Joan Poelvoorde

Psychotherapy & Healing Arts

Our Friends The Petty Tyrants

"I'm really mystified," I said. "You keep on saying that La Gorda is the petty tyrant of my life. Just what is a petty tyrant?"

"A petty tyrant is a tormentor," he replied, "someone who either holds the power of life and death over warriors or simply annoys them to distraction."

Carlos Castenada
The Fire From Within
Washington Square Press, 1984 NY

Many of us cut our spiritual teeth on the controversial teachings of Don Juan as told by Carlos Castaneda. Don Juan, or no Don Juan, the teachings captured at least a generation of us. Some of us read the word shaman for the first time in his books. They introduced us to the meaning of self-mastery and warriorship. Castenada's books are masterpieces of synthesis, his inspiration coming from many sources both ancient and modern. That he was personally a notorious liar is probably beside the point, as the books must stand, or not stand, on their own merit.  

Petty tyrants have the uncanny gift of showing a person what he or she is truly made of.

"Intentionally or not, they pry beneath the mask of social courtesy and convention to expose what is beneath. That, however, is where the control ends and the gift begins. It is with this challenge that the petty tyrant sets the stage for growth. Whether or not to become distracted and reactionary or to be intentional and acting in a way consistent with one's ideals is still a choice of free will. Whether or not to confront the situation with directness but not aggression is still a choice." 

Trey Reckling
Reframing the Petty Tyrant
The Chronicle, Friday, March 19, 2004

This said, we must ask what happened to Carlos Casteneda? How is it that such a gifted teacher could become such a ruthless tyrant to his followers? There are many written accounts of Carlos' descent into the role of abusive cult leader, among them, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, My life with Carlos Casteneda, by Amy Wallace. But why this descent? To me, it appears—from some very close encounters with petty tyrants—that both our imported and home-grown gurus are dealing, or mostly not dealing, with challenges around money, sex, and power.

Casteneda was an anthropologist turned sorcerer/shaman. Alberto Villoldo, a shaman with whom I studied for 17 years, has said that sorcerers work mostly in the South and West of the Medicine Wheel, often consumed by power struggles, and expending great amounts of energy protecting themselves from sinister forces. In other words, they have not completed their Medicine Wheel journey to the North and East, the directions where the student finds the greatest assistance in managing, among other things, Knowledge and Power. The LFL Group would name Casteneda a Charismatic Personality Disorder, a diagnosis we somewhat humorously created for those who use their extraordinary personalities and charm to subjugate others.

The seeds of sadism are clearly outlined in The Fire From Within, and mirror quite closely the techniques of other gurus and teachers.

"Half-complaining, I told him that he made me feel very uncomfortable by refusing to talk to me for the past two days …

"I was provoking your self-importance," he said with a frown. "Self-importance is our greatest enemy. Think about it—what weakens us is feeling offended by the deeds and misdeed of our fellow men. Our self-importance requires that we spend most of our time offended by someone."

The Fire From Within, p. 12]

On the face of it, there is much to be said for the process of eliminating self-importance in ourselves. It is the methods used by these tyrant-gurus that are so destructive to those who have surrendered their will to such a teacher. The techniques are extraordinarily destructive, and include shame, public humiliation, emotional and sexual abuse. Self-importance collapses into its opposite, self-hatred, and self-doubt. Nothing has been gained, and much has been lost.

Amy Wallace further reports:

"I initiated discussion with a few apprentices about whether or not the ego-busting methods we experienced had succeeded in freeing them, however each defined freedom. These were difficult conversations, because of the danger of tattling and punishment, so I made my approaches delicately …

The qualities that make up a thriving love, I believe, are respect, generosity, trust, excitement and honesty. Carlos' methods did not inspire such behaviors. Feelings were something to be conquered by a warrior, and the warrior who needs no one' was the creation of a man in need of a protective philosophy."

How do we separate important information from its source? Can we make a distinction between the teacher/guru and the flawed human being? Can we refrain from object-splitting and take from these teachings that which is important to us, and leave the rest? And finally, can we live with these questions unanswered?

Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy