The Four Agreements in Action
I have heard of people with the bedside manner of a rattlesnake but I had never met one until that Monday. My sixty-seven year old one-hundred-pound-soaking-wet mom was in the hospital to have her lower back fused. We spent the night before in the emergency room (the third night that week) holding her while crippling back spasms brought her to her knees, and everyone else to tears. Unfortunately these were not new symptoms but have become progressively worse and consistently undiagnosed for twenty years, with three doctors each concluding the only solution was to treat the symptoms with a strong pain injection and bed rest.
This doctor had been recommended as one of the best skilled surgeons in the region. We are, and he certainly is, confident in that assertion. He had required my mom to eliminate any pain medication she had been using for a month prior to surgery to improve the efficacy afterwards. It may improve recovery, but it made for one of the most miserable months in her life, and it was only going to get worse.
The doctor arrived forty minutes before surgery for his last-minute pep talk. Apparently, for all of his extensive vocabulary, he was unaware of the term “pep” as in encouraging, inspiring or building confidence. Upon learning of my mom’s three excruciating nights in the emergency room that week, he expressed neither concern nor empathy, but flew into a tirade about how “maybe we should not even proceed with this surgery if every time she experienced pain she was going to wind up in the emergency room”. He went on to soothe her fears by explaining that she had never experienced pain like this before; that having three children and a 12 gauge needle stuck in her sinuses was nothing compared to what she was about to undergo. My mouth was shut but my blood was boiling.
I find that when you are trying to change habits, life likes to test you. Although many of our habits may not be effective, they are at least predictable; and most people prefer the predictability of pain to the pain of unpredictability. I had just been reading The Four Agreements an outstanding book by Don Miguel Ruiz based on thousand-year-old Toltec sciences from Southern Mexico. The central theme of the book is that we all make unconscious agreements about how we perceive and process the world that domesticate (and they believe destroy) our true selves. For many years I have espoused that we have all been the people we want to be, we have somehow just forgotten. I for one have forgotten a lot.
The four agreements are new covenants we choose to help us regain the lives we were meant to live. One of the agreements is not to take anything personally. This is a hard one for me. I have always taken great pride in the fact that I do take things personally because I care deeply. The Toltec contention is that, though positive feedback can lift us up, the need for reinforcement is a liability, and taking criticism personally is a complete lapse in reality. The foundation of the agreement is based on the understanding that we all live in our own worlds. Created by our own unique experiences, genetics and physiologies. Because of this we consistently misunderstand and misinterpret everything. If we take things personally we assume that others somehow miraculously understand the world we live in and we theirs. (If this doesn’t make sense to you I understand completely. I have come up with a million reasons this is not true but I also realize how incredibly liberating it would be not to take things personally.)
Back to the hospital: This was not going to be one of those times. My mom was being berated by this pint-sized doctor just moments before very serious surgery. I wanted to rip his lungs out. I had spent many years developing this habit of taking things personally and I wasn’t going to change it easily. In Context (a transformational training program) they called it “position release”. Letting go of things that don’t work.
I have the not-so-unusual ability to maintain many habits that don’t work well at all. But that doesn’t keep me from trying. We are not our actions, we are that which acts; and we act on the best awareness at that time and I was working on a new awareness. I remembered a phrase I had just been teaching (and learning) the problem I am having with _______ (fill in the blank) is me.
I would like to say I handled it perfectly from there, but I didn’t. I eventually calmed down enough to talk to one of the nurses attending during surgery to share our concerns and felt we had finally been listened to. But how much better would the situation have been if I didn’t take things personally? I would have listened better, asked better questions and maybe sent my mom into that operating room with a better state of mind.
Where there is anger there is always fear. I needed to address my fear. Several years ago I was given part of Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inaugural speech and to be honest, I didn’t get it, until recently.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”