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.