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Book Review: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

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Before I get started with this review, I feel the need to get one important caveat out of the way: I am not one of those navel-gazing, crystal-wearing, pipe-smoking, new-age freaks. There, I feel much better.

That said, let’s get to my review of one of the best books I’ve read so far in 2005, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. For such a tiny little book, clocking in at just over 100 pages, it really packs a punch. The pages are short, the text layout is light (as opposed to a densely packed page), and Ruiz’s voice is conversational. Though you could get through this book in a day or two, its powerful message will resonate for years to come. Good things really do come in small packages.

Ruiz begins with an introduction to the Toltec people, tribal men and women of immense knowledge. He speaks of his Mexican ancestors passing their beliefs down through the Naguals, or masters, one generation to the next. In The Four Agreements, Ruiz is our Nagual, leading us on a spiritual journey through our Dream of the Planet, which is the Toltec theory that each of us is dreaming our own dream, or version, of the world within which we exist.

According to Ruiz, we have been domesticated since the moment of our birth to understand and accept all that surrounds us and embodies us. He calls the beliefs borne of this process of domestication, Agreements. He goes on to explain that the overwhelming majority of these agreements are detrimental to us and to our journey towards spiritual transcendence. Acknowledgment and acceptance of this idea sets the stage for the transformation that we must undertake by switching out those harmful agreements for the following four beneficial agreements:

  • Be impeccable with your word
  • Don’t take anything personally
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Always do your best

The agreements are fully explained, each in their own chapters. It’s amazing that these pearls of wisdom are often hidden in plain sight. Contemplating what each of these agreements meant to me, I was amazed at how difficult I realized it would be to fully implement these ideas in my life. Yet they are simple enough that you can begin to put them into action long before finishing the book. Like tiny seeds planted in cold, dark soil, I suddenly felt the faint stirrings of promise sprouting in some of the darkest places of my mind. While these simple concepts might be rather obvious to some, for me they were wonderful reminders of the importance of stopping, taking a step back, and reevaluating habits and priorities.

The Four Agreements offers a wealth of useful guidelines for living your dream, but the job of implementing them and breaking free of the old agreements is where the real work lies. This book has the potential to change your life – if you’ll let it. But it takes a willingness to dedicate yourself to the principles Ruiz espouses. Fortunately, he has added a companion book, The Four Agreements Companion Book, to aid in the process of adopting these habits into your lifestyle.

Don Miguel Ruiz has made a cottage industry out of the shamanistic Toltec teachings of his ancestors. New Age crap? Maybe. But for me, this book makes a lot of sense. Sometimes the most elegant solutions grow from the simplest of ideas. I enjoyed Ruiz’s voice and his ideas and I am looking forward to reading more of his treatises on the subject of Toltec wisdom. Make an agreement with yourself to add this one to your reading list.

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  • Molly

    That being said in the beginning, you must not have understood the first or third agreement at all…….

  • nate cook

    Colleen. Part of being an adult is taking full responsibility for ones actions no matter what any body else says or does around you. I cant believe you would wright that within a seemingly intelligent observation and analysis of Dons book. The only exception to the rule are children . Manipulation is something unto itself and will be treated as such. No matter how much of a jack ass someone is your actions are yours alone.

  • nate cook

    What? How could u not take them literally? They arent open for interpretation. They are exactly what they say they are and cant be made any more simple. There like elements. The fact that one would even say not to take them to the extreme says something about that person and not the agreement. Remember, “the more you trust and believe in your self the less you have to put in others.” Hoe can you take “Dont make assumptions” Too extreme? Wth!? One must take scientific approach to this agreement. Base all behavior in fact and untill you actually do the footwork to have evidence to support any claims made , shut the hell up and dont act funny style to the person based on an assumption.

  • nate cook

    So there really wasnt a leaderless society? What a bumber……

  • semper eruditio

    Colleen: Outstanding review! I’m sending it to my daughter, who has bought into Ruiz’s persuasion.

  • Camilo

    Wow, colleen`s review was pretty harsh,lol. You gave many many valid points that i didnt consider after reading the book and of course i had to look for reviews from intelligent people such as yourself because like don Miguel Ruiz says, always be skeptical. Thanks for sharing your very interesting views with everyone. I do think there was some marketing stunts to pull in more readers but i still appreciate the messages he has on the book. He gives great advice but some of it must be taken with a grain of salt. Every agreement fits every individual in a different way because no one faces the same exact problems and circumstances. There is plenty of hard proof that the advice he gives has helped many many people. Wether the ideas were all his or not is irrelevant to me as long as i benefit from them.The concepts are easy to grasp and very helpful, so i am very thankful for that. As long as these agreements are not taken extremely literally it can have a positive outcome.If applied into your life in an intelligent way, it can be a very helpful and enlightening book. Also, as far as the validity of the whole toltec way that he claims in the book, i really dont know enough about the subject so i dont have much to say about it except that it wasnt something that i was even paying any attention to while reading. I knew that this was a self help book before i even started reading it. I realized that when i read it i had to digest the ideas the same way i do when reading a newspaper article. In newspapers theres always sensationalism and so his whole story about the agreements rooting from the toltecs is just that, an attention grabber. Still, he is a wise man and im glad that i was able to absorb and hopefully soon apply his advice to my life(recently read the book). I do appreciate everyone that has a legitimate point of view on the book. Its not that i seek approval about my reading prefference but i do like to hear others point of views on something that i believe is so helpful(the agreements). I like discussion and disagreement because it makes everyone think.

  • Navarth

    Like Victor Sanchez, Theun Mares and a host of others, this man is a Plastic Shaman who has made a living by exploiting Carlos Castaneda’s fictional creation. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is fluffy harmless New Age self help without consequences. This type of book is spiritual theft pure and simple. Not content to take Indian land, sharpers and spives are now engaged in stealing their religion too. There is no Toltec tradition, but this doesn’t stop spiritual tourists imposing their narcissistic fantasies upon poor Indians.

  • Kitchen Witch

    @ Pacisouli: What happened to “don’t take anything personally”? Count this as a suggestion to work on your lack of tolerance and judgmental attitude.

  • pacisouli

    Psychedelic Pariah …. seems like you have a lot of work to do in self improvement area

    signed …. A navel-gazing, crystal-wearing, pipe-smoking, new-age freak.

  • Steve Goppert

    I recall standing at the top the pyramid at Chichen Itza and imagining the blood of human sacrifice running down the runnels parallel to the stair. It was so quite that day and I wondered how it would sound and smell during the rituals.

    I have also read the Four Agreements and found the ideas to be interesting both a psychologically and Christian moral viewpoint to be appealing. Old tapes, anchors to the past, kindness to others, etc. That seems to be quite the contrast to the history I recalled from Mexico and just reconfirmed from a quick search of credible sources on the web.

    What I would like to hear from don Miguel Ruiz, is how the historic record of what a Toltec Eagle Knight seem to indicate reconciles with ancient Toltec wisdom. The Christian conquest and pillaging of Jerusalem during the crusades for example is not characteristic of the of the central tenants of Christianity, but for misguided religious and political reasons it did happen. How do the Four Agreements tie into inserting a flint knife under a persons diaphragm and tearing the heart out? I believe this contradiction need explanation for me to accept don Miguel as a genuine nagual.

    Can someone help me with this dilemma?

  • sockoblocko

    colleen: THANK YOU for the only coherent and accurate review i’ve seen on “the four agreements.” i appreciate the ideas, but i didn’t enjoy the book at all. psychedelic pariah: nice try, but the book is not that good.

  • hose

    after reading this book, i have think its about as believable as “the secret”.
    its a rediculous philosophy, and very contradictive…sorry but it definitly living in a dreamword

  • Colleen

    According to Ruiz, we can improve our interpersonal communication, relationships, and entire life by adhering to the four rules outlined in his work The Four Agreements. Foremost, we must be impeccable with our word. Then we must cease taking things personally, making assumptions, and we must always do our best. While these basic statements are good advice, there are too many components of the book that detract from its usefulness, and render it not worth recommending to other readers.
    The first sections of the book which include The Toltec, the Introduction, and the Domestication and the Dream of the Planet all centre on the ancient Toltec lineage of the author. It states that Toltec knowledge can help us to realize that we as individuals and globally are all living in a dream that has become our reality. Personal deism is touched on and expounded on in later chapters where it teaches how we are intrinsically one with god, and once we realize this, we can essentially become god. Apparently, if you reach a complete understanding and acceptance of yourself through keeping the four agreements in all your introspections as well as interpersonal communications, you will achieve both heaven on earth, and spiritual growth beyond your current grasp.
    Chapter one explains how humans from infancy are conditioned to communicate in specific ways. Ruiz refers to this process as the domestication of humans as it is practically the same procedure used to domesticate animals and livestock. This domestication dictates how we will interact with other people and the manner in which we aught to expect them to communicate with us. With all this training exposed and assessed, the reader is left wondering how to break free from the confusion (aka mitote) and self-deprecating agreements existent in one’s mind so as to attain this aforementioned elusive heaven.
    The crux of the answer is explained by the first agreement. Be impeccable with your word. In your interactions, speak with integrity saying only what you mean. Avoid gossip at all times and do not try to justify its use. Instead, use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love. Without the mysticism, the first agreement is believable and useful. The examples of Hitler’s atrocities being due to the black magic of his spoken word, and hypothetically giving his friend cancer just by suggesting it to him are overdramatic. The verisimilitude of his points is obscured by the absurdity of his arguments. He is essentially trying to say that we need to love ourselves, but it is buried in clandestine, emotionalist examples of people who do not love themselves or cannot love others as a result of their incapacity to accept who they are.
    By comparing gossip to black magic, poison, and computer viruses, he passionately iterates why we should avoid gossiping. This is a strongly worded, poignant way to make his argument. Gossip creates self-fulfilling prophesies because we start to look for the negative things that we are told to expect. While this is true to some degree, many adults are able to cognizantly exercise discretion and keep an open mind until the gossip is either empirically proven false, verified, or proven to have been somewhat exaggerated. As a university student reading this book for the first time, it should not come as a surprise that gossip may hold an ounce of truth, or none at all.
    The way that Ruiz describes how we justify our malevolent behaviour and the poison that we spread through convincing ourselves that our actions were righteous punishment is an example of Cognitive Dissonance. This psychological observation has existed for over half a century and can be found in many studies by social scientists. While this is not common sense, it is still a preexisting component of a body of knowledge to which Ruiz grants no recognition. This is just another example of the author trying to pass on old knowledge as though it were his new inspiration.
    Anyone who reads the first agreement should absorb the practicality of the statement about reciprocating happiness. However, one must remain skeptical of his grandiose promise of “personal freedom, huge success, and abundance” as well as the removal of “all fear” by transforming it into “joy and love”, simply by adhering to the rule of impeccability with one’s word. (45)
    Early in the chapter impeccability is defined as sinlessness, and the closing of the chapter states that you can attain the kingdom of heaven by this agreement. Therefore, it is saying that one can attain the kingdom of heaven by being sinless with their word. The only reason this statement has any fortitude is because the introduction explains a new, different version of heaven and hell, and since he creates this new definition for heaven and hell, he can contrive the qualifications for entrance into either. He makes reference to the gospel of John, but essentially picks and chooses what he wants to state from the bible to back up his point, while contradicting and omitting other vital scriptures which paint a completely different picture of heaven and hell. A contradiction is posed by comparing the chapter about praying to a creator who is separate from us, with the previous parts of the book that say we are all God.
    We are a society searching for spirituality that fits our life. We want new ways of thinking and doing things that will shed light on our flaws to improve our quality of life, while allowing us freedom to indulge in anything that brings us pleasure. His persona is that of an overzealous preacher with crackerjack box epiphanies that he tries to pass off as trendy, innovative ways of thinking, but in reality, his best ideas are really just common sense. Western culture is into rebelling against the beliefs of our fathers and striving to find something new, better, more accommodating to how we want to live our lives. Society currently deems it trendy to revert to obscure, ancient teachings to fix our problems. This book reeks of a cesspool where the spiritual bodies of the Oprah book club masses have fallen through Ruiz’ façade, his contrived abyss of easy to read, seemingly thoughtful depth.
    Deeply rooted in egoism and bordering on narcissism, the main premise of this book carries into the second agreement each person should treat themselves like the center of the universe. He states that if someone criticizes you or is angry with you, it is because of their own issues, and not you, and therefore you have no responsibility to address it (he terms their feelings and words ‘black magic’ and ‘poison’). Well, in reality, we cannot always take zero ownership in how others react to us, especially if we truly are the problem. Pretending that we are never to blame not will not lead to any sort of heaven on earth, especially for the people around us.
    The text is riddled with platitudes and cliché phrases some of which are offered in a vain attempt to fortify the relevancy of Toltec teachings, as it is “distinguished by the ready accessibility of happiness and love.”(xiv) Since it claims that words, for all practical purposes, create our reality, then hurtful words that send out negative energy are lies because they go against what could have been the truth had they been uplifting words. This convoluted thought process sets the author up to clarify with the summation of, “only the truth will set us free”. (37) This clean cut phrase appeals to the masses because the book goes on to say that these negative words are lies, and lies are black magic, and so “We face our fears. (104)
    A thought is raised wherein Ruiz is not entirely personally convinced of the power of the word to effectively put a spell on someone, but perhaps he wrote his book saturated with magic connotations because the market dictates that such self-help, new age-old ideas, will gain him a lot more money and notoriety if he puts a different spin to catch the wave of people seeking these types of books in the market. It is the same old money grab under the guise of self-improvement, love your life in six easy steps that is spewed constantly from the media, only The Four Agreements has a magical, ancient spin to it in order to make it stand out a little from the rest. The parts of the book that shed light on alleviating barriers to interpersonal communication such as hurtful words, the need for vindication, assumptions, and taking things personally, can all be appreciated. Rather than recommend this book to anyone, one aught to divulge the beneficial aspects that, while largely common sense and often heard, are still somewhat under-practiced.

  • Colleen

    Book review to follow.

  • okole

    Please do not refer to this book as Toltec Philosophy as it is NOT.
    Nothing about this book has to do with the Toltecs.
    If you like the book inspite of that its ok.
    All i’m saying is Ruiz is NOT a historian and saying this is Toltec Phiolosophy is a LIE.

  • okole

    People, the TOLTECS were WARRIORS who like the aztecs were very blood thirsty and violent.
    They were big on human sacrifices.
    The Toltecs, the Olmecs, The Aztecs, The Mayans.
    Are indigenous to Mexico and Central Ameica.
    The book The 4 Agreements has NOTHING to do with how and what the TOLTECS thought.This Ruiz guy is NOT a historian and he came up with a book that basically has 4 common sense rules that any good mother would teach you as a child.
    However HE should get sued for deceieving people as to who the Toltecs were.
    As their history shows they were out to conquer and enslaved others, they did it to the Mayans or tried.
    I’m sorry you fell for this QUACK, marketing scamm to sell his book.The Toltecs were warriors that would kill you in an instant if you weren’t one of them.Look up on them and read their real History.
    This Ruiz should NOT be allowed to mislead people with his book.

  • Sheila

    As a middle school English teacher I am considering using the Four Agreements as my classroom “rules”. Some great life changing discussion and writing could come out of these simple statements.

  • Krystal

    I think it is wonderful that so many people have the opportunity to read this wisdom and transform their lives. I recommend this series to anyone that asks! It has made such a difference in my life, and I am thankful for falling upon it myself.

  • KZ

    “Sometimes the most elegant solutions grow from the simplest of ideas”

    I think that sums it up quite well. You’ve convinced me to read it. This is a well written review.

  • Why do people who read these books feel the need to make a disclaimer saying they ain’t new-agy?

    Big deal if someone is tarded enough to give such labels importance. Everybody always trying to fit into the little box they’ve created for themselves, that leads only to suffering.

    Read the books you like and want and don’t give a shit what others may think of you for it.

    And although I’ve never read one of Ruiz’s books they’ve all come highly recommended to me. And one day I’ll get around to them and if someone thinks I’m a freak for reading them… so be it.

  • Sheri: Yes, this Toltec philosophy really speaks to me. So simple, yet so profound. I’m extremely curious and interested in this belief and am looking forward to learning more about it.

    Thanks for the recommendation of your book. I will check it out.

  • Leoniceno: You’re right that these are simple truths with profound ramifications. I wasn’t aware that this mirrored the Quaker philosophy. Thanks for the 411.

  • The Toltec philosophy is a fascinating esoteric tradition, what we fondly call a Warrior’s path to personal freedom. We’re not at war with anyone outside of ourselves, but instead with the domesticated programming of our rational mind. It is a path that encourages us to let go of our preconceived ideas, limiting beliefs, and rigid concepts to enable us to be free to express our spirit fully in our lives with an open heart.
    I’ve been studying and living this path for 8 years now and could’nt think of any other way to live my life. Yes, it is common sense..and no, it really isn’t anything new. But certainly it is easy to understand as don Miguel is a wonderful teacher.
    Check out my new book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Toltec Wisdom on amazon. If you love don Miguels work, you will enjoy this too!
    Blessings all, Sheri

  • * Be impeccable with your word
    * Don’t take anything personally
    * Don’t make assumptions
    * Always do your best

    Nothing the least bit New Age about that, at least. That is basically the philosophy that the Quakers espouse. Don’t know about this whole Toltec thing, though.

    I don’t understand why so much mysticism has to accompany such an eminently practical philosophy. Funny thing, though, the Quakers can be similarly mystical. Wonder what the correlation is.