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Posts Tagged ‘The Four Agreements’

You know what I think of when I think of the word “impeccable”? I see Felix Unger from The Odd Couple. Remember Felix? He was impeccable in his behavior. Tidy and organized, precise. Precision, yes, that’s what I think of.

But the way this first agreement flows, Be impeccable with your word, well, the word “word” modifies the word “impeccable.” Impeccable is the adjective, and yet the object is what seems to modify in this case. We’re not talking about washing a dirty dish the moment Oscar lays it on the table after eating a hot dog. We’re talking words, powerful, meaningful words. Words that we yield.

They can be swords, daggers, a pat on the back. I remember a note from a colleague, not too long ago, that made me cry, a note she sent me by email in response to a note I had sent to someone else. My note was just a short thing, three or four lines giving praise to a new person we’d hired. I wanted the manager of that person to know how impressed I was with the new person’s attitude and performance. The colleague whose note made me cry had seen my feedback and said something like, “Roma, in case no one has told you today, thank you for caring so deeply about the people you work with.”

Just that one line. She was impeccable with her word. It was a reverberation, me being impeccable with mine, then me getting it back from someone else.

Don Miguel Ruiz says that with this first agreement alone, we can transform our lives. It’s that powerful. Don’t criticize unduly. Don’t abuse others with your words. Importantly, say what you mean and mean what you say. Live up to your verbal commitments. Be impeccable with your word even as you use it on yourself. Don’t let your inner critic bring you down. Those are words, too, the ones inside your head.

Dad was impeccable with his word. Words were important to him. They still are. He still wants to be heard. When I was a teenager and unwilling to listen, he wrote his words down in two or three letters he then slipped under the closed door of my bedroom or left on the kitchen table for me to open after he left for work. He was like Felix Unger in some ways, a tidy man with small and precise handwriting. His handwriting is shaky now, but then his writing looked like a professional cursive font.

The letters he wrote on yellow legal pads, and so he fit a lot of words on them. He told me the things he had tried to say to me but that I would shut down. What was important to him, the things he wanted to pass on, the wisdom he wanted to impart. He worried about me, the friends I had chosen, my boyfriend. He acknowledged that even though I had many bad habits, I was still keeping up my grades, and for that he was grateful.

He did pass something on to me, didn’t he? His honesty with words. That’s a powerful gift. And Mom passed on her love of words, too, the gift of gab, the love of gossiping. And even though don Miguel Ruiz says that gossip is a form of not being impeccable — and what exactly is the opposite of “impeccable”? Peccable? — I don’t believe that gossip is always bad. Not when it binds a family, becomes part of the way they communicate. A network. Stories passed down.

No, I think the opposite of being impeccable with your word is being careless and messy, or being mean-spirited with your precision, using your words like a scalpel. We can cut out a piece of someone’s heart with our words. Or making a commitment and then not meeting it.

And when we’re not impeccable, like I can tend to be at times, that’s human. But for the most part people are good. We just make mistakes, all of us, at different times. Sometimes we go through many years making the same mistakes, and other times, maybe when we’re older, we start to see our patterns and try harder to not repeat them.




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Out of all the agreements, this is one I strive to keep. It’s also the hardest. I woke up from a dream in the middle of the night. I dreamed about Ely, Minnesota, the deep forests of the North Woods, where most everything is impeccable with its word. The black bears, Lily and Hope, are busy being bears. They hibernate in Winter, fluctuating between restless activity and long naps. They may have cubs in January. It’s not something that is up for debate. They emerge in the Spring and seek a mate, roam the forests of red and white pines, gangly cedars, and rough-hewn milkweed, and pluck fruit off of agile chokecherry trees which they bend across the path and navigate with their tongues.

In my dream, I was walking through the woods, similar to the nature walk back behind the Bear Center on Saturday night. It was humid and wet, the ground soft underfoot. A long line of people skirted the trail through tufts of mosquitoes; they quietly listened. What I’ve learned about impeccability is that it is different for each person. If you are a bear researcher, you report back to the public from the angle from which you study the bears. Each person’s approach is different. One is not less impeccable than the next. They may start out with different beliefs, seek to prove or disprove them over years spent in the woods, watching and recording black bears.

I was thinking about how that applies to every day life. We tend to hang around people who are most like us. It takes great effort to understand those we might disagree with. To be willing to have our opinion changed, based on fact, based on what is right — that’s a form of impeccability. To deep listen. Again, impeccable. It takes work to listen to what people have to say without already forming what your response will be when they are done speaking. There are many different versions of right and wrong. Not black and white. Gray. If you get to know the facts about any one subject, person, place or thing, there is a lot of gray.

I learned at the North American Bear Center that what might have been believed true of bears 20 years ago, may not be true now. With more research, comes a deeper form of truth and understanding. With age comes wisdom. The same is true in my own life. I recently ran across an old journal from the time period when I was turning from 21 to 22. I had recently moved to Montana from Pennsylvania and my life was topsy-turvy. Over the course of a year, I ended one relationship, began another with a woman who had a toddler. That relationship would end in three years. The toddler is full-grown; I’m only a blip in his life.

What I believed when I was 20 is not what I believe now. The way I was impeccable with my word is not the way I try to be impeccable today. I work harder now to not make commitments I know I can’t keep. I also fail. But I feel more willing to accept the failures. By fessing up. Apologizing. Asking for forgiveness. There can’t be too much forgiveness in the world. There can’t be too much love.

I’ve learned the hard way that impeccability is something that is earned over time. It doesn’t show up on your doorstep and beg to be let in. It is proud, strong, forgiving but demanding. The white pines are impeccable. They catalogue the seasons and provide protection and nurturing for black bears in the North Woods of Minnesota. The lumber barons who nearly wiped white pines off the face of the planet? I wouldn’t call them impeccable in their commitment to the sustainability of our world. But things are more complicated than that.

Maybe they were impeccable with their word to those they did business with, to the communities they helped build and make thrive. I don’t know. I don’t share their values. But I shy away from condemnation. I try to understand their shortsightedness. Sometimes it’s just greed. Pure and simple greed that drives people to break their word. Fortunately, I still believe that it’s not the greedy who shall inherit the Earth. But I’m not so sure it will be the humans either.



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I pulled the IX of Wands this morning. Holding a single stave in front of me, eight more forming the wall behind, the line drawn in the sand. Mr. Stripeypants jumped from the window to the couch, setting a perimeter around Kiev so he would not have to confront her, threaten her. It’s instinctual for them to know when to retreat. The IX of Wands is about finding an easier way, taking a new direction. Perseverance. I needed more information. So I pulled a Solution Spread. Three cards. One focus: background, problem, solution. Tower reversed, VI of Wands, Knight of Cups.

Ah, things are much more clear now. Whatever is falling from The Tower, let it crumble, let the light in. For the Wands, show humility, point your horse in another direction. And the solution, the Knight of Cups? Be of service to others. Offer forgiveness, make amends. Follow your heart. I started pulling the Tarot again yesterday. An Oracle, a ritual from the past that makes me feel calmer, more stable. There was a period of time in my life, sometime in my early forties, when I consulted Oracles on a daily basis. I learned about the Tarot, the I Ching, the Medicine Cards, the Runes. I studied their structure and found peace in knowing that Divine Providence had been flowing through these symbols for thousands of years.

Don’t take anything personally. The Oracles teach me how to keep the focus on myself. So do meetings, writing practice, community support, friends. The empath in me, the lack of boundaries, can lead me to lose track of where I am going. I can’t be of service to others if I don’t take care of myself. Rain hangs in the heavy Minnesota air. I like rainy days for what they are — a chance to breathe. To read, to sit and listen to frogs and crickets chant in the distance. Water is grounding to a Cancer. I’ve been weary the last few weeks. I need to regroup. Back to center. I started to take things personally, to think I could fix everything that was wrong in the world. It’s arrogant and fraught with problems to believe or feel or think that way. I’m a tiny blip in a giant solar system. The ticking of time will leave me in the dust.

Still, I have so much love for the people in my life. It’s a lasting connection, a giant thread of hope and golden light, wrapped around my heart. The day to day rituals are important, the annual pilgrimages, the care for those immediately present. I stroke Kiev’s shedding Summer fur. Throw the yellow ball for Mr. Stripeypants to go and fetch. I brush my teeth, take a shower, get ready for the day. I might go hear a writer speak at an independent bookstore in the evening, or catch a movie at the local cinema. I still love to go to movies. Sometimes, in order not to take things personally, I need to distract myself from the endless loops of thought that tell me I have no solutions.

Like the pilgrim that stands in front of the IX of Wands, I’m leery of what’s around the corner. But willing to take another direction, to turn my horse down a different path. I will listen to what’s in the Ethers. As above, so below; the Law of Attraction; Synchronicity. All part of the Law of Correspondence, holding the idea that life is interconnected. These are the first three metaphysical laws that make up the foundation, the structure of the Tarot.

In 1909, Pamela Colman Smith encoded these concepts into her illustrations for Arthur Edward Waite. Alfred Stieglitz showed her work in Gallery 291. In the Earthly world, she was an artist who died penniless and virtually unknown. But I have to believe her Spirit is somewhere up there, smiling down. Her work is helping me to separate my angst from the angst of others, to not take things so personally.




-Related to post WRITING TOPIC — THE FOUR AGREEMENTS. Also see ybonesy’s PRACTICE: Don’t Take Anything Personally — 15minPRACTICE: Don’t Make Assumptions — 15mins, and QuoinMonkey’s PRACTICE — Don’t Make Assumptions – 15mins.

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This assumption lets us off the hook. “Nothing others do is because of you.” You’re not the center of the world. You’re not the cause of others’ anguish. You own what you do; they own what they do.

That sounds easy. Do I take things personally? I like to think that this particular agreement is not as hard for me as some of the others. I know I can’t recall a time recently when I took something personally. Although, my head is fuzzy. I stayed up late and got up early.

There’s a soft glow in the room. It comes from the orange paper globe lantern that Jim hung from the ceiling. I bought it last summer. It’s one of those home improvement things that you buy and then don’t actually install. I do that a lot with things I buy that I know will make my spaces more beautiful. I have a few paintings like that. I haven’t gotten them framed, or I haven’t hung them yet. There should be an agreement “Don’t get stuck.”

But there’s not. There’s “Don’t take things personally.” That’s what I’m writing about. Feeling insulted or sometimes feeling envied. I know there have been times in my life where I’ve said to myself, “Oh, so-and-so is doing that because she wants to copy me.” In fact, isn’t that one of those things we tell ourselves when we’re young? Don’t our parents sometimes tell us that to help us cope?

I’m thinking now of this playground scene, it seems my childhood has been distilled to one playground scene. I remember standing between two rows of classroom barracks. I’m actually riding on Barbara’s back. She’s given me a lift, and Janine is there, and Matthew Martinez, who even as a boy of eight has the face of a grown man.

Wait, I just got a flashback to my dream last night. My parents had made a video where they’re singing, with excellent voices, in Spanish, some ballad. First Dad, he’s so young and has a thick head of hair. While he sings he’s able to walk up on the walls, just walk on walls. The whole family is featured in the video, singing and dancing. I keep saying to the person who’s watching it with me, “There I am!” but then I realize that one’s my sister Janet. Or, “There I am!” but then it’s Bobbi. At the very end, I see me, it is me, I’m a baby. Mom holds me while she belts out some tune, and I am in awe. In my dream, the person watching the video, I am in awe. My parents and family rock!

The dream must have come from something Jim and I watched on PBS about Little Joe y la Familia and other Latino musicians. I was cooking pork and a sauce made with port wine and balsamic vinegar, listening to the television and now and then glancing over to see who was talking. The guy from Los Lobos was saying how he and his brothers all grew up playing music. They’d buy instruments that they didn’t know how to play and then seek out the Viejo musicians to teach them.

Music was a part of my family, too. Mom played piano, Dad harmonica. They played together and sing, old songs, ballads. Spanish and English both. Mom said she grew up on music. They lived in the country and that’s what they did for fun. Everyone learned a different instrument.

I never learned how to play anything. But my sisters and I always sang. We’d stand in front of the fireplace, even grown women, I picture us standing in front of fireplaces, as if the fireplace were our stage. And we’d sing, silly songs. Going to the chapel and we’re go—nna get mar-ar-ar-ried. Our repertoire was pretty small.

Ah, the timer. If I were in a writing retreat with Natalie, here’s where she’d say “Wrap it up,” and I’d try to write some pithy line that pulls it all together. Unfortunately, nothing can pull together a writing practice about an agreement that I hardly touched on, a playground scene, and a dream about my family making a musical video when I was a baby.




-Related to post WRITING TOPIC — THE FOUR AGREEMENTS. Also see ybonesy’s PRACTICE: Don’t Make Assumptions — 15mins, and  QuoinMonkey’s PRACTICE — Don’t Make Assumptions – 15mins.

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It’s hard not to make assumptions. I make general assumptions about the way I think people should live every day. I expect honesty, forthrightness, that people are generally good. I expect people to honor their word, and want to believe they are telling the truth. These are all assumptions. Then I start thinking about values, how assumptions are made according to the values we hold. People assume that everyone is straight. At least 10% of the population is not, probably much more. When I think about it, I can’t really afford to make assumptions — if I don’t want people to make assumptions about me.

Finding the courage to communicate clearly — that takes some doing. It’s easy to chatter through the day, talk, talk, talk. People love to talk. But what about when it really comes down to it. To life and death situations, to a need to get one’s affairs in order, to ask for help, to talk about what’s hard, to deal with the things we don’t really want to face. I might dash off into my head, get brooding or quiet. That’s the way I process. Tapping away at words. Words are meaningless without the ability to communicate clearly. I am lost on this Topic.

Maybe Don’t Make Assumptions is connected to Be Impeccable With Your Word. On the assumption end, you are focusing on the other person, on believing that their world doesn’t revolve around you. Let that go. On the impeccable end, you are trying to make sure you can live up to your word, to the agreements you make with other people. Sometimes they are small, like following through on emptying the trash or changing the cat litter, washing the dishes. Sometimes they are big, like legal contracts, paying the mortgage or your rent, or showing up to work on time. What does it take to be there for your family, your friends?

I have not been focused this week. My thoughts scatter when I try to make sense of life events that just don’t make any sense. Who was it that said things would make sense? They don’t. Sometimes I wonder if the things I fear the most have to do with death, abandonment, being left behind. I don’t feel like I have my own affairs in order. Not yet. And there is still so much I want to do. But I don’t have control over how long I will live. Or how long those close to me will survive.

I can’t assume I will live a long life. And neither can you. That leaves this moment. And whatever’s happened in the past. To come to terms with the past, I study history. At the global, local, and family level. To make sense of the present, I write. I take photos. I mull things over. I try to be true to my word. I am not always successful. The agreements, for me, are more what I learned in Writing Practice. To make positive effort for the good. To continue under all circumstances. To not be tossed away. These are spiritual agreements, like the Four Agreements, like the Golden Rule. They are words to live by, impossible to follow, necessary for survival, tools that make relationships sing.

The people I respect the most stick their necks out for others, take risks, show gratitude, learn to live with the criticism of imperfection. Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, Sitting Bull. This practice is all in the abstract. I cannot name names or even explain what I really mean. My eyelids are heavy. I said I would post this Writing Practice. I am sticking to my word. Perhaps my heart really isn’t into the writing. The rain washed away my sadness. But not my worry.  I dreamed of a freshwater lake the size of the Moon, concentric rings forming a circle that wraps around. Unbroken.


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I’m sitting on the patio, the last of the cool morning air hanging on here with me. I listen to the energetic gurgle of two waterfalls in the pond. Notice that I don’t make assumptions about nature. I don’t assume anything about the water in the pond, well, except that it’s not potable. The mosquito fish must be getting big by now. I hope they’re eating all the mosquito larvae that float on the water’s surface.

I don’t make assumptions about the heat, don’t assign malintent to the place on the thermometer where the mercury hovers. It’s going to be a scorcher, an early June heat stroke in the Southwest. I assume it’s cooler here than in Carlsbad or Phoenix. I’d rather be here than there, although I’d rather this heat stroke not hit at all.

Just like I’d rather the Gulf oil spill not be happening. That’s an understatement. I can’t look at the pictures of oil-soaked pelicans, their watery eyes helpless behind layers of crude—CRUD—and not cry, not feel my stomach turn. I feel so helpless here, far away. I can’t imagine how the people of the coast feel. Ads featuring that British Petroleum CEO are playing these days, causing Jim to snarl at the television, “Oh shut up!” I don’t make assumptions or not make assumptions about that CEO. He is what he is, who he is, and like us all he is living a hell right now every time he thinks about what’s happening in those waters and beaches and reefs.

Assumptions. What is that saying—What does ASSUME mean? It means You make an ASS out of U and ME. How long ago did I first hear that and who told me? Was it Dad during one of our many fights when I was a teenager? We fought about my friends, my habits, his strictness, his expectations. I once got so mad during a fight that I threw a bottle of nail polish at Mom. Cooley and slowly capped the bottle, in my mind’s eye I looked at my freshly painted pink nails, blew on the tips of my fingers to make sure they were as dry as could be, and then I reeled back my arm, took aim, threw.

We made a lot of assumptions about each other then. I assumed my parents were out of touch, old-fashioned, incapable of understanding me. Now that I am the mother of a teenage girl, I wonder what assumptions, if any, she makes about me. I look at the assumptions I make about her. Surely from this writing practice I can take away that this is one place where I have to take special care to not make assumptions.

The pond still gurgles. It gurgles in spite of me here, in the waning cool. I think the scale has tipped, the day is officially hot. I wish it were that easy for me to tip the scale, to move from the place of making assumptions to the place of not making assumptions. I’ve never liked it when people label me. I don’t like to be distilled down by others so that they can better understand me. It’s not real, after all, those assumptions we make about one another. Not real, not like the heat of this day is real, nor the sound of water.




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In 1997, Toltec nagual (shaman) don Miguel Ruiz published a small book called The Four Agreements. The book laid out in practical terms four agreements one can make with oneself, a code of conduct to live by to transform one’s life. The idea is that these four agreements would replace or at least augment the many agreements we’ve carried with us since we were children—many harmful to our well-being—about our self-worth, our abilities, and life in general.

I learned about the book in 2000, after a particularly difficult year. I was on the brink of leaving my career. I was struggling in my marriage and with being a mother. I was unhappy and didn’t know what to do about it. My boss at the time, with whom my relationship was all but broken, gave me the book. She had just returned from a short sabbatical from work. She seemed transformed and credited the change to the wisdom of Ruiz. She handed out copies of the book to members of her staff, and then within a matter of a few weeks or months, she retired.

I remember when she gave me the book, at first I saw it as an olive branch. I had at one point before my boss left on her sabbatical become so enraged at her over matters at work that I let loose with a verbal assault that surprised even me. In my younger days I had the mouth of a sailor, but I rarely let my emotions get out of hand. Not so that year. I dropped the F-bomb on my boss like it was going out of style. In hindsight, it was amazing that she didn’t fire me for insubordination. That she could give me any gift at all seemed hugely generous.

Later, when I opened the book and saw what it contained, I took the gift as an insult. A category tag on the back of the book identified it as Personal Growth / Self-Help. I felt my former boss was trying to tell me that that I needed help; I was immature enough then to believe that I was perfectly fine and that she was the one who needed help. Reluctantly I read the book.


Fast forward to 2010. I think about my former boss now and again. I know now that not only did I in fact need help those many years ago, The Four Agreements was exactly the right kind of help. Had I been living them at the time, I would not have made the assumption that my former boss was giving me the book as way of trying to tell me something.

Recently I had the opportunity, thanks to the generosity of my good friend Patty, to see don Miguel Ruiz in Albuquerque and hear him and his son, don Jose Ruiz, talk about a new book they jointly wrote called The Fifth Agreement: A Practical Guide to Self-Mastery. This was the first time I’d seen either Ruiz in person. I didn’t take notes during the packed talk. I sat in the back of the Unitarian church where they spoke. I listened with an open heart. After the talk, the elder Ruiz left (we learned he had only partial heart functioning after a near-fatal heart attack in 2002) while the younger stayed in the church and signed books.


don jose ruiz and pattydon jose ruiz and roma

light and love, photos of Patty (left) and Roma with don Jose Ruiz, emanating light and love, May 19, 2010, Albuquerque, photos © 2010, all rights reserved.




Don Miguel Ruiz came from a family of healers. His mother was a curandera and his grandfather a nagual. From the book jacket of The Four Agreements, “The family anticipated that Miguel would embrace their centuries-old legacy of healing and teaching, and carry forward the esoteric Toltec knowledge. Instead, distracted by modern life, Miguel chose to attend medical school and become a surgeon.”

After nearly losing his life in a car accident, Ruiz devoted himself to becoming a nagual. He has passed on the knowledge to his son, Jose Luis, and together they are promoting The Fifth Agreement. I am reading The Fifth Agreement now, and already it has hit home for me the wisdom and power of that original small book.

I have in small but perceptible ways been transformed by Ruiz’s four agreements. They’re not easy to live by. Some are harder than others. Some I recall daily. Here they are, with a short excerpt about each:



be impeccable with your word


Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.



don’t take anything personally


Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.



don’t make assumptions


Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.



always do your best


Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.





Perhaps you are familiar with don Miguel Ruiz and his books of wisdom, or maybe this is the first time you’ve heard of any of this. In either case, reflect on the four agreements and think about what they mean to you. Write each agreement at the top of your notebook and then do a 10- or 15-minute Writing Practice on each one. If this is your first exposure to this Toltec wisdom, buy the books or check them out from your local library and take the time to learn more about them and their author. Let us know if your writings about the agreements resonate with the writings in the books.

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