The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book
In the early 1970s, in his final year of medical school, Miguel Ruiz had a bad car accident that changed the course of his life. He had been raised in rural Mexico by a mother who was a curandera (healer), and by a grandfather who was a nagual (shaman), but had left behind their traditional ways. Despite the severity of the accident Ruiz was miraculously unhurt, and had a spiritual experience he could not explain. In the aftermath he turned to his family's ancient Toltec wisdom, and set about becoming a nagual himself, committed to guiding people to greater mental freedom.
Awaking from the dream
In Toltec wisdom, the world or 'reality' is seen as a collective dream. The word used for this fog of perception is mitote, which is similar to the Hindu word for illusion, maya. This dream is the same as normal dreams, except that its rules and customs of understanding and behaving enable it to seem more real. We are born into a ready-made phantasm which includes language, culture, religion and family, and we agree to go along with it because it is too difficult to resist. Ruiz describes this process as 'the domestication of humans'.
In order to get by, we make invisible agreements with others - spouse, children, society, God - but the most important agreements we make, Ruiz says, are with ourselves. Some of them benefit us, but many others make us suffer. We hang onto them because we believe we would be something less without them. According to Toltec wisdom, most people's problems stem from not being able to forgive themselves that they are not perfect, yet it is other people's rules that they are trying to measure up to - not their own.
The good news is that by becoming conscious of our agreements we can begin to control our lives. We can declare 'a war of independence' in which we decide how we will view the world. In shamanic traditions, Ruiz notes, individuals are called 'warriors' because they fight the parasite in their own minds.
The Four Agreements became a bestseller after actor Ellen Degeneres spoke of the book while on Oprah Winfrey's television show. While the concepts within Toltec wisdom are far from simplistic, the agreements themselves are easy to remember.
Impeccability of word
The first of the agreements we must keep with ourselves is to be impeccable with our word. Ruiz does not mean simply keeping all our commitments, but realizing that what we say (both speaking to the world and to ourselves) determines the person we are and the world we live in. What we say is creative, that is, we can use our words to create anger or jealousy, or use them to heal. Our words are seeds that go out into the world and come back to us as full-grown reality. Other animals cannot speak as we do, and no other has the same ability as us to create a wonderful reality or a terrible one. Hitler created a nightmare through the use of his word.
Ruiz argues that gossiping is a bad use of the word, and he compares it to a computer virus with a harmful intent. By adopting the first agreement, we become more resistant to the 'word spells' that others may cast upon us, but more importantly we are cleansed of emotional poison in our own minds.
Why do we take offense? Ruiz draws the connection between a person's being offended at even small things, and that person's belief that they are the center of everything. When a person's sense of personal importance is so strong, when it is not recognized by others there is a high likelihood of hurt. The problem with taking things personally is that you feel the need to lash back and defend yourself, to 'prove 'em wrong'. This, of course, only creates more conflict.
Yet few things said to us or about us, Ruiz observes, reflect the truth of who we are. The criticism says more about the other person's state of mind and conditioning than it does about you. Thus the second agreement, don't take things personally, includes even criticism that is directed very clearly towards you.
The mitote of the human mind causes us to see things incorrectly, to make assumptions which lead only to further mistruth. Because we are quick to assume, Ruiz says, we don't have the ability to see things as they are. Human beings fear not knowing, so we make up answers for all our questions to make us feel safe - whether they are wrong or right.
Instead of making assumptions, Ruiz says, ask questions. Without the clarity that comes from questioning (instead of assuming), your relationships will not work, and your relations with the world will be poor. The 'whole dream of hell' that many people exist in, the author suggests, stems from their practice of making one wrong assumption after another, never questioning.
The best is all you can be
The fourth agreement to 'always do your best' sounds a bit elementary, so why did Ruiz make it so central to living the good life? One of the main problems of the modern person is they continually judge themselves harshly according to some external measure. But if you always do your best it is difficult to judge yourself and create guilt and regrets. Doing your best sets you free. If you are fully engaged in what you are doing in this moment, you are fully alive; there is no time for missing anyone or anything.
The fourth agreement is a key to the first three, Ruiz says, because while you will not always be able to be impeccable with your word, or not take things personally or make assumptions, you are always free to do your best.
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The world is set up to make it likely you will break the agreements, Ruiz says, but you have to persevere. Getting free of your mind, your mitote based on false agreements, is like climbing a mountain. It is hardest in the beginning, but when the four agreements become a habit it is easier to keep them.
In Carlos Castaneda's Journey To Ixtlan, the author is told by the old nagual Don Juan to 'have a strategy' for his life. If he did not, he would end up a mere reflection of society, with his original self all but buried.
The premise of The Four Agreements is similar, except that the strategy becomes a story. Ruiz's question is, is the story of your life really yours, or someone else's? There is a real person that hides under our layers of conformity, and the strange thing is that many of us want to keep it wrapped up. The author's plea is: Whatever strategy or story you come up with for your life, you have to make sure that it is a conscious creation.
The Four Agreements may seem like a very basic interpretation of shamanistic wisdom, but the book's inspirational message about a reemergence of the self from the bubble of conditioning is still a powerful one. While not a great piece of writing, the work has been a gift to many people who are asserting their true identity for the first time, and need to remain steadfast.
Source: Tom Butler-Bowdon 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"Your whole mind is a fog which the Toltecs called a mitote (pronounced MIH-TOE'-TAY). 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."
Don Miguel Ruiz
Ruiz was born in Mexico in 1952, the youngest of 13 children. After studying medicine and working as a surgeon, he moved to the United States in the 1980s and began teaching with his mother, Sarita. As his renown grew he increased his teaching and speaking work, but since a heart attack in 2002 he has limited his appearances. His son Don Jose Louis, has now also been initiated as a nagual.
Ruiz's other books include The Mastery of Love, The Four Agreements Companion Book, Prayers, The Voice of Knowledge and The Fifth Agreement. The Four Agreements has sold over four million copies and is in 38 languages.