Monday, April 21, 2014

The Fourth Step ~ Empathy

In packing to move to St. Louis, I've been sorting through all kinds of stuff I need to toss or give away.  Just this morning, on this third Monday when I promised to post new questions each month, I found two sets of audio cassettes about compassion that I had forgotten someone gave me:
  1. Awakening Compassion: Meditation Practice for Difficult Times ~ by Pema Chödrön, 1995
  2. The Only Way: From Cruelty to Compassion Through Inner Transformation ~ by Gerald May, 2002
Too bad I didn't find these last week, before I drove to and from St. Louis.  The trip is about eight hours in each direction.  I was well on my way before I realized I should have brought something to listen to while driving, especially since radio reception is spotty most of the way.  These tapes would have been perfect.


1.  Commenting on the futility of the Buddha's father's attempt to shield him from suffering, Armstrong writes, "As long as we close our minds to the pain that presses in upon us on all sides, we remain imprisoned in delusion, because this artificial existence bears no relation to reality" (p. 91).  What defenses do you use to shield yourself from suffering?  Do these defenses help or hinder your capacity for compassion?

2.  "Art calls us to recognize our pain and aspirations and to open our minds to others.  Art helps us — as it helped the Greeks — to realize that we are not alone; everybody else is suffering" (p. 98).  Discuss a piece of art, a performance, book, or movie that has helped you develop empathy toward others.

3.  Armstrong shares the story of Patty Anglin who "always claimed that the misery she experienced in a harsh boarding school, where she had learning difficulties, prepared her for her life's work" caring for children abandoned by their parents.  Was your choice of an avocation or vocation influenced by difficulties you exp;erienced?  Share your story.


1.  Spend a day "tuning into" how people around you are feeling.

2.  It is often difficult to witness suffering and to engage with someone in distress, especially when we are preoccupied with our own concerns.  Notice, over the next month, when you want to turn away.  Instead, remember how it feels to be hurt, depressed, angry, helpless, and distraught.  Then remember what it was like to have someone be kind and caring toward you.  Offer that person a kind gesture (pp. 101-102).

3.  Follow the instructions on page 102 to add three more stages to the meditation on the "immeasurable minds of love."

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Third Step ~ Compassion for Yourself

It's time to think about ourselves.  Not as in "I'm the most important, so give me everything I want."  Having compassion for self means the same thing as on a plane, where you're told to put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help others.  We must take care of ourselves *so that* we can spread the compassion to others.  Okay, I'll go read the chapter now and see if my analysis comes anywhere close to what Karen Armstrong says in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.  Just so you know, I'm not teaching this book to you, but studying it alongside you.  We're learning compassion together.


1. How has a lack of self-compassion affected your life?  When are you least compassionate toward yourself?  What traits do you most criticize yourself for?

2.  We are all imperfect.  We are all influenced by our reptilian brain that reacts instinctively to real or imagined threats and can cause us to behave badly.  We are all influenced by environmental factors that affect our behavior toward others.  And we all have a "dark side" (pp. 78-79).  How does knowing this help or hinder your ability to cultivate and practice compassion?

3.  Armstrong discusses how suffering is a part of life, yet "in the West we are often encouraged to think positively, brace up, stiffen our upper lip, and look determinedly on the bright side of life" (p. 81).  Think about your experience navigating a difficult or tragic time in your life.  What would have been most helpful to you at that time?  How important was having someone just listen to or be with you?  What is your experience offering help to others in difficult times?  What helps or hinders you from being fully present when those around you face difficulties?

4.  "When people attack us, they are probably experiencing a similar self-driven anxiety and frustration; they too are in pain.  In time, if we persevere, the people we fear or envy become less threatening, because the self that we are so anxious to protect and promote at their expense is a fantasy that is making us petty and smaller than we need to be" (p. 88).  What does it mean to remove yourself from the center of your world?


1. Make a list of your positive qualities, good deeds, talents, and achievements.

2.  Our own suffering often increases our compassion for others.  Acknowledge the difficulties and suffering you've endured and how you used or might use your experience to help others.  For instance, if you've experienced a serious illness or took care of someone who did, consider volunteering to help others navigate a similar circumstance.

3.  Practice the Buddha's meditation on the four immeasurable minds of love, on page 85.
"...while he was working toward enlightenment, the Buddha devised a meditation that made him conscious of the positive emotions of friendship (maitri), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and 'even-mindedness' (upeksha) that lay dormant in his mind.  He then directed this 'immeasurable' love to the ends of the earth."
4.  Visit and make a commitment to compassion — perhaps self-compassion.

[Bonnie's NOTE:  I've re-worded this 4th one slightly because the link, which had /join tacked onto the end, didn't work.  I've linked us to the Charter for Compassion page, where you can sign the Charter and read all sorts of interesting stuff.]

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Second Step ~ Look at Your Own World


1.  "Can you think of a twenty-first century equivalent to the li (ancient rites controlling egotism and cultivating compassion, described on page 40) that would make each member of the family feel supremely valued" (p. 71)?

2.  "How can you make your family a school for compassion, where children learn the value of treating all others with respect?  What would life be like if all family members made a serious attempt to treat one another 'all day and every day' as they would wish to be treated themselves" (p. 71)?

3.  "What would be the realistic criteria of a compassionate company," organization, school, or community" (p. 71)?

4.  To whom in your life — home, work, school, etc. — would you give a Golden Rule prize and why (pp. 71-72)?


1.  Look at what's happening in your family, school, workplace, religious community, penal institutions, etc.  What teachings, practices, or policies contribute to a lack of compassion?  Identify ways you might help bring them to light and/or change them — whether it's writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, creating a curriculum on compassion, starting a mediation program in the schools, or whatever action resonates with you.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The First Step ~ Learn About Compassion

Karen Armstrong says:
I suggest that at the end of each session, each person resolves to introduce one regular practice into his or her life.  This resolution should, for example, be "realistic."  It has to be something that you can feasibly include in your daily routine; it should be challenging, but not so demanding that you give it up after a few days; it is no good saying, for example, "I am never going to say another unkind word to anybody in my life ever again" ~ because this just isn't going to happen.  It should be something really concrete:  "I am going to go out of my way to perform one act of kindness each day to somebody (make a list of candidates!) who really annoys me."  The resolution should also be practical.  It shouldn't be something vague, such as "I am going to open my heart to the whole world."  That is meaningless unless it becomes a concrete reality in your life.

Be creative and inventive; there is no need to stick slavishly to these suggestions:  think of ways in which your actions can become a dynamic and positive force for change, not just within yourself but in the world around you.  Make each resolution a regular part of your life, and by the end of the course you will have twelve new habits that should be effecting a transformation within yourself and your immediate environment.
Select and use whatever questions and actions you choose.  (I, Bonnie, suggest we not write about more than one thing at a time.  The goal is not to "finish" the set of questions, so think about it a long time before writing anything.)


1.  In the preface, Armstrong writes that our "egotism is rooted in the 'old brain,' which was bequeathed to us by the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago" (p. 13).  Even though we've developed a "new brain" endowed with the power of reason, our instincts for survival "are overwhelming and automatic; they are meant to override our more rational considerations" (p. 14).  Why is it important to the practice of compassion to understand the functions of our old and new brain?

2.  "The Buddha's crucial insight was that to live morally was to live for others" (p. 40).  Why was it not enough for the Buddha to attain "the very highest states of trance" and practice "fierce asceticism" to attain enlightenment?  What was missing?

3.  Confucius believed that "when people are treated with reverence, they become conscious of their own sacred worth, and ordinary actions, such as eating and drinking are lifted to a level higher than the biological and invested with holiness" (p. 42).  He also believed in "a constantly expanding series of concentric circles of compassion" from family, to community, state, and world (p. 43).  In what ways do Confucius' beliefs apply to our world today?

4.  Armstrong writes that compassion is central to the three monotheistic religions, Judaism. Christianity, and Islam.  What stories, quotes, or passages stood out for you in this chapter?  What stories or myths in your cultural, religious, family, or other traditions emphasize compassion?


1.  Visit  Affirm the Charter and invite your friends to do the same.  (As I post this on Book Buddies, a total of 104,370 people have signed.)

2.  Examine the teachings of your own religious or secular tradition about compassion.

3.  Revisit this passage on page 63:  "Each of the world 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."

4.  For the next month, keep a journal of notes, passages, poems, thoughts on what you learn about compassion (p. 27).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Preface ~ Wish for a Better World

Karen Armstrong starts her Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life with a preface about her Wish for a Better World.  "All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality," she says (pp. 3-4).  And again:  "At their best, all religious, philosophical, and ethical traditions are based on the principle of compassion" (p. 24).
"Yet sadly we hear little about compassion these days.  I have lost count of the number of times I have jumped into a London taxi and, when the cabbie asks how I make a living, have been informed categorically that religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.  In fact, the causes of conflict are usually greed, envy, and ambition, but in an effort to sanitize them, these self-serving emotions have often been cloaked in religious rhetoric" (p. 4).
Today, I ran across a short interview entitled Religion is not the source of conflict.  You may want to read it, especially if you don't have the book we are using.

The text of the Charter for Compassion is found on pages 6-8 in the book and on the Charter for Compassion site, where you can also sign the Charter, if you haven't already.  Also available is a printable flyer of the Charter.
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 indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.
The final version of the Charter was composed by a Council of Conscience made up of individuals from six faith traditions:  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.  As I type this post, I'm wearing the  peace medallion (pictured here) with almost the same six religions.  The ying-yang symbol usually indicates Daoism (Armstrong's preferred spelling for Taoism), but it could represent all Chinese spiritualities.  Going clockwise from the top, the religions represented are Christianity, Daoism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

1.  What has been your experience of compassion and — on the other hand — the growing "extremism, intolerance, and hatred" (p.6) that leads to further alienation.

2.  How do you feel about Armstrong's desire "to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity" (p. 7) and "to transcend ... religious boundaries" (p. 8)?

3.  What does "compassion" actually mean (p. 8)?  How can we "translate [it] into practical, realistic action" (p. 8)?

4.  What words have you looked up so far?  Is it important to you to understand the nuances of words like "numinous" as used in Armstrong's mention of cave art?
"Their depiction of the animals on whom these hunting communities were entirely dependent has a numinous quality" (p. 16).
5.  "Because it runs counter to the Darwinian vision, advocates of evolutionary theory ... have found altruism problematic" (p. 12).  Is this going to cause a problem for Armstrong's ideas about compassion?  Are we humans too selfish for this to work?

6.  Did you pick up on Armstrong's reason for making this a 12-step program (see p. 23)?  What's our addiction?
SCHEDULE:  I plan to begin our discussions of each step on the third Monday of the month.  The discussion itself, however, can continue the entire month — or any time after that, "forever."  If newcomers happen upon this after we've completed our discussion, I'll try to pick it up again with them.  The First Step will be posted on Monday, January 20, 2014.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life ~ by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong won the 2008 TED Prize and with it her "wish to change the world."  Her goal was to create a Charter for Compassion.  You can view the video of her "TED Prize Wish" on the Charter for Compassion homepage (on the right side of the page).  Thousands of people contributed to the process and the Charter was unveiled around the world in November 2009.  I'm one of the original signers.  The organization has inspired community-based acts of compassion all over the world.

The goal of this study is not to "learn about" compassion, but to PRACTICE compassion.  The Charter for Compassion has provided an organizer's guide which includes discussion questions, but also includes ACTIONS for each of the twelve sections.  In other words, we will practice being compassionate during the month we discuss each step.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life ~ by Karen Armstrong, 2010

In this important and thought-provoking work, Karen Armstrong — one of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world — provides an impassioned and practical guide to helping us make the world a more compassionate place.  The twelve steps she suggests are listed below.  We'll look at one step a month.  She shares concrete methods to help us cultivate and expand our capacity for compassion and provides a reading list to encourage us to “hear one another’s narratives.”  She teaches us that becoming a compassionate human being is a lifelong project and a journey filled with rewards.
Preface ~ Wish for a Better World
The First Step ~ Learn About Compassion
The Second Step ~ Look at Your Own World
The Third Step ~ Compassion for Yourself
The Fourth Step ~ Empathy
The Fifth Step ~ Mindfulness
The Sixth Step ~ Action
The Seventh Step ~ How Little We Know
The Eighth Step ~ How Should We Speak to One Another?
The Ninth Step ~ Concern for Everybody
The Tenth Step ~ Knowledge
The Eleventh Step ~ Recognition
The Twelfth Step ~ Love Your Enemies
We may also choose to read other books together during this year, but for this book on compassion, we'll take one step a month. I'll post something about each chapter during that month, and our discussion will be in the comments on that month's post. Leave a comment on this post, if you want to study with us. You are welcome to join us, even if you don't get the book, since this is an action-based study. You will, of course, learn even more from reading the book.

Preface ~ Wish for a Better World
When you get the book, read the preface and tell us here what you think about the meaning of compassion, the charter, the Golden Rule, or anything you read about in the preface.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

EMT ~ the Bible

Ephesians 6:17 says, "Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."  That sounds like the Bible ("the word of God") is supposed to be a weapon.  Rachel wrote:
"For as long as I can remember, the Bible has been compared to a weapon, and for as long as I can remember, it has been used as one" (p. 187).
Have you ever seen or experienced the Bible being used to clobber someone or cut someone down?  How do you feel about that?