I think it was 1997 with The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. This book “…was a New York Times bestseller for more than seven years….” [Wikipedia]. It has been translated into 38 languages with 5.2 million copies sold in the US [Amazon]; 7 million worldwide. The Four Agreements is one of Oprah’s favorite things. It may have been a tsunami all by itself.
Not everyone likes this book, of course. Don Miguel Ruiz states on his book covers and web site that he comes from a long line of Toltec ancestors who were healers. In some circles, this translates into too different to even consider. His universal message, mostly common sense, however, offers “…a new philosophy for seekers of truth and personal authenticity.” (www.donmiguelruiz.com)
Roberta* bought the book in 1997 four years before it hit the New York Times bestseller list. She considers the book an essential member of her library. Roberta describes herself as a curious person who has searched for a more meaningful life all of her adult life. “I was born a seeker,” she says. As such, she studies spiritual and self-help books; she believes that each contains information she can use to become a more authentic person and to learn more about who she is. “I read a lot of books,” Roberta said, “but I keep coming back to this one.”
Like a close friend, this small, concise tome becomes part of readers’ lives. What made this tiny book so popular?
First, it’s a physically small book. 138 pages, 5″ x 7″. You can take it with you anywhere.
It’s easy to read. You can read it in about an hour. Even though Don Miguel Ruiz was a neurosurgeon, he writes in down-to-earth language from the heart. Right-brain talk.
It’s affordable. Less than $8.00 for a brand new copy.
The agreements are easy to remember:
- Be impeccable with your word.
- Don’t take anything personally.
- Don’t make assumptions.
- Always do your best.
If you practice The Four Agreements, according to Don Miguel Ruiz, you can “…transform [your life] to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.”
That sounds great. Sign me up.
But what happens once the initial inspiration to live more authentically wears off? And what does “practice” mean, really? This is where the 10% inspiration; 90% perspiration adage applies.
Practice your way to a new habit
Any time we want to change something, whether that something comes in the form of a New Year’s resolution to lose ten pounds or a desire to play the ukelele, we have to replace an old habit with a new one. It’s easy and fun to imagine a new look or a new skill, but the focused attention and hours of alone time getting there tends to put people off. New habits take time and concerted effort…a.k.a. practice.
Practice begins with awareness. Before you can be more impeccable with your word, you have to know that you are not being impeccable with your word. Before you can stop taking things personally, you have to realize that you have been. Make sense?
Stop for a second and think. Do you use language in hurtful ways? Do you take things personally? Do you make assumptions? Do you do your best?
In 12-step programs, this is called taking inventory. For most people, this step stirs up shame. Taking inventory or stripping yourself authentic means coming down from any illusions you have about yourself and looking beneath the defenses and rationalizations that you have about your relationships, your intentions, and your desires. We all have a dark side. Can you own yours?
If you believe that you have the freedom to drive your destiny, why do you and so many other people feel limited, imprisoned, or trapped? Irvin Yalom, Ph.D. wrote about freedom as an existential concept (Existential Psychotherapy) in 1980. After decades of working with and studying human behavior, he suggests that we each have the freedom–and the resultant responsibility–to do what we choose to do and say and think and feel. Most of us want freedom. Why then do we get stuck? Maybe it’s the R word. Responsibility for the outcome or fear of being criticized by self or others. Agreement #1: Take personal responsibility. Be impeccable with your word. You might be surprised how good you feel about yourself.
Can you truly be happy? Martin Seligman, Ph.D. (Authentic Happiness, 2004) started the Positive Psychology movement when he began looking at what is RIGHT with human beings in the 1990’s– around the time The Four Agreements hit book store shelves. Since then, you may have noticed, the avalanche of books, videos, workshops, products, and services, each examining the “positive” aspects of life with promises that you can increase your satisfaction, happiness, and meaning in life. Self-help books have been around for a long time. This most recent wave is supported by science, especially neuroscience. Change your thinking, change your behavior; change your habits and change your brain!
Sounds simple. It’s not. But with intent and practice, it is possible. Agreement #2: Don’t take anything personally. And #3: Don’t make assumptions.
Hearts, flowers, butterflies. Hmmmm. There’s more to love than excitement. M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (1978, latest edition 2003), defines real love as encouraging and supporting another person’s personal growth: a child, a life partner, a friend, students, and in therapy, clients. In a broader sense, knowing that we are all connected can increase empathy, compassion, and love for each other. A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico (the Butterfly Effect, Edward Lorenz). Not literally, but cumulatively. Or someone somewhere grew the coffee beans that brewed your favorite cup of java. The way you express your mood and attitude (your energy) affects each person you interact with. Want love? Then love yourself. You get what you project. If only life were that manageable. Give love and notice if you receive love. Some people will never change and it’s smart to leave them to themselves. Agreement #4: Always do your best.
The Four Agreements are easy to understand and easy to remember. That’s probably one of the reasons the book has been so popular. By practicing them, you might notice a difference in how you think and feel. Don’t take my word for it though. Spend the $8.00. Read the book. And try it for yourself. Life is an experiment. Have fun with it.