By Don Miguel Ruiz
Publication Year: 1997
Tags: New Age, Philosophy
I’m willing to admit that I may not “get” this volume simply because I don’t agree with several of the ways in which these Four Agreements are described. The basis of the concept has been described in many similar volumes over the years: This consciousness is not All There Is, and what we call “reality” is, in fact, a sort of unconscious agreement as to what is “real”. Ruiz refers to all this as a form of “domestication”, being changed from a “truly free person” into a sort of societal “pet”. This occurs, he says, because we learn and “agree” with all the things we’re taught, regardless of whether or not such “agreements” actually help us. This, Ruiz, explains, is our prison in which we live our lives, all the while imagining that we are “free” when we are in fact devoutly unhappy.
Not much argument from me, thus far. As far back as third grade, I learned not to be smarter than my teachers; they really don’t like that very much. I learned a lot of other things, including body-shaming and other self-demoralizing ideas that we have such cute names for these days. I could even agree (if you’ll pardon the expression) that my socialization, like that of so many other artists and thinkers, was designed to box me in wherever possible. Whatever isn’t “normal”, such as artistic talent, intelligence, empathy, concern, curiosity, or interest in anything that doesn’t make a profit, is to be frowned upon and beaten out of you at the earliest opportunity. It is exceedingly difficult to maintain any sort of genuine originality or independence when it’s so easy for society to ostracize, isolate, and contain you in any number of physical, financial, social, and other ways. All this is more or less a given. Ruiz’s argument is that we need to break all of the old agreements (socialization) and create our own, starting with his basic kit of four agreements. It’s here that I start having a disconnect.
“Be Impeccable With Your Word” is the first of the agreements. This is based upon the truth that words create reality. A simple proof of this: The same physiological response may be labeled “fear” or “excitement”, depending upon circumstances. As you label (apply words to) something, so shall it be. In the news of late 2016, some conservative extremists exhibiting Nazi-like salutes in their public gatherings could be called “fascists” or “racists”, or they could be called “nationalists” or “the alt-right.” Their effect upon the political climate or societal conversation will be drastically different, depending upon how they are labeled; the former words trigger fear and a sense of their being radicals, while the latter words tend to normalize and permit their behaviors and words. Words alter perception, and perception is reality. To be “impeccable” is to be “in accordance with the highest standards of propriety”. What this appears to mean is that one must speak only words that are true. (There’s a Monty Python sketch about the Spanish Inquisition, but never mind that now; it’s not expected here.)
To a large degree, this is common sense. Even the idea of “curse words”, in this case meaning words that cause negativity to grow and thrive within you (or even others), is valid. Back in the days of Watergate (who remembers that?), politicians re-discovered the old tactic that asking a question is more dangerous, and even less likely to be forgotten, than the hearing the answer. An obviously ridiculous example might be, “Is voting [insert party here] linked with cancer?” Anyone genuinely afraid of cancer would mistake this idiotic query as a lead-in to some alleged proof, “or else they wouldn’t be able to say that, right?” This is akin with “I read it on the Internet, so it must be true.”
In order for me to observe where this first agreement breaks down, I need to offer the second for your consideration: “Take nothing personally.” Ruiz apparently means this literally. If you are put down, don’t listen; if you are complimented, don’t listen. It would seem that, if I say “I love you” to someone, that’s my problem, not theirs. In a world with plenty of put-downs, I can see the value of not accepting that bad stuff. Why on earth should I ignore someone’s love? “I love you” is an affirmation of the most powerful emotion in the universe (this latter point, about the power of love, being undisputed by Ruiz). While it makes sense to be “impeccable with your word”, what if your words are never to be “taken personally”? It would seem now that, no matter what I say, neither I nor anyone else should take it personally, so everyone is free to say anything, no matter how hurtful, manipulative, or otherwise.
The third agreement is “Don’t make assumptions.” Here again, a common-sense concept gets skewed just enough to make me worry. When tacked onto the second agreement, we now have a situation where we cannot make any assumptions regarding anything anyone says of us, which would appear to mean that we can’t allow ourselves to know whether or not someone means what they say, because we’re not to take it personally after all. It’s about this point that Ruiz brings into play the Judge and the Victim, both of which are inner demons designed to keep us imprisoned, dependent, and “domesticated” (which seems to mean a cross between civilized and castrated — of course, that may be just my assumption).
The final agreement is “Always do your best.” Again, a common-sense concept is made a little less than what it could be simply by tying it back to the first three agreements. In Ruiz’ version, doing your best means behaving according to the earlier agreements as best you can, and if you fail, promise to get up and try to keep the three agreements again. He freely admits to how difficult this is, how easy it is to fall, to blame yourself, and that you must be strong, be a “warrior”, to commit again and again to these agreements.
For those of you seeking a TL;DR summation of the previous thousand words, it’s this: Ruiz feels that this world is merely an illusion, that it is in fact Hell, and that to be happy, we must not let anything that happens here affect us. This means that we must not have empathy, compassion, or any interactions of any form, since we must do nothing other than what we please, that we must take nothing personally (even the good stuff), and thus we are not in any way responsible to one another.
If this is true, then why in Hell (pun intended) do we bother living? The idea of Self-Above-All has brought us to compassionless, self-righteous, self-absorbed, openly-expressed hostility from people who are proud of these qualities, proud of their ignorance, and ready to destroy whatever they must in order to live their own lives. Unless, of course, I’m making assumptions and taking their actions personally. When the actions that others take threaten my physical, mental, and spiritual self, I may not take it personally, but I do have to deal with it. Continuing in blissful self-ignorance is not a satisfactory answer.
If only to show that I’m not entirely cynical, let me say that Ruiz’ solution has one thing in common with true communism: It only works when we’re all trying to work toward the same desired goal. If everyone behaved lovingly, cooperatively, with compassion and empathy, these agreements could not be manipulated and used to individual advantage. However, when Ruiz states emphatically that “human suffering begins with domestication”, he is essentially denying the possibility of social interaction. I would counter with the idea that human suffering begins with unnecessary domestication, such as the social, political, financial, religious, and other such restrictive ideologies that create structure only through stricture. Until we can find a way to create a better breed of human, we’re probably going to be stuck with these unsatisfactory old methods for quite a long time.
I’ll agree with this: In all things, do your best. Then be the change that you want to see in the world. We might just make it.
One Reply to “The Four Agreements”
I remember when I took up this book, along with all of Ruiz’s others, with almost missionary zeal. It took me eight years to realize all the fluff and holes in his philosophy.