This edition, I want to talk about The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (DNM). I was originally turned onto this book because of everything I heard about it. DNM and his book quickly became international sensations. The reason, I think, is because of how easy he is to read. His writing style is simple, and even juvenile at times. He speaks from a place that is honest and easy to understand. The book is a quick and fun read that goes as deep as the reader is willing to go. In other words, if you want to stay on the surface, and read The Four Agreements like another bookshelf guide to self realization, than you can– his writing actually encourages that. However, it also possible to take the book to a more profound level. Each one of his pages can be made more complex and ultimately more interesting for the reader if they want to go to that level.
As the title suggests, this book revolves around 4 agreements that DNM says will help anyone and everyone reach personal freedom. Ultimately his book is about ancestral philosophy and ancient wisdom. He pulls these agreements from ancient Toltec history. Supposedly, the Toltec were a Mesoamerican culture that dominated a lot of land in Mexico. But what’s interesting is that there is some debate over whether or not the Toltec were an actual people or a cultural myth of the Aztec civilization.
Nonetheless, a book exists based on some pretty interesting stuff. According to DNM, if we commit to the 4 agreements, practice them, and recommit to them when we fail, we will live a dream of personal freedom. This, of course, is much easier said than done. Especially because DNM does not mince his words. The agreements are short and sweet, but like I said, ready to be unpacked to an extremely fruitful and profound level.
Reading this book came at a really good time for me. Each of these agreements are very helpful for my Peace Corps service. In general, they all can be applied on almost a daily basis. I’d like to share just a few examples of how I am using these agreements in my service (or at least how I should be). I’m hoping that will help add some meat to the otherwise highly theoretical and philosophical bones of the Toltec wisdom that DNM employs in The Four Agreements.
(1.) Be impeccable With Your Word: This is an extremely interesting and challenging agreement to practice when you live in another country where you don’t speak the native language. At this point in my service, I would consider myself fluent in Spanish, but that does not mean I do not completely feel at a loss for words some times. Nor does it mean I don’t make silly/embarrassing mistakes with my grammar or vocabulary. Like when I said “concha” (seashell), also slang for vagina, when I should have said “cancha” (sports field) in front of a group a middle schoolers.
Due to that, being impeccable with my word, in the literal sense, is really hard for me. There will always be mistakes. What these means however is that I am getting really valuable experience in speaking exactly what I mean when I can. I plan ahead. I vizualize. I practice. I spend a lot of energy communicating in ways that are effective and genuine.
(2.) Don’t Take Anything Personally: This is another hard one. The most recent example comes from a training I did with my counterpart. We did a 3 hour session on community project design and management. For the most part, I was happy with how it went. And most of the teachers who were participating enjoyed the session. However, there are always a few bad apples. A couple teachers, despite our efforts, took multiple opportunities to criticize our presentation and even go to the lengths of saying they wished they had better professionals to talk about the topic. I remember when I heard this, after exhausting myself in front a group of my peers for 3 hours and thinking and using a foreign language, I wanted to cry.
Not taking it personally was really hard. In fact, I didn’t do a good job at it at all. And what happened was that I suffered. I became bitter with these two teachers and let my emotions impact our working relationship. It was awkward shortly after, but luckily everything has been smoothed over. I called my boss to vent about the experience and he offered some advice that I think DNM would support. He said, “if these teachers had so much to say, why don’t you invite them to help plan the next session of training?” At first, I was like frigg that. But it actually makes sense. They’ve clearly got some ideas that should be included. And if their participation means I can become more immune to their words, than so be it.
(3.) Don’t Make Assumptions: This agreement is incredibly helpful in cultural situations besides your own. When you are out of your comfort zone, it is so easy to make assumptions and to cast judgements. The food. The dress. The sights. The smells. The cities. The country. The people. The kids. The animals. Etc. Etc. Etc. When you are traveling, making assumptions almost everything around you is so easy it’s scary. The reason is because you just do not know. You have no idea so you try to make one up. And often times, you’re wrong.
I’ve been in Peru now for 10 months. I feel much more integrated into my community when I arrived, but there is still work to be done. I still find myself judging and making assumptions about what I am seeing, the people I am interacting with and the experiences I am confronted with. However when I can suspend judgment or assumption, I am immediately rewarded with an entirely rich experience. This sometimes happens because I am beginning to know. I am beginning to understand the Peruvian culture and the local culture in my community. I am able to not assume and to not judge, and instead, to just live like it is all normal. And that is such a cool feeling.
(4.) Always Do Your Best: This should be a motto for every PC volunteer in every country around the world. In fact, in Peru, we have something similar– “just do one thing a day.” In moments where everything goes to shit– for example, your health, the weather, your work, etc– still just do one thing per day. Sometimes the best I can do is accomplish one thing. This could be a work plan for an activity I want to do. Or it could literally mean leaving my house, spending time at the school and playing volleyball.
The best a PC volunteer can do varies so much day to day that it can be extremely frustrating. By fault, the people that come to work with the PC are hard working and successful people. Their resumes and work/life experiences make them applicable to serve. However, all those experiences, successes and work came in a completely different cultural experience. To not be able to use your skills, intelligence, ideas etc. during your service can be very disempowering. Sometimes your best is a lot. And sometimes, you’ve really got to shift your mindset to even begin to see your efforts as the best you can do. When that shift happens though, you are rewarded and grateful for your time and energy spent.