Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong
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.
Karen Armstrong invites you to start a Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life Reading Group in your community, school, or workplace. Click for a Reading Group Guide, including a personal note from the author, tips for starting the group, discussion questions, sample promotional material, and more, or visit www.CharterForCompassion.org/Learn/ReadingGroups
An Excerpt from the Guide:
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.”
The Charter for Compassion
In February 2008 Armstrong was awarded the TED Prize and began working on the Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public and crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The charter was launched in November 2009 and Armstrong is working with TED and the Compassionate Action Network to build an international network of Compassionate Cities dedicated to implementing the Charter realistically and practically into 21st century urban life. Other partners are working vigorously and creatively to promote the compassionate ideal in Pakistan and the Middle East.
Karen Armstrong’s first book, the bestselling Through the Narrow Gate, described her seven years as a nun in a Roman Catholic order. She has since published numerous bestselling books, including A History of God, Islam: A Short History, Buddha, The Spiral Staircase and most recently The Great Transformation. She is a freelance writer and she lives in London.