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What My Teacher Carlos Castaneda Taught Me About Death

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)

My friends Tom and Susanne from Hawaii texted me last Saturday:

“For about fifteen minutes we were preparing ourselves to die. And it was real. And we were calm. What a gift. Sorry you were not here to enjoy the fun.”

I smiled and exhaled. I had arrived in Los Angeles a few days before after spending two weeks with them in Hawaii. They were OK. They were not being sarcastic. They are both highly educated therapists who retired and now live on Hawaii’s big island. They are lovely, smart and daring. For them, an encounter with Death, as they experienced when the missile threat alert rang on their phones, was a gift.

Carlos Castaneda told me that death is everywhere: at sunset, at the end of the day, there when a rose petal falls, at the bottom of the page you are reading, at the end of the breath you are taking. Thinking about death catapults us into new reflections, into a deep gratitude for the simple yet powerful act of being alive. It is, according to Castaneda, what gives warriors an edge.

Castaneda’s teachings on death were one of the main reasons I left my job, my boyfriend, my tribe and my life in Buenos Aires and moved to Los Angeles 23 years ago. I read his books when I was a teenager and I had the opportunity to meet him and work with him. His teacher, Don Juan Matus was a Yaqui from Sonora, Mexico and the leader of a lineage of Seers. Don Juan passed on his knowledge to Castaneda, and he passed it on to me.

Throughout the years of my apprenticeship with Castaneda, he talked about death often. He would say death is a reminder to be alert, a reference point to behave with kindness, a push to set priorities, an inspiration for change or to shake off the pettiness of daily concerns.

I often found myself caught up in self-defeating thoughts, worrying about the little details of daily life such as stressing about my school papers, my performance at work and what others would think of me or the extra 15 pounds I couldn’t get rid off. He observed my turmoil and asked me:

“Since the worst that can happen to you is already happening, you are going to die someday, so then how important is really your internal turmoil? Truly, think about it.”

The presence of death and the fact that I didn’t know when and how I would die helped me shake off my self-concerns and bring clarity, determination and a sense of purpose to my actions.

“What do we really have, except life and our own death? The thing to do when you’re impatient, don Juan told me, is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that it is there watching you.”

Once, during one of my first lunches with Castaneda and his colleagues at a restaurant in Santa Monica, he asked me: “What do you think is worth thinking of?”

“Death,” I said. I was not trying to please him or to get away with an easy answer. I had experienced death as the loss of loved ones, as a final end that had left me with unresolved emptiness and sadness, an anguish hard to unglue. I avoided reflecting or even thinking about death, and yet, there I was, sitting next to Castaneda on my quest to learn more about death.

An array of memories came to my foreground when he turned all his attention towards me, curious to know more about it.

I shared with him a few encounters with death that were still present in my body. The first time I encountered death, I was eight-years-old and I got sick with rheumatic fever. I spent a year bedridden with high fevers. In one instance, I had an “out of the body” experience where I saw myself literally separated from my body, above the bed looking at myself down in bed.

The second experience I had with death was when I was 14. I found dead bodies floating in the La Plata River in Buenos Aires, during the military dictatorship that tortured and murdered thousands of innocent people.

Then, when I was 17 years-old, I was leaving town with my friends to spend the holidays at the beach. Their car was kind of small for six people and I didn’t fit. My mother didn’t let me drive with them and I had to drive with my aunt and my cousin. On the freeway, on the way to the beach, my friends’ car crashed into a truck and all five of them were killed instantly.

A couple years after that incident, I fell on the floor of a disco when dancing drunk and I had a convulsion. My heart literally stopped beating for a few seconds and I cut my head severely.

After that incident, it took me a few years to come back to my body. I slowly shifted my life completely. I started eating healthy, I changed my job, I changed my friends. I started to show interest in healing modalities, in inner growth, and in spirituality. It all led me to meet Castaneda in 1995.

“Death has touched you and you have been giving a second chance” he told me that day at the restaurant. “Our encounter with death is inevitable; it will happen. The question is for you, which is the question for all of us, how will you go to the encounter? How are you going to use your time?”