experienced this myself when I first started doing active imagination.  I was encouraged by my analyst to spend some time every day in active imagination—and I did.  I had interesting interactions with several dream figures.  However, I didn't take the exchanges as real--until later, when the stranglehold of my rationality was loosened.

Like don Juan, Jung made it clear that he took psychic reality seriously. Marie-Louise von Franz related a great story about this (Jonathan Cott, "Forever Jung," Rolling Stone, 1985, no. 461, pp. 83-84, 86, 123-125).  In their first meeting together, Jung told von Franz about a woman who’d had a vision of being on the moon and being held captive by a black-winged man.  He described it as if she really had been on the moon.  Von Franz objected,  “But she wasn’t on the real moon.  That was just a vision” (p.84).  Jung looked at her seriously and replied, “She was on the moon.”  Pointing to the sky, von Franz responded, “Wait a minute.  It can’t be.  She wasn’t up there.”  Jung looked at her penetratingly and repeated, “She was on the moon.”  Later, von Franz realized what Jung meant—that what happens psychologically is the real reality.  It took a long time, but Carlos eventually recognized this too.

Stopping the World and Seeing

Reviewing his field notes, Carlos came to the conclusion that most of what don Juan had him experience was meant to help him stop the world, and once accomplishing that, to see (Castaneda, Journey).  These two concepts deserve reflection, for they communicate a great deal of what is important in Jungian psychology.

Don Juan explained to Carlos that ever since he was born, he had been taught a description, or interpretation, of the world.  This description is based largely on collective norms and values.  According to don Juan, it is continually reinforced by people we meet and is seldom questioned. Stopping the world was don Juan's term for stopping our unconscious participation in this collectively programmed description of reality.

Seeing, for don Juan, was not the same as mere looking.  It meant perceiving beyond the surface, knowing things at a deeper level.
Seeing was the term don Juan used to describe what occurs when the stronghold of consensual reality is loosened, when one experiences what was previously unconscious—what he called the nagual and Jungians call the unconscious. 

Confronting Complexes

Don Juan's idea about a learned description of the world is comparable to the Jungian concept of a complex.  For Jung, complexes make up the basic structure of the psyche.  They are central themes or content areas that are powerful, emotionally charged, and connected to archetypes.  Complexes organize and influence our feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and behavior.  For example, let’s take the case of someone with an authority complex.  Such a person might have grown up in a strict family where mother and father were overly controlling.  Now, as an adult, this individual has issues interacting with authority figures--getting angry and irritable, passively aggressive, or openly defiant.  A person with this complex might also respond to authority by regressing to childlike passivity and compliance.  In either case, the complex controls the person, impacting the way he or she perceives, feels, and behaves.

A person possessed by a complex is not free to respond uniquely and creatively to each new situation.  He or she tends to see the world in the same old way, through the lens of the complex.  In don Juan's terms, the person is being subjected to a description of events formed earlier in life—in this case, the negative experience of having controlling parents.  In other words, all the complex tends to see and react to are controlling mothers and fathers.  A complex like this distorts how we experience ourselves and the world--and this is an example of just one complex.  We all have a number of them.  Fortunately, they aren't all destructive and pathological.  Nevertheless, they all color our experience in one way or another.

When don Juan instructed Carlos to stop the world, he was teaching him to halt his unconscious identification with complexes.  To attain self-knowledge, or for Jung, knowledge of the Self, this is an absolutely essential lesson.  Like Carlos, we must identify and differentiate our complexes.  When we analyze dreams, we are in some measure stopping the world and seeing, for dreams confront us with the ways we are unconscious, showing us our complexes very clearly at times.  A simple dream of being a child in the back of a van that father is driving can enable one to see that a father complex is steering one's life.

Whether through dreams or other means, the first step to stopping the world is to stop identifying with complexes and begin to recognize their power and functioning.  However, we have to go even further in stopping them--knowing about complexes intellectually is seldom enough.

Being a Warrior

To stop the power of complexes, we must usually confront them over and over--mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally.  Don Juan called this struggle being a warrior.  According to don Juan, a warrior knows that to gain power and wisdom, he or she must confront the dangerous entities of the night, a term we might well equate with the powerful complexes of the unconscious.  From a Jungian perspective, struggling with complexes creates a tension of opposites, a psychological precondition for transformation. 

There are many ways to be a warrior and confront the power of complexes.  We might take on the complex more directly in active imagination.  Rather than acting it out, we could enter into an imaginal dialog with the negative inner authority or angry rebellious child, for example.  Although such encounters can be difficult and troubling, in my experience, something important usually occurs.

Erasing Personal History and Disrupting Routines

Don Juan taught Carlos a number of techniques for confronting the power of complexes, including erasing personal history and disrupting routines.  By personal history, Don Juan was referring to our identity or role in the world.  Most of us tend to identify with the ways we have participated in the world: mother, father, teacher, student, Catholic, Buddhist, recovering alcoholic, successful executive.  Personal history reinforces such social roles—and the complexes sustained by them.

Erasing personal history is a method of freeing ourselves from the limits of these persona identifications so we can live more fluidly and spontaneously, expressing ourselves in a multitude of ways.  In other words, to facilitate individuation, we must stop thinking of ourselves as being any specific kind of person.  We can then be free to mother or father, teach or learn, succeed or fail--or whatever emerges from our true nature at any given moment.

Another method of challenging complexes is don Juan’s technique of disrupting routines.  In a hilarious exchange, don Juan confronted Carlos with how routine his behavior was (Castaneda, Journey).  In the midst of constructing traps to catch game, don Juan looked at his wrist as if checking a watch and indicated that it was time to stop for lunch.  Carlos stopped working.  Seconds later, don Juan made the sound of a factory siren.  "I'll be damned," he said.  "Lunch is over" (p. 97).  When Carlos went back to work, don Juan again imitated the siren.  "Time to go home," he said.  "It's five o'clock."  After this prank, don Juan explained to Carlos that he wanted to show him how predictable and expected most of his behavior was.  He told Carlos he needed to disrupt his routines and make his life fluid and unpredictable.

Like Carlos, we need to recognize how routine our complexes make us.  Most complexes are predictable in the way they organize perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and behavior.  Knowing this helps us identify them and break up their routines.  For example, when recognizing we're in a complex, we might choose to disrupt the routine of that complex in some way.  We might even reverse it, that is, do the opposite of what the complex demands.       

The Sorcerer’s Reality

As stated earlier, the goal of stopping the world is seeing.  In Jungian terms, seeing is a state of increased consciousness or illumination, like the albedo (or white stage) in alchemy.  Here we are aware of the unconscious and can see the inner reality of things previously hidden by unconsciousness.  When we see, we know the truth of things. 

Seeing allows us to view more clearly the reality of our inner workings--the dark qualities in our nature, the complexes that impact us, as well as the deeper, archetypal aspects of our psyche.  This is an important step in individuation, for we gain a view of ourselves beyond our complexes--we see our totality, what Jung called the Self.   

Seeing is never precisely defined by don Juan, but there are at least three kinds of seeing described in the course of Carlos's apprenticeship (Donald Lee Williams. Border Crossings. Toronto, Inner City Books, 1981).  One is the ability to know something directly that is not obvious on the surface.  An example occurs in Tales of Power when Carlos was asked to look at a man pacing back and forth in front of a church.  Carlos saw that the man had a drinking problem, a psychic experience of knowing a truth about the person.

Another type of seeing is the ability to know something via a visual image.  This is exemplified in Journey to Ixtlan when don Juan, while conversing with Carlos, saw the image of a white falcon.  When he asked Carlos about it, Carlos recalled a powerful childhood experience hunting a white falcon.  Here, knowledge came to don Juan in the form of a spontaneous image from the unconscious.

Finally, there is a kind of seeing that occurs somatically, as when don Juan taught Carlos the gait of power.  This was a special way of moving to run rapidly and safely in the dark.  According to don Juan, the key was not to depend on his eyes, but to let his “personal power flow out freely, so it could merge with the power of the night” (Castaneda, Journey, p. 205).  In other words, Carlos must abandon his usual sensory apparatus and allow the unconscious to guide his body (Arnold Mindell. The Shaman's Body. San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1993).

Whether via one of these methods, or through dreams, artwork, or active imagination, developing this capacity to see and interact with the unconscious is one of the principal goals of Jungian analysis.  In fact, von Franz went so far as to say that an individuated person lives in the world of active imagination all the time (Jeffrey Raff. Jung and the Alchemical Imagination. York Beach, ME, Nicholas-Hays, 2000).  This constant attention to the spiritual forces that impact us is what don Juan called the sorcerer’s reality.

A Warrior’s Spirit

Don Juan taught that to proceed on a path with heart required a warrior’s spirit.  At the end of Journey to Ixtlan, he told Carlos, "Only as a warrior can one survive the path of knowledge" (p.315).  This image of a warrior can strengthen our resolve to explore the unconscious and confront the complexes and archetypes that reside there.  It also bolsters the courage we need to live consciously and bring our wholeness into the world.

Don Juan's warrior's spirit is expressed in his challenge to Carlos—and to all of us—to live consciously.  Don Juan shared his view that life is an unfathomable mystery and that we should take responsibility for being here in it:

“One must assume responsibility for being in a weird world,” he said.   “We are in a weird world, you know.”

I nodded my head affirmatively.

“We’re not talking about the same thing,” he said.  “For you the world is weird because if you’re not bored with it you’re at odds with it.  For me the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being here, in this marvelous world, in this marvelous desert, in this marvelous time.  I wanted to convince you that you must learn to make every act count, since you are going to be here for only a short while, in fact, too short for witnessing all the marvels of it.”
I insisted that to be bored with the world or to be at odds with it is the human condition.
“So, change it,” he replied dryly.  “If you do not respond to that challenge you are as good as dead.” (Castaneda, Journey, pp. 107-108)

Gary S. Toub, Ph.D., a Jungian analyst in private practice in Denver, is Vice-President and Training Director of the C. G. Jung Institute of Colorado, as well as a member of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts.  For more information, see Dr. Toub’s website at http:

Stopping the World: