This book could not have come at a better time. I am in a bit of an interesting place right now, personally. My wife and I lost our home to a massive wildfire that burned up a huge swath of the area surrounding our city. The situation unmoored me, just a bit, and made me wonder what would come next. ‘The Four Agreements’ makes a case that we are set up to fail in traumatic situations like this, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Using four incredibly simple ‘agreements’, we can overcome.
Here is the way that the book brings you into rethinking the way you encounter the world:
What you are seeing and hearing right now is nothing but a dream. You are dreaming right now in this moment. You are dreaming with the brain awake. Dreaming is the main function of the mind, and the mind dreams twenty-four hours a day. It dreams when the brain is awake, and it also dreams when the brain is asleep. The difference is that when the brain is awake, there is a material frame that makes us perceive things in a linear way. When we go to sleep we do not have the frame, and the dream has the tendency to change constantly.
It may sound surreal to consider reality as a dream, but it most certainly is. Even at the most surface level, it is clear that the reality that you experience and the reality that I experience are different. My mind has a way of seeing the world around me, of making assumptions about it and coming to conclusions. You come up with different assumptions, and different conclusions. Does that not sound like a figment?
To take things further, the book asserts that we have a problem with the way that we encounter the world that we live in. This is because we were ‘domesticated’ by a set of rules that now completely bind us:
When you were in school, you sat in a little chair and put your attention on what the teacher was teaching you. When you went to church, you put your attention on what the priest or minister was telling you. It is the same dynamic with Mom and Dad, brothers and sisters: They were all trying to hook your attention. We also learn to hook the attention of other humans, and we develop a need for attention which can become very competitive. Children compete for the attention of their parents, their teachers, their friends. “Look at me! Look at what I’m doing! Hey, I’m here.” The need for attention becomes very strong and continues into adulthood.
If we grow up with the explicit recognition that ‘attention’ is valued, does that not damage us? It must. To take things even further:
Children believe everything adults say. We agree with them, and our faith is so strong that the belief system controls our whole dream of life. We didn’t choose these beliefs, and we may have rebelled against them, but we were not strong enough to win the rebellion. The result is surrender to the beliefs with our agreement. I call this process the domestication of humans. And through this domestication we learn how to live and how to dream. In human domestication, the information from the outside dream is conveyed to the inside dream, creating our whole belief system. First the child is taught the names of things: Mom, Dad, milk, bottle. Day by day, at home, at school, at church, and from television, we are told how to live, what kind of behavior is acceptable. The outside dream teaches us how to be a human. We have a whole concept of what a “woman” is and what a “man” is. And we also learn to judge: We judge ourselves, judge other people, judge the neighbors. Children are domesticated the same way that we domesticate a dog, a cat, or any other animal. In order to teach a dog we punish the dog and we give it rewards. We train our children whom we love so much the same way that we train any domesticated animal: with a system of punishment and reward. We are told, “You’re a good boy,” or “You’re a good girl,” when we do what Mom and Dad want us to do. When we don’t, we are “a bad girl” or “a bad boy.” When we went against the rules we were punished; when we went along with the rules we got a reward. We were punished many times a day, and we were also rewarded many times a day. Soon we became afraid of being punished and also afraid of not receiving the reward. The reward is the attention that we got from our parents or from other people like siblings, teachers, and friends. We soon develop a need to hook other people’s attention in order to get the reward.
So, we learn that ‘attention’ is the thing which is most valuable, and we learn that there is a ‘good attention’ and a ‘bad attention’. Then we learn how great it feels to be rewarded for the ‘good’ and how terrible it feels to be punished by the ‘bad’. Then, this process takes on a life of its own:
The domestication is so strong that at a certain point in our lives we no longer need anyone to domesticate us. We don’t need Mom or Dad, the school or the church to domesticate us. We are so well trained that we are our own domesticator. We are an autodomesticated animal. We can now domesticate ourselves according to the same belief system we were given, and using the same system of punishment and reward. We punish ourselves when we don’t follow the rules according to our belief system; we reward ourselves when we are the “good boy” or “good girl.” The belief system is like a Book of Law that rules our mind. Without question, whatever is in that Book of Law, is our truth. We base all of our judgments according to the Book of Law, even if these judgments go against our own inner nature. Even moral laws like the Ten Commandments are programmed into our mind in the process of domestication. One by one, all these agreements go into the Book of Law, and these agreements rule our dream.
This is the crux of the ‘dream’ argument, to me. Reality is a ‘dream’ because we need nothing outside of our own minds to tell us what kind of attention we are getting, what kind of reward we are worthy of, what kind of punishment we deserve. This all takes place in components of ourselves, which the book calls the ‘judge’ and the ‘victim’:
The inner Judge uses what is in our Book of Law to judge everything we do and don’t do, everything we think and don’t think, and everything we feel and don’t feel. Everything lives under the tyranny of this Judge. Every time we do something that goes against the Book of Law, the Judge says we are guilty, we need to be punished, we should be ashamed. This happens many times a day, day after day, for all the years of our lives. There is another part of us that receives the judgments, and this part is called the Victim. The Victim carries the blame, the guilt, and the shame. It is the part of us that says, “Poor me, I’m not good enough, I’m not intelligent enough, I’m not attractive enough, I’m not worthy of love, poor me.” The big Judge agrees and says, “Yes, you are not good enough.” And this is all based on a belief system that we never chose to believe. These beliefs are so strong, that even years later when we are exposed to new concepts and try to make our own decisions, we find that these beliefs still control our lives.
Is this any way to live? No:
The Judge in the mind is wrong because the belief system, the Book of Law, is wrong. The whole dream is based on false law. Ninety-five percent of the beliefs we have stored in our minds are nothing but lies, and we suffer because we believe all these lies. If we compare the dream of human society with the description of hell that religions all around the world have promulgated, we find they are exactly the same. Religions say that hell is a place of punishment, a place of fear, pain, and suffering, a place where the fire burns you. Fire is generated by emotions that come from fear. Whenever we feel the emotions of anger, jealousy, envy, or hate, we experience a fire burning within us. We are living in a dream of hell.
That is a scary truth. Here’s another:
We don’t see the truth because we are blind. What blinds us are all those false beliefs we have in our mind. We have the need to be right and to make others wrong. We trust what we believe, and our beliefs set us up for suffering. It is as if we live in the middle of a fog that doesn’t let us see any further than our own nose. We live in a fog that is not even real. This fog is a dream, your personal dream of life — what you believe, all the concepts you have about what you are, all the agreements you have made with others, with yourself, and even with God.
So, how do we begin to see clearly? First, we must understand why we are susceptible to living this way:
To be alive is the biggest fear humans have. Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive — the risk to be alive and express what we really are. Just being ourselves is the biggest fear of humans. We have learned to live our lives trying to satisfy other people’s demands. We have learned to live by other people’s points of view because of the fear of not being accepted and of not being good enough for someone else.
We dishonor ourselves just to please other people. We even do harm to our physical bodies just to be accepted by others. You see teenagers taking drugs just to avoid being rejected by other teenagers. They are not aware that the problem is that they don’t accept themselves. They reject themselves because they are not what they pretend to be. They wish to be a certain way, but they are not, and for this they carry shame and guilt. Humans punish themselves endlessly for not being what they believe they should be. They become very self-abusive, and they use other people to abuse themselves as well. But nobody abuses us more than we abuse ourselves, and it is the Judge, the Victim, and the belief system that make us do this. True, we find people who say their husband or wife, or mother or father, abused them, but you know that we abuse ourselves much more than that. The way we judge ourselves is the worst judge that ever existed. If we make a mistake in front of people, we try to deny the mistake and cover it up. But as soon as we are alone, the Judge becomes so strong, the guilt is so strong, and we feel so stupid, or so bad, or so unworthy. In your whole life nobody has ever abused you more than you have abused yourself. And the limit of your self-abuse is exactly the limit that you will tolerate from someone else. If someone abuses you a little more than you abuse yourself, you will probably walk away from that person. But if someone abuses you a little less than you abuse yourself, you will probably stay in the relationship and tolerate it endlessly.
I’m not interested in living this way, and I don’t want others in my life to live that way either.
Which brings us to the exceedingly simple ‘agreements’ which can help us break free of the spell of judgement and attention. Here’s the first:
The first agreement is the most important one and also the most difficult one to honor. It is so important that with just this first agreement you will be able to transcend to the level of existence I call heaven on earth. The first agreement is to be impeccable with your word. It sounds very simple, but it is very, very powerful. Why your word? Your word is the power that you have to create. Your word is the gift that comes directly from God. The Gospel of John in the Bible, speaking of the creation of the universe, says, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word is God.” Through the word you express your creative power. It is through the word that you manifest everything. Regardless of what language you speak, your intent manifests through the word. What you dream, what you feel, and what you really are, will all be manifested through the word.
At first I was struck by this almost elementary-school-level lesson. Yet the more I thought about it, the more true I discovered it to be. Here’s the author’s take on why it matters so much:
The word is so powerful that one word can change a life or destroy the lives of millions of people. Some years ago one man in Germany, by the use of the word, manipulated a whole country of the most intelligent people. He led them into a world war with just the power of his word. He convinced others to commit the most atrocious acts of violence. He activated people’s fear with the word, and like a big explosion, there was killing and war all around the world. All over the world humans destroyed other humans because they were afraid of each other. Hitler’s word, based on fear-generated beliefs and agreements, will be remembered for centuries.
Can’t we all trace moments of trauma to words which were thrown against us? It could have been a careless comment, or a carefully placed one. They really matter, and this book made me recognize the reality of that. He continued:
Every human is a magician, and we can either put a spell on someone with our word or we can release someone from a spell. The power of the word is completely misused in hell. We use the word to curse, to blame, to find guilt, to destroy. Of course, we also use it in the right way, but not too often. Mostly we use the word to spread our personal poison — to express anger, jealousy, envy, and hate. The word is pure magic — the most powerful gift we have as humans — and we use it against ourselves. We plan revenge. We create chaos with the word. We use the word to create hate between different races, between different people, between families, between nations. We misuse the word so often, and this misuse is how we create and perpetuate the dream of hell. Misuse of the word is how we pull each other down and keep each other in a state of fear and doubt. Because the word is the magic that humans possess and misuse of the word is black magic, we are using black magic all the time without knowing that our word is magic at all.
I am drawn to this description of words as ‘the most powerful magic we have’. I do not think it is inaccurate. It is also certainly completely accurate that we use this magic in terrible ways, often without giving it a second thought:
There was a woman, for example, who was intelligent and had a very good heart. She had a daughter whom she adored and loved very much. One night she came home from a very bad day at work, tired, full of emotional tension, and with a terrible headache. She wanted peace and quiet, but her daughter was singing and jumping happily. The daughter was unaware of how her mother was feeling; she was in her own world, in her own dream. She felt so wonderful, and she was jumping and singing louder and louder, expressing her joy and her love. She was singing so loud that it made her mother’s headache even worse, and at a certain moment, the mother lost control. Angrily she looked at her beautiful little girl and said, “Shut up! You have an ugly voice. Can you just shut up!” The truth is that the mother’s tolerance for any noise was nonexistent; it was not that the little girl’s voice was ugly. But the daughter believed what her mother said, and in that moment she made an agreement with herself. After that she no longer sang, because she believed her voice was ugly and would bother anyone who heard it. She became shy at school, and if she was asked to sing, she refused. Even speaking to others became difficult for her. Everything changed in the little girl because of this new agreement: She believed she must repress her emotions in order to be accepted and loved. Whenever we hear an opinion and believe it, we make an agreement, and it becomes part of our belief system. This little girl grew up, and even though she had a beautiful voice, she never sang again. She developed a whole complex from one spell. This spell was cast upon her by the one who loved her the most: her own mother. Her mother didn’t notice what she did with her word. She didn’t notice that she used black magic and put a spell on her daughter. She didn’t know the power of her word, and therefore she isn’t to blame. She did what her own mother, father, and others had done to her in many ways. They misused the word.
So what to we do? Well:
You can transcend the dream of hell just by making the agreement to be impeccable with your word. Right now I am planting that seed in your mind. Whether or not the seed grows depends upon how fertile your mind is for the seeds of love. It is up to you to make this agreement with yourself: I am impeccable with my word. Nurture this seed, and as it grows in your mind, it will generate more seeds of love to replace the seeds of fear. This first agreement will change the kind of seeds your mind is fertile for.
On to the second agreement, which is my favorite:
The next three agreements are really born from the first agreement. The second agreement is don’t take anything personally. As soon as you do, the poison goes through you, and you are trapped in the dream of hell. What causes you to be trapped is what we call personal importance. Personal importance, or taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about “me.” During the period of our education, or our domestication, we learn to take everything personally. We think we are responsible for everything. Me, me, me, always me! Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.
I am struck by just how difficult this ‘agreement’ is. It is because we are completely trained to take everything personally! We are taught, as children, that every word that comes to us, every bit of attention that we’re given, is as personal as it could ever get! No wonder we think the world revolves around us. No wonder, too, why we’re miserable. So what should we do when something feels personal? Here’s what the author says:
If you say ‘you have hurt me,” it is not what I am saying that is hurting you; it is that you have wounds that I touch by what I have said. You are hurting yourself. There is no way that I can take this personally. Not because I don’t believe in you or don’t trust you, but because I know that you see the world with different eyes, with your eyes. You create an entire picture or movie in your mind, and in that picture you are the director, you are the producer, you are the main actor or actress. Everyone else is a secondary actor or actress. It is your movie.
When my wife and I did pre-marital counseling, we were introduced to the concept of ‘kryptonite’. This is a lie that an individual believes, often because of some childhood trauma, that is completely irrational but unbearably painful. When I accidentally touch my wife’s ‘kryptonite’, I know that what I have done hurts terribly, and not necessarily because of what I said. I do my best to never touch it, but when I do I can never take personally the hurt I may receive back. This book posits that we should do this, essentially, in all situations.
Yet this ‘agreement’ goes further. Not only should we not take the words and actions of others personally. We should not take personally the thoughts of our own mind:
Even the opinions you have about yourself are not necessarily true; therefore, you don’t need to take whatever you hear in your own mind personally. The mind has the ability to talk to itself, but it also has the ability to hear information that is available from other realms. Sometimes you hear a voice in your mind, and you may wonder where it came from. This voice may have come from another reality in which there are living beings very similar to the human mind. The Toltecs called these beings Allies. In Europe, Africa, and India they called them the Gods.
Read into that what you will. Some may find that incendiary. I find it liberating. He continues:
Taking nothing personally helps you to break many habits and routines that trap you in the dream of hell and cause needless suffering. Just by practicing this second agreement you begin to break dozens of teeny, tiny agreements that cause you to suffer. And if you practice the first two agreements, you will break seventy-five percent of the teeny, tiny agreements that keep you trapped in hell.
On to the third agreement:
The third agreement is don’t make assumptions. We have the tendency to make assumptions about everything. The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth. We could swear they are real. We make assumptions about what others are doing or thinking — we take it personally — then we blame them and react by sending emotional poison with our word. That is why whenever we make assumptions, we’re asking for problems. We make an assumption, we misunderstand, we take it personally, and we end up creating a whole big drama for nothing.
It seems to me that ‘taking things personally’ and ‘making assumptions’ are responsible for a lot of the sickness in the world. So:
Don’t make assumptions. Just saying this sounds easy, but I understand that it is difficult to do. It is difficult because we so often do exactly the opposite. We have all these habits and routines that we are not even aware of. Becoming aware of these habits and understanding the importance of this agreement is the first step. But understanding its importance is not enough. Information or an idea is merely the seed in your mind. What will really make the difference is action. Taking the action over and over again strengthens your will, nurtures the seed, and establishes a solid foundation for the new habit to grow. After many repetitions these new agreements will become second nature, and you will see how the magic of your word transforms you from a black magician into a white magician. A white magician uses the word for creation, giving, sharing, and loving. By making this one agreement a habit, your whole life will be completely transformed.
Sometimes the simplest concepts hold the most power.
Now, for the final agreement:
There is just one more agreement, but it’s the one that allows the other three to become deeply ingrained habits. The fourth agreement is about the action of the first three: Always do your best. Under any circumstance, always do your best, no more and no less. But keep in mind that your best is never going to be the same from one moment to the next. Everything is alive and changing all the time, so your best will sometimes be high quality, and other times it will not be as good. When you wake up refreshed and energized in the morning, your best will be better than when you are tired at night. Your best will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick, or sober as opposed to drunk. Your best will depend on whether you are feeling wonderful and happy, or upset, angry, or jealous.
We are back to the elementary-school-charm of this book and its agreements. I have been told to do my best, ever since I was a child. But this book’s concept of ‘domestication’ makes me consider the different between the attention-hungry ‘doing my best’ that I may have spent my life on, and the liberating ‘doing my best’ this book asks me to shift into.
To ‘do my best’ does not mean ‘to be excellent, always’. It means to consider my own personal boundaries, remove any judgement I may put on myself, and consider what it is I have to offer in the moment. Here’s why this is critical:
When you do your best, you don’t give the Judge the opportunity to find you guilty or to blame you. If you have done your best and the Judge tries to judge you according to your Book of Law, you’ve got the answer: “I did my best.” There are no regrets. That is why we always do our best. It is not an easy agreement to keep, but this agreement is really going to set you free.
Appreciably, the author draws an example from a film you might not expect to show up in a book such as this:
A good example of this comes from the story about Forrest Gump. He didn’t have great ideas, but he took action. He was happy because he always did his best at whatever he did. He was richly rewarded without expecting any reward at all. Taking action is being alive. It’s taking the risk to go out and express your dream. This is different than imposing your dream on someone else, because everyone has the right to express his or her dream.
If all of this seems too simplistic, perhaps it is helpful to have a new negative perspective for the ‘current’ reality that we are living in. Here’s the author’s:
If we look at the description of a parasite, we find that a parasite is a living being who lives off of other living beings, sucking their energy without any useful contribution in return, and hurting their host little by little. The Judge, the Victim, and the belief system fit this description very well. Together they comprise a living being made of psychic or emotional energy, and that energy is alive.
It strikes me that these lessons, though incredibly simple, will never be mastered, for as long as we live. The parasite has a good hold of us. We are trained to lie when it’s useful, to take everything personally, to make assumptions about the past, present, and future, and to achieve above our ability.
So not only do we have to try for something new, we have to fight:
That is why in all the shamanic traditions in America, from Canada to Argentina, people call themselves warriors, because they are in a war against the parasite in the mind. That is the real meaning of a warrior. The warrior is one who rebels against the invasion of the parasite. The warrior rebels and declares a war. But to be a warrior doesn’t mean we always win the war; we may win or we may lose, but we always do our best and at least we have a chance to be free again. Choosing this path gives us, at the very least, the dignity of rebellion, and ensures that we will not be the helpless victim of our own whimsical emotions or the poisonous emotions of others. Even if we succumb to the enemy —the parasite —we will not be among those victims who would not fight back. At best, being a warrior gives us an opportunity to transcend the dream of the planet, and to change our personal dream to a dream that we call heaven. Just like hell, heaven is a place that exists within our mind. It is a place of joy, a place where we are happy, where we are free to love and to be who we really are. We can reach heaven while we are alive; we don’t have to wait until we die. God is always present and the kingdom of heaven is everywhere, but first we need to have the eyes and ears to see and hear that truth.
I think of what it means to be a ‘prayer warrior’, and I realize that this description matches up with the role. What a beautiful thing.
I’ll leave you with a bit of a closing argument:
The process of domestication can be called the dream of the first attention because it was how your attention was used for the first time to create the first dream of your life. One way to change your beliefs is to focus your attention on all those agreements and beliefs, and change the agreements with yourself. In doing this you are using your attention for the second time, thus creating the dream of the second attention or the new dream. The difference is that you are no longer innocent. When you were a child this was not true; you didn’t have a choice. But you are no longer a child. Now it’s up to you to choose what to believe and what not to believe. You can choose to believe in anything, and that includes believing in yourself.
Let’s live in the context of this new and beautiful form of attention.