Good books, when read over again, give us new insight paralleling the state of our personal growth. This is similar to our experience in the yoga studio, where the repetition generates deeper comprehension as we absorb more, and perhaps see things differently the second or third time around. The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, is one of those good books that should be read over and over again. If you haven’t read it, we just ordered several copies for our retail area. I read it long ago and re-read it just recently. I have several copies, as friends have graciously gifted me through the years as they thought of me while reading it themselves. It’s a take on the Toltec Tradition from Mexico. It’s an easy read, but with an incredibly powerful message. I like the bluntness Ruiz uses to get his point across.
Ruiz starts by describing the “dream of the planet”, as he calls it. It is one that we are all a part of as we begin our journey on this earth. Unfortunately, this “first dream” has a very dismal cast, as it is not of our own design. We sign up basically without knowing it to please others, to follow what is socially acceptable, and to sit in shame and self-judgment when our behaviors aren’t accepted. It is a very dysfunctional way to live, and according to Don Miguel, one that we need to wake up to in order to live our best life. He then follows with an approach to rid ourselves of this madness, namely, by following the Four Agreements. Once followed, the Toltecs believe you live a “new dream” or a “second attention”, which is similar to finding Nirvana in Buddhist tradition or Heaven in Christian religion.
What are these Four Agreements? They are: Be impeccable with your word; Don’t take anything personally; Don’t make assumptions; and Always do your best. Each one of the first three has a chapter or more in detail as to what Ruiz means, and trust me, it’s more than what may seem obvious. For instance, being impeccable means being “without sin.” So being impeccable with YOUR word is not just what you say to someone else but also what you say to yourself. If your “words” are of self-blame or self-judgment, then you’ve denied this agreement. Your words to yourself speak of rejection. According to Toltec wisdom, that IS the sin.
For me, I had to re-read the “Don’t take things personally” agreement a few times. It illuminated a thinking pattern that I didn’t realize I had. But what struck me the most of all these agreements is number Four: Always do your best! I was struck that Don Miguel would actually make that an agreement! He didn’t make that a footnote or drop it into the last chapter telling us to give all the Agreements a good healthy try. No. He intentionally made “Doing your best” an Agreement. As he says: “The first three agreements will only work if you do your best. Don’t expect that you will always be able to be impeccable with your word. Your routine habits are too strong and firmly rooted in your mind. But you can do your best. Don’t expect that you will never take anything personally; just do your best. Don’t expect that you will never make another assumption, but you can certainly do your best.”
Okay, what’s the tie-in to our beloved practice? I have been doing yoga for 14 years now, and as many of you know who have read my pieces before, I take everything in as it relates to yoga. I’m hard wired for it now, I suppose. Bikram uses a phrase from time to time, “Stop beating around the bush.” Or he will say, “You must learn to concentrate in the snap of a finger.” And, he often refers to our culture as “being a slave to the bad habits.” Priceless aren’t they?! In each one of these phrases, Bikram is acknowledging that we are being less than our best.
In the floor series, once we’ve completed the pose, we are supposed to turn around and lay on our backs right away – three seconds some instructors will say. How many of us delay in our response to do this action? Bikram will quip, “Stop beating around the bush.” Or he will tell a long story just before standing head to knee. He has got you laughing and so involved in the story, when suddenly he shifts direction to this pose, one of the hardest in terms of concentration, expecting you to balance instantly. The hand towels, the sipping of water throughout class, the needing to go to the bathroom, and leaving early give him material in his argument that we are slaves to the bad habits. Bikram will always expect you to do and be your best. If you don’t, the price you pay is higher than the harsh words he will have for you.
According to Don Miguel: “Regardless of the quality, keep doing your best -no more and no less than your best. You will spend more energy than is needed and in the end your best will not be enough. When you overdo, you deplete your body and go against yourself, and it will take you longer to accomplish your goal. But, if you do less than your best, you subject yourself to frustrations, self-judgment, guilt and regrets. Just do your best in any circumstance. When you do, you won’t judge yourself and you will no longer suffer from guilt, blame or self-punishment.” While I am almost certain that Bikram did not read the “Four Agreements,” I will suggest that Bikram is talking the same language. Isn’t it amazing that we have 90 minutes to practice doing our best and at the same time, help to chip away at our natural tendencies to self-deprecate? According to Ruiz, doing our best silences the judge and the victim born of the “first dream.”
And “Always doing our best” is the characteristic of the new leaders in our world today! I had the opportunity not too long ago to listen in to an established author and speaker recognized for his work on leadership. He states that a good leader is no longer someone with charisma but someone who shows vulnerability, someone who is willing to stand up and share mistakes. The Taoists believe that “everyone has problems, challenges, moments of discord. It’s how soon we return to the music, how well we recover, that marks a true professional.” When we “Always do our best,” we take out the self-defeating components (guilt, doubt, etc.) that can arise when mistakes are made. Instead, we connect to the honesty, integrity and courage it takes to live out what we believe. In our world today, we aren’t looking for leadership with policies thrown at us. We are looking for principles based upon authentic truths that come from mistakes and successes. That is beautifully human.
Members, our yoga room might be the safest place to practice “Always doing your best.” Can you turn around and lay in savasana a little quicker? Do you need all that water during class? Beloved BY instructor Mary Jarvis coined a phrase that many of us teachers use, “Falling out, learning how not to.” We struggle with balance in several poses. Were you concentrating or frustrated? Did you give up at the end because your mind decided that it was just too hard for you to do? When you “Always do your best,” you will leave with the greatest sense of accomplishment even if you fell out of a pose, even if you made the decision to have water or found yourself thinking of work and not a locked out knee. It’s never going to be perfect and there is always more. But, those small conscious choices you make in the classroom are adjustments you make to support bolder choices outside the classroom. And, when we actively decide to “Always do our best” we set an example for the most important people around us, our families. Kids especially need to be exposed to the way we handle the dilemmas we all regularly face. When we learn how to recover from mistakes and make better decisions, we give them the tools to carry this same pattern out in the pressures they experience. Always do your best.