Listening in With … don Miguel Ruiz and don Jose Ruiz: The Dons of Discernment

Photo by Catherine Jusy ©2010

Don Miguel Ruiz shared ancient wisdom from the pre-Columbian Toltec civilization in his 1997 New York Times best-selling book, The Four Agreements. In 2010 he and his son don Jose Ruiz coauthored The Fifth Agreement, another best-seller. The agreements hold that we are fully responsible for creating both our joy and our suffering. They offer guidelines for freeing ourselves from our mistaken beliefs (what don Miguel calls our story about who we are and how life works) and ultimately aligning with our true, divine nature. Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz recently had the following conversation with father and son about their teachings.

THE FIVE AGREEMENTS: 1: Be impeccable with your word. 2: Don’t take anything personally. 3: Don’t make assumptions. 4: Always do your best. 5: Be skeptical while listening.

Katy Koontz: You talk about the importance of discernment in The Fifth Agreement, which is about being skeptical while listening. Why is discernment so critical?


don Miguel Ruiz: We grew up believing everyone—we believed our parents, we believed religion, we believed what they taught us in school. We never questioned anything; we just accepted it. And we also grew up believing that we are the main character of our life story and that that main character is our identity. 

But the truth is that I don’t know who I am. I just know who I think I am. Yet I can assure you that I am

In other words, my identity may be Miguel Ruiz, but in reality, who I really am is the force that moves the body of Miguel Ruiz.

So when we listen to what people say, and to what we say about ourselves and what we believe—if we really listen—then we can decide if what we think and what we hear is really true. We can choose what we want to believe. Whatever lies we used to believe about ourselves will then dissipate. We won’t need to debate other people and tell them they are wrong because we will understand that we aren’t responsible for what they create—only for what we create.


don Jose Ruiz: When you begin trusting yourself, you begin thinking in a different way. You begin thinking impeccably, and that’s when you begin to be skeptical of everything—especially the negativity that goes into your thoughts. So then, when you start thinking negativity, you can recognize this as a bad habit. How can you break this habit? By being discerning, by not believing those negative thoughts, and instead always trusting in your true feelings. Those feelings are the real conversations that we have with the Divine. 

That is the moment of waking up. And when we start opening this channel, this vortex of positivity, our lives begin to change because we are no longer thinking negatively and attracting negativity. Any negativity that comes into our presence dissolves. And that has a ripple effect because as the Toltec tradition teaches, we are all messengers. So then we have to ask ourselves, What are the messages that we are sharing with others? What ripples are we making?


KK: Is it pretty easy for most of us to discern what’s true, or do you think we more often fool ourselves?


JR: It is very easy to fool ourselves because we are very intelligent, and we give ourselves all these justifications and excuses not to change. I read a quote from Abraham Lincoln that said, 

 “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” That’s common sense, the most simple thing! But, of course, we want to make it complicated so we don’t have to change. 


KK: Letting go of judgment is a key part of the discernment you describe. It may not be easy, but it really is simple, isn’t it?  


JR: It is simple, but we still have to deal with our emotions because they are what make us human. Many times we are afraid to feel, but the moment when we embrace our own emotions 


… that for me is having a conversation with the Divine. The conversation is not in Spanish or in English—it’s just making that uncomfortable space comfortable.

When we say we don’t want to live a certain way anymore, it doesn’t feel good at first because whenever we put our attention on something, then that is what we are going to perceive. But if we can get present enough to break away from that habit for just one moment, even if the habit has been there all our lives, we can free ourselves. 

In the Toltec tradition, we say this is like waking up from a dream where everybody else is still dreaming. Like my father says, imagine that you are the only sober person in a room where everybody else is completely drunk. Why even waste your time trying to talk to the other people? They are going to forget what you said the next day! But you know that you’re present, and that’s all you need. When you start making that transformation, then everyone will start 

complimenting you. Then you will see that where you put your attention affects what you see.

KK: I think some people are afraid that if they are not their story, maybe they don’t really exist at all. Can you comment?


MR: We live in the story that we create about our life. So there are 7 billion people on the planet, each living in their own story. We fill our story with a lot of secondary characters—all the people we know. But it is really just a story; it is not real, even though it feels so real. Because we believe this story, we are carrying all our past with us. But if we focus our attention on these memories, we will find out that none of them are real. They are based in what happened, but the way it really happened is not how we remember it. But we believe it anyway, and we don’t even notice that we are carrying all that hate, guilt, shame, and anger for something that happened a long, long time ago. Even a week ago is a long time ago because the truth is what we are living in this very moment. 

We think we have to change other people to change our story, but that’s not possible. We have no control over other people—they are merely the secondary characters in our story. The only person we have control over is the main character, which is who we believe 

we are. 

If I can change myself, then just like magic, every secondary character in my story also changes because the way I perceive things has changed. It creates the ripple effect Jose was talking about. And in that moment, I don’t need to be right or wrong or good or bad because I can see it is just really a story. If we change ourselves by opening up to love, then the people we are closest to will get even closer, because love (just like hate and anger) is very contagious. 


KK: Is the bottom line accepting our own divinity?


JR: Yes, absolutely, because we are all divine. Everything is in unity, everything on Mother Earth makes up one big body, and we’re all a part of it. That’s why we have to begin unlearning all the ways that we go against ourselves. The strongest tool in the Toltec tradition is respect because if you don’t respect yourself, no one is going to respect you. And the moment that you respect yourself, you are respecting others and they respect you in return, and that’s what the service of being a messenger is all about.


KK: Is that what you mean when you say the goal is not just seeing the truth, but becoming the truth?


MR: Yes, because when we have that awareness, everything changes. When I ask people to help me change the world, I am not talking about the planet Earth or nature. I’m talking about the world that we create in our minds, our story, because that determines if we live in our personal heaven or in our personal hell. Sometimes when you reread a book, it seems like a completely different book. But it is not the book that changed. What changed is you, because you shifted your point of view. You see certain things that you didn’t see before. Then you’re not searching for the truth, you become the truth. That’s what’s important; that’s the real teaching.


KK: Don Miguel, how did your background as a surgeon inform your  work now? 


MR: I learned to see how life works in the human body and in the mind. For example, we don’t actually see objects—we see light that is being reflected off of the objects. How our brain perceives that reflection determines what we see, and so how we think. This is why I say we create our own reality—because what we see is just a reflection. 

As a doctor, I also witnessed how every organ in our body is trying to maintain equilibrium with the totality of the body, which is really like a whole universe. Then I could see that just as the human body has many organs working together, the earth is really a living being, too, and its organs include everything that exists—including all of us, the human organ—working together to create perfect equilibrium. 


KK: Is one of the agreements more important than the others?


MR: The first agreement—to be impeccable with your word—because then we respect everybody else’s creations. The rest of the agreements are just supporting the very first agreement.


JR: It’s interesting when you start thinking impeccably—not only talking impeccably, but really thinking impeccably. You start thinking before you speak, and then the vibration of your words changes. And that affects others. You know, if you play classical music to plants, the plants feel the vibration, and they thrive. So from the moment we start saying things from the heart, then with every word we speak, it’s like we’re playing Mozart to our brothers and sisters—as well as to ourselves. And that brings harmony to our lives. 


KK: I really get that.


MR: Imagine if everybody did that, saying yes when they want to say yes, and no when they want to say no—without any guilt or any shame, and always with kindness. Every relationship they have would improve! Imagine what humanity could be like if everybody started changing their own story. We are going in that direction. I am very optimistic. I think that we’re changing for the good.


My grandmother used to teach that life is about learning to detach. She would say, Attachment and detachment are so easy. It’s as easy as taking a breath. You breathe in attach. You breathe out detach. If you were to breathe in and hold it, you would suffocate. Living life to its fullest is about letting go—the detachment. As a great Buddhist master said, Life is measured by how well we live, how well we love, and how well we learn to let go.


Which brings me back to my friend the rattlesnake. Every so often, the rattlesnake sheds its skin. Can you imagine if every time the rattlesnake shed its skin it held onto it, attaching to it and carrying it everywhere it went? That is what we tend to do as humans. We take our old experiences, good and bad, and we drag them with us everywhere we go. Imagine if we were to detach and start fresh with each new relationship, with each new day. What a beautiful offering of love to yourself and everyone you come in contact with!


don Jose Ruiz with Tami Hudman, My Good Friend the Rattlesnake: Stories of Loss, Truth, and Transformation (Springville, Utah: Plain Sight Publishing, © 2014), 38. Used by permission of Cedar Fort, Inc.

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