Monday, January 24, 2011

Further Notes on Compassion

The title of the book makes it sound easy, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. However, "Twelve Step" programs of any kind are never easy, can't be easy, and having read many books by the author, Karen Armstrong, I know this book will be no superficial 1,2, 3. Armstrong is one of my spiritual heroes, a former nun, who has dedicated her life to the spiritual practice of study and writing about world religions. Reading her books is always an intellectual exercise, but her books also lead me to deeper, wider places in my spiritual life. This book is no exception. Last year the word of the moment seemed to be "happiness," and many books appeared on that topic. Perhaps the new word is "compassion" --may it be so, and may Karen Armstrong lead the way.

A memory of Karen Armstrong. I have heard her speak at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York many times and have always been moved by her content and her clarity and conciseness. One hot summer afternoon I was also moved by her compassion. After her talk, a man came to the microphone to ask her a question, a question that included reference to her personal appearance. His comments were not kind. A rumble of shock and disapproval moved through the audience, audible murmurs of "What has this to do with anything?" I could sense a group intake of breath, waiting for Armstrong's response. I can't recall specifically what she said, but I know it was tolerant. It was kind. It was gentle. It was compassionate. Armstrong seemed to listen below the words, to go beyond what was said to what was meant, to the meaning she could extract in relationship to her topic. Interestingly, I have no memory of what that topic was. Instead, I only remember that man and his rashly unkind remark. I felt no compassion for him--only for Armstrong who appeared not to need my compassion. What she felt in her heart, I have no way of knowing. Perhaps she struggled with what he said and the fact that it was said in front of a large public audience, but my belief is that she called upon her better self and rinsed the words with compassion. I suspect she used that incident to learn about and integrate compassion into her own life.

So far I have only read the introduction and two chapters in Armstrong's new book; a book she encourages the reader to read in its entirety and then go back and apply the steps to one's own life. Here are two key points from the first two chapters, "Learn about Compassion," and"Look at Your Own Word":

Each of the world's religions has its own particular genius, its own special insight into the nature and requirements of compassion, and has something unique to teach us. By making room in your mind for other traditions, you are beginning to appreciate what many human beings, whatever their culture and beliefs, hold in common. So while you are investigating the teachings of your own tradition, take time to find out more about the way other faiths have expressed the compassionate ethos. You will find that this in itself will enable you to expand your sympathies and begin to challenge some of the preconceptions that separate us from "the other." (pp. 63-64)

...the family is a school of compassion because it is here that we learn to live with other people...nearly every day there is something to forgive. Instead of seeing this as an irritant, we should see these tensions as opportunities for growth and transformation...Creating a compassionate family life is one of the ways in which we can all make a constructive contribution to a more empathetic society in the future. (pp. 68-69, 71)

I invite you to become a student of compassion. Resources abound. Begin by reading the excellent and thoughtful comments to my previous post. Check out Armstrong's website Another excellent book is Compassion, Listening to the Cries of the World by the Buddhist teacher, Christina Feldman. Note when you feel compassion and when it is lacking.

"We all have the seeds of love and compassion in our minds, and we can develop these fine and wonderful sources of energy. Thich Nhat Hanh.

Let's continue the conversation.


  1. thanks for the remembrance and reminder of a wonder-full author. i will look for the book.

  2. hi nancy,

    have you thought of starting one of the discussion groups suggested by the charter for compassion?

    all is well,