Adventures in Listening: Applying Castanedan Techniques on a Business Trip (January 1999)
By Corey Donovan

"Sick, on a journey,
Yet over withered fields
Dreams wander on.
--Matsuo Basho (poem written the day the haiku master died)

[This is taken from a post written to the Sustained Action list during the course of a weeklong business trip in Texas and New York City.]

Because I had a lot of meetings scheduled, including a full two days of briefings at a major university in Texas, I felt the week's schedule would give me a particular opportunity to focus on at least one task that Castaneda often gave us: fully listening.

In the case of my Texas briefings, this meant getting myself out of the way while sitting with each of about 30 complete strangers, to open myself to hear them as fully and completely as I possible. Ostensibly the briefings were to determine the qualities and experience the university's various "stakeholders" felt were most needed in a key executive that will enable the institution to reach its next higher level of prestige and achievement. In truth, most of what I heard while actively listening was each person's life story, their joys and frustrations with their chosen career and place in the world, how they each worked within (or against) contemporary Southern culture, and how they approached thinking about their own passage from the scene and future legacy. In other words, each session of an hour or more presented a nearly complete world unto itself.

At the end of two days, as a result of open and active listening, I felt I was carrying within me a nearly complete story of the institution, including a sense of its history, dysfunctionality, culture, communication styles, self image, and assorted hopes and fears. In all, it was a rich and deep lesson for me of the power of listening, and yet another experience I owe entirely to my exposure to Castaneda. (Since I took these briefings with my business partner, who has decades of seniority on me in this particular field, it was also fascinating to watch how often and obviously he leapt to the wrong conclusions or responded to questions that had not been asked, because he was "listening" only in the way that I have usually listened -- that is, inter alia, assuming that one knows what the other is talking about before they complete their thought.)

On Friday, I had another full day of meetings in New York--mainly calls on past and, possibly, future clients--and again, because I reminded myself to follow Castaneda's admonition about listening, a surprising wealth of feeling, understanding and connection once again opened up for me.

Before writing up this little report, I glanced back through some of my notes regarding Castaneda's instruction on listening. One Sunday that has really stayed with me he advised us that we could "lose the hick" that is within us all forever by truly being able to listen to another person, no matter how crazy, repetitive or annoying they are. He told us that if we could "let go enough" to do that, we could become "truly elegant."

Another day, he talked about the importance of deleting the insistent "me" voices that crowd out nearly every other input. He began by describing some objects in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City that could really "pull us," if we were silent enough. He proposed to us that "you have enough energy and enough silence now" to be able to "let the objects do strange things to you." He indicated that we could "see things," images that we could not comprehend, and that the experience would continue for a week or so afterwards, with such images coming up also in "dreaming." (He also told us that as long as we were not the central object of such dreams, he wanted to hear about them -- that it was when we became "the center" of such dream images that it got "too weird.") He further explained that, "If there is only one 'me' speaking, I could listen to you all night." It was when there were two, or three "me's," that he had to say: "Forget it. Ciao. See you later. That's not interesting."

He suggested that we "try to keep it to no more than two 'me's"--"If there is a third 'me,' get rid of it!" He told us we were at a point where we could tell when there were two or three "me's." Ideally, we "should get it down to one." And if we could "get rid of the one, then you [would be] 'silent.'"

This past Saturday in New York, I remembered an evening session with Castaneda [he periodically used to invite groups of people from our Sunday sessions to meet with the smaller contingent of Cleargreen people, with whom he would meet for an hour or two most nights of the week]. That evening he had us practice sitting with our "sticks," the 14- or 15-inch long, 1 and 5/8's-inch thick dowels that he had advised the Sunday group to make (or have made, at hardware stores that carry such items and have the equipment to cut them to size). Most of us had attached a little cushion at the top, to hold against our foreheads, while the other end of the stick was placed on the floor in front of us. We sat with the soles of our shoeless feet held together, leaning forward onto the stick, our hands clasped around our ankles. That particular evening, he advised us to practice listening to the sounds in the room and outside, "the street sounds, whatever comes up." The experience was a small revelation to me -- that instead of being annoyed by the "noises" outside that were "distracting" me from getting silent, I could let all the sounds come in, truly listening to everything, and thereby be "transported."

Inspired by this remembered session, I spent most of the day on my own, practicing the same kind of listening while wandering the fogbound streets. While I walked, I felt increasingly overwhelmed by memories of Castaneda. (It did not help that I had read the preceding week a letter he had written to his not-yet-ex wife, Margaret, telling her he was thinking of moving to New York. In the letter, dated October 5, 1967, he informed her that his first book was set to be published, and that because Columbia University had offered him a scholarship to get his Ph.D. there, UCLA's administration had decided finally to let him take the doctoral exams that he had been barred from taking in '65. In conclusion, he wrote: "The only thing is that I may eventually go to New York. I am very tired of here.")

I think that reading recent Sustained Action list posts about death, fathers and/or Castaneda may also have pushed me along to a place where I was ready to begin dealing again with the fact that he is gone. Now, being alone for the first time in days, in a place that I now knew Castaneda had some longing for, I found myself feeling nearly overwhelmed by a sense of missing Castaneda. I tried to continue to practice "listening," but increasingly I felt like one giant exposed nerve--the muffling effect of the fog, the distant car horns, overheard snatches of intense conversation, all intensified within me the profound sense of something lost. My deep, deep love and affection for Castaneda, Florinda, Taisha, Kylie and Talia, and my sense of loss and loneliness in their absence, eventually had me crying, nearly immobilized. I forced myself, however, to continue walking, working my way toward the Natural History Museum, where I had agreed to meet an old friend.

Standing in the museum's crowded lobby, I somehow managed to pull myself together right before my friend showed up. He could see that I was not in great shape, however, and led me downstairs for a bite in the vast, dark dining room, where a giant fiberglass whale floated in the air above us.

This friend is one of the few with whom I sometimes talk about Castaneda. He had been a zen monk for eight years before launching what became the premier crisis PR firm in the country. After hearing me out, one thing my friend suggested was to stay with the experience of feeling like a raw nerve. Later in the evening, after we took in the museum's special exhibit of live, exotic butterflies, my friend suggested I read a book entitled Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die: A collection of death stories of Tibetan, Hindu and Zen masters.

While reading this book later that night, I understood that I had made Castaneda into my "guru," and that his "allowing" us to do that with him was probably the "imbecelic mistake" Florinda had referred to when she brutally summed up the Sunday sessions at the August '97 workshop. Castaneda also told some of us in early '98 that the group had been, and somehow still was, his energetic "bulwark." I would like to think that this was, at least in some way, also true.

The stories in Graceful Exits impressed me with how consistently disciplined and intentional the deaths of these "great beings" had been. Many of the stories, in fact, reminded me of some of the alternative ways Castaneda had told us that a "warrior" might die, if he or she lacked the ability or energy to "burn with the fire from within." (Castaneda described a number of such alternatives during the Sunday sessions.)

Replica Watches  Replica Watches

The attitude toward death that many of these masters articulated also reminded me of Castaneda's philosophy on using death as one's advisor. For example, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda explained to her followers that: "Death is not our shadow, it is our guide." Neem Karoli Baba, also known as Maharaji, spent his last day with his students, chanting and in prayer. At one point, he mysteriously told them, "Today, I am released from Central Jail forever!"

In the Mahabharata, the sage Yudhisthira is asked, "Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?" Yudhisthira answers: "That a man, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die." The Dalai Lama also wrote, "Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are obstructed."

The rest of my stay in New York involved further adventures in listening, and almost frightening synchronicities.

On Sunday, my friend had me try out his "ch'i machine." It is a Japanese product that you place your ankles on, while you lie back on the floor. It causes your legs to move vigorously back and forth, shaking up your entire body--not unlike a strenuous, fast-paced bout of not-doing movements. After about ten minutes, the machine stops, while you continue to lie on the floor. The tingling waves of energy that flow up the body from the feet and hands at that point are extraordinary.

Monday night, my friend invited several of his acquaintances over for dinner in advance of a session of Indian singing/chanting, led by someone he has known for twenty years, Krishna Das. One of the dinner guests, just in from Boulder, had recently completed a "trilogy" of books about healing, including a thick volume about healing and dreams. The writer explained that he had grappled with how to deal with Castaneda's material in the book. When I shared a little about my experiences with Castaneda, this writer revealed that his Tibetan Buddhist teacher had been very impressed with Castaneda, and that the teacher had once, in the early '70's, given an entire lecture based on the books. Later in the evening, another guest mentioned that he had attended the funeral of this same teacher, and the two described unusual events that occurred on the day of the teacher's cremation.

The singing/chanting session was held in a large yoga practice hall in the East Village. It happens most Mondays, and I had attended with my friend on a previous trip to the City (my reminding him of it earlier in the week had led him to organize this dinner party of attendees). For two hours, I let the sound fill me and take me to indescribable places. About halfway through, Krishna Das stopped and spoke about an encounter with his guru in India toward the end of that teacher's life. The sense of joy and awe with which he shared this memory, and the similarities between his description of his guru's weakened appearance but strong energy and my memories of Castaneda, made the unusual event of his taking time out for the story especially resonant for me. He then led a lengthy song/chant in which the men sang one part and the women sang another. I closed my eyes as I sang, and heard such depth, detail and emotion as I have never in my life heard in a group singing situation before. (I also felt that I was taking in what I can only describe as "new units of experience" about male and female energy.) I listened to the mass, and heard my own voice as if from a distance. The vibration in my chest, however, somehow kept me firmly anchored into the mass. I also heard how much my voice (which sounded very strange to me) was influenced by and trying to follow the tone and sound of the leader, as well as that of other singers sitting near me. (Also, although the room was quite warm, I frequently experienced chills up my back during the session which, to me, is a sign that my energy body is nearby.)

In my listening during business meetings on Monday and Tuesday, I tried to expand the scope of my listening to be more aware of what was not being said. Similarly, I tried to see if I could also listen for the "exformation" on which the information being imparted was based. (In his fascinating book The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, the Danish scientist Tor Norretranders uses the term "exformation" to refer to the vast quantity of information that we have consumed and considered, but do not directly express, in a particular communication.)

The trip ended with a particularly odd synchronicity. The one thing left that I wanted to do in New York was to take in the major retrospective of Jackson Pollack at M.O.M.A. I also needed to arrange with an old mentor and former Board chair of one of my organizations to meet for lunch before I left. When I called him Tuesday morning to confirm lunch, he suggested, out of the blue, that we meet in front of the museum. Since, as it turned out, he is a major donor there, he treated me to lunch and then to the exhibit, which he had already seen. During our little visit, I felt that we had connected in a deeper and more complete way than we had during the seven years that I have known him.

When we were done visiting, I stayed at the museum to go back through the Pollack exhibit in reverse order. What struck me hard in viewing it that way was how much the exhibit was about the squandering of great energy, and a creative life spent as though the artist was going to live forever. I also tried to "listen" to the paintings, instead of taking them in only the way I am used to viewing art. What I "heard" as a result was so disturbing, both because it was mainly bleak and unhappy, but also because it was so peculiar and almost unbearable to me to be "hearing" a painting that I had to sit down for an hour in a quiet room nearby to collect myself before heading to the airport. In sum, I had received another strong experiential jolt about death being my ultimate and truest advisor.