Mindful Interactions: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements, is a stunningly simple and concise read about how you can change your thoughts and behavior to live a better life – or, as the author might say, to live in heaven.
If you aren’t interested to make positive changes in your life, or at least, to read about one author’s perspective on four fundamental pillars of good living, then this book isn’t for you. Some people are uninterested in psychology and skeptical of self-improvement. I was once one of them. For a long time I found myself moving forward through life like a tumbleweed, blowing wherever circumstances sent me. I allowed external forces to govern my decisions about major life choices, such as who to surround myself with, what kind of people to become romantically involved with, how and with what I chose to educate myself about, and where I chose to live and work. In time, I started to wake up. Gradually, I opened my eyes and took control of my life.
What I’ve learned over the years is that we all have the power, the agency, to make change happen. We are not predestined to live our lives in a certain way. Each and every one of us is the author and designer of our lives. If you don’t like something about your life, you are not trapped. You had the agency to put yourself in your current situation, and you have the agency to make different choices to change your current situation, now. There is always a choice. Are you ready to make better choices?
Image of Irvine Welsh's book, Trainspotting
The four agreements are these: Be impeccable with your word. Don't take anything personally. Don't make assumptions. And always do your best.
Be Impeccable With Your Word
Ruiz talks about how as humans, by the time we are 4 or 5 years old, we have become domesticated by our parents, teachers, and society. We then auto-domesticate ourselves: once we’ve accepted, or agreed upon, our understanding of the world and what we think about ourselves (based on what others say to us or impress upon us), we perpetuate and strengthen our belief system by rejecting beliefs that conflict with our understanding of the world. “The belief system is like a Book of Law that rules our mind…We base all of our judgments according to the Book of Law, even if these judgments go against our own inner nature…One by one, all these agreements go into the Book of Law, and these agreements rule our dream [aka what we perceive as our reality].” P. 9
This is a simple truth about human psychology. One of the first things you’ll probably learn in psychotherapy (should you ever choose to experience it) is about how as adults, our human brains are governed by rules and beliefs instilled in us since childhood. We become wired to behave in certain ways, to engage in certain patterns of thinking and behavior that have roots in our earliest memories from our formative years. This wiring often includes self-judgment and self-criticism. Ruiz talks about how each of us has an inner “Judge” that rules over our brains, judging us and judging others. For a lot of us, our Judge will criticize us, berate us, and make us feel ashamed when we make a mistake or when we think we aren’t meeting expectations. In this way we punish ourselves repeatedly, and because we are in pain, we tend to lash out and punish others as well.
Lots of folks struggle with perfectionism. When I was very little, probably about 5 years old, I started playing a game I called “the Perfect game.” I’d hold my breath and count “three…two…one…” and after “one” I’d exhale and start “being perfect.” I’d try to walk perfectly, speak perfectly, and if even a strand of my hair dislodged and got frizzy I’d have to start whatever I was doing all over again. I would walk back and forth in the hallway over and over again; I’d read the same paragraph in a children’s book over and over again, I’d spend hours patting down and trying to tame my unruly curls. I used to think I was unique, that I struggled with something only people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) struggle with. As an adult, I’ve learned that actually, many children and adults struggle with these feelings – and in particular, women.
“We have learned to live our lives trying to satisfy other people’s demands. We have learned to live by other people’s points of view because of the fear of not being accepted and of not being good enough for someone else. During the process of domestication, we form an image of what perfection is in order to try to be good enough. We create an image of how we should be in order to be accepted by everybody…We create this image, but this image is not real.” P. 17.
A concept from Eastern philosophy taught today as part of mindfulness training and meditation is the concept of the Monkey Mind. Most of the time, we are operating on auto-pilot while the busyness and noise of our lives clutters our brain. The Monkey Mind is a state of restlessness of the mind. We act almost on impulse, going through the motions of life throughout the day and at work without checking in and behaving conscientiously, with intention. Mindfulness training teaches that, through breathing and focus, we can be present in each moment, aware of our minds and bodies. In this state we can think, speak and act with intention.
Ruiz says: “Your whole mind is a fog with the Toltecs called a mitote. Your mind is a dream where a thousand people talk at the same time, and nobody understands each other. This is the condition of the human mind- a big mitote, and with that big mitote you cannot see what you really are. In India they call the mitote maya, which means illusion. It is the personality’s notion of “I am.” Everything you believe about yourself and the world…We cannot see who we truly are; we cannot see that we are not free” [when trapped by the mitote]. That is why humans resist life. To be alive is the biggest fear humans have…we have learned to live by other people’s points of view because of the fear of not being accepted and of not being god enough for someone else.” P. 16 – 17. If we can clear the mitote, if we can calm the monkeys jumping and chattering in the branches of the tree that is our brain, we can be more impeccable with our word and thus avoid causing inadvertent harm to others.
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Ruiz tells lovely and powerful stories about why our words are so important and how we can improve our lives and the world by being impeccable with our word. He then moves on to why we shouldn’t take anything personally – because so few people are impeccable with their word. By taking things personally, we are assuming that we are responsible for everything, an inaccurately self-centered view of the world. “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.” P. 48. Thus, we should also never make assumptions. “All the sadness and drama you have lived in your life was rooted in making assumptions and taking things personally.” P. 64.
Don’t Make Assumptions
“Because we are afraid to ask for clarification, we make assumptions, and believe we are right about the assumptions; then we defend our assumptions and try to make someone else wrong.” P. 64. This is particularly true in relationships, and can cause a lot of arguing, pain and suffering.
Couples counselling 101: if you make assumptions about what your significant other is thinking or feeling without asking questions, you are setting yourself up to get hurt because you are living in a fantasy instead of getting real and accurate feedback. Failure to ask for, and receive, feedback from a partner is like driving a car for thousands of miles and never taking it to the shop to have a diagnostics run or the engine checked. Sooner or later, you’re bound for a breakdown. Likewise, if you don’t articulate your thoughts and feelings to others, you may also be setting yourself up to get hurt.
If you don’t articulate what you want, need and expect, your partner will be in the dark about how to please you. How could they know how to make you happy without your guidance? But all too often we make assumptions and develop expectations of others without the appropriate communication. We do it all the time! I’ve known many men and women who end up in relationships with partners they are not actually compatible with, and these relationships often ultimately fail because of a lack of communication around thoughts, feelings, needs or values.
I’ve also been plenty guilty of making assumptions – of both failing to ask for feedback and failing to give it. I’ve had plenty of romantic relationships fail – fail to develop, and fail to last – because of communication failures. For me, romantic relationships would fail to develop when I had serious crushes on men and failed to express my desires and lay down appropriate boundaries. This caused me years of pain in the past! And, I had relationships fail to last because I had difficulty identifying my own needs and wants, and then getting the courage to ask for what I wanted. I think this can be very difficult for lots of women because we are more frequently raised to become people pleasers. We fear rejection and fear offending people, so we can be afraid to express ourselves – which ultimately hurts us more by causing confusion and misunderstandings.
Ruiz describes this cycle of pain that we can cause ourselves and our romantic partners by making assumptions. “Often we make the assumption that our partners know what we think and that we don’t have to say what we want. We assume they are going to do what we want, because they know us so well. If they don’t do what we assume the should do, we feel so hurt and say, “You should have known.”” P. 66. He also describes how this can lead to pain if we deliberately put on blinders to certain aspects of our significant others’ personality or character, and/or hope that they will change in time. The cure: “find your voice to ask for what you want. Everybody has the right to tell you no or yes, but you always have the right to ask. Likewise, everybody has the right to ask you, and you have the right to say yes or no.” p. 72.
Do Your Best
The 4th agreement is the most logical; it underpins all the other agreements and comforts against perfectionism. To always do your best is to understand and accept that we are not perfect, but to strive only to do the best we can, and to be happy with that effort. “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…Regardless of the quality, keep doing your best – no more and no less…” p. 76. Ruiz makes a compelling argument that by setting harder or stricter expectations on ourselves we can drive ourselves to misery, and from there to different methods of escapism trying to avoid that misery. Instead, focus on self-acceptance and love knowing that you’ve done your best.
“If we can see it is our agreements that rule our own life, and we don’t like the dream of our life, we need to change the agreements.” P. 22. There are many other agreements that we can, and do, make – like “spend time doing what you love,” “avoid toxic people,” or “do what feels good for your body and mind,” – but these are subjective and fail to demonstrate a positive outcome through human interactions. Ultimately, the four agreements are about how we present ourselves and relate to others in the world, and thus provide a vehicle for improving the world through those interactions.
I’d definitely recommend The Four Agreements for a quick but deep read if you’re down to be persuaded to be more mindful and communicative 😊