Moving Towards a More Compassionate Life

I met Karen Armstrong two years ago at a local talk she gave on the release of her book The Case for God – a thoughtful and highly readable history of the importance of belief. In a brief but private conversation, I found her engaged, informed and always searching; searching to learn more from whomever she spoke with or interviewed.

Armstrong’s latest book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, has the religious scholar searching for ways we can restore compassion in our lives. In organizing what she envisions as a Charter for Compassion, Armstrong solicited suggestions from across the Internet on how to accomplish her goal. The responses were selected “by leading thinkers from a variety of major faiths” and synthesized into a proposal favoring empathy, the golden rule and “a principled determination to transcend selfishness.”

The Charter lays out the following:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

“Armstrong subscribes to a theory,” the Wall Street Journal(Dec. 24) writes, “of cerebral evolution popularized by the scientist Paul MacLean (1913-2007). The theory itself—which posits that the brain consists of three parts, each of which functions the way it did when it first evolved—is given little credence by modern neuroscience. The most recent edition of Prof. Per Brodal’s standard textbook, The Central Nervous System, witheringly describes talk of a ‘reptile brain’ within the human brain as ‘simplistic,’ a ‘conceptual framework [that] hampers understanding.

“Our reptile ancestors, she says, were ‘interested only in status, power, control, territory, sex, personal gain, and survival.’ And the same goes for those who let their reptile brain do their thinking. ‘Rage, fear, hatred, and greed,’ she reminds us, ‘. . . derive from the brain we inherited from our reptilian ancestors.’ Her advice is to renounce the reptile lurking within us. We must learn that ‘envy, anger, fear, and hatred . . . are ancient emotions that we inherited from our earliest ancestors.’

“Armstrong urges a course of meditation and mindfulness to reach the yogic ideal in which the self falls away. Then we will be capable of compassion, as embodied in the golden rule. And who can argue with the golden rule?”

The ethical value of compassion can be most challenging. I’m reminded of a story told to me by the Dalai Lama by way of his assistant, the Venerable Lhakdor.

“His Holiness has developed a genuine conviction in the effectiveness of these positive human qualities in solving human problems, be they individual or social. He is also encouraged by the tremendous amount of resilience shown by many Tibetans in Chinese prisons through the practice of compassion and non-hatred even to their oppressors. Despite harsh treatment and long years of suffering they managed to maintain inner tranquility.

“A monk from Namgyal Monastery was in a Chinese prison for seventeen years. When he managed to leave Tibet and come to India, he met with His Holiness. One day, he mentioned to His Holiness that while he was in prison he faced danger on several occasions. His Holiness assumed that his life was in danger. But [the monk] continued,‘I was in danger of losing compassion towards the Chinese.’”

Based on her previous work, I look forward to reading Twelve Steps and, hopefully, enjoy another engaging conversation with Armstrong herself one day. She’s my kind of ethicist.

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