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 Four Agreements are simple ways to release ourselves from "dreams" imposed from outside us.