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The Active Side of Infinity
Carlos Castaneda
Published by HarperCollins in 1999
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


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The author of the The Teachings of don Juan A Yaqui Way of Knowledge is back with another book of tales about our favorite Yaqui sorcerer, don Juan. He begins this latest book with a dedication to two of his anthropology professors and says in part:

[page v] If I failed to fulfill the spirit of their teaching, so be it. I couldn't help it. A greater force, which shamans call infinity, swallowed me before I could formulate clear-cut social scientists' propositions.

It is no wonder that Carlos was not able to formulate such propositions -- they require adherence to an anthropological "building code" and he had learned from don Juan that was only one building code or syntax among many possibilities. Carlos gives us the syntax for the Big Bang, which, like this sentence which I am presently writing, contains a beginning and an end. Useful for punctuation, perhaps, but not for describing infinite processes such as life in the universe. In "The Other Syntax" he asks these important questions:

[page xi] Did the universe really begin? Is the theory of the big bang true? These are not questions, though they sound like they are. Is the syntax that requires beginnings, developments and ends as statements of fact the only syntax that exists? That's the real question. There are other syntaxes.

Imagine a book in which you record the memorable events of your life, where you "put together the sum total of one's emotions and realizations, without sparing anything." (page 1) That is what Carlos says he has done in this book. Notice the importance given to "emotions." Emotions are not generally highly valued in the syntax of scientists, up until now. But listen to what the author tells us as he continues his talk on "The Other Syntax":

[page xi] There are other syntaxes. There is one, for example, which demands that varieties of intensity be taken as facts. . . . A man of that syntax . . . could very well conclude that the universe itself is the chariot of intensity and that one can board it to journey through changes without end.

My syntax is that what don Juan and Carlos are dealing with during the course of this book is the spiritual world and how it plays out in our individual lives. We feel things with intensity and make decisions based on that intensity. We say to ourselves and each other, "This is my intent." without really understanding the deep "why" of the intent, and yet we give good reasons and rationalizations for the actions we perform based on that intension, that deep intention, that intent, that don Juan describes this way as he answers one of Carlos' questions:

[page 72] He answered that his steps and mine were guided by infinity, and that circumstances that seemed to be ruled by chance were in essence ruled by the active side of infinity. He called it intent.

If I translate into my syntax the eponymic phrase "active side of infinity" as "the spiritual world" then add the descriptive metaphor "karmic" in front of "intent" I arrive at the following explication of don Juan's words:

[RJM] Our steps, yours and mine, are guided by our immortal spirit, our "I am", and circumstances that seem to be ruled by chance are in essence ruled by the planning process our immortal spirit underwent in the time between our death and a new birth [i.e., the "active side of infinity"], which process we may call karmic intent.

Those who would like more information on karmic relationships, I would direct to Rudolf Steiner's eight lecture series on karmic relationships. My reviews are available as an intermediate step to learning about karmic intent. [See Karmic Relationships 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.] What is karmic intent and how does it operate in our lives? First, let us admit that most people are not aware of their past lives. Nor are they aware of what planning they went through in preparation for this lifetime during their time between death and a new birth. For most people, it follows then that karmic events will seem to them to be ruled by happenstance or chance.

Statisticians do detailed analysis of events, beginning with the presupposition that they are dealing with chance events. Their mathematical analysis is useful and accurate. But does it actually represent a world in which all events operate truly by chance? Statisticians leave that question unanswered; they merely take it for granted condition as a presupposition of their analysis. If I went to the store as a child in the 1940s to get cokes, they were five cents each. If a visitor from Germany came to visit us and gave me a twenty-five cents piece (a quarter) to go to the store to get five cokes, one for him, me, and my other three brothers, he would expect me to return with five cokes, not six. As a mathematician and an ethical person, he would be very upset to see me arrive with six cokes in my hands. "Did the grocer make a mistake? Did you take one when the grocer wasn't looking?" His questions would stem from the accurate calculations and the moral judgments that he would make about the situation, wouldn't they? What he didn't know was, at that time in America, cokes were a nickel (five cents) apiece or a six pack for a quarter! His calculations were accurate, his judgments were correct based on his calculations, but he was entirely wrong because of a factor that existed outside of his knowledge and his calculations, a factor that would turn his judgments completely inside out! [Adapted from a story originally told by Rudolf Steiner to demonstrate the difference between accuracy and truth.]

If we all became aware of our karmic debts consciously the world would change completely in a way that we are not ready for, up until now. A good out of its time is an evil according to Steiner, and that helps explain why the knowledge of reincarnation has been kept systematically from the masses of the population -- we have not been ready for it, up until now. There are indications that the time has come to lift the rock under which reincarnation has been hiding these many years, and give it an airing out. Edward Reaugh Smith is finishing a book called The Soul's Long Journey in which he looks at how the Bible reveals the process of reincarnation.

How does don Juan suggest that Carlos learn about the active side of infinity? He suggests that Carlos assemble an album by writing down all the memorable events of his life. First, he had to begin with a list of people he knows now, and then move backwards in time until he had a complete list. Then write down every event he could recall with each of these people. A rather daunting task, isn't it? This album was to contain pictures, recalled images, of every memorable event in Carlos' life, like "figures in front of a mirror." (page 24) As Carlos got started on his task, the first memorable events he shared with don Juan were rudely rejected as being mere self-indulgence on his part.

This process of looking at figures in front of a mirror is one that can be useful to anyone who is interested in discovering one's individual karmic intent as it appeared during one's lifetime. Was that a chance happening that I was picked up, against my wishes, to go to a wedding in a distant city at which I met the woman who was to become the mother of my four precious children? Was it a chance happening that my father as a young man gave his watch to a young woman named Annette (who was to become my mother ) to hold while he played basketball? Or was there intent of the kind don Juan speaks? Were these events a "chariot of intensity" that carried me as the karmic scheme played out that I had earlier planned while I was still in the active side of infinity? Can you think of events in your life which were pivotal events for you and yet happened by an improbable set of what the statistician calls coincidences? And yet does it not seem to you now that each event came just in time, in the right season for it, and pregnant with a purpose that you had no inkling of at the time? In the seasons of our lives, everything important for us has its time. This special usage of the word time is from the Bible verse below:

Ecclesiastes [3:1-8] For everything there is a season, and a time for very purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

The key thing is the "chariot of intensity" because if one looks carefully one will find an intensity, a concentration of intent, in certain relationships and events that lets one know, "The time is now for this person or this event." Even in seemingly pointless lifetimes, one can point to those pivotal events that are related to the karmic intent of the individual.

At one point, Carlos gave up and shared his sadness, turmoil, and confused feelings with don Juan and asked him for a relaxant, an "organic Valium." What is so illuminating about this dialogue between Carlos and don Juan is how similar it is to the majority of people in our society today. They go to their doctor and expect to receive some medicine for what ails them. The verse from Ecclesiastes above says in effect, "To every man, his portion," not to every man his potion.

[page 99] "You are too much," he said. "Next you're going to ask for a sorcerer's medication to remove everything annoying from you, with no effort at all on your part -- just the effort of swallowing whatever is given. The more awful the taste, the better the results. That's your Western man's motto. You want results -- one potion and you're cured.

Carlos continues to ask dumb questions of don Juan such as this one about inner silence, "What did those sorcerers consider the sign that inner silence is working, don Juan?"

[page 104] "Some very talented practitioners need only a few minutes of silence to reach that coveted goal. Others, less talented, need long periods of silence, perhaps more than one hour of complete solitude, before they reach the desired result. The desired result is what the old sorcerers called stopping the world, the moment when everything around us ceases to be what it's always been."

You don't know what stopping the world means, up until now? That's a serious limitation, if you don't know what it means. How can you do anything that will change the world around you for the better? Do you know how to do that? If you did, you would be able to stop the world -- the world would disappear that you've always known, up until now. It would be replaced by another world in which you will instantly experience a new birth of freedom, a world in which you will feel immediately that you have mounted your own chariot of intensity and are ready to throw off the shackles that bond you to the old world -- ready to ride off in freedom into the new world from now on.

[page 104] "This is the moment when sorcerers return to the true nature of man," don Juan went on. "The old sorcerers also called it total freedom. It is the moment when man the slave becomes man the free being, capable of feats of perception that defy our linear imagination."

Carlos says, "Don Juan assured me that inner silence is the avenue that leads to a true suspension of judgment..." How does one go about stopping the world and suspending one's judgment about the way the world really is? I don't know. Actually I know one small way, but if I shared it with you, you might pass judgment on it as being silly or trivial. Actually, I have already shared it with you, dear Reader, several times in the course of this essay or book review, whichever way you have judged my writing, up until now. I call it the limitation eraser and while it is not as effective as leaving your family and career and finding a Yaqui shaman like don Juan to study with for the rest of your life, it has the virtue of being something you can incorporate invisibly into your daily life. With the limitation eraser, you can begin in small ways to stop the world and suspend your judgments about what is possible in your world and by extension into the world at large. To use the limitation eraser is simplicity at its best, but still some people get it backwards and manage thereby to keep their limitations and judgments so that their world goes blithely onward unchanged.

To use it, simply pause at the end of a sentence during which you have just expressed a limitation, take a breath during that pause, and add the limitation eraser "up until now." To do it backwards and keep your limitation, use it at the beginning of the sentence. For example: Up until now, I've found ideas like the limitation eraser ridiculous and laughable. If you use it in the middle of a sentence, you have a chance to operate on the world you stopped momentarily to set it spinning once more. As a result, you end up keeping your limitation while being able to claim that you used the limitation eraser and, up until now, "it didn't work for you."

The most important aspect of the limitation eraser, after its position in the terminal portion of the sentence of limitation, is the pause between the limitation and the eraser, which in writing we denote by the presence of a comma thus: "I have this limitation, up until now." Without the breath at the comma, you can run holding fast your "limitation intensity" right through the end of the sentence and keep your limitation safely intact. Pause at the comma, take a deep breath, and the intensity dissolves, the world stops -- and your limitation is gone. Your world will move differently from now on.

In this next passage, don Juan shows Carlos how it often happens in people's lives that when they stumble upon some evidence of karmic intent in an event in their lives, they call it meaningless or stupid.

[page 146] "I think I judged her terribly," I said to don Juan. "After our visit to the campus, we drifted apart. It was as if UCLA had come between us like a wedge. I know it's stupid to think this way."
"It isn't stupid," don Juan said. "It was a perfectly valid reaction. While you were walking on the campus, I am sure that you had a bout with intent. You intended being there, and anything that was opposed to it you had to let go."

In Lecture 10 "The Fall of The Spirits of Darkness" that Rudolf Steiner gave on October 20, 1917, he talked about backward angels who, he said, " are not following their proper course of evolution and therefore no longer know how to perform their proper function in the spiritual world that is next to our own." Unable to perform their proper function in the spiritual world, "they want to perform their function with the aid of human brains. They are one level lower in human brains than they should be." These backward angels, it seems to me, represent what don Juan calls the foreign installation in the next passage.

[page 168] "What is at stake now is the advent of a disintegrating force. But not a force that is disintegrating you -- I don't mean it that way. It is disintegrating what the sorcerers call the foreign installation, which exists in you and in every other human being. The effect of the force that is descending on you, which is disintegrating the foreign installation, is that it pulls sorcerers out of their syntax."

In the next quotation from Lecture 10, given three years into World War I, Steiner said:

People often speak of the science of economics today, a science in which it was said at the time when the war started that it would be over in four months I mentioned this again yesterday. When these things are said by scientists it does not matter so much if people merely repeat them they are the thoughts of angels who have made themselves at home in human heads. Yes, the human intellect is to be taken over more and more by such powers; they want to use it to bring their own lives to fruition.

The science of economics is definitely rational and the economists who used their rationality to make the statements that the Great War would be over in three or four months were being very rational. See how far the impulses of the backward angels got those economists in their search for truth. When sorcerers face the unknown, don Juan told Carlos what they do, and, guess what, they do not use their rationality.

[page 168, 169] When they are confronted with [the unknown], and cannot interpret what they are perceiving, they have to rely on an outside source for direction. Don Juan had called that source infinity, or the voice of the spirit, and had said that if sorcerers don't try to be rational about what can't be rationalized, the spirit unerringly tells them what's what. ."

It is not we who choose, don Juan tells Carlos later, "Infinity chooses." How does one allow infinity to choose and what does that mean? Is it safe? I think of infinity as my "I am," my Soul Captain, and I know from personal experience that if I resist his subtle promptings to go in a certain direction, he drags me in that direction anyway, and I end up with bumps and bruises all over my body from the trip. To recognize that infinity chooses is, e.g., to notice how a certain book jumps off the shelf at you and reads you as this book did to me a couple of days ago.

[page 182] He [don Juan] explained to me then the intricacies of choice. He said that choice, for warrior-travelers, was not really the act of choosing, but rather the act of acquiescing elegantly to the solicitations of infinity.
"Infinity chooses," he said. "The art of the warrior-traveler
is to have the ability to move with the slightest insinuation, the art of acquiescing to every command of infinity. For this, a warrior-traveler needs prowess, strength, and above everything else, elegance!"

Scientists, rational scientists, have a motto that came down to them from Francis Bacon that goes, "Seeing is believing." This means that they will accept only such data that arrives at their sensory receptors and everything else they will discard as being below the sanctity of what they call "rational science." When something ir-rational happens to them, they, like Carlos, call it "unbelievable." Here's what don Juan told Carlos about such an experience:

[page 182] "It is unbelievable, but it's not unlivable," he said, "The universe has no limits, and the possibilities at play in the universe at large are indeed incommensurable. So don't fall prey to the axiom, 'I believe only what I see,' because it is the dumbest stand one can possibly take."

There is another dumb stand that one can take, and that is to judge another person. You know the kind of judging I'm talking about it's the kind in which you look at another person and feel a bit of tightness inside of yourself. So long as that bit of tightness is there, the other person will see it expressed in your visage and if you dare to speak, they will hear it in your voice. If you neither speak nor let them see your face by looking away, they will feel the tightness in your body inside their body. You cannot not communicate your judging, and your judging will lead others to judge you in return. "Judge not that ye be not judged" is sage advice, indeed. Rightly understood, judging another shuts off the direct communication that would else flow naturally between two human beings without effort (1). That communication provides the basis for all sensory-based communication, which is the only kind we accept as rational or believable, up until now.

Here's don Juan bringing Carlos to understanding this process:

[page 208] When I told don Juan about the difficulty I encountered in finding a professor to work with, I thought that his reaction to what I'd said was vicious. He called me a petty fart, and worse. He told me what I already knew: that if I were not so tense, I could have worked successfully with anybody in academia, or in business. . . .
I told him that it was easy for him or anyone else to say that, but to carry it our was another matter, and that my tribulations were insoluble because they originated in the incapacity of my fellow men to be consistent.
"It's not the people around you who are at fault," he said. "They cannot help themselves. The fault is with you, because you can help your self, but you are bent on judging them, at a deep level of silence. Any idiot can judge. If you judge them, you will only get the worse out of them. All of us human beings are prisoners, and it is that prison that makes us act in such a miserable way. Your challenge is to take people as they are! Leave people alone."

This little talk of don Juan's seemed to do no good at all because the very next words out of Carlos' mouth were, "Believe me, I have no interest whatsoever in judging them, or entangling myself with them in any way." This rather frosted don Juan, as the saying goes.

[page 209] "If you're not conscious of your desire to judge them, you are in even worse shape than I thought. This is the flaw of warrior-travelers when they begin to resume their journeys. They get cocky, out of hand."

Let's get personal, dear Reader, do you feel that others are judging you? And yet, you are not conscious of judging them, up until now? Learn to accept people as they are and they will reciprocate. Even the most judgmental people will melt in the face of a truly non-judgmental person. I think of Chauncy Gardener in Peter Sellers' movie, Being There. He truly represented the process of the "beginner's mind" in which no judging is possible. It is a process that one can only re-discover by consciously identifying and un-learning things that one learned unconsciously along the way.

In the continuation of the Rudolf Steiner quote from Lecture 10 above, he said:

We cannot stand up to this [process of backward angels taking over our human intellect] by putting our heads in the sand like ostriches, but only by consciously entering into the experience. We cannot deal with this by not knowing what monists think, for example, but only by knowing it; we must also know that it is Ahriman [materialistic] science, the science of backward angels who infest human heads, and we must know about the truth and the reality.

Carlos learns from don Juan about predators which took over human lives. Read what he says to Carlos and figure out for yourself if both Steiner and don Juan are talking about the same evil spirits. Carlos has just asked him why the predators did this to us.

[page 219] "There is an explanation," don Juan replied, "which is the simplest explanation in the world. They took over because we are food for them, and they squeeze us mercilessly because we are their sustenance. Just as we rear chickens in chicken coops, gallineros, the predators rear us in human coops, humaneros. Therefore, their food is always available to them."

As an exercise, ponder for a few minutes this question, "In what kind of humaneros in the business or academic world might you find these backward angels or predators doing a bustling business?" If you come to understand how these predators or backward angels work inside you and other people, then you have a chance to learn how to really burn them up, that is, cause them to flee from the spiritually fired intellect within you. Again, from the continuation of Lecture 10 above by Rudolf Steiner:

It is indeed true, and initiates have always said so: "When human beings are filled with spiritual wisdom, these are great horrors of darkness for the ahrimanic powers and a consuming fire. It feels good to the ahrimanic angels to dwell in heads filled with ahrimanic science; but heads filled with spiritual wisdom are like a consuming fire and the horrors of darkness to them." If we consider this in all seriousness we can feel: filled with spiritual wisdom we go through the world in a way which allows us to establish the right relationship with the ahrimanic powers; doing the things we do in the light of this, we build a place for the consuming fire of sacrifice for the salvation of the world, the place where the terror of darkness radiates out over the harmful ahrimanic element.

Rightly understood, the only forces of darkness one need fear are the ones that we have unconsciously given home to in our bodies, up until now. It is a great paradox of humankind today that those who shout most loudly in praise of scientific progress are the same ones who parrot words that these predators or "backward angels" fill their heads with. It should be clear that these predators or backward angels pose no real threat to human beings who acquaint themselves with the spiritual world. "Backward angels" are no match for "forward humans." When this concept becomes common sense for the majority of humanity, our advancement as human beings is assured. Till then one can do no better than to heed Rudolf Steiner when he closed Lecture 10 with this exhortation which sounds a bit like advice of don Juan to Carlos:

"Let those ideas and feelings enter into you! You will then be awake and see the things that go on in the world."

One of the important things to become awake to and see is that what goes on in this world is the predatory effect of those "backward angels" on our thinking. The predators feed off of the only flares of awareness left to the majority of people, to those who are caught in the "epicenter of self-reflection", up until now.

[page 221] They give us inane problems that force those flares of awareness to rise, and in this manner they keep us alive in order for them to be fed with the energetic flare of our pseudoconcerns.

It may be that the above statement had no effect upon you as you read it, but it had a dramatic effect on Carlos as he heard it:

[page 221] There must have been something to what don Juan was saying, which was so devastating to me that at that point I actually got sick to my stomach.

It is amazing to me at times, that we get sick to the stomach when some revelation of truth dawns upon our mind, but remain blithely content when all manner of backward angels feed us ideas that systematically and continually separate us from our spiritual being and reality. That, unfortunately, is our lot as human beings unless we make a strong and directed effort at understanding the spiritual as well as materialistic realities of our world.

Here's an example of a backward angel feeding a thought to Carlos which he voiced in a question to don Juan:

[page 221] "But why is it that the sorcerers of ancient Mexico and all sorcerers today, although they see the predators, don't do anything about it?"

The answer don Juan gives should give us pause. It explains in no uncertain terms why Carlos got sick to the stomach above:

[page 221, 222]"All we can do is discipline ourselves to the point where they will not touch us. How can you ask your fellow men to go through those rigors of discipline? They'll laugh and make fun of you, and the more aggressive ones will beat the shit out of you. And not so much because they don't believe it. Down in the depths of every human being, there's an ancestral, visceral knowledge about the predators' existence."

Carlos had been warned that if two people ever looked directly in each other's eyes, they would see each other deeply. In the last story of this book, he tells about how this disheveled campus character about 40, someone Carlos had not met, but did know him to be mentally imbalanced, came into this coffee shop where he was seated and Carlos looked him directly in the eyes. Immediately the man screamed and ran out of the place. Carlos ran after him and found him cowering like a child being accosted in a nightmare, still screaming at the top of his lungs. The waitress was curious as to why Carlos ran out so suddenly.

[page 272] "What happened to you, dear?" the waitress asked with a concerned look. "I thought you ran out on me."
"I just went to see a friend," I said.
The waitress looked at me and made a gesture of mock annoyance and surprise.
"Is that guy your friend?" she asked.
"The only friend I have in the world," I said, and that was the truth, if I could define "friend" as someone who sees through the veneer that covers you and knows where you really come from.

By the end of this book, through this story, it is clear to the reader that Carlos had taken don Juan earnest advice and left all of his friends. Why would one choose to do such a ridiculous thing? One wouldn't. Unless one wanted to be a sorcerer or a fully operational human being. What does it mean to be a fully operational human being? To allow your person to die. It is what sorcerers do. Here's how don Juan first introduced the concept to Carlos.

[page 108] "The criteria that indicates that a sorcerer is dead," he went on, "is when it makes no difference to him whether he has company or whether he is alone. The day you don't covet the company of your friends, whom you use as shields, that's the day your person has died."

If all of your friends are fast food for predators and backward angels, you become such a meal yourself whenever you spent time with them. If you come to understand the message of this book, you may find that you live partially in the best of company, and live fully when you are alone. Discovering the active side of infinity is like saying goodbye to the imaginary world you have lived in and hello to the strange new world of reality that was hidden from you, up until now.

~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~~ footnotes ~~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~^

1 Christine Kaine, in a personal communication to me, wrote: "The Greek for 'judgment' is krisis which speaks of a separating, then a decision. It hints at balance, the scales, the pendulum, and karma. The mechanism of Judgment in the soul is something that I am grappling with for my book, The Questing Soul". Return to text below footnote.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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