This weekend, one of my best friends came to visit me at the small off-grid community in rural Hawaii where I live. As we roasted green coffee beans in a cast-iron pan, we took turns asking each other questions from a game she had brought—What was your most embarrassing moment in high school, what’s the most important trait you look for in a partner, and so on. We soon realized, to our bemusement, that the game was hard for us to play, because we already knew each other so well we could rattle off each other’s answers off the tops of our heads. However, one card gave me pause. When did you change your mind about something?
As my ramshackle cabin filled with the scent of roasting coffee, and the myna birds began to chirp outside, I realized just how many times in my life I’ve gone from fearing, disdaining, or resisting something, to wholeheartedly embracing it. These days, wild horses couldn’t drag me away from my beloved rainforest hut—but five years ago, when life dropped me into this place, you’d think I’d been sentenced to an execution. My e-mails to friends and relatives were grim. To be fair, life was much harder when I was living in a tent, during a year of incessant floods, a stranger in what I then perceived to be a remarkably strange and inscrutable place.
These days, my e-mails to friends and family are filled with worshipful descriptions of fruit trees, waterfalls, and clouds, proud recountings of minor victories involving carpentry or truck repair, and fond descriptions of the neighbors who are no longer strangers to me. The difficulties and inconveniences I once viewed as outrageous and insurmountable, I now view as precious; where I once experienced isolation, I’ve become aware of teeming, riotous webs of community. I’ve changed my mind about off-grid life, and I can’t imagine going back.
Although my friends sometimes tease me about my “conversion,” I’ll be forever grateful that the people around me gave me the space to change, without trying to hold me to an outdated version of myself. How terrible it would be if we were permanently held to account for our former beliefs and attitudes—if an opinion, once expressed, had to define us forever. How wonderful it is to have the freedom to change—to update our beliefs, our opinions, and our identities as we proceed through life, shedding old layers as we go.
Last winter, I had the privilege of working with don Jose Ruiz on his wonderful book The Shaman’s Path to Freedom: A Toltec Wisdom Book, which releases on October 3rd. Of the ten freedoms he describes in the book, number three will always be my favorite: the freedom to change. In this chapter, Ruiz describes the Toltec concept of shapeshifting, which he defines as “living in dynamic relationship to life.” Life is always changing—not just decade to decade or year to year, but moment to moment. We can confront this change with brittleness, and make ourselves suffer, or we can learn to dance with life. We can learn to joyfully shapeshift, the same way life itself is constantly shapeshifting.
If there’s anyone qualified to talk about change, it’s don Jose Ruiz. As a teenager, he felt compelled to seek out suffering, after perceiving how much the adults around him seemed to prize their trauma and pain. Yet today, don Jose has one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen, and it’s hard not to grin when you so much as glance at his author photo. As a twenty-something, don Jose went through a phase where he felt he had to dress in “spiritual” clothes and listen only to mantras—but today, he’s no longer shy about his love of heavy metal concerts, and he doesn’t mind when his dogs get their paws all over his distinctly unspiritual cargo pants.
These days, don Jose Ruiz holds his identity lightly. He writes, When people ask me, “What are you, Jose? What is your profession? What race are you? What things are you?” I think to myself, “I’m just life.” Like a stream that changes shape a million times as it finds its way from a mountaintop to the sea, Ruiz knows that he isn’t any one of the innumerable masks he’s donned throughout his lifetime, but the ineffable life force, or nagual, running through them all.
I’m just life. What a beautiful sentiment—and how liberating. As don Jose Ruiz describes in The Shaman’s Path to Freedom, so much of our suffering comes from confusing ourselves with something other than life itself. We confuse ourselves with our jobs, our relationships, and our status in the community. We confuse ourselves with our bodies—our health and looks. Meanwhile, we are made of the same stuff as toads and jaguars, starlight and waterfalls, orchids and moss. Life is always manifesting itself in different forms, revealing new faces of the infinite. To think that we are exempt from this process, or to desire to be exempt from this process, is to miss out on the beauty of life—and to align ourselves with this process is to be free.
Ten years ago, my sister took me to an ecstatic dance event in the city where I was living. For the uninitiated, ecstatic dance is an event at which people dance to electronic or other music, often for hours, with no talking or phones allowed. When I went with my sister, I found it incredibly awkward and swore I would never do anything of the sort ever again. “The music is terrible,” I remember saying, “And those people—well, they’re just not my people!” I considered myself a serious person with serious tastes—I listened to Indian classical music and was forever trying and failing to write important novels. Like the teenaged don Jose Ruiz, I thought that suffering was a sign of superiority. The thought of joining a bunch of smiling, unserious hippies on a dance floor was anathema.
Although I’ve long since ditched my love affair with suffering, I retained a sort of prudishness and formality when it came to music and art, and feared being caught liking anything that was, well, fun. Then near the end of the revision process for don Jose’s book, I realized I hadn’t been to town in weeks; I had been buried in a happy haze of editing and working on my land. It was the first Saturday of the month, and I knew there was ecstatic dance at the community center in town that night.
I felt in my heart a twinge of longing. What if I did something completely out of character? I thought. It’s about time I poked my head into the world and tried something new. Besides, I think don Jose would approve. Before I could talk myself out of it, I grabbed the keys to my truck and embarked on the long and precarious drive into town. I figured I’d stay at the dance for half an hour at most before high-tailing it out of there, grumbling to myself about the “bad” music and wasted gas.
I ended up staying for the whole two hours of dancing, and for the sound bath at the end, and for the closing circle where I realized that the people I’d formerly described as “not my people” were in fact very much my people. I drove home in a state of elation, my heart humming with the pleasure of allowing a new self to unfold. Am I a serious person? Am I a carefree dancer? Yes to both—because I am life itself. And a part of me that had been stuck is now free.
Of course, the freedom to change isn’t the only freedom don Jose Ruiz teaches in his new book. There is also the freedom to love unconditionally, when you’ve been taught to judge and condemn; the freedom to heal, when you’ve learned to live within the confines of your wounds; the freedom to see, when you’ve accepted a self-imposed blindness; and all the other freedoms that we must claim if we are to bring our gifts into the world in their highest form. When we attain this freedom, we touch the infinite potential of the nagual— a Nahuatl word for pure life force —which reminds me a whole lot of the feeling I have when I’m dancing.
Readers, I wish I could pour you all a cup of this freshly-roasted coffee, picked from the trees near my land—and I wish I could load you all into my truck and take you to ecstatic dance. I will have to settle for wishing you happiness in whatever form you find it, even or perhaps especially if means taking a leap away from the person you believed yourself to be. May you all have the freedom to change, and may those changes bring you wisdom and delight every single day.
Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing
Humanity is in crisis.
War, poverty, environmental disasters, and more have brought the planet to a tipping point. In our personal lives, many of us carry deep-seated fear, resentment, anger, and even hatred for others and ourselves.
Since ancient times, Toltec shamans have taught that the root of all this discord can be found in the human mind and what they called its addiction to suffering. They have also taught that the time will come when we must choose to either break free from this addiction or pay the ultimate price.
According to Toltec Shaman don Jose Ruiz, that time is now, and the change that is needed can only come from within.
In The Shaman’s Path to Freedom, Ruiz will teach you how to find and claim your own personal freedom, one based on unconditional love for yourself and others, and in doing so break your mind’s addiction to suffering. By walking this path, you can live a life of peace and harmony within yourself, which is the most important thing you can do to bring about the change that is needed in the world.
Filled with Toltec practices for establishing personal freedom, The Shaman’s Path to Freedom is don Jose Ruiz’s most personal and radical book yet, guaranteed to thrill both new readers and longtime fans.