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.