To someone who has never read Carlos Castaneda, the appearance of his new book, "The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of Don Juan," is likely to stir as much curiosity about the reasons for his popularity as about the contents of the book. His books about his spiritual apprenticeship with the Yaqui Indian shaman Don Juan have sold millions of copies all over the world. Castaneda has in the process become one of the godfathers of the New Age movement, which is influencing increasing numbers of people everywhere.
Castaneda's tales of the "warrior's" mystical search for mastery of spirit may appear to have nothing to do with contemporary life. But it seems no accident that he and other New Age thinkers have become popular at a time when traditional institutions are losing their authority to speak to the larger spiritual and moral issues that give meaning to life. In this sense, Castaneda's popularity is almost certainly connected to the reasons for the public's indifference to next year's presidential election.
It is not easy to say what "The Power of Silence" is about to people unfamiliar with Castaneda's books. The problem begins with language. Our normal language has developed to describe a world of objects, and we have no trouble agreeing on the meanings of words that describe objective things. Castaneda, however, wants to stretch the reader's perception of reality beyond objects to subjects; and since there is no such agreement about the subjective, our normal language has no words to accomplish his purpose. He explains this problem in the following terms:
"I understood that knowledge could not be turned into words. . . . It was there to be felt, to be used, but not to be explained. One would come into it by changing levels of awareness, therefore heightened awareness was an entrance. But even the entrance could not be explained. One could only make use of it."
Writing about the world of the spirit, the author therefore struggles to find words to describe unfamiliar things.
Don Juan teaches that all human beings are born with a finite quantity of "energy," which, in its arrangement, regulates how we perceive reality. The arrangement of energy depends on "the modality of the time." Man's mode of perception has changed over time. In the beginning, energy was arranged so that intuition and spirit provided the dominant modes of perception; over the ages, energy has been rearranged so that intuition and spirit now play smaller and smaller roles, and the mind today governs more and more of what we perceive. "Man," Castaneda writes, "gave up silent knowledge for the world of reason"--a giving up which Castaneda understands to be the meaning of Original Sin in Judeo-Christian terms. "Sorcery"--his word for knowledge of spirit--provides an opportunity for "going back to the beginning, a return to paradise."
Sorcery requires using energy differently than we normally do. "(W)hat you're learning," Don Juan sums up the purpose of his teaching, "is to save energy. And this energy will enable you to handle some of the energy fields that are inaccessible to you now. And that is sorcery: the ability to use energy fields that are not necessary for perceiving the ordinary world we know. Sorcery is a state of awareness. Sorcery is the ability to perceive something that ordinary perception cannot."
Learning requires working toward "three areas of expertise." These are "mastery of awareness," directed toward the mind; "the art of stalking," a riddle of the heart; and "mastery of intent," or spirit. In describing this system, Castaneda uses an unfamiliar and (to me) awkward language: Learning how to be a sorcerer or "nagual," prodded by "intent," requires moving the "point of brilliance" or "assemblage point," which controls the arrangement of energy and therefore perception. The purpose is to achieve mastery of intent or the "paradox of the abstract." Or "silent knowledge."
Since Castaneda cannot talk directly about Don Juan's teachings, the structure of the book is to relate six stories of past sorcerers, which illustrate the "abstract cores" of his spiritual lessons. A major purpose of these stories is to reveal how teachers try to break down their apprentices' traditional, "ordinary" ways of seeing in order to reveal a new reality--to show how many common emotions and feelings are not what they seem. Here is where the book is most difficult, if not impossible, reading for people who cannot accept what the author is trying to do. For instance, at one point, without warning, Don Juan feigns a minor stroke, brutally rejects Castaneda, and summons the police to arrest him. Moments later, he is well again and explains his purpose was to teach Castaneda "ruthlessness" ("the opposite of self-pity or self-importance"), which means only sobriety.
When Castaneda emphasizes the identity of sorcery and the pursuit of freedom, he goes to the heart of the modern dilemma. That dilemma results as the demand for individual freedom has weakened, if not destroyed, the traditional sources of authority and values, but without replacing those sources of purpose and identity that are essential to life. Put another way, the dilemma arises as our demands for self-expression push us at the same time to find connections outside and beyond the self. The difficulties in this task--joining the subjective need for self-expression with the objective world outside the self--explains the difficulties any author faces who wants to write about it. While Dostoevsky wrote more persuasively than any other modern writer about this problem of freedom and order, he did so with a detachment that only partially responds to the challenge of reaching us as subjects.
Castaneda, on the other hand, has succeeded in reaching enormous numbers of people by reaching out to the subjective. While some people may fear the subjective side of this effort, Don Juan's teaching appeals only to the sober, conscious side of the subjective. In this sense, he is strongly in tune with those New Age thinkers and humanistic psychologists who see the search for the self not as an end in itself, but as a modern form of the Greeks' search for self-knowledge, a search that can succeed only if it leads outside and beyond the self.
Many people dismiss Castaneda as a marginal thinker, little related to the major intellectual and spiritual issues of our age. But this is a mistake. Understanding what he is trying to do will explain why his following is so great--why he is addressing the central issues of our time.