Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

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Article Reviews
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
By Karen Armstrong (Knopf, 2010)

I read Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life shortly before Osama bin Laden was assassinated. In her last step, “Love your enemies,” Armstrong leads the reader through a meditation: “Bring to mind an ‘Enemy’ with a capital E.” I thought of bin Laden.

“Acknowledge your hatred. Take note of your profound reluctance to turn this enemy into a friend.” I like to think I’m compassionate, so I was surprised by my hatred. Even thinking of the circumstances that may have led him to become a terrorist didn’t help.

“Try to wish for your enemy’s well-being and happiness. . . . This is the supreme test of compassion.” And this is a supremely challenging book.

Thankfully, 11 steps precede “Love your enemies.” Armstrong recommends reading the book to the end once before starting on the steps, which include among others: learn about compassion, compassion for yourself, empathy, mindfulness, action, and concern for everybody.

In each step, the world-renowned religion scholar draws on the various traditions she has studied, from Christianity to Buddhism. She also draws on insights from science and philosophy. In doing so, Armstrong shows that all people share a concept of compassion. The introduction to ideas and practices of the “other” is part of the road to compassion, but Armstrong also encourages readers to learn more about the virtue in their own tradition.

Those familiar with Armstrong may find little new, but the book allows her to synthesize her work and build upon her Charter for Compassion project (charterforcompassion.org). “It is my study of the spiritualities of the past that has taught me all I know about compassion,” she writes.

I’d like to think that the book made me reluctant to celebrate bin Laden’s death, but I still felt relief at the news. Thankfully, in her “last word,” Armstrong reminds us that developing compassion “is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day—or even in 12 steps.” But her 12 steps are a good start.


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