While we educate our clients on the value of a 12 Step recovery program and the working a regimented program, we also recommend a variety of outside literature to those who express interest. One of the books we most frequently lend our clients is The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. Utilizing the principles of Toltec wisdom, this book discusses the manner in which we essentially create our own reality. By harnessing the power of the Four Agreements, we shape our view of the world around us and learn to create a better life for ourselves in recovery.
Ruiz opens the book by taking us back to our childhood, when we knew how to accept life on life’s terms. He believes that we are never more honest with ourselves and those around us than when we are in our youth. But as we mature, we begin noticing the less favorable aspects of life, the horrors that so long ago escaped from Pandora’s box. The adults in our lives shape the way we think. They may instill within us a sense of worth, or a lack thereof. When people tell us that we are talented, we make an agreement with ourselves to believe that this is so. By contrast, we also make agreements to believe those who call us stupid, ugly, annoying or just plain worthless.
As we solidify these agreements over time, they shape our reality—what Ruiz calls our “dream.” In this sense, everything around us becomes illusory. If our agreements focus on fear and self-doubt, the dream becomes a hellacious nightmare. We must replace these negative agreements with new ones, based on love and freedom. In so doing, we replace our personal hell with a dream of heaven. We do this through repetition of the Four Agreements, which are as follows.
Agreement #1 – Be Impeccable with Your Word
Of all the Four Agreements, this one most informs our behavior. Just as others influence us with their words, we influence others as well. We must therefore use our words lovingly, speaking always with integrity. Naturally, the First Agreement suggests that we must speak honestly. We should say only what we mean, never making false promises. Speaking harshly to others, or fueling our words with dishonesty and hate rather than truth and love, only mires us deeper within the dark dream from which we currently endeavor to escape.
We apply this not only to the words we use with others, but also to the words we use with ourselves. The word “impeccable” means without sin, and self-rejection is the greatest sin of all. If we fill our minds with self-defacing thoughts and irrational fears, we become more likely to turn these feelings on others. But by loving ourselves, we become more able to treat others with kindness.
Not only do we affirm ourselves and others while maintaining honesty to the best of our ability, but we also steer clear of poisonous gossip. When we use our words for the purposes of deceit or blatant character assassination, we do great disservice to ourselves and our spirituality. However, by remaining truthful and loving, we maintain our integrity and move ever closer to spiritual fulfillment. Without veracity of self and love for others, we stand little chance at fulfilling the rest of the Four Agreements.
Agreement #2 – Don’t Take Anything Personally
Just as we sometimes turn our own self-rejection on others, we must remember that others often do the same. When someone tries to fill us with poison by insulting our looks or our character, this reflects not upon our reality but upon theirs. Their word springs from the agreements they make with themselves. Those who truly love themselves will not spend their time seeking the belittlement of others. When someone speaks ill of us, we must respect that their dream, their perception of reality, has been darkened by some internal source of negativity. In so doing, we can respect that this person’s actions have nothing to do with us.
Failure to accept the Second Agreement often leads to needless suffering. When we take things personally, we enable continuation of the most dangerous agreement that we made us children—that the manner in which others perceive us is somehow a reflection of who we are. By agreeing not to take anything personally, we accept our real truth, embracing our true identity. We free ourselves from the burden of constantly worrying whether others see us accurately.
Not only do we worry less about how others see us, but we also learn to love others with true compassion. We learn to feel for those who still live with the bondage of negative agreements. As we embrace the Four Agreements and accept that not everybody lives in the same dream, we can begin to love others with empathy, regardless of whether they choose to love us back. We love without condition, exception or judgment. And the greater we develop this love for others, we become more open to the love we feel for ourselves.
Agreement #3 – Don’t Make Assumptions
The Third Agreement illustrates just how closely the Four Agreements relate to one another. For just as we must agree not to take personally the words or actions of others, we must also not take personally their thoughts—especially when we can never truly know them. The key to the Third Agreement therefore lies in communication. It takes great courage to ask questions, but we must do so in order to better understand others and the manner in which they perceive the world around them.
We often hold grudges or resentments based on sheer misunderstanding. Naturally, we cannot always expect to hear the truth when we ask others of their motives or intentions. But even choosing to believe a falsehood is better than choosing to hold another in contempt despite lack of evidence.
Just as we must ask others to communicate, we must also make our own intentions clear. Another common source of resentment is the belief that others have spurned us. We believe that those who love us and know us well should also know our wants and needs. In short, we expect them to read our minds. We then feel angry or betrayed when they deny us what we want.
For instance, we may cook for someone, expecting them to repay this kindness by helping us clean up afterward. We assume that, since we did them a favor without provocation, they will return the favor without our needing to ask. A dirty dish may then become a week-long feud, simply because we did not communicate our desires.
We may falter on our practice of the Four Agreements from time to time. But our ability to practice just this one will change our lives and relationships for the better. When we learn to communicate openly and honestly, we gain better insight into the dreams of others while simultaneously allowing them a better glimpse of our own.
Agreement #4 – Always Do Your Best
Do not expect yourself to practice the Four Agreements with perfection, for no such thing as perfection truly exists. Striving to do more than you are capable, or more than a given situation requires, will not get you anywhere. In The Four Agreements, Ruiz tells the following story:
“There was a man who wanted to transcend his suffering so he went to a Buddhist temple to find a Master to help him. He went to the Master and asked, ‘Master, if I meditate four hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?’
The Master looked at him and said, ‘If you meditate four hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in ten years.’
Thinking he could do better, the man then said, ‘Oh, Master, what if I meditated eight hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?’
The Master looked at him and said, ‘If you meditate eight hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in twenty years.’
‘But why will it take me longer if I meditate more?’ the man asked.
The Master replied, ‘You are not here to sacrifice your joy or your life. You are here to live, to be happy, and to love. If you can do your best in two hours of meditation, but you spend eight hours instead, you will only grow tired, miss the point, and you won’t enjoy your life. Do your best, and perhaps you will learn that no matter how long you meditate, you can live, love, and be happy.’”
This does not mean that you should slack off and chalk it up to doing your best. Sit on the front row of your life. Love with intensity. Work productively. Perform good deeds not for reward but for the sake of the deeds themselves. And when you stumble, do not judge yourself too harshly. Your best will change from moment to moment, depending on your mood, your health, and the various situations which crop up in your life. But as long as you always try to follow the right course of action, no one can accuse you of doing less than your best. You can therefore avoid remorse and self-loathing, knowing that you always strive to bring out your best self.
Using the Four Agreements to Break Old Ones
Through repetition of the Four Agreements, you will slowly begin breaking down agreements that have been holding you back throughout the bulk of your adult life. You will become the master of your own awareness. Over time, you will completely transform your intent from one of fear to one of love.
Ruiz suggests to think of your mind as a skin. When it becomes infected, you cover it up to keep from hurting. But when you begin to heal, you can open yourself to the world without fear of pain.
Live as if each day may be your last, always maintaining gratitude for the present. Learn to close your eyes and see the world in a different light every time you open them. Live free from fear of expressing your dreams. More importantly, let the Four Agreements guide you from fear of judgment or of judging others. Allow them to grant you freedom from fear of loving or of being hurt. We so often choose to suffer, to live in a hellish dream of our own design. Choose to set aside the hell of your past, and allow the Four Agreements to teach you how to love and embrace a new heaven of your choosing.