Don Miguel Ruiz. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal
Freedom. Amber-Allen Publishing, San Rafael, California. 1997.
A gentle green cross on the front cover that divides it into four squares with a flowering plant each bears the title of the book, The Four Agreements. Vertically edged, the subtitle "A Toltec Wisdom Book" gives the reader a hint as to the background of the author, Don Miguel Ruiz. Though born into the Eagle Knight lineage of the ancient Toltec civilization of central Mexico, Ruiz did not actually become a nagual, or shaman, until after a near death experience in his twenties. Now he continues his family's tradition of showing people a path to freedom in books, such as this one, that are easily accessible even to the most inexperienced readers of spirituality or self-help.
The structure of The Four Agreements is as simple as the language it uses. Divided into seven chapters that introduce the readers to the Toltec version of the world, it moves through the four agreements on to the final two chapters that explain in more detail how to apply said agreements to finally arrive at what he calls "Heaven on Earth."
In very simple, easily comprehensible language for any reader, Ruiz begins with a lovely narrative introduction that delineates the Toltec world view of how humans live in a dream. Every human is a dreamer separated from other humans by the dream, or the smoke that prevents them from recognizing themselves in the other. Similar to spiritual teaching, he narrates that God is in everything and everybody, yet humans do not see that the "real us is pure love, pure light," (xvii).
Chapter one then introduces the reader to an interpretation of that dream, the life that humans live, that sounds slightly alienating to unaccustomed ears. However, Ruiz's style of talking to the reader directly, suggesting he or she is currently dreaming, eases readers into the notion that this dream of humanity is regulated by the ideas and values that are ingrained into us during our "domestication." We learn to accept certain agreements throughout our lives; as children we have no choice because "the only way to store information is by agreement" (5). Eventually, we become "autodomesticated" (9) and no longer need parents or institutions to punish or reward us - we have learned to do so ourselves and turn into a judge (of ourselves and others) as well as into a victim.
A change of our agreements equals breaking the rules of this Book of Law we have created. It is a scary and hurtful thing to challenge what makes us feel safe and we, therefore, open emotional wounds. However, our beliefs, our personal Book of Law, is what creates our personal dream, which, if we choose to change it, needs to be governed by healthy agreements. The following four chapters discuss the four basic, yet most important ones and Ruiz claims that the dream of drama and Hell will disappear once one applies these four agreements.
Though they appear to be basic, they really constitute all the other agreements humans make in their lives. The goal is to create personal power by breaking an old agreement and replacing it with one you consciously choose. The first rule is to Be Impeccable with Your Word. The author warns that though seemingly simple, this rule is the most difficult one. Alas, the word is a powerful force that if used wisely is like white magic. Unless used in an impeccable way, the word, in the form of gossip, judgment, criticism, blame, anger, etc. is emotional poison that hurts us as well as others. Providing a lot of examples of using the word as black magic, Ruiz makes his point very well, but missing examples of impeccable word use makes it hard to find alternatives when one realizes being trapped in negative self-talk or expressions of frustration. He does suggest telling yourself how much you love yourself, though; but this, as he hinted, can be the hardest thing to do for somebody in crisis and seriously looking for self-help.
Like the following three agreements, the second one is derived from the first one: Don't Take Anything Personally. Taking things personally means to suffer unnecessarily, according to Ruiz, because people will always see or judge you based on their own agreements or emotional wounds - and those have nothing to do with you. Whether good opinions or bad ones, taking nothing personally allows you to break many little agreements that have caused you to suffer.
The Third Agreement, Don't Make Assumptions, is what could unravel our dream of Hell in a moment, according to Ruiz. Since we believe our assumptions to be true, we fall into blame and reaction, emotional poisoning with our words, and worst of all, war. Life's sadness and drama is based on misunderstanding and then taking things personally, when really, there can never be an objective point of view, as everybody has her or his own dream out of which they act. Even making assumptions about ourselves creates conflict, he says, thus standing in our own way.
As daunting as these three agreements may sound, the Fourth Agreement is quite encouraging, really: Always Do Your Best. It is, says Ruiz, "about the action of the first three" agreements, and he asks that you "keep in mind that your best is never going to be the same from one moment to the next" (75-6). Situations and emotions change; the essential message is that "Regardless of the quality, keep doing your best" (76). Like many other spiritual teachers, Ruiz reminds us to stay in the present moment; and if you do your best, the future will change into a new dream.
The following chapter is about breaking old agreements by recognizing our freedom we possessed as a child, "not afraid of the future or ashamed of the past" (95). We have the freedom to choose which agreements in life to live by, and therefore which ones to unravel. This is what the Toltecs call mastering one's own dream, since "Your life is a manifestation of your dream" (99). The Toltec path to freedom is to rid oneself of the parasites of the Judge, the Victim, and the belief system which feed on our negative emotions generated by fear. A shamanic warrior is a person who has declared "war" on the parasite in an attempt to live a free life and happy "dream." In order to change our dream we must master the way of the warrior and be attentive and disciplined enough to control our behavior. Finally, embracing the angel of death to let go of the parasite is reminiscent of the death of the ego-self, described by other spiritual teachers as well.
Though the hardest part to deal with, as the ego derives from fear and is there to protect us from harm and hurt, it is an essential part of the journey to your new dream or heaven. The final chapter encourages us to realize that what we currently live has been created by us powerful magicians with the help of the word and imagination. If and when we realize this power and change the way we utilize it, we can just as simply create Heaven on Earth.
Ruiz's deceptively simple writing style makes the concept of creating your world in the present moment accessible to people who are unfamiliar with those concepts. The fact that this notion of creating one's own reality is based on his Toltec traditions may make it sound both exotic and appealing to some readers, who can then either dismiss it or embrace it more easily depending on their openness or curiosity. The plenitude of examples further makes it easy for readers to comprehend what he means. For experienced readers of spiritual literature, the presentation of the concepts is often too simplistic and creates more questions than answers. Nevertheless, the book is an interesting addition to the tool kit of any healer or coach. By providing a different version of well-known concepts, the book presents another way of explaining the Ego, Law of Attraction, Living in the Now - in other words, how we create our own world.