This book is all about core beliefs and the fundamentals of human philosophy to live a good life. Ingrained in the Mexican ancient culture of the Toltec, the wisdom that the Author Don Miguel Ruiz speaks of, is the distillation of 4 main universal truths.
The human spirit has evolved slowly from a primitive life form into the complex creature that we are right now. We’ve managed to develop the gift of reason and rational thinking by millions of years of iterations of evolution and facing the challenges of survival in the highly hostile environment of the earth. We are still using our primordial survival hardware in our brains controlling most of our basic actions on autopilot. We know when something’s hot to the touch that our fingers snap away without even a split second of conscious thought. You get goose-pumps and raised hairs just like a cat would in the face of impending danger. Your fight or flight system is ready to dump massive amounts of Adrenaline into your bloodstream, delivering maximum energy to your muscles and shutting down your pain receptors at a split-second’s notice, and you don’t even have to think about it. These basic “instincts” are beyond your rational mind which is the thinking, rational and most evolved part of your brain. That’s where you develop all your thoughts and that’s where you have your identity, where you make your choices and decisions and, most importantly, where you reprogram your behavior and your responses.
Our rational brain does wield immense power over reprogramming itself. What the scientists call neuroplasticity basically means that you can consciously change the thoughts and behaviors you wish to change. And this is what happens to you when you learn something either by experience or by means of seeking knowledge. This can have both positive and negative effects.
Long-term abuse teaches the mind to be locked into a defensive protective mode and you feel like you’re living in a harsh environment that can only handled by aggressive behavior, ruled by snap-decisions not planted in rational thought. Living in adverse conditions, by means of environment and sustained exposure to negative thoughts, basically relinquishes control from your rational mind to the auto-pilot brain which was optimized to live in the jungle, look for prey, hide from predators, try to reproduce as many offspring as possible to ensure at least one of them will carry the same genetic code. This sort of low level programming is optimized towards one thing only: Living forever.
On the other hand, our minds can harness the power of self-programming through intentionally going towards higher level thoughts and intentionally seeking to reprogram how we think and how we approach our environment, how we assess danger, and how we plan for the future. The miracle of the rational brain is its ability to see the future. Our primitive brain is locked into the present and the past, it doesn’t have any concept of the future, but our rational thinking brain does. We can see the future and we can make plans for immediate short-term, and further long-term designs for a different life. That is what we call education. This is why mankind deifies learning and knowledge.
This is exactly the part of your mind that is reading through these words right now. You are using your rational thinking mind, the most evolved part of your brain, the neocortex, to read and understand my words and assess whether it merits assimilation into your own programming, i.e. being part of your own thoughts.
Which brings us back to the wisdom in the four agreements. These 4 main concepts of how to evolve and deal with life as a creature capable of rational thought. You can adopt these principles into your own thoughts and remind yourself of them as often as possible to be able to use them as the main guidelines for your thought. Don Miguel Ruiz calls them “Agreements” which is a befitting title for something you have to accept and invite into your life and into your thoughts willingly.
The First Agreement: “Be Impeccable With Your Word.”
Word is the single most fundamental building block of thought. The word is how you speak to yourself, and how you speak to others. It’s what you receive from the outside world to update your knowledge, and what you tell to other people to update theirs. Words turn into sounds which translate into your voice which create your thoughts. Your thoughts determine your decisions. Your decisions dictate your actions. Your repeated actions form your habits. And ultimately, your habits define your character. So, whatever you tell the world and whatever you tell yourself is the most essential factor of your character and how you perceive yourself and how the rest of the world sees you. The decision and agreement to be impeccable with your word constitutes what we call telling the truth, it’s how we decide not to deceive others. Being impeccable with the word also implies being kind to yourself and to others, to perpetuate only words of love, compassion, kindness and warmth. Being impeccable with your word means you don’t punish yourself with harsh criticism of your own actions and your own thoughts. Being impeccable with your word is all about forgiveness of your own past mistakes and the mistakes of others, neither yourself nor the other person have known better. Handle your words with reverence and care. Your words shape your world.
The Second Agreement: “Do Not Make Assumptions.”
Assumptions are imaginary constructs of reality you make up in your own head which have no solid backing from facts. False assumptions are the reason behind false expectations, which lead to disappointment and grief. Your assumptions feed your interpretations of the world, which is basically how you formulate an opinion and build judgement. This is the core reason behind someone being upset by something you did, or didn’t, do simply because they assume your actions were intended to cause them harm. This causes lots of misunderstanding and lots of conflict which is completely unnecessary and unwarranted. Every romantic couple knows what this is like, every one’s felt it at the workplace, and it’s one of the main effects of miscommunication. The cure for false assumptions and expectations is more clear and direct communication. Don’t be shy with your words and always try to make your thoughts as clear as possible. At the first hint of misunderstanding and miscommunication, take the initiative and clear the air. Apologizing for not being clear and attempting to fix the perceptions of others encourages them to do the very same with you. It makes life a whole lot more simple. Abandon the “silent treatment.” Voice your concerns with a colleague you think is doing something on purpose, maybe they have their thoughts running down an entirely different stream that never took your position into account, and the sooner you speak up about it, the faster they will pay attention to the damage they are causing you. More often than not you’ll be faced with a surprised reaction and an immediate fix for your grief. Don’t let thoughts fester beneath the surface, that’s how you develop a bitter and poisonous personality. In an intimate relationship, it pays lots of dividends to communicate everything as clearly as possible, as often as possible, and always clear the air as much as possible, because living in harbored bitterness and festering anger will build-up slowly until it blows up in your face one of those days.
The Third Agreement: “Do Not Take Anything Personally.”
I love the aphorism of the Hanlon Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be easily explained by stupidity.” You will find different versions of it on Google, sometimes ascribed to being a quote by Napoleon Bonaparte, but whoever said it hit the nail on the head. The main different combinations of the quote substitute three synonyms of the same thing. I summed it up in my own version which goes like “Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by ignorance, stupidity or incompetence.”
You shouldn’t take anything personally, because we’re all trapped in our own head and we’re all pursuing the self-interests of one single individual: that person you see in the mirror. Most of the time, that which you think is an intentional attempt to destroy your aims simply happens to be someone else’s aims conflicting with yours. They don’t necessarily want to harm you, they’re after their own goals. Some other time, people are simply stupid. Stupidity is another word for ignorance, it’s someone who doesn’t know any better. It’s a failure based in not knowing the right way of doing or saying something. It’s the basic definition of incompetence as well. So basically, most of everyone around you are not evil masters trying to harness all the dark forces of nature in the world and praying to the devil and creating voodoo dolls to try to make your life a living hell. Nope, basically always assume that people are plainly stupid incompetent and ignorant pursuing their own self-interests all the while completely oblivious to you being even alive in the world. That doesn’t mean we don’t have damaged evil spirits living amongst us in their own personal hell and poisoning the existence of everyone they know with malicious intent, but it’s like 9 times out of 10 not true. So do not take it personally.
Do not even take your own thoughts personally. Whatever you think of the world right this minute and whatever you think of yourself right this minute is a direct function of your experiences and the filters you use to see the world, which could change at any moment based on new information, new circumstances, new life lesson, new job, new partner, new country, new friends, and new experiences. The first thing you can do to heal from all the pain and suffering that you might be feeling is to have faith that you can change everything bad that is happening to you. So don’t take personally those few negative thoughts, that pain, that inner criticism that sometimes pops up in your head and tells you all the terrible things that it does. Don’t take your own thoughts personally if they are trying to tell you that you’re not enough or the world is too dangerous or whatever. That’s basically the voice of your primitive brain who doesn’t know any better. It’s your deeper inner self trying to protect you from harm by telling you what it thinks is best for you, but you know it isn’t. You don’t take it personally because you know it all stems from a place of love. One of the most fundamental truths in this world is that not everyone who wants to help and who is trying to help, actually knows how to help. Sometimes the people who love you the most cause you the most harm and the deepest pain out of love. You are doing the same to yourself, you just don’t realize it. The majority of self-sabotage we all cause ourselves happens because we listen to those voices holding us back as if they’re rational thoughts based in facts, but they’re rather assumptions and opinions that are trying to get you to live as long as possible with the least amount of damage, and in doing so, make a terrible set of assumptions with a huge margin of safety to give you a fighting chance. The trouble is, it’s all about old programming that was adequate in the times of the dinosaurs and and tribal wars, not today’s world. So do not take it personally.
David Goggins, a US Navy Seal, has what he calls the 40% Rule in his book “Can’t Hurt Me.” David Goggins is an ultra-marathon runner and he discovered this rule while attempting to perform amazing feats of athletics and endurance. According to Goggins, the human mind is always trying to preserve energy and ensure long-lasting survival, so whenever you feel like you are absolutely tapped out of energy and can’t keep going any longer and you’ve used up all your resources, you’ve actually finished just 40% of your tank and you have 60% more to burn through. Those who burn through this barrier and keep going against all the internal gauges on empty and all the warning lights flashing red, will often discover that there’s more in reserve than they thought possible. That’s basically what we call catching a second wind. What wind? Where did that energy come from? And how can you pull another all-nighter after you’ve been catching only 2 to 3 hours of sleep for a couple of days? You do it because it matters to you and when you need to keep going because there’s no other option. That’s exactly when all the alarms and warning signals simply turn quiet and you find yourself able to keep going until you are finished. That’s exactly the same mechanism in your brain that gives your body warning that all energy is depleted, it’s causing you the poisonous inhibiting thoughts that are trying to tell you, stop it, don’t be courageous, don’t risk it, don’t take a chance, we are safe right here in that dark little corner of that small room in the bottom of the bunker of complacency and mediocrity. That’s why you tell yourself those bad things. That’s why you shouldn’t listen, you old brain doesn’t know any better. Treat it as you would your little child who doesn’t know any better, tell these thoughts: “Thank you for your concern. I know you mean well. I know you’re telling me that from a place of love.” Then make a conscious choice to ignore it. Don’t take it personally.
The Forth Agreement: “Always Do Your Best.”
Trying to train yourself to walk through life with the previous three agreements is not going to be easy. You will not always be impeccable with your word. You will not always hold yourself from making assumptions. You will not always be able to not take some things personally. But the main deciding factor here is your prevailing choice to always do the very best you can.
That’s how you improve with anything. That’s how you keep going the distance. That’s how you fight addictions and old preconceptions. That’s how you change your mind. You promise yourself to forgive your own shortcomings, all of your failing, all of your mistakes and the poisonous words, the assumptions and the overreaction to circumstances, and you simply tell yourself, next time I will do better. By doing the best you can this time, the next time around you are going further along before you fail.
All of the tests provided by the educational bodies of the world to measure your competence in some field of knowledge or to pass a bar or to enroll in college, are all designed to make you fail. No one is supposed to get the correct answer to every single question on the exam. The goal is always and ever to fail at the highest level possible. That’s synonymous with everything you are attempting to master in life. You try and do your best and then when you fail, you learn why you failed, and you add to your arsenal a new item of experience which will push you to get more right answers the next time around. That’s all there is to it. You try, give it your best, fail, assess, learn the lesson, try again, and the next time around you find yourself on a higher level than the day before. Always do your best. Those who miss this crucial lesson are doomed to a life of easily giving up and not even trying because they say “What’s the point? I’m only going to fail!” Yes! You Are Going To Fail And This Is Exactly The Point Of Trying Again. Wake up and learn that lesson as early in your life as possible because you can really build an amazing life simply by doing your best.
Thank you for the gift of your time.
Author: Don Miguel Ruiz
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The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, A Toltec Wisdom Book
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