Sunday, January 17, 2010

Four Steps to Freedom

There seems to be a stigma attached to reading self help books if you’re on the lesser side of middle aged. The stigma is not cool. So I’m pretty uncool, and it’s going great. My latest obsession? The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. The four clearly defined “Agreements” are really just the best third of the classic Twelve Step approach. The message is clear, the directions, well, direct: make these four personal agreements and your life, thus far lived in a state of half lethargy, underachievement, or any number of  travesties well below what you were ordained to perform during your time on the planet, will become a rocket with a kick of Nas, topping light speed on your way to raging kick-ass-ness. A simple plan, a difficult discipline, a phenomenal book. And as is often the case in such an equation, legitimate results. 

You may be wondering, what is an agreement? As defined by Ruiz, agreements are all of those rules, regulations, and opinions that ultimately make or break our life experience. Before accepting Ruiz’s four, healthy agreements, we must shed those externally injected by society. These are not so much our own as they are fragments of humanity’s communal dream. A dream that, according to Ruiz, quickly went to hell.  These false agreements include the fact that you’re fat if you don’t look air brushed, or a dreamer if you’re taking risks for a career that you might actually like. They include that you’re only worth as much as your shoes, so keep your eyes perpetually to the pavement and only raise them when you come across a pair in your respective league. That you can’t laugh too loud, and you shouldn’t smile at people you don’t know; that you must be there by 7:30 am sharp so skip breakfast, run that red light, and flip off that elderly driver, slacker! That genuinely happy people are probably kind of crazy and if you aren’t double fisting a quintuplet shot expresso and a cell phone with some serious frown lines in the making, you’re probably lazy and not contributing to the happiness (read: collective misery and boundless self consciousness) of society. This is where The Four Agreements come in. 

  1. Be Impeccable with your Word
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally 
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions
  4. Always do your Best 

With a gentle allusion to religious text, Ruiz enforces that speech is the blessing and curse of the human condition. The message is that, ultimately, we live in what comes out of our mouths. Negative speech creates a negative reality, while positive speech can only aid in building the opposite. Preaching practice as the key, Ruiz writes of attaining impeccable speech and the power inherent in doing so. In this same vein, the second agreement urges people to understand that the things others say, from insults to compliments, have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. The idea is that everyone operates in the world based on their own agreements, incorrect as some of those may be, and their opinions and judgments reflect on only those agreements, not on you. In other words: “You eat all their emotional garbage, and now it becomes your garbage”. Nearly as freeing as the second rings the third agreement: Don’t Make Assumptions. Say goodbye to hours, days (cumulative years?) spent creating hypothesis about your imagined success, or destined failure, at something you’ve never tried; say goodbye to your bets about the complicated personal character of that guy who builds towers with his pencil shavings for the entirety of your morning psych class, and getting mad because a best friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/great aunt twice removed didn’t “just know” what you wanted for Christmas, needed to hear, thought of the movie, without your saying anything? Yeah, that has to go, too. The new order of the day? Ask, speak, act, sleep for goodness sakes, just don’t dive into the endless depths of educated, bitter, irate, joyful, or giddy guessing. 

And the grand finale: Always Do Your Best. Because, as I hear as though in a daze while half conscious at Bikram Hot Yoga, “If you can, you must”. Just try. Sucking with an effort is usually more rewarding than succeeding without one. It brings another Bikram mantra to mind, “you can’t build muscles you already have”. I’ll stop. But with repetition, these efforts begin to walk hand in hand with success more often, at which point you’re onto something. Ruiz certainly was, and though these are some of the most practice intensive agreements I’ve ever made (especially the first one..) they’re one more example of an effort well compensated. 

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