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74: The World is a Description

(Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda)

For the purpose of presenting my argument I must first explain the basic premise of sorcery as don Juan presented it to me. He said that for a sorcerer, the world of everyday life is not real, or out there, as we believe it is. For a sorcerer, reality, or the world we all know, is only a description.

For the sake of validating this premise don Juan concentrated the best of his efforts into leading me to a genuine conviction that what I held in mind as the world at hand was merely a description of the world; a description that had been pounded into me from the moment I was born.

He pointed out that everyone who comes into contact with a child is a teacher who incessantly describes the world to him, until the moment when the child is capable of perceiving the world as it is described. According to don Juan, we have no memory of that portentous moment, simply because none of us could possibly have had any point of reference to compare it to anything else. From that moment on, however, the child is a member. He knows the description of the world; and his membership becomes full-fledged, I suppose, when he is capable of making all the proper perceptual interpretations which, by conforming to that description, validate it.

For don Juan, then, the reality of our day-to-day life consists of an endless flow of perceptual interpretations which we, the individuals who share a specific membership, have learned to make in common.

The idea that the perceptual interpretations that make up the world have a flow is congruous with the fact that they run uninterruptedly and are rarely, if ever, open to question. In fact, the reality of the world we know is so taken for granted that the basic premise of sorcery, that our reality is merely one of many descriptions, could hardly be taken as a serious proposition.

Fortunately, in the case of my apprenticeship, don Juan was not concerned at all with whether or not I could take his proposition seriously, and he proceeded to elucidate his points, in spite of my opposition, my disbelief, and my inability to understand what he was saying. Thus, as a teacher of sorcery, don Juan endeavored to describe the world to me from the very first time we talked. My difficulty in grasping his concepts and methods stemmed from the fact that the units of his description were alien and incompatible with those of my own.

His contention was that he was teaching me how to see as opposed to merely “looking”, and that stopping the world was the first step to seeing.

For years I had treated the idea of stopping the world as a cryptic metaphor that really did not mean anything. It was only during an informal conversation that took place towards the end of my apprenticeship that I came fully to realize its scope and importance as one of the main propositions of don Juan’s knowledge.


“Everything I have told you to do was a technique for stopping the world.”

A few months after that conversation don Juan accomplished what he had set out to do, to teach me to stop the world.

That monumental event in my life compelled me to re-examine in detail my work of ten years. It became evident to me that my original assumption about the role of psychotropic plants was erroneous. They were not the essential feature of the sorcerer’s description of the world, but were only an aid to cement, so to speak, parts of the description which I had been incapable of perceiving otherwise. My insistence on holding on to my standard version of reality rendered me almost deaf and blind to don Juan’s aims. Therefore, it was simply my lack of sensitivity which had fostered their use.

In reviewing the totality of my field notes I became aware that don Juan had given me the bulk of the new description at the very beginning of our association in what he called “techniques for stopping the world”. I had discarded those parts of my field notes in my earlier works because they did not pertain to the use of psychotropic plants. I have now rightfully reinstated them in the total scope of don Juan’s teachings and they comprise the first seventeen chapters of this work.

The last three chapters are the field notes covering the events that culminated in my stopping the world. In summing up I can say that when I began the apprenticeship, there was another reality, that is to say, there was a sorcery description of the world, which I did not know.

Don Juan, as a sorcerer and a teacher, taught me that description. The ten-year apprenticeship I have undergone consisted, therefore, in setting up that unknown reality by unfolding its description, adding increasingly more complex parts as I went along.

The termination of the apprenticeship meant that I had learned a new description of the world in a convincing and authentic manner and thus I had become capable of eliciting a new perception of the world, which matched its new description. In other words, I had gained membership.

Don Juan stated that in order to arrive at seeing one first had to stop the world. Stopping the world was indeed an appropriate rendition of certain states of awareness in which the reality of everyday life is altered because the flow of interpretation, which ordinarily runs uninterruptedly, has been stopped by a set of circumstances alien to that flow. In my case the set of circumstances alien to my normal flow of interpretations was the sorcery description of the world. Don Juan’s precondition for stopping the world was that one had to be convinced; in other words, one had to learn the new description in a total sense, for the purpose of pitting it against the old one, and in that way break the dogmatic certainty, which we all share, that the validity of our perceptions, or our reality of the world, is not to be questioned.

After stopping the world the next step was seeing. By that don Juan meant what I would like to categorize as responding to the perceptual solicitations of a world outside the description we have learned to call reality.”

My contention is that all these steps can only be understood in terms of the description to which they belong; and since it was a description that he endeavored to give me from the beginning, I must then let his teachings be the only source of entrance into it. Thus, I have left don Juan’s words to speak for themselves.


(Tales of Power)

His statement threw me into a state of great intellectual excitation. For a while I forgot the prowling moth or even to take notes. I tried to rephrase his statements and we involved ourselves in a long discussion about the reflexive nature of our world. The world, according to don Juan, had to conform to its description; that is, the description reflected itself.

Another point in his elucidation was that we had learned to relate ourselves to our description of the world in terms of what he called “habits.”


“That’s the flaw with words,” he said in an assuring tone. “They always force us to feel enlightened, but when we turn around to face the world they always fail us and we end up facing the world as we always have, without enlightenment. For this reason, a sorcerer seeks to act rather than to talk and to this effect he gets a new description of the world — a new description where talking is not that important, and where new acts have new reflections.”


“Think of this,” he went on. “The world doesn’t yield to us directly, the description of the world stands in between. So, properly speaking, we are always one step removed and our experience of the world is always a recollection of the experience. We are perennially recollecting the instant that has just happened, just passed. We recollect, recollect, recollect.”

He turned his hand over and over to give me the feeling of what he meant.

“If our entire experience of the world is recollection, then it’s not so outlandish to conclude that a sorcerer can be in two places at once. This is not the case from the point of view of his own perception, because in order to experience the world, a sorcerer, like every other man, has to recollect the act he has just performed, the event he has just witnessed, the experience he has just lived. In his awareness there is only a single recollection. But for an outsider looking at the sorcerer it may appear as if the sorcerer is acting two different episodes at once. The sorcerer, however, recollects two separate single instants, because the glue of the description of time is no longer binding him.”


“What is don Genaro doing in this?”

“That subject is not in your realm yet,” he said. “Today I have to pound the nail that Genaro put in, the fact that we are luminous beings. We are perceivers. We are an awareness; we are not objects; we have no solidity. We are boundless. The world of objects and solidity is a way of making our passage on earth convenient. It is only a description that was created to help us. We, or rather our reason, forget that the description is only a description and thus we entrap the totality of ourselves in a vicious circle from which we rarely emerge in our lifetime.”

“At this moment, for instance, you are involved in extricating” yourself from the snarls of reason. It is preposterous and unthinkable for you that Genaro just appeared at the edge of the chaparral, and yet you cannot deny that you witnessed it. You perceived it as such.”

Don Juan chuckled. He carefully drew another diagram in the ashes and covered it with his hat before I could copy it.

“We are perceivers,” he proceeded. “The world that we perceive, though, is an illusion. It was created by a description that was told to us since the moment we were born.”

“We, the luminous beings, are born with two rings of power, but we use only one to create the world. That ring, which is hooked very soon after we are born, is reason, and its companion is talking. Between the two they concoct and maintain the world.”

“So, in essence, the world that your reason wants to sustain is the world created by a description and its dogmatic and inviolable rules, which the reason learns to accept and defend.”

“The secret of the luminous beings is that they have another ring of power which is never used, the will. The trick of the sorcerer is the same trick of the average man. Both have a description; one, the average man, upholds it with his reason; the other, the sorcerer, upholds it with his will. Both descriptions have their rules and the rules are perceivable, but the advantage of the sorcerer is that will is more engulfing than reason.”

“The suggestion that I want to make at this point is that from now on you should let yourself perceive whether the description is upheld by your reason or by your will. I feel that is the only way for you to use your daily world as a challenge and a vehicle to accumulate enough personal power in order to get to the totality of yourself.”


“Once the apprentice has been hooked, the instruction begins,” he continued. “The first act of a teacher is to introduce the idea that the world we think we see is only a view, a description of the world. Every effort of a teacher is geared to prove this point to his apprentice. But accepting it seems to be one of the hardest things one can do; we are complacently caught in our particular view of the world, which compels us to feel and act as if we knew everything about the world. A teacher, from the very first act he performs, aims at stopping that view. Sorcerers call it stopping the internal dialogue, and they are convinced that it is the single most important technique that an apprentice can learn.

“In order to stop the view of the world which one has held since the cradle, it is not enough to just wish or make a resolution. One needs a practical task; that practical task’s called the right way of walking. It seems harmless and nonsensical. As everything else which has power in itself or by itself, the right way of walking does not attract attention. You understood it and regarded it, at least for several years, as a curious way of behaving. It didn’t dawn on you until very recently that that was the most effective way to stop your internal dialogue.”


Sorcerers say that we are inside a bubble. It is a bubble into which we are placed at the moment of our birth. At first the bubble is open, but then it begins to close until it has sealed us in. That bubble is our perception. We live inside that bubble all of our lives. And what we witness on its round walls is our own reflection.”

He lowered his head and looked at me askance. He giggled.

“You’re goofing,” he said. “You’re supposed to raise a point here.”

I laughed. Somehow his warnings about the sorcerers’ explanation plus the realization of the awesome range of his awareness had finally begun to take their toll on me.

“What was the point I was supposed to raise?” I asked.

“If what we witness on the walls is our own reflection, then the thing that’s being reflected must be the real thing,” he said, smiling.

“That’s a good point,” I said in a joking tone.

My reason could easily follow that argument.

“The thing reflected is our view of the world,” he said. “That view is first a description, which is given to us from the moment of our birth until all our attention is caught by it and the description becomes a view.”

“The teacher’s task is to rearrange the view, to prepare the luminous being for the time when the benefactor opens the bubble from the outside.”


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