Change Your Life Four the Better: Reaching Consensus with Ruiz's ‘The Four Agreements’

By Stafford Wood

Like many so-called “self-help” books, “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz could be overlooked as a trite summary of common knowledge (less commonly acted upon) or a poetic narrative of ancient wisdom with little place in our modern world. I read it at the suggestion of a friend, and while it seemed awfully familiar, I found it compelling as a summary of how to make relationships with others more satisfying. Beyond that, the four truths in the book could be quite helpful as guardrails for anyone trying to talk about Sex, Politics and Religion in “mixed company.” What follows is a summary of the major tenets for those of you who don't read 138 pages without knowing what you are getting into.


Be Impeccable with Your Word

The foundational quartern of the Four Agreements is designed to encourage honesty, integrity and clear communication beyond a simple “Mean what you say and say what you mean.” Whether you believe in the Christian concept of “The Word made flesh” or secretly wish to perfect everything from Wingardium Leviosa to Petrificus Totalus, most of us have some level of belief that words have power — that the concepts we choose to express have more power than what we retain rattling around in our brain. Ruiz intends to make us focus on what we say at an even higher level and gain the satisfaction of being in our integrity with every conversation.

He likens gossip to a computer virus infecting all who hear it, creating the chaos of a thousand voices in the mind all trying to talk at once. He goes further to say those who spread gossip on purpose are black magicians proffering cruel behavior in the guise of justice for wrongdoing, and that we use the Word against ourselves when we judge our age, beauty, intelligence and worth.

He entreats us to use our word correctly to share our love for ourselves and for others. Just imagine what the world would be if we all used our powers for good.

Don't Take Anything Personally

The origin of this frame of mind is found in the belief that what people say shows more about themselves than it does about the subject of their comments (a position described by Kahneman in his recent Knowledge Project interview).

We are neither the subject of all that we encounter nor responsible for everything. “Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds.”

The real key to why this is so important is that, if you take things personally, “your reaction is to defend your beliefs and create conflicts.” When you choose to understand that you are what you are regardless of what others say, you become immune to the poison around you and can focus on the antidote.

Each of us can't help but see the world from our own point of view, and we should seek to understand other points of view. But, if we stop allowing others to infect us with their pain and suffering, we can actually start doing something about it.

Ruiz asserts that the voice in our head isn't always telling us the truth. We have to actively choose to believe the ideas that serve us well and dismiss lies by rejecting the fear of others and ourselves. If we make it a habit not to take things personally, our anger, jealously, envy and sadness can disappear.

Don't Make Assumptions

By misinterpreting and misunderstanding what others say, we will only see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. If we spend our time trying to infer conclusions from our experiences with others, we will likely create illusions and fantasies that aren't real.

The mind seeks rational understanding for what it observes and then draws conclusions. We have to fight against this to avoid creating reality instead of experiencing it. The antidote to assumptions is questions. When we ask questions, we avoid creating a rationale for someone's behavior, beliefs and opinions. Gathering more facts when we feel negative emotions will often cause them to dissipate.

Likewise, if we tell others what we think and feel, it's less likely they will make assumptions about us and more likely that we can live up to their expectations.

Always Do Your Best

We're so frequently hit with this message in life that it seems almost cliché to include it. But, the wrinkle added by Ruiz is an important one: “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.” Because our “best” is a moving target, this idea that we can always do our best is important to remember. As highly capable and successful individuals, we often beat ourselves up when we don't do as well as we did yesterday, forgetting that it just might be the best we can do today, under these circumstances.

The additional importance of including this aphorism is that the other three only work if we are doing our best. You can't be impeccable with your word, avoid taking things personally and avoid making assumptions unless you are doing your best. And, secondarily, you won't always be able to succeed at the other three, but you can always do your best to try.

The Masteries

Finally, Ruiz focuses on how to get from here to there, from a person with other agreements to a person who follows the Four Agreements. It begins with a focused effort on mastering the art of Awareness, Transformation and Intent.

First, we must understand who we are, then understand who we could be and how to change, finally capable of making the decision of what we intend to be. The final section of the book outlines various strategies and processes for making these changes in a practical way.

Utilizing these principles as you work to have difficult conversations with people you disagree with will change the timbre of the conversation and lead to a greater understanding of those around you.

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