Just as I was wrapping up last week's appointment with my counselor, she handed me a slim volume by Don Miguel Ruiz published in 1997, The Four Agreements, A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.
The dust jacket gives an excellent precis of the essential advice, based on a distillation of Toltec wisdom:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
o Overcommitment: saying I'll do a thing and then failing to get it done in a timely way. This is just another way of pointing how I've been less than impeccable with my word. Perhaps because I have a inflated sense of what I can do, or because I set poor boundaries on the claims I accept on my time. Not wanting to disappoint anyone, especially a loved one, there are times that I am sloppy about what I agree to do and I fall short.
Naturally, this has bad consequences. Not only is the thing not getting done in a timely way, but I've prevented another plan from being made that might have gotten the thing done on time, and I've undercut the trust people place in my word. To be sure, I'm hardly the only person with this issue, yet I'm the only one who can do something about my version of it.
o Overreacting: the pattern here is my going into distress when she tells me what's hard for her about something I've done (or not done). When this occurs it can be the devil making reasonable progress on the triggering issue because of how I shift the focus to my distress. This one relates easily to the second agreement: not taking anything personally. By making her feedback devastating, I sidetrack the conversation and invite her to feel awful for bringing it up. Not good.
o Shying away from stating what I want: this is another version of not being impeccable with my word because I am not voicing my truth (what is going on for me). Instead I try to accept Ma'ikwe as she is (which works some of the time) but doesn't give her a sense of being met. She pushes and I step back. While that may work well enough on the dance floor, it's not a solid basis for a partnership (she's comes across as a bitch and I play the part of the long suffering victim—yuck).
o Lack of empathy for how my behaviors land on her: while I've done OK in recognizing when Ma'ikwe's struggling, I haven't consistently been able to demonstrate that I grok her reality—I've only acknowledged that it's been hard. In the end she hasn't felt fully seen, or even clear that I care to understand what she's going through, which reinforces her isolation and discourages her from speaking up (why bother?).
I see this as another manifestation of taking her reactions personally. Instead of seeing how it lands for her, I've been focusing on how it lands on me. Not helpful.
Ruiz talks about three stages of mastery: awareness, transformation, and intent. The first is fully recognizing that there's a problem (or problems). The second is grasping the art of how to make lasting changes (don't keep doing the same thing and magically hope for better results). The third is seeing the power of positive intentions (AKA love).
Ruiz goes on to explain three pathways to effecting change:
a) Tackling fears one at a time. This strategy is slaying the dragons one by one. While this is possible and requires the least degree of sophistication, it can also take a long time.
b) Mastering one's emotions. The concept here is that you can starve your fears by denying them the fuel they need to flourish. This is not about blocking out one's feelings; it's about mastery of intense reactions such that you notice the tendency and make the conscious choice to not go there.
c) The initiation of the dead. This path takes the most courage, yet also is the quickest way through the swamp. It recognizes that life is precious and one never knows how long our life will last. If we can live each moment in full awareness and joy—as if it were our last day on Earth—than we can extinguish fear and not be subject to the worry that others will not approve of our choices.
In the last fortnight I've mostly been working with Door #2: mastering my feelings. With the considerable help of EMDR and my counselor, I've found the courage to notice my triggers and yet decline the invitation to wade into the swamp of my reactivity. While I undoubtedly have a lot more work to do, it's a start and the liberation from my old pattern is life-affirming.
What an interesting pearl to have recovered from the drowning of my marriage.