It’s Not JUST What You Eat: What Carlos Castaneda taught me about FOOD

By the time I met Carlos Castaneda he was very disciplined with food. He emphasized that food had a direct impact in our emotions and our thought processing. It influenced our perceptual capabilities.

“Es muy simple señorita,” he used to tell me in Spanish, “si comes mal, te sientes mal y ves todo mal.” In other words, if you eat crap, you feel like crap, and perceive the world like crap.

I met Castaneda in 1995 in Los Angeles, at one of his events where he taught sequences of movements to revitalize the mind and body. I had read all of Castaneda’s books in Argentina in my young teen years. His bestseller books from the 70’s described the possibility of mysterious, unfathomable parallel worlds laying beneath the ordinary, repetitive and boring mundane world of everyday life. He described how he gained purpose in his life and found meaning even in daily affairs. He had found a new description for himself, and, he said, and it was available to all.

I was imbued with a longing for gaining, meaning and direction at the time. I wanted to learn to live like a warrior: effectively and with daring. I wanted to experience strength, confidence, and above all, to know that my life had meaning and purpose, that I mattered. Meeting him was like meeting a mystic, a legend like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or the Pope.

At his event, he walked to the stage wearing dark jeans and a yellowish polo style shirt. He was short and, as I heard someone saying behind me, he was in his early 70’s. However, the fluidity and precision in his movements and the lack of wrinkles in his face made him look much younger. He stood up and looked around at the large group of more than 300 people.

“I would like to invite you all to suspend judgment he said with a large smile. “Don Juan Matus, my mentor, told me new ideas and concepts about the world that were hard for me to grasp, because they contradicted what I knew as a Western man. So I warn you, that the practices that you will experience in this class will challenge your perceptions and the ideas of who you are and of the world around you.”

‘For example”, he continued, “if you come from Argentina, and you had a capuchino this morning, it would be harder for you to remain calm and focused. Caffeine accelerates mental activity and digestion in your intestines. And you may need to run to the bathroom as I speak and miss the lecture,” he said mocking and gesturing as if holding the need to pee. Everyone laughed, including me.

A second later I realized he may be talking about me, even though there were a group of 25 Argentinians. I had had a capucchino in the morning, and a croissant, the typical traditional Argentinian breakfast. And I was holding from going to the bathroom! In the break before his lecture, there had been a large waiting line in the women’s restroom and I had opted for what was familiar for me, holding. Constipation was one of the issues I had as a child, since my basic diet consisted of meat and dairy, with low fiber and green intake. My diet made it challenging for me to digest and eliminate.

“Stimulants, including sugar and salt, weaken your energy systems and for that I urge you all to avoid them, while taking this class. Imperative for those of you suffering from hypoglycemia,” he added. And, again I felt he was talking to me. Low blood sugar was my default state that made my moods swing and my thoughts foggy. I was also used to living on a low-budget, so food was not something that important; if I ate once a day, that was enough.

Castaneda continued walking on the stage with his hands on his pockets as if he was dancing, with ease and largesse, making jokes and joining the laughter with all. For moments he embodied the joy and warmth of a child, and for moments he seemed detached and reflective. All in all, he made us feel like he was one of us, making remarks and jokes, even about himself.

“When I met Don Juan I was chubby and stubborn. I was an intellectual, I did not exercise and I smoked like a pipe. I was a true addict. Don Juan had to trick me to stop,” Castaneda continued. Uncomfortable, I changed the crossing of my legs and straightened my back. Sitting on the floor was hard for me. I was in my early twenties but my back hurt often. I was also a ‘social’ smoker” and I crunched thinking about quitting smoking, yet another thing on my list that I needed to change.

“One afternoon,” Castaneda continued, “Don Juan took me on a long walk to the desert. I needed to buy cigarettes and a new notebook and was walking toward my van with my keys in hand, when he announced he knew a short cut into town. I hesitated but then I agreed. After having a big lunch, it was a good idea to take a walk. As we walked, Don Juan was teaching me about the life in the desert and I didn’t realize that hours had passed until nighttime was upon us. Don Juan told me he was lost and that we needed to spend the night in the desert. We were lucky that he had brought in his backpack some dry meat, covers and water.

I was upset at myself for accepting his invitation, but I didn’t have any other choice. I had no idea where I was and besides, the information Don Juan was sharing with me was invaluable and I enjoyed his company immensely. I couldn’t sleep well that night neither the following nights. We spent the next two-days walking lost and by the fourth day I knew he had tricked me. We finally reached the road, and I realized we had been walking in circles. In town, I was so hungry that I forgot about the cigarettes. And I quit smoking,” he opened his arms to the sides in a triumphal smile.

“I used to carry the cigarette pack on my left pocket” he continued, “and Don Juan suggested to remove all pockets from my shirts to erase the habit of reaching for them. Still, once in a while” –he said bringing his right hand to the left side of his chest, — “I automatically reach for my pockets,” he said laughing with humbleness as admitting the things he couldn’t change.

“But of the things that we can change, are the “auto-pilot” interpretations we made about food,” he explained.

He further said that food was energy, and as such, was meant to not only sustain our body’s energy systems, our health and vitality, but also food was directly related to our states of consciousness, how we experience and feel about ourselves and the world around us.

“When you cut down the stimulants you can sustain mental focus and alertness.” He was now standing still, looking directly to each person in the group, “the real work starts. The question is, What is eating you? What is it inside you that stops you from reclaiming your vitality, your daring, uh? What is it that makes you forget that you are a being that is going to die? Who is eating you?”

I felt so moved and inspired to change my habits and to find out what, inside, was stopping me from feeling vital and strong. After he finished his lecture, he taught movements that resembled martial arts. He said the movements would return the energy back to where it belongs, to the internal organs in the body that he called centers of life and vitality.

After the workshop, I was invited to the lecture he offered to Spanish speakers, and from there to the first, of many lunches with him. I changed my return flight and stayed in Los Angeles with a group of friends. I practiced the movements, the meditations and all what he suggested, and I became part of his inner circle. I learned to use food as energy. I learned to eat food with CHI, energy, to sustain mental alertness and balance my moods. I healed my hypoglycemia and swinging moods. And, most importantly, I learned to OBSERVE thoughts and emotions and not identify myself with them.

In the last year of his life, Castaneda shifted his diet to a plant based one. And that inspired me to shift my diet also to a more plant based one, which supports detoxification at all levels, including addictions. I have been teaching what I learned from him in my classes, and what I have learned from my experience of more than 22 years practicing movements for vitality and increased awareness. But now my question is towards you, my dear reader, what is eating you?

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