Book Review: The Four Agreements

  • A co-worker led a book discussion centered on the Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, a Toltec nagual who has dedicated his life to sharing the wisdom of the ancient Toltec.


    Intrigued, I bought the book-only fifteen dollars after tax-and reading it has indeed transformed my life.  It isn't intended as a replacement for treatment, yet for those of us living with schizophrenia, I recommend the guide as a complement.  You can take it on a train, read it at home or in a park; carry it in your messenger bag to refer to "PRN"-as needed. 


    As I focused on what Ruiz espoused, it made sense to me because a lot of what he talked about I experienced in my own life.  Some reviewers panned the Four Agreements because they felt there was nothing new or original about what he said; however, the beauty is that Ruiz expresses it in the most clear, direct way that you can easily absorb and re-read with good feelings.  It is a friendly book.

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    The First Agreement: Be Impeccable With Your Word


    According to Ruiz, "The word is not just a sound or a written symbol.  The word is a force; it is the power you have to express and communicate, to think, and thereby create the events in your life."  Our words can create beauty or destroy.  What we say when we talk to ourselves is strong programming that determines the outcome.  While Ruiz touches on this, his most-held tenet is that we could be critical of ourselves and others, and gossip or otherwise create an unhealthy agreement that gets handed down from one generation to the next.  What I did: when asked at the restaurant, after a poetry reading, about the performance of a poet whose writing I didn't care for, I found something positive to say anyway.  After reading the Four Agreements, I committed to not speaking negatively about other people.


    In the last two months, since I've been solely on the Geodon, I've noticed that I stopped beating on myself, too.  The critical narrator, whose voice was symptomatic of the illness, has been quiet for a long time.  The word impeccable comes from the Latin, "without sin."  Ruiz believes, "A sin is anything you do which goes against yourself."  If you feel you are no good, it's time to break that agreement.


    The Second Agreement: Don't Take Anything Personally


    This second agreement I feel is the cornerstone in recovery, and I'll go so far as to say you can give stigma the boot by not internalizing the negative messages the media sends and others believe about a person diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Ruiz pins the truth on the nose, so apt of co-dependent relationships though he isn't talking about them: "Others are going to have their own opinion according to their belief system, so nothing they think about me is really about me, but it is about them.  How someone else thinks and feels is his problem, and not yours."  We are not responsible for other people's behaviors, attitudes, perceptions or happiness. 


    One recent exchange at the gym before the Zumba class worked to upset me: I said hello to a woman also waiting for the door to the exercise studio to open, and she didn't say hello back.  She then confronted me in the room about something I wasn't responsible for, acting like I caused her a great inconvenience.  As someone living with schizophrenia, I am a sensitive soul, and if you're like me, such an exchange could've hurt you.  I admit I couldn't deflect from it until the class ended and I went home.


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    The Third Agreement: Don't Make Assumptions


    Years ago, I got a lot of exercise jumping to conclusions.  My breakthrough symptom of the past four years was a subtle form of thought broadcasting; the term I use is "mind reading."  I thought people knew what I was thinking, and I assumed they hated me because I wasn't a good person.  Ruiz believes: "Even if we hear something and we don't understand, we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions.  We do this because we don't have the courage to ask questions."  A lot of times [in my own case, often] people with schizophrenia are sensitive to imagined slights and believe all sorts of things that aren't true, because we're paranoid.  My own technique I recommend is to "reality check"-ask yourself if there could be another explanation of what someone did and said.  I have written in "Coping Skills: Three Techniques" about the process of re-writing the endings and choosing to view things differently.


    The Fourth Agreement: Always Do Your Best


    This one allows the other three to become deeply ingrained habits.  He urges us to do our best, no more nor less.  One caveat: "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."  The key is that if you do your best, you won't judge yourself, thus freeing you from guilt, blame and self-punishment.  There's only one you, so be good to yourself, and that will be its own reward: taking action to do your best at any given time.  For a recovering perfectionist like me, the fourth agreement gave me the permission to do well only what was important to do well, and accept that in other matters, I could relax.


    Conclusion: To stop learning is to stop growing in our recovery.  I offer this book review in the hopes it is a useful guide that could help you gain greater control over symptoms such as paranoia, and over the self-stigma.  I'd love to hear from you about whether the Four Agreements rings true.

Published On: June 06, 2008