Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is Coffee and Wisdom Summer Edition when we meet live at nine a.m. Central Time on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For the next couple of weeks, I want to be looking at an idea of “no way, yes way.” And that’s a little bit silly there. But my main idea here is looking at words, methods and ideas and how we use them according to ancient philosophical wisdom and religious traditions. How we are advised to use them, how we are told not to use them as we think through these things. So maybe we should always start with Dogbert. But this is his communications seminar. “There’s really no point in listening to other people,” says Dogbert. “They’re either going to be agreeing with you or saying stupid stuff.” And then he thinks that should cut down on the questions. So, yes, one way to think of communication is people are either agreeing with me or saying stupid stuff. But there are other ways of thinking about communicating, as a matter of fact. And I want to stick with the business world for just a minute and think of something from the business entrepreneur, Seth Godin. Seth Godin writes a blog every day (excuse me), and I really enjoy the way he thinks about business ideas.
He says this: “The most successful problem solvers are people who have embraced this simple method: Your current idea isn’t your identity. It’s simply a step closer to a solution to the problem in front of you.” He goes on, “One way to define our identity is to fall in love with an idea (often one that was handed to us by a chosen authority). Another is to refuse to believe our identity is embodied in an idea, and instead embrace a method for continually finding and improving our ideas.” So do we fall in love with our idea and identify with that and hold on to it for all it’s worth? Or can we think in a different way, and deal with ideas as tools that we aren’t necessarily attached to, but rather we are using in some way to not say stupid stuff? So there you go. Well, let’s think about that a little bit, because I’ll go to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher from the 1st century, who said this: “Watch out for four errors of the higher mind; when you see one of these, say, ‘that thought is unnecessary!’ First is a thought which tends to damage social relations. Second is a thought that does not come from genuine thinking. Third is speaking the thoughts of others.” Notice that’s one of the things Seth Godin says is a bad idea – is using someone else’s idea.
And “The fourth is when you reproach yourself for anything, for this is evidence that the better part of your thinking is being overpowered and is yielding to the less honorable, the passions.” So when you were reproaching yourself, you are letting your passions take over. Now, we want to unwind these things a little bit and look at them from another wisdom tradition. And that is from a book called “The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book – A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.” This is a bestseller. It’s sold millions of copies at this point and has been translated into many different languages. It was written by Don Miguel Ruiz. He is from Guadalajara, Mexico, and is a descendant from the Toltec tradition. The Toltecs were a group that developed an empire in central Mexico. And it covered really most of what is Mexico today (skipped a bit in the deep forest there), and they went by boat over to Chichen Itza. But the Toltec empire was quite extensive and covered basically the same territory that the later Aztec empire would cover. And really the Toltecs were the precursors to the Aztecs. And we often confuse many of their ideas and many of their doings. So, as a matter of fact, Quetzalcoatl, famous as an Aztec God, the plumed serpent, is originated in Toltec culture and then was adopted by other tribes in the area and eventually by the Aztecs, where it ran into European civilization, and now is fairly well known. Aztec
Wisdom, as a matter of fact, has a concept called “Neltiliztli.” Neltiliztli means rootedness, truth or goodness. Now, I know we don’t tend to think of the Aztecs as having a wisdom tradition. Aren’t they just the people who were warring all the time, and built big pyramids where they rip people’s hearts out? Well, yeah, that’s part of the story. But they did indeed have a written culture and a wisdom tradition. And the center of that is this concept. It meant rootedness, truth and goodness. And the concept flowing from this is that the good life consists of deliberate action – acting according to reason, logic and having thought about it rather than just as out of a place of passion. So yet again, this goes into this wisdom tradition that we’ve seen certainly with the Aztecs, but also with the Daoists way back in China, two thousand years before the Aztecs. So it’s a very interesting idea how, again, what I’ve been calling beautiful life philosophy is those that think that the essence of life is where we are right now, rather than an afterlife. How they all are very similar in many different ways.
But back to The Four Agreements. And these four agreements are, one, “be impeccable with your word.” By the way, you can find these from various places on the Internet because they’re everywhere. And I would recommend the book, too. It’s often categorized as a self-help book. It is. But it’s also a much wiser self-help book than most because the self-help is all about doing things in your own mind and with your own ways of thinking. So Agreement Number One is: “Be impeccable with your word.” Be impeccable with your word. Agreement Two: “Don’t take anything personally.” And we have heard this before, haven’t we? Don’t take anything personally. Number Three: “Don’t make assumptions.” And Four: “Always, do your best.” What’s being impeccable with your word? Well, this is a direct quote from the book: “Being impeccable is not going against yourself. When you are impeccable, you take responsibility for your actions, but you do not judge or blame yourself.” Hmmm – that sounds a lot like number four from Marcus Aurelius. “The fourth is when you reproach yourself for anything, for this is evidence that the better part of your thinking is being overpowered and is yielding to the less honorable, the passions.” Hmmm. Don’t reproach yourself. Be impeccable all the time. Try your best and then don’t reproach yourself. Another from the book: “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What
others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” Now do notice that Ruiz is using the term suffering, not pain. And as we’ve discussed in Coffee and Wisdom several times, this goes back to the idea of Buddhism and a differentiation between suffering and pain in which suffering is mental. It’s created by your mind, and pain is physical. You can’t do anything about that. But notice that this idea is very like the absolutely central idea of stoicism from Epictetus: “Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle. Some things are within your control. And some things are not.” And of course, we have to then figure out what is in our control and what is not. We have to say, if I can control it, I can do something about it. I care. And if I can’t? Forget about it, there’s nothing I can do. Of course, the idea then is you have to figure that out and maybe even every day you figure it out because things do change over time. So again, the Four Agreements are: be impeccable with your word, don’t take anything personally, don’t make assumptions, and always do your best. Broken down into four nice and very succinct ways of saying these things.
Marcus Aurelius will also say something about this “always doing your best” – “Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be like that of a dying person.” So yeah, a dying person is going to think about what they say and do – take a little more seriously than they did just any other day of the of the week. And maybe we should always act that way. That is the advice of the Roman emperor, Stoic Marcus Aurelius. Cato, another Roman writer, said this: “After I’m dead I’d rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.” And so that’s probably a pretty good summary of how we maybe should try to live our lives – “After I’m dead I’d rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.” And going back to repeat the Seth Godin idea once more, because I think it’s really getting at what both the Toltec Wisdom and the Stoic Wisdom are getting at. He said this: “The most successful problem solvers are people who have embraced this simple method. Your current idea isn’t your identity. It’s simply a step closer to a solution to the problem in front of you. One way to define our identity is to fall in love with an idea, often one that was handed to us by a chosen authority.” Or, as Marcus Aurelius would say, not thinking, actually.
And another way of doing that, says Seth Godin, is to “refuse to believe our identity is embodied in an idea and instead embrace a method for continually finding and improving our ideas.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is a Neo Stoic, had this to say about stoicism: “A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude.” You may know Taleb’s work – his best seller was “The Black Swan.” His latest book is “Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life.” He’s a very central thinker, I think, as a public intellectual, explaining very complex philosophical and number ideas to people like me who don’t really think on that level with numbers and the philosophy of numbers. But “A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude,” says Taleb. And I’ll end by reading over those four agreements again. One: Be impeccable with your word. Two: Don’t take anything personally. Three: Don’t make assumptions. And Four: Always do your best. And that is the wisdom of the Toltec tradition. That’s Coffee and Wisdom for today. We are now meeting live on Tuesdays and Thursdays at nine o’clock Central Time. I’ll be back on Thursday to talk a little bit more about how we use language to create thoughts, ideas, solve problems and that kind of thing. Thanks a lot and I’ll talk to you on Thursday.