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Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

The step-by-step guide to bringing more compassion into the world

By Karen Armstrong
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is a step-by-step guide to bringing more compassion into the world. It shows you in concrete terms how you can cultivate compassion in your everyday life, and helps you to do your part in making the world a better place.

Key idea 1 of 9

Compassion is our natural ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.

When you turn on the TV, you’ll find no shortage of horror stories. We see refugees turned away at the border, the brutality of war, starvation and poverty, and an increasing imbalance of power and wealth across the globe. This begs for a counterforce of compassion.

But what do we even mean when we say “compassion”?

Compassion means enduring something with someone. It comes from the Latin word patiri, which means “to suffer, undergo or experience.” When you feel compassion for someone, you essentially feel that person’s pain as if it were your own.

In practice, compassion can be summed up by the Golden Rule, which nearly all faiths share: treat others as you would have them treat you.

It was this principle that motivated philanthropists such as the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, to action. And it is what inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to fight against the oppression of his fellow African Americans and lead the civil rights movement.

If we are to cultivate compassion, then surely it must come from somewhere. But where?

Compassion, as well as its nemesis, selfishness, are hard-wired into our brains.

Our selfishness is rooted in what you might call our “old brain” – that is, the brain functions we share with our reptilian ancestors and which work to ensure our personal survival.

Over millennia we have evolved a “new brain” that coexists with the old one. We can thank this neocortex for our reasoning, reflection and compassion.

The new brain is what causes us to search for meaning rather than simply creature comforts. It’s what inspires our interest in art, religion and fellow humans.

The neocortex, as well as the brain system called the limbic system, is linked to positive emotions, such as joy and maternal affection. As a result, our old and new brains are in constant conflict.

With a firm understanding of compassion, the following blinks will outline the 12 steps that you can start using today to bring compassion into your life.

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