Experience would have me believe that we find books at the precise moment we are ready to receive their message. Such is the case with this book for me, and come to think of it, every Castaneda book I have read. I have been missing a few from my collection, and finally found them hiding on the shelves downstairs at Watkins Books in London. This was the one I was drawn to at the time: the final book written by the author before his death in 1998.
Castaneda’s books are all about his apprenticeship with a Yacqui Indian Shaman, Don Juan Matus, who may or may not have existed in reality; though this is a detail I find ultimately unimportant to the philosophy. They are a delight to read because the events described are in a simple and light-hearted guise, yet on a deeper level there are some hard-hitting spiritual messages.
The Active Side of Infinity is different from the previous books in that it is a far more personal account of the narrator’s life. At the beginning of the book, Don Juan gives Carlos the task of collecting memories that shaped him and gave him the qualities needed to walk the shamanic path. He explains that recapitulation has the power of surfacing all the garbage of our lives, so that we are able to work through our issues and let go of them to make ourselves lighter in the pursuit of spirituality. As such this book focuses more on aspects of everyday life: relationships with family, friends and lovers, career paths, and childhood games.
Carlos’s memories are not all this book has to offer, however. Dispersed among the anecdotes are some of Don Juan’s most important and terrifying revelations yet. Firstly, he introduces Carlos to the concept of infinity, that underlies everything we do:
‘The sorcerers of olden times thought that there is a sadness in the universe, as a force, a condition, like light, like intent, and that this perennial force acts especially on sorcerers because they no longer have any defensive shields. The condition of sorcerers is that their sadness is abstract. It doesn’t come from coveting or lacking something, or from self importance. It comes from infinity.’
Secondly, he talks about us having ‘two minds’, which could be likened in some ways to the Ego and the Self of Jungian psychology, and in others to the ‘left’ and ‘right’ brain functions. One is restrictive, rational, and full of self-importance, and can be escaped by creating inner silence to open up greater freedom of mind and possibility. This really crystallised an understanding for me, and is surprisingly reminiscent of Buddhist philosophy.
Don Juan also talks here about the supernatural. He discusses with Carlos the nature of ghostly apparitions, what there is for us after death, and dark predators that lurk beyond our realm of perception. This makes The Active Side of Infinity Castaneda’s darkest and most haunting book.
All of these things made The Active Side of Infinity a worthwhile, entertaining read, though in itself I wouldn’t consider it one of the best. I also wouldn’t recommend it as the place to start if you are new to Castaneda because it builds upon what has been hinted at previously. But, having read 6 or 7 others, the greatest thing I took away from this was an understanding of what it was that made him such a talented writer.
One of the strange phenomena Carlos often describes is that when he is in an altered state of awareness with Don Juan, he is able to understand complex hidden truths. When he returns to ordinary awareness, he can’t remember the detail of what has happened, and he can’t rationalise it. Well that is precisely the way I experience his books, which I think is very clever. He seems to achieve this effect in part by using a non—linear timeline. It has never been clear to me how all the books slot together, as they jump around in time and space a fair bit. I now think that is deliberate; a way of subconsciously obfuscating our cold, judging, rationality for a while to show us something fresh.
I also see now how layered the writings are. We aren’t given the full depth of meaning in the early books, but are introduced to new concepts gradually. Lessons are returned to again and again over different instalments either using the same events to describe them or slightly altered versions of them. It is like a spiral, returning to the same points of reference but with new knowledge each time.
‘I was, in essence, a gigantic puzzle, and to fit each piece of that puzzle into place produced an effect that had no name.’
”Events he experienced in each fragment had to be joined someday to give a complete, conscious picture of everything that had taken place in his total life.’
This is another writing technique I find admirable, because it shows understanding of how we learn. And now I intend to read the missing pieces of my puzzle.