Carlos Castaneda was an anthropology student who, in the nineteen sixties, undertook the task of trying to document and catalog medicinal plants used by various native Indian groups in Mexico, with a focus on plants which produced hallucinogenic effects in the subject.

This undertaking was soon derailed when Castaneda met Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian and self proclaimed sorcerer who decided to begin training Carlos in the ways of sorcery. Emotionally and spiritually unprepared for such a turn of events, Carlos was utterly overwhelmed by the charismatic Indian who through lucid description, practical demonstration and the use of hallucinogenic plant extracts, began to unmake both Carlos and Carlos' world.

Over the next thirty years, Carlos Castaneda wrote of his experiences in the world of sorcery.

Completely Unverified Personal Opinion #1: The success of Carlos' first book, (Teachings of Don Juan : A Yaqui Way of Knowledge), I believe, was due largely to the world's fascination with drug culture in the 60's. While it did not extol the virtues of 'tripping out', in the way that somebody like Timothy Leary did, Carlos' book lent great legitimacy to hallucinogenic drug use, going so far as to almost make it a noble pursuit. This, coupled with a concept of magic virtually unheard of in American culture at that time, the gems of wisdom presented, and Carlos' minimalist, smart and entertaining writing style, made his work extremely accessible to the trends of popular and intellectual thought of the 60's. It was the right book at the right time, and it went ballistic, selling millions of copies. While popular trends have moved on, such a saturation of Castaneda's first and subsequent books has had a significant and lasting effect on culture, cementing Castaneda's work as perhaps the most recognized in the western world in terms of esoteric study.

Completely Unverified Personal Opinion #2: It is extremely prudent, I think, to note that the use of hallucinogens was not the sum total of Indian Sorcery as described by Castaneda. It was pointed out that hallucinogenic drugs were used primarily in the early stages of training because Carlos was, "really dumb," and needed to be shocked out of his normal reality in order to accept that there may be more to the world than meets the eye. Once the reality of magic became accepted in Carlos, drug use stopped. The lion's share of a sorcerer's development, it was explained, could only be achieved with the clearest and most sober frames of mind.

Completely Unverified Personal Opinion #3: George Lucas' character of Yoda, in the Star Wars films, as well as the concept of 'The Force', seem to me both clearly to have been ripped almost directly from Castaneda's work. Lucas, having been in his teens or early twenties when Carlos' work first made its appearance, would almost certainly have been affected. Don Juan's descriptions of 'Power' are analogous with the 'Force' in nearly every way. --An exception being the pseudo-biology based explanation for the Force presented in the much later Star Wars installment, 'The Phantom Menace', a film generally agreed to be the weakest and least insightful entry in the otherwise universally popular series.

Completely Unverified Personal Opinion #4: Carlos' totally neurotic and disbelieving nature made him the perfect individual to write about the world of Sorcery. He burned his hands almost every time, and made nearly every possible mistake short of getting himself killed, and he wrote about it all with a fantastic degree of humility sparing himself no embarrassment. While traumatic and awkward for Carlos, his experiences are for this very reason, invaluable to the reader. It's all there; doubt, failure, realization and success.

The only people who seem to have trouble reading his work, (aside from those who are predisposed to dismissing, shying away from, or being openly hostile toward the concept of real magic), are those who already have a high degree of experience in the world of Sorcery. --And not just because it's all old news to them. A Shaman I spoke with described how it hurt and frustrated him to read through a sequence where Carlos detailed his early training as a hunter. In the Shaman's words, Carlos shamed himself through cowardice and ignorance when he, "broke the circle," by refusing to eat a rabbit he had successfully trapped, but due to his neurotic nature, had killed in an unintentional and undignified manner. While passages of this sort may be excruciating for people who hold deep reverence for such matters, those of us who grew up in the high-tech culture of suburban middle America can benefit enormously from such writing.

---The addendum text below was added July 6, 2003---

It has been a couple of years since I made the above entry, and during that time, I have learned more about Carlos and sorcery in general.

In Carlos' final book, "Being In Dreaming," he laid bare a very disturbing fact about Don Juan and his lineage of sorcerers. --The fact that the energy required to break the final barriers of perception, (the ultimate goal of the warrior in Don Juan's world), could not be attained alone through techniques of saving one's energy and the taking that of others. The only way, Carlos is told, that a sorcerer can acquire the energy necessary to transcend this reality, was to take energy from a specific type of creature living in a different world which exists on a specific focus of the assemblage point. --These beings and their world is reached primarily through the art of dreaming.

The problem is that this is a devil's bargain; the creatures of that world, called by Don Juan, the inorganic beings, essentially want to capture the body and soul of the would be sorcerer; to actually pull them out of this reality and into their own. Several of the students had been lost to this world, and Carlos himself very nearly vanished in this way.

In my own studies and travels, I have met sorcerers who know of the Inorganic Beings and their world, and who cry, "Yeah, I know that place, and I'm not stupid enough to go there! Carlos is nuts! Anybody with any sense stays away from that place."

"So then where does the energy come from which I have seen used, if not there." (I had observed at this point some fairly spectacular acts of sorcery.)

My contact explained, "Energy exists in abundance in this world, and you don't need to sell your soul to get it. It's easily found through the grounding meditation you have learned. All the energy a sorcerer could ever need is within the Earth itself. It's there for free, if only you put in the effort to acquire it."

"So why then did Don Juan not make use of this energy if it is so abundant?" I asked.

"He didn't know. Don Juan and his people were working in the Toltec ways, and the Toltecs did not discover these things. --Knowledge of the Earth's energy comes from the East where Chi has been studied in depth, but in different ways. Likewise, Don Juan and his lineage were aware of things and had techniques which the Chinese are blind to. This is why when the practitioners from the East meet with those of the West, there is such potential."

It has became much more clear since then why the people of power I have run into in my own searches displayed only halting respect and regard for Don Juan and his approach. There are many more than one way, and Don Juan's is particularly dangerous and, as some claim, unnecessary.

Some 'facts' about Carlos Casteneda and his works:
  • He received his doctorate in anthropology after submitting the texts of his first three published works as his thesis. Yes, just as you read them, that was what he got his doctorate for.

  • Although in Castaneda's books, Indian shamans smoke magic mushrooms, and the practice has passed into the psychedelic subculture as a means of consuming these, there is no known documented instance of this practice in a traditional shamanic setting. Instead, there are references to smoking mushrooms in order to preserve them, like you would smoke kippers. It's actually thought quite unlikely that, smoked, psilocybes have any (non-placebo) psychoactive effect, not least because they don't burn1.

  • A close study of the itineraries given in Casteneda's early works shows that both Don Juan and Carlos have no difficulties surviving for long periods in fierce conditions such that hardened explorers would not venture into them for more than one or two hours at a time.

  • Castaneda's supervisor for his PhD was none other than Harold Garfinkel, the sociologist who invented ethnomethodology, famous for his 'breaching experiments' where the experimenter flagrantly broke the rules of conventional behaviour in order to demonstrate the existence of those rules. (One wonders whether the granting of Castaneda's PhD was such an experiment, conducted on the academic community..)
This being said, I love the books (at least the early ones) but prefer to view them as major literary works rather than straightforward anthropology (or straightforward sorcery, for that matter.)


1. This is a contentious issue. It should be noted Castaneda is not claiming that the mushroooms do burn, but says that they are ingested as a fine powder, being drawn into the lungs with the rest of the smoking mixture. Here's one view of this:

[Castaneda] described the use and hallucinogenic effects of a smoking mixture consisting of dried mushrooms with the addition of other dried plants as sweeteners. The mushrooms were vaguely suggested to be a Psilocybe species, possibly P. mexicana. There are substantial scientific reasons to believe that these reports are not authentic but fictional. For instance, no voucher specimens are cited, and Schultes (pers. com.1991) was unable to ascertain from Castaneda whether voucher specimens had been collected. The suggestion that these mushrooms could have been P. mexicana must be refuted on the basis of their habitat (De Mille 1980). What is more, the smoking mixture is unlikely to have contained sufficient psilocybin to elicit the profound effects described by Castaneda. In addition, psilocybin is said to be largely degraded during smoking in a pipe, whereby its availability is further reduced by condensation and deposition on the inner surface of the bowl and stem of the pipe (Siegel 1981). In other words, if proper attention had been given immediately to dose and to way of administration, scientific doubts about the authenticity of Castaneda's accounts would have arisen sooner.
- Considerations in the Multidisciplinary Approach to the Study of Ritual Hallucinogenic Plants, Peter A. G. M. De Smet, From Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline. ISBN 0-931146-28-3

But of course this emanates from the very same 'rigorous', 'scientific' approach that Castaneda mocked so in his works.

On June 22 The Los Angeles Times reported that Carlos Castaneda the best-selling author of 10 books on shamanism and Toltec sorcery died of liver cancer on April 27, 1998.

Castaneda's body was reportedly cremated and his remains were spirited away to Mexico. A spokesperson representing Castaneda's literary agent said the author had "evanescenced," dissappearing like mist in the same way as his teacher Don Juan did in 1973.

Cleargreen, a marketing company Castaneda set up released a statement emphasizing the inability of "everyday life" to provide a description of "crossing over to total freedom."

"Much of the Castaneda mystique is based on the fact that even his closes friends aren't sure who he is," wrote his ex-wife Margret Runyan Castaneda in a 1997 memoir. Castaneda's death certificate listed him as "never married." Other oddities include controversy over the exact date and location of Castaneda's birth and his refusal to be photographed or recorded.

"Since I'm a moron I'm sure I'll die," he was quoted once. In another interview in 1997 he said, "There is nothing to Carlos Castaneda. Personality is a pretense. Fame? Success? Who gives a (expletive)."

Castaneda met Don Juan in an Arizona Greyhound station in 1961 while doing fieldwork for a Ph.D. in anthropology at UCLA. His first book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge was based on his apprenticeship with Don Juan and was released in 1968.

However his novels were widely believed to be fiction. Author Joyce Carol Oates said in 1972: "There are beautifully constructed. The dialogue is faultless. The character of Don Juan is unforgettable. There is novelistic momentum." Such criticisms have discredited Castaneda in academia. Castaneda himself declared, "I invented nothing. I'm not insane, you know. Well maybe a little insane."

another episode of: node your old homework

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