About a year ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a book called “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is a very small book, less than 140 pages, and I thought even I, who was not a fast reader, could read it rather quickly. Turned out, it took me almost 2 weeks to finish reading.
A small part of the reason for that was that Don Miguel seemed to have tried to make this book accessible to all, including the people who never got to go to high school, or it could be that he wanted it to be cryptic in biblical sort of way, and he used the same words and phrases over and over. That irritated me very much and my mind inevitably wandered to thoughts such as, “I want to send him a set of thesauruses,” but that wasn’t the main reason why it took me a long time to finish reading. It was because there were messages that were so powerful that they made me go back in time and think about how my life had been. A lot.
Don Miguel Ruiz is a Mexican surgeon turned alternative. Well, he was born into a family of healers, so you could say he just went back to where he came from. His teachings are based on ancient Toltec wisdom. Even if you don’t believe in cosmic dreams and spirits, he has a lot to tell you about life. Trust me, I’m agnostic.
His four agreements, taken from the inner cover of the book, are:
- 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.
Just by looking at these, I knew my weaknesses were #2 and #3. I think I’m pretty good at other two. I still need to work on “use the power of my word in the direction of love,” for when I’m angry I’m impeccably angry, but I’m very true to my words, sometimes too much so. And I do my best whatever I’m doing, and am getting better at feeling okay for not being perfect.
The bane of my life has been the numbers 2 and 3. I could feel these were closely related. When I take things personally, I can later see, as the steam leaks out of my head and my vision gets defogged, that I have made a lot of assumptions. It could also be in reverse; I can take something personally and then assume what’s happening based on that anger. The irony is that making assumptions is taught in Japan as a virtue.
It’s the word sassu-ru that I mentioned in my post “iParenting.” The word means to guess, to understand, to sympathize, to judge, to imagine, and to suppose, about others. In other words, sassu-ru is to make assumptions about others, how they might be feeling, what they might be thinking, what they might need, and so on. The connotation of the word is very positive because it’s something you do for others, and it is highly encouraged in the Japanese society. An organization in college can be like a boot camp for making right assumptions: the lower classmen are supposed to tend to the upper classmen’s needs without being asked. It extends into traditional companies in Japan, and it’s a desired quality when climbing the social ladder or choosing the mate in life. The Japanese people tend to conform rather than go against the flow, which makes it easier for assumptions to be right on target or pretty close. Or maybe there is fair amount of pretending going on, because of our tendency to conform. When someone assumed right about your need and acted upon it without you asking first, it could make you feel you are taken care of and understood. It could be addictive, on both sides.
Sassu-ru is great, to a certain extent. But assumptions, even if they were made out of respect and love, could cause a drama that pales hurricanes and tornadoes in comparison. Assumptions could take you so out of reality without you even noticing. You might think you are still at home in Kansas, while you could be in the Munchkin Country in the eyes of the person you had made the assumption about. We assume that we are all living in the same reality, and we believe that’s the truth. That’s the big problem. We each have different reality. It might feel a kind thing to do when you make assumptions, because you are thinking about the other person and feeling you understand her, but the assumptions are made based on your reality and not her reality. It is very selfish to insist your assumptions were right, no matter what they were. Then she might take whatever you assumed personally, and you in return would take THAT personally. “I thought you wanted it, I thought that’s what you liked,” you would protest. She would then say, “How in the world did you think I would like that? How can you not know me?”
We are all constantly changing, but it’s easier to think we are stationary and never transform in our relationships. It’s easier to stick with the other person’s image and idea, which was created by the initial impression or stereotypes in your head. Categorized, organized, filed, done. But it might take only one second to change everything you knew about the person. You never know. If you insist on your image and idea of the person and refused to see who she really is now, at this moment, then you are sabotaging the relationship.
In a way, love might be just that acceptance, to allow the other person to grow and change in you. To not to have a mold for her to fill, to let her free and take any shape she might feel suited at that moment. To be amazed at what she can transform into. To try to know the new her in every new moment. To make no assumptions about who she is.
True, making assumptions could save you from certain pain. If you got sick from eating raw oysters, you might assume it would always make you sick. If you got hurt when you brought up a certain topic with your partner, you might assume that is a no-no topic, forever. Making assumptions could act as our self-defense mechanisms. But in a relationship it could make us stuck. It’s hard to understand the other person when you are pointing your weapon toward her. She wouldn’t come near you, to begin with.
The thing is, it seems that making assumptions comes with the territory for us humans. We can think about future and plan on it. That’s a huge assumption. There is absolutely no guarantee that I will wake up tomorrow morning. I might get in a traffic accident and mingled up in a pile of flesh and metal on one of those scary highways. My plane might crash into the ocean on the way to Africa. A mugger might kill me to get $100 from my wallet. Yet, I still jollily plan what to eat for breakfast tomorrow, trips and vacations, birthday parties and future writings, as if I know they will happen, as if I know I have time for all these. What if we didn’t know? I have read and heard that cancer patients live differently after they were diagnosed. Their attention shifts from ‘someday’ to ‘now,’ and their now seems to become more vibrant, vivid, deep. I bet they don’t make many assumptions about anything, either. I wouldn’t, because assumptions take up time, and if you know you are dying sooner, you don’t have that luxury.
I used to suppress a lot of my needs, thinking they might be inconvenient to others, might make them uncomfortable somehow, or I would get them when they have time. But recently I started to think, But what if I die tomorrow? Would I be happy as I die if I didn’t get those needs met? Wouldn’t I regret as I take my last breath? Besides, wasn’t that an assumption when I thought my needs might inconvenience them? So I started asking more questions and getting what I need. I feel my life has become fuller and less complicated. I also feel my connections with the people in my life have gotten truer.
Taking things personally also takes up time and energy. But it is soooooo hard not to feel assaulted when someone throws venomous words towards you! If making assumptions is the precaution, the aiming of your weapon outward, then taking things personally might feel like the shield against the weapon that is flying toward you. What I didn’t understand until I read this book was that this shield was made of very thin glass. When you hold this up against anything, it will shatter and you will be covered with sharp shards. So you will hold up another glass shield and that will break all over you as well. As long as you keep taking things personally, you keep on getting hurt.
What’s more, when you take things personally, as if being covered in glass shards wasn’t enough pain, you get poisoned too. When someone came to me and said, “Tomo, you stink! You are so selfish and uncaring!” and if I took it personally, that means I believed in what he said. And the truth is, what he said only reflects what he is going through and dealing with; it’s nothing to do with me. Nothing he thinks about me is really about me, but it is about him. Even when he said, “You hurt me,” that’s because something I did or said touched his old wound. I would try to understand and empathize, but I can’t make his pain happen or go away; only he can. He might try to defeat me and bring me down for hurting him, and the moment I take it personally and start fighting, I have swallowed his poison and let his garbage in me.
This taking-things-personally thing is extremely funny when you are not in it. I might venture to say that 99% of comedy is based on this. George Costanza in Seinfeld was the embodiment of taking-things-very-personally. He creates Shakespearian dramas out of nothing. He is furious or worried or furiously worried most of the time. It’s so funny to watch him, partially because he is the personification of fear everybody has. Too bad I can’t pull myself out of the drama when it’s my drama and I’m in it, taking things personally and getting all worked up; I’m missing the funniest show. I’m missing a lot, as a matter of fact, for I’m quite a high-drama type. Does this mean if we all started living without taking things personally and without assumptions, the world would become a boring place? Maybe. Happy, calm, peaceful never are as dramatic as chaos. “There is no humor in heaven,” as Mark Twain put it.
What surprised me when I read this part of the book was that “taking nothing personally” included compliments as well as criticisms and personal attacks. But it makes perfect sense. When I think about it, it is true that compliments don’t change me, don’t make me better. If someone said, “Tomo, you sing beautifully!” it doesn’t make me a better singer. It’s a reflection of his world. His idea of singing beautifully might be Kurt Cobain than Cambridge Singers. I am still a singer as good or bad as I believe. And if I am depending on compliments to make me happy, I’m in big trouble.
(There is an interesting observation on cultural differences in how we react to compliments. Sean Sakamoto is an American—who has taken his Japanese wife’s last name—who moved from New York to a very rural village in Japan. He has shared his keen cross-cultural views on several of my posts. Our dialogue regarding compliments, making assumptions and taking things personally, etc, can be found on the comment section of the post “iParenting.”)
This reminds me of a picture book that I used to read to my daughters when they were little. It is called “You Are Special” by Max Lucado. The author is heavily tilted toward monotheism, and his books normally have a God figure in it. His are the children’s books that Sunday schools must love to stock up. It makes me feel rather uneasy, to be honest, for I don’t want my girls to believe God is this father-figure old man with white beard, and when I read this book to them I needed to supplement at the end, but the message in it was worth the effort. It’s a story about small wooden people called Wemmicks. And yes, the woodcarver who lives on top of the hill, named Eli, is the One who made all the Wemmicks and he tells the protagonist things like “all that matters is what I think” or “she decided that what I think is more important than what they think” or “you are special because I made you” and makes me want to rip up those pages, and I had to tell the girls, “But actually, Eli is inside you and what you think is more important than what he thinks” and confused them thoroughly. But I like the message in the first half of the book. The Wemmicks carry 2 boxes of stickers—one containing golden star stickers and another gray dot stickers—and give each other stickers day-in and day-out. They give stars for those who have talents, who could do things well, or who are pretty. In other words, stars are compliments. The gray dots are criticisms. They give them to those who did something dumb, clumsy, or are ugly. Punchinello only had dots on him, lots and lots of dots, no stars. One day he meets a girl Wemmick who has no stickers on her. No dots or stars. Some Wemmicks try to put a star on her for not having any dots, but it falls off. Some come to put a dot on her for not having any stars, but it doesn’t stay on, either. Punchinello wants to be like her, and asks how she does it. “It’s easy!” she says, “Everyday I go see Eli.”
That’s where this book starts to sound too churchy for my liking, but if I think of Eli as “my true self,” I can take it easily. If I go see my true self everyday and see how I am, who I am, without any stickers on me, I might be able to say to myself, “You are special because I made you” and feel very happy about that. Eli tells Punchinello, “The stickers only stick if you let them, if they matter to you.”
Stickers could be really old. I still have a lot of dots that my mother gave me when I was little. Those are harder to take off, because the glue is old and leaves sticky substance on me, or some of them are so ingrained that they feel buried under my skin. But at least I can now see those are stickers, not true me.
Don Miguel says we take things personally and get mad because we are afraid, because we are dealing with fear. Jealousy, hatred, sadness, anger, they all stem out of fear. “If you live without fear, if you love, there is no place for any of those emotions. If you don’t feel any of those emotions, it is logical that you will feel good. When you feel good, everything around you is good. When everything around you is great, everything makes you happy. You are loving everything that is around you, because you are loving yourself. Because you like the way you are. Because you are content with you. Because you are happy with your life.”
The stickers would stick only on our fear.
I have to practice seeing Eli in me daily. Actually, I don’t like it to have a name. I want it to shape-shift and be fluid, as I am no doubt changing every moment. I shall practice seeing it in me, until all my old stickers fall off and new ones wouldn’t come near my skin. How empowering that would be!