I used to think that teaching kids The Four Agreements might be worthwhile, until I decided to explore the concepts in don Miguel Ruiz’s international best-seller through the network of the brain. So without further delay…
The First Agreement: Be Impeccable with Your Word
This Agreement seems to draw heavily on the Buddhist concept of Right Speech. And I don’t think it’s an accident that contemporary Buddhists like Jack Kornfield, Richie Davidson and the Dalai Lama are all embracing neuroscience with open arms and hearts. Neuroscience takes many of the Noble Paths and Principles in Buddhism and provides profound supporting evidence at the microbiological level for why they are pretty skillful directives to use as a general life roadmap.
There can be little doubt but that the things we say and the things that people say to us in return affect neurobiology, ours and theirs. I’ve already written at length about how some misplaced, unskillful words by my seventh grade middle school teacher generated a traumatic response that lasted many years: The Anatomy of an Upset. Most of us don’t have to look past our last heated intimate “discussion,” to know the power of words to affect neurobiology.
But Miguel Ruiz, in addition, misses something even more subtle, I think. And that is, with practice, by attending closely to the things we say on a regular basis, our neurobiology will begin to change the thoughts we think. And changing the thoughts that spontaneously emerge in response to our present-moment lived experience can profoundly impact the nature of the whole life we end up living.
The Second Agreement: Don’t Take Anything Personally
This agreement would ring neurologically resonant by simply changing it to: “Pay Close Attention to the Things We Take Personally.” Few of us consciously pick and choose the things we take personally, the people, places and circumstances that we react to emotionally. If we think of the brain as a collection of information and energy-processing networks, then we might consider that the things we take personally – those things that most upset us – are signals that we’ve temporarily exceeded our processing capacity. There are proven ways to increase that capacity, however. Almost two dozen ways to support such an increase can be found here: Neural Enrichers. Increasing our processing capacity is the work that don Miguel essentially wants us to take on. Most of us however, need more than someone simply telling us not to do something in order to be able to refrain from doing it. We need to cultivate ongoing disciplined practices intended to move us in directions we wholeheartedly wish to go.
The Third Agreement: Don’t Make Assumptions
If the brain didn’t make assumptions it would not be able to operate in any way other than in a kind of rudimentary state orchestrated mostly by our brain stems. As this recent New Scientist article points out, every one of our senses makes assumptions – “grand delusions” – all the time. It’s one way that the brain conserves processing power. (For a delightful example of how our sense of hearing makes assumptions, check out this Youtube video from a recent Notes and Neurons Conference).
Better, from the standpoint of our neurobiology, would be to begin developing practices to regularly recognize and check out our assumptions. I’ve already written about the 15 Styles of Distorted Thinking and the more than 108 inherent Brain Biases often operating in us and the world. Practicing catching ourselves in the act and being able to course correct in any moment – now that is a profound, worthwhile practice.
To simply tell me not to make assumptions is unfortunately mostly going to make me feel bad when I recognize my brain making assumptions all the time, assumptions that I seem to have very little control over.
The Fourth Agreement: Always Do Your Best
If there’s one thing that the study of neurobiology has taught me, it’s this: our best expands and contracts according to our stress levels and at any moment in our lives, especially our lives as parents, every single one of us is already always doing our very best. We don’t really need any official directive or agreement for that. Rather what we need is this realization and another: that we can improve our ability to grow and change future doing and being through diligent and dedicated learning and practice, which often needs the support of other people operating in ways that help inspire us. The result will be future moments in which our best will be considerably more skillful than previously – new personal bests.
So, for example, I love stories that depict the triumph of human spirit over adversity. I recently watched Austin Whitney, paralyzed from the neck down as the result of an accident while driving drunk, with the help of hundreds of other people, stand and walk up to the podium at his UC Berkeley college graduation. Austin was doing the best that he could when he drove while drunk; and he also did the best he could with the help of an exoskeleton, to stand and walk up to the Berkeley podium. And having that help in all it’s creative forms did not make his triumph any less moving. Watch and see if we don’t agree.