Monday, December 29, 2008

The Four Agreements

The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book
© 1997 Don Miguel Ruiz
15o pages

The Four Agreements is one of those books I discovered rather randomly while clicking about in my public library's category system. My curiosity was piqued by the TOLTEC PHILOSOPHY description. Being interested in both Mesoamerican history and philosophy, I decided to get it a go. The book begins by describing the Toltecs*, who were according to the author a society of a scientists and artists who got together to preserve the knowledge of the ancients. Fearing abuse of it, however, they deliberately kept it hidden, teaching it only to their sons who would then pass it on to their sons. Prophecies said that one day the time would come when the wisdom of the Toltecs could be shared freely. Fortunately for the reader, "Don Miguel Ruiz" happens to come from that line of priests. Aren't we lucky?

What follows is a lengthy introduction and a chapter of New Age cosmology. All is God, God is all, we are all God, etc. I don't have a bastard clue as to how it's supposed to fit into the rest of the book. In the first chapter, Ruiz lays out his central idea: everything is a dream. We're constantly dreaming, even when we're awake. All that we call reality is in fact a dream. This entire chapter appears to me to be an explanation of how socialization works, wrapped -- smothered -- in New Age garb. After this is a bit of New Age psychology, which explains the effect of this socialization, or "human domestication" as Ruiz terms it. According to him, our minds have a Judge and a Victim: our Judge judges us based on our Book of Law, the summation of all our learned behavior, and determines that we are to feel bad when we break the rules. The Victim is the part of our psyche that "carries the blame, the guilt, and the shame" and detracts from our self image. The result, Ruiz says, is that we create hell for ourselves and others: our judges are constantly criticizing ourselves and others while their judges criticize us. Everyone is miserable because they're ruled by fear of not being who they're "supposed" to be. The foundation for this is that people agree that this is the way this ought to be, and Ruiz writes that what we need to do is disregard these old agreements and replace them with new ones: the Four Agreements.

The First Agreement is "Be impeccable with your word". Ruiz reads a lot into the power of words: "Every human is a magician, and we can either put a spell on someone with our word or we can release someone from a spell. We cast spells all the time with our opinions. An example: I see a friend and give him an opinion that just popped into my mind. I say, "Hmm! I see that kind of color in your face in people who are going to get cancer." If he listens to the word, and if he agrees, he will have cancer in less than one year." Ruiz' opinion is that our word is super-powerful and that we should use it very carefully -- use it to cast "white magic" and not "black magic". If you boil away all of the mysticism, you can arrive at an agreeable principle: what we say does impact other people and we should be mindful of what we say. Not that we'll cast a "spell" on them, but we can cause pain.

The Second Agreement is "Don't take it personally", in which Ruiz states that anything anyone does to you is done for them: if they compliment you, it's because they're happy. If they tear you down, it's because they're angry. Because they are doing this for their sake and not for yours, you should not take it personally, even if -- and he uses this example -- someone shoots you in the head. This chapter is quite short.

The Third Agreement is "Don't make assumptions". This is valid advice, I think, and he makes the point that many problems can be avoided if people stick to operating on what they know instead of what they're reading into a situation. This chapter is about clear communication, for the most part.

The Fourth Agreement is "Do your best", in which he advocates living in the moment and doing your best to excel in what you do. Oddly, the amount of newage language fades as we go through the Agreements to the point where this chapter is practically bereft of them. There is a thoughtful anecdote in this one, though:

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 for 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 yoru 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 pehaps you will learn that no matter how long you meditate, you can live, love, and be happy."

Following this is a chapter called "The Toltec Path to Freedom" which involves breaking old agreements and adopting the new Agreements. There are three ways to become a Toltec: the first is to become aware of the dreams (or socialized beliefs) that hold us. The second is the "Mastery of Transformation" in which people become aware of how to change and free themselves from those old beliefs. The third way is to die to the old self, to kill the "parasites" of the old beliefs. The concluding chapter, "Heaven on Earth", sees the author speculating on how people can create heaven on Earth if they practice the Toltec Path. The book ends with a few prayers to the "Creator" and advertisements for Ruiz' other books, to better practice.

If you can strip away all of the New Age coverings, you can find a philosophy here that is similar to Stoicism or Buddhism in some respects. The problem is that there's so much of the newage stuff. This book has been checked out about a dozen times, according to the "Date Due" paper in the back -- and phrases were underlined by previous readers. My mind goes to them, and I wonder -- wherever they are -- if this has helped them. The kind of philosophy under all of the newage soup is good stuff, and is practiced by many people throughout the globe to their betterment. It's an interesting book. If philosophy is your interest and you don't mind wading through a lot of "woo" for some interesting thoughts to ponder, you may want to give it a go.

* The actual identity of the Toltecs is unknown. According to Aztec myths, they were a race of people (the children of the gods) living in northern Mexico who gave birth to the Aztecs.

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