12 Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

Week 1

First Step:  Learn About Compassion

Compassion, says Armstrong, is like driving a car.  You don’t learn to drive by reading the owner’s manual.  You must get behind the wheel and get into traffic.

“Until we actually modify our behavior and learn to think and act towards others in accordance with the Golden Rule, we will make no progress….No teaching that is simply a list of directives can be effective. We need inspiration and motivation that reach to a level of the mind that is deeper than the purely rational….It is therefore important to explore your own tradition, be it religious or secular, and seek out its teaching about compassion.  This will speak to you in a way that is familiar; resonate with some of your deepest aspirations, hopes and fears; and explain what this journey toward compassion will entail.”

Armstrong says that powerful emotions such as love, compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness began to exert themselves in the distant past, when people began to oppose violence in their societies.  The period 900-200 BCE was pivotal for the spiritual course of humanity.  “Sages, prophets and mystics began to develop traditions that have continued to nourish…: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism on the Indian subcontinent; Confucianism and Daoism in China; monotheism in the Middle East; and philosophical rationalism in Greece…Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam…were all latter-day flowerings of this original vision….Compassion would be a key element in each of these movements.”

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, developed a four-step meditation to enhance the natural impulse to empathy and compassion: 1) loving kindness, which created an attitude of friendship for everything and everybody; 2) compassion, in which he desired that all creatures be free of pain; 3) pure joy, which he desired for all creatures; and 4) even-mindedness, in which he tried to free himself of personal attachment and partiality by loving all sentient beings.  The Buddha’s critical insight was that to live morally was to live for others.”

Armstrong tells the story of Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus.  “It is said that a pagan approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if he could recite the entire Torah while he stood on one leg.  Hillel replied, ‘What is hateful to yourself do not to your fellow man.  That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary.  Go study it.’

“Like Hillel, Jesus taught the Golden Rule….He believed that the commandments to love God with your whole heart and soul and your neighbor as yourself were the most exalted commandments of the Torah.  The gospels show him practicing ‘concern for everybody, reaching out to…prostitutes, lepers, epileptics, and those denounced as traitors for collecting Roman taxes.”

Armstrong says that the Qur’an spoke directly to the conditions in Mecca at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and spoke a compassionate ethos to counter Mecca’s aggressive capitalism.  “The…message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth fairly to create a just and decent society where poor, vulnerable people are treated with respect.”

Week 2

The Second Step: Look at Your Own World

Karen Armstrong says that when we seek to live compassionate lives today we need first to look to the past for people like the Buddha and Confucius to provide guidance because in the West major achievements have been scientific and technological rather than spiritual.

“We have…seen that many of these pivotal teachers and prophets were living in societies that had problems similar to our own: they were dealing with violence that seemed to be getting out of hand and an economy that marginalized the poor.  It is now time to apply what we have learned from them to our own circumstances and to the society in which we live.”

Armstrong suggests that we stand back so that we can see our world from a different perspective.  “…think in terms of the Confucian concentric circles of compassion, starting with your family, moving out to friends and community, and finally to the country in which you live.”

She cautions against approaching the task with the hard zeal of a reformer. “There should be no anger, frustration, or impatience in our survey.  We must look at our community with compassion, estimate its strengths as well as its weaknesses, and assess its potential for change.”

She asks what it would be like to make each family member feel supremely valued, including the elderly when they reach a fragile time of their lives.  What would be realistic criteria for a compassionate profession or a compassionate company?  “Do we treat colleagues and workers as cogs in a wheel, forcing them to maximize output at the expense of their physical, mental and spiritual health?”  The nation should not escape this scrutiny either, she says.  “What has your nation done for the world in the past, and what can it realistically do to make the world a more just, fair, safe, and peaceful place?

“No single individual can take on all these problems….Ask yourself what your particular contribution should be and where you should concentrate your efforts – in business, medicine, the media, education, the arts, politics, or in the house.”

Week 3

The Third Step: Compassion for Yourself

Armstrong tells a story about the late rabbi Albert Friedlander, who grew up in Nazi Germany and was bewildered by the vicious anti-Semitic propaganda of the time.

“One night, when he was about eight years old, he deliberately lay awake and made a list of all his good qualities. He told himself firmly that we was not what the Nazis said, that he had talents and special gifts of heart and mind, which he enumerated to himself one by one. Finally, he vowed that if he survived, he would use those qualities to build a better world.”

What Friedlander understood, even at such a young age, was that if you cannot love yourself, you cannot love other people either. “The Golden Rule requires self-knowledge,” Armstrong says. “It asks us to use our own feelings as a guide to our behavior with others. If we treat ourselves harshly, this is the way we are likely to treat other people.”

Armstrong suggests that we acquire a balanced knowledge of our strengths as well as our weaknesses by making a list of our good qualities, talents, and achievements. “It is useless to castigate ourselves bitterly for feeling jealousy, anger, and contempt, as that will only lead to self-hatred. Instead, we should quietly but firmly refuse to identify with them, saying with the Buddha: ‘This is not mine; this is not what I really am; this is not myself.”

She feels that meditation can give the discipline that helps us take greater control of our minds and channel our destructive impulses creatively….”when we make a conscious effort to abandon the me-first mentality and try to keep it within due bounds, we are not destroying or annihilating ourselves. Instead, we will find that our horizons expand, our egotistically driven fears evaporate, and that we are experiencing a larger ‘immeasurable’ self.’”

Week 4

The Fourth Step:  Empathy

The mythical story of the Buddha’s departure from his father’s luxurious palace into the real world sets the stage for this chapter.

When the Buddha was 29 years old, the gods decided he had been shielded from reality long enough. They sent four of their number onto the palace grounds in disguise, avoiding the guards who kept the real world outside:  one was a sick man, one was an old man, another was a corpse and the fourth was a monk.

“Utterly unprepared for these spectacles of suffering, the future Buddha was so shocked that he left home that very night determined to find a way to help himself and others to bear the sorrow of life with serenity, creativity and kindness.”

Armstrong says nearly all religious traditions put suffering at the apex of their agenda.  “The ancient Greeks…had a uniquely tragic view of life.  Each year on the festival of Dionysus, god of transformation, the leading playwrights of Athens presented tragic trilogies in a drama competition, which every citizen was obliged to attend.  The plays usually dramatized one of the old myths adapted to reflect the problems and situation of the city that year.  This was both a spiritual exercise and a civic meditation, which put suffering onstage and compelled the audience to empathize with men and women struggling with impossible decisions and facing up to the disastrous consequences of their actions.  The Greeks came to the plays in order to weep together, convinced that the sharing of grief strengthened the bond of citizenship and reminded each member of the audience that he was not alone in his sorrow….

“The suffering we have experienced in our own life can also help us appreciate the depths of other people’s unhappiness….The dynamic of the Golden Rule is beautifully expressed in an early sura of the Qur’an in which God asks Muhammad to remember the sorrows of his childhood – he had been orphaned as small child, parceled out to relatives, and for years was a marginalized member of his family and tribe – and make sure that nobody else in his community would endure this deprivation.”

As a young lawyer traveling in South Africa, Gandhi was thrown off a train after refusing to move because he was sitting in a first-class carriage that was forbidden to “colored” men.  That event marked the beginning of a lifelong campaign of nonviolent resistance to oppression.

Armstrong says that although we may be reluctant to become involved in the suffering of others, we should remember that we most likely experienced our own time of misery when a kind word, a smile or a reassurance lifted us from despair.

Week 5

The Fifth Step:  Mindfulness

Karen Armstrong says that the practice of mindfulness is more important than theory and that you can practice just as you would work out in the gym to enhance your physical fitness.

“In mindfulness we mentally stand back and observe our behavior while we are engaged in the normal processes 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. Mindfulness is not meant to make us morbidly self-conscious, scrupulous, or guilty; we are not supposed to pounce aggressively on the negative feelings that course through our minds.  Its purpose is simply to help us channel them more creatively.”

She says that when we are engrossed in thoughts of anger, hatred, envy, resentment, or disgust that our horizons shrink and our creativity diminishes.  “We tend to assume that other people are the cause of our pain; with mindfulness, over time, we learn how often the real cause of our suffering is the anger that resides within us….Similarly, we will become aware that the acquisitive drive is never satisfied.  As you progress, you will notice that once a desire is fulfilled, you almost immediately start to want something else….

“Calm dispassionate appraisal of our behavior helps us to become aware that our judgments are often biased and dependent on a passing mood, and that our endless self-preoccupation brings us into conflict with people who seem to get in our way.  You will notice how easily and carelessly you inflict pain on others, sighing impatiently over a minor inconvenience, grimacing when the clerk is slow at the checkout, or raising your eyebrows in derision at what you regard as a stupid remark.  But you will also see how upsetting it is when somebody behaves like that to you – and, conversely, that an unexpectedly kind or helpful act can brighten the day and change your mood in an instant.

“Once we know that the cause of so much human pain is within ourselves, we have the motivation to change.  We will find that we are happier when we are peaceful than when we are angry or restless….We can make the effort to cultivate these positive emotions, noticing, for example, that when we perform an act of kindness we ourselves feel better….Instead of being afraid of what will happen tomorrow, or wishing it was this time last week, we can learn to live more fully in the present.  Instead of allowing a past memory to cloud our present mood, we can learn to savor simple pleasures – a sunset, an apple, or a joke.”

Week 6

The Sixth Step:  Action

Although she doesn’t use the phrase, Karen Armstrong sees the value of random acts of kindness.  She calls on people to create “spots of time” for other people when you show “little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and love.”

And, conversely, remember the unkind remarks – whether you were the giver or receiver – that have been a corrosive presence in your life or in the lives of others.

“We are not doomed to an existence of selfishness, because we have the ability, with disciplined, repetitive action, to construct new habits of thought, feeling, and behavior.  If every time we are tempted to say something vile about an annoying sibling, a colleague, an ex-husband, or a country with whom we are at war, we reflexively ask ourselves ‘How would I like this said about me and mine?’ and refrain, we will achieve…a momentary ‘stepping outside’ the egotistically confined self.”

Armstrong presents a three-step formula that can gradually advance you to becoming a true follower of the Golden Rule.

“First, 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.’

“Second, 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.’

“Third, make an effort once a day to change your thought patterns: if you find yourself indulging in a bout of anger or self-pity, try to channel all that negative energy into a more kindly direction.”

When you get to the end of each day, look back to see if you performed the three actions.  If you haven’t, vow to do better tomorrow.  If you have, try to make them a part of your daily routine.  When they become habitual, try for two acts of kindness every day.  Then go for three and so on.  “It will not be easy.  The goal is to behave this way ‘all day and every day.’  By that time you will have become a sage….”

Week 7

The Seventh Step:  How Little We Know

Karen Armstrong decries the infrequency with which we make a place for the other in our lives.  She says we too often impose our own experience and beliefs on acquaintances and events in ways that result in hurtful, inaccurate, and dismissive snap judgments, not only about individuals but about whole cultures.  “It often becomes clear, when questioned more closely,” she says, “that their knowledge of the topic under discussion could comfortably be contained in a small postcard.”

Unlike the progressive nature of scientific learning, the humanities and the arts require that we keep asking the same questions over and over.  “What is happiness?—What is truth?—How do we live with our mortality?—and rarely arrive at a definitive answer, because there are no definitive answers to these perennial problems….

“The pursuit of knowledge is exhilarating, and science, medicine, and technology have dramatically improved the lives of millions of people.  But unknowing remains an essential part of the human condition.  Religion is at its best when it helps us to ask questions and holds us in a state of wonder – and arguably as its worst when it tries to answer them authoritatively and dogmatically.  We can never understand the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman, or Dao; precisely because it is transcendent, it lies beyond the reach of the senses, and is therefore incapable of definitive proof. Certainty about such matters, therefore, is misplaced, and strident dogmatism that dismisses the views of others as inappropriate….

“At their most insightful…religions have insisted that the core of each man and woman eludes our grasp and is transcendent.  This is where we discover Nirvana, Brahman, and what the German-born Protestant theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) called the very Ground of Being; we find the Kingdom of Heaven within us and discover that Allah is closer to us than our jugular vein.”

This chapter has a threefold purpose:

1)      To recognize and appreciate the unknowable.  Armstrong says to think about those experiences that touch you deeply and lift you momentarily beyond yourself so that you seem to inhabit your humanity more fully than usual.

2)      To become sensitive to overconfident assertions or certainty in ourselves and in other people.  Today’s discourse is characterized by aggressive certainty.  But isn’t it true, she asks, that the more you know about a special field, the more you become aware of what you still have to learn?

3)      To make ourselves aware of the numinous mystery of each human being we encounter during the day.  She says that we can never discover our true self and, therefore, we should ask how we could possibly talk knowingly about the self of other people.

Week 8

The Eighth Step:  How Should We Speak to One Another?

During election years, people frequently are subjected to debates in which the goal is total victory rather than compassionate compromise.  Win at all costs.  Karen Armstrong says that while aggressive debate may be useful in politics, it is unlikely to transform hearts and minds – especially when the debate arouses passions that are already bitter and entrenched.

“We should make a point of asking ourselves whether we want to win the argument or seek the truth, whether we are ready to change our views if the evidence is sufficiently compelling, and whether we are making ‘place’ for the other in our minds….Above all, we need to listen.  All too often in an argument or debate, we simply listen to others in order to twist their words and use them as grist for our own mill.  True listening means more than simply hearing words that are spoken.  We have to become alert to the underlying message too and hear what is not uttered aloud.  Angry speech in particular requires careful decoding.  We should make an effort to hear the pain or fear that surfaces in body language, tone of voice, and choice of imagery.”

Armstrong says that although the challenge to understand something that is strange and alien to you is formidable, “you must assume that the speaker shares the same human nature as yourself and that, even though your belief systems may differ, you both have the same idea of what constitutes truth.”

When we talk about the context in which words are spoken we must apply historical, cultural, political, and intellectual criteria and drive our understanding to the point where we have “an immediate human grasp of what a given position meant….With (an) empathetic understanding of the context, we will find that we can imagine ourselves, in similar circumstances, feeling the same.  In other words, we can broaden our perspective and ‘make place for the other.’”

Armstrong suggests that we subject ourselves to a series of questions to evaluate how we speak to others:

·         When you argue, do you get carried away by your own cleverness and deliberately inflict pain on your opponent?

·         Do you get personal?

·         Will the points you make further the cause of understanding or are they exacerbating an already inflammatory situation?

·         Are you really listening to your opponent?

·         What would happen if – while debating a trivial matter that would have no serious consequences – you allowed yourself to lose the argument?

·         After a contentious discussion, conduct a post-mortem with yourself: Can you really back up everything you said in the heat of the moment? Did you want to inflict pain?  Did you really know what you were talking about, or were you depending on hearsay?  And before you embark on an argument or debate, ask yourself honestly if you are ready to change your mind.

 Week 9

The Ninth Step:  Concern for Everybody

Karen Armstrong says that some religious traditions are more pluralistic than others, but all insist that compassion cannot be confined to our own group.  They say we must reach out in some way to the stranger and the foreigner – even to the enemy.

“If we continue to make our national interest an absolute value, to see our cultural heritage and way of life as supreme, and to regard outsiders and foreigner with suspicion and neglect their interests, the interconnected global society we have created will not be viable.  After the world wars, genocide, and terrorism of the twentieth century, the purpose of the tribe or the nation can no longer be to fight, dominate, exploit, conquer, colonize, occupy, ill, convert, or terrorize rival groups.  We have a duty to get to know one another, and to cultivate a concern and responsibility for all our neighbors in the global village….Understanding different national, cultural, and religious traditions is no longer a luxury; it is now a necessity and must become a priority.”

She says that with the global economy and electronic communications, national boundaries are becoming increasingly irrelevant.  However, there is often a reluctance to engage seriously with the problems of other nations.  “In the world of religion, too, many people enjoy contact with other faiths, but others have retreated into denominational ghettos and erected new barriers of orthodoxy against the ‘other.’

“…The process of globalization seems irreversible, and this means that whether we like it or not, our societies will become more multicultural.  Like any major political or social transformation, this will be painful….Now that we are living side by side with people who may be at a different stage of the modernization process, there will inevitably be tensions as we seek to accommodate one another.”

Armstrong offers these suggestions and questions to help be mindful of others:

·    Take careful note of how you and your colleagues speak about foreigners.

·    Listen critically to the voices in your own society that preach hatred or disdain of other national, religious, and cultural traditions.

·    A dehumanizing discourse that seeks to dominate a group often uses the language of disgust and contempt.

·    Do you sense in yourself, or in your friends and fellow countrymen, a tendency to follow the leader blindly during a political, cultural, or social crisis so that you cry, in effect, “My country, right or wrong?”

·    If you feel incensed when people attack your own cultural or religious values, is it ethical to inflict that pain on others?

·    When you see violence in other parts of the world portrayed on the evening news, do you look askance at the rage and hatred in people’s faces, or do you ask yourself about the distress that has inspired this anger?

·    A practically expressed respect for the other is probably indispensable for a peaceful global society.

Week 10

The Tenth Step:  Knowledge

Karen Armstrong says that deciphering the cultural, religious, and political customs of other peoples requires more time and energy than most people are willing to expend.  But, she says, “We owe it to our nation and to others to develop a wider, more pan-optic knowledge and understanding of our neighbors.”

Often, we are so imbued with our own tribal prejudices that we criticize others for behaviors that we have been guilty of.  Armstrong says it’s important to get in the practice of asking whether our own country may have been responsible for a similar abuse in the past.

“As we develop ‘concern for everybody,’ we are seeking a more objective overview that sees the situation as a whole….(even-mindedness) presupposes an awareness of prejudices, preconceptions, attachments, and blind spot that can cloud our understanding.  We are striving for an equability that can look at world problems without undue attachment to our national self-interest and that can transcend religious or cultural chauvinism in an appreciation of others.”

She recommends that we begin to understand others by following a couple of exercises: 1) choose a foreign country or another religious tradition to learn more about and 2) once you begin to appreciate the complexity of understanding another country or tradition begin to investigate issues that are more sensitive.

In step one, consider choosing a country that you have visited and know quite well or a country that intrigues you.  If you prefer to look at another religious or cultural tradition, watch a movie or read a novel so that it becomes “a vivid and regular presence in your life.”  You can ask what you can learn from the tradition and what things they do better than us.

Armstrong says that the investigations should not be dreary duty.  “If you have chosen to study another religion, attend a worship service, and if you have friends who belong to this tradition, ask them to help you.  Perhaps they will invite you to a seder, Eid, or Diwali.  When Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000)…was teaching Islamic studies at McGill University, he used to make his students observe the fast during Ramadan, celebrate Islamic holidays, and perform the prayers at the correct time – even to get up for the dawn prayer – because he was convinced that it was impossible to understand another faith simply by reading books about it.”

Week 11

The Eleventh Step: Recognition

Christina Noble’s traumatic experiences as a child of the streets in Dublin, Ireland, led her into a life of service to other children.

Karen Armstrong relates the story from Noble’s biography, Bridge Across My Sorrows.  “At a very unhappy time of her life, Christina Noble had a powerful dream: ‘Naked children were running down a dirt road fleeing from napalm bombing…one of the girls had a look in her eyes that implored me to pick her up and protect her and take her to safety.  Above the escaping children was a brilliant white light that contained the word ‘Vietnam.’  From that moment, Christina was convinced, in a way she could not understand, that it was her destiny to go to Vietnam and that one day she would work with children there.”

Years later, in 1989, she made her first trip to Vietnam.  “One day while she was watching two destitute little girls playing in the dirt of the street, one of them smiled at her and tried to hold her hand. Christina was immediately overcome with memories so painful that she tried to walk away; she wanted no more grief, no more involvement.  Yet all the time she was saying to herself: ‘There’s no difference between an Irish gutter and a Vietnamese gutter.  At the end of the day they are the same.’  Suddenly, past and present came together, and Christina realized that the Vietnamese girl was the child she had been so long ago in her dream.  Sobbing, she sank down in the dirt and pulled the children into her lap, promising to take care of them.  This was a major turning point: ‘Here the pain, sorrow and anger of my childhood in Ireland would be resolved.  I would work with the street children of Ho Chi Minh City.  Here I would stay.  Here I would find happiness.’”

Noble became a crusader for street children in Vietnam, establishing a foundation that enabled her to open the Children’s Medical and Social Centre in Ho Chi Minh City in 1991.  There now are foundations in France, the United States, and Australia.  Her friends had told her that what she was attempting was impossible, that she was only one person.  “But Christina never forgot that ‘when I was a child, I needed only one person to understand my suffering and pain….One is very important.’

“Let us consider the moment of recognition.  When Christina looked into the child’s face, she saw herself; she realized that there was no ‘us’ and ‘them’; at the end of the day they were the same….

“Christina found that the way to transcend the overwhelming memories of her appalling childhood was to work practically to alleviate the pain of others.  If we hug the memory of our own grief to ourselves, we can close our minds to other people’s wretchedness.  We may even think that our unhappy experiences give us special privileges.  But the Golden Rule requires us to use our afflictions to make a difference in the lives of others.”

Week 12

Karen Armstrong, one of today’s most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world, believes that compassion was a central feature in the beginning of all the world’s enduring religions.  This week we conclude a multi-week study of her book, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.”   

The Twelfth Step: Love Your Enemies 

It was Gandhi who said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Karen Armstrong says, “We can stop the vicious cycle of attack and counterattack, strike and counter-strike that holds the world in thrall today only if we learn to appreciate the wisdom of restraint toward the enemy.”

Voices of compassion, like Gandhi, still ring today.  He said, “Mine is not an exclusive love.  I cannot love Moslems or Hindus and hate Englishmen.  For if I love merely Hindus and Moslems because their ways are on the whole pleasing to me, I shall soon begin to hate them when their ways displease me, as they may well do at any moment.  A love that is based on the goodness of those whom you love is a mercenary affair.”

Armstrong also cites Nelson Mandela, who “without any feelings of recrimination…walked out of the South African prison in which he had been confined for twenty-seven years, and when he came to power initiated a process of reconciliation rather than seeking revenge.”

The Dalai Lama is another contemporary who has risen above vengefulness.  He has refused to condemn the Chinese although they destroyed his monasteries and massacred his monks.

“Martin Luther King, Jr. believed the highest point in Jesus’s life was the moment he forgave his executioners, when instead of attempting to defeat evil with evil, he was able to prevail over it with good:  ‘Only goodness can drive out evil and only love can overcome hate.…’

“In our global village,” Armstrong says, “everybody is our neighbor, and it is essential to make allies of our enemies.  We need to create a world democracy in which everybody’s voice is heard and everybody’s aspirations are taken seriously.  In the last resort, this kind of ‘love’ and ‘concern for everybody’ will serve our best interest better than short-sighted and self-serving policies.”


3 Responses to 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

  1. Pingback: Interfaith experience between the ‘same’ faith…

  2. Kathryn says:

    Thank you for this important entry. I believe the message is so important and you’ve summarized it wonderfully. I find Karen Amrstrong’s writings to be so clear and straight forward.

  3. Dan March says:

    In this civilized world, which had evolved, man has cried a billion tear, for what he never knew! These 12 steps, may be the corner stone to human kind. Karen Armstrong has touch upon a mindset, putting things into prospective with the key of knowledge, that leads to understanding that we may join hands to live together.

    Is the direction of man inert to change? We can change, imbrace the 12 steps, is a begining .

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