While The Golden Globes turned their nose up, the Screen Actors Guild Awards vindicated what every Netflix-subscribed Fortean knew all along: Stranger Things was amazeballs.
After I finished binge-watching the series and still craving for more streamable weirdness, I started getting recommendations from friends and followers that The OA, another Netflix mini-series, was the thing to watch while waiting for a second season of Stranger Things. I reluctantly took upon their advice, only to discover they were dead wrong.
The OA was no substitute for Stranger Things. It was even better.
While Stranger Things made good use of certain Fortean elements in order to tell a story of nostalgia, friendship, teen crushes and family issues, which felt like straight out of a Spielberg movie that was never shot --or maybe it was on a different dimension, one of the topics explored by the series-- the high strangeness remained at the periphery, perhaps to make the tale more palatable for a broader audience. With The OA on the other hand you find yourself balls-deep in high-strangeness; and if Stranger… was Spielbergian in tone, The OA felt like something found in David Lynch's journal of way-out-there ideas!
(Which is probably why reception was significantly lower, and the series has received less recognition for its brilliance)
Not only was the plot more demanding to the audience in terms of topics approached, but the tone of the series was infinitely darker and more complex. Each and every character portrayed in the series --including the main protagonist, a strange young woman who returns home after disappearing without a trace under mysterious circumstances seven years ago-- is flawed and broken in its own particular way: some are trying to escape from the dire circumstances in which they live in, others are trying to escape from themselves. It is this flawed nature precisely what makes them so relatable and tri-dimensional, in spite of how fantastic the story turns out to be once it's finally completed by the end of the final episode --which is not devoid of the de-rigueur cliff-hanger intended to secure a second season, a gimmick I didn't find annoying given the potency of the last scene... which I'm not ashamed to say, I watched over and over again with tears in my eyes.
...Oh yeah, Spoiler Alert and shit.
Now, I know Ben and Aaron talked about The OA in one of the last MU episodes of 2017, with the intention to explore its main Fortean topic: Near Death Experiences. Indeed, NDEs are the central core of the story, since they are the reason why 5 special individuals join forces --and not willingly, I might add (spoilers I warned!)-- in order to achieve a common goal.
The series gets props for portraying NDEs in a rather atypical way: Not just as survival of consciousness after physical death, but also a way to attain special talents or abilities once one returns from 'the other side.'
But the reason I wanted to write this article, is because of another high-strangeness topic which I feel has been overlooked when discussing how awesome The OA is; a topic which may or may not intersect with a certain figure which was central in my development as a Fortean student: Carlos Castañeda.
Castañeda, for those Coppertops who may not already know, was a former UCLA student of Anthropology who managed to make quite a splash in the counter-culture scene of the 1960's thanks to his best-selling book The Teachers of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, which was followed by more titles that turned Carlos into a personality just as big (if not bigger) than the likes of Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley back in the day.
Castañeda claimed to be the apprentice of a Yaqui brujo by the name of Don Juan Matus, who was the leader of a whole clan of wizards capable of expanding their consciousness through the use of 'power plants' --which was still not as stigmatized as it would become in later years-- and also traveling to other 'worlds' through special practices they had allegedly inherited from an ancient lineage of Mexican shamans.
Imagine J.K. Rowling penning her stories as Harry Potter himself, and labeling all of her books as non-fiction instead of novels --THAT is how it was for the fans of Carlos, who were following him through the pages on the arduous journey of becoming a man of knowledge, and accepting a way of perceiving reality which was just as challenging as dragons and dementors are to our muggle mentality.
Discussing the full scope, influence and veracity of Castañeda's corpus is not the intention of this article, though. I have already done so in the past, on a two-part essay posted on the (now-defunct) Intrepid Magazine blog --which I'll probably repost someday in the future. In the meantime I encourage my fellow Coppertops to listen to this delightful podcast roundtable, where Seriah Azkath invited me to discuss CC's philosophy along with the incomparable Adam Gorightly.
To make a really long story short, over time Castañeda's stardom started to decline. Perhaps it was the result of the attacks he'd received from several academics and journalists, who had questioned the validity of the information presented in his books as factual; including the magical lore practiced by Don Juan, which had no correlation with known Yaqui shamanic traditions --Carlos countered by stating his mentor's knowledge went thousands of years prior to any culture or civilization known to have existed in ancient Mexico, inherited from a lineage of seers he called the Toltecs. Perhaps it was simply that readers got tired of the stories and characters he had introduced through his books.
...Or maybe it was just that society had gotten tired of the failed promises of the Psychedelic Revolution, and they discarded Castañeda the same way they forgot about Leary and the Summer of Love.
In any case, by the late 80's Castañeda was no longer a best-selling author, and was reduced to a quasi-cult leader surrounded by a ring of devout followers --mostly women. But then he launched a bold new second act onto the world: He created a company with the name of Cleargreen International, whose goal was to promote and disseminate a series of magical passes Castañeda called Tensegrity through workshops and instructional videos. Tensegrity is actually a word coined by American architect/visionary Buckminster Fuller, and is a combination of the terms 'tension' and '(structural) integrity'; Buckminster Fuller was inspired by the resilience and adaptation of structures found in the natural world --like trees or soap bubbles-- and wanted to use those principles as a way to come up with innovative Architectural and engineering concepts, which would spend less resources and integrate better with the environment.
According to Castañeda, the Tensegrity movement techniques taught by his company were directly descended from Don Juan's lineage of ancient brujos, only expunged from antiquated superstition and repackaged for the modern world. He, along with 3 women who also claimed to be students of Don Juan --Florinda Donner-Grau, Taisha Abelar & Carol Tiggs-- claimed the movements were capable of bringing the practitioner not only physical health and increased energy, but also conduce to incredible prowesses of awareness.
Below is a video I found in Youtube showing the Tensegrity magical passes:
In the video's preliminary description it reads:
"For those men and women of ancient Mexico, experts in dealing with awareness, to enlarge the parameters of perception meant entering into bona fide, all-inclusive new worlds; all-inclusive meant to them that those perceived new worlds were not mere concatenations of the mind, but worlds in which one can live and die [emphasis mine]. For them entering into new worlds was the core of their magical expertise."
Which brings us back to The OA (Again, Spoilers!!): In the series the viewer slowly discovers how each member of the near-death survivors group learns or 'acquires' a special movement during their trips to 'the other side'. The main protagonist (Oa) is convinced there are 5 of this magical movements, and once they retrieve them, learn them and perform them with perfect will and perfect intention --what Castañeda would not hesitate in calling 'impeccability'-- they would be able to accomplish incredible things; including escaping from our current reality and enter into a new dimension.
Whether The OA's magical movements are actually inspired by Cleargreen's tensegrity is really unimportant. What I find fascinating is the producers' decision to incorporate the idea of physical passes as a technique capable of not only having an effect into our world, but also allowing entrance into other realms of existence.
I write this because, as someone who started to become interested in magickal practices in his later life --if only peripherally, I must confess-- I find that in the Western world Magick is perceived as mostly a 'cerebral' activity. The use of dreams, meditation or other tools inducing an altered state of perception are encouraged, but that seems to be about it. Other parts of ancient rituals are seen as disposable, folkloric baggage.
Take Ayahuasca for example. No one can deny it has become the poster psychedelic substance of the XXIst century, thanks to the testimony of thousands of people who swear by its curative, introspective powers. Many young, intrepid Westerners with the economic means to do so, have traveled to South America in hopes of connecting with a true medicine man who can show them the secret path to Mother Ayahuasca; as a result of that, a new 'shamanic tourist industry' has spawned --one that is not devoid of perils and hucksters, sadly…
But there's also the Westerners who think it's just a question of securing the Amazonian brew and have their own, private shamanic experience. Tune in, turn on and drop out right in the comfort of your living room, just as you would with a bag of magic mushrooms or a tab of LSD, right?
Well… maybe not.
You see, I have never tried Ayahuasca myself (yet) but I have participated in a couple of psychedelic rituals lead by a Mexican shaman (you can read about the first one here) and one of the few things I have learned is that for these people --who are trying to keep a tradition which goes back hundreds, if not thousands of years into the past-- psychedelic experiences are very communal and participatory. Meaning you're not supposed to just take your fix and be on your own; you have to follow the instructions of the medicine man, and that includes dancing and chanting when you're asked to.
A friend I met in one of these experiences --a much more seasoned psychonaut-- told me that peyote (the power plant we used in the rituals) is a more 'grounded' medicine; whereas Ayahuasca does tend to guide you out of yourself and show you visions intended to cure your illnesses, both physical and spiritual. But one thing my friend forgot to mention is how in the Amazonian tradition, the shaman is also performing magical passes over the body of his patients while incessantly chanting Icaros, the medicine songs they learn during their travels through the spirit worlds.
In their cosmovision, it is not the actual brew that cures the person, but the song itself.
If a chant can cure a person, then why not a dance? And if it can cure you, then why not also alter your perception, and show you other aspects of reality we can't even dream of?
These are the questions The OA forced into my mind once I finished the series, and I'm very grateful for it. Because it dared to propose its audience that human beings are not mere minds traversing the material world through a fleshy interface. We are Mind, yes; but we are also Body --so perhaps there's a very good reason and advantage in that. Maybe as Westerners we should stop obsessing about the body/mind dichotomy and accepting the full package as a wonderful whole, each improving the other when working in unison.
And if Carlos Castañeda was right, along with our physical body we also posses an energetic one, capable of storing information and communicate with other realms, just as immersive and 'real' as this one in which I'm writing these letters, and you're reading them on a screen.
As for him, there's not much left to tell which would be pertinent for this article. The famous sorcerer's apprentice died in 1998, giving a fatal blow to his image of an impeccable warrior, and dissolving his inner ring of followers, their final whereabouts still a matter of speculation. Incredibly enough, Cleargreen is still operating and imparting Tensegrity classes; although I do not vouch for the efficacy of their alleged magical passes, I do still think there's a lot of validity in the philosophical lessons imparted in the late Castañeda's books.
Because of those books --and now also because of The OA-- there will always remain a nagging question in the back of my head: Just what if...