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Karen Armstrong: compassion in 12 steps

Karen Armstrong, compassion

Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Anchor Books, December 2011.

Karen Armstrong is a historian of religion and the founder of the Charter for Compassion that has had far-reaching worldwide impact since its inception in 2009. The charter defines compassion as that attitude which “compels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

In her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong introduces a method to apply the Golden Rule that lies at the heart of all religions and that all the prophets, mystics and sages have spoken of throughout the ages: treat others as you wish to be treated. Not an easy task in this world of ours. It is an approach that “does not depend on supernatural or creedal convictions”, which seems important to emphasize, and it is not “a notional doctrine that you either agree with or make yourself believe”. It is rather the fruit of a life of research and study. “I am a religious historian”, says Armstrong, “and it is my study of the spiritualities of the past that has taught me all I know about compassion”.

In twelve “educative” steps—”educative” in the Latin sense of the word educere “to lead out”— we are called upon to set aside preconceived ideas and to progressively step out of cultural, educational, even emotional thought patterns that make us rigid and distance us from one another. Through a constant back and forth between a multitude of historic, cultural, or religious references and our daily lives, Armstrong sets up a series of simple, concrete exercises that we can put into practice in the course of the day so as to cultivate compassion within ourselves.

One of the first steps is entitled “Look at Your Own World”. In this chapter the focus is on the family. The family, she says, is “a school of compassion because it is here that we learn to live with other people”. Gradually, in the following steps, the exercises become more complex and extend to our relations with the people around us: a friend, a person for whom we have no strong feelings one way or the other and a person we dislike. At this stage, the author suggests the following: “wish for each of your three people the joy that you desire for yourself, and finally admit that you all have faults. Then make a resolution that today you will translate these good thoughts into acts.”

Excerpt from the fourth step: Empathy

In this chapter the author proposes an exercise of compassion toward someone we do not like. Here is what she writes: “Be patient during this meditation; do not become irritated if you are distracted or discouraged if you seem to make no progress. Do not feel guilty if you are unable to overcome your feeling or aversion. Practiced over time, this meditation can make a compassionate groove in your mind. It should become part of your daily practice throughout the remaining steps. […] If practiced faithfully, it will help you develop two new tools: a capacity for inwardness and the ability to think of others in the same way as you think of yourself. Only practice makes perfect, just as it takes years for a dancer to turn a perfect pirouette. As you conclude the meditation, make a resolution that today you will translate these good thoughts into a small, concrete, practical act of friendship or compassion…”

Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, pp.103-104.

At the Fifth Step, “Mindfulness”, Karen Armstrong encourages us to actively distance ourselves from ourselves: “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”.

At the Sixth Step entitled “Action”, we are called upon to leave the realm of meditation and observation to enter into that of action. For example, “every time we are tempted to say something vile about [someone we find annoying], [let us] reflexively ask ourselves ‘How would I like this said about me and mine?’ [Then, if we] refrain, we will achieve ekstasis, a momentary ‘stepping outside’ the egotistically confined self.”

Excerpt from “The Sixth Step: Action”

“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’. This need not be a grand, dramatic gesture; it can be a ‘little, nameless, unremembered’ act that may seem insignificant to you. Perhaps you make a point of giving an elderly relative a call, help your wife with the chores, or take time to listen to a colleague who is anxious or depressed. […] This awareness will increase as you become more proficient in mindfulness. Second, resolve each day to fulfil the negative version of the Golden Rule: ‘Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ Try to catch yourself before you make that brilliantly wounding remark, asking yourself how you would like to be on the receiving end of such sarcasm – and refrain. Each time you succeed will be an ektasis, a transcendence of ego. 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. If you are in a rut of resentment, make an effort to think of something for which you know you should be grateful. […] The goal is to behave in this way ‘all day and every day’. By that time, of course, you will have become a sage….”

Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, pp.114-115.

In the chapter “Concern for Everybody” the question of whom we direct our compassion to is addressed: “we cannot confine our compassion to our own group: we must also reach out in some way to the stranger and the foreigner—even the enemy.” The proposed tasks gradually develop from the individual to the wider social and national scale, with the intent to fight against chauvinism that is so characteristic of human beings and makes them consider their group superior to all others. Here, focus is laid on “making place” for the more distant other we do not know by expanding our cultural horizons.

This book that at first may appear simplistic or reminiscent of other twelve-step programs, is truly surprising. Armstrong’s extensively documented approach, inspired by numerous secular and in particular multi-cultural references, turns out to be of the utmost precision. Far from simplistic, the personal transformation it draws us into is a lengthy process that depends entirely on our good will, for “it takes a long time to reorient our minds and hearts; this type of transformation is slow, undramatic, and incremental”.

Finally, developing one’s compassion toward others, as described by Karen Armstrong, has nothing to do with becoming naïve or “passive and supine”, as she puts it so well. On the contrary, it means choosing to engage in a process of human commitment that requires wilful acts, for “we should feel an increasing sense of responsibility for the suffering of others and form a resolve to do everything we can to free them from their pain”.

Karen Armstrong on TED


Further readings:

good samaritan The Good Samaritan

The parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke is brought up in the course of a discussion between Jesus and a man of law with regard to the question of what one ought to do “to inherit eternal life”. [read more]

a practical approach to altruism A practical approach to altruism

[…] Over the years that I had been “interested” in my perfection I had sensed that trying to help others was a practice that conformed to divine ethics. Only now, however, did I grasp the importance of this practice, expressed in the term “should”, and the notion of a “spiritual program”. [read more]

altruism motivation Altruism: finding sources of motivation

After reading the interview with Bahram Elahi on altruism on this website, I was struck by the idea that “Those who care about their process of perfection should include the practice of altruism in their spiritual program”. [read more]

Creative Commons License This work is offered under a Creative Commons licence

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  1. HSH Apr 19, 2015 12:35 pm 1

    Dear Friends,

    Thanks for this wonderful and valuable article. I have been engaged with the idea of the “Fifth Step”, distancing from myself, for many years. Now, I have taken a firm decision to really work on it. I hope to be able to be successful, with His help of course.

    Sincere Regard / HSH

  2. kbld Apr 19, 2015 11:59 pm 2

    I read a long time ago the book Karen Armtrong wrote on the historical Buddha. Even if there are some questionable statements in that book, I was struck by his journey throughout what is currently Nepal and India, looking for “Nirvana”. We find the same story in the manga of Tezuka. Here it is. When Buddha learned that sickness and suffering existed on earth, not satisfied by the Hindu caste system, he decided to quit his life (he was the crown prince) in order to find Nirvana, a place/state where there is no suffering. He met the greatest ascetics of India, followed them until, each time, the ascetics could not teach him anything more because he had attained their level of meditation. The ascetics were everywhere impressed by his capabilities. He eventually reached the highest level of meditation possible. But it was not Nirvana. Why? Because Nirnana had to be a permanent state, not something which is happening only when using a specific technique. So he let go of the traditional ways and reached it on his own. How? The story does not say. It only says that he reached it under a tree. But at least, we know that it was not through yogi techniques. Anyway, I learned from this story that the Truth is permanent, what is ephemeral cannot be the real Truth. I still do not know if I was really right, because I do not use it any more, but I made it a criteria of the Truth: it has to last.

  3. AS Apr 20, 2015 8:52 am 3

    Really good article. I had never heard of the author but her book seems to have a lot of great practical points that can be used on a daily basis about compassion and the golden rule. Also really enjoyed the two videos.

  4. A. Apr 21, 2015 7:51 am 4

    “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’. This need not be a grand, dramatic gesture; it can be a ‘little, nameless, unremembered’ act that may seem insignificant to you.”

    I have indeed been practising this for about a month by means of a simple exercise that consists in trying to listen carefully to others and not to interrupt them. I have observed that despite this being a simple/small deed, one is confronted with a n° of challenges such as for instance the difficulty to cope with: 1) my mother’s chronic pessimistic/anguished monologues and continuous/endless (unwanted) advises about how to best manage my family life 2) a friend who is getting divorced and who relentlessly complains about his ex-wife and relentlessly insists (despite me refusing to do so) that I write a personal testimony about his ex-wife’s misdeeds so that he may obtain a shared custody regime for his son ..

    I have seen that the best way to succeed in one’s practice is to “make an effort to change my thought patterns” and to try to put myself in the others’ shoes. In my mother’s case, for instance, instead of complaining (in my thoughts) that she is always pessimistic, and about how difficult it is to cope with people of this kind, I try to remind myself that she is a recent widow, she underwent chemotherapy just after my father passed away etc.. As for my friend and his divorce, instead of thinking that he is boring and a pain in the neck, I try to remind myself that he is going through a very, very difficult time since is he divorcing from someone who suffers from a psychological disease and also that he is unemployed.

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