“The Four Agreements: A Pathway to Self Care”

“The Four Agreements: A Pathway to Self Care”
a speech by Steve Nathanson – UU of Cambria – 1/19/14
Good morning, everyone. Many of you have heard of the four
agreements or have a vague acquaintance with a book published in
1997 by Don Miguel Ruiz, entitled “The Four Agreements: A Practical
Guide to Personal Freedom.” However, before I begin my talk today
about the four agreements, I’d like to have you now close your eyes
and recall some of the many beautiful things about Cambria…the
beautiful night sky, the majestic roar of the ocean, the interplay of
light and sun and water. At night, can you imagine the stars as an
infinite number of atoms, particles colliding, interacting, transforming,
and expanding? The universe is so large and complex to grasp, that
we use our imagination to help create a picture of things as we see
them. We named the galaxy “The Milky Way” in contrast with the vast
blackness of space, and give colorful names to bands of far-away
stars like “The Big Dipper” or “Ursa Major,” or “The Southern Cross.”
Have you ever wondered why do we do this?
Last December, Marsha and I went hiking in the red rock
country in Sedona, Arizona, where beautiful eroded rock formations
have been given colorful names such as “Cathedral Rock,” “Snoopy”
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or “Coffee Pot Rock.” Yet when we got up close to these rocks, they
took on completely different colorations and shapes. There was a
total disconnect between the given names and what we experienced
on this hike. To me, this disconnect suggested that the random
beauty of nature trumps the names and labels we give to things.
Such names may provide convenient reference points, but really tell
us nothing about the reality and the complexity of the universe. So
why do we put names on these things?
We consider the human brain as the keystone of man’s
evolution, and scientists describe the human brain as a patterndetecting, purpose-seeking data processor. So here’s the big
question: does this pattern-seeking, purpose detecting organism
always work to our advantage?
Sometimes our brains are capable of incredible life-enhancing
technological achievements and flights of fancy and creativity! But
other times, the human brain’s tendency to seek patterns are really
rationalizations. History is full of cynical and evil rationalizers who
wrought tyranny, death and destruction on humanity as well as our
natural Earth. More typically, in our everyday lives, we may
rationalize not visiting distant friends as “we’re too busy, and the
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Sunday traffic is brutal,” we rationalize not seeking a promotion as
“there’s too much competition and I may lose my job,” or
rationalize not giving up smoking or alcohol dependance by saying,
“I’m in a period of high stress, I’ll quit sometime later on,” but do
Many have said that humans cannot go a simple day without
making rationalizations. However, I am not here today to talk about
how the brain tries to impose patterns or rationalize behavior. I am
not here to talk about defense mechanisms, optical illusions, or how
we get deceived by pitchmen hawking miracle gadgets sold only on tv
which you can get if you call NOW! [pause] I’m here to talk about a
pathway which takes us out of these false patterns, illusions, and
rationalizations. This pathway is presented by Don Miguel Ruiz, who
in 1997 published a little book, “The Four Agreements: A Practical
Guide to Personal Freedom.” Marsha and I first discovered this book
fifteen years ago. and she had these agreements posted on her
classroom bulletin board until she retired. So much had happened to
us between then and now, that the book lay pretty much forgotten in
our bookshelf. Lately as I re-read it, I began to understand then why
so much in my life and gone wrong, and now, why so much has gone
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right. But first, I’d like to tell you a little about the author of the
agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz.
Don Ruiz, born in Mexico, is a descendant of the
Mesoamerican peoples known as the Toltecs. To the ancient
Mesoamerican peoples such as the Aztecs, the word Toltec meant
artisan or builder. Modern scholars are not exactly certain whether
Toltecs were Aztec mythology, or actual astronomers,
mathematicians, philosophers and political leaders. Most scholars,
however, are pretty certain that real or not, the word Toltec meant
“wise man.”
In Toltec tradition, the brain of man is capable of reasoning, but
also capable of creating a false reality. The name for this mental
fog or confusion is mitote {mee-toe-tay}. A mitote is a type of
emotional mirage, a perpetual illusion, or the story we tell ourselves
about reality. Ruiz describes a mitote as a condition in which a
thousand people, like atoms in the universe, talk at the same time,
and nobody clearly understands one another. It’s as if each one of
us has his or her own separate reality.
If you’ve ever driven into a fog bank on a summer evening on
you know that darkness and momentary confusion can lead to fear,
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panic, or possibly danger. A careful driver will look for the road signs
and watch the yellow reflectors. On an emotional level, this
emotional fog, this mitote, potentially can cause problems if it takes
control of us. An important Toltec tradition is that of the shaman or
nagual, a spiritual guide, the one who helps people transcend false
dreams, value judgments and rationalizations, to help us guide our
life on the right path. Don Miguel considers himself a descendant of
that tradition of nagual, or spiritual guide, and the four agreements as
a pathway out of this spiritual fog.
Don Miguel did not always follow the path of the nagual. He
intended to go to medical school and become a surgeon. Late one
night he had fallen asleep while driving. He awoke at the split second
his car was about to smash into a concrete wall. Don Miguel
remembered that at that instant he was not in his physical body as he
watched himself pulling two friends to safety. After this near-death
experience, Don Miguel graduated from medical school and became
a neurosurgeon but he changed his focus to the mind, not the body.
He believes that the mind was a “fertile field; whatever you perceive
or plant there grows, and develops a life of its own.” Don Miguel
followed his original book, “The Four Agreements,” with a series of
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writings and philosophic essays of Toltec wisdom and continues the
tradition of the nagual, to help individuals reach personal freedom.
As the Toltecs teach us, we are all thinking, dreaming beings,
even as young children or infants. As children are raised by their
parents, their dreams, curiosity, and unspoiled self-images are
controlled and shaped their parents’ dreams or expectations. Later,
school, and ultimately society literally domesticates through rewards
and punishments to acquire a belief system. Ruiz calls these
numerous belief systems agreements, because we agree to abide by
these behaviors, rationalizations, and accept them as truth.
As children mature, they may substitute one set of agreements
for another. They may change career paths, just as Don Ruiz did or
not fulfill the agreements/ value systems of their parents. Music,
poetry and literature have frequently described inter-generational
conflicts where individuals assert their independence and quest for
personal freedom.
For example, the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, defied
the expectations of their parents. In Cat Stevens’ song, “Father and
Son,” the father wants his son to settle down and marry, but the son
realizes he has to go and find his own path. In Greek mythology, the
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young God, Zeus, killed the aging God, Chronos, and established the
Olympian kingdom, which in turn led to the creation of gods such as
Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, and Venus, the goddess of love.
These myths and stories describe the overthrow of the old set of
agreements for another.
[Pause] So what are these four agreements presented by
Ruiz? As Jean Paul Sartre once observed, “it is easier to define a
thing not by what it is, but by what it is not.” The four agreements
are not “thou shall” or “thou shall not” statements; they aren‟t
necessarily the habits of successful people or the exceptional tales of
entrepreneurs or technological visionaries. The four agreements are
not an abridgement of the Ten Commandments. They are not
mandalas for meditation, nor proverbs, nor parables. And, the
agreements are not New Years’ resolutions.
What the four agreements are are statements with imbedded
questions we need to ask ourselves again and again as we live and
dream our own thoughts. [Pause] Ruiz wrote, “I want you to forget
everything you have learned in your whole life, because this is
the beginning of a new understanding, a new dream.” [Pause] In
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the spirit of gratitude for the privilege of standing here to day, now I
present these four agreements to you.
The first, agreement is “Be impeccable with your word.” As
Ruiz notes,
The word is not just a sound or a written symbol…but
like a sword with two edges, your word can create the most
beautiful dream, or your word can destroy everything
around you. One edge of the word is the misuse of it,
which creates a living hell. The other edge is the
impeccability of the word, which will only create beauty,
love and heaven on earth.
In the words of the poet, Emily Dickinson, “Some say the word is
dead when it is said; but I say, it just begins to live that day.” I
believe that Ruiz would agree with the poet in her recognition of the
essential power of words. Being impeccable with your word means,
as Ruiz puts it, “speak with integrity, realize the power of your
statements on others, express your love, let go of self-judgment,
criticism and blame, and cultivate faith.” He adds, “When words
are not diluted with doubt, blame or criticism, your ability to
inspire and achieve are enhanced.” Have we used our own words
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wisely today? Did we speak with integrity and truthfulness? Can we
release the need to be right and accept that the words of others have
power upon us? Can we refrain from speaking judgmentally or
critically? In our speech, do we avoid gossip and malicious rumor?
Ruiz challenges us:
“Imagine what you can create with impeccability of
the word. With the impeccability you can transcend a
dream of fear and…live in heaven in the middle of
thousands of people living in hell, because you are
immune to that hell..”
[Brief pause] Agreement number two is “Don‟t take anything
personally.” Ruiz points out that when we are domesticated as
young children, we are taught that we are responsible for everything.
But taking things personally is the maximum expression of
selfishness. We assume that “everything anyone does or says is
about me” and that is a false belief. As he wrote:
“Nothing 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
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make the assumption that they know what is our world,
and we try to impose our world on their world.”
As Ruiz points out, and history verifies, it is poverty, whether material
or spiritual, that engenders hatred. People who manifest neither love,
nobility, nor generosity towards others are inwardly destitute. Even
insults, taunts and criticism should not be taken personally. These
actions are forms of emotional poisons; if we take the poison, we get
sick. This agreement asks us “Why get sick with emotional poison?”
Ruiz advises us to reject and release ourselves from emotional
poison, self-judgment as well as the criticisms of others. When we
don’t take things personally, jealousy, resentment, sadness, and
anger will dissipate. To put it another way, “What other people think
or say about me is none of my business.!”
How can we become immune to emotional poison? Immunity is
only built through R-E-S-P-E-C-T, self-love and self-respect, and the
knowledge that we are only responsible for our own actions, not the
actions, dreams, judgments, or opinions of others.
The recent death of Nelson Mandela illustrates the importance
of not taking things personally. As the NY Times noted, in his
obituary: “In 2007, Mandela was asked „how do you keep hatred
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[for your white tormentors and jailers] in check?‟ Mr. Mandela
was almost dismissive. „Hating clouds the mind,‟ he said, „It
gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.‟”
Mandela understood that love, freedom and dignity would, in the end,
overcome his enemies far better than enmity and strife. He made the
agreement that love, not hate, would prevail and ultimate transform
and free South Africa. He rejected the poison of others and freed
South Africa. Or, as Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate
tomorrow, said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can
do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
The third agreement is don‟t make assumptions. We’ve all
heard the familiar proverb, “if you assume, you make an ass out of
you and me, but it is far more. As Ruiz states:
We only see what we want to see, and hear what we
want to hear…because we don‟t understand something, we
make an assumption about the meaning, and when the
truth comes out, the bubble of our dreams pops and we
find out it was not what we thought at all.
We all make assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions are right,
but more often assumptions about what other people are thinking
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or assumptions about their motives mislead us. In keeping this
agreement, Ruiz asks us to relinquish the need to change others by
our beliefs, and by doing so, we are freed from dogma, or freed from
needless anguish when we fail to persuading others of our beliefs. If
you practice the third agreement, don‟t make assumptions, Ruiz
declares, your word becomes impeccable, you ask for and seek what
you need, you overcome the need to please others, and your life can
be transformed. When you accept people as they are without trying to
change them or mold them, Pygmalion-style, you are practicing real
love. Finally, Ruiz notes, “It is better by far to find someone who is
already the way you want him or her to be, than trying to change that
I have a powerful and yet painful experience about what
happened to me when I broke agreements two and three. About
twenty five years ago, I left a secure but low-paying teaching job as a
department chairperson and staff developer to become a central
office educational administrator. Prior to this, I had achieved the
respect of colleagues and supervisors, and received promotions.
When I took this new position, I was appointed head of two
consolidated academic departments. Because I believed in the
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mitote of my past success, I didn’t know that two deposed department
heads were angry and vindictive about their demotion. I made
assumptions that everyone would treat me as before. Instead, these
two individuals and their colleagues were determined to undermine
me in every instance. Because I thought everything was about me, I
took their accusations and hostility personally. At a Christmas party, I
was publicly humiliated. As a result, the superintendent began to lose
confidence in me. Worse still, I lost confidence in myself. In this
climate of emotional poison, I failed to put myself in the shoes of
these individuals and remember that their emotions and behaviors
had nothing to do with me personally. By taking everything
personally, I lost the ability to organize and lead others, or to not
make assumptions. But with every cloudy day comes a silver lining; I
fought through the pain, self-blame and depression, and mistakes. I
can look back at it all now and see that I have the power to love
myself, and keep those agreements as I avoid making assumptions
and cease taking things personally.
The final agreement is the one which if we keep, will assist us
in keeping the other agreements. It is “Always do your best.” Ruiz
advises that under any circumstance, always give it your best, no
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more and no less, so that regardless of the outcome, you will never
harshly judge yourself and will not suffer guilt, blame and self
punishment. Always doing your best means taking action without
expecting a reward, but because you know it’s the right thing to do.
Always do your bests means, live your life with passion, pursue your
work with passion, and use enthusiasm to make others better. As
someone once said, “I may not be perfect, but parts of me are
excellent. By always doing your best, your best today will be better
than your best yesterday. Ruiz advises us to surrender and let go of
the past, stay in the present moment, and enjoy it. That is what is
meant by always doing your best.
The Dalai Lama wrote, “there are only two days in the year
that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday, and the other
is called tomorrow, but today is the right day to love, believe, do,
and mostly live.” By always doing our best, we honor ourselves and
that day which is given us, the present.
In closing, I would like to relate a 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 asked the master, “Master, if I meditate
four hours a day, how long will it take me transcend? The master
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looked at him and said, if you meditate four hours a day, perhaps
you will transcend in a few years.”
Thinking he could do better, the man then asked, “Oh Master,
what if I meditated eight hours a day, how long will it take me me to
transcend?” The master looked at him and said, “perhaps you will
transcend in twenty years.” The man became confused. “Why will it
take me longer in I meditate more?” he asked the master.
The master replied, “You are not here to sacrifice joy or your
life. You are here to live, to be happy and to love. Do your best, and
perhaps you will learn that it doesn’t matter how long you meditate.”
Keeping these agreements is not easy and is sometimes a
struggle. Ruiz wants each of us to a warrior—not in a militaristic
sense—but to be vigilant. I keep fighting, ever trying to do my best.
And so, I humbly offer these four agreements in the hope that each of
us here today will unwrap that gift of the present each glorious
moment for many todays to come. I thank you.
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