Discovering our True Self in the Unknown
In the Nahuatl language, the indigenous language still spoken by a great number of peoples in central Mexico, we find several important words that form the epistemological basis for the sorcerer’s world as introduced to Carlos Castaneda by Don Juan Matus.
He was a Yaqui Indian from Sonora, Mexico, the leader, or nagual, of a party of warriors carrying on a tradition of shamanic practices extending back to ancient Mexico, perhaps as far back as the Toltec and Olmec civilizations (1500 BCE—900 CE). Castaneda was an author and anthropologist who had a chance encounter with Don Juan in Nogales, Arizona while researching medicinal herbs used by native Indians in that area.
The first of these two terms were tonal or tonalli. Based on anthropological studies, we find a wide-ranging set of meanings for tonal or tonalli. It can represent the “vigor and energy for growth and development” implanted ceremonially in the unborn foetus. As a verb tonal means “to irradiate or make warm with sun”. In Nahuatl the word tonalli is used to refer both to a day of birth and to the animal associated with that day. More generally, it seems to represent the invigorating and enlivening life force of an individual. It is the life force we are born with and which leaves us at the time of our death.
The second term, nagual, on the other hand, seems to represent a facet of ourselves that we no longer have any access to. Again, anthropologists tell us that the nagual is a human being with special powers that enable him or her to magically transform into other life forms, mostly animals such as jaguars, wolves, dogs and owls among many. In Nahuatl, it generally refers to a ‘transforming witch’ or shapeshifter, a magician, or a practitioner of the dark arts. This power can then be used for good or evil purposes according to their predilection.
In Tales of Power, the fifth book in the series by Carlos Castaneda documenting his apprenticeship with Don Juan, we come across these same two terms again. This time from a much different vantage point, that of a nagual and his apprentice immersed in a way of life in which these two terms represent two distinct states of reality.
No longer do we need to rely so much on the objective scientist attempting to explain the meaning of these terms in the third person from their detached perspective, not fully accounting for inherent biases in their system of cognition. We can now access these terms in the first person through the dialogue that forms the basis of the indoctrination of Carlos Castaneda into the sorcerer’s world over a period of fifteen years. It is Don Juan’s mission to transmit his knowledge to a new generation of seers and practitioners, knowledge that has been handed down to him over many generations extending back to perpetuity.
According to Don Juan, the two aspects together make up what is called the “totality of man”. In other words, they represent separate expressions of who we are, parallel beings in which one or the other is operative. The goal of sorcery in this instance is, through rigorous training, to shift awareness from one state of reality to another, from the ordinary and everydayness of the tonal, to the sublime and timeless awareness of the nagual. This dual nature is our true birthright and represents the “totality of man”. One could say it represents our wave-particle nature.
In the excerpts below, mostly from Tales of Power, we find Castaneda and Don Juan engaged in dialogue on this very subject:
“We sense, from the moment we are born, that there are two parts to us. At the time of birth, and for a while after, we are all nagual. We sense, then, that in order to function we need a counterpart to what we have. The tonal is missing and that gives us, from the very beginning, a feeling of incompleteness. Then the tonal starts to develop and it becomes utterly important to our functioning, so important that it opaques the shine of the nagual, it overwhelms it. From the moment we become all tonal we do nothing else but to increment that old feeling of incompleteness which accompanies us from the moment of our birth, and which tells us constantly that there is another part to give us completeness.”
“The tonal is the organiser of the world,” he proceeded. “Perhaps the best way of describing its monumental work is to say that on its shoulders rests the task of setting the chaos of the world in order. It is not far-fetched to maintain, as sorcerers do, that everything we know and do as men is the work of the tonal.”
“At this moment, for instance, what is engaged in trying to make sense out of our conversation is your tonal; without it there would be only weird sounds and grimaces and you wouldn’t understand a thing of what I’m saying.”
“Sorcerers have a special and unique interest in that knowledge. I would say that the tonal and nagual are in the exclusive realm of ‘men of knowledge,’” [how Don Juan defines nagual].
What we find most remarkable in our encounter with this ancient knowledge is the clear parallel with our current understanding of transformation. In the transformational process we undertake in iEvolve, for example, we spend a good part of the programme working with individuals to distinguish certain patterns of existence that shape and ultimately determine one’s understanding of oneself, as well as one’s understanding of the world, patterns which were established quite early in life based on family history, schooling and events that took place during that time.
There is one particular moment in that formative period, somewhere between the ages of 3-7 in most cases, in which an event or situation brings on an existential crisis, a loss of innocence, wherein an idea about who we are begins to take shape. That moment closes down the nagual and ushers in the tonal. We begin the process of becoming ‘somebody’, and then we spend the rest of our life doing the same, trying to become ‘somebody’. We identify with our new tonal identity.
As we go through life, the pattern remains in the background, undistinguished. It is only when we reach middle age do we begin to realise there is something not quite right. We may experience varying degrees of powerlessness and resignation with important areas of our lives. We start having breakdowns in well-being, relationships, or work. The pattern has run its course and we find ourselves trapped with no way out, having exhausted all our resources living an inauthentic existence. Unfortunately, most people wind up their lives in this state of being.
It is often at this point that some people begin to wake up amidst the freefall that their life is in, asking the question, “Is this all there is?”. This is often when we begin to confront our own inauthenticity, the playing out the role of a character that got created out of a crisis when we were quite young. “Well then, who am I if not this character, this person, that I have always known myself to be?”
If we follow that line of inquiry rigorously and passionately, it takes us to a place where we realise in fact that we don’t know who we are any longer. We become for the first time ‘unknown’ to ourself. We realise that we are not just ‘somebody’. In fact we are not any thing — a no-thing perhaps.
It is about here, at the end of all striving, at the end of all strategising, that the nagual returns and in which we reclaim our true identity, arriving at the totality of ourselves.
This article was written by Greg Johnson and originally published in Issue 41 of The Concord Newsletter Autumn 2020.