Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Disagreement With "The Four Agreements"

A new era of my life is beginning: I've graduated college, I'm moving to a new city, and my former roadmaps are obsolete. So I’m thinking a lot about what kind of person I want to be, what code ought to direct my actions now that I’ve left my old framework. I've become curious about religion and other forms of guidance and wisdom. Several months ago, my uncle, who was on a self-actualization kick and saw me falling into self-sabotaging patterns, gave me The Four Agreements, and yesterday I finally picked up this slim volume and read it through.

And well, I think much of it is hooey – but that's not all bad, because sometimes you need to read things you disagree with in order to discover what you really believe. I’ll grant that the basic premise of the book makes good sense. Here’s the gist of the Agreements:
  1. Be impeccable with your word (don't gossip, don't lie, don't use words to hurt other people, don't denigrate yourself)
  2. Don't take anything personally (realize you're valuable no matter what other people say or do, don't let others' rash judgments affect your self-perception)
  3. Don't make assumptions (just as you can’t presume to read others, don’t assume that other people can read you; ask questions, seek the truth)
  4. Always do your best (don’t wear yourself down with effort, but always do work that satisfies you and makes you proud)
Decent practical guidelines, even if I don’t buy that they derive from Ancient Toltec Shamanic Wisdom. I also agree with the idea that we're often our own worst enemies: we set up barriers to our own success and dwell on past failings, instead of simply saying "I resolve to do better next time."

But honestly, I liked the Agreements more when my uncle described them to me than when I read don Miguel Ruiz’s book. Ruiz has an awfully simplistic and repetitive writing style, and worse, he deals in absolute statements that come across as ridiculous, even dangerous. The book shifts from commonsense ethics to hyperbole and hucksterism. Ruiz advocates being “impeccable with your word,” but from the evidence of his book, I think he’s reckless with his own word.

For instance, the Second Agreement—not to let other people’s negative judgments affect our self-worth—is good up to a point, but Ruiz takes it too far. He says that if we follow this advice, we won’t ever be hurt by rejection nor need anyone to accept us—but is that possible, or even desirable? Isn’t it human to want acceptance?

Part of the Second Agreement involves believing that when other people criticize you, it’s only because they have some fear or hang-up that prevents them from accepting you. It’s never your fault, Ruiz says. But sometimes you have done something wrong, it is your fault, and you need to own up to that. Furthermore, if the only reason people criticize each other is because of their own hang-ups, that means that if you want to criticize someone, it’s because you’ve got a mental block of your own. A fully enlightened person, says Ruiz, will accept everybody and everything as it is, thereby entering into a state of bliss.

But this line of reasoning comes dangerously close to moral relativism. Ruiz defines sin as “anything you do that goes against yourself… when you judge or blame yourself for anything” (31). This makes it sound like the pangs of conscience you feel after doing something wrong are more sinful than the offense itself. Or take the claim that it is best to “have your own truth and live your own truth” (100); if everyone in the world lived according to their own personal truth, wouldn’t that create pandemonium?

Ruiz professes a message of Love, but he has some mistaken notions about it. “Actions will produce a like reaction. If I love you, then you will love me,” (32) he writes—a delusional fallacy that has caused suffering and heartbreak for hundreds of years. Also, he writes, “Real love is accepting people the way they are without trying to change them. If we try to change them, this means we don’t really like them” (70). I disagree: if you really love somebody you will encourage him to reach his fullest human potential. Yet over and over, Ruiz says that if we follow the Four Agreements, we’ll accept everybody as they are, ridding ourselves of the need to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong (125). He even suggests that having a strongly developed sense of justice and injustice only makes us suffer (113). Thus he glosses over the fact that there is injustice and wrongdoing in the world, and consequently there is a place for righteous anger.

This book puts forth a simplistic philosophy: if we only open our eyes, we’ll perceive that everything in the world is made of love (124). OK, most of us can probably try harder to appreciate the good things we have and our potential for growth. But is everything made of love, and can we feel it flow from everything in nature—that is, not only from the trees and the sky, but from mosquitoes and dung and the herpes virus? As Milan Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit.” By this standard, The Four Agreements is pure kitsch.


Tony said...

And FOUR MILLION people bought this banal superstitious twaddle!

Marissa said...

Ah, there's a sucker born every minute...

Joshua MS said...

nice analysis!