As I embarked on my journey of self-discovery and spiritual growth, a book that profoundly influenced me was the works of Carlos Castaneda, particularly his interactions with his teacher, Don Juan. The nature of Don Juan’s teachings, particularly his relationship with Mescalito, has often sparked controversy about the line between fact and fiction. Regardless of the debates, I found embedded within the tapestry of these narratives a wealth of wisdom that has been instrumental in shaping my understanding of life and spirituality. His words, while often couched in language that may seem gendered, transcends boundaries of masculinity or femininity. They speak to a universal human experience and offer insights that hold value for all of us, regardless of our gender.
One of the concepts that stood out for me was that of ‘controlled folly’ and living a life of heart. As I delved deeper into my own healing and spiritual practices, I found myself shedding layers of conditioned beliefs and patterns, ‘seeing’ with an increasingly clear lens. However, this clarity at times felt disorienting. If the aim was to limit attachments, what then was my motivation? If I didn’t desire, what then would propel me to act?
It was here that Don Juan’s teachings about controlled folly opened a new doorway for me. It allowed me to perceive action not as a means to an end, driven by want or desire, but as an end in itself, an expression of my will. Controlled folly became a guiding compass on my journey towards freedom and joy, a journey I believe many who walk the path of plant medicine might resonate with.
At the core of Carlos Castaneda’s teachings, as transmitted by his mentor Don Juan, is the profound concept of “seeing” – a heightened state of perception that transcends our usual, habitual lens of viewing the world. Among the many insights gleaned from this expanded awareness, one stands out for its existential profundity: the realization that, ultimately, nothing matters.
“My acts are sincere but they are only the acts of an actor because everything I do is controlled folly. Everything I do in regard to myself and my fellow men is folly, because nothing matters.
Certain things in your life matter to you because they’re important; your acts are certainly important to you, but for me, not a single thing is important any longer, neither my acts nor the acts of any of my fellow men. I go on living though, because I have my will. Because I have tempered my will throughout my life until it’s neat and wholesome and now it doesn’t matter to me that nothing matters. My will controls the folly of my life.
Once a man learns to see he finds himself alone in the world with nothing but folly. Your acts, as well as the acts of your fellow men in general, appear to be important to you because you have learned to think they are important.
We learn to think about everything, and then we train our eyes to look as we think about the things we look at. We look at ourselves already thinking that we are important. And therefore we’ve got to feel important! But then when a man learns to see, he realizes that he can no longer think about the things he looks at, and if he cannot think about what he looks at everything becomes unimportant. Everything is equal and therefore unimportant.
We need to look with our eyes to laugh. When our eyes see, everything is so equal that nothing is funny. My laughter, as well as everything I do is real but it also is controlled folly because it is useless; it changes nothing and yet I still do it.
One must always choose the path with heart in order to be at one’s best, perhaps so one can always laugh.
You don’t understand me now because of your habit of thinking as you look and thinking as you think. By “thinking” I mean the constant idea that we have of everything in the world. Seeing dispels that habit and until you learn to see you will not really understand what I mean.
Our lot as men is to learn. I have learned to see and I tell you that nothing really matters. A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting, nor by thinking about what he will think when he has finished acting. A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and laughs; and then he sees and knows. He knows that his life will be over altogether too soon; he knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows, because he sees, that nothing is more important than anything else. In other words, a man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no country, but only life to be lived, and under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly. Thus a man of knowledge endeavors, and sweats, and puffs, and if one looks at him he is just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control. Nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.
You think about your acts, therefore you have to believe your acts are as important as you think they are, when in reality nothing of what one does is important. Nothing! But then if nothing really matters, as you ask me, how can I go on living? It would be simple to die; that’s what you say and believe, because you’re thinking about life, just as you’re thinking now what seeing would be like. You want me to describe it to you so you can begin to think about it, the way you do with everything else. In the case of seeing, however, thinking is not the issue at all, so I cannot tell you what it is like to see. Now you want me to describe the reasons for my controlled folly and I can only tell you that controlled folly is very much like seeing; it is something you cannot think about.
“ — The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
This is not to be mistaken as a bleak nihilistic statement dismissing the value of life and its happenings. Instead, it’s an insightful remark expressing a deep, existential detachment. By suggesting “everything is equal and therefore unimportant,” Don Juan underscores the realization that in the grand theater of life and the cosmos, all acts, experiences, and phenomena hold no inherent or absolute significance over one another.
The profound state of equanimity brings about a unique perspective where every action, every phenomenon, is viewed from a stance of inherent equality. It is a state of seeing where the dichotomies of our conditioned thinking — good and bad, important and trivial, success and failure — dissolve into a harmonious whole.
This stark realization might at first seem disconcerting, but it is a doorway to immense freedom. It liberates us from the often stressful and fruitless endeavor of incessantly judging and ranking our experiences. It invites us to engage with life more fully, more authentically, unburdened by the need to incessantly evaluate everything around us.
In the presence of Mother Ayahuasca, it becomes near impossible not to be catapulted into a broader, more expansive perspective. In her nurturing yet unsparing embrace, she compels us to sit authentically with ourselves, peeling back the layers of our ego to expose the beliefs, fears, attachments, and limitations that confine us.
Such illuminations can be as daunting as they are enlightening, bringing to the surface more questions than answers. As the world we thought we knew disintegrates, we’re left confronting the stark truth of our existence: everything we thought mattered is but a fleeting speck on the canvas of eternity.
In the throes of an Ayahuasca journey, participants often experience a phenomenon akin to “ego death,” a shedding of their identity, their beliefs, their attachments, a release of all that no longer serves. It’s as if Ayahuasca allows us to undergo a cleansing purge, reducing us to our essential being, free from the trappings of our ego and the importance we tend to ascribe to our acts.
This might also echo teachings from Buddhism about non-attachment and the transient nature of all phenomena, but it’s not solely confined to Ayahuasca or Buddhism. It’s a perspective that’s often heightened during ceremonies, but it also emerges from a broader spiritual awakening. When the veils fall, when we see the equanimity of life, and the emptiness of our pursuit for ego driven meaning like fame, fortune, or any external validation, we are left, like Don Juan, with nothing but our will, our controlled folly.
Such a realization can indeed leave you questioning, “If nothing matters, then what does matter? What has meaning?” And therein lies the transition from a nihilistic interpretation of “nothing matters” to the teachings of Don Juan and the profound freedom of controlled folly.
This realization is not a call to inaction but rather a challenge to engage with life in a radically different way – a way that transcends attachment to outcomes, recognizing the inherent equality of all acts and experiences. In this sense, controlled folly becomes an enactment of freedom, a way of “acting, not by thinking about acting, nor by thinking about what he will think when he has finished acting.”
Through this lens, meaning becomes a deeply personal affair, rooted not in universal or objective importance, but in a chosen direction, a path of heart. Don Juan elaborates: “A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and laughs; and then he sees and knows. He knows that his life will be over altogether too soon; he knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows, because he sees, that nothing is more important than anything else.”
The Path of Controlled Folly: Embracing Life with Heart
So, how does one tread this path of controlled folly?
Don Juan counsels us to choose our actions as if they matter to us, while fully knowing that they don’t inherently matter. His controlled folly “makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.”
This concept of controlled folly is a powerful catalyst for a life filled with joy, creativity, and authentic self-expression. It moves us from doing to be seen, recognized, or rewarded, to simply doing for the sheer joy of the act itself.
Take, for example, the act of painting. If we approach it from a place of controlled folly, the focus shifts from creating something ‘valuable’ or ‘impressive’ to others, to the pure enjoyment of the process — the feel of the brush in our hands, the blend of colors on the canvas, the quiet calm of the creative moment. The painting then becomes an expression of our joy, independent of its reception or success in the world.
The same can be said for dancing. When we dance with controlled folly, the emphasis is not on appearing graceful or mastering complex moves, but rather on the sheer pleasure of movement. It is about feeling the rhythm, letting the music guide our bodies, and losing ourselves in the moment. The dance is no longer a performance, but a celebration.
In our interactions with others, controlled folly can manifest as kindness and generosity enacted not for recognition or return, but for the simple joy of connecting and contributing. We might volunteer at a local shelter, not because it makes us look good or feel superior, but simply because it brings us joy to give and to help.
Cooking, gardening, writing, playing music, or simply sitting quietly with nature — any of these everyday activities can become acts of controlled folly when we engage in them fully and joyfully, without attachment to outcome or recognition.
Living a life of controlled folly does not mean we abandon responsibility or stop working towards our goals. Rather, it means we engage in our activities with a sense of joy and equanimity, independent of the results they might yield. We perform our tasks with the same dedication and diligence, but we do it because the act itself brings us joy, not because of what we might gain from it. In this way, the simplest of actions can become a source of fulfillment and joy.
Controlled folly, then, becomes a radical act of engagement with life, a way of relating to the world that is based not on self-seeking and external validation, but on joy, authenticity, and a deep sense of equality and interconnectedness with all of existence. It can be a powerful practice to explore the concept of controlled folly and the path of heart on one’s own. Here are some reflective questions and activities that might help illuminate your own unique path:
- What brings you joy simply in the doing, without regard to the outcome or how others might perceive it?
- In what areas of your life are you most attached to the outcome or how you are perceived?
- Can you imagine engaging in these areas with the same dedication and effort, but without the attachment to the result? How might that feel?
- Where in your life could you experiment with incorporating more controlled folly? How might you start?
- Free Creation: Allocate some time each week to engage in an activity purely for the joy of it. It could be drawing, dancing, cooking, writing, or anything else that you love. Give yourself permission to make ‘mistakes’ and to create something that nobody else ever needs to see. Embrace the process without worrying about the end product.
- Mindful Engagement: Choose a simple, everyday activity, such as washing dishes or walking. As you do it, stay fully present and engaged, finding joy and satisfaction in the very act of doing. Try to release any desire for the task to be finished or done ‘well’.
- Heart Journaling: Start a ‘heart journal’. Each day, write about what feels true to your heart, independent of what you ‘should’ want or feel. It could be your thoughts, dreams, fears, or moments of joy. The aim is to express yourself authentically, without judgment or expectation.
- Kindness for the Sake of Kindness: Carry out an act of kindness for someone else, big or small, without expecting anything in return or even letting them know it was you. Notice how it feels to give purely for the joy of giving.
Remember, these are merely suggestions and starting points. Each person’s path of heart is unique and deeply personal. The aim is not to ‘get it right’ but to explore, to learn, and to find joy in the journey. As you experiment with these practices, you might find that the path of controlled folly leads you towards a life of greater freedom, authenticity, and heart-centered living.