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Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

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Decades of research have led her to conclude that all major faiths “insist that compassion is the true test of spirituality,” and that each faith teaches its own version of the Golden Rule. Those teachings (which she surveys in the book) have frequently taken a back seat to other doctrines, however, and religion has become part of the problem. “Yet,” she says, “it is hard to think of a time when the compassionate voice of religion has been so sorely needed.”

Armstrong seeks to bring these teachings back to the forefront in each religious community. Prominent religious leaders have joined her in the project, as have other partner organizations.

At the same time, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” reaches for a universal rather than a strictly religious audience. Armstrong discusses the biological and other contrarian views regarding altruism and compassion, even as she presents scientific and cultural bases for compassion as an intrinsic human trait. Yet to enhance that natural ability, she says, we must “train ourselves” to become more compassionate just as we do to become better athletes or artists.

Some might question her claim that every one of her 12 steps is “indispensable” to that training; a few steps perhaps could be merged. But her descriptions of each step are rich with wisdom and provocative ideas that stimulate deeper thinking – and encourage individuals to identify a particular contribution to the global effort.

Some steps call for study, such as the first: “Learn about compassion.” Others involve self-examination (“Look at your own world;” “How you speak to others”) or highlight concrete methods for changing viewpoints and behaviors. They move from how to be more compassionate with oneself outward to family, community, and even one’s enemies.

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