In the text appearing below, excerpted from Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda, Castaneda and his teacher don Juan Matus discuss the tonal and the nagual.

The tonal (“toh‑na’hl”) corresponds with leftside, first attention, mundane world and synthetic imagination, while the nagual (“nah‑wa’hl”) corresponds with rightside, second attention, primal world and creative imagination.

The Newcreator's three selves: Mind
Read about mundane world and primal world

Read about the two forms of imagination: synthetic and creative

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[Don Juan] explained that every human being had two sides, two separate entities, two counterparts which became operative at the moment of birth; one was called the “tonal” and the other the “nagual.”

I [Carlos] told him what anthropologists knew about the two concepts. He let me speak without interrupting me.

“Well, whatever you may think you know about them is pure nonsense,” he said. “I base this statement on the fact that whatever I’m telling you about the tonal and the nagual could not possibly have been told to you before. Any idiot would know that you know nothing about them, because in order to be acquainted with them, you would have to be a sorcerer and you aren’t. Or you would’ve had to talk about them with a sorcerer and you haven’t. So disregard everything you’ve heard before, because it is inapplicable.”

“It was only a comment,” I said.

He raised his brows in a comical gesture.

“Your comments are out of order,” he said. “This time I need your undivided attention, since I am going to acquaint you with the tonal and the nagual. Sorcerers have a special and unique interest in that knowledge. I would say that the tonal and the nagual are in the exclusive realm of men of knowledge. In your case, this is the lid that closes everything I have taught you. Thus, I have waited until now to talk about them.”

“The tonal is not an animal that guards a person. I would rather say that it is a guardian that could be represented as an animal. But that is not the important point.”

He smiled and winked at me.

“I’m using your own words now,” he said. “The tonal is the social person.”

He laughed, I supposed, at the sight of my bewilderment.

“The tonal is, rightfully so, a protector, a guardian – a guardian that most of the time turns into a guard.”

I fumbled with my notebook. I was trying to pay attention to what he was saying. He laughed and mimicked my nervous movements.

“The tonal is the organizer 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 farfetched 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.”

“I would say then that the tonal is a guardian that protects something priceless, our very being. Therefore, an inherent quality of the tonal is to be cagey and jealous of its doings. And since its doings are by far the most important part of our lives, it is no wonder that it eventually changes, in every one of us, from a guardian into a guard.”

He stopped and asked me if I had understood. I automatically nodded my head affirmatively and he smiled with an air of incredulity.

“A guardian is broad-minded and understanding,” he explained. “A guard, on the other hand, is a vigilante, narrow-mined and most of the time despotic. I say, then, that the tonal in all of us has been made into a petty and despotic guard when it should be a broad-minded guardian.”

I definitely was not following the trend of his explanation. I heard and wrote down every word and yet I seemed to be stuck with some internal dialogue of my own.

“It is very hard for me to follow your point,” I said.

“If you didn’t get hooked on talking to yourself you would have no quarrels,” he said cuttingly.

His remark threw me into a long explanatory statement. I finally caught myself and apologized for my insistence on defending myself.

He smiled and made a gesture that seemed to indicate that my attitude had not really annoyed him.

“The tonal is everything we are,” he proceeded. “Name it! Anything we have a word for is the tonal. And since the tonal is its own doings, then everything, obviously, has to fall under its domain.”

I reminded him that he had said that the tonal was the social person, a term which I myself had used with him to mean a human being as the end result of socialization processes. I pointed out that if the tonal was that product, it could not be everything, as he had said, because the world around us was not the product of socialization.

Don Juan reminded me that my argument had no basis for him, and that, long before, he had already made the point that there was no world at large but only a description of the world which we had learned to visualize and take for granted.

“The tonal is everything we know,” he said. “I think this in itself is enough reason for the tonal to be such an overpowering affair.”

He paused for a moment. He seemed to be definitely waiting for comments or questions, but I had none. Yet I felt obligated to voice a question and struggled to formulate an appropriate one. I failed. I felt that the admonitions with which he had opened our conversation had perhaps served as a deterrent to any inquiry on my part. I felt strangely numb. I could not concentrate and order my thoughts. In fact I felt and knew, without the shadow of a doubt, that I was incapable of thinking and yet I knew this without thinking, if that were at all possible.

I looked at don Juan. He was staring at the middle part of my body. He lifted his eyes and my clarity of mind returned instantly.

“The tonal is everything we know,” he repeated slowly. “And that includes not only us, as persons, but everything in our world. It can be said that the tonal is everything that meets the eye.”

“We begin to groom it at the moment of birth. The moment we take the first gasp of air we also breathe in power for the tonal. So, it is proper to say that the tonal of a human being is intimately tied to his birth.

“You must remember this point. It is of great importance in understanding all this. The tonal begins at birth and ends at death.”

I wanted to recapitulate all the points that he had made. I went as far as opening my mouth to ask him to repeat the salient points of our conversation, but to my amazement I could not vocalize my words. I was experiencing a most curious incapacity, my words were heavy and I had no control over that sensation.

I looked at don Juan to signal him that I could not talk. He was again staring at the area around my stomach.

He lifted his eyes and asked me how I felt. Words poured out of me as if I had been unplugged. I told him that I had been having the peculiar sensation of not being able to talk or think and yet my thoughts had been crystal clear.

“Your thoughts have been crystal clear?” he asked.

I realized then that the clarity had not pertained to my thoughts, but to my perception of the world.

“Are you doing something to me, don Juan?” I asked.

“I am trying to convince you that your comments are not necessary,” he said and laughed.

“You mean you don’t want me to ask questions?”

“No, no. Ask anything you want, but don’t let your attention waver.”

I had to admit that I had been distracted by the immensity of the topic.

“I still cannot understand, don Juan, what you mean by the statement that the tonal is everything,” I said after a moment’s pause.

“The tonal is what makes the world.”

“Is the tonal the creator of the world?”

Don Juan scratched his temples.

“The tonal makes the world only in a manner of speaking. It can not create or change anything, and yet it makes the world because its function is to judge, and assess, and witness. I say that the tonal makes the world because it witnesses and assesses it according to tonal rules. In a very strange manner the tonal is a creator that doesn’t create a thing. In other words, the tonal makes up the rules by which it apprehends the world. So, in a manner of speaking, it creates the world.”

He hummed a popular tune, beating the rhythm with his fingers on the side of his chair. His eyes were shining; they seemed to sparkle. He chuckled, shaking his head.

“You’re not following me,” he said, smiling.

“I am. I have no problems,” I said, but I did not sound very convincing.

“The tonal is an island,” he explained. “The best way of describing it is to say that the tonal is this.”

He ran his hand over the table top.

“We can say that the tonal is like the top of this table. An island. And on this island we have everything. This island is, in fact, the world.”

“There is a personal tonal for every one of us, and there is a collective one for all of us at any given time, which we can call the tonal of the times.”

He pointed to the rows of tables in the restaurant.

“Look! Every table has the same configuration. Certain items are present on all of them. They are, however, individually different from each other; some tables are more crowded than others; they have different food on them, different plates, different atmosphere, yet we have to admit that all the tables in this restaurant are very alike. The same thing happens with the tonal. We can say that the tonal of the times is what makes us alike, in the same way it makes all the tables in this restaurant alike. Each table separately, nevertheless, is an individual case, just like the personal tonal of each of us. But the important factor to keep in mind is that everything we know about ourselves and about our world is on the island of the tonal. See what I mean?”

“If the tonal is everything we know about ourselves and our world, what, then, is the nagual?”

“The nagual is the part of us which we do not deal with at all.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The nagual is the part of us for which there is no description – no words, no names, no feelings, no knowledge.”

“That’s a contradiction, don Juan. In my opinion if it can’t be felt or described or named, it cannot exist.”

“It’s a contradiction only in your opinion. I warned you before, don’t knock yourself out trying to understand this.”

“Would you say that the nagual is the rational ?”

“No. The rational is an item on the table. The rational is part of the tonal. Let’s say that the rational is the chili sauce.”

He took a bottle of sauce and placed it in front of me.

“Is the nagual the soul?”

“No. The soul is also on the table. Let’s say that the soul is the ashtray.”

“Is it the thoughts of men?”

“No. Thoughts are also on the table. Thoughts are like the silverware.”

He picked up a fork and placed it next to the chili sauce and the ashtray.

“Is it a state of grace? Heaven?”

“Not that either. That, whatever it might be, is also part of the tonal. It is, let’s say, the napkin.”

I went on giving possible ways of describing what he was alluding to: pure intellect, psyche, energy, vital force, immortality, life principle. For each thing I named he found an item on the table to serve as a counterpart and shoved it in front of me, until he had all the objects on the table stashed in one pile.

Don Juan seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. He giggled and rubbed his hands every time I named another possibility.

“Is the nagual the Supreme Being, the Almighty, God?” I asked.

“No. God is also on the table. Let’s say that God is the tablecloth.”

He made a joking gesture of pulling the tablecloth in order to stack it up with the rest of the items he had put in front of me.

“But, are you saying that God does not exist?”

“No. I didn’t say that. All I said was that the nagual was not God, because God is an item of our personal tonal and of the tonal of the times. The tonal is, as I’ve already said, everything we think the world is composed of, including God, of course. God has no more importance other than being a part of the tonal of our time.”

“In my understanding, don Juan, God is everything. Aren’t we talking about the same thing?”

“No. God is only everything you can think of, therefore, properly speaking, he is only another item on the island. God cannot be witnessed at will, he can only be talked about. The nagual, on the other hand, is at the service of the warrior. It can be witnessed, but it cannot be talked about.”

“If the nagual is not any of the things I have mentioned,” I said, “perhaps you can tell me about its location. Where is it?”

Don Juan made a sweeping gesture and pointed to the area beyond the boundaries of the table.

He swept his hand, as if with the back of it he were cleaning an imaginary surface that went beyond the edges of the table.

“The nagual is there,” he said. “There, surrounding the island. The nagual is there, where power hovers.”

“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.”

“From the moment we become all tonal we begin making pairs. We sense our two sides, but we always represent them with items of the tonal. We say that the two parts of us are the soul and the body. Or mind and matter. Or good and evil. God and Satan. We never realize, however, that we are merely pairing things on the island, very much like pairing coffee and tea, or bread and tortillas, or chili and mustard. I tell you, we are weird animals. We get carried away and in our madness we believe ourselves to be making perfect sense.”

Don Juan stood up and addressed me as if he were an orator. He pointed his index finger at me and made his head shiver.

“Man doesn’t move between good and evil,” he said in a hilariously rhetorical tone, grabbing the salt and pepper shakers in both hands. “His true movement is between negativeness and positiveness.”

He dropped the salt and pepper and clutched a knife and fork.

“You’re wrong! There is no movement,” he continued as if he were answering himself. “Man is only mind!”

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