Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

A process for developing personal compassion to engage in compassionate community for a more compassionate world

Welcome to the inaugural Compassionate Sunday! I’m starting a year-long study of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong and you’re invited to join. If you want to make a blog post, there’s a link list below to capture it. Or, you can join the discussion in the comments or on Facebook, where I’ll post a link to this post to anchor a discussion.

According to the schedule that I posted last week, we’re discussing the First Step, Learn About Compassion, in February. There’s a lot to learn about compassion from the preface of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life — so, I’m starting there with a kind of interview, using quotes from the preface for the answers to a series of questions about why we would want to take on the goal of a compassionate life.

Why do we need compassion?

Our world is dangerously polarized. There is a worrying imbalance of power and wealth and, as a result, a growing rage, malaise, alienation, and humiliation that have erupted in terrorist atrocities that endanger us all. We are engaged in wars that we seem unable either to end or to win. . . . And yet at the same time we are bound together more closely than ever before through the electronic media. . . . We all face the terrifying possibility of environmental catastrophe. In a world in which small groups will increasingly have powers of destruction hitherto confined to the nation-state, it has become imperative to apply the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If our religious and ethical traditions fail to address this challenge, they will fail the test of time (p. 5)

What is compassion, exactly?

. . . “compassion” derives from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning “to suffer, undergo, or experience.” So “compassion” means “to endure [something] with another person,” to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view. That is why compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. (p. 9)

What is the history of compassion in human thought?

The first person to formulate the Golden Rule, as far as we know, was the Chinese sage Confucius (551-479 BCE), who when asked which of his teachings his disciples could practice “all day and every day” replied: “Perhaps the saying about shu (‘consideration’). Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” (p. 9)

The preface follows this first sighting of the Golden Rule with a quick summary of compassion through human history from Buddha, to the three monotheistic religions, to many compassionate reformers including Florence Nightingale, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

Are humans innately compassionate? Or, the opposite?

There is no doubt that in the deepest recess of their minds, men and women are indeed ruthlessly selfish. This 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. Wholly intent on personal survival, these creatures were motivated by mechanisms that neuroscientists have called the “Four Fs”: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and–for want of a more basic word–reproduction. (p. 13)

After a discussion of recent discoveries of higher brain functions in humans, including the right and left brains, Armstrong comes to this conclusion:

It seems, therefore, that the more aggressive instincts of the hypothalamus exist alongside other brain systems that make empathy possible and that we are hard-wired for compassion as well as for cruelty. (p. 17)

Why is it important for individuals. like me and you, to work on developing compassion?

The Four Fs are powerful; they can overturn all our efforts to live more kindly and rationally in a second, but we are thinking beings, with a fully developed neocortex, and have the ability to take responsibility for them. Indeed, we have a duty to protect ourselves and others from our more destructive instincts. Do we want to succumb to our reptilian brain, when we have seen for ourselves what can happen when hatred, disgust, greed, or the desire for vengeance consume entire groups? In our perilously divided world, compassion is in our best interest. To acquire it, however, will demand an immense effort of mind and heart. Gandhi memorably said that we must ourselves become the change that we wish to see in the world. We cannot reasonably expect the leaders of our own or other people’s nations to adopt more humane policies if we ourselves continue to live egotistically, unkindly, and greedily, and give free rein to unexamined prejudice. We cannot demand that our enemies become more tolerant and less violent if we make no effort to transcend the Four Fs in our own lives. We have a natural capacity for compassion as well as for cruelty. We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion, and suspicion, or work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings. The choice is ours. (p. 22)

How do I start?

The demands of compassion seem so daunting that it is difficult to know where to begin–hence this twelve-step program. It will immediately bring to mind the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. We are addicted to our egotism. We cannot think how we would manage without our pet hatreds and prejudices that give us such a buzz of righteousness; like addicts, we have come to depend on the instant rush of energy and delight we feel when we display our cleverness by making an unkind remark and the spurt of triumph when we vanquish an annoying colleague. Thus do we assert ourselves and tell the world who we are. It is difficult to break a habit upon which we depend for our sense of self. As in AA, the disciplines learned at each step in this program have to become part of your life. (p. 23)

I picked up this book as part of my New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge because I became aware, in 2015, that I was addicted to outrage. That was causing me to spend inordinate amounts of time in nearly hidden corners of Facebook arguing with people who had no intention of changing their minds. As a tactic, outrage was ineffective in that arena. As a strategy, addiction was worse than useless — it led me to spend precious energy on a barely visible stage when I needed that energy to position my actions in spaces where they could be seen and heard. As I learn about compassion and follow the other eleven steps toward a more compassionate life in 2016, I hope that my way of being in the world becomes the change that I want to see.

Did these questions and answers help you? Do you have other questions that you want answered at the beginning of a journey toward a more compassionate life?


First Step: Learn #CompassionateSunday — 10 Comments

  1. What a wonderful post! I saw this book displayed at the local library this week and now I may have to pick it up. This year I saw myself learning about mindfulness. Compassion falls right into one reason we practice mindfulness.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Chick with Books

  2. It’s interesting that you’ve posted this because I had been thinking of dedicating a Sunday post to Mercy because of Pope Francis’ Jubilee year of Mercy running from November 2015 to November 2016. But I chickened out because I figured no one would be interested in reading what I had to say on the subject. And, after all, how much did I really have to say on the subject? 52 weeks’ worth of stuff? Probably not. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Exegesis #WondrousWordsWednesday | Joy's Book Blog

  4. Pingback: The Religion of my Youth #CompassionateSunday | Joy's Book Blog

  5. While reading the first chapter, I was pleased when Bernie Sanders answered a debate question regarding his faith that the foundation of his beliefs is the golden rule.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *