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Book Review: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

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All religions have some version of the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” — as part of the key to their practice. And yet, when we look around the world and see the atrocities that we enact upon one another, it’s hard to believe that anyone is taking this message of compassion to heart. Too much harm has been done in the name of religion. In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2011, Anchor Books), religion scholar and prolific writer Karen Armstrong invites members of all faiths to reclaim their spirituality and to embrace its true purpose and goal: compassion.

Awarded the 2008 TED Prize, Armstrong set out to draft a Charter for Compassion. This she did collaboratively with the online community and launched the resulting document in 2009. Through the Compassionate Action Network, she seeks to create an international fraternity of cities who practically implement compassionate ideals and encourage their citizens to demonstrate them in daily life. The book serves as a source of individual inspiration and as a handbook for compassionate community building and discussion.

The 12-step format intentionally mirrors the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to drive home the point that our future survival requires us to abandon our addiction to greed, envy, and over-ambition. Armstrong’s 12 steps lead us through education, empathy, mindfulness, humility, and finally loving our enemies. She draws from her wealth of knowledge of the major religions and of history to explain how and why we find ourselves at this point. While aggression and fear of the other served to help our distant ancestors survive attack, it does the opposite for our modern, global civilization. It is through interdependence that great advancements have been made and through compassion that we will thrive.

Armstrong’s opening chapter on her wish for a better world is incredibly inspiring and led me to the instant conclusion that this was an important and a worthwhile project. The steps really are best read in a discussion group atmosphere to encourage real reflection on the topics and creative brainstorming on how to practically live these words in our daily lives. Without the benefit of peers with whom to read this, it is far too easy to breeze through the steps without allowing the message to really sink in or doing the internal work necessary to see change in our own lives and how we interact with the world. But, if taken seriously and incorporated into our lives, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and its ideals really do have the potential to change the world.

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