The Four Agreements, Part 2 (1/27/02)
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
The Four Agreements, part two. I know there are some of you who were not here last week, and even those who were might need a brief recap of last week’s message before we begin the second half of our look at Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements. This little book is billed as a “practical guide to personal freedom,” and it contains the teachings of Toltec wisdom, which originated thousands of years ago within a society located at the ancient city of pyramids outside Mexico City.
To understand the ideas behind this book, we have to understand what the author—Don Miguel Ruiz—means by the word agreement. An agreement is a belief. It is something we accept as true. And who each one of us is as a human being is determined by our belief system. It is the combination of all the things we accept as true—our agreements—that define us. Think of anybody you know. Their height, weight, eye color, hair color—all of these things describe what they look like, not who they are. It is the total combination of all their beliefs that define them as a human being. It is their beliefs, their agreements, that determine who they are.
The problem is simple: our belief systems—our agreements—are inflicted upon us by the world around us. Who we are as human beings is determined by the beliefs our parents, our teachers, our nations, and the media have placed within us. We become little more than a reflection of the world around us, as opposed to being authentic human beings grounded on truth and love.
Don Miguel Ruiz asks us to take our entire collection of agreements—our entire belief system—and set it aside. And then, carefully and thoughtfully, rebuild ourselves from scratch. And this time, don’t allow the world around us to define who we are. This time, we build ourselves with nothing but truth and love as our guides.
The author then provides four agreements that he believes should serve as the building blocks for every other belief we acquire. The first agreement is quite philosophical, and the next three are more practical. Last week we spent the entire morning examining the first agreement, which serves as the foundation for all of our beliefs, and hence, as the foundation of who and what each of us is as a human being.
The first agreement is this: Be Impeccable with Your Word. Be impeccable with your word. The reason this agreement is so philosophical is that Ruiz defines the word “word” as the creative power within us. It is our spoken language, and much more. Just as God created the universe in the Genesis account by speaking creation into being—Let there be light; and as the Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the word, and word was with God, and the word is God”; our word is the creative force within us. And the most frequent way we have of expressing that creative force is through language—with words.
To be impeccable with our word means that we recognize the power our words have; that with our words we create either heaven or hell around us; and that we should always use our words to brings truth and love into the world.
Before I move on to the next three agreements, I want to mention something about the language Don Miguel Ruiz uses, which some may find objectionable. In the author’s culture, and in the wisdom of the Toltec tradition, the words magic and spell are used frequently. To appreciate this book, and to learn from this ancient tradition, we have to get past our normal associations with those words. For example, last week we considered a “black magic spell” that a mother inadvertently placed on her daughter. The mother, suffering from a terrible headache after a frantic day at work, became frustrated at her young daughter’s joyful dancing and loud singing, and she shouted at her, “Shut up! You have an ugly voice!”
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The daughter developed a complex, became overly shy, and almost never talked. Her mother had cast a spell with her words. I considered pulling out my dictionary and finding some terms from modern psychology to use in place of magic and spell, but decided I should leave this wisdom in the author’s words, and simply explain that we should not associate those words with evil, or witchcraft, as we so often do in our modern North American culture.
After the first agreement—be impeccable with your word—comes the second agreement: Don’t Take Anything Personally. Don Miguel Ruiz insists that each of us lives in the world we create with our beliefs—our agreements—and our own personal world is reflected in our words. We define ourselves and the world around us with our words. He says that when a person says to you, “You are stupid,” you are being selfish if you feel hurt by that. The person who says such a thing defines himself, not you, with his words. And if you allow his words to harm you, it is because you think the whole world revolves around you.
If you take what someone else says personally, it is because you are accepting their poison into your mind. They can sew that poison seed, but it cannot take root in your mind unless you make an agreement that it belongs there. The second agreement—don’t take anything personally—is an acknowledgement that we are not responsible for other people’s actions. Ruiz says each of us will have no choice but to live in a sort of hell until we make an agreement with ourselves not to accept other people’s emotional garbage into ourselves.
I’ll quote some of the author’s thoughts on this: It is not important what you think about me, and I don’t take what you think personally…Whatever you think and feel is your problem and not my problem. It is the way you see the world. It is nothing personal, because you are dealing with yourself, not with me. You create an entire picture or movie in your mind, and in that picture you are the director, you are the producer, you are the main actor or actress. Everyone else is a secondary actor or actress. It is your movie. The way you see that movie is according to the agreements you have made with life.
He goes on to say that it is fear and insecurity that lie at the root of our misuse of the word. We must refuse to allow others to plant the seeds of insecurity and fear within us. Then the world we create around ourselves is blissful, and we grow to love everything we perceive.
Before I move on to the third agreement, I want to say how important I think this second agreement is—this idea of not taking anything personally—and also acknowledge how difficult it would be to truly make it a part of our lives. I’ll give you an example. I drive across Kellogg daily, and there are a certain number of people who mistake that street for the backstretch at the Indy 500. I try my best to stay in the flow of traffic, which means going seven or eight miles per hour over the speed limit. Every so often, when all three lanes are packed solid, somebody will rush up behind me, and act as if I was a complete idiot for not being able to drive through the cars in front of me, which are lined up bumper to bumper. And as they finally manage to pull up beside me, they will mouth some obscenity, and offer me their single finger salute.
I see this happen to other people quite frequently, and when I do, I have no problem understanding that it is the person whose anger is out of control who is defining himself. His rudeness says absolutely nothing about the person who is the target of his rage. But when it happens to me, I have to admit that, in Don Miguel Ruiz’s terms, that angry person casts a spell on me. I instantly feel bad about myself. I feel anger, and embarrassment, and who knows what other negative emotions, and sometimes those feelings haunt me for the rest of the day, all because I am unable to follow the second agreement, of not taking anything personally. But I certainly recognize that acquiring that agreement would be an enviable trait for any of us.
The third agreement is Don’t Make Assumptions. The author says that the hell we create for ourselves is built on two factors: taking things personally, and making assumptions. This is a very practical agreement, this idea of not making assumptions. The two most common assumptions we make are, number one, assuming we know what other people are thinking; and number two, assuming other people know what we are thinking.
These assumptions are especially true for the people closest to us—the people we love. There are a couple of beliefs—a couple of agreements—that we need to get rid of if we want to make this third agreement a part of our belief system. First, we have to get rid of the idea that it is not safe to ask questions. Second, we have to get rid of the idea that the people who love us automatically know how we feel.
The reason so many marriages fail, according to Ruiz, is because of these assumptions. Because we have learned to justify our personal beliefs at all costs, we assume that we are right, and that any reasonable person will see things just like we do. We assume they understand us, that their thinking is in sync with ours, and we see no reason to actually verbalize what’s on our minds.
Further, Ruiz writes, often when you go into a relationship with someone you like, you have to justify why you like that person. You only see what you want to see and deny there are things you don’t like about the person. You lie to yourself just to make yourself right. Then you make assumptions, and one of the assumptions is “My love will change this person.” But this is not true. Your love will not change anybody. If others change, it is because they want to change. Then something happens between the two of you…and you get hurt. Now you have to justify your emotional pain, so you blame them for your choices.
And then Ruiz says something that I think really rings of the truth. He writes, Real love is accepting other people the way they are without trying to change them. If we try to change them, this means we really don’t like them.
In summarizing the most important elements of the third agreement—don’t make assumptions—the most important thing is to be willing to ask questions, and also to be willing to hear the answers yes and no without violating the second agreement, and taking it personally. The way our questions are answered defines others, not ourselves. And if we are standing firm on the first agreement, by being impeccable with our word, then our “yes” means “yes” and our “no” means “no,” and we respect the right of others to answer our questions honestly.
Well, we’re down to the fourth agreement, which is Always Do your Best. At first, this sounds like a source of stress, this thinking we must do our best at all times, especially for those of us who battle with a tendency toward perfectionism. But Ruiz says we must accept that “our best” changes from day to day, from hour to hour. It ebbs and flows with our mood, with the state of our health, with countless other factors. He says we often stress ourselves out by trying to do more than our best. Intentionally doing less than our best leaves us feeling guilty and frustrated, but overdoing things simply depletes our energy and keeps us from accomplishing our goals.
The author reflects on the difference between taking action for the sake of a reward, and taking action because you find joy in the action itself. He takes this to the extreme, reminiscent of the way some Eastern religions view actions. Ruiz says the happiest and most fulfilled people are those who make life itself a sort of ritual. He says that even taking a shower can be a joyful ritual. We should cleanse our physical body with thanks, sensing the warmth of the water against our skin, recognizing that our body is a glorious gift from God, and that the ritual of the shower is a way of caring for and giving back to the body that gives so much to us. I’m reminded of the scene in one of my favorite movies—The Razor’s Edge—in which the main character is taught that washing dishes in the Ganges River can be a form of ritual worship.
To do your best, you must be alive in the moment. I’ll quote once again from Ruiz’s book: God is life. God is life in action. The best way to say, “I love you God,” is to live your life doing your best. The best way to say, “Thank you, God,” is by letting go of the past and living in the present moment, right here and now. Whatever life takes away from you, let it go. When you surrender and let go of the past, you allow yourself to be fully alive in the moment. Letting go of the past means you can enjoy the dream that is happening right now.
The author wraps several good points around this idea of doing your best, saying we each are born with several rights. We have the right to be who we are. We have the right to be happy. We have the right to love, and to enjoy and share our love. And we have the right to our own divinity by being alive and loving ourselves and others.
Finally, Ruiz says that if we are truly doing our best, every action in our lives, from the most profound to the most mundane, becomes a ritual in which we are honoring God. Soon, we grow into a person who honors God not only with our actions, but with every thought, emotion and belief.
Well, that brings an end to my reflections on the Four Agreements: be impeccable with your word; don’t take anything personally; don’t make assumptions; and always do your best. I mentioned last week that due to the commercial success of The Four Agreements there are now many books available on Toltec wisdom. I am not endorsing any of those books, because I don’t know anything about them. There are things in this book—The Four Agreements—that did not ring true with me. But I will say that I find nothing in the four agreements themselves that is in conflict with the teachings of Jesus. And there is a very profound point to be found in both the teachings of Jesus and in the wisdom of the Toltec tradition: both heaven and hell are right here, right now. That doesn’t mean there is nothing beyond this physical world we’ve been given to share. But Jesus tells us throughout the gospels that the kingdom of heaven is among us, although few have eyes to see it. And the New Testament is saturated with the message that the time to enter the kingdom of heaven is not at death, but now, in this lifetime.
What this Toltec wisdom says that has such an impact on me is that each of us determines whether or not we live in heaven or in hell. In this world of ours, heaven and hell are the same place. They are both right before our eyes, and it is our eyes, our minds, our hearts that determine in which of those worlds—heaven or hell—we spend our lives.
One of my favorite sayings comes from Swami Vivekananda, and says, “Our thoughts, words and deeds are the threads of the net we weave around ourselves.” We really do create our own worlds. And we really do determine what type of world we live in with the way we use our word, our creative power. We each have been given the gift, and the awesome responsibility, of creating the world around us. As St. Francis made clear in his most famous prayer, we can sew the seeds of love or fear; of faith or doubt; of hope or despair.
With our hearts and minds anchored on the one who became a true reflection of God’s love, may we always use our creative powers to build the kingdom of God, within ourselves, around ourselves, and upon our world. Amen.