Two students of "Four Agreements" author don Miguel Ruiz discuss their experiences of the teacher and the teachings.
A Staff Interview
In 1997 don Miguel Ruiz published "The Four Agreements." Since then the book has been translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies. The roots of Ruiz's practical spiritual teachings come from the Toltec of Central Mexico. As a master of these teachings, he is described as a nagual, which could be translated as guide to the spirit. You might be familiar with the term Nagual from the books of Carlos Castaneda where he describes his adventures with a nagual called don Juan.
Unlike the outrageous tales and cryptic language of Castaneda, don Miguel's teachings have a practical, down-to-earth approach and common-sense language. While Castaneda was steeped in secrecy, Ruiz is more public; he often gave talks around the U.S. before his heart attack a few years ago. Probably the most profound difference in the style of teaching is the tone of unconditional love that Ruiz exudes, both through his books and talks. This approach is a far cry from don Juan who sometimes had Castaneda nearly soiling his pants with fear.
Today a number of don Miguel Ruiz's former apprentices around the country teach the same vein of common sense and unconditional love. Sitting down with Gary van Warmerdam and Ellen Roseland, you find out there is a lot more to the Toltec spiritual path than just maintaining Four Agreements.
You spent years studying with don Miguel; he couldn't have just been teaching the Four Agreements during that time. What was he teaching about?
Gary: The Four Agreements are the beginning steps of a whole life transforming process. Near the end of the book, don Miguel mentions that the next steps after deciding to adopt the Four Agreements are to develop your awareness and then to make an inventory of all your limiting fear-based agreements. When you change those agreements, you change the whole emotional quality of your life and the way you see everything.
Q. What is an inventory of limiting agreements?
Gary: In some Toltec circles it is referred to as a recapitulation, where you clear your personal history. Essentially, in the process you learn to cut through the ego-mind that sabotages your happiness. However, there are ways to go about it where you don't have to go back to every event in your past. Miguel created a variety of approaches, some of them very methodical and practical. In attempting to clean up what is in the mind, people can easily get turned around, and a logical approach is helpful for maintaining progress.
Q. This inventory process sounds like a long, laborious affair. Is there a faster way to go about dealing with the ego-mind?
Gary: Yes, this is possible. It's generally done through ceremony and practices of concentrated focus. In essence, you break your consciousness free of the beliefs and illusions of the mind, accessing through direct experience a heightened state of consciousness and unconditional love. Those experiences can be profound and really cause you to go about changing many beliefs very quickly.
Q. Can you share one of these experiences?
Gary: Most of them involve intense feelings of love and bliss, and those emotions don't translate. One in particular was quite subtle. It didn't happen in any grand ceremony but with a shift in point of view that was a catalyst for changing my world.
I had come to a level of deep realization of the ways I carried self-importance (ego-mind) and inauthentic expressions and behaviors in my relationships. It was very humbling, and it had taken me a few days to really accept it. At about that point in the process I was sitting across a table from don Miguel. I was dumbfounded that he never pointed these issues out to me. I thought it might have helped me a lot so I could change and better myself. I wanted to understand why he hadn't directly mentioned anything to me.
As I sat there with intent to understand his relationship with me, my perception shifted and I began to see myself through his eyes. What I realized was that he didn't feel I "should" be any different than I was. I was aware that he could see everything about me, all my self importance, ego, fears, and it didn't interfere with his acceptance and love for me. He cared about me and loved me unconditionally. His love had such honor and respect that he didn't hold any other image in his mind of how I could be or should be. He saw me as I was, accepted me as I was, and respected me just where I was in my process. There was no mote in his eye. I was still growing and evolving, and yet perfect.
Until then I hadn't realized I assumed I had to be "better" or
"perfect" in order to be accepted
It was by seeing myself through those eyes of complete acceptance that I realized how I wanted to relate with myself. I vowed to accept and love myself no matter what. It was a relief to give up that struggle to try to be good enough, to try and be "perfect" in order to love and accept myself. Teachings like that you can't get from books. You have to go out and immerse yourself in the experience.
Q. Did your life change immediately from that experience?
Gary: Absolutely. I had a different frame for understanding the possibilities of relationships with myself and then extending to others.
Q. Were you able to live from that point of view?
Gary: No, not immediately. I had to go back to my life and practice having that point of view and taking actions with that level of authenticity. Many people on a spiritual path seem to have the idea that if you have an awakening you will be in that state of consciousness from then on, but it is something that you must practice.
I think many of us live in the hopeful illusion that if we have our enlightening experience, then everything will be spiritually smooth from then on. People unknowingly build these assumptions from stories about the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree, and one day he just got it. Well he did, he became enlightened. What we forget or don't know is that he had been practicing spiritual techniques and disciplines for years leading up to that opportunity. He had developed a very strong will with a lot of awareness and control over focusing his attention. When he finally experienced that expansion of consciousness, it didn't slip away because he was prepared to integrate it.
Because people don't have this understanding they can sometimes become really down after a high spiritual experience of love. The judge in their mind berates them for losing the love and consciousness that they had attained. If they don't know how to deal with that judge in their mind, they can end up feeling worse than before they had the experience.
Q. (To Ellen) What have you experienced?
Ellen: On a trip to Guatemala with Miguel, some of us had entered a dimension where our compulsive mind and thinking had let go. We were free to be utterly present in the moment without the usual distractions and mental noise. Miguel told us the key one evening when we were gathered around: 'The problem is the Sound System.' What he meant was that the chatting of the compulsive mind has a way of distorting the depth of our awareness in the moment.
It was a profound teaching to look at the compulsive mind while feeling such inner peace and a quiet mind. When the tape loops of the mind drop, it allows one to be fully present and function in everyday life in ways that weren't possible before.
It would be like finally being able to tune into the station on a radio and focus on that one station, instead of four or five stations trying to come in at one time.
Q. If you don't maintain the benefit of those moments, are those spiritual experiences still valuable then?
Gary: Absolutely. They introduce us to the experience of what is possible. But it doesn't mean that you will live in that state of consciousness just because you visited there. You then have to go back and do an inventory of the beliefs that prevent you from living in that state on a daily basis. It takes time to ground the experience into the level of emotions and physical form that we carry around.
Q. Do you feel, then, that the work and the journey of life is about integration of spirit and form?
Ellen: Yes, this is a really big piece to understand. A lot of people do a spiritual practice to escape the world and detach from it in such a way that it is hard to be present in every day life. A lot of times we try to skip out of integrating the spiritual expansion down through the emotional and physical. People deny feelings and emotions trying to be "detached," and the end result is actually negative attachment. People become obsessed with avoidance of feelings, a frequent misunderstanding with those new to spiritual growth. Real detachment allows a time and place for everything, so life is a natural flow without getting stuck. We teach a way to come into the body and everyday life to participate fully and create more fully what we want to create.
Q. If spirit, mind, emotions and body are to be integrated, how do you go about that?
Ellen: In the last 25 years, yoga, massage and body work of all kinds have become popular. Most people see this as a way to relax and improve their health. Energy or breath produces mind, mind produces our feelings, emotions and physical body. The opposite flow is also possible. As we work with one or more facets of our being we gain access to the whole body-mind.
Opening these pools of energy not only facilitates relaxation but allows the person to access deeper feeling and heightened awareness at the same time. Being open on many levels at once allows release of mental and emotional patterns that don't serve our purpose.
Q. Several of Miguel Ruiz's apprentices teach his work these days. What does he think about that?
Gary: You would have to ask him what he thinks. I don't think it matters to him that people teach but it matters that they are happy. Several years ago I was thanking him for the way that he changed my life. I asked if there was anything that I could do for him in return. Before I finished, I realized that the question was pretty silly. He was completely happy and content in his life already.
He did say that if I really had so much gratitude that I wanted to give something, that I should take what I learned and share it with others so they could be happy. He said that would be a beautiful way to express my gratitude.
Q. Is that why you and Ellen teach this life-changing work? Is it a way to give back to don Miguel?
Gary: I no longer see it as giving back to Miguel. Everything now has a much greater freedom of choice to it. I don't have an agreement that I am obligated to return a favor. I share and guide others to experience those possibilities because I enjoy doing it. It's not just a pleasure to work with people and witness their lives become loving and beautiful. It's a pleasure because all the while I am sharing I get to practice love and acceptance, which is a beautiful way to express my self.
Ellen: Like Gary, I enjoy the experience of practicing unconditional love, enhanced in a group with people gathered with intent and focus. I have been given so much help in this life to grow and evolve. I just want to share what I know to help relieve as much suffering as possible. Life is a creative struggle and it certainly helps to have tools and guidance along the way. It is a pleasure seeing people's lives become happier as they gain more understanding and the power to take action in their life.
Gary van Warmerdam and Ellen Roseland will lead a workshop in Zion National Park May 3- 6, employing the teachings of Don Miguel Ruiz. Information: www.PathwayToHappiness.com/zion