Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Religion writer Karen Armstrong promotes a 21st-century form of the ‘compassionate discourse’ of Socrates.

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    Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
    By Karen Armstrong
    Knopf Doubleday
    240 pp., $22.95
    View Caption

Karen Armstrong’s latest book comes at just the right time: at the start of a new year when many people are pondering their lives and setting fresh priorities.

In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, the British author of numerous acclaimed works on the world’s religions takes on a new role. The great explainer has unapologetically become an activist, an advocate for a transformation of individual and collective behavior that she views as essential to saving a dangerously divided world.

While scientific and capitalistic societies encourage the selfish, competitive strain in human beings, she writes, history has demonstrated over millenniums that compassion is also natural to humanity. And compassion, she adds, not only improves relationships, but it can also usher us into a more enhanced, transcendent experience.

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This small guide, a deliberate nod to 12-step programs, is chock full of practical ideas for examining one’s life and modifying aims and behaviors. But Armstrong’s goal is more ambitious than simply individual betterment.

“One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect,” she says.
Indeed, her book is a companion to an Internet-based initiative that has already engaged thousands from around the world in creating a Charter for Compassion, and in undertaking a series of activities to raise the profile of compassion and restore it to a prominent place in daily lives. Armstrong initiated the charter idea in 2008 after winning the $100,000 TED prize (Technology, Entertainment, Design) from the nonprofit group of that name, which aims to spread the best ideas of the world’s leading thinkers.

Decades of research have led her to conclude that all major faiths “insist that compassion is the true test of spirituality,” and that each faith teaches its own version of the Golden Rule. Those teachings (which she surveys in the book) have frequently taken a back seat to other doctrines, however, and religion has become part of the problem. “Yet,” she says, “it is hard to think of a time when the compassionate voice of religion has been so sorely needed.”

Armstrong seeks to bring these teachings back to the forefront in each religious community. Prominent religious leaders have joined her in the project, as have other partner organizations.

At the same time, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” reaches for a universal rather than a strictly religious audience. Armstrong discusses the biological and other contrarian views regarding altruism and compassion, even as she presents scientific and cultural bases for compassion as an intrinsic human trait. Yet to enhance that natural ability, she says, we must “train ourselves” to become more compassionate just as we do to become better athletes or artists.

Some might question her claim that every one of her 12 steps is “indispensable” to that training; a few steps perhaps could be merged. But her descriptions of each step are rich with wisdom and provocative ideas that stimulate deeper thinking – and encourage individuals to identify a particular contribution to the global effort.

Some steps call for study, such as the first: “Learn about compassion.” Others involve self-examination (“Look at your own world;” “How you speak to others”) or highlight concrete methods for changing viewpoints and behaviors. They move from how to be more compassionate with oneself outward to family, community, and even one’s enemies.

“Our egotism gravely limits our view of the world, which we see through the distorting screen of our personal desires and needs,” Armstrong says. Hence she offers ways, including Buddhism’s “mindfulness,” to break through self-preoccupation to embrace the concerns of others.

While dialogue is a “buzzword of our time,” the aim seems most often to be to win a debate, not to genuinely explore aspects of an issue, she contends. “We want to defeat and even humiliate our opponents.” In a contentious world, the author is promoting a 21st-century form of the “compassionate discourse” of Socrates.

Particularly pertinent today is Step 7, “How Little We Know” – on how to become aware of the limits of our own knowledge and how often we assert opinions with little basis in fact. While examples abound in political life, this is especially true of knowledge about other nations, cultures, and religions, she says.
To help expand horizons, Armstrong provides a list of suggested readings to draw on at various stages.

This pursuit of a more compassionate life may already be a part of some readers’ spiritual experiences. What Armstrong’s clear and concise little book offers them is threefold: a greater appreciation of how widespread compassion is as an ideal, a spur to deeper reexamination of aspects of their own experience, and an impetus to define and act upon a fresh contribution one might make in the new year to the restoration of compassion in community life.

Jane Lampman is a former Monitor religion writer.

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