Note: This is first of a series of articles first published elsewhere. I dedicate this post to my good friend Lloyd, who first told me about The Four Agreements.
Mesoamerican shamanism is a subcategory of New Age thought, of which Carlos Castaneda's writings are the best known. However, don Miguel Ruiz distills this school of thought, softens and considerably demystifies it in his first book, The Four Agreements. This is a practical sort of knowledge that addresses everyday obstacles to serenity, joy and successful relationships.
Much of childhood consists of learning what Ruiz calls "the dream of the planet" - what we might call the conventional wisdom. We are taught the viewpoints of our parents, then our teachers, friends and leaders. We internalize what we are taught, and when we choose to agree with those teachings, they become ours. Ruiz refers to this as "the domestication of humans." After awhile, what we think are "beliefs" are more like laws to us -- we dare not deviate from them. Our human brains are sophisticated enough to judge the "wrong" thoughts with guilt (punishing ourselves) and blame (punishing others).
Ruiz discusses the concept of hell, which is shared by numerous religions around the world. We create hell inside ourselves, he says, with such emotions as anger, envy, jealousy and hate (all of which come from fear). These emotions create a fire within us; guilt and blame keep that fire burning throughout the eternity of our existence.
The first agreement is, "Be impeccable with your word" - elsewhere in the book modified to "the word." It is interesting to note that the Gospel of John starts with "In the beginning was the Word." Don Miguel Ruiz suggests that your word is where your truth begins, and so it is important to be mindful of what you say. A parent who tells a child "You will never amount to anything" may just be expressing momentary disappointment, but such words can wound and discourage a child for the rest of his life -- and in this way, those words become reality for the child. The parent sees the unsuccessful child years later, and usually has no idea that those unthinking words helped to create this unfortunate reality. Positive, uplifting words, in which we express an ideal, are often scarce in our lives. We long to hear them, but we have the power to speak them. The same is true of the words we speak to ourselves. Instead of using words that predict failure or lack, we should give ourselves words that encourage and visualize our "personal dream of heaven."
The second agreement is, "Don't Take Anything Personally." This agreement invites us to unlearn a lifetime of internalizing careless words spoken to us. If someone says we are stupid, ugly or no good, it makes no sense to take it personally. Remember that the speaker is mirroring things s/he has learned throughout life. It is important to remember the opposite as well. When someone tells us we are wonderful or perfect, it is wise to remember that those words reflect the speaker's truth. There may come a time when what we do is less wonderful and perfect, and the same speaker may use that occasion to try to knock us down instead of building us up. We should never allow any situation to become "all about us," because without the teaching given to the speaker, we'd never be hearing those words in the first place. In the same way, self-talk isn't always about us, either. What you say to yourself, about yourself, is often something you heard from someone else -- again, from their dream -- so it shouldn't be allowed to land on you and linger.
The third agreement is, "Don't Make Assumptions." This is a useful habit to form, because it prevents us from constructing truths out of lies. If, during your formative years, family members often turned away from you in silence to express disapproval, when a co-worker does this, it is easy to assume that the same message is being passed via that same body language. But what you don't realize is that in some families, children are taught to think quietly about situations without speaking. The fact that someone is being quiet in your presence has everything to do with their truth, and little or nothing to do with yours. We waste time and energy when we make assumptions. It is like borrowing someone else's life experience without asking permission. We also should not assume that others close to us automatically understand what we are thinking without us having to speak. Making assumptions is something we do in an effort to feel safe, but it is a false sense of safety.
The fourth agreement is, "Always Do Your Best." I personally find this the most comforting and liberating of all the Agreements, because it acknowledges that we operate on varying levels of energy, competence, accuracy and awareness at different times. We need to make peace with ourselves, forgive ourselves, and at the same time, encourage ourselves. On a day when we are tired, hungry or feeling ill, we may try very hard but not attain the same level of success that we would on a day when we are rested, well-nourished and healthy.To punish ourselves for this perceived "failure" is unfair, because we need to understand that our "best" will never be higher on a bad day. We demonstrate a lack of faith in ourselves when we deny ourselves the chance to excel on a good day.
Using the Four Agreements can help free us from the shackles that have grown around our spirits as we have grown. Don Miguel Ruiz points out that very young children, who have not yet become "domesticated," are often seen running happy and free, with wide smiles.It is still possible to live that type of life, creating positive realities with our words, doing our best without taking on the burden of someone else's reality.
Forgiveness and self-control are among the other tools that don Miguel Ruiz teaches in this small but powerful book. It is a practice that does not require silence or isolation, but can be used all day, every day. It is a book for young and old.