Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

  • by Karen Armstrong
  • Narrated by Karen Armstrong
  • 6 hrs and 19 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

One of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world—author of such acclaimed books as A History of God, Islam, and Buddha—now gives us an impassioned and practical book that can help us make the world a more compassionate place.
Karen Armstrong believes that while compassion is intrinsic in all human beings, each of us needs to work diligently to cultivate and expand our capacity for compassion. Here, in this straightforward, thoughtful, and thought-provoking book, she sets out a program that can lead us toward a more compassionate life.
The 12 steps Armstrong suggests begin with “Learn about Compassion” and close with “Love Your Enemies.” In between, she takes up “compassion for yourself”, mindfulness, suffering, sympathetic joy, the limits of our knowledge of others, and “concern for everybody”. She suggests concrete ways of enhancing our compassion and putting it into action in our everyday lives and provides, as well, a reading list to encourage us to “hear one another’s narratives”. Throughout, Armstrong makes clear that a compassionate life is not a matter of only heart or mind but a deliberate and often life-altering commingling of the two.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Good History of Compassion BUT 12 Steps?

If you are looking for an historical overview of teachings on compassion in the major religious and philosophical traditions this book is a fine choice.

Karen Armstrong is perhaps the best religious historian writing today for a non-academic audience. Her short biography of Buddha is excellent.

She has also written other histories and biographies covering religious traditions and their leaders.

This book seems something of a departure. Here she is not only writing about teachings on compassion in religious traditions, she is also offering a 12-step program for readers seeking to enhance their own compassion.

On the historical side, Armstrong offers interesting insights into how most religious traditions developed a version of the Golden Rule. This includes a humorous story about Hillel, the Jewish sage who was a contemporary of Jesus.

Armstrong tells us: "It is said that a pagan approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if he could recite the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied: "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary."

To an extent this is also true of Armstrong's book which might be seen as an extended commentary on the history and value of practicing the Golden Rule.

However, her attempt to come up with a prescriptive 12 steps for practicing the Golden Rule seems an over-reach.

It lacks a key message that Bill Wilson put in the original 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. After noting that none of the AA members were perfect practitioners of the steps, Bill noted: "We are not saints."

Too much of Armstrong's 12 step program appears aimed at turning readers into "sages," her term for saints. I am skeptical about how many flawed human beings will be able to follow Armstrong's steps to become more compassionate. Living the Golden Rule in daily life is a goal so lofty that it may be a case where the seeker is more likely to find frustration rather than fulfillment.

Also, this book appears to have been written prior to the Great Recession and speaks to lifestyles that only a few lucky people now live post-2008. (This is a problem with a number of popular spiritual books that predate the crash.) People struggling to get by in the post 2008 economic reality in the U.S. may find Armstrong's 12 steps a little out of touch with the survival mode many workers find themselves in today.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a glamorization of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. People outside AA might confuse them with popular self-help formulas offered on cable TV.

Bill Wilson's 12 Step program, developed for hopeless drunks in the midst of the Great Depression, was never intended to be a diversion for affluent Yuppies seeking to up their spiritual game. Working the 12-Steps of AA is a tough way to recover from a life-threatening disease.

To expect an average reader to follow 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life may be a misunderstanding of the pure desperation required to work the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

My bottom line would be that this book is good as history but the program it offers is unlikely to work for people struggling to hold a job and feed themselves and perhaps a family in post-2008 America.

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- Richard Seeley "Rich Seeley"

An Accessible, Digestible Manifesto About Kindness

I would (and have) confidently recommend this book to friends and colleagues. Far from being "too Eastern" in philosophy or "too Western," far from "too religious" or "too secular," Karen Armstrong really acutely and sensitively touches on the issues of religion, faith, and being a good person — and how the three are not always mutually exclusive, but aren't necessarily natural bedfellows either. I really appreciated her slow narration of the book so I could follow along while working without missing too much on the first run through and it's a digestible length, so you can definitely finish this in a couple of days max. Good luck! Hope you like it as much as I did.
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- Elizabeth L. Smithson "Chicago transplant to Texas (still coping). Reading about politics, business, and religion."

Book Details

  • Release Date: 12-28-2010
  • Publisher: Random House Audio