The Four Agreements (and a blood orange upside down cake that sort of encompasses them)

The book: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

If you’re reading this post, it means that I finally finished reading The Four Agreements, a philosophy and self-help book by Don Miguel Ruiz. Ruiz believes that due to the pressures of society, we have blindly agreed to negative beliefs and perspectives that are not really our own, and in doing so we have made ourselves unhappy. Ruiz offers four alternative agreements, and promises that if we can stick to these four basic principles, we will become happier and healthier.

Ruiz’s four agreements are: 1) be impeccable with your word, 2) don’t take things personally, 3) don’t make assumptions, and 4) always try your best. Even though The Four Agreements is about these four principles, the book actually has seven chapters, plus an introduction. The first chapter is used to outline why we need the four agreements in the first place…but it actually had the opposite effect on me.

Ruiz spends the first chapter convincing us that because we have blindly agreed to the demands of society, we are living in a personal hell. While it is true that societal expectations can and do constrain us in various ways…I think it is going a bit far to say that we are living in a personal hell. Ruiz’s use of that phrase struck me as fear-mongering, as though convincing us that we are suffering in the worst imaginable way might make us more receptive to the advice he has to offer.

The fear-mongering introduction is unfortunate, because the agreements themselves are actually…well…agreeable. Being impeccable with your word, or having integrity and treating others as you would want to be treated, is a core tenet of many cultures and religions. Not taking things personally and not making assumptions are also great practices: living by these two agreements would almost certainly alleviate unnecessary stress over minor events. The final agreement – to always try your best, whatever your “best” may be in any given circumstance – is simple, yet exceptional advice.

But…even though the agreements themselves are generally good messages, Ruiz’s elaborations on the agreements sometimes seem misguided. An example of this: Ruiz defends not taking things personally so strongly that it almost seems like he is saying “be immune to any criticism.” But I think there is value in taking certain things personally. Well-intentioned, constructive criticism makes us better, so long as we are receptive to the advice and willing to change. To me, Ruiz crossed a line between not taking things personally and not holding yourself accountable for problematic actions.

Some other things that rubbed me the wrong way in The Four Agreements were: Ruiz’s victim-blaming and defense of abusive behavior (he says “If you have the need to be abused, you will find it easy to be abused by others. Likewise, if you are with people who need to suffer, something in you makes you abuse them”); his ignorantly idealistic claims that we should only do things that we enjoy, and do so without expecting any type of compensation in return; and – of course – his misunderstanding of how cancer works (he says that if you listen to somebody tell you “I see that color in your face in people who are going to get cancer,” then you will get cancer in one year).

If I had to summarize my thoughts on The Four Agreements, I would say: there is some good advice in there, but the book should be taken with a grain of salt. I personally felt that there were more harmful messages than helpful ones in this book, but I also understand that the messages that are helpful vs. harmful will vary from person to person. Read at your own risk.

The bake: blood orange upside down cake.

My original idea for a Four Agreements-inspired bake was to create four different things, one for each of the agreements. Unfortunately, time and finances both prohibit me from doing such an elaborate baking project right now. As an alternative, I decided to bake something that I hoped would be really good, and then share it with others. The action of sharing love and camaraderie with others through the sharing of baked goods seemed to encapsulate the good messages in the Four Agreements, especially “be impeccable with your [actions, not just] word” and “always try your best.”

I ended up baking something that I have wanted to make for a long time now: a citrus upside-down cake. Specifically, I made this buttermilk blood orange upside-down cake from Bon Appetit. Funnily enough, I forgot to buy buttermilk, so I substituted coconut creamer spiked with 1.5 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.

Substitutions and all, this cake is awesome! I actually like the base of the cake more than the caramelized blood orange topping. Not that the topping is bad – it’s just that the cake shines on its own. It’s buttery, soft, and ever-so-slightly tangy from the buttermilk (or in my case, the apple cider vinegar). I will definitely remake the base cake recipe again.