On Not Taking Things Personally

I read Don Miguel’s The Four Agreements about fifteen years ago. It really is a lovely book, with self-evident wisdom in its four big ideas:

  • Be impeccable with your word
  • Take nothing personally
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Always do your best

Like much of what constitutes genuine wisdom, the Four Agreements are deceptively simply. And that deceptive quality is important to acknowledge because it can be a real source of frustration when you are trying to use guidelines like this to “self-improve.” It’s certainly frustrated me over time, anyway.

But something nice crystallized for me in a recent podcast. Sharon Salzberg (she’s an American Buddhist teacher) was talking about how unsatisfying it is to practice meditation or loving kindness and it is so… wow. Nothing. No deep insights. No rush of enlightenment. Lots of times, not even the compassion or calmness that one kind of hopes will come out of such activities. Lots of days it’s just… nothing. But, she says, it’s really important to remember that the evidence of growth doesn’t reside in those moments, but in how you later show up in the world.

I realized that this has been true for me in my life: I actually am kind of better. More patient. Less self-centered. Kinder to myself and others. Quicker to get up again after being knocked on my ass. So it was nice to have this moment of realizing that my faith has been rewarded in some modest ways. It isn’t really faith in a religious sense: It’s a faith that continued efforts to be a better person are worth it, even when they’re really hard and there is little immediate reward for those efforts.

The “take nothing personally” idea in The Four Agreements is a case in point. I’ve had a couple of pretty hurtful experiences in the past month, but was ultimately uplifted when I realized that I had achieved some capacity to distance myself — my sense of self and my self-worth — from those painful moments. Fifteen years ago, staring at Miguel’s great idea that I “take nothing personally” was infuriating because I “got it” intellectually, but it wasn’t helping me a damn bit in the moments where I was most caught up in hurt, anger, and all those other crappy feelings that come with feeling oneself the object of another’s judgement.

It’s different now though. Could I pinpoint exactly when it has changed? No. Is it perfect? No, of course not — we all have our days and moments. But it is much, much better. So I think Salszberg’s observation is another bit of wisdom that looks simple, but isn’t. It’s this: keep trying, be patient, and be gentle with yourself when the insights and changes you are seeking don’t show up right away. They will with time and practice. Promise.




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