Karen Armstrong on why compassion is the key to the future

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media clip

First aired on North by Northwest (14/04/12)

12-steps-to-a-compassionate-life010311.jpgAuthor -- and former nun -- Karen Armstrong has written extensively about all aspects of religion and spirituality, and about her own spiritual awakening. Her most recent book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is a guide to incorporating compassion, an underrated attribute whose lack is often felt in this cold modern world, into your habits and attitudes. She wants more cities and communities to adopt her Charter of Compassion. She was in Vancouver last month for Simon Fraser University's 12 Days of Compassion and she was also a guest of North by Northwest's Studio One Book Club.

She told the club that becoming compassionate is a habit that can be easily incorporated into one's daily life. "You make a place for 'the other' in your mind and heart...I talk in [the book] about some thinking exercises -- you don't need to make time for it. While you're walking the dog, or on the train, you can do these," she said. "Starting out, say, with step six, with just one compassionate action every day."

Ultimately, compassion is about looking outward from your own life, and Armstrong's basic argument is that we need to work towards a more compassionate society. "I am convinced that unless we adopt more compassionate policies we're not going to have a viable world for the next generation," she said. "The golden rule, which has been evolved by every single one of the major world religions independently, requires us to look into our hearts and discover what gives us pain, and then refuse under any circumstance whatsoever to inflict that pain on anyone else. Never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself."

Armstrong goes on to discuss the intrinsic lack of compassion in a colonial culture. "In Europe we're having great trouble absorbing immigrants at the moment -- people say to me, 'these people are changing our culture,'" she said. "And I say, 'now look, you have a colonial past. Ask yourself what it was like for these people when you went in with power and changed their countries forever...what you're feeling is just a little pinprick [in comparison]...that's the Golden Rule again: use your distress."


Often what gets in the way of being compassionate is human ego. "A lot of people -- I'm afraid a lot of religious people -- would rather be right than be compassionate," said Armstrong. "One of the steps is [about] how little you know."

One of Armstrong's major arguments is that governments must enact compassionate policies. Unfortunately, governments are run by politicians, who can be notoriously wary of sticking their neck out for fear they'll lose votes. Fortunately, Armstrong has discovered that several businessmen have stepped up as promoters of her Charter of Compassion. "These business people are creating a network of compassionate cities worldwide...they are putting compassion on their radar screen, and are going to work for it, to raise levels of compassion in the gritty realities of 21st-century life in the city, with its greed and its violence," she said. "Working together on compassion releases compassion."