Saturday, September 24, 2011

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong herself read this audio book, and her purposeful contralto voice was the ideal instrument for it. In November 2007, TED (Technology Entertainment & Design) awarded her a grant of  USD100,000 to further her work to improve the world. "I knew immediately what I wanted," she said. "Religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem." As a religious historian, Armstrong set out to put the Golden Rule, which is at the core of nearly all the world's spiritual practices, into action.  She gathered leaders of Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism, and together they drafted the Charter for Compassion.

Like the 12-step programmes for Alcoholics Anonymous, Armstrong intends readers to do more than flip pages.  This is not an academic treatise or political manifesto; it's a plan of action.

She begins at Step 1: Learn about compassion. She discusses the central role of the Golden Rule in all the world's major religions, and yet how often it's lost amidst trivial obsessions with clothing and dietary laws. Start with learning more deeply about the historical roots of compassion in your own religion or culture, she advises, and then learn about others.

In Step 3, she counsels us to show compassion for ourselves. If we fail to acknowledge our own pain and grief, how can we respond compassionately to others?

Step 6 calls for action (as do many of the others, actually).  At least once a day, put the Golden Rule -- in both its positive and negative forms -- into practice. Treat someone as you would wish to be treated and refrain from treating someone as you would not wish to be treated, at least once a day. If you realise at bed-time that you neglected to do so, refer to Step 3 and show yourself a bit of compassion, resolving to do better the next day.

Step 8: How do we speak to each other? In short, nowadays the answer most often seems to be in shouts. We debate to win; our aggressive discourse is aimed to discredit or undermine our opponent. The more polite, questioning dialogue of Socrates and the Buddha, aimed to elicit enlightenment, is nearly extinct.

Here, Armstrong addresses how today's combative communication methods have failed us. Every fundamentalist movement she's ever studied, regardless of which religion, is rooted in a deep fear of annihilation. This fear begins with a perceived assault by the liberal or moderate establishment. If we respond with anger, it just reinforces the fear. Fundamentalism is "an expression of anxieties that no society can safely ignore." She concedes that it's difficult to be calm and objective when we feel that fundamentalism is an attack on values that we hold dear -- freedom of speech, women's rights, etc. But aggression and insult only make matters worse. "We need to break cycle of attack and counter-attack. We've seen what happens when fundamentalist fear hardens into rage."

Linguists point out that when we hear something that sounds odd or false, we automatically try to find a context in which it makes sense. The same is true when we translate from a foreign language. They call this the principle of charity.  As part of this step, Armstrong urges, start with the assumption that the speaker shares your view, then question to gain more understanding. You have to recreate the entire context from which the words come.

Step 12, the last in terms of order and challenge though not in the sense of being final, is to love one's enemy. Armstrong pulls in all the scholarship and guidance that went into the preceding 11 steps as she encourages us to develop empathy for and a deeper understanding of an individual, state or culture that threatens us deeply. Remember, she says, the word love in Biblical times was a legal term. To love one's ruler, for example, was to show support and loyalty. I appreciate that bit of philology -- Armstrong is an excellent scholar. This is not a self-help book sloshing with emotion. If we develop our knowledge of someone who seems inimical, empathy will develop naturally, and from that, we will realise that we cannot annihilate our ostensible enemy without doing terrible injury to ourselves.

In her postscript, Armstrong reminds us that a programme to live with compassion is not something that can be achieved by reading a book, nor in 12 easy steps. It's a lifelong project, ending only with death, and it will be riddled with failure. Perseverance is critical. Daily practice is critical.  She also, however, encourages those of us who might object that we do not have the heroic qualities of a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, a Mother Theresa. People will flock to a compassionate person, a quiet and peaceful person, because they see in that individual a momentary haven of serenity. Being that person is living a worthwhile life.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an excellent book & the image is beautiful! Totally agree with Karen but treating others as you would like others to treat you might not work. People like being treated how they would like to be treated, not necessarily how one wants to be treated!


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