There’s a Butterfly on Your Hat

This world is a screen.

One night in the late 1970s, Miguel Ruiz, a young Mexican physician, 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 his body from another vantage point.

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 13 children, Ruiz had grown up in rural Mexico and come from a line of curanderos, shaman healers. His mother, Sarita, was such a healer. She’d taught him as a child, but as he’d grown older he’d resisted the ancient tradition. He’d pursued the practice of Western medicine. Now after the accident, Ruiz began to study with Sarita again and he became an apprentice to a powerful nagual (pronounced nah-WAL), a sorcerer in the Toltec tradition.

Today Don Miguel Ruiz trains Toltec naguals in San Diego. He has owned a house here since 1985. His audience ranges from old hippies to academics and professionals who have never before deviated from the approved career path. There are hundreds of his followers in San Diego, but Don Miguel’s work has also spread nationwide and worldwide through the popularity of his books The Four Agreements and The Mastery of Love.

I’ve long been a fan and student of the books of Carlos Castaneda. He popularized Toltec sorcery with a series of nine books, which he began writing in the late 1960s. Castaneda’s teacher, an old Indian sorcerer named Don Juan Matus, made his home in a shack, rambled around the desert, and lived a carefully, deliberately anonymous life. Castaneda also stayed out of the public eye. In contrast, Don Miguel has a website ( on which he advertises “power journeys” to Teotihuacán in Mexico, to Machu Picchu in Peru, to the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, to a volcano on Maui. There are links for “wisdom groups” and for “mentors.” There is a discussion of something called the University of Transformation. This is about as far as you can get from rambling in the desert. It seemed clear to me that without the popularity of the Castaneda books, Don Miguel would not have had entrée to the educated and affluent middle class and that his credentials as a medical doctor, a well-educated man in the Western sense, cemented his validity to that audience.

I wondered if Don Miguel was really a sorcerer. I decided to go to see him.

When Don Miguel opened his front door, my feelings about him were immediate. Before me stood a slender Mexican Indian man in his early 50s, of average height, in gray slacks and a maroon velour pullover. Before he opened his mouth or moved a muscle, I liked him and trusted him. Looking into Don Miguel’s eyes is like drowning in warm honey. He grabbed me in a hug, not something they do much where I come from.

We took seats in his comfortable living room. It was severely modern, with glass shelves and tabletops at varying heights and the back wall open to the sunlight. The effect was of being in a silver maze. I set up my tape recorder, 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 him was never a problem. “Well, it’s a family tradition, really. My mother is a great healer. She’s 93 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 Macías. His father, Don Ezequiel, 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 2000 years ago, built the pyramids of Teotihuacán 2500 years ago. Before that, there were already Toltecs. 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.”

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