This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Fifth Agreement" by Don Miguel Ruiz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What do the Toltec believe about reality and your perception of it? How does it relate to your suffering and happiness?
In The Fifth Agreement, don Miguel Ruiz and don Jose Ruiz (also known as the naguals) assert that we believe we perceive reality, but the “real world” we think we live in is only a mirage. The Toltec teach that our belief in the mirage contains two primary self-limiting beliefs: that we must always be improving ourselves and that we are individual, physical beings, rather than part of a greater system. These beliefs, they argue, cause us to suffer.
Read more to learn about the Toltec perspective on reality, false beliefs, and happiness.
The Toltec View of Reality
Most of us, the naguals say, aren’t critical of what we perceive and learn. We trust what our culture, society, and teachers tell us, innocently and without reservation. We believe that what we’re seeing is all there is—we think we live in “the real world” and never realize that it’s only a mirage. This is the most common way to live, the naguals say. We’re handed a flawed belief system, and we accept it as-is, limiting ourselves unnecessarily
(Shortform note: The authors suggest that this blind acceptance is almost universal. In A New Earth, spiritualist Eckhart Tolle agrees that, historically, only exceptional religious figures (such as the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Jesus Christ) have learned to see past the mirage. However, Tolle also suggests that it’s becoming more and more common for people to see the flaws in our societal belief systems—potentially leading to what Tolle calls a “transformation of human consciousness.”)
Living in the mirage is torture, the Toltec say, because our belief in its reality leaves us no escape—we take the picture we’re handed of what the “correct” way to live is and hold ourselves to it. We copy the behaviors, beliefs, and emotions we believe to be “right,” burying our true selves under so many layers of conformity that we forget who we are or what we want. Furthermore, we live in fear that others will see us living “incorrectly” and punish us for it—and we validate that fear by attacking those around us who misbehave.
(Shortform note: Eckhart Tolle argues that the mirage doesn’t just harm us as individuals: It’s also actively destroying our social and physical environments. The values we’re taught to hold, he argues, are insane to the point of self-destruction: Society’s obsession with productivity and profit leads us to abuse and slaughter our own people and jeopardize the livability of our planet. If we want to survive, he says, we must collectively evolve beyond the materialistic values that are driving us apart. Instead, we must put people first.)
According to the Toltec, our belief in the mirage contains two primary flaws. First, we believe we’re imperfect. Second, we believe we’re separate individuals. These two self-limiting beliefs, the Toltec say, lie at the root of our suffering. Let’s look at each belief in detail.
We Believe We’re Imperfect
According to the authors, much of our unhappiness arises from the self-limiting belief that we must always be improving ourselves: that it’s wrong to believe we’re good enough as we are.
(Shortform note: In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu takes a bold stance on this kind of self-evaluation: He argues that there is no “good” or “bad” in the first place—no “enough” or “not enough.” All that exists comes from the same source—it’s all part of the Tao, the universe, God, or whatever you prefer to call it—so it’s all equally valid and doesn’t need constant improvement.)
When you live in the mirage of “the real world,” the Toltec say, you struggle with self-criticism and self-doubt because you think they’re your fault. You’re focused on the many ways in which you fail to live up to the standard of expectations set by your culture—the ways in which you’re “good” and “bad.” You feel you have much to be ashamed or embarrassed about: Perhaps you didn’t get married early enough, your career isn’t as successful as it “should” be, or you don’t own a house. Whatever your hangups, you’re stuck in the gap between what you should be and what you are. You’re focused, primarily, on what you aren’t.
(Shortform note: The experience of the mirage that the Toltec describe here is deeply emotional; fraught with shame and embarrassment. The Toltec present these as very real feelings you may struggle with—but, according to the Bhagavad Gita, emotions don’t reflect concrete reality either: They, too, are only subjective interpretations of our circumstances, colored by our beliefs. Most of us don’t realize that, the Gita explains, so we get stuck in a loop of reacting to our feelings, suffering from the result, and reacting again. The good news, though, is that knowing our feelings aren’t an accurate reflection of reality is often enough to help us take them less seriously—which allows us, as the Gita recommends, to look past them at what’s really going on.)
Further, the authors say, when we’re unsatisfied, we assume it’s because there’s something wrong with us or someone around us, rather than with the expectations we’ve agreed to subject ourselves to. As a result, we project, into the world, all the cultural and societal messages that are hurting us. Perhaps we mock others for being fat, or homeless, or unsuccessful. Or we blame those around us for our own struggles, failures, and unhappiness.
(Shortform note: In other words, when we suffer, we look for someone to blame—but according to the Buddha, suffering is a universal fact of life. According to him, all that exists has both desires and fears—every creature has resources to acquire and dangers to avoid, and that’s nobody’s fault. Fear and desire serve a necessary purpose; they’re neither inherently good nor bad, and experiencing them isn’t a sign that there’s something wrong with you.)
We Believe We’re Separate Individuals
The second flaw that our belief in the mirage causes, according to the Toltec, is that we fundamentally misunderstand our place in the world: We think of ourselves as individual, physical beings, and deny that we’re part of a greater system. We identify with our “personal” bodies, thoughts, and emotions. The truth, according to the Toltec, is none of those things: You aren’t your body or your mind; you’re the force of intent that moves it. That force moves every living thing—plants, animals, even bacteria. In humans, the authors explain, it’s the source of your love and your desire for connection with others. That connection, and the exchange of love which facilitates it, is our shared purpose.
(Shortform note: The Toltec aren’t the only ones who say it’s unhealthy to think of ourselves as individuals. In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach translates the words of Buddha, who said that our suffering arises from the belief that we, as “individuals,” are separate from the world around us. According to him, there is no “self;” instead, we’re part of a universal presence of awareness and love. Lao Tzu, in his Tao Te Ching, essentially agrees: All that exists, he says, is part of the Tao—the universe, “reality,” or source of all things, and to make distinctions is therefore pointless.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Fifth Agreement summary :
- The five “agreements” to make with yourself that adjust your outlook
- How to rediscover your true self and recapture the freedom you felt as a child
- A five-step process to escape the mirage of “the real world”