Thursday, October 16, 2014

Philosophy Thursday: Lessons learned from The Four Agreements

So last night, still affected by that talk between Laverne Cox and bell hooks, I decided to read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It's a tiny little volume, but chok-a-block full of helpful tidbits. Especially for me, especially lately when I seem to be going through profound bouts of despair from origins and reasons unknown.

Call this a book report, more than a review...

The Four Agreements could be considered, if you're feeling cynical enough, a self-help book. But I don't really see it that way. The hallmark of self-help, as I see it, is pathologization. It holds the assumption that there is something fundamentally wrong with you, and that you need fixing. Self-help is structured, as I see it, so that you will never actually find the 'cure' for the disease of yourself. You will always need to buy another book, attend another expense course, you'll always be attempting to fix yourself to the benefit of others.

But I see The Four Agreements as different from this. Rather than trying to fix yourself to suit those around you or your environment, it's more about accepting yourself unconditionally, and adjusting your attitude to your environment and those around you. Call it applied philosophy, then. The basic premise of the book is that we are taught, from birth, to form 'agreements' with others. Like the handshake. The form of, and performance of, the handshake is an agreement. You saw it performed as a child between adults, you tactically agreed on its meaning, and then eventually you started performing it yourself.

That's a pretty mundane example, but you can extend that you include nearly everything you do in life. So the book explains that if you want to return to yourself and the childish happiness you experienced before you agreed to any of this arbitrary adult life, you have to throw out every agreement you've ever made with the world. And instead, replace it with just four:

1. Be impeccable with your word.
2. Don't take anything personally.
3. Don't make assumptions.
4. Always do your best.

And that's it. It's a short volume that I read in a single evening.

But I really have the feeling that it's written backwards. I feel like I might have been more receptive to the process had "Always do your best" been presented first.

1. Be impeccable with your word.

This one takes the most courage, for me. It has nothing to do with good grammar, or being an awesome public speaker. It is basically be aware that words have power to influence and to actionalize, and to speak and write accordingly. Don't gossip. It also mean to not lie to yourself, to not be something you're not, to not hide yourself in order to fit in.

That's the part that is most difficult for me. Because, like everyone, I just want to fit in.

When it comes to this blog and my writings on Wattpad, I think I've been good. I've presented myself in a certain way, and I've stuck to that message. But in real life, surrounded as I am by people who have 'real jobs', who are professionals and who, when faced with under-employment, are bored; I have a hard time representing myself as I am: as a writer. It depends on my level of trust. If I trust you, I'll tell you about my writing. If I don't trust you, I'll fall back on the 'teacher out of work' lie and hide behind it. I don't even have proper business cards yet. It's something I have to work on. Living my truth in my "outside of Internet" life.

2. Don't take anything personally.

This one is about reacting to other people. Nothing that people ever do or say is about anything other than themselves. It's never about me. If you realize that, a lot of hurt can just fall away. You don't have to be reactionary to others' actions, because you can realize that they are walking around in their own version of reality, and are reacting to their own perceptions and thoughts. If they attack me verbally, that's their deal and they have to live with it, not me.

3. Don't assume anything.

This is the one which my personal ethics fits into. Basically it's about taking people where they are, as they are, rather than as I'd like them to be or where I think they are.

But it also means not to assume that people can read your mind. It means that you have to ask for what you want and what you need. Also a thing that I have to keep in mind and practice, although I'm actually not as bad as that as I am at #1. Perhaps the reason why I think they should be written backwards.

4. Always do your best.

It also should be written backwards because this agreement supports the other four. It basically states to do your best on each agreement. The caveat being that 'your best' is going to change from moment to moment, and doing 'your best' doesn't mean doing 'the best'. So don't beat yourself up, basically.

In fact, the point of doing this is that you can free yourself from guilt, shame, etc. Doing your best in these three other areas are meant to make you free, return you to yourself, and the happiness you felt as a child in just doing, just being.

Final Word

It's a simple set of agreements, but I can already see how they can change things. There's more in the book: about how life is a dream (and how to make it a lucid dream), some extras about prayers and god that I consider a bit needless to the main message, but the agreements are the core of the book.

I got the copy I read from the library, but this is one of those books I'll want to re-read constantly, so I am considering buying myself a copy. In fact, the contents of The Four Agreements mesh so well with how I've been thinking of things lately, it might even become a 'best friend book.' I'll wrap with a song that's been in my head these days, that sort of goes with the theme of the book:

(At least it's not 'Heal the World'. I can never get over the fact that they played that song over the PA system of my Catholic elementary school every day for a year after Oh, Canada and the lord's prayer. Yeesh!)