Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Toltec Wisdom

  • Be Impeccable With Your Word.
  • Don't Take Anything Personally.
  • Don't Make Assumptions.
  • Always Do Your Best.

Words of wisdom from the teachings of the Toltec, who ruled central Mexico a thousand years ago. These ancient maxims have created a modern sensation thanks to The Four Agreements. Former President Bill Clinton quotes from the book in his speeches. Oprah Winfrey raved about it on her television show and in her magazine. Celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Carlos Santana, Madonna, and Britney Spears are all fans of the book's author, Mexican-born Don Miguel Ruiz.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

Published in 1997, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, (Amber-Allen Publishing), has been translated into 30 languages. It reached the top of The New York Times bestseller list in 2000, and though no longer number one, it remains on that prestigious list.

The truth is that we are already perfect in very individual ways. Whatever you are, you are.

— Miguel Ruiz

Ruiz, 51, is a cultural icon to millions worldwide, but fame and fortune have never motivated him. Instead, his goal always has been to help others find "the path to personal freedom" by sharing simple, yet powerful tools he refers to collectively as the "Toltec knowledge." Besides The Four Agreements, Ruiz has written three other books; his latest is The Voice of Knowledge: A Practical Guide to Inner Peace, (Amber-Allen Publishing, 2004). In it, he recounts his quest to "discover the source of human suffering."

The father of three grown sons spends much of his time in the San Diego area, where his nonprofit Sixth Sun Foundation is based. The foundation supports Living the Four Agreements Wisdom Groups around the world; Ruiz's apprentices organize journeys to sacred Toltec sites such as the great pyramids at Teotihuacán, outside Mexico City. Ruiz also lectures throughout the world.

Recently, the soft-spoken Ruiz described his journey from rural Mexico into the international spotlight, a journey filled with wonder, mystery, and mysticism. Joining him at the family's home outside San Diego were his mother, Sarita Vasques, 94, and son Jose Luis, 25.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Ruiz is the youngest of 13 children in a family of traditional healers descended from the Toltec. His grandfather was a nagual, or shaman. His mother is a highly regarded curandera (healer). Vasques says she knew before her son was born that he, too, would carry on the family traditions. "I received a sign that some day he would be known throughout the world as the liberator of the Toltec," says Vasques, a tiny woman with a forceful voice and strong gaze.

The Toltec ruled central Mexico from the 10th through the 12th centuries. Today they are primarily known for establishing the great city of Tula, which stands in ruins 40 miles outside Mexico City, and for the iconic feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl. The Toltec also were revered for their spiritual teachings: the word "Toltec," according to Ruiz, means "men and women of knowledge."

Archaeologists describe the Toltec as one of the great Mesoamerican cultures. Ruiz, however, distinguishes the Toltec from the Aztecs, Maya, Olmecs, and other peoples. The Toltec were actually a society, he says, unified by an esoteric spirituality that was passed from generation to generation of Toltec, then to the other great civilizations that succeeded them.

The Toltec were also artists, though not in the traditional sense. Ruiz explains: "They considered the manner in which you lived your life as your art. The Toltec believed that life is a dream and that we are always dreaming, even when awake. Using a modern-day analogy, the Toltec concept of a dream is similar to starring in our own movie, following a script we write ourselves. All those around us are starring in their own movie based on their realities and concepts of the world."

While Vasques always knew her son would bring Toltec philosophies to the modern age, her son-despite growing up in Mexico-remained unconvinced. Rather than follow his mother and grandfather into the practice of traditional healing, he entered medical school. A near-death experience in the late 1970s, however, changed his life. While driving home from a party with two friends, he fell asleep. After his car careened into a concrete wall, Ruiz felt himself leaving his body. He looked down to see himself pulling his two friends out of the car. He awoke in the hospital to find that neither he nor his friends were seriously hurt. The accident convinced Ruiz the spiritual world did exist. He knew it was time to devote himself to the Toltec teachings.  

Ruiz studied everything he could find about Toltec spirituality. In 1986, after six years as a practicing surgeon, he moved to California. There, in informal settings, he began teaching courses on Toltec wisdom, joining his mother in a teaching project she had begun in the early 1970s.

Of his early days teaching those courses, Ruiz recalls: "We can say that the main challenge I had was to clean up all the Toltec knowledge from mythology and superstition and fanaticism. And when we do all that, the only thing that we have left is what I call pure common sense."

The common sense of the four agreements boils down to one theme: We needn't try so hard to be ourselves. Everyone is conditioned to live up to the images society has imposed. But this process-which Ruiz calls "domestication"-is actually holding us back. "We search for perfection outside ourselves, but that is one of the biggest wastes of time," he says. "The truth is that we are already perfect in very individual ways. Whatever you are, you are. That's it."

Ruiz curls one leg under himself on the living room couch as he sits next to his mother and son. Jose Luis clings to his grandmother's hand. It is clear that all three generations are held together by a deep, spiritual bond. Don Miguel speaks with a calming clarity, as though there is no doubt his words are true. His voice is friendly and reassuring, his smile exudes kindness.

"The most important point is to enjoy life," Ruiz says. "That can only be accomplished if people become what they really are. I have studied and taught the Toltec philosophy to students for many years, but I don't tell them, 'You should be a lawyer. You should be a doctor.' All I can do is give them the tools to find that out for themselves."

Ruiz points out that Toltec philosophy has much in common with the world's major religions: "Jesus said the truth shall set you free. The Buddha said we should see the world as it is, not as it is clouded by prejudice. In Toltec tradition we must work our way through the fog that confuses us with opinions rather than facts. We must learn to return to our own nature," observes Ruiz.

He adds, "The four agreements are a perfect mirror that lets you see yourself as you are. Not as you wish to be. Not as you pretend to be, but as you really are. We help people find themselves."

Can four simple agreements really change our lives? You decide.

Be Impeccable With Your Word. Words have great power and we should use them carefully. We should avoid using words to judge or bring shame to others. Gossip is particularly poisonous and we should never engage in it, Ruiz says.

Don't Take Anything Personally. This agreement is considered the most life-altering. Ruiz says our whole life can change if we realize the actions and opinions of others have nothing to do with us. Others are living their own reality, having their own experiences. "If someone says, 'You are a terrible person,' it does not make you so. Likewise, if someone says, 'You are wonderful,' that does not make you so, either." If words or deeds set us off emotionally, it means they have touched a wounded place within us. We should focus on healing our wounds, not on getting even.

Don't Make Assumptions. We make assumptions because we are afraid to ask questions, Ruiz says. Very often, these assumptions change the course of our lives. For example, we assume that we know what someone else, such as a spouse, thinks, believes, or desires. We should ask questions, express what we want, and communicate clearly or our lives will be filled with misunderstandings, resentment, and lost opportunities.

Always Do Your Best. Our best will change constantly, emphasizes Ruiz. We are sometimes sick or tired, but we can still do our best. If we do our best and accept the result, we will never judge ourselves against someone else's standards. We will never judge ourselves harshly if we fail, he says.

Ruiz, who suffered a major heart attack in 2002, has turned over much of his teaching work to Jose Luis and another of his sons, Miguel Jr., 28. Ruiz is now branching out into songwriting and may act in a movie this year. In every endeavor, he says he remains true to the Toltec philosophy and encourages everyone to do the same. "I do what I love to do and avoid what I don't like to do. I have faith in everything that I do because I have faith in myself," he says, with a reassuring smile.  

"Life is full of choices. You need to trust yourself in order to make those choices. It doesn't matter how old you are, there is another life you can live. You can get enlightenment even at the last moment of your life."

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?