Sorcerer's Apprentice, my life with Carlos Castaneda
by Amy Wallace
Data: Amy Wallace (2003 / 2007): "Sorcerer's Apprentice, my life with Carlos Castaneda"; Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, Frog Ltd.; ISBN-13: 978-58394-206-1, ISBN-10: 1-58394-076-6. See also: ISBN 1-58394-076-6.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Teachers and Gurus and the corruption of power
- 3 Other examples
- 4 Adding two points of elucidation
- 5 Mistaking "descriptions" for "prescriptions"
- 6 "Trying very hard"
- 7 Telic - Paratelic rhythms
- 8 What to do
- 9 Beyond feeling lost and confused; space for the excitement of exploration
- 10 The excitement of exploration
- 11 Selection cycles in the guru setting
- 12 Selection cycles in society
- 13 Conclusion
Amy Wallace's book is an excellently written, honest and revealing account of her years with Carlos Castaneda. Castaneda has had a tremendous influence on a generation of students in the western world, on the hippy scene of the 60's and early 70's and on seekers of spiritual achievement and freedom in general.
The reason why we discuss this book about Castaneda's life on this Wiki is not because his teachings represent a contribution to scientific thinking about the present state of humanity, for they don't, but rather that Castaneda's followers, like groups of followers of so many guru's and spiritual teachers, have demonstrated a very stereotyped group behaviour, showing us a number of propensities in human social behaviour that also are at the basis for humanity's religious attitudes and habits world-wide since thousands of years. Since religions are an important part of the present day make up of humanity and since it is argued on this Wiki that religious behaviour will show tremendous shifts around the time of what we call the Omega transition, understanding the social behavioural reflexes around gurus and spiritual groups can be of great help to us, because they show our more original tendencies, less (de)formed by cultural conventions than is our ordinary behaviour.
Amy Wallace, as a seasoned and gifted writer, has laid bare in this book her own adventures as one of Castaneda's mistresses as well as the mechanisms ruling the group life around this master. All participants of such a group have more or less broken loose from the anchors of established society and together create to some extent a novel type of social structure and fabric with their own rules and habits. Not surprisingly, in such novel structures people fall back on more primitive social and psychological reflexes, the types of reflexes that primordial human societal structures were based on, so to speak a regression to the original, closer to our most inner preferences and tendencies. Therefore, more often than not such groups, forming around a teacher, in spite of their initial ideals, end up in a strongly individualized hierarchical structure in which the guru is treated as all-powerful and infallible, as a super-macho dictator or a clan head or a God.
Teachers and Gurus and the corruption of power
When searching the spiritual literature of the last decades of the 20th century and the new age movements with growth philosophies, one can easily trace similar structures and mechanisms as described by Amy Wallace in the case of the Castaneda clan. In general the teachers end up as self-proclaimed super-heroes with superior powers and capacities and with pretended insight in how seekers can be directed and led to greater wisdom, spiritual achievement and happiness. The followers on the contrary, instead of finding the sought after and promised wisdom and happiness, mostly end up as highly dependent subordinates of the master, often losing their ability to function in ordinary society and thus being effectively "trapped" in the movement of the teacher who tends to exploit them in a most cynical and abusive way, from sexual slavery to being stripped naked of all one's assets. Such teachers or clan heads do that either on purpose, which would be very cynical indeed, or unawares, or a mix between the two, sliding gradually from honest and straightforward idealism to dictatorship and cynical abuse. That gliding process boils down to the ordinary and well known principle of "power corrupts".
In these pages we will not go into the details of what Amy Wallace has been describing, because these are factual accounts of what happened and we can add nothing factual to her reports. What we will do here instead is point out a few of the many mechanisms that are typically responsible for those patterns to emerge and develop and that we can find back in almost all of such teacher-follower groups. Subsequently we will explain what typical mistakes and misconceptions are at the basis of those mechanisms and what fallacies they provide, fallacies that such power structures depend and rely on. We will explain which parts of the insights, as presented on this Wiki, have evidently been missing among the people who form such groups of devotees, insights that could have served as inoculations against becoming the victim of such collective delusional structures of slavery and dependence.
The author of this page has himself been attending a number of training camps of Andrew Cohen, who has established himself as a contemporary, modern spiritual teacher who has assembled a specific group of followers, "students", around him. Whereas in the initial years of his teaching, Andrew Cohen in general involuntarily produced an unhappy and neurotic attitude in his students, as perceived by onlookers from the outside, in more recent years the psychological condition, resilience and stability of his followers seems to have been steered in a more healthy direction. That indicates that the more recent methods and approach in Cohen's organization(s) (FACE, Moksha Foundation, EnlightenNext) have gradually become more and more supportive of inducing healthy processes of growth and development in his students. Nevertheless, in the yearly retreats in the past, of some weeks at a time, it could be observed that Cohen utilized the same old tricks of internal intelligence networks, trust and treason, reward and punishment, status and hierarchies, to keep the followers under severe control, thus, involuntarily and automatically, increasing an almost irreversible dependence on the master.
For those interested, there is an also a very well written record, by Andrew Cohen's own mother, of these group-psychological processes of dependence and subjugation (Luna Tarlo: The Mother of God). In the early years of Cohen's teaching, his mother stayed in his communes for some years and had a difficult time to wrestle herself loose from the clutches of the all repressive power structures.
The general patterns that can be discerned, not always, but almost every time such a movement emerges around some sort of Guru, have been described in a very professional scientific way by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad (1993, The Guru Papers: masks of authoritarian power). Kramer and Alstad describe a large number of basic mechanisms that can time and again be recognized as ruling these group-psychological mechanisms around guru's and spiritual teachers and their followers. In fact, what Amy Wallace describes in the case of Carlos Castaneda and what Luna Tarlo describes in the case of her own son, can serve as perfect cases to illustrate the laws of social behaviour that rule the power structures around guru's and masters.
Adding two points of elucidation
The materials on this Wiki can serve to introduce more clarity and understanding about the mechanisms that produce these types of group structures, group structures that produce heavy dependence and more often than not block a further healthy development of the individual follower in question, instead of facilitating growth . Kramer and Alstad (1993) already brought forward a host of mechanisms that all contribute to the emergence of these group patterns. Their publications about these issues can be considered as standard works, indispensable to anybody wishing to gain some understanding about these guru group dynamics. Here we will limit ourselves to adding descriptions of some mechanisms that have not been covered by Kramer and Alstad, nor by any other author we know of. Nevertheless, the contributions on this Wiki are in our view adding greatly to gaining insight in the more basic social psychological processes involved.
First we will point out a conceptual idea, a "meme", that is completely wrong and is turning things upside down, but that is very persistent in our culture(s) and that serves as a cornerstone of human delusion and error and so helps to bind people in patterns of dependence and helplessness. Once the truth about this particular meme has been discovered, one is far better able to steer clear of unwholesome dependencies and to succeed in finding ways of healthy learning and development. This meme can be labeled as the "prescription for description fallacy".
The other point we wish to make here is about an involuntary selection process within social structures that makes any social group or organization gradually shift into a certain direction, a direction of more adaptation and subjugation, causing the social structures in question to have only a limited life span.
Both points are not generally known yet, but will in the future most likely play an important role in the enlightenment of humanity. Anyway, in particular the first point, about one specific meme screwing up our lives, can immediately be utilized by any interested reader to his or her own advantage.
Mistaking "descriptions" for "prescriptions"
This particular meme or meme set we wish to talk about consists of the following notions and phenomena. "If we wish to achieve the frame of mind and the level of (perceived) happiness of a guru, a teacher, or any admired individual, we should try to behave ourselves as they / he / she is doing." To almost all of us this statement seems natural and self evident. Additionally, most guru's teachers do not block such behaviour, but are themselves convinced that it can only be advantageous if the followers or students try to change their behaviour by adopting the habits of their leader(s), guru(s) or teacher(s). The idea is that even if it will not bring about the sought after changes completely, then certainly it will also not bring any harm. After all, those behaviours in question are habits of the admired individuals, so how can they be bad?
In particular if one does not have a clear idea of how all the processes of development, of human development, of gaining enlightenment or happiness do work in detail, there are not many other options than simply try to imitate the admired persons. However, if one understands the dynamics of emotions, motivations and the processes of learning and development, as we try to bring forward on this Wiki(***), it is becoming clear that there is a grave danger in mixing up "descriptions" for "prescriptions". Taking "descriptions" of desired states for "prescriptions" may in fact effectively block any road to achieving the sought after states of mind and the natural emergence of the behaviours that are imitatingly copied from the idealized person(s). So, by trying to behave like an "achieved" or otherwise admired person, one is blocking the road to gradually grow into the same frame of mind and level of skills. The harder one tries, the stronger the blocks.(***)
"Trying very hard"
There are two important aspects to this "trying very hard to behave like the masters do", that render it ineffective.
The first is that the student or follower only has vague ideas as to how the admired person feels and thinks inside. He only has a dim notion about how the admired person's behaviour comes about. So, the behaviours that seem so desirable, may have a completely different meaning to the guru than they have for the student. When behaving in the intended manner, the student may experience completely different feelings, emotions and motivations than does the guru himself.
Using an analogy from finding one's way while traveling (in the pre-Tom-Tom, pre-satelite-feed-back, era): if one wishes to move from New York to Chicago, it is not very useful to utilize the Chicago map to find one's way out of New York city. One gets stuck in New York instead of even getting to the highway that is leading west to Chicago. A similar thing happens in case one mistakes "descriptions" for "prescriptions". While imitating the guru, one basically does not have an idea of where those behaviours of the guru stem from. One only can guess and those guesses are mostly completely off the mark. If one wants to travel from New York to Chicago, one needs to have an overview of the whole route. One needs to have a map of the details of both cities, as well as a good map of the highways in between. Without the proper information of the whole route, one gets stuck, sooner or later. With the guru's behaviour, the target situation, it is likewise. Observing the admired behaviour of the guru, one has no clue as to how the guru him- or herself experiences that behaviour and where it stems from. The student does not have a "map" of the guru's frame of mind. So, when imitating that specific behaviour of the guru ("reading the Chicago map"), one can almost be certain that what one brings about in one's own behavioural system is completely different from what is going on inside the guru when he is performing such behaviour (who is in Chicago, not in New York). Instead of getting closer to the frame of mind of the guru (moving towards Chicago), imitating his (external) behaviour makes one get stuck even more in one's own old (internal) behavioural patterns (the New York traffic system).
In short, it is more useful to understand (having all the maps at hand) than to imitate (pretending to be like the Guru / studying the Chicago map while wrestling with the New York road signs and traffic detours).
What is more, it is not only the mistake of followers to get stuck in all sorts of imitations of the admired persons, it is, more often than not, also induced and stimulated by the guru's themselves. Not only the followers lack understanding of how these things operate, the guru's themselves are in general equally ignorant, no matter their pretense to know and understand it all. So, the tendency to resort to imitating the perceived effects of the states one tries to acquire is stimulated from both sides, leading to double binds and other blocks in development. The average guru or teacher has experienced states of awareness, levels of happiness, rapture and bliss, for shorter or longer periods of time, inducing a wish to share this with his/her fellow human beings. Only, in general they have no idea, or totally inadequate ideas, of how those desirable states came about. So, naturally, they have nothing to resort to than the (incorrect) idea that it might help to get their followers to "learn" the same sort of behaviour thay have acquired in the course of time. As is shown on this Wiki, that is a fallacy, and a disastrously dangerous fallacy at that. So, the message is: "Get the right maps before moving out" or "try to understand your own and each other's behaviour, before you try to change yourself by force".
Telic - Paratelic rhythms
The second mechanism that renders "trying very hard to behave like the masters do" ineffective, is far more basic and far more important than just getting stuck in the wrong descriptions and prescriptions at the wrong place and the wrong time, no matter how frustrating that can be in itself.
That second mechanism is in the failure to induce "paratelic states"(**). How that works and why that is of such crucial importance, is explained in detail elsewhere on this Wiki(***). The bottom line is that the harder one tries, the harder one gets stuck. In many teachings of guru's, spiritual schools and psychological growth systems it is pointed out indeed that "trying too hard" may be counter-effective in blocking the road to achievement and development. For the average guru such notions are not too far away and easily accessible. Nevertheless, more often than not, they also fall for the easily sold formula that the students better had follow the example of the leader. In general that happens primarily for lack of any thorough understanding of how it all works. What else can a guru suggests if he doesn't know shit? He or she would love to help other people to reach and experience their own levels of happiness and achievement, but has no solid ideas about how to do that. Complementary to that, the average follower fosters the notion that the guru, showing much of the admired and sought after behaviour, knows how that behaviour and the state of mind behind it, came about. It is understandable that followers think that way, but it is a completely wrong conclusion. On average the guru's and self proclaimed teachers don't have the slightest idea themselves how they arrived at where they are, which they often prefer to forget, or at least try to conceal from their followers. In general, they also got there just by accident.
What to do
According to other contributions(***) on this Wiki, if one wishes to escape from the usual neurotic states of mind and reach more agreeable levels of development and happiness, it is of primary importance to restore the natural flow of experiencing and learning, because the natural learning process has apparently got stuck, as is usually the case in any great society. And to re-establish that natural learning process, one needs to re-establish a proper sequence of alternating telic and paratelic states. "Trying very hard"(***) is typically something from the telic state and the telic state is already over-dominant in people who are stuck in neurotic states and structures. Therefore, "trying very hard" should at best be applied only a little part of the time and certainly not as often as possible, as is mostly the (faulty) admonition.
If one could stop trying to imitate the admired person(s), stopping to mix up "descriptions" for "prescriptions", and stop to apply continuously those prescriptions while "trying very hard", one might end up with a feeling of being left "empty handed", not knowing any more what to do. But, that also would imply that there is time and space to allow other approaches and behaviours to pop up, maybe not looking like the guru's acting, but certainly more coming from within the student and less from without. What is important, is that it are exactly such "empty handed" states and feelings that open the door for the paratelic state to emerge more frequently. And that can be shown to be the most crucial ingredient(*) for any improvement of the situation whatsoever.
In summary, if one could stop mistaking "descriptions" for "prescriptions" one would lose the major part of the reasons and the tools for "trying very hard" and that would take away much of the usual time consuming power game activities in the teacher-followers relationships. It also would open the road to more original and pro-active behaviour and a more frequent emergence of paratelic states. And the latter in turn will automatically, willy nilly, get the natural processes of learning and development boosted again. Stopping to mistake "descriptions" for "prescriptions" also would put an end to the unwholesome copy-catting of the guru and thus take the fuel out of much of the power games that usually screw up such relationships. It also would stop for instance the seeming validity of a guru's complaint that pupils did apparently not "try hard enough" if they did not achieve the sought after goals that were so "generously" offered by the guru. The theory on this Wiki(***) shows that most probably, their problem was that they "tried way too hard" to start with. Once understanding how it all works, it becomes clear that such admonitions from the side of a guru to try better and harder, are in fact the most counter-productive advice one could possibly give.
Beyond feeling lost and confused; space for the excitement of exploration
If we stop mistaking "descriptions" for "prescriptions" we end up with an empty space full of question marks. Suddenly there is an additional need to understand how it all works, to really understand the working of one's own internal psychological processes. Losing the simple recipe of imitation, one has less directives and less direction any more, and only more understanding then can fill the gap. This Wiki is providing that understanding(*), but it does take some studying to grasp it all. It goes namely counter to what we have been trained to believe inside our cultural system.
As pointed out elsewhere on this Wiki(*), any large culture relies on a multitude of methods to keep its carriers, us humans, away from thinking soberly about one's own behaviour. The more confusion, the better. The above described confusion between "descriptions" and "prescriptions" is one of the most effective tricks to keep us humans stupid and blind. We, carriers of the contemporary cultures, are generally neuroticized creatures suffering from over-dominance of the telic state. "Prescriptions" very well fit into a telic frame of mind and help to keep one fixed in that state. Following "prescriptions" implies goal directed "telic" behaviour. "Descriptions" on the other hand are motivationally neutral and can be utilized in any motivational state. Also, "prescriptions" suggest certainty and the end of questioning, keeping our nosey curiosity away from our own behaviour, feelings and motivation. And blocking that sort of curiosity is one of the cornerstones of any large repression system and thus the cornerstone of large civilizations. "Prescriptions" also fit better in a master - slave structure than in a democratic structure of more independent members. "Prescriptions" are very suitable to provide quick directives for emergency situations and fight or flight situations. Such directives may not be very accurate, but they are readily available and easy to understand. "Descriptions" on the other hand are better suited for situations of exploration, needing more time to be processed and integrated in broader systems of experience and information, after which they eventually can result in other, newly developed directives for behaviour, but then on a more sophisticated and robust level. It shall be clear that the latter are much more suitable to help students move in the direction of better and quicker development and learning, ever more rapidly learning the skills to cope with the situations at hand. But how on earth would a guru be able to guide his students properly on these essential points as long as he himself does not have a clue of how it all works? By lack of anything better to teach, it then seems easier to have them imitate the behaviours belonging to a completely different frame of mind in the faulty supposition that such imitating will eventually produce the underlying sought after internal states, which .... alas .... it will not.
Apart from this mixing up of "descriptions" and "prescriptions", our cultures utilize a myriad of other additional meme-tricks to induce and maintain confusion about our own behaviour. This particular mix up, mixing up descriptions for prescriptions, is just one of the commonest and easiest to recognize in the context as discussed in these pages, the guru - student setting. It is clear that this type of guru-student relationship is one of the many tricks that our cultures may apply to keep us stupid and bound in misery. The cynical part of the story is that in such a guru-student relationship it is pretended that the opposite is going to happen, setting the student free from bondage in ignorant misery, that is, if the student "is doing his best".
No result? ................ student's fault! The mechanism is clear.
The excitement of exploration
What should happen instead, according to the theories as explained on this Wiki, is to simply facilitate the emergence of more frequent paratelic states, and all the rest will follow suit. To that end we can take strategic decisions and design effective directives, based on a better insight and knowledge of the underlying behavioural mechanisms. Once we succeed in making space for more frequent paratelic states, our behavioural system automatically and involuntarily starts to restore emotional and motivational balances and by itself automatically starts to seek out those experiences and sub-experiences that are for each individual person at his or her particular developmental phase precisely the most useful experiences needed for an optimal further development towards stability and growth. Eventually, one also will stumble across the skills and mental states, characteristic of the guru and, if still useful, integrate such awareness and skills in one's own life. And that will happen without any conscious steering of the process in specific directions and without the typical "prescriptions" of the guru system in question.
Reversely, if one would go by "prescriptions", paired to a rather complete ignorance of how it all works, that would block effectively further growth and development in any direction and therefore, by implication, also in the desired, sought after, direction.
Wrapping up this first point of elucidation, the "Mixing up of Prescriptions with Descriptions", we have seen that this sneaky confusion-meme exerts its neuroticising and binding influence in the guru - pupil setting as well as in large societies in general. The guru setting however, which is basically less complex than the fabric of large societies, gives us an easier and more simple case to study and to elucidate the workings of this confusion meme.
What we can conclude, in a guru pupil setting as well as in societies at large, is that recognizing and understanding the mechanism of this "confusion meme" may help to create some space within our motivational and emotional system which may help us get "off the hook". Understanding creates space. And emotional space and time is what helps to re-establish the more frequent emergence of paratelic states, which in turn helps to re-establish more proper sequences of alternating telic and paratelic states, which in turn helps to enter more healthy learning cycles, which in turn results in more optimal patterns of development and growth. In passing, such a healthy and autonomous growth process brings about in passing the very achievements and skills that the guru pretended to give or bring about, but almost invariably, never did. As such, the guru setting is a handy magnifying glass for studying society at large.
Selection cycles in the guru setting
The second point of elucidation we want to mention in relation to Amy Wallace's book is about the automatic and involuntary selection processes in social groups and systems. As pointed out elsewhere on this Wiki(**), in any social structure in mammal species there is a continuous selection pressure in favour of sociability and compliance and against self-will, individualism and creative innovation. Being a socially living mammal species ourselves, this also holds for human beings. The result of this automatic selection process is that social structures always have a limited life span. Newly formed social groups and structures start as loose groups of individualistic persons with ample space for personal differences and creative innovation. Such young social groups are therefore still quite flexible and resourceful. In due time the internal selection process will gradually remove the self-willed, creative individuals in favour of the socially adaptive types. The structure will gradually show more social cohesion and internal peace, but at the same time also less and less creative flexibility and innovative possibilities. Eventually the aging social structure will loose its flexibility to such an extent, that its rigour will prevent it from adapting to changing circumstances and make it loose its competitive edge versus competing social structures. Sooner or later that will imply the end of the structure in question. We call such processes of elimination, of loosing the competition battle, "collapse", "bankruptcy" or "revolution". These mechanisms result in the model of population cycles as described elsewhere on this Wiki(**).
In a guru system we generally find groups of seeking people, individuals who have broken loose from their societal anchors or are attempting to do so, at least to some extent. The newly formed group contains more than average innovators and curious seekers. So, when such a group of seekers assembles around a guru of some sort, the emerging group structure is freshly in the very initial phases of the population cycles as mentioned above. The message of the guru is new and by definition at variance with common sense knowledge and tradition in the surrounding society in question. The guru setting is therefore a very interesting case for studying the mechanisms of population cycles. The theory of population cycles(***) predicts that, depending on the level of the internal selection pressure against individualism and unpredictable creativity and in favour of compliant sociability, the structure will become gradually more structured, more fixed, more rigid and more predictable. And the stronger this selection pressure, the more quickly the structure will ossify.
Since in a guru system the anchoring in long established societal rules and protective habits is weaker than in the society at large, we may expect that the eventually emerging selective forces can exert their influence more unrestrictedly and less hampered. Also, in such a guru system the followers can relatively easily drop out and turn back to their old society. There is a relatively low treshold to escape and therefore a highly effective selection pressure. For these reasons we may expect relatively short population cycles to occur around gurus. And this is indeed what we can see. What takes centuries in a large society happens in such small groups with a high effective selection pressure within one or two generations. Amy Wallace's accounts shed a clear light on what happened within the clan of Castaneda apprentices and how the rules and habits gradually became more hierarchical, rigid and restrictive. The more rigidity, group consensus and group control start playing a major role, the more creative and innovative individuals will be repelled or expelled and the more the rigidification of the group proceeds. The life cycle of such a group, where the effective selection pressure can be very high, higher than normal, is therefore very short and we can see all phases of the process within our lifetime. In the end the followers, in this case labeled as "apprentices", have to comply with ideas and world views that not only are very different from the world views of the surrounding society, but that are progressively more at variance with reality, reality as can be verified from one's own behaviour and experience.
Selection cycles in society
This Castaneda case is an example of a newly formed small group structure. Looking at similar mechanisms of cyclic social changes in the society at large, we can see that in the ossification phase the fixed ideas and beliefs are striking and quite prominent. If we take a closer look at for instance what a majority of the people in our own society cherish as religious beliefs, we see a staggering avalanche of unbelievable superstitions and misconceptions. The bulk of these superstitions are of such a level of stupidity and ignorance, that it raises the challenging question how on earth any cultural system can manage to keep such unbelievable masses of incredible stupidities upright in the face of continuous barrages of proofs of the fallaciousness of the belief systems in question. (For an eloquent presentation of such striking anomalies in our communal belief systems refer for instance to one of George Carlin's talks: for video click here).
Looking at it from a distance, the staggering idiocy of belief systems hits our eye. What one then sees is a collection of misconceptions and fallacies of an unbelievable level of deranged crazyness and / or dumb blindness. However, it is much easier to recognize this in a belief system which is not one's own than in a belief system in which one has grown up oneself.
For most of us it is therefore much easier to recognize the misconceptions and fallacies of the Castaneda teachings than those of the Roman Catholic Church or any other Christian system of faith. Listening to George Carlin on religion, the idiocies of our own religions are quite striking. They seem to be stronger violations of the obvious reality than those in a small movement like the Castaneda followers. However, the Christian faiths harbour a vast host of tested tricks and seductions for keeping their belief systems upright. And the density and coverage of those tricks, seductions and threats of our common belief systems makes it very difficult for us to look through them or to try an escape. They keep their followers effectively bound in docile submission and artificially induced stupidity.
Because of the rather complete coverage of most aspects of life, these common belief systems are very difficult to escape from. Also, the penalties for escaping from a generally accepted belief system are much higher. The forces of being ostracized hurt more.
The threshold to escape is, still, much lower in the discussed Castaneda case. It is easier to pull out. Therefore one may expect a much more quick and effective internal selection pressure in the Castaneda case than in the case of widely accepted and established religions, and subsequently a much shorter life cycle. (See elsewhere on this Wiki(**) for the theory of life cycles of social structures.)
In order to learn from the relatively simple mechanisms in the relatively young and small guru structures and to infer the implications for the workings of our societies at large, it is useful to summarize the similarities and the differences between the two.
- The tricks and tools with which an established religion (religion) binds its carriers (us) are more in number and better tested in practice than the tricks and tools in a young guru system (sect), that still has to prove its survival value.
- The penalties for escaping are in general much higher in established religions than in sects, no matter the exotic peculiarities of binding attempts by sects that time and again hit the newspaper headlines.
- Selection effects are higher in sects than in established religions and thresholds are lower. Cyclic changes occur therefore more quickly.
- The tricks and binding tools in sects are easier to recognize by most people, because they differ from what most people are used to. They stick out as "strange".
- Since a new sect purposefully departs from part of the widely established concepts and rules, they tend to rely more heavily on humanity's basic reflexes and tendencies. It is therefore likely that in such a setting we can more easily discern primordial, original human tendencies and characteristics.
In any large society with its concomitant dominant religious belief system(s) small scale freshly established innovative belief systems will periodically pop up and exist for some period of time. Most of them disappear after some time, but some of them survive long enough to attract significant attention. There are certain, specific relationships between the large dominant religious systems in a society and such small scale newly emerged sects. One thing is that such sects offer an alternative for the disgruntled members of society. They find an escape from the daily routines in a mass culture, felt as confining and oppressive. Pluriformity of a large society can thus offer some relief to the creative and innovative individuals among its carriers, especially if the sect in question does not form a direct threat to the society's basic structure. In most instances the new sect will enter its own process of growth and formalization. That process leads either to a more open conflict with society at large, or the sect becomes another established part of the pluriform society, adopting its major characteristics, necessary for survival of the society. It becomes another of the religious forms serving the society in question's needs. In cases where this does not result in a basic conflict with the dominant religious structures, two thing can happen, leading the individuals in question back into the womb of society. The innovative individual may grow disappointed with the changes in the new sect into ever more structured and rigid forms, and leave the sect, therewith unavoidably returning to a higher extent back into the old societal structures. Another way the individual(s) return to the basic structures of society at large is in case the sect develops gradually into a (religious) system with roughly the same effects regarding the society at large. The sectarian then is incorporated again, via a detour, into the fabric of the whole.
Similar processes can be discerned in political parties. Newly emerging political parties tend to be focussing on some specific issue in society where the adherents want change. If one studies the histories of political parties, similar life cycles emerge. Political parties tend to start as innovative movements of disgruntled individuals and if they survive they invariably end up after some years or decades as main stream political movements and eventually as conservatives. During their life cycle they then have contributed to the political processes, first as marginal idealistic innovators, then as main stream partners in the political main processes and finally as defendants of long established values, habits and traditions. It is always the same old life cycle pattern.
We can see the same processes in political parties, new versus old, as we can see in sects versus established religions. What is attractive in the case of Amy Wallace's book about Carlos Castaneda and his apprentices is that she presents a well documented case of what happened in a relatively simple variety of a social structure, simple because it was freshly emerging and also because it was departing quite far from ordinary societal habits and beliefs. Therefore the tendencies and reflexes occurring among the apprentices can be presumed to be relatively "clean" and close to the basics of Homo sapiens' original behavioural tendencies.
If one wishes to study cyclic processes in society as a whole, it is therefore quite interesting to focus on this Castaneda case. It represents as it were a simplified laboratory-case of what happens at a larger and more complex scale in ordinary society as well.
Two mechanisms in particular could be added to our understanding of these primordial mechanisms and could be traced in the Castaneda case.
One is the cognitive tool of "mixing up prescriptions for descriptions", a meme level trick that functions as a basic tool for any power structure to strengthen its position and survival value.
The other is the mechanisms of involuntary selection pressure in social groups and the life cycles of social structures resulting from it.
Concluding we can say that in this comment on Amy Wallace's book on Carlos Castaneda and his apprentices we have not so much given an opinion on Amy's writings, other than that it is an excellently written honest and insightful account of her adventures with Castaneda's group. Rather, we have tried here to show how her book can serve as an enlightening illustration of some basic mechanisms that rule the life cycles of such groups, but that also work in a similar though more complex and often invisible way in societies at large. In that way her book can help greatly to understand who we are and where we are at this moment in time.