This is the 25th post in my 30 for 30/30 series where I am publishing a new post each day for the next 30 days within a 30-minute window without much of a plan. You can read about why I’m doing this by clicking this link.
Not long ago I read Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements. It’s one of those books that, over the decades, has crossed my path on numerous occasions. As a perennial bestseller, it’s nearly always featured in a display in the personal growth/spiritual sections at most chain and mom-and-pop bookstores.
A few months ago this happened again and the book intersected with me in a particularly synchronistic manner.
On a break from work, I walked next door to the Specialities cafe and ordered some coffee to go from the Peet’s Coffee and Tea inside. As I entered through a side entrance, I noticed a stack of Ruiz’s book on a table. I observed it and went over to get my coffee.
As I approached the same exit, a well-dressed man about my age, with whiteish hair and a clean-shaven face, was sitting at the table and was going over some other materials. I stopped, he looked up and we had a brief conversation.
“Hello,” I said. “Are these copies for a book club?”
“Yes, they are,” he replied. His blue-gray eyes sparkled and a smile spread across his face. It was almost like he knew what I was going to say next.
“You know, this book has crossed my path numerous times over the past few years but I’ve never read it.”
“You should,” he said looking deeply into my eyes.
As I often do in these situations I averted his gaze, self consciously protecting myself…but from what?
He continued, “You should just read the inside flap, then make your decision.”
Still a bit in awe of this encounter, I said that I would, wished him a good day, and went back to work.
That evening after work, I drove to a local bookstore and purchased the book.
If you’ve not read the book and want to without having the four agreements elucidated, stop reading now and go buy the book. If you keep reading, still read the book as I highly recommend it.
It wasn’t difficult to heed the advice from the man inside the cafe because the inside flap of the paperback is folded in a manner that functions as a bookmark for readers. The Four Agreements were individually summarized on this inside flap.
This essay is about my reactions to each agreement and suggestions for applying them to our collective lives.
In the book Ruiz, a Toltec shaman, elder, and healer, established several presuppositions (in italics):
- We’re all domesticated from a young age and it leaves us living by a set of rules we haven’t chosen ourselves. We adopt rules that might involve the religion and social values of our parents. Sooner or later, we all need to decide on rules that work for us based on our own truths and values.
- What people say and do to you is a reflection on them, not you. In its elemental state, the behavior of others has nothing to do with us, although we sometimes are on the receiving end of it. It certainly feels like it has everything to do with us. To see beyond this egocentric perspective, we can see that the rule is true.
- If you know who you are, you won’t take things personally. Taking what others say to and about us on a personal level violates the assumption above. When we take it personally, we make it about us and that is what the other person is hoping for.
- We can transcend the rules we are currently living by. The four agreements can serve as our guide to choosing rules that make sense for us.
Agreement 1 – Be Impeccable with Your Word
By the time we reach adulthood, most of us realize that lying and misleading others is a reflection of our own character defects. As children and teens, we experiment with the truth and, unless we are raised by narcissistic parents, we eventually view and adopt truth-telling as a matter of personal integrity. Those who fail to see this link between truth and integrity will never develop anything but shallow relationships and have difficulty earning the respect of others.
Application – Speaking only truth is as critical to our personal integrity as oxygen is to our continued existence. If our oxygen supply is altered, even for a few minutes, we can suffer immeasurable harm. Being impeccable with our truth, our speech, our actions, and our behavior can nourish our character and our integrity as well as the ability to inspire trust and respect.
Agreement 2 – Don’t Take Anything Personally
We take things personally when we agree with what others have said. When we do not agree, the things that others say cannot affect us emotionally. When we do not care about what others think about us, their words or behavior cannot affect us. I’m in a point in my life where I don’t care a whit about what others think of me. I write, I publish, I dress in all black every day, I make an effort to be kind to others, and none of this is meant to affect how others feel or perceive me. It’s become a personal code of behavior that satisfied me and me alone.
Application – On a business trip last week, my boss started conveying his opinions about the development of our project. Had I taken personally what he had to say it, which I did at the outset of his speech, I’d have become negatively affected and possibly depressed. As he continued with his address I was suddenly aware of this agreement. I realized that his opinion of me didn’t matter, at least not to me. And in a single moment, everything inside me changed. I was able to hear the points he was making and not take them as personal criticism.
Agreement 3 – Don’t Make Assumptions
When we make assumptions, it is because we believe we know what others are thinking and feeling. We believe we know their point of view, their dream, or their argument. We forget that our beliefs are just our own points of view based on our own belief system and our own personal experiences. These often have nothing to do with what others think and feel.
Application – This agreement is about clarity in communication, both in listening and in speaking. The first in Buddhism’s eight-fold path for life is ‘holding an appropriate view.’ This view isn’t fixed like so many of ours often are, but one that remains open to other possibilities as well as recognizing another’s right to hold different views. Instead of having one fixed view, find the courage to ask questions about contrasting views and be very clear about what your views are. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.
Agreement 4 – Always Do Your Best
We often are mistaken about what it means to do our best. Instead of insisting that our best equals perfection, it’s simply the best we can do right now. Doing our best is a moment-by-moment evaluation; your best efforts differ when you are ill versus when you are healthy. They differ in times of stress versus when we are well rested. Doing your best at any given time also means enjoying the action without expecting a reward. The pleasure comes from doing your best is a mindful involvement in the process and not from any reward or compensation.
Application – To return to the example above about my boss and his relative displeasure with the status of a project, I made the determination in a few seconds that what had been accomplished thus far was the best for now. Not only had I missed 10 days of work due to a viral illness, but the timeline for developing the project was also acceptable to me. I needn’t feel bad about not achieving his version of perfection. Given the situation, it represented my best. His assessment was his problem and not mine.
Ruiz’s makes this point repetitively in the book:
With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
Each of these four agreements, if made in earnest and practiced on a consistent basis, has the potential to completely transform our lives. That, in my opinion, is the timeless message of the book.
I suggest that you 1) read the book carefully, for Ruiz makes many excellent points and analogies for each agreement, and 2) work on one agreement at a time – the one that resonates the most with you when reading the book.
(a little longer than 30 minutes)