Special Ops, LSD, and a Path to Toltec Wisdom: Excerpt from ‘The Dreaming Circus,’ by Jim Morris

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By Jim Morris

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Jim Morris’ book, The Dreaming Circus: Special Ops, LSD, and My Unlikely Path to Toltec Wisdom.

I had to write The Dreaming Circus, but publishing it was a matter of debate. On the one hand it might be a public service. On the other hand, it might be merely an exercise in ego gratification. On the other other hand it might be both.

Those who might find it useful are combat vets for whom readjustment to civil society proves difficult, which is to say all of them, also only sons of single moms and single moms of only sons. It would perhaps be most useful to someone seeking a spiritual path, or someone who knows they need something to help them cope with a confusing and unsatisfying life. 

This is not a prescription for the path you must follow, but a recommendation that you find a teacher and a community that feels like the right next step. My most ardent wish is that some ex-GI will read this book and say, “If this guy can find a path to happiness, then surely there is one for me.” 

All this stuff actually happened, but this is just the way I saw it. I make no pretense of objectivity.

The Special Operations Association and The Circle of Fire

The Dreaming Circus, by Jim Morris

If I hadn’t needed to attend two very different gatherings simultaneously, the Special Operations Association Reunion in Las Vegas, and the Circle of Fire in Tennessee, if not for that contrast, I probably would not have seen energy, at least not that soon.

I don’t like Vegas. My first time there, in 1973, I hitchhiked in on my way to Cambodia, riding with a Black electrician named T.J., a great guy in a purple Cadillac and a purple Superfly hat. He had picked me up on I-40, outside El Reno, Oklahoma, and took me all the way to LA He wanted to stop in Vegas and gamble for a couple of hours. I have no interest in casino gambling, so I walked the Strip, appalled at the palpable aura of greed.

I felt the same getting off the airplane at McCarren in 2004. 

The terminal was like a casino, big open area filled with – I’m looking for a kind word here – “tourists”, attacking the multicolored blinking, chirping clanging slots.

Who needs this? Using “return from Teo” techniques I looked around for any expression of love to focus on, small kindnesses, people exchanging pleasant greetings, the sky when I got outside. Sure, there were the other things, the slots, huge brightly-colored glowing, moving, shrieking ads for casinos. Those things were terrific contrast, backgrounds for the love connections I searched for.

Focusing on love was something I would never have done before the Toltecs. Damn! It was like I was on a different planet.

I had routed a trip to Tennessee through Vegas to promote my new book, Above and Beyond, a war novel, at the Special Operations Association Reunion. The publisher, an old friend, had sunk a lot of money into it. He needed me to be there. 

I don’t usually enjoy these drunken explosions of war lies and bluster until after a couple of beers. But this one was different. I saw that these guys came together out of the great love they had for one another. Stopping my internal dialogue, it became palpable, blazed, flashed and shot from one man to another like cartoon lightning. That’s not a metaphor; I saw it. 

Only my imagination? When you silence the internal dialogue, the imagination becomes a sensory organ, interpreting things you usually don’t see, not in words, but in feelings or images.

These guys had belonged to the most effective, but also the most dangerous combat unit in Vietnam. At one time they had a 115 percent annual casualty rate, which meant that everybody got killed or wounded, killed once or wounded several times. It also meant that almost everyone there had risked his life for someone else there, usually several of them. So, sure, they knocked back a lot of booze, and told a lot of stories, and laughed raucously, and sometimes a little crazily. 

Morris in Vietnam

There’s the story about the time Bob Howard — who succeeded Audie Murphy as the most decorated soldier in American history — was on patrol with a six-man recon team, about twenty kilometers into Laos along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and surrounded by thousands of enemy dispersed throughout the jungle. 

It was night; Howard ran out of the jungle, and jogged alongside a North Vietnamese truck, part of a convoy containing hundreds of troops, with a Claymore mine in one hand and the clacker in the other. He lobbed the mine into the back of the truck and squeezed the clacker, killing about fifty North Vietnamese bo doi

That’s a Special Forces hotfoot. 

Howard was recommended for the Medal of Honor three times before he got it. For the first two it was denied because the mission was too highly classified to make public. He got nothing for the claymore thing.

At a similar convention a few years earlier one of the guys got married. It was an impressive ceremony except Animal Natale was on his hands and knees, trying to bite the groom’s ankle. 

Internal Dialogues

Writing this, I’ve been musing on early morning walks in Topanga State Park. Usually, on these walks, I do an exercise to stop the internal dialogue. My route passes by a large white, Spanish-style house with a big, fenced yard, and three huge angry dogs that like to rush out and bark while they try to eat their way through the bars of the fence. But as I got better at quieting my mind, I noticed they didn’t rush out anymore. 

Skydiving demo at SOAR; Morris in background

One day, I walked almost past the place. All the worries of an upcoming heavy day rushed in, and my mind started buzzing again. Here came the dogs, yapping and snarling for the last ten yards until I passed the house.

Early in the morning mule deer graze in the park. They have no fear because they’ve never seen a hunter. When I first started walking there, they gave me this look, like, “Who the hell are you?” But some of them know me now. As I’m walking there, mind as blank as I can make it, I give them a cheery little wave, and say, “Good morning, deer,” and they blink.

But the morning I walked there, going over these angry violent stories to see if they fit in this piece, my mind in turmoil, a young buck looked up as I approached, and took off like, well, like a startled deer. I’ve never seen an animal move so fast. 

That night in Vegas, I slept in a whirling Technicolor dream. It started as a downer, but I managed enough lucidity to turn it into a carnival. 

I left the convention early, to the chagrin of my publisher, but still missed the Friday evening kickoff for the Circle of Fire. Saturday morning, I set out a little early, knowing I’d have to get oriented before the first session of the day. I’d had the best rent car luck ever, a new maroon Chrysler Sebring convertible with the top down, nasty rock’n’roll blasting from the speakers.

After a quick burst west on I-40, the road to The Ranch wound through six miles of foggy wooded hills. Stevie Nicks sang “Rhiannon”, a perfect moment. Arriving, I went to the office, in an old small frame house next to the road. The door was blocked, but I pushed, and it gave way. 

What had blocked it was somebody’s back. Entering, I was confronted by a ring of amused faces, teachers, advanced students, and Lee McCormick, whose ranch this was. He flashed me a sardonic smile, said, “Wrong place. Registration across the street.”  

Silently I touched a finger to my forehead, and went across a gravel road to another building, a larger one-story brick building with a lot of traffic in and out of double doors. Standing outside, with the mob, was Mee, Lee’s wife, baby Isabella cradled in her arms. Mee falls roughly in the category of blonde bombshell, but superior to all blonde bombshells of song and story in that she is smarter, prettier, and way more funny. She wore cut-offs, a t-shirt, and yellow rubber wading boots, had that elfin child cradled on her hip, and made it look like haute couture. 

Some years before Lee had turned The Ranch into a treatment facility for drug and alcohol abuse, co-located with an operating 600-acre cattle ranch, and had been setting up another treatment facility in Malibu. He has other projects. I don’t think the man sleeps. 

I exchanged a few words with Mee, thrilled to catch her standing still. She ricocheted into another conversation and I went inside. Looking around I saw tables for artists, vendors of Toltec stuff, copies of Miguel’s books and his student’s books, Castaneda’s books, and his students’ books, jewelry, New Age CDs, prints of paintings on Toltec themes.

Outside, the first person I met was Taylor, a young woman I’d become friends with on my second trip to Teotihuacan. She was 22, short, voluptuous, black hair in a pageboy, pale creamy complexion, red lipstick on a broad open smile. The creamy skin had a selection of arty tats, the best being a butterfly on her left arm that she was slowly having illuminated, one panel at a time. 

Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan Mexico

Taylor is an infectious bubbly spirit. We hugged. Her mom had sent her to Teo, so I guessed her mom would be here, and was eager to meet her.

“She’s right here,” said Taylor. I turned and exclaimed. “JAN!” Her mom was Jan Massey, from my first Teo trip. Another gorgeous woman. 

I ricocheted around for a while, greeting people from LA, from all over the country. 

Under a big revival-type tent Miguel spoke. Heart problem or no he looked good. He spoke, but the message didn’t matter. What matters is the love that radiates from him like heat from a stove. 

Somewhere in Castaneda it says that if the shaman is mean, then his nagual (his expression of the infinite unknowable) will be mean; if the shaman is compassionate, then the nagual will be compassionate. Miguel is a loving man, and his nagual is loving. His gatherings are suffused with it, soaked in it, euphoric with it.

The word “love” is perhaps overused here. There was a time I wouldn’t have used it from one year to the next unless I was trying to get laid.  

Jose’ spoke next, not a reasoned argument, but extemp slam poetry that raised the spirit of his audience a notch at a time until they were off … into the wild blue. Miguel wandered through the crowd, hugging here, touching there. He sat beside me for minutes, like he entered my head through the eyes, appraising what I had become since he dragged me off to Teo. He left to sit by someone else. I had been here an hour and was in a place no drug can take you.

Next day my first group met in a ring of chairs in a grove near a stone fence by a dirt road. Nearby were an old farmhouse, now a ranch building, and a couple of ancient and obsolete farm implements left to rust in the rain, found sculpture in the hills. 

The session, with Ted and Peggy, was a Dreaming session. After a brief introduction we sat in silence with our eyes closed for an hour. As minds subsided spirits expanded and merged. We become aware of … Ah, words don’t go to what we become aware of. That’s the point. It was pleasant, it was light. It was wonderful, but it was also Something Else.

Of the two, Peggy’s the talker, and she’s good at it, a natural teacher. Ted doesn’t say much, but almost every sentence he has uttered in my presence has changed my life to some degree. One filled in a blank in my spiritual knowledge that was revolutionary. The sentence was, “You have to let it go.”

This was the tenth annual Circle of Fire. Peggy started talking about the first one, in Grass Valley, north of Sacramento, with about thirty-five people. Circle of Fire is a marriage ceremony, in which all in attendance are married to God. It was there that Miguel first introduced the Circle of Fire prayer, which Peggy described as a “contract with God”; we said it together.

“October first, 2004, the day of the Lord when the divinity returns to us, when living our free will, and with all the power of our spirit, we decide to live our lives in free communion with God, with no expectations. We will live our lives with gratitude, love, loyalty, and justice, beginning with ourselves and continuing with our brothers and sisters. We will respect all creation as the symbol of our love communion with the one who created us, to the eternal happiness of humanity.”

We put the chairs in the back of a truck and walked off down the road to the big white dining tent.

I fell in with James Nihan, the musician, whom I had never met before, and we talked. He’s part Cree and had his battles with drugs and alcohol. He got involved with the Toltecs through a recovery stint at The Ranch. 

I was about to go to lunch when McCormick’s pickup skidded to a stop. “Come on,” he said, “I’ll show you The Ranch.”

“Lunch?” 

“We’ll get a burger up the road. Come on.”

The Mitote

I climbed in. The vibe ramped up. We went back to the main road, hung a left, to the cattle ranch, hung a right and went to a huge field with a stone medicine wheel in the middle. 

The wheel was immense, about a hundred feet across, made of probably a hundred stones, all the size of small boulders, laid out in a circle with four spokes in the directions, on the crest of a low rise, high ground, serene and beautiful green hills around, an immediate feeling of peace. 

Beside the wheel was a plain white truck, the kind you see dozens of around movie sets, and concert halls. Behind the truck a gnarled and wizened man in jeans constructed a double-sided circular mirror, at least six feet across, rippling, shimmering flexible plastic, an ever-changing funhouse mirror. It reminded me of the stargate on television’s Stargate SG-1. The stargate was the crown of an altar of sacred symbols, mostly Native American and Buddhist.  

“Amazing!” I said, ‘but what the hell is it for?”

“The mitote,” he said, which explained nothing. Lee spoke to the wizard and started helping him with the mirror. 

A mitote is a lucid dreaming exercise, a group sleepover at which you’re intermittently awakened during the night. I’ve gotten insights that way, but had missed sleep in Vegas, and missed sleep here the night before, so I planned to blow this one off. 

Lee’s stargate was a dimensional portal. The very weirdness of it disabled the logical mind and threw it into the world of instinct and magic. That’s where insights come from. That’s where “personal power” comes from.

As they worked, they scattered a lot of packing paper and tape. I picked it up, wadded it, and threw it in the truck.

Lee stood there, watching the mirror go up. “I’m thinking’ that all forms of ceremonial magic are training aids for Intent,” I said.

“That’s right,” said Lee. “It just helps you focus your Intent.”

While Lee and the gnome affixed that shimmering wobbling mirror to a vertical stand I looked up and saw a huge raptor fly from the far horizon, straight toward the medicine wheel. Lee caught my glance and looked up. I said, “Hawk, eagle?” 

“Golden eagle,” he said. “There are a lot of them around here.”

The eagle flew straight toward the medicine wheel. At a point about seventy feet over the outer perimeter of the wheel it turned and flew clockwise around it, in a big open circle. That’s the way you enter a medicine wheel for ceremony. When it reached the point at which it had arrived, it flew back to the far horizon.

“Okay,” I said, “you don’t get an omen like that every day. I’m going to the mitote.”

Class that afternoon was taught by Melissa Ayers. whom I knew slightly from LA. She’s a five-year Dreamer from the San Diego group. Years of yoga and meditation have given her a great little body that radiates health and a feeling of joy that rolls off her in waves. 

We sat on the ground, about thirty people, in a free-flowing discussion of what we’ve learned and our difficulties in the learning of it. It was easy to see the various stages these folks were in, and there was a wide variation.

I remarked that, at least for guys, verbal abuse was a way of life, leaving negative effects that are hard to overcome. The example I used was high school football coaches. “One guy said, “Boy, you’re holding back there. Those guys can really rag on you.” He went on to remark that he’d never really known what love was until he had kids. My experience exactly.

Melissa spoke well, easily, and conversationally. Watching her, I realized that Toltecs teach basically the same stuff, but there is no prepared lesson plan. Each teaches in accord with his or her personality, and from guidance. It’s never awkward, never stilted. It is always a sharing among equals. 

Setting Intent

The last thing Melissa wanted us to do was set our Intent for the next year. Our class was beside a small labyrinth. Unlike the one in the Minotaur myth it had no walls. It’s a circular track, laid out with stones, that winds in on itself until you reach the center, then winds back out again. Melissa wanted us to, one by one, walk to the center, turn, face the group, and announce our Intent in a loud forceful voice. 

Nobody wanted to be first. I didn’t. Nobody did. Finally, a young man walked to the center, and announced, shyly, that he wanted… I can’t remember what he wanted. But most of them wanted something that was pretty much what I wanted. 

When I felt ready, I marched to the center of the labyrinth and announced, “I want to be loved and loving.”

Seems simple enough. But it was hard to say that right out in front of God and everybody. Not that easy to write either. It’s much easier to dwell on how much better the world would be if somebody else straightened up.

As we left that class, I fell in beside the guy who said I was throttling back on the high school football coach verbal abuse theme.

I asked my standard opener. “So, how’d you get involved in this madness anyway?” 

“Well, I had this teacher in my dreams, an old Indian named Don Jose’.”

“You mean he appeared in your dreams.”

“Yeah, taught me a lot, and he said I’d find a teacher in the world, his son, a guy named Miguel, who also had three sons.”

“That’s pretty specific.”

“Yeah, and at that time I’d never heard of don Miguel, or the Four Agreements. Then one day I was browsing in a bookstore and a copy of the Four Agreements kind of fell into my hand. I mean, I looked, and there it was. So, I went to one of Miguel’s classes, and that was it.

“I told Miguel about it and described don Jose’. He said that was the way his father looked in dreams. He said these days he does more work in Dreaming than he does in real life.”

At dinner, I was seduced—note the passive voice to evade responsibility – into crowding my plate with all the desserts. Neither Atkins, nor the South Beach guy would have approved, but I had given them the day off. We ate in a large, screened enclosure behind the sales booths, at wooden picnic tables.

Jan Massey sat nearby. “You going to the mitote?” I asked.

“Don’t think so,” she replied. “I’m really tired.”

I told her about the medicine wheel, the eagle, and the stargate.

“That’s my favorite show,” she said, “I guess I have to go.”

I parked in an open field for the mitote. It was already dark, and about a hundred and fifty yards through the woods to the bonfire. I had not brought any camping gear to Tennessee, and no flashlight. 

No big thing. It’s been a while, but I can still roam the woods at night with no light, undetected. I’d borrowed the blanket from my motel bed, so I grabbed that and headed off into the night. The ground wasn’t particularly rough, and there was the bonfire to guide on. Piece of cake. 

At the Medicine Wheel

Other people came parallel to my route on a dirt road, waving flashlights. I hadn’t bothered to look for the road and just took off through the woods.

At the medicine wheel there were already about a hundred people. Most had come prepared, and there were a lot of foam pads, sheet plastic, sleeping bags, water bottles, all that stuff.

I sat on a stump and looked at the heat and light that pulsed and shifted deep in the fire. Taylor sat on a stump beside me and put her hand in mine. I held it for a while, and then she was gone, to touch another person with her special grace.

I looked to the right; Jan sat a few people away, also staring into the fire. There was lightness and joy in that moment.

Jose’, leading the mitote, went into one of his stemwinder speeches. If Jose’s beliefs were worded differently, he’d be a great Pentecostal preacher. Oratory rolls out of him. English is a second language, and a recent second language at that, but there is no question about what he is saying, or what he means. “My love for life, this passion, it makes me rave like a crazy man.”   

After a while, we went into the circle, with Jose’ still preaching. The idea was that we would drift in and out of sleep, and that our minds would see things in new ways, different combinations. Insights will come in these times. 

We were under the stars. I curled up in my cheap motel blanket. There was a moon. Clouds drifted across its face. 

When I finally got comfy, they got us up to stand around the fire again. Some of Jose’s apprentices took over the raving for a while. You never get really asleep; you never get really awake. Our attention was directed to the moon, watching clouds drift across it.

With everyone gathered around the fire again Jose’ came and stood directly in front of me as he continued his rolling epiphany. He was lightly dressed, and it was cold. I wrapped my arms and white hotel blanket around Jose, enfolded him in it. He stayed there for ten minutes, never slackened raving poetry, then, toasty warm for the moment, moved on.

Everybody went to grab some Z’s. By that time, my blanket was soaked with dew, so I stayed up, watched, and listened.

They wrapped the mitote about one a.m. Most of the people stayed and slept on the ground, but all I had was a wet blanket, and three days of little sleep. I was crowding seventy and not suicidal, so I drove back to the motel. Five hours to be back for the Circle of Fire ceremony, the close.

The next morning, I drove that winding road back to The Ranch. The sun was low, mists in the trees, slanting shadows across the road, eerie and beautiful.

At The Ranch I went to Lee’s house. Ted and Peggy were there with Lee and Mee, a simple frame house, plenty roomy and pleasant. Lee was in the john when we left for the ceremony. Mee ragged on him in a big shuck way through the door, gave him guff for holding us up. It takes a big personality to do the dance of life with Lee McCormick. We drove to the medicine wheel listening to the blissful New Age strains of Van Morrison’s Louie Louie.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan Mexico

I told them I’d be riding back with James Nihan. I wanted to pick up some of his CDs, one for me and two for my sisters.

The ceremony is a blur. I was strung out from lack of sleep, just fried. Everybody was in white, but sloppy about it, with colored hats, colored trim, or colored belts. White was prescribed, but loosely. I had dressed in the military way, where white means white. I wore an old Aikido gi, without the belt, and white sneakers.

We formed a circle around the wheel and Jose did ceremony with a full-sized sword. Miguel spoke. We did the prayer, powerful with a couple of hundred people. Later I got to thank Miguel for everything I’d learned in the past year. Yeah, it had only been a year and change since I interviewed him, and he ordered me to Teo. 

We were breaking up, and joyous as that gathering was there was sadness that we were leaving each other, going back to the world where everybody had not come to be loving and happy, where people actually got … cranky.

That afternoon I hung with Lee and Mee, and Ted and Peggy for a while, but was so sleepy I excused myself and went back to my motel.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon. I expected to go to sleep immediately but didn’t. I’d drunk so much coffee, fired myself up with ginseng. I was wired, wired and tired, sleepy and not sleeping, or maybe drifting in and out of sleep. The mitote was not over for me.

Just before midnight, when I finally did drift off, I got the insight. I was somehow outside “the circle that presses me” and saw my life as a pattern, a full sweep, like somebody else’s. 

The pattern had been a frantic search for love, followed by a frantic effort to break free, a revolving door of marriage and divorce. 

What I saw was that there was no door. The door was in my mind. I had just been revolving. The condition of my life was that I was loved and that I was free. I had always been loved, and I had always been free.

That is the condition of our lives.

Like resentment, the pattern will try to catch me again. But I’ve seen it now, and I can break it. 

Retired U.S. Army Special Forces Major Jim Morris served three tours with the Green Berets in Vietnam. He has worked as a civil rights advocate for the mountain peoples with whom he fought, the Montagnard, and his Vietnam memoir, War Story, won the first Bernal Diaz Award for military non-fiction. He has covered wars for Soldier of Fortune, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the Saturday Evening Post. For decades he has immersed himself in a deep study of Toltec shamanism. His book is available on Amazon.

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