Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

by Karen Armstrong

Paperback, 2011

Call number

177.7 ARM



Anchor (2011), Edition: Reprint, 240 pages


Taking as her starting point the teachings of the great world religions, Karen Armstrong demonstrates in twelve practical steps how we can bring compassion to the forefront of our lives. Armstrong argues that compassion is inseparable from humanity, and by transcending the limitations of selfishness on a daily basis we will not only make a difference in the world but also lead happier, more fulfilled, lives.

Media reviews

Armstrong’s 12-step process attempts to peel away the fetters of the ego and enlarge our sympathetic capacity. For her, when we go beyond our likes and dislikes, our sense of self grows and our perspective fans out. Her commitment to this end is so fierce that long-time Armstrong fans may bridle at her direct instruction. But her goal is sure. Compassion for her is not simply warm-heartedness; it is energetic.
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I would bear all this with a better grace if she were at least a lively writer but, to be brutally frank, her style sets my teeth on edge. Certain favoured sentimental words recur with maddening regularity, and feel like bossy little tugs on the sleeve – “see things this way”: “spiritual”, “deep”, “profound”, “mystery”, “transcendent” – one begins to loathe the sight of them. This is inseparable from her rigorous avoidance of humour, wit or irony, her immovable earnestness, her sincerity. I agree with her that compassion is an important value, but it is not incompatible with lightness of touch.
But is she correct in suggesting that, au fond, the essence of the main religions boils down to compassion? It is probably correct where Buddhism is concerned and it is from Buddhism that her best insights and examples come. I think she is on shakier ground when she applies it to Christianity and Islam. Christianity and Islam are redemption religions, not wisdom religions. They exist to secure life in the world to come for their followers and any guidance they offer on living in this world is always with a view to its impact on the next. This radically compromises the purity of their compassion agenda. Let me offer one example to prove my point. At a meeting of primates of the Anglican communion, I was accused by one archbishop of filling Hell with homosexuals, because I was giving them permission to commit acts that would guarantee them an eternity of punishment, for no sodomite can enter Heaven. My worldly compassion for gay people, my campaign to furnish them with the same sexual rights as straight people, was actually a kind of cruelty. The price of their fleeting pleasures in this world would be an eternity of punishment in the next.

User reviews

LibraryThing member William345
I liked this book a lot. In it religious historian Karen Armstrong suggests a series of simple and easily achieved mental exercises that can help one increase one's capacity for compassion. Armstrong offers justification for these exercises by way of copious examples from the history of religion. Some of the examples I was familiar with from her longer and more detailed The Great Transformation, about religious development during what is known as the Axial Age (900-200 BC), though the impetus here is on personal transformation. Basically, and I don't mean to be reductive for the book is filled with intellectual riches, but the two key lessons here are, first, The Golden Rule -- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- and second, the discipline of mindfulness, which I know from my Buddhist studies but which has parallels across the religious spectrum. The book seeks to be practical. Armstrong's great gift is for showing how religions agree on certain principals across cultures and broad spans of time. She then prescribes simple exercises for instilling these helpful habits into one's daily life. It's really rather wonderful. I think, however, that the exercises themselves might have been set out typographically because they tend to get buried in the text. But this is a quibble. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member bezoar44
This is an immensely thoughtful book, and it is hard not to appreciate Karen Armstrong's project here: to outline a very practical, ethical path by which readers can develop compassion and empathy, and ultimately make the world a far better place. That said, if you are already familiar with world religions - and especially if you are more interested in what makes each distinctively itself, rather than in how to blend them together - Armstrong's exercise is likely to seem somewhat tedious. I skimmed the book twice, and suspect I'll have to be in the right mood to find it a compelling read. One of the details in the background of Frank Herbert's Dune series is a sort of universal religion, cobbled together by religious leaders from multiple terrestrial faiths, with a core text known as the Orange Catholic Bible. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life feels like a one-author Orange Catholic Bible, with all the wisdom and yet also the ersatz quality that implies.… (more)
LibraryThing member CGSLibrary
Contents: The first step : learn about compassion -- The second step : look at your own world -- The third step : compassion for yourself -- The fourth step : empathy -- The fifth step : mindfulness -- The sixth step : action -- The seventh step : how little we know -- The eighth step : how should we speak to one another? -- The ninth step : concern for everybody -- The tenth step : knowledge -- The eleventh step : recognition -- The twelfth step : love your enemies -- A last word.
Abstract: Taking as her starting point the teachings of the great world religions, Karen Armstrong demonstrates in twelve practical steps how we can bring compassion to the forefront of our lives. Armstrong argues that compassion is inseparable from humanity, and by transcending the limitations of selfishness on a daily basis we will not only make a difference in the world but also lead happier, more fulfilled, lives.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Laura400
An excellent and thought-provoking book arguing that the core value of all the great religions is, at base, the Golden Rule, and providing some some tips for applying it on a personal and even national level. It's not exactly a self-help book, but more of a philosophical book. Perhaps it's a self-help book for those who, like me, don't like self-help books. It's very learned and intelligent, and well-written. The last chapter, which tries to apply the principles of compassion to the international or political arenas, didn't really hang together to me, but that doesn't undermine the lessons of, and the motive behind, the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member TraceyChick
An excellent, thought provoking and inspirational read. it has helped me tremendously on the path to my spiritual development.Cant wait to read mor of her books.One to read and reread.
LibraryThing member Jessica_Olin
I tried to listen to this cd, but did not succeed, during a long road trip. I couldn't make it through the first cd. From almost the beginning the author was pompous in tone and presentation, such as how DARE anyone take into account both the good and the bad of individuals like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King Jr? Then when she talked about the artist's intent for those who painted in the caves in Lascoux as though it were fact, I couldn't continue. Unless you have a time machine there is no way to know what that individual was thinking. Heck, what contemporary artists report for their intent is still suspect since people lie. With Armstrong's academic background she should know better. It's too bad, too, since I was really hoping to like this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member readerweb
Twelve steps to create a better you and a better world. Karen Armstrong takes the Golden Rule and follows it through major religions to find a better way to live. She suggests that all follow the same Golden Rule and that by doing so make a better world. Karen Armstrong has written many books on religion and has received the TED prize.

Worth the time to read, time to think and time to put into action.
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LibraryThing member jorgearanda
I appreciate Armstrong's efforts, and I want them to succeed, but I felt that this was mostly Buddhism for those those too trapped in their own religion to research Buddhism confidently or earnestly.
LibraryThing member Fernhill
Armstrong knows a lot about many religions, and shows convincingly the common values of these. Conservatives of any of the religions probably wouldn't like the book.
LibraryThing member jepeters333
Believing the world could improve dramatically through kindness, Karen Armstrong urges listeners to develop a greater aptitude for compassion. Here, Armstrong offers a twelve-step guide that will show listeners how to merge their hearts with their minds.
LibraryThing member JudyCroome
A well-structured and systematic programme encouraging people of all faiths to practice conscious compassion in the same way we would learn any new skill. Armstrong’s belief that humanity has an innate capacity for goodness, which can override the baser instincts of the “crocodile brain” is reassuring. Her twelve steps provide a simple enough guide and, based on Socratic dialogue, ask questions that challenge the reader’s known perceptions.

Containing what seems like common sense to people who have already struggled with the concept of forgiveness and compassion this book will be a good place to start if one is just beginning the journey of enlightened (or compassionate) living.

Although she touches briefly on the need to apply the Golden Rule (to love our neighbour as we love ourselves) in families and neighbourhoods, the focus was more on the universal than the personal. Given Armstrong’s background as a strong advocate of interfaith dialogue, this is understandable, but I would have gained more if there’d been deeper discussion on the challenges of living a compassionate life in my ordinary day-to-day existence before I start worrying about healing breaches with people across the oceans. Yes, we live in a global village, but as Armstrong herself points out, compassion has to start at the very centre of our personal lives before it can spread to the outer reaches of the larger world we live in.

Still, any book that emphasises the need for love and compassion in our current world is a worthwhile read. I turned the last page feeling more hopeful for the souls of the human race than I have in a long time.
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LibraryThing member debnance
I liked this book, but I'd hoped to love it. Perhaps I didn't spend enough time with it...of course, I didn't do the prescribed exercises...does anyone really do them all? Lovely ideas here, but I think I've lived in macho-posturing Texas too long to have any real hope that compassion will take hold of our people. I will press on with the exercises; one must try.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
Ideas for how to live a more compassionate life drawn from mythology, philosophy, poetry, classical literature, and the world's major religions.
LibraryThing member TGPistole
Compelling case for compassion, accompanied, as would be expected of this author, by historical basis among the major religions. Readers of other books by Armstrong may be surprised as the "easy" reading style of this volume.




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