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Castaneda and Schopenhauer: An Underlying Reality That Goes Beyond Illusion


In his concepts of “tonal” and “nagual”, Carlos Castaneda echoes philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s “the world as representation” and “world as will”, both are acute explorations of the nature of reality.

One of the reasons why Carlos Castaneda was able not only to sell millions of books but also to radically captivate his readers was his pervasive intuition —which turned into research— that there is another reality.

His second book, A Separate Reality (1971), was written when he was an apprentice to Don Juan Matus, and reveals an underlying thread of his philosophy. For the inquisitive mind, that which allows itself to question everything it sees and is eager to penetrate the invisible, the idea of an alternate reality, a deeper one, unfolds like a fascinating detective novel: the mysterious essence of the world is what seduces the “man of knowledge”.

The life and work of Castaneda is one of the greatest enigmas in modern literature. For some, his work is a collection of invaluable anthropological documents that study the ancient Toltec traditions of Mexico —at the risk of losing objectivity due to its contact with a magical world that has no room for rationality, and where literary understanding can be disrupted by the coveting of power. For others, his books are works of fiction disguised as a series of esoteric discoveries —which would mean that Castaneda’s skill is weaving together the convincing illusion of entering the radical otherness that questions reality as we know it. Leaving the question of authenticity aside for a moment, his work can also be seen as a form of metaphysical philosophy —the reformulation of one of the fundamental subjects of human thought.

The existence of another reality presupposes that the quotidian world has an illusory quality. This notion is certainly not new: it appears in Buddhism in the concept of Samsara, it is discussed by Plato as the World of Ideas, and even mentioned in Gnosticism under the term stereoma; each holding some respective singularities.

The concept is also notoriously present in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose main work, The World as Will and Representation, posits a solid rational structure for understanding the illusory nature of the reality we experience in daily basis. Schopenhauer outlines what seems to be a dualist system: the world of will being the thing itself, “the intimate essence of things”, and the world of representation: the objectification of the will of individual beings, the material world which is not worth more than a dream. This duality only becomes apparent within the perception of the world as representation: the world of will transcends time, space and even causes, and as such it cannot be comprehended within our typical concept of the world.

Throughout his work, especially in his Tales of Power, Castaneda proposes a reality-system similar to Schopenhauer’s, where will equals “nagual” and representation is equal to “tonal.”

The tonal is everything we know. And that includes not only us as persons, but everything in our world. It can be said that the tonal is everything that meets the eye… The tonal is an island.

We are islands, connected to the depths through the nagual:

The part of us for which there is no description —no words, no names, no feelings, no knowledge.

Also in Tales of Power:

In a very strange manner the tonal is a creator that doesn’t create a thing. In other words, the tonal makes up the extraordinary thing such that the performer has no way of knowing how those things happen…The nagual is there, surrounding the island of the tonal. There, where power flutters.

The latter reminds us of what Wittgenstein said about the mystical region beyond language.

Similarly, as Schopenhauer explains, for those who consider the world of representation as a mere mental act, the tonal world functions in relation to perception: constructed by the act of observation.

The reality of our world thus pales before the will and before the thing itself, or Ding an sich. Schopenhauer asserts: “But to the man in whom the Will has turned and negated itself, this world, so real to us with all its suns and Milky Ways, is nothing.”

Castaneda believes that it is intent that leads us to the ineffable world of the nagual. A world that operates upon our reality:

The tonal doesn’t know that decisions are in the realm of the nagual. When we think we decide, all we’re doing is acknowledging that something beyond our understanding has set up the frame of our so—called decision, and all we do is to acquiesce.

Both, Castaneda and Schopenhauer posit the existence of a reality that underlies the world of phenomena —a reality we have little to say about, and yet which never stops calling us.

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