Some agreements

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, Robert 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  

“Moon Romance II”
oil painting
by Linda Saccoccio

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  

“Harvest Evening”
oil painting, 12 x 24 inches
by Diane Overmyer

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! There are 4 comments for Learning from many sources by Diane Overmyer
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Dec 18, 2012

Very well said, Diane. I believe that no matter where we are on our path, we should be willing to still learn from those ahead of us, and also from those behind us on that path!

From: Jim Oberst — Dec 18, 2012

I’m getting too old to have the time to figure it all out by myself!

From: Brenda Behr — Dec 18, 2012

My favorite workshop teachers are those who on occasion take a class or a workshop themselves. Some of the best artists I’ve known have enormous humility.

From: Tatjana — Dec 20, 2012

Love your painting and your words.

  The three bones by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA  

“Where’s Van Gogh When You Need Him?”
oil painting
by Brenda Behr

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.” There are 2 comments for The three bones by Brenda Behr
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Dec 18, 2012

You definitely got the funny bone part…great title!

From: Brenda Behr — Dec 18, 2012

Thanks for your comment, Susan. Just because the style and color reminded me of Van Gogh’s work, I named another painting “Van Gogh’s Tobacco Barn.” This past year I was contacted through my website by a man in Milan who has written books on Van Gogh. He asked why he was not familiar with that particular painting. I still laugh over that one.

  Enhancing the lives of others by Robert McCormick, Ashland, PA, USA  

original painting
by Robert McCormick

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.   Detach! by Lois Wooldridge, South Lake Tahoe, CA, USA  

“Emerald Bay from the start of the 10K”
original painting
by Lois Wooldridge

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! There are 2 comments for Detach! by Lois Wooldridge
From: Kathleen — Dec 18, 2012

Thanks for the reminder, Lois. I am much happier when I become less invested in outcomes and more invested in the moment.

From: Ron — Dec 19, 2012

needed to read your posting,thanks Lois.

  The value of listening by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada  

“West of Millarville”
original painting
by Lorna Dockstader

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. There are 5 comments for The value of listening by Lorna Dockstader
From: Chris bingle — Dec 17, 2012

Beautiful, atmospheric winter colours, Lorna. It stopped my scrolling progress to have a better look. Lovely!

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Dec 18, 2012

What an excellent tackle of a difficult problem…you turned it into magic! Plus good advice.

From: Pat — Dec 18, 2012

What a beautiful painting and your use of colour is lovely! Also you are so right. Listening is a great skill

From: I. Staav — Dec 22, 2012

Great painting, you captured Alberta. Sitting here in Mexico escaping Edmonton’s winter.

From: Ken Flitton — Dec 24, 2012

I agree with all the other commenteers. Super painting!!

  Opening the door to change by Mary-Sonya Conti, Clayton, OH, USA  

“in the beginning”
mixed media
by Mary-Sonya Conti

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!   Understanding empathy by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA  

original painting
by Bobbo Goldberg

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. There are 2 comments for Understanding empathy by Bobbo Goldberg
From: Jackie Knott — Dec 18, 2012

Excellent observations; especially, “to do more on their behalf than they seem willing to do for themselves,” the essence of social work failure. Very nice painting.

From: Ron — Dec 19, 2012

Great painting.and food for thought.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Some agreements

From: Jackie Knott — Dec 13, 2012

I am always amazed how some philosophies attract a following and others remain narrow and personal. That record spans human thought from ancient history to … oh, some guy who happened to say something clever last week. One could counter Ruiz’ agreements with a personal experience that produces a conflicting perspective. Our philosophy cannot be fitted into someone else’s tidy categories … life is not one-size-fits all. People experience life-altering events that color the remainder of their lives. War, death, disease, service, abuse, travel, education or lack of it, neglect or nurture, affluence and poverty; of such is the multi-prismed filter in which we form our own ideology. If these agreements (or Robert’s) help anyone, that is great. But I see more benefit in developing a deeply held philosophy that works specifically for us alone. It’s a hard world out there … any beliefs that gives one peace is a good.

From: Carole belliveau — Dec 14, 2012
From: Rick Rotante — Dec 14, 2012

The best we can ever hope for as artists is to keep moving forward and do the best we can and let everything else take care of itself. The only thing we have any control over is our desire to work. I have said, in the past, that even the art work we create has a mind of its own and in many cases turns out differently than we planned. I have grown many gray hairs worrying about sales, galleries, inventory, framing and a host of things that are integral to but peripheral to creating the work. In the end, it is the work that matters and it is this work that will be left behind. When I put my name on my work, it has my endorsement that this work is the best I could do at the time. All worthy artists have empathy and compassion for others as well as a passion for life otherwise we fill our canvases with mundane emptiness. Being an artist is a double edged sword. We crave attention and need aloneness. We need to paint for money, yet paint for a greater purpose. We want our work to be loved, while creating work that may cause strife. Beauty should be the aim of art, though we paint strident subjects periodically for a cause. This duplicity of purpose and meaning to being an artist may seem hypocritical to those looking in but it is just this duplicity that gives artists their edge. Artists can see life in ways others can’t. We have the ability and the tools to bring attention to the struggle of others while showing the beauty in things others may overlook. I admit there may have been times I wished with all my heart to have been born without this intense natural propensity for painting, yet, when I look around and see how art can change someone’s life, how art can improve one’s outlook, how enriched my life has been by the people I have met all because of being an artist, all the strife and struggle and indifference doesn’t seem to matter as much.

From: John F. Burk — Dec 14, 2012

I’ve heard of Ruiz’s list. It’s ok. At least I understand what he’s up to. But I much prefer the Genn list. Though longer, it gets at things that matter more. Keep on paddling. I hope to see you out there. Timonium, Maryland

From: Ron Sackman — Dec 14, 2012
From: Shane — Dec 15, 2012

Freedom, peace, agreements with yourself? Ever listen to a child talk to himself while standing in the corner? Or should I say time out chair? Personally I seem to benefit most by conversing with my peers.

From: Russ Hogger — Dec 15, 2012

Be true unto yourself, don’t be taken in by the latest “ism”.

From: Judith Donoahue — Dec 15, 2012
From: Verna Marie — Dec 15, 2012
From: Dana — Dec 15, 2012
From: Patti Engelke — Dec 15, 2012

I can empathize with Don Ruiz! He must be a very sensitive person who tends to drown in others’ troubled waters. It can be debilitating and render you unhelpful to the person as far as advice or support. And when he says “absolve yourself” he must be including the guilt one feels about the other person’s difficulties, and maybe your lack of difficulty (at the moment), sort of like survivor’s guilt. This might be a good time to mention narcissists who will drag you right out like an undertow. So having perspective with empathy is important!

From: Henry Yates — Dec 15, 2012

As our world grows more stupid, and our people become more enamored with the violence that pervades our culture, we need more than ever to hear these tender, gentle thoughts. Thank you.

From: Frances Langstroth — Dec 15, 2012

You forgot “detachment”. If I am too busy fixing your stuff, my stuff suffers, and ultimately, so does yours.

From: Catherine Selinger — Dec 15, 2012

Empathy? There are some among us who have spent serious time IN that ocean Robert. Swallowing the sea water, stung by jellyfish, wrestling with the sharks, before being pulled onto a rescue raft, at the last minute, gasping for life-giving air. We are lucky if a beloved teacher or mentor is the rescuer who allow us precious time for wounds to heal and our spirit to revive, before pushing us back out onto the ocean (or canvas?) again! Sink or swim – no life-jackets allowed! And next time the raft is further away… Love your letters Robert! Thank you so much for the signed book. I love it and have passed it onto an artist friend !

From: Nancy Schempp — Dec 15, 2012

In my work one can very easily take on the burdens of others, and the healing comes from seeing beyond the misery of the one calling and lifting the thought above the picture into the light. There the burden rests with Truth, which takes care of all things gracefully. But as simple and as natural as that sounds, it is easy to take on a personal sense of responsibility if one isn’t careful. Then one struggles for healing.

From: Kelly E. Anthony — Dec 15, 2012

This was just beautiful and just what I needed today, so wanted to take a moment to say thank you. I am a writing teacher. Just yesterday, a group of students in my classroom discovered, after 16 weeks of exploration, that creativity was missing from their lives, they were sitting in classrooms filled with anti-learning lectures and topics, and they needed to change their course to follow their dreams – to create their own lives. I will forward this to them.

From: Anthony Stern — Dec 15, 2012

If every human is an artist of sorts, every human needs a guiding principle in the art of life. That would be beauty rather than ugliness, and kindness and empathy toward others rather than hostility and violence. We need to phase violence out of all our media. It serves little and ruins much.

From: Jane Whittlesey — Dec 17, 2012
From: Beth Shibata — Dec 17, 2012

In 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’m good with 1, 4 and 5. I have issues with the “anything” part in (2) — absolutes are gnarly. If someone goes out of their way to make your life miserable, it’s necessary to take it personally–otherwise you can be left smiling helplessly as they do unkind things (it allows for conditions that state: bullys are nice people, too, so don’t get upset if they pick on you). (3) is kind of silly as even the agreements are based in a set of assumptions. Maybe both (2) and (3) don’t quite express what the author really intends. I like your list much better, even if it is longer.

From: C.Rosenberg. — Dec 17, 2012
From: Nick Stone — Dec 17, 2012

How appropriate to bring up “empathy” at such a time. Along with our president, all America is in tears.

From: Jackie Knott — Dec 17, 2012

Especially now with America reeling after the murders of children in CT, how does one not “take that personally” if you are a parent grieving for an innocent child lost? I didn’t realize in posting my comment the night before how chilling that would be. Such a tragedy illustrates my point … critical viewpoint and philosophy is deeply personal and cannot be flippantly tossed off in a universal philosophy that encompasses all experience. Our art and our life experience is so entertwined I don’t see how anyone separates the two … it is life. As artists we simply express it differently. Newtown, CT, those parents, educators, the children who survived … their lives will forever be defined by that event regardless if any of them ever become artists. Mr. Ruis’ “agreements” seem narrow and trivial in perspective.

From: Patricia — Dec 18, 2012

Always your letters are wonderful. This last one is beautiful and the real message should be read by all. Thank you!

From: Susan Hirst — Dec 18, 2012

I grew up in a hunting family when game and fish were plentiful. Gun safety was paramount and taught in the community. Rules about safety, use and care were part of our pride and cultural upbringing. Even so, I recall four episodes and a tragedy related to guns in my home. A loaded pistol found by my 3 year old son in grandpa’s drawer. A bullet that landed in a drawer behind my back after a misfire in my brother’s room, a misfire in my grandmother’s house as my dad was showing the family a new rifle, and a hearty healthy cousin who lived his life paralyzed from a hunting accident. Guns really have no purpose but to harm, whether it’s a can on the fence, a deer the family will honor by eating, or an intruder. That was then, now it’s the disturbed and antisocial with their own agendas driving the debate.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Dec 18, 2012

Did he write those in the days before drug gangs took over many Mexican towns? Sorry, but it is hard to take such sweeping generalities seriously…not to have empathy? it is like advice from an ostrich. Too harsh?

From: wac — Dec 18, 2012

Humans are not going to lay aside their weapons anytime soon. Or ever. That’s just wishful thinking of the most pernicious sort. If that school principal had had access to a gun and been trained to use it, all those kids would still be alive. “If you would have peace, prepare for war.” It’s just human reality. It’s not going to change. Sadly.

From: Siobhán Dempsey — Dec 18, 2012

Hi Robert, Thank you for a year of stimulating and invigorating and reflective and resonant emails. Each one lands with the appropriate motivations and insights (for me) coincidently. Where ever you suss your material,it seems we are all the same more or less. Please accept my deepest sympathy for the attack on our children, what goes on in families is beyond me. Wishing you good Christmas and excellent 2013

From: Darrell Baschak — Dec 18, 2012

Although it is true that the gun issue is huge, and not only in the US of A, I personally believe that mental health issues are far more prevalent and important. I am amazed that there is not more being said about this. Can it not be true that the bullets killed those unfortunates but the mental state of the shooter pulled the trigger? Maybe we all just don’t like to admit we have serious issues with the health of our nations.

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The promise

acrylic painting by Charles Spratt, Ottawa, ON, Canada

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