Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Four Agreements

Miguel Ruiz wrote a self-help book called The Four Agreements that proposes that we replace the negative agreements we have with outselves with these four:

1. "Be impeccable with your word" -- Take care in the things you say to yourself and others.
2. "Don't take anything personally." -- What people say to you has more to do with them than you.
3. "Don't make assumptions." -- It is better to ask questions than to blow things out of proportion.
4. "Always do your best." -- Focus on fully enjoying your own actions, rather than on expected results.

The Four Agreements basically define those things that an individual has control over: what they say, what they do, and how they interpret what other people say and do. The key to happiness, the book argues, is to gain control of the things one can control, and stop frustrating oneself with things one cannot. To interpret it one way, The Four Agreements are spelling out the old prayer, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

The book was helpful in that it got me thinking about the nature of the human psyche again. One of the basic premises of the book is that we are taught by society to make agreements with ourselves regarding our beliefs and values, and therefore that the unconstructive and damaging agreements can be replaced over time with positive ones like the four proposed. For me this invokes the age-old nature vs. nurture, therapy vs. drugs question: how much of our 'agreements' are inborn and how many are trained? The very idea of therapy, and hence self-help books, rests on the idea that many of our most damaging mental behaviors are a result of learning, and hence can be unlearned. But if these agreements, beliefs, or whatever you call them are natural mental tendencies brought about by brain chemistry, then therapy is minimally useful -- what is needed is a change in physical chemistry which will lead to the formation of different sets of attitudes, beliefs and values.

As is often the case, the answer probably lies somewhere in between -- but exactly where in between matters. The Four Agreements are very good rules to live by, but are not so useful if the negative agreements we already have with ourselves cannot be replaced. It does seem, though, that the human mind is adaptable to change, and that mental tendencies do not equate to permanent rules of thought and behavior.