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4.4 out of 5 stars
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
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on 23 March 2011
8-10 March 2011, three dozen of us came to the Brahma Kumaris Retreat Centre near Oxford. We joined in a "Journey to Compassion," a pilgrimage linking Compassion, Forgiveness, and Silence. Camilla Carr led a compelling session on Forgiveness. She had been a hostage in Chechnya for over a year. Sister Maureen Goodman led us to silence. Wednesday, for four hours we took solitary walks among the great trees & thousands of daffodils. Rev Marcus Braybrooke conducted an Ash Wednesday Communion Service in the almost two century old chapel on top the hill.
We had several sessions on the Charter of Compassion, including Karen Armstrong's speech on receiving the TED Award. In this speech she introduced the Charter and told of bringing Muslim, Christian and Jewish theologians together to create the initial draft. The result is a very good document, which I have signed. But as Eastern Religions were not included in the initial draft, it lacks the wider reverence for all life and for this earth, our home. As Rev. Peter Owen Jones told us in a conference three weeks ago, Western Religions tend to be anthropocentric.
As we celebrated my birthday near Atlanta where I was born, I read part of Karen Armstrong's new book, TWELVE STEPS TO A COMPASSIONATE LIFE. The preface introduces THE CHARTER OF COMPASSION, & tells the story of its creation.
Perhaps inspired by the 12 steps of AA, this is a guide book for individuals or for group exercises.

Then, the first step is learning about compassion. The book is a tool to educate in the deepest sense: "To bring forth the compassion that exists potentially within every human being. ... You cannot learn to swim by sitting by the side of the pool watching others ..." Then (p. 23) she points out that myths are not to be taken literally. "A myth ... is an attempt to express the deeper significance of an event. "It is about timeless universal truth." To me ,from then on, the Chapter is TOO DENSE - She squeezes in texts of compassion from a dozen religions. In a sense the chapter is a footnote to her thesis that Compassion is at the heart of all religion, ethics, and spirituality.

The second step, "Look at your own world" could be retitled, "Look at your own human world." There is no mention animals or nature. Yet, the chapter is a helpful exercise to start with the family, and move to the workplace and on to the wider human world. (And I grant there is a danger in reverencing nature: some show more compassion for animals or for trees than for their human neighbours).

The third step is compassion for yourself. She learns from Rabbi Friedlander, "if you cannot love yourself, you cannot love other people either." She takes us through the dark side in which people are driven to self-hated. What we most attack in others is what we most fear in ourselves.

For this review, I jump to the last three steps. While the 7th Step is "HOW LITTLE WE KNOW," Not knowing is also the beginning of Step 10, KNOWLEDGE: Giving up Certainty. "We may not have Socrates to goad us into self-knowledge, ... but we can make a serious effort to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge. ... After the atrocities of September 11, 2001, I was often taken aback by the way some Christians berated the violence they attributed to Islam, showing a surprising blindness to the crusades, inquisitions, & wars of religion that had scarred their own faith

Expand your religious empathy. Karen Armstrong suggests chose one or two foreign countries or religions you find attractive. At least monthly, make a point of reading a novel or watching movies about the "stranger" you have chosen.
When you study another religion, attend a worship service. She tells that one of my favourite scholars, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, required his class in Islam to observe the Ramadan fast, and perform the daily prayers. "He was convinced that it is impossible to understand another faith simply by reading books."

The Eleventh Step is RECOGNITION. She tells the story of Christina Noble of Ireland, who was inspired by a dream to go work with the Street Children of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. People said she was trying the impossible. But Christina never forgot, "when I was a child I needed only one person to understand my suffering. ... One is very important." The chapter closes with three Biblical myths and the lesson: "A myth is a programme for action: you will recognize its truth only when you put it into practice."

Step 12 is LOVE YOUR ENEMIES. It begins with the "Dalai Lama's suggestion that the concept of war is outdated.,"
It renews Laozi's (Tao te Ching) vision of restrained war:
The good leader in war is not warlike. ...
To one who honours the world as his self,
The world may be intrusted.
The Torah permitted limited retaliation: "An eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth." Gandhi replied, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." This closing is a sermon from Gandhi, Jesus, the Dalai Lama and Martin L. King, Jr., who believed that the highest point in the life of Jesus was when he forgave his executioners. We are asked to look into the eyes of our enemy: "make place for the other, ... not simply impose our own will."
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 November 2016
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.

Robin Friedman
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on 29 May 2011
Having read the review for this book in The Times newspaper, I thought this would be a thoroughly enjoyable and "must read" book. However, I was very disappointed. Having ploughed through the entire book (it felt like that) I was left feeling all could have been said in just 4 sides. Indeed, the summary in The Times showing the points the author was trying to get across was better. Why was there no such 12 point summary in the book? OK I'll re-read it to see if I got it wrong, but honestly this was not the life-changing read I had anticipated.
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on 21 March 2011
Karen Armstrong says the principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions. The call is always to treat others as we wish to be treated. Her thought-provoking book "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life" is a powerful tool to cultivate and expand our capacity for compassion. The twelve steps ask us to "Imagine a World of Compassion" by learning about compassion for ourselves and the world. The exercises include deepening our empathy, mindfulness and action. How to cultivate concern for others, the awareness about how little we know and how to speak to another. The powerful stories and guidelines in the last steps illustrate how developing knowledge of self and others deepens our capacity to love without conditions which leads to the golden rule "Love Your Enemies" by treating others as you wish to be treated. She says a compassionate life is not a matter of only heart or mind but a commingling of the two.
Armstrong helps us understand the power of compassion by taking us on a journey though the history, literal, moral, allegorical and mystical interpretations of the prominent religions.
She says a person who is impartial, fair, calm, gentle, serene, accepting and openhearted is a refuge. They have gone beyond the limitations and partialities of selfhood. They touch a chord that resonates with our deepest yearnings. People flock to them for they offer a haven of peace in a violent, angry world. Although this is an ideal she says even if we achieve only a fraction of this enlightenment and leave the world marginally better our lives will have been worthwhile.
As the recipient of the 2008 TED Prize (given to people "with ideas worth spreading" and who have made a difference) Armstrong was given a sum of money and granted a wish for a better world. TED helped her create, launch and propagate a Charter for Compassion written by leading thinkers from a variety of major faiths. Her readers are invited to visit her website charterforcompassion[] as a symbolic act of commitment.
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on 4 February 2011
This book arrived promptly, was in new condition and as described.
Karen Armstrong is a wonderful writer, able to convey complex ideas and arguments in such a way that the non specialist can understand her easily. The book introduces the subject and then in twelve chapters of varying length makes the point for following a pattern of life which will gradually strengthen an attitude of compassion. The book argues that the quality of compassion has always been central to the great world thinkers and religions, and that it can be acquired with practice. She suggests that the book can be read straight through first, and that then the reader should return and take each chapter one by one, trying to fiollow the advice. It is, in one sense a self-help book, but has a universal importance.
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on 19 August 2016
Bringing compassion close to the reader and in everybody's heart, what more beautiful a book can do? Mutual understanding, the will to create a good world, grasping the realm of the unknown, never knowing yet sensing - really a joy to read.
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on 8 February 2011
This lady is one very well read and thoughtful writer. I am quite ancient, and reasonably well acquainted with the English language but I still needed a dictionary now and then!! Although I must confess this book is not as bad as her book about the Bible - she delights in using a hard word, when a soft one would do as well!

That said, this is one very readable book full of human down to earth problems that afflict us all, largely in our relationships with others. Analyses of these problems,discussion of solutions, and suggestions for improvement.

I thoroughly recommend it as an easy, thoughtful read, the sort where you read a page and then put the book down and spend the following half hour dreamily applying it to ones own life.

It makes one think anew.
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VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 7 January 2011
Karen Armstrong will be familiar to many readers as a historian of religion, but with this new book she is trying something new - a project, long dear to her heart, to create a 'twelve-step" style programme (à la Alcoholics Anonymous etc) to return spiritual practice to the centre of life. In particular, she is interested in how the world could change if everyone practised compassion on a daily basis.

Each chapter of the twelve in the book ask the reader to focus on something different to develop this body of compassion - meditating on someone you dislike, for example, or thinking about which of your most dearly-held beliefs are simply knee jerk, and could be less tightly-held-onto. I like the fact that she combines such deep knowledge of religious history with these practical exercises, and her suggestion that the book be read week by week in a discussion group seems a good one.

Although in Chapter One she argues that the focus on compassion is common to all the world's religions, the overall idea feels most heavily influenced by Buddhism, and mentions of mindfulness and meditation add to that impression. She clearly hopes that the book will still appeal to Christians Jews and Muslims, though, and is careful to detail how each of these traditions values compassionate thinking.

The one part of the book I found the least convincing was the introduction, which spent a lot of time discussing our evolutionary origins and the place of altruism in our lives in a way that I thought didn't strictly hold with much current scientific thinking. Lots of stuff about reptile brains that jars with The Evolution of Co-Operation (Penguin Press Science)Get past that, and there's lots to think about. Now acting on it is the next task...
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on 4 February 2011
I love Karen Armstrong's book. But this is more than a read, it's a way of life. She writes compellingly so that you know that there is another way
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on 26 December 2016
Good interesting book.
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