Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong asks us to be compassionate with everyone, all the time, including those we consider our enemies. Armstrong is was born in Great Britain and has authored over 20 books comparing the world’s major religions. She makes the case that without compassion humanity cannot survive over the long term.

The Big Ideas!

  • Compassion is not pity. It is an extension of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or, stated from the other direction, “Those things you hate when done to you, do not do to any other person.”
  • All of the world’s major religions call for compassionate thought and behavior.
  • We can all learn to become more compassionate by following twelve steps outlined in the book.

In a Nutshell

Armstrong lays out a clear time line that shows how compassion has been a foundational element of every major world religion. Confucius, speaking in China 500 years before the birth of Christ, is credited with first calling for compassion as part of the Way (dao). Buddha some 40 years later spoke of compassion as “the desire to bring happiness to all sentient beings” (karuna). Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions each call for compassion as cornerstones of their teachings. Yet the evolution of our brains is still ruled to some degree by the older primitive, “reptilian” brain that is interested only in what Armstrong calls the “Four F’s:” Food, Fighting, Fleeing and – substituting a more polite word – reproduction. The human brain has developed new structures over the eons that moderate those primitive, survival-based behaviors. Yet only by learning compassion can humanity rise above our baser instinctual behaviors to live with care, respect, honor, concern and compassion for all others.

Extended Summary

Step One – Learn About Compassion

We have to learn about compassion before we can begin practicing it. Armstrong begins with a discussion from prehistory showing how caring for others in the tribe became important to the survival of the tribe. Later, between 900 and 200 BCE a “spiritual revolution” developed that ultimately influenced Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam to integrate compassion as a key element of belief and behavior toward others. Yet over millennia the Four F’s ruled most human behavior as one group attacked another, often killing women, children and old men to gain land, wealth and power. A few notable leaders pressed for compassion but the uglier parts of our human nature seemed to rule. We are left today with having to make a choice between our old “reptilian brain” and the Four F’s versus a caring, respectful and courteous approach to every person, which Armstrong calls compassion.

Step Two – Look at Your Own World

How can you become more compassionate in your own family? How can you behave toward your family as you would like them to behave toward you? Expanding your circle of compassion a bit further, what can you do in the workplace to extend more compassion; to let the Golden Rule guide your business dealings rather than focusing only on money, power and outward signs of success? Reaching out further yet, what about our nation? Do we educate our children with the intent to teach compassion and caring, or are we simply preparing them for a dog-eat-dog life? How can our politicians and leaders govern and set domestic and foreign policy using the Golden Rule? Can you imagine how different the world would be if we each took steps to make compassion a focal point at home, in the workplace, in school and at a national level? Step Two simply asks you to consider these important ideas.

Step Three – Compassion for Yourself

Without learning compassion for yourself it is not possible to truly feel compassion for others. This chapter suggest that you should “Love your neighbor as yourself” with a focus on the second half of the sentence: learn to love yourself. We all suffer with the Four F’s from our reptilian brain and can easily make a list of things we’ve done wrong over the years, blaming and disparaging ourselves and “beating ourselves up” for those perceived defects and flaws. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge those negative past events are part of your being human. Now, make a list of your good qualities, kindnesses you’ve extended to others, things you have accomplished and your strengths. Contemplate your good qualities and you’ll be on the way to loving yourself more than ever before. The Buddha sometimes had negative thoughts, but he simply acknowledged them then said “This thought is not mine, it is not me.”

In the process of acknowledging but putting aside those ego-centric thoughts created by his old brain, Buddha was able to set aside his ego (anatta) – the part of mind that we each refer to as “I” or “me.” In so doing he lost self-preoccupation and gained great peace and happiness.

Armstrong suggests we meditate using Buddha’s Four Immeasurable Minds of Love directed at ourselves: friendship (maitri), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita) and even-mindedness (upeksha). She offers guidance on how such meditation can transform our self-image and allow us to feel compassionate toward ourselves.

Step Four – Empathy

Ancient Greek playwrights — Aeschylus, Euripides and others — wrote tragedies that posed horrendous and insoluble problems to the characters so sad they would bring audiences to tears. Once each year during the celebrations surrounding Dionysus, every Greek citizen was required to attend a trilogy of plays. This was “both a spiritual exercise and a civic meditation, which put suffering on stage and compelled the audience to empathize with men and women struggling with impossible decisions and facing up to the consequences of their actions.” This annual reminder helped cement the entire Greek culture, making its citizens more empathetic, more tolerant and more compassionate – reminding each person that we each have personal sorrows and difficulties.

Armstrong expands on the meditation in Step Three so that you are now extending the Four Immeasurable Minds of Love to three people. One person is a friend or member of your family. The next is one for whom you have no strong feelings either positive or negative. The third person is one you do not like and perhaps would consider an enemy. As you meditate you are guided to project each of the four kinds of love to each person, acknowledging that even the “enemy” is a person much like you with pains, worries, ambitions and who wishes for happiness and joy. Repeating this meditation regularly helps you think positively of all other people as you think positively of yourself.

Step Five – Mindfulness

One of the amazing accomplishments the Buddha achieved through his spiritual growth was detaching from his ego — that part of our minds we refer to as “I” and “me” — by observing the way our minds work. Armstrong provides an excellent list of “Further Reading” on the neurological makeup of the brain, but advises that reading them is not essential. “Practice is more important than theory, and you will find that it is possible to work on your mental processes just as you work out in the gym to enhance your physical fitness.”

Armstrong goes on to say, “With mindfulness, we use our new analytical brain to step back and become aware of the more instinctive, automatic mental processes of the old brain. With mindfulness we live in the moment, observing the way we speak, walk, eat and think.” With practice we can learn to become indifferent to the Four F-type thinking of our old brain. We can learn to acknowledge those primitive thoughts, but to largely ignore them by choosing to believe “those thoughts are not who I am.”

Step Six – Action

We can each choose to create what poet William Wordsworth called “spots of time” during which we take action to be compassionate with another person. A “spot of time” might be a moment when you make a heart-felt compliment to another for what they have done or for some quality they possess. Sometimes your compliment is very meaningful to the other person and becomes a “spot in time” they will never forget.

Step Seven – How Little We Know

“All too often people impose their own experience and beliefs on acquaintances and events, making hurtful, inaccurate, and dismissive snap judgments, not only about individuals but about whole cultures. It often becomes clear, when questioned more closely, that their actual knowledge of the topic under discussion could be comfortably contained on a small postcard.”

We often see “talking heads” on TV expressing “facts” that are patently inaccurate. How much do they really know about the given topic? We see newscasters summarizing a complex geopolitical problem in a 30-second report. How much do they really know about the myriad issues involved? We hear a friend or associate opine on some issue, but we know he or she carries a strong bias on the subject. We can wonder: How much does he really know and to what extent is he willing to consider alternate points of view?

The goal of this step is three-fold:

  1. To “recognize and appreciate the unknowable,” acknowledging that truly understanding God and other ineffable qualities is simply beyond the ability of the human mind.
  2. To “become sensitive to over-confident assertions of certainty” both in what we and others say. What may seem certain may in fact be incorrect. There are very few absolutes in life, witness the old “certain” belief that the Earth was the center of the universe.
  3. To become aware of the spiritual aspect of each person we meet throughout the day. We are all spiritual beings yet rarely acknowledge that reality in our daily affairs.

Step 8 – How Should We Speak to One Another?

Armstrong characterizes Socrates, Plato, Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus as each having taught their students to always speak kindly and courteously. We can pay attention to where other people are coming from during a discussion and answer them with kindness, rather than simply assuming “they are wrong and I am right.” Armstrong asks, if you want “to win the argument or seek the truth?” We always have room to consider the other person’s situation, life circumstances, personal history and other factors that may have contributed to their point of view on any particular topic.

This step is designed to make us more mindful of the manner in which we speak to others. It’s always best to avoid sarcasm, to avoid getting carried away with your own strong belief, to avoid using inflammatory speech, avoiding trying to “win” the discussion at all costs, even at risk of hurting the other person. Simply, be mindful as you speak.

Step 9 – Concern for Everybody

To this point in the book, Armstrong has focused on personal thought and behavior and how we can extend compassion in our local area of the world. Step Nine asks that we extend compassion to everyone, even including our enemies. As part of our mindfulness practices that began in Step 3 she asks that we take note of the way “you and your friends speak about foreigners.” We are asked to “Listen critically to the voices in your own society that preach hatred or disdain of other national, religious and cultural traditions.”

The Sufi’s are a branch of Islam. In about the year 1200 Muid ad-Din abn al-Arabi, an influential Sufi philosopher said this:

“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 rail to recognize the real truth of the matter.” We can all take heed to this wisdom when thinking of others, even those we consider uninformed, pretenders or enemies.

Step 10 – Knowledge

We can gain true knowledge of others by making a concerted effort to learn more about them. Armstrong suggests a creative and enjoyable way of gaining that knowledge. Instead or criticizing or blaming a foreign country, culture or religion, you can begin by “adopting” them and learning more about them.

“Once or twice a month make a point of reading an article or a novel or watching a movie about the stranger you have chosen, so that it becomes a vivid and regular presence in your life. Ask yourself what this foreign national or religious tradition can teach you. Are there things that they do better than we do? Have then influenced us in the past? What do you think we could do to teach them?”

Gaining true knowledge about others is a key step in learning compassion.

Step 11 – Recognition

We can choose to recognize the pain others are experiencing. Armstrong tells the story of Christina Noble who had a dream of a naked girl child running down a dirt road to escape certain death from a napalm attack during the war in Viet Nam. Christina became orphaned herself, living in public toilets and under trees in her native Dublin. At her lowest point she was raped by two men and realized she had no one to turn to for help. Even the local church kicked her into the streets.

Some time later she encountered two street children and, instead of turning away from them, embraced them and told them she would take care of them. This was her moment of recognition when “she saw herself; she realized there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ at the end of the day they [we] are all the same.”

This step encourages us to recognize that “strangers” and others are just the same as us. We can all take steps to be compassionate, loving and caring.

Step 12 – Love Your Enemies

The greatest expression of compassion is loving your enemies. Those who would hurt you, kill your body, insult your mind. If we are to live in a world that is destined to survive the Four F’s reptilian brain; if we are to use our modern brain to mitigate those primitive thoughts; if the world is to continue giving life to all who live here, we must learn to love our enemies. Armstrong quotes Luke 6:27, which says…

“But I say this to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.”


First and foremost, this book contains far too many words of wisdom from which to choose. It is a treatise on compassion. Yet this one stands out:

“…even if we achieve only a fraction of this enlightenment [presented in this book] and leave the world marginally better because we have lived in it, our lives will have been worthwhile.”

IMEO (In My Eudaimonian Opinion)

There is nothing more powerful in the universe than love. Most religions teach that we were created from love and that love lives within all of us. Armstrong’s sage advice reminds us that we can take positive and, in many cases, creative new steps to extending love to all other people, no matter what their religion, culture or nationality. The is a beautiful book conveying a powerful message: if the universe is to survive it’s 21st century economic, social, political, and emotional turmoil, we must all learn to practice this skill of compassion.

Take Action, Humanoid!

Armstrong recommends a three-step technique for creating “spots of time” that may well last a lifetime for the person to whom you extend compassion.

  1. Make it a habit to use the positive version of the Golden Rule once each day. “Treat others as you wish to be treated yourself.” You don’t need to make dramatic acts toward others. Simply make it a point to be warm, kind, respectful and compassionate. You might open a door for an elderly person, pick up something a person dropped on the floor. Simple things count as much as more majestic acts.
  2. Use the negative version of the Golden Rule. “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” Avoid sarcasm when speaking to others; avoid verbally attacking, blaming or projecting your anger upon others. Whenever the old primitive brain serves up a thought or emotion that might lead you to act negatively toward another, just chill out for a moment. Count to ten. Breathe deeply and take even a few seconds of mindfulness meditation. Most of all, realize that you do not want to do to them what you would not like them to do to you.
  3. Practice gratitude. If you find yourself stuck in a rut of negativity, anger, fear or resentment, make an effort to think of your gratitude for something or someone. Getting out of a negative thought pattern can be difficult, but focusing on things for which you are grateful often helps. Further, if another person seems to have caused your current negativity, you can choose to know that they too are suffering, have problems in their lives, didn’t ask to be born into this particular life and all its circumstances. A bit of understanding can lead to a calmer mind and greater understanding of how our own mind works.

The Deets

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Author: Karen Armstrong
Publication Date: 2010

1 thought on “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”

  1. I wanted to ask something of you .Here in this book Karen has asked us to love our enemies but what if the enemies dont change ? What if they remain brutal and keep on hurting us even if we are nice to them?


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