From chapter 18, “The Don Miguel Interview”
I was supposed to take the Sahara exit, but there was no Sahara exit. There was, but it was blocked by construction, the signs were down, and I didn’t see it. I was on I-15 north, rocketing through Las Vegas early on a Sunday morning, having driven from Topanga to Barstow the night before. My mission was to interview best-selling author and shaman don Miguel Ruiz, and what the hell was a shaman doing in the American Gomorrah anyway?
Here’s what I knew already. One night in the late 1970s, don Miguel, then a young Mexican surgeon, fell asleep at the wheel of his car and crashed it into a concrete retaining wall. He lay near death for some days and had that near-death experience of being out of his body. He saw himself from another vantage point, hovering above it.
But if he saw his body, where was he when he saw it? And if he was not his body, what was he?
The last of thirteen children, don Miguel had grown up in rural Mexico and came from a line of curanderos. His mother, Sarita, was such a healer.
Although she’d taught him as a child, he’d resisted the ancient tradition and had become a physician. After the accident, he began to study again with Sarita, and she apprenticed him to a powerful nagual (nah-hwal), a sorcerer in the Toltec tradition.
Don Miguel writes self-help books, teaches seminars, and trains Toltec naguales. His students range from old hippies to academics and professionals who have never before deviated from the approved career path. His work has spread nationwide and worldwide through the popularity of his books, principally The Four Agreements.
Carlos Castaneda popularized Toltec sorcery with his series of twelve books. Castaneda’s teacher, an old brujo named don Juan Matus, made his home in a shack, rambled in the desert, and lived a carefully, deliberately anonymous life. Castaneda also stayed out of the public eye, mostly.
In contrast, don Miguel has a website (miguelruiz.com) on which he advertises “power journeys” to Teotihuacán in Mexico, to Machu Picchu in Peru, to the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, to the Haleakala volcano on Maui. There are links for “wisdom groups” and for “mentors.” There is a discussion of something called the Sixth Sun Foundation. This is about as far as you can get from rambling in the desert with an old Indian sorcerer.
Was this guy just a jumped-up tour guide? Was he a con man? Was it possible that he could be both and still be legitimate? Words like nagual are ever so slippery. Bottom line, I wasn’t sure if he was real or not, and I was not entirely sure what, in this context, the word real meant.
If I could interview him, I would test him, explore his mind.
But I had to find him first. I pulled off the freeway, hung a left under it, and pulled back on, going the other way, heading for the south part of Vegas, dodging in and out of traffic. Nope, no Sahara Exit. Maybe I hadn’t gone far enough north. I turned around again. Soon I was in North Las Vegas. I pulled off and parked by a gas station and convenience store.
With a Styrofoam cup of coffee, I sat down at a sheet metal café table inside the store and went over my map and notes. Luckily, I had started early, to allow for screw-ups, because . . . I was in an M. C. Escher map of hell. Did the Hotel California have a casino?
No question about it, Sahara Boulevard was somewhere between the southern and northern city limits of Las Vegas. I had to go back again.
The gas station was beside a railroad track, actually about ten railroad tracks, and a bunch of warehouses, paralleling the highway. A long freight train crept across the desert to within twenty feet of me. I stopped to examine the cars. There was something like a hundred of them.
Many years before my then love Cindy and I planned a trip to Newfoundland, but we weren’t sure we could pull it off. She suggested we look for Canadian National Railroad cars as an omen. She had used the same omen when she and her girlfriend Donna, the one we were going to visit, had gone there the summer before. We saw some, and we made the trip.
After we got back, CN cars became our good luck omen. They never failed either of us.
Over time, she and I developed a complete method for divining from railroad cars. CN was good luck; Canadian Pacific meant a change, not necessarily good or bad. Union Pacific meant your relationship would go well. The Southern Railroad was easy because their motto is “Gives a Green Light to Innovations.” Soldiers and martial artists wear cotton belts, so Cotton Belt means a hard fight. I saw a whole railroad yard full of Cotton Belt cars just before I moved from New York to LA and, boy, was that prophetic!
Burlington Northern means hard work. Central Virginia threw me for a while because the logo is the same style as CN. Then I realized. It heralds something that looks like good luck but isn’t.
My Spanish pretty much stops at mas cervesa, por favor, but since Santa Fe is the most common freight car, I wondered what that meant. Santa means “saint” but Saint Fay? Not likely. Then one day, driving beside the tracks and trains paralleling I-25 in Denver going to Boulder, it hit me. Santa doesn’t just mean saint; it means “holy.” And auto de fe from the Spanish Inquisition means “act of faith.”
Santa Fe. Holy Faith.
Running at 70 mph in heavy traffic, I laughed so hard my eyes teared and the car swerved. Hundreds of Santa Fe cars, thousands of them, everywhere. What a message!
Of course, this railroad car thing is crazy. I love it for that alone. Who wouldn’t want a wild card dimension to his life, without the downsides that go with flagrant substance abuse or criminal behavior? Far better to be just a little nuts.
So here I was, parked, lost, by a railroad track next to a major freeway, where no one could possibly be lost, scanning a passing freight train. There were four Canadian National Railroad cars, four Canadian Pacific cars, four Union Pacifics--which didn’t pertain to the situation at hand but was reassuring anyway--one BN, and all the rest were Santa Fes. I whooped. A big permanent positive change, with some work involved, was coming to my life. I hadn’t been lost. I had been directed to find this omen, to learn that what was coming was big.
Now, where the hell was that shaman?
I arrived at don Miguel’s apartment with five minutes to spare.
He lived in a high-rise in a gated community in the heart of Las Vegas. I parked between a Ferrari and a Jaguar convertible and went in. Pushing open the glass doors, I passed a couple of blue-haired ladies in the lobby and took the elevator to the twelfth floor.
I rang his bell. He opened the door. Before me stood a short, slender, Mexican in his early fifties, in gray slacks and a maroon velour pullover. I met his gaze. Looking into Miguel’s eyes is like drowning in warm honey. All my doubts disappeared before he opened his mouth.
He grabbed me in a hug. I was astonished. This was not something we did in my crowd.
We took seats in his living room. It was severely modern, with glass shelves and tabletops at varying heights, back wall of the dining room open to the sunlight, and, from this angle, the desert beyond. The effect was of being in a silver maze.
I set up my tape recorder and then asked, “How did you become a Toltec shaman?”
Don Miguel smiled. His voice was low and soft, accented, but with each word pronounced so carefully that understanding was never a problem.
“Well, it’s a family tradition, really. My mother is a great healer. She’s ninety-five years old now, and I started to learn from her when I was still a child. Her father, my grandfather, don Leonardo, he was a powerful nagual too. Leonardo Macias. His father, don Eziquio, was also a great nagual. He lived to 117 years.
“I didn’t meet my great-grandfather. I only heard all those great stories about him. I think he was the first nagual in the lineage, in the family. And from him you can trace all the way back to the Mexicas, whom you call the Aztecs.”
“Who were the Toltecs?”
“Well, the Toltecs, the name Toltec means ‘artist.’ A Toltec is an artist, not really a nation. History and anthropology think they were a nation. They have a very strong influence in Mexico. They started more than three thousand years ago, built the pyramids of Teotihuacán twenty-five hundred years ago. It’s a way of living. It comes from what I call just common sense, available to everybody. But very few have the fortune to learn it.”
“I liked your book, The Four Agreements,” I said. “I wonder if any of your students have told you ways the book helped them?”
“All the time. I receive a lot of mail from Europe, a lot of mail from the United States, and also from Latin America, from everywhere, really. You know, to write this book, it was a big challenge, to make it very simple and easy and short enough that anyone can read it, can understand it and apply it. To put it in action, that is the key of the book. That everybody can put it in action and see the difference that makes in their lives.
“When they understand what the book says, they start taking action, and right away they start seeing changes in their lives, until they reach a certain point. They’re stuck at that point, and that’s the time to read the book again. Then, it’s like they’re reading another book because all the limitations that they used to have, they have already dissolved, and they reach another point. They have another ‘aha!’ And they start shifting again.
“You find out after you read it that you knew all that. It’s something that you knew since you were a child. But for whatever reason, it all shifted, was distorted. When you read that book, little by little you discover that you are not really what you think you are. You are much, much better than that.”
“Do you know how many copies of this book have been sold?”
“More than three million. And the beautiful part is that mainly it’s word of mouth. It’s true that Oprah read it and gave it a big boost. But whoever reads it, right away they think of the people they love, so it keeps growing in that way.”
“I get the impression that your more popular books--The Four Agreements, The Mastery of Love, The Voice of Knowledge--are for regular folks. But you seem to be on a double track here in that you’re training people in Toltec nagualism; you’re teaching apprentices.”
“Yes, I teach what I call dreaming. I have a whole dream school, and there are teachers there who teach the others.”
I was curious as to how what he called dreaming related to other spiritual practices.
“My sister, she’s a magical person. She used to do what she called astral traveling. I couldn’t do it. But I do write fiction. My feeling is that when you write fiction, that you are dreaming.”
“Yes, you are dreaming. Certainly, right now. Certainly, all the time.”
“That part’s true,” I said. “This is a level of dreaming. And that’s another level of Dreams.”
He shook his head. “The way your sister approaches it is a different way than you do. You just don’t know that you are dreaming, and you call it your imagination. That you write science fiction, or whatever you write, is in your imagination. And it’s true that you are traveling into a virtual reality that is real. Because everything here is just a virtual reality that is happening in your brain. It’s not exactly true.”
“So, this world is a screen, and we’re just running our movies on it.”
“And what you’re teaching is how to put a happy ending on it.”
“That’s exactly the direction that a dream master has. You know, like I told you before, the word Toltec means ‘artist.’ And the art that we practice, really, is the art of dreams. As with every art, we enjoy the art. That’s why we do it.
“You know, your whole life is really a story that you create. And that includes your parents, your brother. It’s true that they exist. Yes, your father exists. But in the story that you create, you give them . . . they become characters in your story. It doesn’t mean that they are what you believe.” He smiled, assayed my soul with those eyes, cocked his head.
“In your story your father is a certain way. Your mother is a certain way. That’s what you believe, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s only true in your story. If you compare notes, you will find out your father is not what you believe he is. Your mother is not what you believe she is. Your children are not what you believe they are.
“And even going a little deeper, you find out that you are not what you believe you are. This is a place in dreams when your whole reality starts coming apart. What you believed you are is not what you are but what you pretended to be for so long.”