The son of don Miguel Ruiz, author of the world-renowned The Four Agreements, don Jose Ruiz is a New York Times bestselling author and a shaman in the Ancient Native Mexican wisdom. don Jose combines ancient wisdom from his upbringing with modern insights for the landscape of today and has dedicated his life to sharing Toltec wisdom by translating it into practical, everyday life concepts that promote transformation through truth, love, and common sense. He is the author of The Wisdom of the Shamans, co-author of The Fifth Agreement, and has most recently written The Medicine Bag: Shamanic Rituals & Ceremonies for Personal Transformation. don Jose also travels the United States and the world teaching his message of faith, love, gratitude, and humility.
In his newest book, don Jose expounds on the shamanic belief in the power of rituals and ceremonies to manifest change and personal transformation in the physical world. This how-to guide instructs readers to perform their own ceremonies and rituals, and also explains how we can create our own power objects and animal totems for use in recapitulation, soul retrieval, and dream training.
Face the Current was honored to have another moving exchange with don Jose as we learned more about his latest book and the continuing Toltec lessons of living our authentic lives, healing past wounds, and waking up to the power of forgiveness.
Sasha Frate: Congratulations on your new book, The Medicine Bag: Shamanic Rituals & Ceremonies for Personal Transformation—it’s really exciting! It’s as if in your previous books, The Fifth Agreement, and The Wisdom of the Shamans, you shared your wisdom and led readers to the tools in The Medicine Bag that they need to put everything into practice. It was really fun to read and I’d love to have you share some of it with Face the Current.
don Jose Ruiz: Yes, thank you. It’s made me very happy to share the wisdom of my elders, especially the ceremonies and various traditions. It’s a beautiful thing to share and has been especially special to relive everything. The Medicine Bag shares that it’s about what’s in the readers’ heart. Whatever they hold sacred in their own tradition(s), that’s the way to go.
SF: That’s wonderful! Can you describe the difference between a physical and an inner medicine bag?
dJR: In the tradition, we realize that before there are any temples, pyramids, or sacred spots, it all starts within us. We need to open our minds so they can be conscious of our hearts. Before you can find the sacred in an object, you have to first have it sacred in your heart. When you do that you open a vortex to shine light from within you.
SF: How can the medicine bag itself evolve?
dJR: Well, it evolves through time. Let’s say that there’s a marriage in our medicine bag that was a happy marriage, but then both people grew up and apart. There might be a wedding ring that was dear to us in the medicine bag. But something happened; people grow up, the relationship end, and it becomes sour. That can become painful, but it can become the past when we’re ready to let go. So, the medicine evolves in that you can take pieces out of the medicine bag. This is the beautiful thing about life: we all grow, we all hold onto something sacred, but there comes a point when we can release it. But you don’t have to let go of anything you don’t want to.
If you travel to sacred places and find powerful objects, you can create a memory and put it in your medicine bag. When we travel, we collect beautiful memories that feed our heart and our hearts are sacred. The moment we begin seeing no differences between all traditions and we can put our love into our own sacred objects, that’s how we grow because that’s what our heart is meant to do—expand and grow.
SF: Do you think that you can gift someone a medicine bag, or does it have to be curated with one’s own intention and intuition?
dJR: Well, in my tradition there are two types of medicine bags. One is given to us from our teacher when we are ready. When they honor you with that gift, it’s because they know that you’re ready to pass on the tradition, the lineage, or the wisdom. The other medicine bag is the one that we collect; the one that comes from us. It’s the one that we build in our lifetime that maybe we will pass on to the next generation in the future.
SF: Can you share a few examples of what’s inside your medicine bag?
dJR: Yes, I have two medicine bags. I have one medicine bag that my grandmother gave me when she initiated me into the Toltec tradition to become a healer. She said the true healer is the one that heals from his own life, so she got a crystal with olive oil, she cleansed me, and she put it inside of a bag. I have that bag in the altar next to her ashes and her memorial and I hold that there. I have another medicine bag that I continue putting things into from my travels around the world. It’s a turtle bag that I found twenty years ago. I put bandanas in it, sand, dirt from where my father had a heart attack in Hawaii; everything that I hold sacred.
All the little pieces are a reflection of my mind because I’ve been collecting pieces and memories wherever I go. It’s like collecting power objects and their information, their inner wisdom, salient knowledge about the world and the power-places that I’ve visited. I receive a message in each power-place. When I receive a message, I get an object—it could be a crystal, a little statue of a puma, a snake—that fits into my medicine bag. I also leave my turtle bag at my altar—I have a big altar!
SF: It sounds like it! Why do you say that healing is what makes lasting change possible? And what are a few examples of Toltec tools that promote this type of healing?
dJR: The first is to be aware when we need to heal, because we cannot heal if we go with blind faith. If we’re in the mentality that we don’t need to or can’t be healed, we will never change. But the moment that we’re tired of living a dream—that we know that this ghost-town is not where we belong anymore, that it’s just taking away our inspiration and motivation—we lose inspiration. When we begin living that way, the healing part of our heart wakes up and it reflects to us that we’re not happy and that we need to make a change.
In that moment, the mind becomes loyal to the heart. In the Toltec tradition, it’s not about learning but rather unlearning what takes away our inspiration. That’s the healing part. The whole purpose of this healing is to have our conscience clean. We can be physically sick, but that won’t stop us from opening our heart and being true to what we really are, because this body is lent to us.
This is the vision we have in life; we all have a garden to heal and to take care of. Our mind sends a message to our heart and makes us really feel. What makes us heavy? What makes us irritated? What makes us unhappy? If we aren’t true with our heart, no change is going to happen. But, when we begin being true to ourselves, we begin being true to the whole world wherever we go because we’re living in truth now. Truth is what’s behind the stories that make peace with everything. When you make peace with everything, you confront fear, because fear is an energy that deserves respect. It tells us what we need to work on! Pain is also energy that deserves respect because it tells us what to heal. When we confront this energy without fear, then we’re ready to heal.
SF: We say that changing ourselves and healing ourselves can actually heal and improve the world, which for some people may sound a little bit exaggerated. How is it possible to really impact the whole world, and how do you believe that this is in fact true?
dJR: Well, we can resist everything. We can resist and support the lie that we cannot change the world, but just imagine: by changing our heart and mind, we create an energy inside of us that is contagious and we begin to spread this happiness instead of poison. For example, it is like going to the doctor’s for a vaccination shot. Could you imagine putting the syringe of you and me—of the way that we live and we want to live in heaven on earth—into planet earth as an injection? We’re injecting a good vibration into planet earth. When we are injected into Mother Earth, now she has an antivirus to go against the negativity, the pain, and the lies, because we’re walking our truths and our authentic selves. (This is what many people are afraid of—being their authentic selves. They like to pretend and live a lie and lying is the foundation of living in hell and living in suffering.) So, if we change the way we think, and put it into action instead, it will be a transformation.)
Just imagine: we complain, we put people down, and we judge; it’s contagious. It spreads hate. It’s like when people look at magazines and believe they’re not pretty or good enough. When you know that you’re beautiful, and you’re pretty just the way you are because you’re Divine Mother’s child, you begin to wake up. That’s the beautiful thing that we can do when we are injected like an antivirus into Mother Earth.
Many people might say that’s just the ego being selfish. But if you don’t begin with yourself, how can you give anything to somebody else? The moment that you give to yourself is the holy grail that they talk about and it begins to pour. That’s what we’re offering—the pour of our love. Honesty is how we heal ourselves, and that can become a way of life or a tradition that can then become a trend. But the beautiful thing about truth is it never goes out of style.
SF: That’s true and it resonates with everybody; it’s like a positive gossip-effect of spreading the story, the good feeling, the good energy, and the truth. Many cultures have traditions for rituals and ceremonies, and you’ve even said that we all have a simple everyday ritual, just like brushing our teeth. You provide a lot of ceremony and ritual practices in The Medicine Bag; why do you believe that ritual and ceremony are so important?
DJR: Because, it’s an act of love. When we perform an act of love, we release energy with our body and mind. When we perform this ritual and ceremony, it’s like we’re giving birth to ourselves.
Also, the power of prayer is important. Yes, we may think about something and have an intent, but the moment that we get the incense or the smoke for prayer, now we’re actually letting something come out of ourselves. That is the whole point of ceremony and ritual—to be the vessel, to be the instrument, to find the channel to be open so we can feel the magic of the infinite. It’s about the magic of inspiration; the magic of what opens our heart to create a story to share. When we share that story, it becomes a ceremony and ritual where many people can gather together in agreement to open their hearts together. We make a circle and dance to the beat of the music under the moonlight, and that right there is a beautiful ceremony.
When the body is in action in a ceremony, it becomes the moving vehicle that creates the ripple of love. There is something strong about many people getting together to share what they believe in.
When we carry out ceremonies as individuals, sometimes we’re not even aware. For example, we wake in the morning and have a shower, we brush our teeth, and we eat food. They are not religious, but those are all ceremonies because they are about spirit, being open, and living life. The moment we do everything with love and respect is the moment an act becomes ceremony.
SF: The common morning ritual that has taken over for a lot of people is to wake up, grab your phone to turn off the alarm, and see all your notifications. You then dive into that—and maybe even some emails—as you’re still waking up with your coffee or tea. How do you see this modern ritual having an effect on us?
dJR: It’s beautiful because we live in modern times. The positive side of it is that modern media has sped up communication.—information is traveling faster than ever before, and that’s where we live now.
Imagine an eyes-open meditation and seeing your phone—you’re seeing a full dream, like a river streaming past. If you see bad or painful news, you’ll feel your heart reaching out, but at the same time, because you’re consciously awake and meditating with the eyes open, you know where you can heal.
The thing is not to be afraid or to judge where we’re at. We should not put down our current times. My brother Michael said people like to judge others for being on their phones now, but 100 years ago, people were judged for having their faces in newspapers when they rode the train. Before that, people were judged for reading in public. We grow from the source of our lessons. Now we can find education and information on our phones. The important thing is not to lose yourself in that world because it’s just another dream. Do everything with love and ritual, because it is beautiful and meant to be. If I read something painful in the news, it shows me where the earth needs healing and how I can help to serve it. That inspires our heart to give medicine.
SF: You describe the modern social construct as very linear in nature, where we’re encouraged to constantly progress onto the next thing in our lives with each step promising happiness. Yet, lasting happiness is not typical with this linear view of life. What is different about the Toltec tradition that shifts past the linear and views life in terms of cycles?
dJR: One of the beautiful things that we know about life is that we’re not happy all the time; the body has moods and that’s the first Toltec rule of happiness. Why? So, when that heavy moment comes in, we take out our umbrella to cover and protect ourselves from the rain and thunder. That’s how we begin to protect ourselves from our own thoughts that happen when we are unhappy because it’s just a matter of time until the body becomes happy again.
The moment that you begin seeing the truth, you begin seeing your habits: “Oh here it comes again; this day keeps getting worse and I’m reacting again.” We have to get comfortable in the uncomfortable. When we see the habits we want to break, the unhappiness will set in. The habits of self-judgment, pity, or other negative emotions come in with the unhappiness. We cannot control what happens outside of ourselves, but we can control how we confront it, and deal with it—there we have a choice. We don’t want to let negativity run all over us and uninspire us simply because we gave into it and believed the lies.
We need to unlearn the illusions that don’t serve us anymore and let them go, because one day we’re not going to physically be here—not even in our own temple of the mind—so why waste time? This is when we begin to see the beauty in life and that’s where we break our bad habits. It’s the resurrection of the embodiment of love; it’s a rebirth and a second opportunity to be awakened and live life. There are so many ways to explain it in different cultures and religions, but the thing is that we have another opportunity to enjoy our life.
SF: I really loved your explanation of it in your book! It’s so true that we think in linear terms and that sets us up to feel like we’ve failed if we don’t make it to the next step. Even with relationships that run their own cycles, we feel like we’ve failed if they end as opposed to just accepting that they ran their own cycle. It’s okay to move to the next new cycle and opportunity. I think that really has potential to be a huge shift in terms of seeing our life-process as cyclical.
dJR: Yes, it’s like the jaguar medicine knows the jaguar cannot control the jungle. If the jaguar tries to control the jungle, it loses its peace because it will be at war with the jungle. The jungle can be seen as the mind and the jaguar is here to serve the jungle and everything in it. In other words, life is life; we’re going to feel it. Many people try to meditate for a long time to not feel anything anymore, but we cannot stop the body from feeling and talking to us just like you can’t muzzle a puppy; it has to bark to express itself. We have to let our body express itself, because that’s how it communicates with the mind. The heart might say, “I’m not happy; it’s time to leave this relationship; it’s time to leave this workplace; it’s time to leave this dream; it’s time to wake up.” When the mind is ready to serve the heart, we can really enjoy this life.
SF: Speaking of waking up, you state that many people are unconsciously creating in their lives as though they’re painting in their sleep. With the human mind that constantly dreams, unconscious living tends to result in a mind that overflows with regrets of the past, fears of the future, and/or negative judgements. How do these ancient tools and practices really help people to wake up?
dJR: It’s all about honesty because if we don’t live in honesty, we’re living a lie and pretending. Our personal parasites will invade our minds like a Trojan horse again and again until we deal with them. We need to say, “Hey, there’s nothing to hurt here anymore because I am you. I don’t need to hurt myself or anyone else anymore.” What’s the point in pretending? Pretending only lets us live with a mask and that is a life of suffering because you can never express your beauty and your light. They must be expressed because that’s who you are! If you live without self-judgment, the world will accept you as you are. Why give energy to that inner judge or the outside world?
We must have respect for other people’s hearts as well as our own. You don’t need to debate your own heart with anyone. The ego is the thing that wants to debate for validation and that can lead you to self-betrayal because you’re only seeking outside approval. “Those people” are other people that we use to hurt ourselves. It’s not even them, it’s us. There will be times when people are negative and scream at us or judge us. Just remember that they’re only asking for help because now we can totally understand the second agreement and not take things personally. It really has nothing to do with us, they’re just inviting us to hurt ourselves with their pain. We must love ourselves so much that we don’t do it. That’s why honesty and truth in a relationship is our biggest ally. That is the biggest medicine in the medicine tool bag—respect for ourselves and others.
SF: Jose, the Toltec tradition describes two different types of dreams of the human state: the personal dream and the dream of the planet. Can you describe the difference between the two?
dJR: The personal dream is everything that I’ve experienced, and the dream of the planet holds the history of what I should be and how I should act. As an example, in Mexico we grew up with the machismo dream that dictated that to be a man you have to be this, you have to be that, you have to suppress parts of yourself etc.. That’s really the biggest lie that ever happened in this world because it’s the suppression of Divine Mother. That lie meant living with that cultural dream, and to fit into that dream I had to betray myself. And I did that, sister; I did that until it didn’t feel good because I was suppressing the Divine Mother in my body. I like to say that instead of separating the world by race or gender, we need to see that we’re all just life. That’s the dream of the planet—that’s how life works.
When we wake up in our own individual dream, we have something to share with the outside dream. When we unlearn the ways that we fight against ourselves and choose not to participate in that dream anymore, we will be completely different. This is why you can’t be a prophet in your own land—everyone there knows who you are, they know you cannot change, and they will throw your past at you.
However, one day the alcoholic stops being an alcoholic, the drug addict stops being a drug addict, and the machismo stops being a machismo. That day comes when they have an epiphany. They realize they love life and they know that they wasted it. But people who they’ve hurt will say they can never change because they hold a grudge—there’s a wound. However, we don’t need the validation, acceptance, or forgiveness from the outside. The thing we have to do is forgive ourselves. I repeat that again because that’s the moment that we completely wake up and let that dream go. This is the beautiful thing about feeling our hearts: we heal our hearts with our own truth.
SF: Speaking of these tools within your book, tell me about the ancient medicine wheel and how that acts as a tool that can facilitate healing.
dJR: The truth about the medicine wheel for me is that it is the wheel of time. When we think of it this way, we begin healing everything that we have done since the moment we begin to remember. I remember being cruel to a kid in school when I was eight or ten years old. So, I remember that, the teenager years, the adult years, the marriage years, and the relationships years. When I go into the medicine wheel, I see my own timeline and the things that I need to forgive—it’s all those pieces where I hurt Jose and I hurt others. I then make peace with everything. It’s like I went back in time to put everything into place.
When I get to the center of the medicine wheel, I come to the center of the heart; that is me. The way I see it, all humans are fallen angels. We fall and we believe in lies, but then we get our awareness back. When this happens, we get to purify our hearts, find the medicine, and see ourselves wherever we go; we give the medicine to each other.
The medicine wheel is a beautiful ancient Native American tradition and when we enter that, we hold respect for that tradition and it also respects us because it knows that we’re trying with intent—we’re doing. The manifestation is not only for us, but it is for wherever we’re going as part of the tribe of service. We all work for the same boss!
SF: What are some of your favorite power objects or totems, and how do you recommend incorporating these objects into our lives?
dJR: One of my favorites is the 108-bead mala. I love it because you can say a word and repeat it many times, and when you repeat it, it creates an energy. It’s also a song that you repeat. I really love it because, for instance, let’s say that I am heartbroken for something and I’m pitying myself. I put the beads to the rhythm of my prayer, and I say it in my own words. “I don’t have time to be suffering, I don’t have to be suffering. I don’t have time to be a victim, I don’t have time to be a victim.” The power object is a reflection that I can use to give me consciousness to let that thing go so I can overpass the mind in that moment.
My grandma used to say to me, “Son, how is the weather?” When she asked this, I thought about the weather outside. She would say, “No, how are your emotions?” With power objects, I can control my emotions.
I cannot control the weather outside. Many people think that ceremonies will control the weather outside, but that is the jungle; that is life’s job, not mine. The only job that I have is to control my inner weather. When I begin working on my weather, I use all the tools in my medicine bag; that could be my mala, my jade necklace, or my rings that I wear all the time. Regardless, they all have something sacred that reflects something in my heart to me.
This is the honesty that gives me strength to go into this ceremony of self-realization so I can self-transform. When that happens, we find our own sacred pieces. Sometimes life might take away those pieces but that just means it’s time to let them go. The river takes it away because now it will bring us something new. That’s one thing to always see: we give power to the object, the object itself is not powerful.
All religions are based on the heart and the teachings of an open heart reflect that back to us. There are many gardens of love out there. My favorites are daisies, cacti, and roses. Different kinds of flowers inspire different humans because we’re not going to get inspired by the same thing. That’s why the power object is very important. What inspires you? What kind of music inspires you? What kind of words of wisdom inspire you?
You don’t have to put down other wisdom—all roads lead to the same venue.
SF: You also described labyrinths as ancient designs that are a type of power journey. Labyrinths are documented in many cultures that aim to provide a walking meditation experience that intentionally confuses the thinking mind, silences the inner judge, and returns you to the present moment in your physical body. Why do you think we’ve strayed from such simple, ancient tools and practices such as the labyrinth, instead choosing to embark on complex, expensive, and often unfruitful remedies?
dJR: The transformation is very simple, but we make it complicated so that we don’t have to actually change. It’s like the person who buys a book to help them change, but says, “Actually, I need ten more books.” Well, with just one book you can transform if you give it your all. You can even transform with one page if you give it your all.
There are many different traditional labyrinths, but the whole point of labyrinths is to reflect to us that life is a labyrinth—you never know where it’s going to take you. You may think that you’re going to exit at a certain place, but you’re not; you’re just walking the labyrinth of life. There’s a beautiful thing about surrendering to a labyrinth; you don’t need to escape it, you just need to go through it, and sooner or later you’ll be able to get out of any situation. Don’t panic and don’t stress. You can feel the irritation when we think we’re lost in a labyrinth, but we’re supposed to be wherever it is that we are. When we find our peace, it really doesn’t matter where we’re going.
How many times have we been in a beautiful conversation and lost track of time? How about talking with the passenger as we drive in the car, and missing our turn because we were in the moment? For me, that’s the beautiful thing about the labyrinth. It’s not about finding myself a way out, it’s about finding myself when I’m inside there. It’s about enjoying life because life is the biggest labyrinth that you will ever walk.
SF: I love that—that was a wonderful analogy and metaphor. You spoke a bit about rhythm, music, drums, and dance. How are sounds, music, rhythm, and dance used in the Toltec tradition?
dJR: Very simply, it’s about letting loose and breaking free of the judgment. If you’re worried about others judging you when you dance, then you’re dancing for them. You need to learn how to dance for yourself. When you find the rhythm of the drum, you begin to move and dance. In the Toltec tradition, you dance for hours and you become one with the divine because you’re in action and your energy is moving.
When I went to India the first time, there was this beautiful man dancing so freely. Two people in front of me were watching this man dance and one turned to the other and said, “He’s crazy.” The other one said, “Yeah, he might be crazy, but he’s happily in love with life. Are you happily in love with life?” The other man said no. So, who’s crazy?
Can you imagine living freely without caring about judgment from the outside world? You don’t need validation, you’re just doing what you want to do. This is the whole point of dancing freely! It’s about living in authenticity, being the real you, and being the puppy that wiggles his tail no matter what.
SF: That sounds very elevated and uplifting, as opposed to just feeling constricted and not free to move.
dJR: Yes, and the beautiful thing is that we don’t need drugs to do this. Some kids today use drugs to dance and to feel free, but you don’t need that. When you dance for yourself, you find ecstasy and happiness, and you feel just like a seven-year-old kid just dancing. My little grandson pushed a musical button on one of his toys the other day and began to dance. This is natural!
I used to paralyze myself to public speak because I would get so nervous. Now, I break free from that because I speak a hundred miles per hour and I speak from the heart. The whole point of dancing free in life is to really enjoy what you’re doing without a care of being judged. You don’t judge yourself anymore! Your medicine bag is now open wherever you go, and that’s the gift of dancing free.
SF: You tell the story of the wolf in one part of your book, and then you mention later that it’s time for the wolf to return. What does the wolf signify for you, and to what is the wolf returning?
One of my favorite acts of the wolf is the howling; it signifies that the body is in pain and you’re letting it grieve. The tormenting mind doesn’t punish the wolf 100 times for the same mistake or the same painful act. When that wolf goes out onto the cliff and howls at the moon, there’s a cleansing of all the pain that he feels. When the wolf stops grieving and returns to its path, it’s all healed—that’s what I mean about returning; it’s returning to a free life.
We go to a place to heal, we let the body just cry and release, and then we return back to our everyday life. It is my responsibility to take care of the wolf inside of me because it will tell me when it wants to howl and when it wants to return home. I am there 100% for my inner wolf. The wolf is our greatest companion; it’s the one who guides us in life because it is so much like us.
Read PART ONE and PART TWO of Don Jose Ruiz’s interview on “The Wisdom of the Shamans” featured in Face the Current.
BOOKS: The Medicine Bag | “The Wisdom of the Shamans” | “The Fifth Agreement” | “Ripples of Wisdom: Cultivating the Hidden Truths from Your Heart” | “My Good Friend the Rattlesnake: Stories of Loss, Truth, and Transformation”