“A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with don Juan” – ©1971
by Carlos Castaneda
If you were capable of seeing you would have known on the spot that they were not people.”
“They were not people? What were they?”
“They were not people, that’s all.”
“But that’s impossible. They were just like you and me.”
“No, they were not. I’m sure of it.” I asked him if they were ghosts, spirits, or the souls of dead people. His reply was that he did not know what ghosts, spirits, and souls were. I translated for him the Webster’s New World Dictionary definition of the word ghosts: “The supposed disembodied spirit of a dead person, conceived of as appearing to the living as a pale, shadowy apparition.” And then the definition of spirit: “A supernatural being, especially one thought of… as a ghost, or as inhabiting a certain region, being of a certain (good or evil) character.”
He said they could perhaps be called spirits, although the definition I had read was not quite adequate to describe them.
“Are they guardians of some sort?” I asked.
“No. They don’t guard anything.”
“Are they overseers? Are they watching over us?”
“They are forces, neither good nor bad, just forces that a brujo learns to harness.”
“Are they the allies, don Juan?”
“Yes, they are the allies of a man of knowledge.”
This was the first time in eight years of our association that don Juan had come close to defining an “ally.” I must have asked him to do so dozens of times. He usually disregarded my question, saying that I knew what an ally was and that it was stupid to voice what I already knew. Don Juan’s direct statement about the nature of an ally was a novelty and I was compelled to probe him.
“You told me the allies were in the plants,” I said, “in the jimson weed and in the mushrooms.”
“I’ve never told you that,” he said with great conviction. “You always jump to your own conclusions.”
“But I wrote it down in my notes, don Juan.””You may write whatever you want, but don’t tell me I said that.”
I reminded him that he had at first told me his benefactor’s ally was the jimson weed and his own ally was the little smoke; and that he had later clarified it by saying that the ally was contained in each plant.
“No. That’s not correct,” he said, frowning. “My ally is the little smoke, but that doesn’t mean that my ally is in the smoking mixture, or in the mushrooms, or in my pipe. They all have to be put together to get me to the ally, and that ally I call little smoke for reasons of my own.”
Don Juan said that the three people I had seen, whom he called “those who are not people”-los que no son gente-were in reality don Vicente’s allies.
I reminded him that he had established that the difference between an ally and Mescalito was that an ally could not be seen, while one could easily see Mescalito.
We involved ourselves in a long discussion then. He said that he had established the idea that an ally could not be seen because an ally adopted any form. When I pointed out that he had once also said that Mescalito adopted any form, don Juan dropped the whole conversation, saying that the “seeing” to which he was referring was not like ordinary “looking at things” and that my confusion stemmed from my insistence on talking.
Hours later don Juan himself started back again on the topic of the allies. I had felt he was somehow annoyed by my questions so I had not pressed him any further. He was showing me then how to make a trap for rabbits; I had to hold a long stick and bend it as far as possible so he could tie a string around the ends. The stick was fairly thin but still demanded considerable strength to bend. My head and arms were shivering with the exertion and I was nearly exhausted when he finally tied the string.
We sat down and began to talk. He said it was obvious to him that I could not comprehend anything unless I talked about it, and that he did not mind my questions and was going to tell me about the allies.
“The ally is not in the smoke,” he said. “The smoke takes you to where the ally is, and when you become one with the ally you don’t ever have to smoke again. From then on you can summon your ally at will and make him do anything you want.
“The allies are neither good nor evil, but are put to use by the sorcerers for whatever purpose they see fit. I like the little smoke as an ally because it doesn’t demand much of me. It’s constant and fair.”
“How does an ally look to you, don Juan? Those three people I saw, for instance, who looked like ordinary people to me; how would they look to you?”
“They would look like ordinary people.”
“Then how can you tell them apart from real people?”
“Real people look like luminous eggs when you see them. Non-people always look like people. That’s what I meant when I said you cannot see an ally. The allies take differentforms. They look like dogs, coyotes, birds, even tumbleweeds, or anything else. The only difference is that when you see them they look just like what they’re pretending to be. Everything has its own way of being when you see. Just like men look like eggs, other things look like something else, but the allies can be seen only in the form they are portraying. That form is good enough to fool the eyes, our eyes, that is. A dog is never fooled, neither is a crow.”
“Why would they want to fool us?”
“I think we are all clowns. We fool ourselves. The allies just take the outward appearance of whatever is around and then we take them for what they are not. It is not their fault that we have taught our eyes only to look at things.”
“I’m not clear about their function, don Juan. What do allies do in the world?”
“This is like asking me what we men do in the world. I really don’t know. We are here, that’s all. And the allies are here like us; and maybe they have been here before us.”
“What do you mean before us, don Juan?”
“We men have not always been here.”
“Do you mean here in this country or here in the world?”
We involved ourselves in another long argument at this point Don Juan said that for him there was only the world, the place where he put his feet. I asked him how he knew that we had not always been in the world.
“Very simple,” he said. “We men know very little about the world. A coyote knows much more than we do. A coyote is hardly ever fooled by the world’s appearance.”
“How come we can catch them and kill them?” I asked. “If they are not fooled by appearances how come they die so easily?”
Don Juan stared at me until I became embarrassed. “We may trap or poison or shoot a coyote,” he said. “Any way we do it a coyote is an easy prey for us because he is not familiar with man’s machinations. If the coyote survived, however, you could rest assured that we’d never catch up with him again. A good hunter knows that and never sets his trap twice on the same spot, because if a coyote dies in a trap, every coyote can see his death, which lingers on, and thus they will avoid the trap or even the general area where it was set. We, on the other hand, never see death, which lingers on the spot where one of our fellow men has died; we may suspect it, but we never see it.”
“Can a coyote see an ally?”
“How does an ally look to a coyote?””I would have to be a coyote to know that. I can tell you, however, that to a crow it looks like a pointed hat. Round and wide at the bottom, ending in a long point. Some of them shine, but the majority are dull and appear to be very heavy. They resemble a dripping piece of cloth. They are foreboding shapes.”
“How do they look to you when you see them, don Juan?”
“I’ve told you already; they look like whatever they’re pretending to be. They take any shape or size that suits them. They could be shaped like a pebble or a mountain.”
“Do they talk, or laugh, or make any noise?”
“In the company of men they behave like men. In the company of animals they behave like animals. Animals are usually afraid of them; however, if they are accustomed to seeing the allies, they leave them alone. We ourselves do something similar. We have scores of allies among us, but we don’t bother them. Since our eyes can only look at things, we don’t notice them.”
“Do you mean that some of the people I see in the street are not really people?” I asked, truly bewildered by his statement.
“Some of them are not,” he said emphatically.
His statement seemed preposterous to me, yet I could not seriously conceive of don Juan’s making such a remark purely for effect I told him it sounded like a science-fiction tale about beings from another planet. He said he did not care how it sounded, but some people in the streets were not people.
“Why must you think that every person in a moving crowd is a human being?” he asked with an air of utmost seriousness.
I really could not explain why, except that I was habituated to believe that as an act of sheer faith on my part. He went on to say how much he liked to watch busy places with a lot of people, and how he would sometimes see a crowd of men who looked like eggs, and among the mass of egg-like creatures he would spot one who looked just tike a person.
“It’s very enjoyable to do that,” he said, laughing, “or at least it’s enjoyable for me. I like to sit in parks and bus depots and watch. Sometimes I can spot an ally right away; at other times I can see only real people. Once I saw two allies sitting in a bus, side by side. That’s the only time in my life I have seen two together.”
“Did it have a special significance for you to see two of them?”
“Certainly. Anything they do is significant. From their actions a brujo can sometimes draw his power. Even if a brujo does not have an ally of his own, as long as he knows how to see, he can handle power by watching the acts of the allies. My benefactor taught me to do that, and for years before I had my own ally I watched for allies among crowds of people and everytime I saw one it taught me something. You found three together. What a magnificent lesson you wasted.”
He did not say anything else until we finished assembling the rabbit trap. Then he turned to me and said suddenly, as if he had just remembered it, that another important thing about the allies was that if one found two of them they were always two of the same kind. The two allies he saw were two men, he said; and since I had seen two men and one woman he concluded that my experience was even more unusual.
I asked if the allies portray children; if the children could be of the same or of different sex; if the allies portrayed people of different races; if they could portray a family composed of a man, a woman, and a child; and finally I asked him if he had ever seen an ally driving a car or a bus.
Don Juan did not answer at all. He smiled and let me do the talking. When he heard my last question he burst out laughing and said that I was being careless with my questions, that it would have been more appropriate to ask if he had ever seen an ally driving a motor vehicle.
“You don’t want to forget the motorcycles, do you?” he said with a mischievous glint in his eye.
I thought his making fun of my question was funny and lighthearted and I laughed with him. Then he explained that the allies could not take the lead or act upon anything directly; they could, however, act upon man in an indirect way. Don Juan said that coming in contact with an ally was dangerous because the ally was capable of bringing out the worst in a person.
The apprenticeship was long and arduous, he said, because one had to reduce to a minimum all that was unnecessary in one’s life, in order to withstand the impact of such an encounter.
Don Juan said that his benefactor, when he first came in contact with an ally, was driven to burn himself and was scarred as if a mountain lion had mauled him. In his own case, he said, an ally pushed him into a pile of burning wood, and he burned himself a little on the knee and shoulder blade, but the scars disappeared in time, when he became one with the ally.