Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements and a Journey Towards Kindness

4agreementsA friend once told me that to her, being kind was an ongoing journey and one that took practice. Just as with anything else – like becoming good at playing an instrument – becoming good at being kind took hard work. At the time, I hadn’t known what she’d meant. Now, I think I’m beginning to understand.

For one, I’m getting a better sense of what it means to be kind. It’s much more than being polite. It’s much more than being friendly or cheerful. It’s much more than occasionally doing nice gestures – writing someone a thank you note or offering someone help. It’s more the attitude and the spirit with which we embrace each day. It’s made up of as many or more mental activities as it is physical deeds. And it starts on a personal level, with the way we treat ourselves.

In my journey towards being kinder, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz has been an unexpected guide.

His book is premised on the idea that “as children, we didn’t have the opportunity to choose our beliefs, but we agreed with the information that was passed to us” as “the only way to store information is by agreement.”

As children, we gather all sorts of beliefs – and make all sorts of agreements, many of which are not good for us and many of which are based in fear. Ruiz instead proposes four new agreements, which, if adopted, ‘will help us break those agreements that come from fear and deplete our energy.’

The four agreements he outlines are:

1. Be Impeccable with Your Words: Speak with Integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

2. Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

3. Don’t Make Assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.

4. Always Do Your Best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and neglect.

Though simple, I have found these four agreements to be incredibly powerful. In my case, I have found that my kindness stops at the boundary of fear. I am kind until I fear becoming hurt, until I fear that I will be mocked or not liked, until I fear I will be abandoned. And once caught up in fear, it is very difficult for me to be kind, both to others as well as to myself. The Four Agreements help to scare off and to calm the fear.

I have found ‘Don’t take anything personally’ to be huge. Because at it turns out, unchecked I can take a great deal of things personally. But with reflection, Ruiz is correct in that nothing is truly personal. The hurt, as well as the love that others give unto you, is a product of that other person – their emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and fears. And what you give unto others is also then a product of yourself, the hurt a product of your own fears, emotions, and insecurities – and the love you give to others also a product of your emotions, beliefs, and moods. With the realization that nothing is personal can come a tremendous release of pressure. When nothing is personal, we can worry less about pleasing others, because others are out of our control to please. We can instead simply be ourselves.

Also helpful has been the deceptively simple ‘Always do your best.’ It is both a reminder to motivate myself into effort as well as a reminder to be compassionate towards myself on days when my best may not be as good as I had been hoping for.

If you fall, do not judge. Do not give your Judge the satisfaction of turning you into a victim. No, be tough with yourself. Stand up and make the agreement again. “Okay, I broke my agreement to be impeccable with my word. I will start all over again. I am going to keep The Four Agreements just for today. Today I will be impeccable with my word. I will not take anything personally, I will not make any assumptions, and I am going to do my best.”

If you break an agreement, begin again tomorrow, and again the next day. It will be difficult at first, but each day will become easier and easier, until someday you will discover that you are ruling your life with these Four Agreements. And, you will be surprised at the way your life has been transformed.

Becoming who we want to be is a journey – many times a long one – but I am consoled by Hannah Arendt‘s, “Men do not become just by knowing what is just but by loving justice. Love is the soul’s gravity.” I take this to mean that we can and eventually will embody the qualities that we love and admire, whether it be courage, gentleness, honesty, or kindness. And as with anything else, practice makes perfect.


Alain de Botton on What Lies Beneath When We Overreact

I had an argument last week with someone I care deeply about. I was offended and hurt at a scale disproportionate to what had happened. I was overreacting, and I was aware that I was overreacting. I could recognize the disconnect between the triviality of what had happened and the enormity of what I was feeling. But conscious as I was of my overreacting, the emotions were still there and I had days of unease.

The philosopher Alain de Botton in his book, The Course of Love, describes this phenomenon well.

The structure looks something like this: an apparently ordinary situation or remark elicits from one member of a couple a reaction that doesn’t seem quite warranted, being unusually full of annoyance or anxiety, irritability or coldness, panic or recrimination. The person on the receiving end is puzzled. After all, it was just a simple request for a loving good-bye, a plate or two left unwashed in the sink, a small joke at the other’s expense or a few minutes’ delay. Why, then, the peculiar and somehow outsized response?

The behavior makes little sense when one tries to understand it according to the current facts. It’s as if some aspect of the present scenario were drawing energy from another source, as if it were unwittingly triggering a pattern of behavior that the other person originally developed long ago in order to meet a particular threat which has now somehow been subconsciously re-evoked. The overreactor is responsible, as the psychological term puts it, for the “transference” of an emotion from the past onto someone in the present – who perhaps doesn’t entirely deserve it.

Our minds are, oddly, not always good at knowing what era they are in.


In this way, in overreactions we can be reacting as much as or even more to events in our past than we are reacting to the situation directly at hand. Psychologist and author Dr. Elaine Aron as in her book The Undervalued Self would say this is the mind reliving and reacting to trauma.

When a trauma involves an experience so bad that we can’t look at the whole thing, the mind must break it up for us, meaning that we dissociate. We may separate entire events from our consciousness so that we have no memory of them at all. Or we may separate feelings about a trauma from our memories of it, so that we do remember what happened but have no feelings about it. Meanwhile, we experience upsetting feelings, including chronic anxiety and depression, for “no reason.” And we behave in ways that surprise us because we do not see the connection between what we are doing now and the trauma in the past.

Trauma, according to Dr. Aron can take a variety of forms. She writes that

[trauma] occurs when emotions are not just overwhelming but in some real sense unbearable. With enough stress and a sense of powerlessness to prevent more stress, the mind loses its wholeness and “falls apart,” “breaks down,” or “goes to pieces.” The brain goes through changes that, although often reversible, are the equivalent of an injury. Trauma can be acute, an abrupt experience, or chronic, something that grinds you down over time.Most life traumas involve other people in some way. Someone abandoned, defeated, hurt, or rejected us. Or, during a physical trauma, we feel that a person did not help us or did not help enough. As a result, most traumas automatically lead to the innate defeat response of depression and shame and an overall low sense of self-worth.

There can be so much happening within conflict and so many layers and such depth to what each person is feeling and why. We are all messy and damaged in our own ways. I really love then the approach that De Botton takes in so much of his writing to have the patience with a friend or lover as one does with a child. He writes in The Course of Love,

We would ideally remain able to laugh, in the gentlest way, when we are made the special target of a sulker’s fury. We would recognize the touching paradox. The sulker may be six foot one and holding down adult employment, but the real message is poignantly retrogressive: “Deep inside, I remain an infant, and right now I need you to be my parent. I need you correctly to guess what is truly ailing me, as people did when I was a baby, when my ideas of love were first formed.”

We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favor when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those of an infant. We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronizing to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with – and forgive – the disappointed, furious, inarticulate child within.

And to echo that sentiment of patience and understanding even when those we love are being trying,

Few in this world are every simply nasty; those who hurt us are themselves in pain. The appropriate response is hence never cynicism nor aggression but, at the rare moments one can manage it, always love.