In this important and thought-provoking work, Karen Armstrong—one of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world—provides an impassioned and practical guide to helping us make the world a more compassionate place.
The twelve steps she suggests begin with “Learn About Compassion,” and close with “Love Your Enemies.” In between, she takes up self-love, mindfulness, suffering, sympathetic joy, the limits of our knowledge of others, and “concern for everybody.” She shares concrete methods to help us cultivate and expand our capacity for compassion, and provides a reading list to encourage us to “hear one another’s narratives.” Armstrong teaches us that becoming a compassionate human being is a lifelong project and a journey filled with rewards.
The First Step: Learn About Compassion
The Second Step: Look at Your Own World
The Third Step: Compassion for Yourself
The Fourth Step: Empathy
The Fifth Step: Mindfulness
The Sixth Step: Action
The Seventh Step: How Little We Know
The Eighth Step: How Should We Speak to One Another?
The Ninth Step: Concern for Everybody
The Tenth Step: Knowledge
The Eleventh Step: Recognition
The Twelfth Step: Love Your Enemies
Excerpted from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong. Copyright © 2010 by Karen Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion, including The Case for God, A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and The Great Transformation, as well as a memoir, The Spiral Staircase. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public, crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It was launched globally in the fall of 2009. Also in 2008, she was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal. In 2013, she received the British Academy’s inaugural Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding.
“Rich with wisdom and provocative ideas that stimulate deeper thinking and encourage individuals to identify a particular contribution to the global effort.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Leaning on the wisdom of disparate faiths and belief systems, Armstrong lays out a pluralistic and, ultimately, secular way to spread compassion that’s easy to believe in.” –Washington Post
“Charming. . . . Exquisitely intelligent.” —Financial Times
“Impressive. . . . She seeks to retrain us from an ego-fuelled outlook of partiality and prejudice to an informed, expanded humanity.” —The Globe and Mail
“When I hear that Karen Armstrong, the widely respected religion scholar…has a new book called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, I figure it’s about big stuff—and she does not disappoint.” —Laurie Abraham, Elle
“[An] important and useful book that will help many readers take on humanity’s most important task: creating a better, more compassionate world.” —Tricycle
“Intriguing and most accessible. . . . This book is the most substantial resource in this unabashedly idealistic project, one that is hardly shy about wearing its very big heart on its sleeve. It explores what makes empathy possible and effective—within each one of us and in the wider world beyond. . . . Armstrong appeals not to some least common denominator of feel-good altruism, but consistently to the concrete efforts of sages, philosophers and religious leaders from many eras, whose lives speak eloquently of empathy and selflessness.” —American Magazine
“One of the gentlest, as well as best-known and bestselling, religious apologists and historian of world religions. . . . Expounds a beautiful and worthy thought.” —The Guardian (UK)
“Twelve Steps is not merely a prescription for being more tolerant and loving. . . . It is also a call to action, and a ‘lifelong project.’ Armstrong is pleased to help show the way—and those about to set foot on this difficult but important path may find her new book a useful first step of its own.” —AARP
“Armstrong’s is a welcome voice. She engages readers on behalf of ordinary believers driven into the closet by popular perceptions about religious faith. . . . Informative and congenial. . . . Armstrong expresses more than a common desire for a peaceful and equitable planet: she displays her aim to rehabilitate the reputation of religion around the world.” —National Post
“As Armstrong brings out, imagination is crucial to the compassionate life, and this is one way of using imagination to develop empathy. . . .This book contains many helpful suggestions for bringing more empathy for others and more compassion into our way of living.” —Theosophy NW
1. Learn About Compassion
1. In the preface, Armstrong writes that our “egotism is rooted in the ‘old brain,’ which was bequeathed to us by the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago” (p. 13). Even though we’ve developed a new brain endowed with the power of reason, our instincts for survival “are overwhelming and automatic; they are meant to override our more rational considerations” (p. 14). Why is it important to the practice of compassion to understand the functions of our old and new brain?
2. “The Buddha’s crucial insight was that to live morally was to live for others” (p. 40). Why was it not enough for the Buddha to attain the very highest states of trance and practice “fierce asceticism” to attain enlightenment? What was missing?
3. Confucius believed that “when people are treated with reverence, they become conscious of their own sacred worth, and ordinary actions, such as eating and drinking are lifted to a level higher than the biological and invested with holiness” (p. 42). He also believed in “a constantly expanding series of concentric circles of compassion” from family, to community, state, and world (p. 43). In what ways do Confucius’ beliefs apply to our world today?
4. Armstrong writes that compassion is central to the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What stories, quotes, or passages stood out for you in this chapter? What stories or myths in your cultural, religious, family, or other traditions emphasize compassion?
1. Visit charterforcompassion.org. Affirm the Charter and invite your friends to do the same.
2. Examine the teachings of your own religious or secular tradition about compassion.
3. Revisit this passage on page 63: “Each of the world religions has its own particular genius, its own special insight into the nature and requirements of compassion, and has something unique to teach us. By making room in your mind for other traditions, you are beginning to appreciate what many human beings, whatever their culture and beliefs, hold in common. So while you are investigating the teachings of your own tradition, take time to find out more about the way other faiths have expressed the compassionate ethos.”
4. For the next month, keep a journal of notes, passages, poems, thoughts on what you learn about compassion (p. 27).
2. Look at Your Own World
1. “Can you think of a twenty-first-century equivalent to the li [ancient rites controlling egotism and cultivating compassion, described on page 40] that would make each member of the family feel supremely valued” (p. 71)?
2. “How can you make your family a school for compassion, where children learn the value of treating all others with respect? What would life be like if all family members made a serious attempt to treat one another ‘all day and every day’ as they would wish to be treated themselves” (p. 71)?
3. “What would be the realistic criteria of a compassionate company”, organization, school, or community (p. 71)?
4. To whom in your life—home, work, school, etc.—would you give a Golden Rule prize and why (pp. 71–72)?
1. Look at what’s happening in your family, school, workplace, religious community, penal institutions, etc. What teachings, practices, or policies contribute to a lack of compassion? Identify ways you might help bring them to light and/or change them—whether it’s writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, creating a curriculum on compassion, starting a mediation program in the schools, or whatever action resonates with you.
3. Compassion for Yourself
1. How has a lack of self-compassion affected your life? When are you least compassionate toward yourself? What traits do you most criticize yourself for?
2. We are all imperfect. We are all influenced by our reptilian brain that reacts instinctively to real or imagined threats and can cause us to behave badly. We are all influenced by environmental factors that affect our behavior toward others. And we all have a “dark side.” (pp. 78–79) How does knowing this help or hinder your ability to cultivate and practice compassion?
3. Armstrong discusses how suffering is a part of life, yet “in the West we are often encouraged to think positively, brace up, stiffen our upper lip, and look determinedly on the bright side of life” (p. 81). Discuss your experience navigating a difficult or tragic time in your life. What would have been most helpful to you at that time? How important was having someone just listen to or be with you? What is your experience offering help to others in difficult times? What helps or hinders you from being fully present when those around you face difficulties?
4. “When people attack us, they are probably experiencing a similar self-driven anxiety and frustration; they too are in pain. In time, if we persevere, the people we fear or envy become less threatening, because the self that we are so anxious to protect and promote at their expense is a fantasy that is making us petty and smaller than we need to be” (p. 88). What does it mean to remove yourself from the center of your world?
Idea from the field:
In Dubai, participants were asked to take the self-compassion test at www.self-compassion.org, record their score, and then use the resources on the site, as well as tools they learned from one another, to increase their level of self compassion over a two-month period. At the end of the two months, each participant will be encouraged to take the test again to gauge their progress.
1. Make a list of your positive qualities, good deeds, talents, and achievements.
2. Our own suffering often increases our compassion for others. Acknowledge the difficulties and suffering you’ve endured and how you used or might use your experience to help others. For instance, if you’ve experienced a serious illness or took care of someone who did, consider volunteering to help others navigate a similar circumstance.
3. Practice the Buddha’s meditation on the four immeasurable minds of love, on page 85.
1. Commenting on the futility of the Buddha’s father’s attempt to shield him from suffering, Armstrong writes, “As long as we close our minds to the pain that presses in upon us on all sides, we remain imprisoned in delusion, because this artificial existence bears no relation to reality” (p. 91). What defenses do you use to shield yourself from suffering? Do these defenses help or hinder your capacity for compassion?
2. “Art calls us to recognize our pain and aspirations and to open our minds to others. Art helps us—as it helped the Greeks—to realize that we are not alone; everybody else is suffering” (p. 98). Discuss a piece of art, a performance, book, or movie that has helped you develop empathy toward others.
3. Armstrong shares the story of Patty Anglin who “always claimed that the misery she experienced in a harsh boarding school, where she had learning difficulties, prepared her for her life’s work” (p. 101) caring for children abandoned by their parents. Was your choice of an avocation or vocation influenced by difficulties you experienced? Share your story.
1. Spend a day “tuning into” how people around you are feeling.
2. It is often difficult to witness suffering and to engage with someone in distress, especially when we are preoccupied with our own concerns. Notice, over the next month, when you want to turn away. Instead, remember how it feels to be hurt, depressed, angry, helpless, and distraught. Then remember what it was like to have someone be kind and caring toward you. Offer that person a kind gesture (pp. 101–102).
3. Follow the instructions on page 102 to add three more stages to the meditation on the “immeasurable minds of love.”
1. For this session, it would be helpful to identify someone in your group or your community who regularly teaches or practices mindfulness and/or meditation. Invite that person to provide information about their practice and to lead the group in a guided meditation.
2. “The purpose of mindfulness . . . is to help us detach ourselves from the ego by observing the way the mind works” (p. 105). Ask if anyone in your group who has practiced mindfulness techniques or who meditates would be willing to share how these practices have affected their life.
3. “This is not a meditation that we should perform in solitude, apart from our ordinary routines. In mindfulness we mentally stand back and observe our behavior while we are engaged in the normal process of living in order to discover more about the way we interact with people, what makes us angry and unhappy, how to analyze our experiences, and how to pay attention to the present moment” (p. 106). How often have you noticed your reactions as they arise, rather than allowing your emotions or reactions to control you? Spend the time between this meeting and the next practicing mindfulness and report on your experience during the next meeting.
1. If you are not familiar with mindfulness meditation, check out one or more books listed in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life’s Suggestions for Further Reading on page 213.
2. A number of online resources may be helpful. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Mindful Awareness Research Center has a series of downloadable meditations of varying lengths at http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22. Set a time each day to try one or more of these meditations.
Idea from the field:
In Seattle, one group set a mindfulness bell (http://www.fungie.info/bell/#) to chime every twenty minutes during the discussion on mindfulness. Group members were encouraged to bring their attention back to their breath and to the moment each time the bell chimed.
1. Think of “spots of time” in your life “when somebody went out of his or her way to help” you. Share some of those stories (p. 112).
2. Also, share “the effects of the unkind remarks that have been a corrosive presence” in your mind (p. 113).
3. How often are you conscious of thinking or behaving in a hurtful way? Has this consciousness helped you to stop or shift your thoughts or actions?
4. How often are you aware of or do you act on the positive or negative version of the Golden Rule? How might you incorporate it more consciously in your life?
1. “Make a resolution to act once every day in accordance with the positive version of the Golden Rule: ‘Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself’” (p. 114).
2. “Resolve each day to fulfill the negative version of the Golden Rule: ‘Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you’” (p. 114).
3. Visit http://community.charterforcompassion.org/stories/ to read others’ stories of compassion and/or add one of your own.
7. How Little We Know
1. Armstrong writes that “when we cling to our certainties, likes, and dislikes, deeming them essential to our sense of self, we alienate ourselves from the ‘great transformation’ of the Way, because the reality is that we are all in continual flux, moving from one state to another. An unenlightened person, [Chinese philosopher and mystic] Zhuangzi explained, is like a frog in a well who mistakes the tiny patch of sky he can see for the whole; but once he has seen the sky‘s immensity, his perspective is changed forever” (p. 122). How do you interpret this lesson? How might you put it into practice?
2. Discuss what “Socrates meant when he said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’” (p. 129).
3. Discuss the concept of the mystery of life that was underscored in this chapter. How does acknowledging and honoring the mystery of life and of each other contribute to our capacity for compassion?
4. Do the exercise on page 129: “conduct a debate in which everybody argues for a position that is the opposite of what he or she believes. Then discuss your experience.”
1. Follow the three steps Armstrong lays out on pages 128–130.
8. How Should We Speak to One Another?
1. “Plato described the dialogue as a communal meditation . . . [and believed] each participant should make a ‘place for the other’” (p. 132). How does this view of dialogue fit with current social discourse? How do we move toward this ideal?
2. “Confucius always developed his insights in conversation with other people because in his view we needed this friendly interaction to achieve maturity” (pp. 132–133). What do you think he means by this?
3. What habits do you bring to personal and professional discussions or arguments? Do you make a “place for the other” or simply try to advance your argument?
1. Read through Armstrong’s questions on pages 141–142 to help you analyze and be more mindful of the way you approach discussions and arguments.
2. During the time between reading group meetings, observe how you speak to others. Observe how those around you speak to each other and to you. Notice when your own emotions and reactions arise in each situation and how they affect your interactions.
9. Concern for Everybody
1. “Think carefully about the concept of a just war. Find some examples of a just war in the past and then ask yourself how many of our current conflicts fit the just-war criteria. Can you detect the tribal spirit in any of them? Is military action improving the situation or is it increasing hostility” (p. 147)?
2. “Can you apply some of Gandhi’s ideas to a modern conflict? How would a nonviolent campaign work, and what qualities of mind and heart would it require” (p. 147-148)?
3. Read Sufi philosopher Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi’s warning against religious exclusivity on page 155. Do you practice this kind of nonattachment to religion or beliefs? How can you maintain your own worldview of your religion or beliefs without becoming attached to them?
1. Follow Armstrong’s suggestions on pages 148–149 for expanding your mindfulness practice to encompass the way you think and speak about people from other countries, cultures, ethnic groups, or religions.
2. “Incorporate a new Buddhist exercise into your mindfulness practice” as noted on page 151, which is designed to “help you to appreciate how dependent you are on people you have never met and who may live far away.”
1. Each of us has likely been the recipient of an ignorant remark about our nationality, religious or cultural traditions, physical or mental disability, etc. Share with the group something about yourself or your background that has been misunderstood and the reality behind that misunderstanding or ignorance.
2. Identify some of the nationalities, religions, cultures, etc., that are represented in your reading group. Share, as you feel comfortable, something about the backgrounds, traditions, and practices that define you, but that others may know little about. Use this time, and the safety of the group, to ask each other about your backgrounds, traditions, or practices.
3. Talk about what you don’t know about your own country, your own faith tradition, or your own culture, or what about them you would like to know more about.
1. Follow Armstrong’s suggestions on pages 159–160 to “expand your sympathies” to those from other countries, religions, or cultures.
2. Complete the second exercise recommended for this step on page 162.
1. Christina Noble’s story on pages 164–166, illustrates how we are all inextricably connected to one another, from the pain and devastation of being abandoned as a child to seeing herself in street children in Vietnam. Discuss a moment in your life when you saw yourself, or your suffering, in another. Were you able to acknowledge it? Were you moved to act? If not, what held you back?
2. When Noble decided to help street children in Vietnam, some of her friends said that she alone couldn’t make a difference. But, she said, “when I was a child I only needed one person to understand my suffering and pain” (p. 166). Describe a time when one person’s actions made a difference to you.
3. Reflecting on the story of Yaakov and Esau on pages 174–175, Armstrong writes, “If we want to achieve reconciliation, not only do we have to struggle with the enemy, but we have to struggle with ourselves. And in the struggle, this myth tells us, we may find ourselves blessed and embraced by the presence of something greater” (p. 176). Have you experienced this in your life? If you have, describe the experience.
1. On pages 168–169, Armstrong invites us to allow media images of suffering to touch and move us. Reread this passage and follow Armstrong’s instructions to employ the Golden Rule and act on these feelings.
12. Love Your Enemies
1. What do you think Gandhi meant when he said, “A love that is based on the goodness of those whom you love is a mercenary affair” (pp. 181–182)?
2. Armstrong points to the words and deeds of some of the world’s great moral leaders in describing the difficult practice of loving our enemies. One of them, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by the impenetrable walls of hate” (p. 182). How might you begin doing this? Have you been able to get past feelings of hurt, fear, or hatred to humanize an “enemy”? If so, how did you do it? If not, what holds you back?
3. Who inspires you to want to “love your enemies”?
4. How has participating in this reading group affected your life?
1. Use Armstrong’s guidance on pages 184–185 to direct your meditation on the immeasurables to an “enemy.”
2. Follow the directions on page 186 to “investigate your enemy.” Notice how you feel before and after the exercise. Do you view your “enemy” any differently? What has changed?
3. Share a personal story of compassion at charterforcompassion.org.
Content provided courtesy of the Charter for Compassion. Visit charterforcompassion.org to find out more.
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)