Twelve Concrete Ways To Live A 'Compassionate Life' From Confucius to Oprah, people have preached compassion for centuries. But how often is it put into practice? In Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life, religion expert Karen Armstrong describes ways to add kindness to daily routines.
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Twelve Concrete Ways To Live A 'Compassionate Life'

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Twelve Concrete Ways To Live A 'Compassionate Life'

Twelve Concrete Ways To Live A 'Compassionate Life'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

All of us learn the golden rule as kids: Treat others the way you'd like them to treat you. It's an ideal cited, though, much more often than practiced; and even then much more in private life than as a matter of public policy.

When religious historian Karen Armstrong received the Technology Entertainment Design or TED prize in 2008, she chose to apply the $100,000 award to try to unite religious leaders from all faiths beyond the common principle of compassion.

And now, in a new book, she describes how each of us, indeed all of us, can work to adopt the golden rule as a way of life, maybe eventually as a way of public policy.

And maybe two days after a mass murder is an appropriate day to discuss the point. If you've struggled to apply compassion, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, President Obama and the terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay on The Opinion Page this week. But first, Karen Armstrong's new book is "Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life," and she joins us here in Studio 3A. It's lovely to have you with us here on this side of the ocean for once.

Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author, "Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life"): Thank you very much. It's lovely to be here.

CONAN: And in the wake of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson this past weekend, how do you show compassion to someone like the alleged gunman there?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think the young man seems to have been badly mentally challenged, to have severe mental problems. One has to remember that. But it's also a sort of salutary moment, I think, that violence in public life, violent speech, violent emotions, the idea that one reaches for a gun and solves things in a violent way, it should bring us back from the abyss. Where are we going?

And, you know, we've had something similar in Pakistan, just in the previous week. I'm off to Pakistan, myself, next month to talk about the charter. And there's a mood of despair around - whether we're Easterners or Westerners - and despair is a dangerous thing because once people lose hope, they can resort to extreme measures.

CONAN: You exhort, as part of your 12 steps, love your enemies, as perhaps people might expect. It is, though, Step 12.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: It's Step 12. That's the pinnacle of it. And I have to say that this is not just - this 12-step program, it's not something that you're going to master in 12 weeks or even 12 years. This is a struggle for a lifetime and -because there are aspects in us that militate against compassion because compassion's not a very popular virtue. People often prefer to be right rather than compassionate.

CONAN: Have you ever struggled with compassion?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: All the time, every day. I have a very sharp tongue. I - like everybody, I feel I've suffered, I feel I've been damaged, I sort of meditate unpleasantly on my enemies and feel this corrosive sense of anger.

And yeah, I've - but I kept coming back, in my religious studies, to the theme of compassion. Whatever I was studying, whether it was a history of Jerusalem, a history of God, a history of fundamentalism, I kept being brought back to that, a central ethos.

And it was a matter of frustration to me that the religions, which should be making a major contribution to one of the chief tasks of our generation, which is to build a global community where people of all opinions and all ethnicities can live together in harmony, are seen as part of the problem, not as part of the solution. And you don't hear them talking about compassion.

And so that's why I devised this charter, to try to bring compassion back to the forefront and counter the kind of extremism we were talking about earlier.

CONAN: And you mentioned that these ideas originate in what you call the axial age, and that's the age when these great religions had their genesis, to coin a word. But these are ideas that have been around for thousands of years, yet we seem, well, if anything, further away from them than ever.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, of course because it is so difficult to do. It is hard to love your enemies or to make room for the other in your mind. We are driven by brain - automatic brain drives we inherited from our reptilian ancestors, which make us put ourselves first, which become angry when we feel threatened in any way. We lash out violently...

CONAN: Or run away.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Or run away and so that - and yet we are living in a profoundly connected world. We're more connected to one another than ever before, electronically, politically. What happens in Afghanistan or Iraq today is likely to have repercussions in Washington or London tomorrow.

Economically, when one market plummets, there's a sort of domino effect in the markets all around the world.

And so we are profoundly connected, and yet our perceptions haven't always caught up with that new technological reality.

CONAN: And here's an email from John(ph) in Mountain View, California: The golden rule assumes everyone is like everyone else. This contradicts our diverse society, where everyone is not like everyone else. Let me suggest we ask others what they want before using the golden rule. I believe that in the absence of other information, the golden rule is probably the best we can do.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: The golden rule asks you to look into your own heart, discover what gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. It requires a constant effort of imagination.

There's no blanket way of doing this because each situation is different, each individual is different. And it's dangerous, of course, to project what we think we'd like or what we think a person ought to have onto another person, but really entering into the perception of the other, the position of the other.

CONAN: I can see this is getting a little harder than sharing your sandwich at lunch.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: It is a little bit harder than that. And it is encouraging us, really, to make place for the other in our minds, our hearts and our policies. Because unless we - we are always talking about the importance of democracy, but I think in our perilously divided world, we need global democracy where all people's voices are heard, not just those of the rich and the powerful.

CONAN: You, in your introduction, answer the charge, which you know you will face, of being ridiculously naive.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. But there have been people who have practiced compassion in our lifetimes. I'm thinking of Martin Luther King; I'm thinking of Gandhi; Nelson Mandela, who walked out of that prison - 27 years - and instead of inculcating a policy of revenge started one of reconciliation.

And one sees what one person can do, the effect of one person, and I think we all have to step up.

If you're given a chance, as I was, with the TED Prize, what would you like for a better world, then I think you have to be optimistic because when the optimism fails, despair takes over, as we said earlier, then you've got a problem because people can resort to desperate measures.

If all the people who tell me that they agree with the golden rule actually put it into practice, no point in just agreeing with it, it's a question of doing it, we could change the world. We could turn the world around and counter the voices of extremism, which drown out the more moderate voices in the media.

CONAN: We're going to take calls from those of you who have struggled with compassion in your lives, 800-989-8255. Email us, But before we do, if you could just describe the Charter for Compassion project for us just a little bit.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Okay. Well, I asked TED to help me create, launch and propagate, a charter for compassion that would be written and was written by about 20 leading activists representing six major traditions.

It was a symbolic demonstration that, at a time when the religions are often seen to be at loggerheads, we could all work together for a better world and that this we all had in common.

But charter is a short document. It is a call for action. It is asking, for example, that children are given accurate information about other races and other cultures. It asks us to use what used to be called the principle of compassion in our interpretation of Scripture.

I think we need to look at some of those difficult texts, used and abused by extremists, and really make the study of seeing how they got into the tradition, what effect they've had through the ages and what on Earth we do with them today.

It's calling for education. And in Pakistan, for example, they're starting courses in compassion for high school, university and college students.

So, it is calling for action, and it's reminding us that to degrade or denigrate another person, even our enemies, is a denial of the common humanity that we share and that it is a duty for both a moral or a religious person to work energetically to, sort of, alleviate the suffering we see all around us.

CONAN: Karen Armstrong's new book, "Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life." Let's get a caller in. This is Caroline(ph), Caroline with us from Akron, Ohio.

CAROLINE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to make the comment - I'm a high school teacher, and I am often disappointed in the lack of compassion that I see in my students.

And I've tried to talk to them about this, and I dont know if it's a generational thing, but the huge amount of entertainment that's out there now that relies on making fun of someone or putting someone down or laughing at someone's misfortune bothers me as entertainment.

And I try to ask the kids, you know: Why is that entertaining to you? And they just say: Well, it's funny.

And the other thing that I don't understand is we had a volunteer program, as a requirement for quite a few years, of 12 hours a year, and it was taken away because parents complained because they didn't feel that it was the school's place to teach their child how to, you know, do unto others, so to speak.

And yes, I agree the schools shouldn't have to teach it, but it certainly doesn't appear to me that it's being taught at all in the home or in the church.

My parents never in so many words said be nice and be kind. They demonstrated it. And I was - that's what I do. I volunteer when I can. I try not to judge. I'm not perfect. I would like to think I always apply the golden rule. I'm sure I've missed steps.

But I don't know - have we raised a generation of kids that don't understand what compassion is?

CONAN: You've asked some interesting questions, Caroline, and we'll try to get you an answer after a short break. So if you just hang on there, we'll get back to you, okay?

CAROLINE: All right, thank you.

CONAN: All right. Karen Armstrong is our guest, 800-989-8255. When have you struggled with compassion? Email Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Karen Armstrong is our guest. Her new book is titled "Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life." You can read more about how and why she launched the Charter for Compassion. That story is in an excerpt at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you've struggled to apply compassion, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, And we - just at the break, we were talking with Caroline on the line with us from Akron, and, well, Karen, she was talking about, you know, the next generation, sometimes, well, those darn kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I have to say that some - one of the heartening things has been the response from young people, all around the world, for this. There are groups of young people, say, in the Middle East, whom I spoke to in the United Arab Emirates, at the American University of Sarjah, which really have responded hugely to the idea of compassion.

And just this morning, I had an email to say that the university is putting on a big exhibition titled "Peace Between Muslim and Non-Muslim from the Dawn of Islam." They're working for it.

Similarly in Holland, where there are amazing problems in society, with minorities. Young Muslim and Dutch people have come together, around, to work for a more compassionate world.

I think we need to make compassion a bit more dynamic and exciting. People just think of it as being nice sometimes, and - but to see it as a challenge, as something active and as something that our world urgently needs...

CONAN: Well, you talk a lot about mis-definitions of compassion and that we tend to see it as pity.


CONAN: And it's not that.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Indeed. I mean, I think that's - it's fallen out. Caroline is right. It seems to have fallen out of our lexicon. When I was in Holland recently, I gave a talk on compassion. I specifically said: Compassion does not mean feeling sorry for people. And yet in the Dutch translation of my talk in the newspaper, every time I used the word compassion, it was translated pity. This is ingrained in us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARMSTRONG: The word compassion means compatine(ph). It means to undergo or experience something with somebody else. In the Hebrew and Arabic traditions, rhakmon(ph) or rhakmononute(ph) is related etymologically to the word for womb. So it's concerned with mother-love.

And, of course, the icon of mother and child is a sort of symbol of compassion, but that cute baby grows up, and mother-love can be heartbreaking and disappointing and disillusioning, but a mother never gives up on her child, however difficult that is. We've got to do that for all peoples.

In the Buddhist tradition, there's a very energetic notion, karuna, compassion, means taking responsibility for the pain of others and doing - working energetically to heal the suffering of the world. So it's a more positive thing.

I think if we can tell young people that this is something that they can do to make the world a more just place, young people are idealistic and will respond.

CONAN: Do you think that's going to fly in Akron, Caroline?

CAROLINE: I think - I mean, I don't want to say that I've never seen it, but yes, I would love to be able to work with kids more that way. It just seems that we don't seem to make it that important. And I agree with her: It's something - it should be more dynamic, and people should be made to understand exactly what it means.

And, I mean, I am very heartened by her passion for this because we do desperately need more compassion in the world. Thank you for your time.

CONAN: Caroline, thank you for the phone call, appreciate it.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

CONAN: You also spoke a moment ago about the role of religion and how these institutions, and they are institutions, after all, for the most part, are sometimes interested in, well, inter - you know, corporate jockeying and in being right rather than being compassionate. How do they get off the bean?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, one of the first things that we - that was said - when we all met together to write the charter together - one of the first things was said by the Reverend Peter Storey, who had been Nelson Mandela's pastor and worked with Tutu during the Apartheid years, and he said: One thing we must say is that we, as a religious, have failed over the centuries to implement the compassionate ethos.

All this jockeying for whose religion is better, it's all about ego, and religion is about transcending the ego. And I think the best way of transcending ego is to dethrone yourself from the center of your world and put another there.

CONAN: If you truly believe that you know the way, the truth, the light and the way, then your religion is better than everybody else's.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think if you think you know what we call God is - you're on the wrong track, because all the religions tell us that what we call God or Brahma, Nirvana or Tao, is inexpressible, that nobody has the last word, that we are all stumbling in our attempts to either experience or contain it.

Often when we talk about - people talk about God, and I certainly did this in my former days as a young nun, we often attribute to him, all the thoughts and feelings and opinions that we have ourselves.

I mean, it's often a preacher will say God forbids this or desires that or loves the other, and it's often noticeable that the opinions of the deity coincide with those of the speaker. This is a form of idolatry because what you're doing is worshipping a deity in your image and likeness.

And the golden rule, which all the religions say is the test of true spirituality, means that you have to say to yourself: Would I like someone to say to me that my religion is rubbish? Because if you wouldn't like that, then you mustn't do it to others.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Roger(ph): We often hear about the role of - the value of forgiveness, but we rarely hear about being assaulted, bullied, otherwise mistreated in ways that may interfere with our ability to live well, for example, depleting our physical or financial resources.

Doesn't continually turning the other cheek require a very different set of skills than forgiveness?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, I think it does. And I think turning the other cheek is really, it requires self-control, it requires your ability, I think, to put yourself in the position of the person that has struck you.

Now, people say that these, that Jesus' thoughts, when he says go the extra mile with somebody, or if someone takes your cloak, give him something else, as well, it was a way of - a nonviolent way of opposing Roman occupation.

A Roman soldier could say to a Palestinian Jew: You carry my bag for me a mile. And that was he was statutorily advised to do. And what you do is subvert the system and say: I'll take it two miles. And so, that you are actually subverting the system, but in a nonviolent way.

CONAN: How did that work for the Palestinian Jews?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I don't think anyone ever did it. But that may have been what was in Jesus' mind at the time, we - that that may have been more effective than what they actually did, which was rebel against Rome and resort to arms, which meant that led to the destruction of their temple and their city.

CONAN: Email from Sean(ph) in Wilmington, North Carolina: I have struggled feeling compassion for a close friend of mine named Joe(ph). He struggled with heroin addiction for several years.

I studied sociology and psychology, have an intellectual understanding that his struggles are a result of learning, social connections, physiological needs. Through the years, I have always tried to be there for him. I often find myself feeling frustrated and disappointed rather than compassionate.

Your guest sends a message that I will try to apply to my life and hope that my friends would be there for me in my times of need.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes because we don't know what people have to put up with from us a lot of the time and what may occur to us later on, when we become old and infirm and difficult in our old age, that other people will have to bear with us.

And I think she's doing a wonderful job. There she is trying to hang out with him, but of course you're going to feel frustrated. And I think the point is that we often think that a compassionate person is going to be a complete paragon. But we all have flaws. Every single one of us is a flawed human being. Even Gandhi, even Martin Luther King had their flaws, had their personal behavioral problems, and yet look what an effect they had.

So okay, be gentle with yourself. That's the third step in my 12-step program is to have compassion with yourself. Yes, I feel frustrated. Yes, I'm an impatient woman, or I'm not as kind as I should be. But you're on the right track if you just keep trying and just keep hanging in with the person who needs your care.

CONAN: Let's go next to John(ph), John with us from Ypsilanti in Michigan.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOHN: A few years ago, about five years ago, I left my family's religion, it was a pretty far-right-leaning Christian faith, after they had prayed over a number of homosexuals who had come out during a service that we were having.

And it's not so much been - I struggled because I felt that their version of compassion was almost - it was bigoted. The - I felt like they were judging more than they were having compassion on those people. But then I found myself having just as much judgment against them in their strong beliefs. And I find that, you know, it's so easy to slip into this pattern of judgment no matter if you believe in something or if you don't believe in something, and that's where I've really struggled to understand and have compassion that that is what they believe and that's what their hearts believe.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I think you're doing a great job because you're recognizing that. That is - that could be equally judgmental. And I think one of the steps in my program is to remember how little we know.

We're a society with great omniscience. We're always saying - making statements even on programs like this, dare I say, about other cultures...

CONAN: Never happens on this program.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: ...or what a certain politician thinks or, you know, gossip about friends. Oh, well, he always does this or his problem is - as though we know all about them. We don't. Every single person we meet is a mystery to us. I, myself, am a mystery to myself. I mean, I'm always behaving in ways that surprise me or shock me sometimes. And each person has a history of pain and insecurity, and hard-line philosophies often spring from a deep-set trouble with one's personal identity.

And I think just to try to maintain an awareness of this, you do what you do. You try to be compassionate, but realize that when people speak in this hard-line way, every single fundamentalist movement that I've studied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is rooted, I found, in a profound fear of annihilation, their fear that the world is against them. When people feel their backs are to the wall, they lash out violently. So the trick is to look behind the aggression to the pain that is causing it, I think.

CONAN: John, there's a similar email we have from Anne(ph) in Littleton, Colorado. I confess I've called a certain political party evil and that I hate them. Even as I said these things, I realized they were wrong. Today's program will help me in my struggle to be compassionate, to make room for the other in my mind. And she says thank you very much.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with - and, John, thank you very much for the call.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, thank you, John.

JOHN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Our guest is Karen Armstrong, author of "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life," winner of the 2008 TED Prize. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And I wanted to read this email. This - well, from N8(ph), whoever that is, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Actually, the opposite may be a purer form of compassionate. Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. Otherwise, you risk projecting your solution onto someone else, which may not always fit.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I like that. I think we need both. Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you is the Confucian and Jewish form of the golden rule. And the Christian and the Muslim is...

CONAN: More active.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: But both of them come to the same - because if you - you can become officious and endlessly going around doing to others, unto others. But if - then you've got to ask yourself how you would like this kind of officious, interfering, impudent behavior directed at you.

And also there are people who do great good in the world, you know, rush around doing good. But they don't mind slagging off, for example, you know, an annoying colleague or another culture. And so do not do to others is a very important corrective to - I confess. I like that version myself.

CONAN: As you look at this project, this book, hopefully, you're, I expect trying to influence individuals' lives with this book and, perhaps, on a more structural basis with your project, what would you consider success?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, heavens. Are we going to turn around and become a compassionate world? No. But I would like to get compassion onto people's lips. I'd like to reform perhaps the way we speak about one another, and it can be done.

In the 1960s and '70s, civil right activists and feminists changed the way we speak about gender and race. When I was growing up in the postwar Britain, there was, believe it or not, a fashion shade called nigger brown. Now that would be inconceivable to us today. And I think if - I want to empower people when they hear uncompassionate speech about other peoples, other races or other sectors of your own society, to challenge it, to feel empowered to challenge their leaders and say, you know, we need a less aggressive and more empathetic understanding and response to our problems.

CONAN: Email, this from Anita(ph). I'm an atheist and raised my children without religion. I stressed the golden rule. If I may so myself, they turned out to be great people, honest, and well-adjusted. The golden rule just about covers everything.

And that is a point you stress in your book. You obviously talk a lot about religion and the great religions of the past and the religious traditions and Greek myths and other things. But nevertheless, you also point out - you also say, religion, in and of itself, not an issue.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: No, not at all. I mean, I write about religion because - the religious interpretation of the golden rule, because I am a religious historian and that's what I've learned about compassion.

But I think that the golden rule is essential to the structure of our humanity. If you want - it's not just a religious project. People have discovered that the only way in which human beings can actually satisfactorily and safely live together is by the golden rule. And that goes right across the religions and -or the lack - atheists or humanists or agnostics can certainly be living lives of selfless golden ruleness.

CONAN: I wanted to read this email we have from Edwin(ph). I come from Kenya, a country where ethnic divisions have led to violence. As a child, I was taught by my Kisii people to hate Kalenjins, then-President Daniel arap Moi's ethnic group.

My father and his fellow schoolteachers often went unpaid for months. And when that happened, they unleashed their anger on us, their children, while spitting every derogatory epithet about that Kalenjins who, they said, had taken all the money. I began to blame every blow on the alleged greed of the Kalenjins.

It wasn't until my father moved into the Kalenjin hinterland, in the Rift Valley in search of a better life that I learned we had more in Kisii than the Kalenjins that I'd come to hate. There was severe shortage of water. And when the rains came, floods washed away their homes. Not once did I see the president come to their aid. I began to have compassion for them. And I've since learned that when you begin to hang out with the kids your parents told you to stay away from, you find some freedom.

We'll also leave with one other email. This one is from Andrew(ph). Great show, great guest. Marry me, Karen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's just not the present generation. My 75-year-old father lives for the put down. All the best.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Wonderful emails. I love the one from Kenya, too, particularly that you think of your enemies may be suffering as much, if not more than you.

CONAN: Thank you so much. This is NPR News.

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