It is somewhat ironic that an appeal for universal altruism must be packaged as a self-help program to attract an audience these days, but such is the state of our world. In this her latest work, renowned author Karen Armstrong offers little that is new - attend any Unitarian Universalist service for proof - but that in no way diminishes her message: "it has become imperative to apply the Golden Rule globally".
To her credit, the author does not use this book to debate dogmas or make theological truth claims (see her Case for God for that), nor does she deny scientific facts or try to justify atrocities committed in the name of God. The only premise she requires the reader to accept is that religion at its best can inspire people to goodness and to greatness. To that end, she prescribes a two-step process disguised as a dozen: first, learn the Golden Rule; second, live it, "a struggle that will last until our dying day."
Fundamentalists of all faiths will reject this book, offended that it paints their absolute truths as merely useful myths. The anti-religious are also certain to attack it for elevating pleasant falsehoods above that which can be proven scientifically. To everyone living their lives between these two extremes I am happy to recommend this book.
Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who has written widely on religious issues. In 2007, Armstrong was awarded a substantial cash prize from a nonprofit organization known as TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) to promote ideas that could "make a difference" in people's lives. Armstrong opted to use the award to promote the development of compassion. She worked with religious leaders from a variety of traditions to formulate and develop a "Charter for Compassion" that would "restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life." The Charter was unveiled in Washington, D.C. in December, 2009. It is also available on the web together with an invitation to readers to sign on to and try to realize its principles.
As part of her project, Armstrong also wrote this book "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life" in which she explains the nature and importance of compassion and offers a 12-step plan for increasing the degree of compassion one achieves in one's own life. Armstrong begins with the Golden Rule in both its negative formulation: "Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you"; and in its positive formulation: "Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself." As did the Jewish sage Hillel in a story Armstrong quotes when asked to explain succinctly the teachings of the Bible, Armstrong believes that "the rest is commentary" to be studied learned, and practiced.
Armstrong's short book shows a great deal of erudition as well as wisdom. She has studied and learned a great deal from many religious traditions, including Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She presents complex material in an effective manner. But the scope of the learning in this book is much broader. Armstrong uses well philosophers beginning with Socrates and Plato, through the Greek-Jewish philosopher Philo and through the modern analytic philosophers Quine and Donald Davidson to say important things about the nature of wisdom and of human communication. She has a strong literary background which makes especial use of Homer and the Greek tragedians. And she begins with a naturalistic approach, making effective use of the contrast between the "reptilian brain" and its struggle for the "four F's" and the warm-blooded human brain. A thorough and excellent bibliography is the final indication of the thought and reading that Armstrong has put into this book.
With this background, it is unsurprising that the first of Armstrong's 12 steps towards increasing one's ability for compassion is to learn about it. She suggests reading and study, either by oneself of preferably in the company of other people representing different faith traditions (including secularism.) I was pleased to see this emphasis on study and the life of the mind, which tends to be unusual in books about spirituality.
In the remaining chapters, Armstrong develops a program based upon a concentric approach --- beginning with trying to understand and develop compassion towards oneself and then gradually developing outward until one is finally able to see the value of and to try to practice loving one's enemies. Armstrong offers good discussion, examples, and exercises for each step with the goal that her readers will take time on each single step before moving on to the next. The process is not difficult to state, but it is hard to realize. One must recognize one's own fallibility. From reading her programme, I believe that Buddhism has been the greatest influence upon Armstrong, as she makes extensive use of several Buddhist meditations and texts. I was reminded of many of the books by the Dalai Lama on the subject of compassion and toleration.
I have been attracted at different times in my life, sometimes simultaneously, to varying teachings of secularism, Buddhism, and the Judaism in which I was born. These traditions all have helped me, but the tension among them can make me uneasy with myself and sometimes with others. It is good to try work on oneself and one's own doubts and ambivalences to try to help understand and respect others.
I found this book helpful. There are times when Armstrong, to my mind, forgets her own broad principles of toleration, questioning, and understanding, and rushes to or advocates substantive positions on political, economic, or religious issues that seem to me dubious at best. Lessons of compassion are never fully learned.
Karen Armstrong's latest work, "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life," is a fascinating look at concepts of compassion across all of the world's major faiths -- and includes the concept that one need not be religious in order to have a compassionate viewpoint (something that many religious writers nowadays seem to ignore).
Armstrong starts with an overview of compassion as discussed in various religious writings from around the world and then shows twelve ways to incorporate the practice of compassion into life. She likens her book to the twelve steps of recovery, in that one should be familiar with all of the steps and then go back to step one as a starting place. Each step builds on the one previously as Armstrong demonstrates that even thinking differently about those we love is a beginning. She builds through thinking, speaking and acting differently toward those to whom we feel indifference or even active dislike.
At no point does Armstrong equate compassion to pity, because the two are not the same. Instead, she shows how compassion can be considered as simple kindness in thought, word and act. Nor does Armstrong suggest that this will automatically make you like someone whose actions disgust or disturb you, but instead she points out that it is possible to see where your "enemy" (for lack of a better term) has come from to reach the point where they are.
I enjoyed the book and have found myself re-examining some of my own viewpoints as a result of the reading. Highly recommended for those with a somewhat philosophical bent.
(Review based on uncorrected advance proof.)
I was very hesitant to read this book because I was afraid it would be filled with religious dogma. Specifically, Christian religious dogma since I knew Karen Armstrong was previously a nun. Being a Buddhist, I tend to eschew books that proselytize. But I read more about Karen and decided to take the plunge. How refreshing her book turned out to be!
Let me say first off that I treasure books and try to keep them in pristine condition, barely opening the covers so I don't break the spine or hold it in any way that taxes the binding. I always clean my hands before touching a book. But while reading Armstrong's words, I found so many sentences profound, thoughts that shimmered with clarity that I found myself doing the unthinkable - taking a highlighter and highlighting noteworthy passages! Worse yet, I uncapped a pen and scribbled notes within the margins, thoughts that I want to remember for the next reading of the book for surely I will read this book many times over again.
Armstrong points out that in today's world, peace is paramount. Never has our ability to wreck destruction upon each other been greater and yet religion, the thing that should compel us towards peace is actually a separating agent. Hostilities arise in the name of religion. Take a look at the present conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. History is blood-speckled with crusades and the like but Armstrong argues they really aren't about religion. The people in power merely invoke religion as the palatable face of the war, but the real reason is always something secular such as economics, border disputes or control of resources.
Armstrong asserts that if you are truly a student of religion, you see that while they differ in many ways they have a core that is universal. All religions teach the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. And it should be this one binding principal that should unite the world in compassion. Then she goes to outline 12 steps one should follow to become a more compassionate person.
The more I read of the book, the more I thought that Karen must be a remarkable woman. She pulls many lessons from a variety of religions and judges none of them. Her words are like balm, soothing and gentle, and at no time did I feel preached to. More akin to having a discussion with a wise friend.
I hope that everyone - regardless of religion, gender, nationality, race or social class - will take to time to read her wise words.
How do you choose to live in a world where we bespeak survival of the fittest as the noble argument of the capitalist focus on greed and consumption? A world where we denigrate the Golden Rule as fools' drool? This is the journey of transformation that Karen Armstrong plans for us.
I met Ms. Armstrong in the new book section of my public library soon after 9/11. I was seeking answers to wars and peoples about whom I had poor knowledge and no real contact. I was introduced to her scholarship on history and ancient literature. From "Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet" to "Islam: A Short History", I began my search for understanding. I found in her a guide who was respectful with intelligent analysis and commentary.
When I saw "Compassion", I approached with curiosity because of the author. Will reading 12 Steps make me compassionate. No. Rather it shows me how much real work is to be done. Uncomfortable, active work, not passive. It requires relinquishing fear-including all the fears and snarkiness that daily surround in the news and in the volatility of our economy. It will require working every day. It will require becoming intentionally human. It is because I understand the challenge that my base reaction is to flee.
This is a book that explores different religions through common essentials. Ms Armstrong points out that relinquishing egotism requires similar dedication and a program like Alcoholics Anonymous. This book desperately wants to subscribe its readers to be better, to seek their heroic potential. My foot is placed lightly on the door's threshold, poised to bolt. Ms Armstrong correctly entices her readers to read the program through then to read again, beginning each step, not proceeding until the current step becomes part of everyday life, innate, mastered. Intellectually, the reader succumbs to reasons why it is important that compassion become part of everyday life and yearns for the promised development of spiritual awakening. Though I don't believe I will see a utopian government, this is a book to have in the dark of night.
The curious, casual reader secretly hopes that those around us start the journey before us. This is a book for me to take slowly and hope, like in Pascal's wager, that when my world is badly shaken, I can proceed swiftly. But for now, my next step is to buy a copy for any courageous friend. Perhaps we can learn to endure with another person and, as Ms Armstrong paraphrases the Dalai Lama, that we become "a better human being".
As I look at my badly dog-eared paperback copy, I realize that the next time I venture in, it should be with an eBook--one where I can note thoughts and have in my pocket to examine and contemplate during moments of weakness. Beware, this book is a struggle.
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong is a book that is so practical and yet profound that I honestly feel speechless, unable to formulate an adequate way of singing its praises. Every now and again I read a book that makes me ache for a reading buddy or reading group that would share and discuss the ideas presented with me.
This is one of those rare books, a book that encourages the reader to not merely read the words but become engaged with the ideas presented in order to build a more compassionate world. If Gandhi is right and we need to be the change we wish to see in the world, Armstrong's book is a clarion call to everyone. The world is urgently in need of change; let it begin with each one of us.
Armstrong's ecumenical approach to the idea (ideal) of compassion begins with brief survey of religious history, focusing on how six of the major religions emerged out of the changing needs of their societies. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism all are represented and appreciated on the pages of this book for what each has to offer. From looking at the roots for these various religions, the author moves into looking at contemporary times, recognizing how history has informed our current circumstances. Then she unsurprisingly invites the reader to begin exploring compassion by offering compassion to the self.
This is not merely a book of principle or ideals but a practical guide for how to understand the need for compassion, the various streams in which compassion is taught, and then how to grow in compassion in an increasingly larger circle of influence. Early in the book she suggests that the reader go cover-to-cover, to know where the ideas are heading and then return to the beginning and this time around read each chapter with a commitment to put the ideas into practice. At the end of the boo, there is a bibliography that lists a broad range of books affording the individual an opportunity to explore more deeply, more fully, the tenets presented throughout. The recommended reading is as ecumenical as the book itself, offering disparate viewpoints that are bound to create dialogue.
How often does one come across a book that is both inspiring and practical? Not as often as one would hope. This is one of those rare treasures, a book I would eagerly and joyously recommend to everyone I know and love.
Karen Armstrong's most recent book combines elements of comparative religion from her previous work, an advertisement for the Charter for Compassion that was the result of her award from the TED foundation, and a prescriptive program (12 steps!) for religious people to give rise to more compassionate world. The steps move from self-recognition and evaluation of one's world and the people around one toward more concrete steps including dialogue and active understanding, all of which are supposed to lead the reader toward greater consciousness of his place in the world and responsibility to act compassionately toward others, in deeds as much as in speech. Throughout, Armstrong illustrates with examples from the literature, philosophy and theology o the great world religions, as well as from examples people have given in our own lifetimes.
Based on my appreciation of her other work, I was really looking forward to this title, but it ultimately disappointed me. I am absolutely behind the idea that compassion is the most vital religious idea and one that we need to see more of expressed in the world, particularly among people who claim they are religious. It's astounding to me when I see people who claim to represent religions of love preaching hate or acting in hateful ways. But there are at least two points at which the book is less than persuasive for people know anything much about the history of the last two centuries. The first is her insistence on grounding altruistic behavior in human biological impulses. She concedes that altruism may stand behind self-preservation, but her argument that humans are evolutionarily set up to help each other will fail to convince audiences who reject arguments about evolution (=many religious people in the US, for example) and those who believe, as I do, that evolution is a trope for understanding the world that is unique to the modern period of history -- not an absolute statement about the way things work. If you want to push altruism, it seems to me, the only way to do it is as a value, because that's the only way it will survive what appears from my perspective to be widespread skepticism about and the ultimate disappearance of the evolutionary model for understanding human affairs. The second is her interest in having governments and states serve as agents of compassion. Again, this is likely to fall flat among readers who participate in the growing animosity against the state in the West. However, it also seems unconscionably naive about two centuries of world history in which states that espoused religious programs or quasi-religious programs were responsible for some of the most anti-compassionate measures in human history, among them genocides.
What's good in this book is that it encourages people to be more compassionate. Make yourself more compassionate. Try to be an example to others. Hope it spreads. I think that's all we can do. I hope it's enough.
While I admire and applaud Karen Armstrong's desire and effort to increase compassion this book simply fell flat for me. Armstrong does make a strong argument that compassion is an important part of the best of being human. This was for me was the only high point of the book. While there are flashes of interesting discussion, most of it was slow and not particularly fluid reading and poorly written compared to her other books. Armstrong's scholarly style seems particularly awkward and ill suited to what is meant to be a motivational effort. I particularly disliked the device of using a "12-step" program approach as a way of attempting to organizine the book. While the 12 steps are all clearly laudable, Armstrong offered little to nothing in terms of progression or linkage between the steps that convinced me that they are really the key to "producing compassion" or even how they relate. While I enjoyed the Third Step of "Compassion for Yourself" most of the other 11 steps/chapters simply left me flat. I did like Armstrong's recounting of Christina Noble's story in the "Recognition" chapter of how her vivid dream of children in peril led her from her home in London to helping children in the slums of Vietnam. Noble's story is told in Bridge Across My Sorrows. I wish it was possible to produce compassion by a series of steps but I suspect based on the example of Noble's story and my own experiences that the process is much more individualized than that. For example, I don't think Ghandi, Mother Theresa or (...Name your own hero) went through a 12-step program to learn compassion. I was also disappointed by the oversimplification of only exploring the similarities between the varied traditions of compassion without mentioning the differences that strongly influence how compassion is expressed and even what it means.
on August 4, 2011
At a young age, we likely heard from our parents the importance of the Golden Rule--a maxim that we should treat others the way that we would want to be treated. In our polarized world today, however, we've failed to understand and to apply the Golden Rule, says Karen Armstrong in her Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. A reader of Armstrong's works for the past ten years, this latest installment differs in that it provides us with practical steps that anyone can embrace toward becoming a person of compassion.
Known primarily as a scholar of religious history, Armstrong incorporates evolutionary science in her first step Learn About Compassion to support her position that compassion is wired in the brain as much as the 4 Fs--Food, Fight, Flight, and reproduction--are. Armstrong builds upon "the two brains" concept throughout the remaining eleven steps as a way to gauge our own progress toward a compassionate life but also to ground our thoughts, behaviors, and failings in scientific fact. Bringing evolution into the religious arena may be too much for some to swallow; however, Armstrong is fair-minded when recommending that we review our own faith tradition as we progress through the twelve steps.
The other eleven steps--Look at Your Own World, Compassion for Yourself, Empathy, Mindfulness, Action, How Little We Know, How Should We Speak to One Another?, Concern for Everybody, Knowledge, Recognition, and Love Your Enemies--are organized from examining ourselves, to learning how to be compassionate with people around us, to enacting compassion in the world. There is a predictable pattern to each chapter. Armstrong provides an anecdote that demonstrates the step, follows it up with examples of how spiritual leaders of the past have approached it, and then ends with related questions and advice for us to accomplish the step.
A skeptic may look upon these as nothing more than failed idealistic virtues, but, as Armstrong points out, becoming compassionate takes rigorous work up until our final moments of life. In other words, as the twelve steps for an alcoholic can be demanding, so too are these twelve. If we are truly committed to living a compassionate life, then we must be willing to dedicate ourselves the same way the sages of the Axial did during violent and destructive times.
I will not do an exhaustive review of each step because that would take too long and would be a mistake on my part for attempting to impose myself on your interior space. However, the eighth step How Should We Speak to One Another? and the tenth step Knowledge speak volumes about the polarization we now encounter in the world around us. One unfortunate trend today is the attack and counterattack model, where, for example, "experts" appear on popular cable channels not only to present their position but to annihilate and humiliate the opposing viewpoint.
Instead of resolving anything, all that is stirred is our emotions, and, as a result, we watch the next episode hoping to hear how the expert from "our side" will belittle the opponent. If we truly want ourselves, our country, and our world to live according to the Golden Rule, this type of rancorous speech must end. What should that mean for us? According to Armstrong, a compassionate person must admit that we do not know everything (in fact, very little) and that we must be willing to listen to our enemies with an open mind and heart. Unfortunately, we are so used to fighting our opponents and then fleeing to a channel that supports our views that we never cross over into a realm of possibility.
A little over two hundred pages, Twelve Steps is probably one of Armstrong's shortest books, but because it is, I will return to it periodically as I work through each step. If you read this book in a day or two and then shelve it, then likely you've missed the point. This is a book calling all of us to action, and if you believe in a more compassionate world, then this book is a great resource for you to begin that important journey.
Religious liberals have an odd relationship with spiritual discipline. Many tend not to value it. Others find it difficult to create a path that is not based on dogma. Karen Armstrong points the way here. In fact, she is convinced that spiritual discipline is the only possible solution to the threat created by religious fundamentalism in a modern world.
Since 9/11, few people have expended more energy examining the religious forces that gave rise to that day's terrorist attacks than Armstrong. A former nun, she is deeply acquainted with all the world's religions, and in her latest book, she seeks to distill the common threads that run through them.I wish she hadn't called it 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, because it's not about the topic usually associated with 12-Step programs (which is not to say people in them wouldn't find it inspiring.)
She begins with compassion and concludes with loving our enemies. In between, there is a wealth of moving teachings from six faith traditions: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism as well as the philosophy of ancient Greece.
The step I found most useful was No, 8: How do we speak to one another? In a nation where the airwaves and internet reverberate with all kinds of bigotry and hatred, I was looking for a little guidance, and what she said surprised me: "...when politicians or pundits have insisted that Islam is an inherently violent, intolerant faith and that the practice of veiling should be banned, I have written articles, based on my study of Islamic history, that challenge this. But I have recently decided that this is counterproductive." The result, she said, is that the article is virulently attacked and the attackers' argument vehemently repeated. She suggests that posing Socratic questions that lead us to personal insight may more useful than trying to bludgeon people into accepting our point of view.
This is a short book, and Armstrong suggests that it might be useful to read in a study group. I wish I had a carton to pass out to people I know.