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Finished Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong (3/5)

This is yet another book that is good but disappointing because it did not live up to my expectations.

I am a big fan of Karen Armstrong. Although she is selective in what she chooses to focus on in her writing, she is still, in my opinion, one of the best religious historians when it comes to writing books that are readable, compassionate, intellectually challenging, and jam packed with information.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is, quite intentionally, a very different type of book. It is supposed to be a guide to implementing the ideas in the Charter for Compassion [2] championed by Armstrong. However, Armstrong, the religious historian, seems to have a difficult time communicating the practical.

The book is full of great elements that just don't quite add up to a coherent text. In ~200 pages, Armstrong tries to cover a survey of compassion in different religious traditions, a philosophical discussion of what compassion is and why it is necessary, and a practical plan for increasing the compassion in your life. These threads all get jumbled up, and that makes it hard to pull the value from that book.

In what is both disappointing and supportive of the book's overall value, a lot of the problems were merely organizational. A strong editor who encouraged the use of things like section breaks and parallel structure could have transformed this from an average book to a great book.

All that said, the real value of this book is in practice, not intellectual assent. Armstrong's steps, if applied with appropriate effort, do seem like they would result in a more compassionate self.

The steps do not stand on their own, but for completeness I will list them anyway. Note that some of the steps are sequential while others are not -- this was one of my organizational quibbles with the book (also, the very names of the steps show how much the book could have been improved by an editor with an eye for structure and consistency). The steps: (1) learn about compassion, (2) look at your own world, (3) compassion for yourself, (4) empathy, (5) mindfulness, (6) action, (7) how little we know, (8) how should we speak to one another?, (9) concern for everybody, (10) knowledge, (11) recognition, (12) love your enemies.

And now, it's time to go apply some compassion!

[1] http://charterforcompassion.org/share/the-charter
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Erika RS

May 2012

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