In 1973 my parents took my sister and me to India. We went as tourists to touch the luminous beauty of the Taj Mahal and to be touched by the immense contrasts of poverty, chaos, devotion, and peace that pervade India. I was seven years old.
Earlier that year I had decided to write a book, but when I sat down to start my bestseller, a sudden aha moment gave me pause. Sitting there at my wooden desk with my pad of lavender paper and my favorite black felt-tip pen in hand, I realized I was missing one crucial ingredient to be an author:
So I put away my paper and pen and went outside to play. I implicitly trusted that what I needed to write my book would come. And in a few months the many experiences I would eventually write about began with a life-altering, four-second event.
The catalyst for this awakening came in a package of an Indian child who was about my age. I was walking down a dusty New Delhi street holding my dad’s hand. I remember the heavy, sticky heat, looking down and worrying that my white sandals were going to get dirty, looking back up again into the eyes of a young girl walking toward me.
She was barefoot, draped in a soiled fragment of a dress, all elbows and knees. I almost looked away, embarrassed by my clean dress, shiny shoes, and full belly. But as we came closer our gaze stayed connected. Everything around me stopped. The noise of the traffic dissolved. The fear I hadn’t realized I was holding evaporated. As I looked deeply into her brown eyes a warm sun radiated out from her heart. Every cell in my being smiled in utter happiness, and utter happiness and recognition were reflected back to me in her smile.
And then we passed. I felt as if I had reunited with my best friend after many long years of separation. But the feeling did not dissolve after our paths crossed; it only grew stronger. I was ecstatic, like I’d been dipped in liquid beauty. Everything around me became a sweet song I suddenly remembered how to sing.
What I learned in that seconds-long merging, and that I’ve forgotten and re-remembered many times since that day, is that within each of us, regardless of our circumstances, resides a clear pool of joy and an unbreakable connection to our wholeness.
Rediscovering my Fire
When I graduated from Singapore American School and moved to Davis, CA to go to college I felt disconnected. I plugged strongly into politics for a few years, until I realized I was angry, my activist friends were angry, and nothing seemed to be changing.
A feminist studies course at UC Davis inspired me to explore different spiritual traditions. I apprenticed with two incredible women, shamanic healer Vicki Noble, author of the MotherPeace Tarot, Shakti Woman, and The Double Goddess and Wiccan priestess Cerridwen Fallingstar, author of Heart of the Fire and White as Bone, Red as Blood. Through Vicki I learned about the ancestral wisdom of women’s intuition, healing, and amazing strength; through Cerridwen I was opened to intimacy and vulnerability with my sisters, aligning with the cycles of the seasons, and the healing gift of ritual. Soon after I started studying with Cerridwen I was “drafted” to teach by the sheer amount of people that kept coming to me, asking to learn.
Another huge influence in my life at this time was Peggy Dylan, mama of the international firewalking movement and founder of Sundoor. My first firewalk with Peggy blew me wide open to the infinite possibility inherent in all of us. When I received an invitation in 1989 to train to become a firewalk instructor with Peggy and Tolly Burkan I sold my computer, borrowed money from friends, and made it happen. I’ve been leading firewalks ever since, and today I’m as excited as ever to share the fire with others as both an instructor and a Sundoor Firewalk Instructor and Empowerment Trainer. The fire continues to be my muse, teacher, and guide. As does Peggy. She rocks.
Don Miguel Ruiz and Toltec Wisdom
The transformative heart of my teachings come through my long Toltec apprenticeship and teaching partnership with don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements. The Toltec were a group of people who chose to come together in South and Central Mexico to study perception. They considered themselves “artists of the spirit.” As don Miguel writes: “Find yourself and express yourself in your own particular way. Express your love openly. Life is nothing but a dream, and if you create your life with love, your dream becomes a masterpiece of art.”
In the early 1990s I dreamt that I would soon meet a person who would change the course of my life. A few weeks later a friend excitedly told me about a teacher from the Toltec tradition who was visiting our area. I had no idea what a “Toltec” was, but when I heard don Miguel’s name, my body rang like a bell struck at dawn. That same full-body knowing that I had felt as a child vibrated through me when I met the Toltec community and first heard don Miguel speak. I felt I had come home.
Toltec means “artist of the spirit,” and the Toltec path is one of personal freedom, the freedom to choose how we want to create our inner and outer world through our perceptions and intent. Many people in the 1970s and 1980s were first introduced to Toltec philosophy through the writings of Carlos Castaneda as he shared his experiences with Yaqui Indian don Juan Matus. In the late 1990s don Miguel’s first book, The Four Agreements, opened a new, simple pathway to access this ancient tradition. While Castaneda’s writings were like a lightening bolt that illuminated a radical new way of being, Ruiz’s bestselling book was a trusty flashlight that shined a clear path to releasing personal suffering and reclaiming our natural state: happiness.
“The real mission you have in life,” don Miguel writes, “is to make yourself happy, and in order to be happy, you have to look at what you believe, the way you judge yourself, the way you victimize yourself.” Prior to immersing myself in the Toltec teachings, I would have said I was happy. I had work I enjoyed, a partner whom I loved, and a great community surrounding me. On the surface I was happy. But deep inside I didn’t feel happy; I didn’t feel joyful. I struggled with feeling flawed, with the constant fear of not being good enough, and with deep-seated self-criticism. When I embraced the Toltec teachings and dove deep into a new state of being, I discovered an eternal, connected wisdom flowing within and around me.
Becoming my Own Artist
In 1999 don Miguel gave me a huge boost on my path to becoming my own artist, one of those gifts that at the time feels more like a punishment than a treat. In the inner sanctum of a cool, dark-gray stone temple in Egypt, surrounded by his top teachers, don Miguel announced that he was disbanding our circle. “Go make the teachings your own,” he told us. “I am no longer your teacher.” I stayed in the temple with my friend Gini long after everyone else had left, a freed bird not yet trusting her ability to fly or knowing her direction. In the following years, I digested everything I had learned from don Miguel and incorporated it with my other, now plentiful, life experiences.
In 2001 in Berkeley, California, with the help of a fabulous community, I founded Toci – The Toltec Center of Creative Intent, a non-denominational religious organization based in the wisdom of the Toltec and The Four Agreements. Over the past fifteen years I’ve taught workshops and apprenticeships and trained teachers, and I look forward to many more years of sharing.
While my teachings continue to have their foundation in the wisdom of the Toltec, I also integrate the most potent tools I’ve found from a variety of traditions around the globe to best uncover and celebrate the eternal inner flame at our core.
And a note about my name:
My first name is HeatherAsh; a combo of my birth name, Heather, and my nickname for many years, Ash. Ash came along when I first starting facilitating fire walks, and reminds me of the energy of the phoenix rising from the ashes, and the power all of us have to transform from the inside out. I prefer to be called HeatherAsh, though if that is too much of a mouthful you can call me Ash, as some of my closest friends do. Blessings!