A Separate Reality

I made the mistake of doing a Google search of A Separate Reality author Carlos Castaneda after I was only forty or fifty pages in to the book. That turned out to be a mistake. I’ll get to that in a second.

A Separate Reality is the second book in a series of four told from the first person point of view of Castaneda, then a young anthropologist just out of UCLA. He described his tutelage under don Juan, a Yaqui Indian living in Mexico. Don Juan spends the majority of the book trying to teach young Carlos to “see” with the help of peyote and various other hallucinogens. Carlos and don Juan (and by implication, the Yaquis) think about the world in completely different ways and Carlos finds it impossible to truly see until he sheds his old worldviews.

Except…the whole thing was made up. Researchers that later studied his work came to the conclusion that Castaneda was full of BS. One even constructed a timeline of the supposed events and found that library records showed that Castaneda was reading a book about a peyote experience at the exact time he supposedly had a peyote experience in Mexico. Castaneda briefly defended his works before disappearing from the public. He did not reappear until announcing that he was the leader of a cult twenty years later.

At the time I looked up that information, I was struggling with the book. Unlike other Lost books by authors like Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard, it wasn’t particularly hard to read – I just couldn’t get into the story. Finding out that the whole thing was just a bunch of BS didn’t help matters. I persevered through the book, but it still comes up near the bottom of my favorite list in this series.

In Lost, the book appears in the season five episode He’s Our You. You will remember the scene, even if you do not remember the book. Young Ben Linus meets Sayid, who is locked in the DHARMA cell after he is accused of being an Other. Ben brings Sayid a sandwich and a copy of this book for reading material in one of the eerier scenes in the entire series.

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A Separate Reality was one of the first books I read for my Lost series. I mentioned in my introduction that I feel behind by about 35 or so books before I finally starting writing reviews over the books. That means I read Castaneda’s book quite a while ago, particularly since I am now almost caught up on book reviews (this is my 39th review).

All that means that there are parts of A Separate Reality I don’t remember, but that shouldn’t hinder my ability to write a review for how the book relates to Lost. But I apologize in advance if I get any of the details wrong in this synopsis section.

A Separate Reality begins with Castaneda resuming his apprenticeship with don Juan after a three year hiatus following his first book. Don Juan is still the same master drug mixer and Carlos is still the same young man too scared to try the drugs.

Don Juan does not actively persuade Carlos to try the drugs, but continually tells him that he has nothing to be afraid of. The drugs help don Juan see the world as it actually exists, stripped of all of our own biases. The world as he sees it is pretty cliché amongst drug users – there are a lot of unseen luminous eggs and lines that connect everyone to everything. I suppose this is what I couldn’t get past when I read the book; it just seemed a little too made up. I would write something similar without ever having tried peyote because I watched Half Baked.

About midway through the book, Carlos finally gets up the courage to try to see with the use of the drugs. Of course he can’t see: not only would the book be too short, but he would not have been able to write two more books in the series.

Don Juan tells Carlos all the things that he is doing wrong that won’t allow him to see. Most of these things are beyond Carlos’s control anyway.

He cannot let go of his old worldview so he cannot understand this new worldview. Reason predominates Carlos’s worldview. In don Juan’s worldview, the world is unfathomable; it’s mysteries are too complex to understand with reason, you just kinda know by seeing it.

Carlos thinks about seeing too much and asks too many questions to try to figure out the process of seeing. Seeing is about something happening, not about using reason to try to figure out what is happening.

He is being impatient. He is trying to force himself to see, but that isn’t how it works. Essentially, he needs to clear his mind and wait for things to happen to him rather than trying to force the matter.

Because of all these reasons, the “gatekeeper” to the seeing world will not let Carlos pass. When Carlos gets high, he passes out on the floor and sees a gnat. He focuses on it and it turns into a 100-foot monster. Don Juan tells him that when the time is right, he will know how to get past the monster-gnat.

In the end, Carlos kinda sees, but not really. He is never able to fully let go. I assume this failure sets up the next two books in the series. I will not be reading those.

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As you can tell, I did not like A Separate Reality. You could probably tell that because I already said it. But for a book about Lost, it fits the episode it was placed in perfectly.

Somewhere along the way young Ben Linus picked up the book. This was after he met Richard Alpert and the Others but years before he was able to leave DHARMA and join them. Ben is basically a younger, more patient Carlos.

The DHARMA Initiative was the ultimate rational person/organization on the Island. They hoped to solve the biggest problems on Earth through scientific studies. Sure, they were moderately spiritual (i.e. “Namaste”), but reason drove their every move. The Others, on the other hand, were the most spiritual people on the Island. After all, they all swore allegiance to a man named Jacob whom they had never personally met.* Like Carlos, Ben was unwittingly subjected to the reason of DHARMA when all he wanted was to become an apprentice to the master teacher (Others, don Juan).

* Feel free to replace DHARMA with Jack and Others with Locke in the previous paragraph, but I feel like I’ve already beaten the Jack’s science vs. Locke’s faith theme into the ground in my other book reviews.

Throughout the book, don Juan tells Carlos that he needs to be patient and wait for things to come to him. That is the exact advice Richard Alpert had for Ben.

I think this book really gets to the heart of Ben’s mindset at this difficult time in his life. All the poor guy wants to do is see the world through the eyes of the Others. He is fascinated by them but cannot yet join them. Certainly he was getting impatient, but like Carlos, he needed to wait for the right time to see.

Presumably this was one of Ben’s favorite books, but he didn’t quite accept all the lessons contained in it. One of the core ideas – I’m paraphrasing here – is that a person needs to let go to truly see.  Remember that Ben was the only one who gathered at the church in the season six flash-sideways that wasn’t ready to move on. He simply had too much to take care of to worry about letting go…I mean, even Jack of all people was able to let go. Poor Ben just couldn’t do it.

Ironically, Ben handed this book to Sayid shortly before he had his own hallucinogenic experience. Later in the same episode, Sayid was taken to Oldham (DHARMA’s Sayid) who forcibly fed him drugs to induce him to tell the truth.

That covers my thoughts on the book. The most important lesson to draw from the book is how it affected young Mr. Linus. There is probably more to unwrap there, but I have covered most of the themes elsewhere in other book reviews. I don’t think the book will add much more to the discussion in that sense.

For more of my book reviews, return to the Literature of Lost series.

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