You may have heard of the Mexican author and spiritualist Don Miguel Ruiz. Ruiz is a new-age advocate of freedom from certain beliefs he thinks create limitations and unhappiness. One of his ideas is to find your own integrity and peace by absolving yourself of responsibility for other people’s problems. While he doesn’t believe in having agreements, he’s nevertheless come up with what he calls “The Five Agreements”: (1)Be impeccable in your word. (2)Don’t take anything personally. (3)Don’t make assumptions. (4)Always do your best. (5)Be skeptical, but learn to listen.
I agree with these agreements, not only because they’re agreeable, but also because, when pressed into service, they enhance people’s lives.
Being okay with agreements, I’ve added a few of my own: (1)Humility (2)Studenthood (3)Gratitude (4)Empathy (5)Acceptance (6)Observance, (7)Effort, and (8)Industry. My list is longer than his.
The big difference between him and me is that I like to get into other people’s problems. Maybe I like broken people because at a very early age I determined that I was broken. Many a successful psychiatrist has taken this route. Instead of psychiatry, I chose painting, which is pretty straightforward and self-absorbed, and maybe I’ve been frustrated ever since.
Other people’s problems: This comes under the agreement to have “Empathy.” Empathy is “feeling” yourself into the situations of others. One cannot be an artist without feeling the cast shadow of all who have struggled before — the anguish, the setbacks, the frustration, the blocks, the creepy feeling of incompetence that we all get from time to time. As artists, this stuff is not only in our job description, it’s been with us since the first primitive scratches of Homo artisticus. That’s why I believe in reaching out to those who happen to find themselves in the same leaky boat — and especially to those about to embark. There will always be some among us who have spent serious time on the ocean.
In a world of paddling our own canoes, of not taking advice because our own vision is so blooming precious, we generally can find a way to be a useful guide. The waters, I’ve found, are often broader and deeper than originally thought.
PS: “Every human is an artist. The dream of your life is to make beautiful art.” (Don Miguel Ruiz)
Esoterica: “When the student is ready,” says the Buddhist proverb, “the teacher will appear.” For both teacher and student, learning to listen is key. In the visual arts, listening includes looking. When you look at artists’ work, you need to anticipate and understand their path. It’s not possible to totally invalidate a path. When you think about it, how many misguided paths have we all been on, only to find a way? Life’s agreement is that we need to be a bit clever in what we say and do. Apart from our lifetime industry, our job is to see that others are better able to guide themselves.
The five? agreements
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Okay, are you pulling my leg? When did Ruiz add the fifth agreement? When I read the book some 10 or so years ago, it was, “The Four Agreements.” I really like the four agreements, but between you and me, Ruiz gave a talk here several years ago with his son, they reported that Ruiz had briefly died and come back. It seemed a bit like a side-show act, and I even feel the Ruiz himself was a bit embarrassed after sharing this experience. He kind of slithered away rather than sticking around to answer more questions. I was disappointed. Another teaching from the East, possibly, is don’t judge the teachings by the teacher, or something of the like. I guess humans will be humans.
(RG note) Thanks, Linda. Apart from The Four Agreements, Ruiz also wrote other books, including The Voice of Knowledge, Prayers, and The Mastery of Love. Later, he and his son Don Jose Ruiz, after giving the premise some thought and further consideration, wrote The Fifth Agreement, which adds the fifth agreement.
Learning from many sources
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I found it interesting, Robert, that an artist of your caliber has Humility and Studenthood in the number 1 and 2 slots on your list of agreements. I have felt sorry for some of the teachers that I studied with. It seems that they view themselves above the other artists in the region due to their rather “important positions.” This in turn makes it harder for them to seek advice or ask the opinion of other artists. I am glad to say that I had other teachers who still view themselves on a path of learning from other artists and as a result I think they are able to continue to learn from many sources. I also feel any individual who continues to seek knowledge, no matter how much of an “expert” they might be in their field, ends up with the most knowledge and growth!
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The three bones
by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA
A message that is touted almost unanimously by most spiritual teachings is to forget the self. Artists need to be absorbed in their work, not in themselves. Humility attracts; self-absorption, repels. I’ve known artists who say they paint only for themselves. If all artists painted only for themselves, why would the world need museums and galleries in which to show art? On a road trip yesterday with a friend riding along, stumbled upon the following quote by Reba McEntire: “To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.”
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Enhancing the lives of others
by Robert McCormick, Ashland, PA, USA
I fall far short of realizing Ruiz’s “Five Agreements” in my life, but I do connect more easily with your own. It’s funny how things just seem to appear at the right time. Yesterday, after a disheartening bit of preliminary year-end accounting, amidst my many bills I found a copy of one of your earlier postings that I had printed out for a rainy day. My eyes immediately focused on number 18 — “Have the lifelong mission to enhance the lives of others.” And I knew you were right, and I began to feel a bit less self-doubt about my pursuits. Then I read this morning’s letter, and I wanted to let you know that you are a useful guide to one in the foothills of the Pennsylvania.
by Lois Wooldridge, South Lake Tahoe, CA, USA
I have always had empathy for others. The road is broken, from my walking in so many others’ shoes! But recently, something has come to me twice in a short time. When that happens, I wake up and listen. I read in separate places, to learn to “detach.” For some reason, I like the idea. Driving home that afternoon, I realized how “attached” I was to everyone on the road. They were not traveling at the rate of speed that I wanted to go; they were driving either too slow or too fast, and I hoped they would end up in trouble. Well, not exactly in trouble, but maybe in court. Everyone was getting on my nerves for some inappropriate act (according to me). Suddenly it all came to me: Detach!
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The value of listening
by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada
In the eighties there were all sorts of self-awareness courses. Before deciding to enroll, I participated in an exercise that was very self-revealing. Sitting across from someone I had never met, we each told one another our life story. We were given five minutes. Afterwards, we were asked to repeat that person’s story back to them. Taken by surprise, we both realized we had not been fully listening to what had been said. That one exercise changed my artistic career. Listening to instructors, gallery owners, clients, and other artists and remembering what they have said, is a skill we all need. And if you are fully present you will retain all sorts of beneficial information. As we evolve both a personal and spiritual level, our work evolves as well.
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Opening the door to change
by Mary-Sonya Conti, Clayton, OH, USA
I have read Ruiz and reread his work several times since finding him back in the ’80s. Of all days to read additional agreements you hold yourself to. I am grateful that I have you in my thoughts as well as Ruiz. While once again watching our President express his heartfelt emotions at this tragedy in Newtown, CT… tears fall from my eyes as I lay my brush down.
I have struggled for nearly a year to return to observation which stimulates conversation and imagination: I will not give up. These conversations must open the door to change. Agreements that must become a change in our realities. Give me the hands of children and assure them their futures are still there with many possibilities!
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
Feeling for another is built into our neurology. If we don’t possess it, something has disrupted a normal process. Dr. V. S. Ramachandran has written extensively on mirror neurons, which he regards as essential to the formation of civilization and language. Recent studies have been fascinating. For instance: according to functional MRI studies (fMRI), when we see someone reach for something, the same parts of our brain activate as if we were physically reaching for something ourselves. It isn’t just identification, it’s true empathic connection at the level of the brain itself. And empathy is not just a human characteristic. Many of the higher animals seem to demonstrate it, going beyond compassion to active identification with another.
There is a vast difference between even deep empathy for another person and becoming immersed in their problems. As a very empathic kind of guy, this took me a long and often bitter series of lessons to learn. To put it in, unfortunately perhaps, mystical terms, be careful whose karma you take on. It’s not a fit for you, and will hurt you a lot worse than it does them. Help if you can, but never let it overwhelm who you are. The nature of a truly empathic response is that it can be quite confusing as to whose emotion you’re feeling: your own or the other person’s. Even the deepest compassion must be tempered with boundaries, one’s own and those of others. And I make it a point never to let another person’s problem bother me more than it does them, or to do more on their behalf than they seem willing to do for themselves. That’s not empathy; it’s intrusion and disrespect.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Ingrid Bajewsky of Canada, who wrote, “A coincidence in getting your letter today, given our recent (unending?) discussions on how we might try and help our broken people.”
And also Dawn Banning >of Windsor, ON, Canada, who wrote, “My respect for the natural world goes beyond the wilderness to its inhabitants — the wildlife and people of all cultures, race, abilities, gender and age. This is one of the gifts of Art; it transcends borders.”