The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz
(1) Be fabulously successful actress Ellen DeGeneres, (2) Stumble upon a book that changes your life, (3) Tell the whole world about it, (4) Sit down with author don Miguel Ruiz and chat about love, freedom, and doing your best no matter what.
Two years ago, Ellen Degeneres picked up a slim volume by an unknown writer named don Miguel Ruiz. He claimed his book, based on wisdom he'd learned from his elders in Mexico, could change lives—and it did, including, in rather short order, his own. So wowed was DeGeneres by The Four Agreements that she recommended it to Oprah on the air. Oprah read the book that night, bought 500 more copies for her friends and colleagues, and then suggested to 10 million or so people that they consider giving it as a holiday gift. 

The Four Agreements, published in 1997 by tiny Amber-Allen Publishing, has sold more than 1.5 million copies. These days Ruiz lectures nonstop and has a newer book, The Mastery of Love, based on the same Toltec wisdom as the first. The Toltecs, Ruiz explains, were artists and spiritual seekers who thrived in Mexico hundreds of years ago, before they were forced to hide their ancestral wisdom from European conquerors. Although Ruiz's grandfather and mother both practiced Toltec healing and teaching, Ruiz rejected the tradition and went to medical school. But in his final year he was in a car accident. Against all logic he was physically unscathed; emotionally, however, he would never be the same. What he calls an out-of-body experience transformed his worldview. Unable to explain what had happened to him, he sought his grandfather's guidance.

Years later Ruiz distilled this Toltec teaching into The Four Agreements, the basic premise of which is that most of the drama and suffering in our lives is self-created—but we can live another way. By refusing to buy into everything we've been taught about who we are, how the world works, and how we must react, and by making four simple pacts with ourselves, we can become dramatically happier regardless of our external circumstances. The agreements are (1) Be impeccable with your word—don't say it unless you mean it, and if it's gossip, keep a lid on it. (2) Don't take anything personally—what other people say or do isn't because of you, it's because of their own life experiences. (3) Don't make assumptions—preconceived ideas about what other people think can get you into trouble, and rigid notions of how things should be lead to disappointment. (4) Always do your best, but no more—post facto browbeating is pointless.

"It's such an easy book to read," DeGeneres says, "that he could even put in a few pages for people to color." It's a joke, but she means it as a compliment of the highest order—that something profound has been delivered with almost childlike simplicity. "I was reading the book on an airplane for about the seventh time," she says, "and the flight attendant came up to me and said, 'Oh, I'm reading that, too.' It makes me so happy when other people are reading it. I feel responsible."

So it seemed high time for DeGeneres and Ruiz to meet. In the spring of 2000, O got them together for a chat in Los Angeles. Here, the Toltec teacher and the comedienne match wits—and trade wisdom.

Start reading Ellen's conversation with don Miguel Ruiz

This article originally appeared in the October 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Ellen: First of all, I want to say what an honor this is for me. I love The Four Agreements so much that it feels like my book. It feels so personal.

don Miguel: We can say it's your book.

Ellen: Okay, do I get residuals? Do I get any money at all?

don Miguel: Well, we'd have to give it to everybody because it's everybody's book. 

Ellen: As soon as I read it, I felt that if I applied these four agreements, I really could change my life, and I did start noticing a difference. Why?

don Miguel: What it changed is the story of your life. Whatever you perceive, you always make a story with yourself as the main character, and that dictates your life. Then when you read The Four Agreements, you hear another voice beneath the story, the voice that comes from your integrity, your spirit. And by hearing that voice, you know how good and how great you are. Most of the time the voice of the spirit is silent and the voice of the internal storyteller is very loud. It's always saying, Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it—and taking everything personally. When you read The Four Agreements, you're reminded of what you knew so long ago.

Ellen: But some people just don't get it. I get angry at people who say, "Oh, that's so simple." Well, it is simple. But why don't they see how powerful it is?

don Miguel: They are afraid. The truth is simple—you have to experience it. Fear says, Don't trust it, it's safer for you to suffer.

Ellen: So many people prefer to live in drama because it's comfortable. It's like someone staying in a bad marriage or relationship—it's actually easier to stay because they know what to expect every day, versus leaving and not knowing what to expect.

don Miguel: They've practiced being the way they are for years and years, and they know exactly how to do it. They feel safe when they suffer. When they go into the unknown, they feel fear. Happiness is unknown. Love is unknown. To open the heart in trust is unknown. They say love hurts. It doesn't have to.

Ellen: I do believe that. But why aren't love and acceptance and trust more powerful than the other side? Why is the world so full of darkness?

don Miguel: People like to say that the conflict is between good and evil. The real conflict is between truth and lies. Most of the stories we create are based on lies. If we could wake up in Europe 800 years ago, it would be easy for us to see through all the lies people believed. But in the present moment, it's difficult to see the lies because we're like a fish that doesn't know it's in water. All the drama we create, all the violence and hatred, is because we believe our own lies and someone else's lies.

Ellen: I understand that, I think, more than a lot of people, being gay—it's going against what most of society is. I'm very aware that I'm different. I'm very aware that I don't fit in and that I'm not going along with the rules.

don Miguel: For thousands of years there have been lies about being gay or not being gay. If you know they're lies, you're free.

Ellen: I understand that I am being truthful to who I am and not too many people can say that. But it's hard, every single day, to know you're doing the best you can but you're still up against a huge force. Whether it's verbally acknowledged or not, it's a really difficult thing. A lot of people have husbands or wives or friends or family who don't understand. It's so hard to follow your path when you're not surrounded by support.

don Miguel: I can tell you that we have only one mission and that is to make ourselves happy. The only way we can be happy is by being who we are. We create our own story, but society also creates its own story, and it has the right to create whatever story it wants. If you know that, whatever they say will not stop you from being what you are. Just by being what you are, other people will change—but you don't do it because you want to change them. You do it to make your heart free. One of my greatest heroes when I was a teenager was Muhammad Ali. He said, "I'm the best." He wouldn't go to war because he really believed he shouldn't, even though he knew he'd lose millions of dollars because he was barred from boxing. He said, This is what I am. And he changed a lot of beliefs because he had the courage to be himself.

Ellen: That makes a lot of sense, but it's a hard thing to maintain. I get those fleeting, beautiful moments of inner peace and stillness—and then the other 23 hours and 45 minutes of the day, I'm a human trying to make it through in this world. Especially being in this business, it's really hard not to take anything personally because I have people writing things about me in the press that have nothing to do with the truth. I have people giving their opinions when they see me on TV—if I look pretty, if I don't look pretty, if they like my hair that way, if they don't like my hair that way. So I guess what I'm saying is, should I quit the business? How do you, me—especially me—not take things personally?

don Miguel: We take things personally because it's a habit. Not taking anything personally does not mean that you will not have a reaction or you will not take action. But when you take action you have clarity, you know exactly what you want. When you take things personally, you do things you don't want to do, say things you don't want to say, because emotions are controlling you. When you have clarity it is easier to make choices.

Ellen: Yes, but it's hard to get that clarity because of—is it mitote, your word for that critical voice in your head?

don Miguel: Mih-toe-tay.

Ellen: Do you want to talk about my-toe-tay—or your-toe-tay? What is that voice? If it's not you, who's talking and who's listening?

don Miguel: Okay, first of all, when we were children, we didn't know anything. We were like blank computers. Then it's like someone took a program and put it in our head and this is what we call knowledge. Before we learn, we have no thoughts. As soon as we have words, we have a voice in our head. You have a solution for a problem, but five minutes later you have a different solution for the same problem and five minutes later another solution—and that breeds confusion. Then you no longer trust yourself. I compare that thinking with a wild horse that takes you wherever it wants. I challenge you to take the horse and ride wherever you want. Knowledge should be a tool, not have power over us. We believe we are what we know. We use knowledge to create a personal story. You face life depending on who you believe the main character is, the way you learned to be. Your father tells you that you are this way. Your mother tells you that you are that way. And that's what you become.

Ellen: You're going to make me cry.

don Miguel: They told you the way you should be, and they told you you're never going to be like that. And you believe it. That's the reason why we judge ourselves. That's the reason why we reject ourselves. We say, "I'm not perfect." Only God is perfect. It's a big contradiction, because if God is perfect, then I am perfect and you are perfect. So for us to say that we're not perfect is the biggest insult to God.

Ellen: I think one of the turning points in my life came a few years ago. I started going to sleep at night just talking to myself, saying, "You're perfect just the way you are," because I used to beat myself up about weight and working out, and no matter what I did I never felt good about myself. I decided to accept myself and know that I am good. Just those affirmations every night changed my belief in who I was because I had been told for so long, over and over, that I was something else. That brings us to another agreement: Don't make assumptions—because we assume that when people do something or say something to you, they mean just what we think they mean.

don Miguel: The biggest assumption we make is that the story we've written about ourselves is true. Whatever we do, we say, Oh, this is just the way I am. It's not true. We hardly know what we are. We are the biggest mystery. But whatever we are, you don't need to know. Your liver doesn't need to go to medical school to be a liver.

Ellen: I gotta take it out of there then. I sent it to medical school. What a waste of money! Yes, that's a perfect example of how something just is. It functions; it does its job. But I have to ask—don't you ever get frustrated? I mean, you seem so happy and so calm. When's the last time you gave someone the finger? Come on, when you're driving the car and someone cuts in front of you?

don Miguel: Let's see...once, my son—

Ellen: How old is your son?

don Miguel: Right now he's 22, but when he was 14, 15 years old, he started going in the wrong direction, according to my point of view. He rebelled and that was a frustration. But I caught myself and felt I had to respect his choices.

Ellen: You did? Because that's a really fine line with kids.

don Miguel: Exactly. That was a little bit difficult. The people who can really hurt you are your own children.

Ellen: I'd like to talk about how you were raised by your family, about Toltec wisdom.

don Miguel: Every philosophy in the world is just mythology. This is mythology that my mother and grandfather gave to me. I didn't always believe it, but I love it because it's beautiful. We love stories. In this story, Toltec means "artist." I consider every human an artist of the spirit. You create your art even if you are not aware that you do. But with awareness you can modify your way. In my mythology the greatest gift that comes from God is life. The only way for us to say "Thank you, God" is for us to really enjoy life—and to be able to say to someone, "Hey, I love you." And who cares if they love you back?

Ellen: A lot of times I get that, but it's really hard when there are people—

don Miguel: Do your best.

Ellen: Do my best—the fourth agreement, yes. And even if you falter, you don't beat yourself up.

don Miguel: You don't judge yourself and you don't judge your colleagues.

Ellen: You had a car accident that changed your resistance to Toltec wisdom, right? What happened?

don Miguel: About 25 years ago I crashed my car, but what happened physically was less important than what happened emotionally. Can you imagine if nobody had ever seen light but had created a whole reality out of sound? Then imagine that you open your eyes and see that sound is not the only reality. You don't know what you're experiencing, but you have an overwhelming emotional reaction. But how do you explain to yourself what happened? How can you tell other people? We have no words to explain colors, forms, and shapes because we only have words to explain sounds. I need to call it enlightenment. The best way I can say it is, I have an attitude of love. I could say I was with the angels, but that could cause superstition, more dogma. I don't want that. I don't believe in gurus. There's only one force moving everything, and that force is life. It is so profound. How could my life be the same?

Ellen: You changed immediately?

don Miguel: Immediately I understood. But my first reaction was to try to explain it away. After all, I was in medical school. But I asked my grandfather if he could teach me how to experience that state again. He told me you have to surrender—it's like if you knew you were going to die, if you had only one day to live, you wouldn't care if you had money to buy things. You wouldn't care about anything except being happy. There's a kind of supreme trust that comes with surrendering. It took me a couple of years to experience that state without being in an accident. But I don't think that's the goal.

Ellen: Is the goal not to have a goal?

don Miguel: The goal is to enjoy the life we have. We love because we have the capacity to love. We feel like we have to justify love by being in a relationship. We don't have to be in a relationship to love.

Ellen: Yes, but I love being in a relationship. I love sharing. I can look at a flower and think it's absolutely beautiful, but it enhances the experience to have someone to share it with. In the book you talk about making yourself happy, and if someone says they love you, it's not about you, it's about them. Or if they hate you or they leave you, it's not about you. That's easy to say, but if somebody leaves you and they do it in a very hurtful, deliberate way—

don Miguel: It's normal that it hurts. If someone cuts your hand, it hurts. But if you don't contaminate the wound with poison, it heals fast. And you know, we can write the most beautiful poetry with a broken heart. We can enjoy a broken heart without indulging it.

Ellen: I know, and I don't feel like I have a right to complain about anything. I'm healthy, I'm living a beautiful life. I do look at every experience as an opportunity to grow.

don Miguel: You just said, "I don't have the right." Little, subtle lies like that really get us, because you're judging yourself. You have the right to complain. You have the right to feel hurt. But you can choose not to.

Ellen: Can we talk about the first agreement, which is to be impeccable with your word? People love gossip. It's the biggest thing that keeps the entertainment industry going. I think I'm a good person, but every once in a while I hear something about somebody and I want to share that information. I feel bad about it, but that's a really tough habit to stop.

don Miguel: Don't feel bad. But be aware that even if you meant your words as honey, other people can turn what you said into poison. You can let them know they can use their words as honey, too—but that's not the goal. For us to be happy is not dependent on a result but on an action.

Ellen: That's really important. I think most people live their life for an end result.

don Miguel: That's why they are never happy. An artist is at his or her best when performing. Life is like dancing. If we have a big floor, many people will dance. Some will not dance but will gossip about those who are dancing. Some will get angry when the rhythm changes. But life is changing all the time.

Ellen: Are you always happy? Are you always positive?

don Miguel: Sometimes I wake up cranky.

Ellen: Do you enjoy being cranky?

don Miguel: Everybody gets cranky. I get cranky when I'm on the road.

Ellen: Do you ever want to stop traveling and giving lectures?

don Miguel: When I see the reaction of 800 or 900 people, it's a pleasure.

Ellen: That is really a wonderful feeling. I find it when I do stand-up—when I'm in front of that many people and that energy comes back, that love. You can feel it one-on-one with people, but when you feel it with an entire theater, it's just so beautiful.

don Miguel: When I want to stop, I'll stop.

Ellen: And when that happens, I will go and teach your word. 


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