Reflections On The Wisdom Teachings Of Don Miguel Ruiz

Part Five of Five

Don Miguel Ruiz was born in rural México, a descendant of the Toltecs, an ancient people who lived in the central valley of México. Their philosophy held that we live in a dream state, with the quality of our lives determined by how we dream. But most of us fail to transcend to a higher awareness, believing that life is filled with suffering. But we can change how we dream and achieve happiness. Discovering love and respect for one’s self is the beginning of that process. These essays are my reflections on Ruiz’s best-selling books, The Four Agreements and his book The Fifth Agreement.

The Fifth Agreement: Be Skeptical but Learn to Listen

Let us begin by asking what it means to be skeptical. Ruiz talks about two types of skeptics.

I shall call the first type the “faux” skeptic. This is the kind of person who is still in a quintessentially adolescent state of posturing. It is, however, a necessary aspect of the maturation process simply because at this early stage of growth those bubbling chemical hormones are competing with the firing and misfiring of cerebral synapses. Said in another way: blossoming sensuality is in a power struggle with the better nature of mind. The result is that most adolescents swagger, sincerely believing that they know all there is to know.

What they really are is uncertain. And they should be honored for this, not condemned. They play the skeptics, especially concerning anything an authority figure might suggest as beneficial or at least less harmful, or possibly true. In other words, these “faux” skeptics are not as “cool” as they think they are. Nor are they necessarily interested in what is true or not. They are not listening intently enough to discern this. They are more concerned about making a statement of just how “faux” they can be. Of course, some people never leave this adolescent stage of development.

On the other hand, the second kind of skeptic has a mature mind, one that listens intently in order to discern what might be true for him or her. This classical version of a skeptic—the word coming from the ancient Greek school of philosophy known as “Skeptikoi”—asserts nothing. Doubt is the fundamental position upon which the search for truth is based. This kind of skeptic is questioning beliefs, facts, knowledge, and opinions.

It seems to me that opinion is the most odious aspect of substantive human discourse because it is not necessarily based upon factual knowledge. Although it is an accepted practice to hear everyone’s opinion in a democratically run situation, to a skeptic, opinions are the furthest away from the truth and are closer to conjecture. They also are indicative of the psychological constitution of the one expressing the opinion. Beliefs would receive a similar feeling tone from a true skeptic—unless the beliefs are based on factual knowledge rather than on mere opinions. Even opinions can have somewhat of a factual basis, but are creatively formed with much more subjective feeling.

We can add various adjectives in front of skepticism: scientific, philosophical, religious, artistic, and existential being among the major categories. Within these five are subcategories.

Scientific skepticism is based on the scientific method to determine what is true. Before truth is known, one has to doubt. Doubt leads to questioning which leads to experimentation. This is the scientific method. It includes verification of results based on performed tests. Furthermore, the skeptic—who is ever questing after knowledge—wants to have those tests repeated with the same results being obtained before the word “true” can be affixed to the final outcome.

Philosophical skepticism tells us that for some schools of philosophy, other schools of philosophy are suspect concerning what is “true.” Unlike “pure science” (because the truth is easily attainable through experimentation and repetition to gain an end result), philosophy is a wide-open system. So one can be a total philosophical skeptic, subjecting all philosophical schools to doubt and subsequent inquiry. Or one can be a partial skeptic in regard to some schools of philosophy.

Religious skepticism is much the same as philosophical skepticism. A person can be a total religious skeptic, where nothing is true, because to this skeptic it is all flimflam based upon opinion and “faith.” Or a person can be a partial religious skeptic: accepting the general or perhaps metaphorical aspects of an entire religious structure—or even ALL religious structures—but skeptical concerning a particular religious practice or teaching.

Artistic skepticism has fewer restrictions than philosophical or religious skepticism. This kind of skeptic wonders how anyone can be doubtful that all art lacks some expression of the human experience that can be labelled “true.” Of course, one can be a purist, denying that modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern art is art at all in comparison to the classical art; or that jazz is just noise as compared to classical music.

Existential skepticism is a term I am coining to refer to those often perspicacious minds who view human existence in all its complexity with an upturned eyebrow; that is to say, they are doubters to the core. They are the ultimate skeptics because everything and everyone is suspect. It is as if for them life is phantasmagorical, a mere dream. Existence is but a chimera, a shimmering, an illusion. Nothing should be taken as true or real.

When it comes to what Don Miguel Ruiz is saying to us, we must be open to an engaging although challenging methodology for getting on in this world. Ruiz is a prophet who calls to us from a special place of enlightenment and tells us to be totally skeptical. By this he means that each of us carries our own version of the truth that is not ultimate truth but just our opinion of the truth. And that just because someone states his/her opinion of their truth to us, doesn’t mean we have to accept it as our truth. To be more specific, we don’t have to accept someone else’s opinion of the truth as our opinion of the truth.

So, we must be aware that our truth is our version of the truth. It is our “dream,” we are the “artist” creating our story, our view of the world, our particular song, our dance, our painting, our sculpture. We can no more create someone else’s dream than they can create ours. Like it or not, the reality is that we will be subjected to their dream, spoken or displayed in a myriad of ways: their scientific discoveries, their philosophical schools, their religious beliefs, their artistic creations, their existential perspectives. And being subjected to their dream, we must learn how to respond.

This is where Be Skeptical but Learn to Listen comes into play.

Active Listening and Nonviolent Communication

Although Ruiz does not use the term “active listening” to describe his Fifth Agreement, I think he is describing this. It was Thomas Gordon in his book Leader Effectiveness Training who created the term “active listening.” He meant that it was a process by which listeners used their own words to restate what they had heard; what their impression of the sender’s message was.

This process was further advanced through the work of Marshall Rosenberg who refers to the process as “nonviolent communication.” This type of speaking and listening helps to facilitate conflict resolution. As Rosenberg puts it:

When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed (and requested) rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion. Through its emphasis on deep listening to ourselves as well as others NVC fosters respect,  attentiveness, and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.

Rosenberg’s method aims at creating understanding and empathy for the position of both the speaker and listener. It is a way by which people can lose their oppositional positions and also understand that both of them have their own truth, their own dream, their own version of reality. In such a process each person is not attempting to contradict the other or put the other on the defensive.

The aim of really listening to another person’s version of the truth is to achieve cooperation and collaboration. It is moving beyond being at odds and beyond refusing to join in a connection with another person. It is a movement toward intimacy, but, again, with the awareness that nobody will totally comprehend what another person is attempting to say in regard to his or her dream. Nor will the individual who is attempting to comprehend what another person is saying, ever understand his/her own truth.

And yet it is crucial to know that such lack of ultimate understanding and ultimate communication is perfectly okay and normal. It is good enough to attempt to hear each other’s truth and to realize that through skepticism we are aiming at being present to the other person, but not to the extent of having our own truth subsumed.

(This ends the five-part series of reflections on the Wisdom Teachings of Don Miguel Ruiz.)


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Don Beaudreau
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