Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

3.6 41
by Karen Armstrong

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One of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world—author of such acclaimed books as A History of God, Islam, and Buddha—now gives us an impassioned and practical book that can help us make the world a more compassionate place.

Karen Armstrong believes that while compassion is intrinsic in all human beings,…  See more details below


One of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world—author of such acclaimed books as A History of God, Islam, and Buddha—now gives us an impassioned and practical book that can help us make the world a more compassionate place.

Karen Armstrong believes that while compassion is intrinsic in all human beings, each of us needs to work diligently to cultivate and expand our capacity for compassion. Here, in this straightforward, thoughtful, and thought-provoking book, she sets out a program that can lead us toward a more compassionate life.

The twelve steps Armstrong suggests begin with “Imagine a World of Compassion” and close with “Love Your Enemies.” In between, she takes up self-love, mindfulness, suffering, sympathetic joy, the limits of our knowledge of others, and “concern for everybody.” She suggests concrete ways of putting compassion into action in our everyday lives. And she makes clear that a compassionate life is not a matter of only heart or mind but a deliberate and often life-altering commingling of the two.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Lisa Bonos
Leaning on the wisdom of disparate faiths and belief systems, Armstrong lays out a pluralistic and, ultimately, secular way to spread compassion that's easy to believe in. The challenge lies in following it.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The prolific, well-informed, and passionate Armstrong (The Case for God) writes a somewhat different book this time out, stemming from her winning a ,000 prize in 2007 to promote an idea worth spreading. She always has a thesis in her books as she sweeps over the historical development of world religions, but this is a book with an agenda: you ought to be more compassionate, and here’s how. So instead of being her usual somewhat academic teacher of religious history, she is more of a personal spiritual teacher, in the vein of the Dalai Lama. That task, and corresponding tone (“Be patient with yourself during this meditation”), is not her long suit. Still, this slightly self-help-y book is deeply grounded in what Armstrong knows, and presents, well: the core teachings of all religions that can make us better, more compassionate humans. The former nun pulls ideas and references from religions Eastern and Western with aplomb and respect for all sources. This counter to the religion-is-homicidal-and-superstitious school of invective passing for thought is well-informed, welcome, and practical. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“Karen Armstrong is a genius.”
 — A.N. Wilson, author of Jesus: A Life
“Armstrong can simplify complex ideas, but she is never simplistic.”
 — The New York Times Book Review
“Armstrong is a masterful writer.”
 — Publishers Weekly
“Armstrong has the gift of being able to compress a lot of information into a small space without losing focus or clarity.”
 — Edmonton Journal

Library Journal
In early 2008, religious historian/New York Times best-selling author Armstrong was awarded a substantial cash prize from the nonprofit TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) to promote an idea that could "make a difference" in people's lives. Late the following year, after seeking input from leading thinkers of various faiths, she unveiled the Charter for Compassion (, a collaborative public project calling for the restoration of "compassion to the heart of religious and moral life." Here, she lays out 12 steps she feels are necessary to cultivating and expanding our capacity for compassion, e.g., "learn about compassion" and "love your enemies." Part religious exploration and part self-help tract, this timely and engaging work, gracefully read by the author herself, is a very important addition to all library collections. [The Knopf hc also received a starred review, LJ 1/11; the Anchor pb will be released in December 2011.—Ed.]—Beth Farrell, Cleveland State Univ. Law Lib.
Kirkus Reviews

A call for compassion based on the teachings of the world's religions.

After a fruitful career studying and writing about comparative religion, Armstrong (The Case for God, 2009; etc.) attempts to synthesize what she has learned in one manageable and practical volume. Her goal is to increase awareness that compassion is at the heart of all major world religions and to encourage her readers to practice this virtue. Compassion, she writes, is "an attitude of principled, consistent altruism," most often expressed in some variation of the Golden Rule. As the unifying tie of the world's religions, compassion is the one practice most able to bring about peace in the world. Armstrong structures her book as a 12-step guide toward becoming a more compassionate person. The author begins by giving readers the task of learning more about compassion and how it is practiced across the world and across time. She exhorts readers to become more self-aware and to love oneself ("The Golden Rule requires self-knowledge; it asks that we use our own feelings as a guide to our behavior with others"), and she encourages the realization of how little we really know about other people and other cultures, and to use that insight to more fully practice empathy. Armstrong also calls upon society to practice more effective communication: "We need to ask 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." Her steps conclude with the appeal to love one's enemies. Though the author realizes that her book may not result in a newly enlightened populace, she hopes to inspire readers to at least begin the process of becoming more compassionate. For those committed to the task, she cautions that "the attempt to become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project." As always, Armstrong weaves together the teachings of diverse religions in a graceful, approachable manner.

A commendable effort well-executed.

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Wish for a Better World

In November 2007, I heard that I had won a prize. Each year TED (the acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design), a private nonprofit organization best known for its superb conferences on “ideas worth spreading,” gives awards to people whom they think have made a difference but who, with their help, could make even more of an impact. Other winners have included former U.S. president Bill Clinton, the scientist E. O. Wilson, and the British chef Jamie Oliver. The recipient is given $100,000 but, more important, is granted a wish for a better world. I knew immediately what I wanted. One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you,” or in its positive form, “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody—even your enemies.

Yet sadly we hear little about compassion these days. I have lost count of the number of times I have jumped into a London taxi and, when the cabbie asks how I make a living, have been informed categorically that religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history. In fact, the causes of conflict are usually greed, envy, and ambition, but in an effort to sanitize them, these self-serving emotions have often been cloaked in religious rhetoric. There has been much flagrant abuse of religion in recent years. Terrorists have used their faith to justify atrocities that violate its most sacred values. In the Roman Catholic Church, popes and bishops have ignored the suffering of countless women and children by turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse committed by their priests. Some religious leaders seem to behave like secular politicians, singing the praises of their own denomination and decrying their rivals with scant regard for charity. In their public pronouncements, they rarely speak of compassion but focus instead on such secondary matters as sexual practices, the ordination of women, or abstruse doctrinal formulations, implying that a correct stance on these issues—rather than the Golden Rule—is the criterion of true faith.

Yet it is hard to think of a time when the compassionate voice of religion has been so sorely needed. 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 has erupted in terrorist atrocities that endanger us all. We are engaged in wars that we seem unable either to end or to win. Disputes that were secular in origin, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been allowed to fester and become “holy,” and once they have been sacralized, positions tend to harden and become resistant to pragmatic solutions. And yet at the same time we are bound together more closely than ever before through the electronic media. Suffering and want are no longer confined to distant, disadvantaged parts of the globe. When stocks plummet in one country, there is a domino effect in markets all around the world. What happens today in Gaza or Afghanistan is now likely to have repercussions tomorrow in London or New York. 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 our time.

So at the award ceremony in February 2008, I asked TED to help me create, launch, and propagate a Charter for Compassion that would be written by leading thinkers from a variety of major faiths and would restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life. The charter would counter the voices of extremism, intolerance, and hatred. At a time when religions are widely assumed to be at loggerheads, it would also show that, despite our significant differences, on this we are all in agreement and that it is indeed possible for the religious to reach across the divide and work together for justice and peace.

Thousands of people from all over the world contributed to a draft charter on a multilingual website in Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu, Spanish, and English; their comments were presented to the Council of Conscience, a group of notable individuals from six faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), who met in Switzerland in February 2009 to compose the final version:

"The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Compassion impels 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.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women

• to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion;

• to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate;

• to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures;

• to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity;

• to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community."

The charter was launched on November 12, 2009, in sixty different locations throughout the world; it was enshrined in synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches as well as in such secular institutions as the Karachi Press Club and the Sydney Opera House. But the work is only just beginning. At this writing, we have more than 150 partners working together throughout the globe to translate the charter into practical, realistic action.

But can compassion heal the seemingly intractable problems of our time? Is this virtue even feasible in the technological age? And what does “compassion” actually mean? Our English word is often confused with “pity” and associated with an uncritical, sentimental benevolence: the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, defines “compassionate” as “piteous” or “pitiable.” This perception of compassion is not only widespread but ingrained. When I gave a lecture in the Netherlands recently, I emphatically made the point that compassion did not mean feeling sorry for people, but the Dutch translation of my text in the newspaper De Volkskrant consistently rendered “compassion” as “pity.” But “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. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.

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.” This, he said, was the thread that ran right through the spiritual method he called the Way (dao) and pulled all its teachings together. “Our Master’s Way,” explained one of his pupils, “is nothing but this: doing-your-best-for-others (zhong) and consideration (shu).” A better translation of shu is “likening to oneself”; people should not put themselves in a special, privileged category but relate their own experience to that of others “all day and every day.” Confucius called this ideal ren, a word that originally meant “noble” or “worthy” but which by his time simply meant “human.” Some scholars have argued that its root meaning was “softness,” “pliability.” But Confucius always refused to define ren, because, he said, it did not adequately correspond to any of the familiar categories of his day. It could be understood only by somebody who practiced it perfectly and was inconceivable to anybody who did not. A person who behaved with ren “all day and every day” would become a junzi, a “mature human being.”

Compassion, therefore, was inseparable from humanity; instead of being motivated by self-interest, a truly humane person was consistently oriented to others. The disciplined practice of shu took you into a dimension of experience that was transcendent because it went beyond the egotism that characterizes most human transactions. The Buddha (c. 470–390 BCE) would have agreed. He claimed to have discovered a realm of sacred peace within himself that he called nirvana (“blowing out”), because the passions, desires, and selfishness that had hitherto held him in thrall had been extinguished like a flame. Nirvana, he claimed, was an entirely natural state and could be achieved by anybody who put his regimen into practice. One of its central disciplines was a meditation on four elements of the “immeasurable” love that exists within everyone and everything: maitri (“loving kindness”), the desire to bring happiness to all sentient beings; karuna (“compassion”), the resolve to liberate all creatures from their pain; mudita (“sympathetic joy”), which takes delight in the happiness of others; and finally upeksha (“even-mindedness”), an equanimity that enables us to love all beings equally and impartially.

These traditions, therefore, agree that compassion is natural to human beings, that it is the fulfillment of human nature, and that in calling us to set ego aside in a consistently empathetic consideration of others, it can introduce us to a dimension of existence that transcends our normal self-bound state. Later, as we shall see, the three monotheistic religions would arrive at similar conclusions, and the fact that this ideal surfaced in all these faiths independently suggests that it reflects something essential to the structure of our humanity.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 41 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Karen Armstrong brings her vast knowledge and her own compassionate nature to the writing of this book. A must read for all who are concerned about where our world is going and what we can do as an individuals to create better lives for ourselves and others.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent, excellent book. Should be required reading for politicians and, well, everyone who wants the global community to survive. She compresses her considerable knowledge of the world's religious beliefs into a very usable guide for living our lives without judging and condemning people who believe differently than we do. It gave me hope for humanity.a
ebony12 More than 1 year ago
This is a book everyone should read. We need to read it now more than ever. It does not matter if you are Christian or any other religion. It does not matter if you believe in anything. We all need compassion and we need to have compassion for everyone. America would be a better place to live if we could all have compassion.
SandyI More than 1 year ago
I've read several of her books and enjoyed every one of them. This book is more of a study book for me to read each chapter (more than once) and try to apply it in daily life and then move to the next chapter. I find it truly a book to change one's life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For such an intellectual, Karen is able to communicate with passion and covers every possible angle and history of the subject of compassion from a multitude of sources. A great learning tool.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I started reading this over a year ago, as part of a group that was reading one chapter a month and meeting once a month to discuss it. I had to abandon going to the group because of my teaching assignment (I had a night class). So, after going to an excellent talk about mindfulness in the classroom, I finally picked it back up and read it cover to cover. Armstrong suggests doing that, and then going back, chapter by chapter, and not moving on to the next chapter until you have successfully worked on each concept. It is a marvelous work and inspiring. It is not cheesy but a guide to sincere self-reflection. I do not even want to call it "self-help" because that would imply gimmicks and hokey stuff. This work is based on a lifetime of her exploring the world's religions and looking at the commonalities, as well as explaining how our brain work and how our actions affect it and us. I highly recommend it to anyone trying to better themselves.!
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