The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom


The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, A Toltec Wisdom Book
Author: Miguel Ruiz
Genre: Self-Help
Published: 9/14/2001
In The Four Agreements, don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, the Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love. The Four Agreements are: Be Impeccable With Your Word, Don't Take Anything Personally, Don't Make Assumptions, Always Do Your Best.

Book Summary - The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

Key Insights

Drawing on the philosophies of the Toltecs, an indigenous Mexican people, Ruiz explains how we can use this ancient wisdom to improve our modern lives. He explains their fascinating conception of reality as an ongoing dream— a dream that’s in our power to change. According to the Toltecs, much of this dream is determined by the rigid expectations of our society, leaving us fearful and unhappy. To escape, we must wake up from this dream and invent new ways of seeing. To guide us on this path, he offers four mantras to see the world, and our potential, in clearer terms.

Key Points

You are living in a dream, and this dream is made up of “agreements”.

A key feature of Toltec spiritual beliefs, dating back 5,000 years in Mesoamerica, was that dreaming doesn’t only occur during sleep. When people wake up, they enter a different kind of dream world: the dream of their reality.

Although the concept may seem overly mystical, Ruiz explains the sense in it. We understand the world around us with labels, concepts, and beliefs. We were taught to see the world in this way from birth, given words and rules to interpret the things we encountered. The sum of these societal constructions, says Ruiz, creates what Toltecs called “the dream of the world”.

Of course, this is how the human mind makes sense of the chaos of reality. We agree to see the world in certain ways, whether it be learning your native language or respecting the rules of your parent’s religion because it gives life structure. Ruiz defines accepting these ways of seeing as “agreements”. Ultimately, these agreements tell us how we should behave and what we should value.

In childhood, we become domesticated by our environment and take on dreams that aren’t really ours.

Agreements made life easier, but we accepted most of them in childhood without much consideration. You didn’t get to choose which first language you learned, for example. We looked to our teachers, peers, and cultures for ideas on how to act, and often learned what’s right and wrong through systems of punishment and reward— parents chastised you for acting out or schools gave good grades for studying their chosen subjects the right way.

Ruiz calls this “domestication”, or accepting agreements from our environments without having a chance to reflect on them. As we grow older, these agreements become lodged deep within us, devising an image of how we’re supposed to be. When we don’t meet this standard, we punish ourselves— maybe you scold yourself for not working hard enough or feel good about being charming enough at a party.

When we do reflect on these agreements we notice that these expectations weigh heavily on our shoulders. We subconsciously chase the brownie points we got in childhood and live in fear of the punishments. Meanwhile, the expectations of traditional success and behavior may not have been attainable, realistic, or at all well-advised.

So are we doomed to endlessly strive to meet these expectations? Even if they make us unhappy? Ruiz explains that it’s possible to wake up from this “dream of the world” and free yourself from the suffering it causes.

Wake up from your dream by mastering three skills: awareness, forgiveness, and taking action.

According to The Toltecs, waking up from our initial dream of the world is known as the “second awakening”. Ruiz writes that in order to successfully transition to a better reality, you should master three fundamental skills.

First, master maintaining a sense of awareness. Start by noticing the agreements you made as a child and reflect on their presence in your life now. What things were you told to believe? Do you still agree with them? Start noticing how your internal voice shames you for certain things but praises you for others.

It may seem simple to feel you’re transcending the limits of your everyday life by becoming aware, but soon the awareness fades and you get sucked back into your old patterns. Ruiz explains that you must continue to practice sustaining this state of awareness to continually see what needs to change.

After becoming aware, it’s easy to get caught up in the past. You may feel ashamed of the suffering you experienced or caused other people when caught up in toxic agreements. In order to keep moving forward, we must learn to let go and forgive. Like awareness, forgiveness needs to constantly practice, as shame comes as frequently as a distraction. But as you practice forgiveness more and more, you free yourself of on-going expectations.

Finally, as forgiveness gives you the space to change your future, you obtain the strength to take action. This is where the actual change comes in. To practice taking action, you have to confront the fears created by the old agreements. Ruiz advises exposing yourself to these fears, maybe saying yes to more social situations, and also starving these fears of their power.

To take appropriate action, live each day like it’s your last.

It may be difficult to know how exactly to develop new beliefs that suit you, but this depends on the individual. Of course, Ruiz knew a thing or two about acting on second awakenings, having changed the course of his life from practicing medicine to becoming a Toltec shaman after a near-fatal car accident.

There are many fears that shroud our lives, preventing us from trying to live how we’ve always secretly dreamed, and potentially setting us up for regret. By framing your life as your last day on earth, these fears become worth overcoming and you can begin to see what’s standing in the way of the life you want.

Change your life by making new agreements. The first? Be impeccable with your words— be careful with what you say, since this becomes the picture of your world.

After you’ve become aware of your old agreements, Ruiz divulges a new set of agreements to get us started on reclaiming our lives.

First, Ruiz explains that words are the most important thing shaping our reality. He advises that we “be impeccable with you words”, to underscore their role in creating a freeing state of mind.

Consider the words you use about yourself and others. Do you call yourself names when you make small mistakes? Do you judge other people with strong language? Ruiz recommends catching yourself using these negative terms and acknowledging the way this practice hurts both you and the people around you.

Instead, say only what you mean. Consider whether you really, for example, believe you are the negative things you call yourself. Chances are that you’ve only said these things out of habit, holding yourself to an unrealistic standard. By thinking before you speak, you avoid creating a reality that is unfair and untrue.

Don’t take anything personally. What people say is a reflection of themselves, not you. To combat this, get to know yourself.

The second agreement says that if you have a strong sense of self, you won’t need to take things personally.

When someone gives you a mean look or says something rude to you, it’s easy to take it to heart. The things that are said to us are constructed as personal and we’re conditioned to agree with them, even if the comment wasn’t true.

In reality, that rude comment isn’t really about you, but a reflection of the issues of the other person. People live according to their own agreements, dealing with their own issues and insecurities.

Overcoming this means getting to know yourself and who you really are. If you understand what agreements you live by, what you value, and why you do things, then you won’t need other people to validate or accept your behavior.

Instead of making assumptions, ask questions.

The third agreement says to stop making assumptions. Think of a time you assumed that someone hated you based on their angry look, but it turned out that they’d just had a hard day at work or when you assumed you wouldn’t be good at painting so you never started to learn. Assumptions create real stress our life that didn’t have to exist.

Assumptions help our brain fill in the gaps when we don’t totally understand a situation. Oftentimes, we avoid admitting we don’t understand and become stubborn about them and assume they’re true.

To combat this, Ruiz recommends trying to ask courageous questions to clarify confusing situations. Is your friend not responding to your messages? Instead of assuming they don’t like you, ask if there’s anything wrong. Although it may be hard, this is the only way to really understand a situation and avoid the pain assumptions bring.

Always do your best, even if your best fluctuates.

The fourth and final agreement explains how to put the first three agreements into practice. Always do your best, it says, even if the best is variable.

“Your best” depends on the context. This isn’t a rigid standard of any kind, but a way to practice gratitude for the things you get to do in life. It could mean focussing on the book in front of you or relaxing fully on a day off. Either way, you recognize that being grateful involves living full-heartedly and committing to the life you’ve been given.

In that sense, you should do things because you want to, not because you feel obligated to external goals like status or impressing your parents. By spending your time on things that bring you joy, you are better able to throw yourself into whatever you’re doing.

That’s not to say that everything worth doing in life is a joyful task. Regardless, by doing your best given the circumstances, whether it be a difficult job, practicing your awareness skills or going on a run, you learn to make the most of your short time on this earth.

The Main Take-away

To wake up from the dream of other people, you need to become aware of the agreements your sense of reality has been build on and begin to break them. To break them, face your fears and create new agreements that release you from the expectations of others. Ruiz offers four agreements as a starting point. First, pay attention to the words you use and only say the things you mean. Second, don’t take things personally and get to know yourself. Third, avoid making assumptions by asking questions about the things you don’t understand. Finally, always do your best in everything you do to live your life in gratitude.

About the Author

Don Miguel Ruiz was raised in rural Mexico. He attended medical school and then became a surgeon, practicing medicine for several years. After getting into a near-fatal car accident, Ruiz re-conceived his moral understanding and decided he needed to become a Toltec shaman. He moved to the United States and became the apprentice of a shaman. The Four Agreements, written based on his study of Toltec spiritual beliefs, was a New York Times bestseller for more than a decade. Since then, six books have followed. He now lectures and leads retreats in the United States.

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