Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf, New York., 2010; 222 pages, ISBN 978-0307595591, hardback, $22.95.

Karen Armstrong, the moving force behind the Charter of Compassion introduced in 2009, brings her scholarship in comparative religious studies to bear on formulating a practical plan ordinary people can use to begin making compassion a living reality in their lives and therefore in the world.  The Charter of Compassion seeks to make the Golden Rule central to spiritual and secular life and especially to encourage the world's religions to make compassion a dominant factor in their goals and orientation. 

The program Armstrong outlines is twofold: changing the mind and expanding empathy.  She begins with the first aspect, asking readers to study different traditions' teachings on compassion and then explore deeply the tradition that interests them most or that they have the most sympathy with.  One strength of the book is that throughout examples from many traditions are used: not only Christian, Jewish, and Classical , but also Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, Daoist, and mythic. In later steps readers are encouraged, like Socrates, to realize how little they actually know and begin a search for truth that recognizes the second-, third-, and fourth-hand source of most of our current views and "knowledge."  Later still, readers pick one country or culture to learn about in depth as an enjoyable pastime, and also read a book on each side of a current political controversy involving different religions to try to gain a balanced view of both sides.

The development of empathy, which begins with the book's second step, involves finding new ways of applying ancient wisdom to deal with current challenges.  As examples, she brings up applications of the hero myth and of Confucius' ideas on family relations that hold to these systems' principles or original motivations but dispense with the specifics from earlier times that are no longer responsive to people's outlook today.

     As we begin our journey, we should recall that the sages, prophets, and mystics of these traditions did not regard compassion as an impractical dream.  They worked as hard to implement it in the difficult circumstances of their time as we work today to find a cure for cancer.  They were innovative thinkers, ready to use whatever tools lay to hand in order to reorient the human mind, assuage suffering, and pull their societies back from the brink.  They did not cynically throw up their hands in despair, but insisted that every person had the ability to reform himself or herself and become an icon of kindness and selfless empathy in a world that seemed ruthlessly self-destructive. – p. 64

She then recommends finding compassion for yourself while developing self-knowledge: "The Golden Rule requires self-knowledge; it asks that we use our own feelings as a guide to our behavior with others.  If we treat ourselves harshly, this is the way we are likely to treat other people.  So we need to acquire a healthier and more balanced knowledge of our strengths as well as our weaknesses." (p. 77)  In developing this compassion the author recommends a mediation that appears thoughout the book, one that originates in Buddhism.  The Buddha advised his monks:

When your mind is filled with love, send it in one direction, then a second, a third, and a fourth, then above, then below.  Identify with everything without hatred, resentment, anger or enmity.  This mind of love is very wide.  It grows immeasurably and eventually is able to embrace the whole world. – p. 85

As a start, she suggests, readers can do a daily meditation that takes a friendly attitude toward themselves, then gently put aside worries and anxieties, tap into their capacity for joy, and finally try to achieve an equal-minded or nonattached view of themselves.  "The faith traditions agree that compassion is the most reliable way of putting the self in its proper place, because it requires us 'all day and every day' to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there." (p. 87) 

When this meditation is mastered, the next step is to expand the practice by sending to someone the reader is indifferent to, someone s/he likes, and finally someone s/he dislikes thoughts of friendship, compassion for their suffering, and wishes for their joy, ending with taking a more impartial view toward them.  As Armstrong brings out, imagination is crucial to the compassionate life, and this is one way of using imagination to develop empathy.  Another path is through the arts, where people can experience vicariously the joys and sufferings of a wide variety of other people.  But she recommends each day after the meditation to "make a resolution that today you will translate these good thoughts into a small, concrete practical act of friendship or compassion." (p. 104)  Mindfulness is also important.  It involves becoming more aware of our thoughts and feelings and being able to step back from ourselves to have a clearer view: "This calm, dispassionate appraisal of our behavior helps us to become aware that our judgments are often biased and dependent on a passing mood, and that our endless self-preoccupation brings us into conflict with people who seem to get in our way." (p. 108)

But broadening our thoughts is not enough; there must be action.  Armstrong recommends that readers first commit to doing three compassionate actions each day: one that embodies "treat others as you'd like to be treated"; one that embodies "don't do to others what you wouldn't like done to you"; and a third where they change a negative thought or attitude to a positive one. As this becomes routine, then two of each of these actions each day can be attempted, with the ultimate goal being to work gradually toward the ideal of doing such actions "all day, every day."

Later, readers consider how and why they speak to others, whether they're seeking to find the best solutions, to win an argument or impose their views on others.  As Gandhi asked his followers: do you fight to change things or to punish?  Instead, readers are encouraged to enter on the search for truth, seeking to learn from others and being less attached to their own views as outgrowths of their ego.  A further step is to begin to develop concern for everyone, a concept of 5th-century Chinese philosopher Mozi.  Along these lines, we might take time to think of all the people (and other beings) who are involved in producing even the smallest things of daily life: the bread we eat, the clothes we wear, our toothbrush, the paper we write on, the water in our sink, the power that runs our lights, the gasoline for our cars, the lines painted on the roads. Hundreds of individuals are responsible for each aspect, from raw material, transportation, manufacture, and retail.  Human life is built on this interdependence.  This applies to religion, too, as Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240) brings out:

Do not attach yourself to any particular creed so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest; otherwise you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for, he says, "Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah." Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance. p. 155

Finally readers are encouraged to recognize what they can do to help others and to begin to love their enemies by expanding their mindfulness and meditations to include them.  This is an ambitious task.  As the author says, "the attempt to become a compassionate person is a lifelong project.  It is not achieved in an hour or a day – or even in twelve steps." (p. 192)  Still, this book contains many helpful suggestions for bringing more empathy for others and more compassion into our way of living. – Sarah Belle Dougherty