Living Skillfully with the Four Agreements

Because it’s the beginning of a new year, and because I’ve been slack for several weeks on the Buddhism column, and because after all Gautama himself said that he was teaching basically just one simple thing that he found himself just explaining in many different ways, and because finally it’s my column and I can do what I want, I’m going to start this time by repeating again the core of the Buddha’s teaching, suitably rephrased so as to seem creative and original and avoid copyright problems with the people I’m stealing it from. So here they are, the Four Noble Truths, with only as much Sanskrit as necessary.

  1. Our ordinary lives are full of duhkha, badly translated as “suffering” and better translated as unpleasantness, agitation, discomfort. (The root word is actually connected to the idea of a cart wheel that’s got a bad axle: it isn’t rolling smoothly and the bump bump bump is making us cart-sick.)
  2. Dukhka arises because of our efforts to re-order the universe to our liking. We thirst for pleasant experiences; we try to make things be just how we’d like them to be; and we try to un-make things that aren’t the way we want them to be. All of these things come down to a kind of ignorance of the way that we and everything around us can’t be made to hold still; everything changes.
  3. This special discomfort ceases when we stop trying to force things.
  4. We can learn to stop trying to force things by practicing what the Buddha called “skillful means”, upaya.

Which is all well and good, but how?


I’ve been talking with a friend this week. He’s having a bad time, with job troubles and girlfriend troubles, and difficulty arising from the way his current experiences refer back in his mind to other difficulties in his part. Understand, now, that these are real troubles; they are experiences that are painful here and now, like having a tooth out or falling down and hurting yourself. But that’s just pain. What I see him doing, though, is suffering because he is, yes, trying to cling to the fun parts, make everything get better, and make the bad parts go away.

I would like him to suffer less, but what’s the best way to explain? One way is to meditate. Meditation makes you aware of the constant stream of nonsense that runs through our heads, which gives us a handle on noticing that it is nonsense, that it’s not real.

Another way, I’m convinced, is the special kind of journaling that Julia Cameron describes in her wonderful book The Artist’s Way. It’s called “morning pages” and it’s a very simple exercise: you go to a pad and pen, as soon as you’re up and taken care of the biological necessities like toilet and making coffee, and you write three full pages of whatever the nonsense is that is going on in your head. You just keep it coming, and if you have to write “I don’t have anything to say” over and over, then you do. Try to do it impartially; no one else needs to read it, you don’t even need to re-read it. Just observe and make concrete the things that are running through your head.

A lot of this, for me and for anyone else I’ve ever talked to about it, is basically self-accusation. I’m too fat, I’m ugly, I’ve gotten old and I’m not doing enough and I’m not productive enough and girls don’t like me and I don’t know how to get along with people and Gods alone know what else.

We tend to believe those self-accusations; how can we stop? Well, I discovered another form of skillful means that helped me a whole lot. It’s not strictly a “Buddhist” thing; it’s another set of tools. I read them in a book called The Four Agreements, by don Miguel Ruiz.

I warn you, if you read the books — which I do recommend — you have some New Age Woo Woo to wade through at the beginning. I have no idea whether the stuff about the Toltecs, and the Nagual, and all that is real or if it is pure fiction; it’s there as a way to set up the real lessons. The meat of it is in the Four Agreements themselves, in which we undertake to deal with the self-accusations in a new way.


First, recognize that words are powerful, so agree to always be impeccable with your word. Now, this doesn’t mean just “be honest” or “be as good as your word”. “Impeccable” comes from Latin roots that mean “without sin”, “free of fault”. Your words are impeccable when they are true and when they intend no harm toward you or others. If you find that internal talk is accusing or critical, pay attention; if it’s true, then note it and go on. If it’s false, then note that it’s false. Even if it is true, do what you can to correct yourself and let it go, because you don’t deserve to punish yourself over and over.

Second, don’t take anything personally. Everyone else is as much affected by their history and background and experiences — what don Miguel calls our “domestication” — as we are. The more we pay attention, the more we realize these self-accusations are basically excessive. Everyone you know, everyone you meet and talk to, has their own domestication to deal with. When someone lashes out at you, remember they’re not seeing you clearly — they’re seeing you in their own funhouse mirror.

Third, don’t make assumptions. We all tend to think other people know what we know, even when they couldn’t possibly. “If she loved me, she’d understand how much I like watching the football game on Sunday afternoon.” Or “he must not love me, because if he did he’s buy me flowers.” We assume we know what someone else is thinking or feelings, and act as if those assumptions are the truth. We assume everyone else sees us the way we see ourselves. (This is a big one for me. I was domesticated to think myself scarred and ugly; I assume that other people must see me that way too.) Recognize when you’re making these assumptions, and practice asking for what you want, asking what someone else means, or expecting other people to know what is on your mind.

Fourth, always do your best. This one is tough to get, because it sounds like an invitation to constantly beat yourself up about those times when you think you haven’t done your best. But if you do, that’s not really being impeccable with your word.

What it really means is that you have to recognize that you are doing your best — you are making the best choices you can at the time and place you make them. If you made a bad choice in the past, well, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Maybe you were sick, maybe you were deluded, maybe you were ignorant, maybe you even knew it was a bad idea at the time but whatever you did was more appealing. At the time. Learn from it, let it go, practice being impeccable when you think of it again.

As I say, this isn’t Buddhism, this is New Age Woo Woo Magic Toltec Indian Stuff, and who know if it’s even real Magic Toltec Indian Stuff. Maybe don Miguel made it up.

But, on the other hand, I think the practice of the Four Agreements is Buddhism in an important way. It’s a way of recognizing and dealing with the roots of suffering in your own life. Each of the Four Agreements gets at one or more of the roots of suffering in our own lives, right now.