In his book The Four Agreements Don Miguel Ruiz outlines four simple principles, or “agreements” that one can practice to radically change one’s experience and perception of the human experience.
Once a doctor, Ruiz’s life took a dramatic turn when he was in a car accident and had an out-of-body experience. It was then that he realized he needed to pursue the study of the wisdom tradition passed down through his family.
The wisdom tradition of his family was that of the Toltecs, an ancient Mesoamerican people who were the intellectual and cultural predecessors to the Aztecs. Ruiz became a shaman in the Toltec tradition and a spiritual teacher.
After 15 years of teaching and learning about methods of healing the human mind, Ruiz wrote The Four Agreements, a concise, practical guide to his most fundamental lessons.
Domestication and the Dream of the Planet
Ruiz opens the book with what can be thought of as the overarching conceptual framework of the book. He writes:
“There are thousands of agreements you have made with yourself, with other people, with your dream of life, with God, with society, with your parents, with your spouse, with your children. But the most important agreements are the ones you made with yourself. In these agreements you tell yourself who you are, what you feel, what you believe, and how to behave. The result is what you call your personality. In these agreements you say, “This is what I am. This is what I believe. I can do certain things, and some things I cannot do. This is reality, that is fantasy; this is possible, that is impossible.”
The agreements Ruiz is speaking of can be thought of as ways of thinking and acting that we have either knowingly or unknowingly agreed to follow. His whole idea is that many of these agreements are entirely self-limiting, insidious, backwards, and harmful.
Ruiz suggests that each of our individual lives can be thought of as a “waking dream.” What he means by this is that our subjective experience is essentially a personal illusion that we create through the beliefs we’ve agreed to hold.
He explains his idea of the “dream of the planet,” which is the collective illusion that the people and societies of history have created for us. This dream of the planet can be thought of as the sum of the status quo beliefs, the social norms, and the cultural paradigms into which we are all indoctrinated.
Unfortunately, the “dream of the planet” is severely misleading. Ruiz posits that the dream of our planet has become one of blind consumption, growth for the sake of growth, shallow communication, constant judgment, and widespread apathy.
Because we are raised within the dream of the planet, many of its norms and widespread “agreements” become engrained in our consciousness. Ruiz calls us “auto-domesticated animals,” noting that it’s exceedingly difficult for us to challenge the thousands of agreements that we’ve made with society and with ourselves.
However, if our waking dream is one that does not agree with us — one of fear, self-destruction, or anxiety — we can reevaluate our core beliefs about how to act. Ruiz suggests that this is the only way to transform our waking dream from a veritable “hell” into a proverbial “heaven.”
He goes on to outline four simple agreements (surprisingly easy to understand, quite difficult to practice) that, if we affirm and live by, will dramatically transform our waking dream:
1. Be Impeccable with Your Word
The first and most important agreement is to be impeccable with your word. Ruiz writes:
“Gossiping has become the main form of communication in human society. It has become the way we feel close to each other, because it makes us feel better to see someone else feel as badly as we do. There is an old expression that says, “Misery likes company,” and people who are suffering in hell don’t want to be all alone. Fear and suffering are an important part of the dream of the planet; they are how the dream of the planet keeps us down.”
In this chapter, Ruiz stresses that words are infinitely powerful. We often consider them as nothing more than a tool or a means to an end, but words, in fact, control and shape our lives more than we can fathom.
And, in the dream of the planet, many of our societies have developed a state of affairs in which words are used maliciously — to lie, slander, blame, or complain — constantly. Using words in this way fuels the fear and suffering that are present in our lives, so we should strive to “be impeccable” with our word, rather than contemptible. Ruiz writes:
“Being impeccable with your word is the correct use of your energy; it means to use your energy in the direction of truth and love for yourself. If you make an agreement with yourself to be impeccable with your word, just with that intention, the truth will manifest through you and clean all the emotional poison that exists within you. But making this agreement is difficult because we have learned to do precisely the opposite. We have learned to lie as a habit of our communication with others and more importantly with ourselves.”
Basically, we need to focus on using our words in entirely the opposite way that most people do. We need to use words as a vehicle for speaking our truth, for kindness, for compassion, for good-natured humor, for camaraderie, for sharing, for compliment, for art.
If we do this, toward others and ourselves, according to Ruiz, we will undergo a sort of cleansing that will annihilate much of our fear and suffering.
“Use the word in the correct way. Use the word to share your love. Use white magic, beginning with yourself. Tell yourself how wonderful you are, how great you are. Tell yourself how much you love yourself.”
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
The second agreement is to take nothing personally. Ruiz writes:
“You take (things) personally because you agree with whatever was said. As soon as you agree, the poison goes through you, and you are trapped in the dream of hell. What causes you to be trapped is what we call personal importance. Personal importance, or taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about “me.” During the period of our education, or our domestication, we learn to take everything personally. We think we are responsible for everything. Me, me, me, always me!”
We are hardwired to place the most importance upon ourselves. Society only further conditions us to do so. However, when we elevate ourselves on a precarious tower of superiority, we are essentially waiting for the smallest stone to knock us down.
When we focus too much on ourselves, we grow insecure and take ourselves far too seriously. Then, when anyone says or does anything against us, it cuts us to the core. Conversely, if we can take the focus off of ourselves, we will become much more impervious to mistreatment. Ruiz writes:
“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 what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.”
Ruiz emphasizes the supreme necessity of understanding that what other people do is always a result of themselves. If someone is trying to make you suffer, it is likely because they are jealous of you, or have suffered much themselves, or are afraid. Therefore, taking their actions personally is only consenting to partake in their suffering. Ruiz writes:
“Don’t take anything personally because by taking things personally you set yourself up to suffer for nothing. Humans are addicted to suffering at different levels and to different degrees, and we support each other in maintaining these addictions. Humans agree to help each other suffer. If you have the need to be abused, you will find it easy to be abused by others.”
Suffering is unnecessary, he says. We are conditioned to crave suffering because we believe that we deserve it for various reasons. In actuality, we don’t deserve it. Ruiz concludes this chapter by explaining that once we are able to make a habit of trying to take nothing personally, we will begin to experience a shift.
Our sense of worth will no longer be based upon the validation or condemnation of other people. It will be based on our own sense of responsibility to ourselves. It will be based on whether we are living in accordance with what we feel is right for us, rather than what others think about us. Only then will we escape the torment of allowing others to scar us with their words and actions.
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
The third agreement is to stop making assumptions. This is very similar to the Buddhist notion that expectation is at the root of our suffering. When we expect things to be a certain way, we resist accepting what is real. Ruiz writes:
“If others tell us something, we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand, we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions. The assumptions are made so fast and unconsciously most of the time because we have agreements to communicate this way. We have agreed that it is not safe to ask questions; we have agreed that if people love us, they should know what we want or how we feel. When we believe something we assume we are right about it to the point that we will destroy relationships in order to defend our position.”
Ruiz stresses that making assumptions in our communication and our relationships has become commonplace in our modern world. We do this unthinkingly, forming a vision in our minds of what is happening between us and other people instead of asking questions and generating real dialogue. Ruiz continues:
“We make the assumption that everyone sees life the way we do. We assume that others think the way we think, feel the way we feel, judge the way we judge, and abuse the way we abuse. This is the biggest assumption that humans make. And this is why we have a fear of being ourselves around others. Because we think everyone else will judge us, victimize us, abuse us, and blame us as we do ourselves. So even before others have a chance to reject us, we have already rejected ourselves. That is the way the human mind works.”
The worst assumption we can make, according to Ruiz, is the assumption that everyone experiences life in the same way that we do, or that they should. Mankind is endlessly diverse, and while we have much in common, our differences make our species more rich and beautiful.
By silently expecting everyone around us to conform to our ways of seeing, thinking, and acting, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. As Ruiz notes, we’re also creating a situation in our minds in which we believe that everyone around us judges and condemns in the same way that we do. This leads to a fear of being ourselves and creates discordance within ourselves and in our relationships. Ruiz concludes:
“The way to keep yourself from making assumptions is to ask questions. Make sure the communication is clear. If you don’t understand, ask. Have the courage to ask questions until you are clear as you can be, and even then do not assume you know all there is to know about a given situation.”
It is integral that we keep our communication open, honest, and filled with questions. In this way, our assumptions can be replaced by what is real. Furthermore, we should try to cultivate an awareness of our assumptions and the ways in which those assumptions are coloring our views and determining our actions. When we are aware, we can begin to dismantle them.
4. Always Do Your Best
The final agreement is to always do your best. Ruiz writes:
“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. Everything is alive and changing all the time, so your best will sometimes be high quality, and other times it will not be as good. When you wake up refreshed and energized in the morning, your best will be better than when you are tired at night.”
So in any situation, we should try to put our best foot forward, to give the greatest effort that we can muster. Sometimes our best will appear significant, and sometimes it will appear pathetic. The important thing is to try. Ruiz continues:
“Doing your best is taking the action because you love it, not because you’re expecting a reward. Most people do exactly the opposite: They only take action when they expect a reward, and they don’t enjoy the action. And that’s the reason why they don’t do their best.”
Ruiz makes an interesting distinction here. Doing our best doesn’t simply relate to putting forth maximum effort as we blindly do any given thing. It also relates to our intentions – the why, the reason we do things. Ruiz emphasizes that we should do things because we love to do them whenever possible, and that this will make it easier for us to do our best and to enjoy ourselves. Ruiz concludes:
“Action is about living fully. Inaction is the way that we deny life. Inaction is sitting in front of the television every day for years because you are afraid to be alive and to take the risk of expressing what you are. Expressing what you are is taking action. You can have many great ideas in your head, but what makes the difference is the action.”
So doing our best also means taking action. That isn’t to say that we aren’t warranted in taking breaks, going slowly, relaxing, and finding time for play. It simply means that action must play an important role in our lives because it is through action that we manifest an expression of ourselves in the world. In expressing ourselves fully and purely, we are doing our best.
Breaking Old Agreements
Near the end of the book, Ruiz explains that it is an extraordinary challenge to practice living up to these four agreements. It takes great discipline and determination, and we will surely falter along the way.
He then includes a section on breaking old agreements, which is an integral aspect of forming new ones. He explains:
“The worst part is that most of us are not even aware that we are not free. There is something inside that whispers to us that we are not free, but we do not understand what it is, and why we are not free. […] The first step toward personal freedom is awareness. We need to be aware that we are not free in order to be free. […] Forgiveness is the only way to heal. We can choose to forgive because we feel compassion for ourselves. We can let go of the resentment and declare, “That’s enough!”
Essentially, we must first recognize that we are a slave to the limiting agreements we have made with ourselves and society. If our beliefs are inflexible, we’ve left ourselves no room to change our actions or redirect our course in life.
So, what we must do first is strive to become more aware of ourselves and our interactions with the world. We must try to understand how our attitudes and beliefs are informing everything that we do, and we must attempt to notice when the agreements we follow are leading to drama and negative circumstances in our lives.
Ruiz stresses that this is a difficult process, and that we must choose to forgive ourselves and others for transgressions. After all, we are only human.
By doing this — by developing awareness and an attitude of forgiveness — Ruiz holds that we can begin to walk the path of the four agreements in earnest and observe the profound effect they will have on our life. Then, we will have initiated the process of transforming not only our personal dream, but also the dream of the planet, from hell into heaven.
Photo by Tanner Schut.