Don Miguel Angel Ruiz was born in August 1952, so he’s not much older than I am, but he’s changed the lives of many in a way that I never will. (“Don” is a title of respect, by the way, not a first name.) He is a Mexican author of books containing Toltec spiritual wisdom of the native people of southern Mexico. His most influential work was The Four Agreements (Los Cuatro Acuerdos in Spanish), published in 1997. It is a very short book, concisely but elegantly written. The implications of the four agreements are profound, despite their simplicity.
In the early 1970s, Ruiz had a car accident that changed the course of his life. Although he had been raised by a mother who was a traditional healer (curandera) and a grandfather who was a shaman (nagual), he had left the traditional ways behind, and was in his final year of medical school. The accident was severe, but Ruiz was unhurt, and he had a spiritual experience that he couldn’t explain, so he turned to the Toltec wisdom of his ancestors for answers. This led to a lifelong quest to become a nagual, like his grandfather. His book, The Four Agreements, did not become famous until it was mentioned by Ellen DeGeneres, who was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1999. Oprah was so impressed that she read the book that night, ordered 500 copies, and suggested to her millions of viewers that they might want to buy it as a holiday gift item.
Don Miguel is fluent in English and Spanish, and has often given lectures and led retreats in the United States. In 2002 he suffered a massive heart attack and was in a coma for nine weeks. He has since recovered, from the heart attack and received a heart transplant in October, 2010. He trained his son, Don José Luis, in the Toltec teachings. These days, Don Miguel is in retirement, and his son now carries on his work, combining new insights with ancient Toltec wisdom.
Don José Luis had his own spiritual experience: in his early 20s, he lost his eyesight and was told he would never see again. He had a vivid dream in which he was told that he must surrender to his fears and embrace love. He was given to understand that he had a choice to be a victim or a
“great warrior who accepts the gift of life and everything it brings.” Eventually, he regained his eyesight. In collaboration with his father, he has written a book called The Fifth Agreement.
The four agreements are easy to understand and remember, but hard to put into practice without…. well, practice. Here they are, in Don Miguel’s words, with a little commentary from me.
Agreement #1: “Be impeccable with your word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.”
It’s easy to speak without thinking. We do it all the time. But since we create with our thoughts and words, it is important for us to monitor what comes out of our mouths. Sometimes we say things that aren’t strictly true, with the idea that we are shielding the listener from a truth that he or she cannot handle. When we do this, we are making a judgment based on our own beliefs, not necessarily on the facts or on the wishes of our listener. Instead, we must learn to speak the truth with tact and grace, or simply refrain from saying anything.
Americans, especially, are prone to making “social promises” that don’t necessarily mean anything. “We’ll have to do lunch sometime,” is a prime example of this. We end up saying things like this when we have no intention whatsoever of following up on the promise, because it has become a socially acceptable way of getting away from someone we don’t really want to be with. In doing this, we are not really protecting the other person. We are only trying to protect ourselves from having to realize how uncomfortable we are.
We make promises to our children, too, mainly to get them off our backs. I learned very early in my teaching career never to promise children something that I could not deliver on. It was a harsh lesson, but one that stood me in good stead as the years passed.
Agreement #2: “Don’t take anything personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”
So many arguments and misunderstandings come about when we take things that people do or say personally. Remembering, especially when people are reacting in anger, that “it’s their own stuff” that they’re dealing with can help to keep us calm and balanced. The key is not to react to what other people say or do, because then you are simply an “effect” of their words or actions. Being able to stay calm and step back instead of lashing back at the person can help us arrive at a more reasonable and appropriate response, if one is called for.
When we care what other people think of us, when we strive for their approval or try to avoid their disapproval or criticism, we are giving them power over us. We often end up doing things that do not represent who we are. We do things for others but never for ourselves. This leads to suffering in the sense of feeling put upon by others, as well as the bad feelings caused by others’ rejection. When we learn to allow others to think what they will without engaging our emotions, we become free to be who we truly are.
Agreement #3: “Don’t make assumptions – Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”
If you read a romance novel, you find that much of the story consists of people making assumptions about the other’s words or behavior. Seriously, how many romances have you read where the two lovers, in each other’s arms at last, say, “I thought you didn’t love me because you…(fill in the blank).” The reason these novels are so popular is because we’ve all done this sort of second-guessing with someone we’re interested in but haven’t fully committed to yet.
Clear communication is an art, and one that will stand us in good stead throughout life. Being able to say how we really feel, ask for clarification, and get our needs met is like lubricating ball bearings in a machine. Everything in life just goes more smoothly.
Agreement #4: “Always do your best – Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”
When we do our best, rather than trying to get by with only what is necessary, we can move forward with a free conscience, knowing that we won’t have to second-guess ourselves or offer excuses later. Notice that Don Miguel suggests that we give ourselves some slack for the times when we are not at our best, physically or emotionally. It takes a little more time and effort to do our best, and others may never notice how carefully we completed our task, but remember that we must do “the right thing” regardless of what others think. It’s a spiritual discipline to do our best.
The Fifth Agreement goes like this: “Be skeptical, but learn to listen. Don’t believe yourself or anybody else. Use the power of doubt to question everything you hear: Is it really the truth? Listen to the intent behind the words, and you will understand the real message.”
I don’t believe this means to be skeptical with a rebellious attitude. Rather, it means to learn to evaluate what others say or write, regardless of how great an “authority” they may be on the subject. Listening for the intent behind the words takes a lot of practice, and it’s important to avoid making assumptions (See Agreement #3) about what others really mean, or how they are feeling. Continue to ask for clarification about what you don’t understand, and learn to do your own research, rather than taking another person’s word for it, even if you trust the person implicitly, because remember that the other person may have accepted that same idea from someone else without checking first. I certainly wish more people on the Internet, and especially on Facebook, would learn to do this. Too many of us have ignorantly passed along misinformation that we got from a friend’s Facebook status or a forwarded email from a friend.
I’m no expert, but I can tell you that I have started to keep these agreements with myself, and I have to say that life goes a lot more smoothly when I remember to be careful what comes out of my mouth, avoid taking things personally and making assumptions, give everything my best effort, and entertain new ideas with an open mind. 🙂