I just finished reading Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book). Don Miguel Ruiz was raised in rural Mexico by his healer mother and his shaman grandfather. He became a surgeon, but after a car accident that nearly cost him his life, Ruiz returned home to learn from his mother. He then completed an apprenticeship under a shaman in the Mexican desert and moved to the United States. Ruiz says he is from the Eagle-Knight lineage and that The Four Agreements are based on ancient Toltec wisdom.
Reading Ruiz’s biography on the book’s inner flap rang some alarm bells as talk of healers, shamans, desert apprenticeships, Eagle-Knight lineage, and ancient Toltec wisdom tends to do. Reading online about Toltec culture, however, revealed that scholars/historians see the Toltecs “as largely a mythical and philosophical construct by either the Aztecs or Mesoamericans generally that served to symbolize the might and sophistication of several civilizations during the Mesoamerican Postclassic period. Furthermore, among the Nahuan peoples the word “Tolteca” was synonymous with artist, artisan or wise man, and “toltecayotl… This interpretation argues that any large urban center in Mesoamerica could be referred to as “Tollan” and its inhabitants as Toltecs – and that it was common practice among ruling lineages in Postclassic Mesoamerica to strengthen claims to power by claiming Toltec ancestry.” [Wikipedia]
While some elements of the book, such as Ruiz’s lineage, may be hard to believe, it’s worth putting aside disbelief and reading this book; it led me to take a closer look at my relationships and analyze some of my many shortcomings when it comes to how I communicate with others. It is fairly short (138 pages with the last 7 pages consisting of prayers), but it rambles on quite a bit (the book could easily be condensed into half its length). I’ve listed some of my takeaways from the book below, including some excerpts I especially liked.
We are domesticated animals
Ruiz coins the term “dream of the planet”, which he describes as:
The collective dream of billions of smaller, personal dreams, which together create a dream of a family, a dream of a community, a dream of a city, a dream of a country, and finally a dream of the whole humanity.
As children, we didn’t have the opportunity to choose our beliefs, but we agreed with the information that was passed to us from the dream of the planet via other humans. We didn’t choose these beliefs and we may have rebelled against them, but we were not strong enough to win the rebellion. The result is surrender to the beliefs with our agreement. I call this process the domestication of humans.
Most of the things we believe were passed on to us from parents, teachers, priests, friends, etc. We never challenge these beliefs (for example, a friend calling us ugly or a teacher calling us stupid) and they cloud our mind and prevent us from seeing things as they really are.
The First Agreement: Be Impeccable With Your Word
Whenever we hear an opinion and believe it, we make an agreement, and it becomes part of our belief system.
When you are impeccable, you take responsibility for your actions, but you do not judge or blame yourself.
Looking at everyday human interactions, imagine how many times we cast spells on each other with our word. Over time this interaction has become the worst form of black magic, and we call it gossip.
Don’t underestimate the power of our words. We have the power to ruin someone’s day or to lower someone’s self-esteem. Why not use that power to be kind and show our love and appreciation?
The Second Agreement: Don’t Take Anything Personally
Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know that is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.
You create an entire picture or movie in your mind, and in that picture you are the director, you are the producer, you are the main actor or actress. everyone else is a secondary actor or actress. It is your movie. The way that you see that movie is according to the agreements you have made with life. Your point of view is something personal to you. It’s no one’s truth but yours.
This really hit home for me. Not only is it something that I find myself doing often, but this idea reminded me of other things I’ve previously read. The idea that we are the center of our universes is perfectly stated by David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College [audio] [transcript]. Scott Adams [takeaways from his book here] often talks about how everyone sees the same event, yet comes to wildly different conclusions based on our beliefs and our “agreements” [article from Adams]. Finally, it reminds me of the parable of the Chinese farmer which eloquently states how difficult it is to accurately analyze the events currently happening in our life, both good and bad, without the benefit of hindsight.
The Third Agreement: Don’t Make Assumptions
We have the tendency to make assumptions about everything. The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth. We could swear they are real. We make assumptions about what others are doing or thinking - we take it personally - then we blame them and react by sending emotional poison with our word.
Find your voice to ask for what you want. Everybody has the right to tell you no or yes, but you always have the right to ask. Likewise, everybody has the right to ask you, and you have the right to say yes or no.
Real love is accepting other people the way they are without trying to change them. If we try to change them, this means we don’t really like them… Find someone whom you don’t have to change at all. It is much easier to find someone who is already the way you want him or her to be, instead of trying to change that person. Also, that person must love you just the way you are, so he or she doesn’t have to change you at all.
This agreement is closely related to the previous one. Relationships, especially those of the romantic kind (as I am beginning to learn), involve sacrifice and compromise. However, there’s a big difference between asking your partner to please not take forever when trying to head out (😁, sorry) or to please put his or her clothes in the closet and not all over the bed and floor (😒, please?) and asking them to change who they are at their core. If you want to be a nomad and spend your life traveling and they want to settle down or if you want to have multiple children and they don’t want any, it’s doubtful things will work out. Don’t take someone and make them your “improvement project”; be your own improvement project.
The Fourth Agreement: Always Do Your Best
Under any circumstance, always do your best, no more and no less. But keep in mind that your best is never going to be the same from one moment to the next… When you wake up refreshed and energized in the morning, your best will be better than when you are tired at night. Your best will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick, or sober as opposed to drunk. Your best will depend on whether you are feeling wonderful and happy, or upset, angry, or jealous.
I get angry at myself for “wasting” my days or for not improving my time every single time I run. I chastise myself and feel small when I look at people my age who’ve accomplished incredible things. Striving to be better and always improving is key, but constantly judging and putting yourself down is destructive. Keep the competition between past you and future you and have an inner scorecard.
I continually get caught in the ‘perfectionism trap’. As David Foster Wallace said, “Perfectionism is very dangerous. Because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in…it’s actually kind of tragic because you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.” [interview where he says this]
- We, like animals, are domesticated. From the moment we are born we are bombarded with different beliefs which we implicitly accept and rarely examine.
- Many of these beliefs (or agreements) are harmful. For example, when you were young a classmate told you your laugh was annoying and you grew repressing your laughter as you believed it was annoying.
- By breaking these harmful agreements and putting positive agreements in their place, we can be happier.
- Four positive agreements to get you started:
- Be impeccable with your word
- Don’t take anything personally
- Don’t make assumptions
- Always do your best
Whatever life takes away from you, let it go. When you surrender and let go of the past, you allow yourself to be fully alive in the moment. Letting go of the past means you can enjoy the dream that is happening right now.