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In our perilous, divided world, compassion is in our best interest

Sep 2, 2011, 2:35 PM

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate life

By Karen Armstrong. Paperback, 215 pages

With notes and index. Published by The Bodley Head, London

In bookshops, many best-sellers are self-help manual with bold, glossy covers and such title as, ‘Do you want to be a millionaire?’, ‘Six ways to attract beautiful women’, ‘Find Self-fulfillment the easy way’. The blurb on the back covers assert, ‘This book will change for life – for good!’, ‘The No. 1 Best Seller’, ‘A sure-fair recipe for sustained successes, ‘such books are like jujus: of dubious provenance and doubtful value. Read them with a healthy skepticism.

Karen Armstrong’s book might be labeled ‘self-help’ .But it is in a different league: thoughtful, scholarly and practical, and meant to encourage self-help of best short: finding happiness, maturity and fulfillment in examining and practicing compassion.

Armstrong asserts that our world is dangerously polarized. Imbalances of power and wealth are resulting in malaise, alienation and humiliation which erupt in terrorist activities that endanger us all. We engage in wars we cannot win. Originally secular disputes, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been allowed to fester and become ‘holy’ .And yet we are bound together more closely than ever through the electronic media. Suffering and want are no longer confined to distant, disadvantaged parts of the globe. ‘What happens today in Gaza or Afghanistan is likely to have repercussions tomorrow in London or New York’ (and Banjul!)

‘Charter of compassion’

In 2009 Armstrong launched a ‘Charter for Compassion’ written by leading thinkers from various major faiths. It appears on a multilingual website in Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu, Spanish and English (Why not also French, Chinese and other major language?) The charter calls on all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion; to return to ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate; to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditional, religious and cultures; to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity;

And to cultivate an informed empathy with the sufferings of all human beings even those regarded as enemies.’ (www.charterforcompossion.org)

Armstrong asks, ‘Can compassion heal the seemingly intractable problems of our time? Is this virtue even feasible in the technological age?’ She points out that ‘compassion’ does not mean pity but sharing the sufferings of others compassion is inseparable from humanity: a truly human person is consistently oriented to the welfare of others. But in many ways compassion is alien to modern life. The competitive and individualistic capitalist economy fosters a ‘me-first’ mentality. Indeed, in the deepest recesses of their minds, men and women are deeply selfish: our egotism is rooted in our ‘old brain’ which we have in common with our primitive ancestors, the reptiles. They are wholly intent on personal survival, motivated by what neuroscientists call the ‘Four Fs’: feeding fighting, fleeing and, for want of a better word, reproduction. They are concerned solely with statue, power, control, territory, sex, personal gain and survival. Their emotions are strong, automatic and ‘all about me’.   

Our ‘new brain’

The Four Fs continue to programmed us to acquire more and more goods, respond instantly to threats and fight for the survival of ‘number one’. Yet we also possess a ‘new brain’. We can reflect on the world and ourselves and stand back from primitive passions.

In art and religion we see how our ‘new brain’ makes us meaning-seeking creatures’, aware of our fragility, our need to care for each other, our need to question the meaning of existence.

We humans, says Armstrong, are more deeply dependent on love and care than any other species. And love especially the love of a mother for her child can be heartbreaking as well as fulfilling: it requires stamina, fortitude and unselfishness. The Four Fs are powerful, but we have a duty to protect ourselves and others from our more destructive instincts. Do we want to respond to the reptilian brain? ‘In our perilously- divided world, compassion is in our best interest. ‘Benevolent emotions make our thoughts more flexible, creative and intelligent. And religious systems have discovered that it is possible to nourish compassion and withstand ‘me first’ mechanisms. To acquire compassion, however demands immense effort of mind and heart. We cannot reasonably expect the leaders of the nations to adopt more humane policies if we ourselves live in unkindly, greedy and prejudiced ways. We cannot demand that our enemies become more tolerant and less violent if we make no effort to rise above the Four Fs in our own lives. ‘We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular that speak of hatred, exclusion or suspicion, or we can work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings. The choice is ours.’

How do we start?

How do we start? We are addicted to our egoism. How can we live without our pet prejudices that give us such a buzz of self-righteousness?

Armstrong wrote a first version of her twelve steps in a ‘book’, a cross between a video and a book, to be read electronically. But in this book, as an historian of religions, she is able to explore her assertion that  it is the spiritualities of the past that have taught her all she knows about compassion. Nonetheless, her ‘twelve steps’ do not depend on having religious beliefs. She quotes the Dalai Lama ‘Whether a person is a religious believer does not matter a lot. For more important is that they be a good human being.’ Armstrong insists: ‘At their best, all religious, philosophical and ethical traditions are based on the principle of compassion.’ She suggests that her readers should go through her twelve steps, then return to work on the first step. ‘The effort will be cumulative. There is no hurry: we are not to develop an impartial universal love overnight. Nowadays, we seek instant success. But transformation is slow and unromantic. In the end, however, we shall see the world in different light.

The Golden Rule

The first step is learning about compassion. Learning should be accompanied by action, by putting into practice the ‘Golden Rule’: ‘Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself ‘ (Confucius); ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Deuteronomy, endorsed by Jesus). Armstrong emphasizes the value of myth, and explains that in its traditional sense myth does not mean something imaginary that didn’t happen, but a tale with a moral meaning which demands action. The rules of a game such as chess are dull and complicated until you start to play.

Armstrong, who is a scholar in such matters, refers us in some detail to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in the Indian subcontinent; to Confucianism and Daoism in China; to monotheism (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in the Middle East; and to philosophical rationalism in Greece. She says we have never surpassed the insights they contain. The non-European references will mostly be new to most us (Which is a comment on our colonial past) and they revealing, showing that the imperative towards compassion is not unique to Christianity, say, or Islam.

In their interpretation of the biblical doctrine of creation, the rabbis focused on the fact that all human beings were made in God’s image. To show disrespect to anyone was therefore regarded as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism; and murder was not simply a crime against humanity but a sacrilege.

Armstrong advices  us that the sages, prophets and mystics of religious traditions work hard to implement compassion in the difficult circumstances of their time. ‘We need that energy and conviction today.’

Looking at the family and the workplace

‘Look at your own world‘– the second step – asks us to look dispassionately at our own circumstances. As the Confucians have taught us, the family is a school of compassion because it is here that we learn to live with other people. Family life involves self-sacrifice. Nearly every day there is something to forgive. Such tensions are opportunities for growth and transformation. What do we feel about our own family?

Next, we should consider the workplace. How can a lawyer, businessperson, mason, imam, priest, taxi-driver, nurse, shop worker, doctor, cleaner or farmer observe the Golden Rule in the course of his or her work? Modern workplaces are often geared for efficiency rather than compassion.

We should take a look at our nation. What do we love most about it? How would we like to see it develop? it is essential to educate the nation’s young in the compassionate ethos.

Think of yourself

Compassion for oneself is Armstrong’s third step. If you cannot love yourself, you cannot love others. In our target – driven societies we are inclined to castigate ourselves for any failure to live up our objectives and potential. It is essential to be aware of our misdeeds and take responsibility for them, but we should remember our task is to train our minds so as not to allow the Four Fs to overwhelm our potential for kindness. We should not castigate ourselves for feeling jealousy, anger or contempt but firmly refuse to identify with them, saying with the Buddha: ‘This is not mine; this is not what I really am; this is not my self. ’

Fear makes us Flee or fight. Spiders, loneliness, cancer, and death can fill us with dread. We need to recognize that that other are afraid; this is a link with them. Suffering is a law of life. We cannot help liberate others from suffering if we do not admit to suffering in ourselves. We are often the cause of our own misery. We pursue thing and people that we know in our heart of hearts cannot make us happy. The moment we acquire something we begin to worry about losing it. It takes courage to set the self aside. But when we make a determined, continued effort to keep the ‘me-first’ mentality with bounds we are not destroying ourselves; we begin to find that our horizons expand, our self – regarding fears evaporate and we experience a larger ‘immeasurable’ self.

Armstrong’s further steps include empathy (entering into the feeling of others – including those you do not like). Then there’s mindfulness. This mean nurturing self-understanding; realizing, for example, that the acquisitive drive is never satisfied, and that when we are engrossed in anger, hatred or resentment our horizons shrink and our creativity diminishes.

‘Action’ deals with the important of daily acts of kindness, however small. Then Armstrong exclaims, ‘How little we know!’ we should not let the enormous achievement of science blind us from the recognition, like Socrates, that we know little of our human condition. We need to recognize and appreciate the unknown and unknowable, become sensitive to over-confident assertions of certainty in ourselves and others; and ask ourselves aware of the numerous mystery of every human being we encounter during the day. When Hindus greet one another with joined hands they are acknowledging the mystery they are encountering: each individual is sacred, unique.

No ‘quick fix’

This book review colum cannot accommodate the longer review that this remarkable book deserves. It inspires because it is written with understanding and knowledge of the world’s wisdom and compassion. How should we speak to one another? How do we acquire concern for everybody, how do we love our enemies? Armstrong is a wise and kind guide, rather than a dogmatic provider of answers, let alone the ‘quick fix’. When she urges on us the value of being impartial, fair, calm, serene/ accepting and open-hearted, she is not suggesting that all these virtues can be acquired easily and without struggle. But she is sure, as she hopes we are, that such virtues are worth pursuing, and that with them we are happier and more mature people.

Armstrong’s Book concludes with many suggestions for further reading.

Twelve Steps tp a compassionate Life

Available at Timbooktoo Tel:4494345.

PO Box 1056, Banjul