On the 12 steps to a compassionate life: Q&A with Karen Armstrong

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This week, religious scholar and 2008 TED Prize winner Karen Armstrong released 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, a practical guide to the understanding and practice of compassion. On Christmas eve, the TED Blog had a chat with Karen about the ways people around the world are embracing the Charter for Compassion — the result of her TED Prize wish –- a year from its launch, the importance of kindness in discourse, and the perennial human struggle to put others first.

How did this book come about?

For the last couple of years, since winning the TED Prize and launching the Charter for Compassion, I’ve been going around the world promoting compassion. Frequently, people ask, “Well, how on Earth do we begin? It all seems so huge.”

People are hungry to understand what compassion means and how to go about practicing it. But simply deciding to become compassionate is too daunting. Meanwhile, we’re so uneducated about compassion. It’s often just equated with pity. But the word “compassion” means to feel or experience with the other person – to put yourself consistently in other another’s shoes. We have to feel and take responsibility for the well-being of others, whoever they are.

So the book, which is modeled on the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, offers a step-by-step guide to understanding compassion, then integrating it into daily life. Each step – beginning with “Learn About Compassion” and ending with “Love Your Enemies” – is a practice. The idea is to start with step one and not move on until the practice has slowly become part of your daily routine.

We’ve had a very excited response so far. People are saying, “Oh, thank heavens, now we can finally get down to it and find out what to do.”

How have people been using the Charter, and what role will the book play in helping to achieve its goals?

The Charter doesn’t tell people what to do, but institutions and organizations already working on compassionate issues are applying its principles to their own needs. We’ve got 150 partners now worldwide, with a wide variety of initiatives.

One partner, for example, has devised a program for prison reform, whereby inmates are treated in a more compassionate way. It’s a very detailed work and psychological plan. When it put into practice, it was hoped that violence within the prisons would decrease by 2.5 percent. In fact, there was a 100 percent drop.

We’re also developing a 10 Year Campaign for Compassionate Cities project. It started in Seattle, which affirmed the Charter declared itself a City of Compassion last April. They’re encouraging other cities worldwide to join them, gradually building up a network of compassionate cities. We hope that once this is set up, students in different cities will be able to form electronic friendships so there can be exchanges to help break down the residue of prejudice and misunderstanding.

Charter ambassadors in Pakistan, meanwhile, are making a big push to create courses in compassion in schools, colleges and universities. Pakistan may become one of the leaders of the Charter, which would be an amazing thing – and a hugely positive message to the world – given that they are on the frontline of our present problems.

I hope the book will serve as a practical guide in all these initiatives. To address the special needs of Pakistan, I’ve written a short supplement, stressing an Islamic take on the 12 steps. And in the cities project, there’s the idea that a whole city would read the book for awhile. Online discussions about the book across cultures are a possibility, too.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle to experiencing compassion or understanding compassion, and then more importantly, acting on it?

Oh, just superciliousness, I think – a feeling of sophisticated disdain that “This won’t work.” And secondly, a sense of defeat, that the world’s problems are of such magnitude that people feel paralyzed. Also, there’s egotism: people don’t want to put others before themselves.

We are addicted to our egotism, our likes and dislikes and prejudices, and depend upon them for our own sense of identity. When we come out with a clever and unpleasant remark about somebody else, we get a rush of self-satisfaction. Unfortunately, that hit poisons us, and it poisons the atmosphere around us.

I begin the book by explaining, almost in neurological terms, how central our survival mechanism is, and how it can make us lash out violently at others, making people aware of these aggressive tendencies. These automatic reflexes are very strong. If a tiger suddenly jumps into the room, we’re designed to get up and run for our lives or shoot it, not sit and meditate, or try to make friends with it.

But we can’t afford that aggressive tendency to dominate our dangerously polarized world. People are reluctant to accept that our enemies are not separate from ourselves, and treat them with contempt, or with violence. And we still think suffering happens far away. In fact, we are connected whether we like it or not – we’re electronically, educationally, financially and economically interdependent as never before – and our perceptions haven’t yet caught up with that. Compassion is now central to our survival, and the book tries to help people to integrate this global thinking into their daily lives.

Do you think that in the past, compassion was more prevalent, and as societies became more secular we somehow lost our capacity for it? Or has human capacity for compassion has evolved over time?

No. I think it’s always been a struggle to be compassionate. It’s a struggle to our dying day, because we like to put ourselves first. Religions have always stressed that compassion is not only central to religious life, it is the key to enlightenment and it the true test of spirituality. But there have always have been those who’d rather put easier goals, like doctrine conformity, in place. We’ve made religion simply a matter of believing a set of doctrines – so much so that we call religious people “believers”. The practice of compassion is left far behind.

Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently day by day. A trained body can perform feats that are utterly impossible for an untrained body, which look inhuman but remain human. By practicing compassion fastidiously, it’s possible to acquire new capabilities in mind and heart, but you must work at it.

I’m particularly anxious to make us conscious of the lack of compassion in public and private discourse. Debates in society are often extremely aggressive. Look at the recent election in the United States, or the level of rhetoric that has surfaced over this community center near Ground Zero. In academic media, mainstream media, politics – debate is no longer an effort to seek the truth. Instead we want to attack, humiliate and defeat our opponents. Socrates said that dialogue must be conducted gently, and the point of dialogue is that nobody can win because all the participants end up realizing how little they know.

Do you find it a struggle to be compassionate on a daily basis?

Of course. I used to be a very unkind person because I was so unhappy. Someone once actually told me, “You rarely say anything nice about anybody.” I have a very sharp tongue, I’m very impatient, and it’s a lifelong struggle. But I’ve become very sensitive to uncompassionate speech – even just among friends in social conversation, never mind on the international scale. And I really find it very difficult to value any ideology that can’t be expressed compassionately with respect to other people.

But it’s a lifelong struggle –- we fail every day. Thus, Confucius said, “The struggle ends with death,” but that it can be rewarding. I found that since I’ve been trying to be more compassionate, I’ve been happier. Also, my study, which endlessly involves me trying to understand other people –- people who lived long ago or other religious traditions -– helped me to integrate compassion in my life, because I had to make a space for the other, and broaden your perspective to include other people in it.

What has your experience working with TED been like?

It’s just been an inspiration and a joy. I can’t believe TED’s generosity and creativity in helping to create and launch the Charter. Besides introducing me to a whole new audience, TED made me look at how to get ideas across in new ways. I would have never thought of setting up a multilingual website so people all over the world could comment on the draft, for example.

It’s just been thrilling to share idea I’ve felt so passionately about for a long time. It’s been a huge amount of work, but it has been thrilling, too, and a wonderfully creative experience.

— Interview by Karen Eng