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Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

3.84  ·  Rating Details ·  2,027 Ratings  ·  329 Reviews
One of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world—author of such acclaimed books as A History of God, Islam, and Buddha—now gives us an impassioned and practical book that can help us make the world a more compassionate place.

Karen Armstrong believes that while compassion is intrinsic in all human beings, each of us needs to work diligently to c
ebook, 240 pages
Published December 28th 2010 by Anchor (first published January 1st 2010)
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Aug 18, 2014 Lisa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: my kid
Recommended to Lisa by: NPR
The only thing cynical about this book is its title.
In her closing pages, Armstrong writes, "The attempt to become a compassionate being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day-or even in twelve steps. It is a struggle that will last until our dying hour. Nearly every day we will fail, but we cannot give up."
Why do I point out the obvious marketing ploy of the title? Because my name is Lisa, and I am a recovering snark-a-holic. I grew up in a household where debate was a b
David Glasgow
Karen Armstrong loves religious history, which is an invaluable trait for the author of a history textbook. Unfortunately what she's tried to write here is a self-help/devotional book, and the skill sets don't quite match up.

Good, true, and valuable pointers for compassionate living abound in this book. But to get to these gems I found myself slogging through example after example from diverse religious traditions and time periods that, while neither technically irrelevant nor wholly uninteresti
Oct 02, 2014 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
This is an important book. But it is a book which cannot simply be read to do any good. Caveat: I simply read it.

Before I go on, let me recommend that you get the book from a library and read it. If you decide that you want to actually work at being more compassionate, if you want to work at the twelve steps in your own life, then go ahead and purchase yourself a copy.

The book itself is a quick read; but it is meant to be read slowly. Each chapter (step) is supposed to be mastered before moving
Dec 03, 2010 Sharon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: spirituality
Karen Armstrong's latest work, "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life," is a fascinating look at concepts of compassion across all of the world's major faiths -- and includes the concept that one need not be religious in order to have a compassionate viewpoint (something that many religious writers nowadays seem to ignore).

Armstrong starts with an overview of compassion as discussed in various religious writings from around the world and then shows twelve ways to incorporate the practice of compa
Apr 11, 2011 Lon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Karen Armstrong brings to bear her sensibilities as a religious historian in this book. Don't mistake it for a new-agey self-help treatment of the subject of compassion; she dissects the subject like a scientist more than a sage. No holding hands around the campfire and singing Kumbayah. She turns to neuroscience to explain how we are hardwired for compassion--just as we are hardwired with the capacity for aggression--and identifies the biological imperatives for both self-preservation and empat ...more
I liked this book a lot. In it religious historian Karen Armstrong suggests a series of simple and easily achieved mental exercises that can help one increase one's capacity for compassion. Armstrong offers justification for these exercises by way of copious examples from the history of religion. Some of the examples I was familiar with from her longer and more detailed The Great Transformation, about religious development during what is known as the Axial Age (900-200 BC), though the impetus he ...more
Nov 24, 2013 Jason rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Every major religious tradition in the world contains some version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you, or, more simply, treat other people as you want to be treated. We're all familiar with the saying, but how often do we see the Golden Rule in action?

When Karen Armstrong, whose expertise is in comparative religion, received a TED grant to develop an "idea worth spreading", her thoughts turned to this simple idea.

The title is a bit disarming. Those expecting a sac
Erika RS
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
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
I liked this book, but I'd hoped to love it. Perhaps I didn't spend enough time with it...of course, I didn't do the prescribed exercises...does anyone really do them all? Lovely ideas here, but I think I've lived in macho-posturing Texas too long to have any real hope that compassion will take hold of our people. I will press on with the exercises; one must try.
Scott Lupo
Mar 07, 2011 Scott Lupo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Well, I picked this book after hearing the author on a TED video speaking about the Golden Rule. Specifically, how to change the Golden Rule from the usual "Do unto others" to "Do not do to others what you wouldn't want done to you." There are many religious examples and overtones (all types of religions by the way) and her message is extremely thoughtful, inspiring, and relevant in today's global climate. I am not a religious person at all but I found her thoughts on compassion (or lack thereof ...more
Erin Caldwell
Aug 01, 2011 Erin Caldwell rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book is brutal. I gave up in the middle.

It is titled "Twelve Steps to..." so I naturally thought it would be a book that helps individuals develop compassion in their everyday lives. Wrong. I was on disc 3 when I quit and had only been through one step, and I can't even tell you what that step was. I think it was "Practice compassion." Oh, ok. Thanks!

This woman is difficult to listen to and wants to talk about the history of every religion in the densest terms possible. No, thank you.
Beth Lind
Feb 10, 2016 Beth Lind rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is so good and I learned a lot about the similarities of several religions. Basically - be kind. Treat others as you would want to be treated. Learning how is much harder than it seems. I like the idea of a compassion epidemic. We could all be a bit kinder. We could all stand to learn more about other people, other nationalities and other religions.
John McAndrew
Apr 11, 2016 John McAndrew rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Remarkable. So much wisdom in one book, and so many passages underlined. I misplaced the hardcover about 10 steps into it, and HAD to track down another copy, which I read from the beginning.

It reminds me of HHDL's famous quote, "My religion is kindness." It's not as facile as it sounds, as Armstrong makes crystal clear. Being kind or compassionate goes against the way parts of our mind work. Armstrong doesn't make this transformation into a compassionate person into something easy and merely i
Sue Smith
Well, after taking my time to come back to set down afew thoughts about this book I'm finding it hard to put into words - thought provoking, meaningful, incisive, carefully and deliberately structured words. It's not that the book doesn't invoke them, it's just that I can probably sum it up in a couple of sentences and that just seems - well - unjust.

However, that being the case, it pretty much sums up the book. It's an awful lot of words that really didn't need to be in a book format when much
Karen Armstrong is an intellectual theologian, with past experience as a Catholic nun. The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life book heavily references Eastern philosophical and religious tradition, no doubt as one Eastern religious tradition's fundamentalist renegade group is in current conflict with some Western industrial superpower nations. Armstrong enumerates and describes each of the twelve steps toward a compassionate life imagining her audience is of primarily Western civilization and f ...more
Judy Croome
Mar 28, 2013 Judy Croome rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
A well-structured and systematic programme encouraging people of all faiths to practice conscious compassion in the same way we would learn any new skill. Armstrong’s belief that humanity has an innate capacity for goodness, which can override the baser instincts of the “crocodile brain” is reassuring. Her twelve steps provide a simple enough guide and, based on Socratic dialogue, ask questions that challenge the reader’s known perceptions.

Containing what seems like common sense to people who h
Feb 14, 2013 Karen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: faith
As thorough and well presented as the rest of Karen Armstrong's work, this is in many ways the practical application of her conclusions following the years of in- depth investigation into the major faiths of the world. The central message is simple - the Golden Rule (love your neighbour as yourself) is the key to the good life but we need to take steps to apply it thoroughly in our lives. It was occasionally presented as rocket science when thinking people of faith are quite capable of reaching ...more
Mar 24, 2012 AJW rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: spiritual
I could point out the things I disagreed with in this book, but in the spirit of compassion as advocated by this book, I'd rather point out the things I liked. I liked the generosity of spirit in which Karen Armstrong writes. I liked learning about religious traditions other than my own. I liked Karen Armstrong overall argument that true religion is actually about increasing our ability to love and control the destructive parts of our makeup. So many unthinking people have a knee jerk reaction o ...more
Laura Lee
What a wonderful message! I learned a great deal about the true concept of compassion; Karen Armstrong spends time describing the central tenet of the Golden Rule and how it actually appears in all major religious traditions, rather than just telling us to to be nice to people. It seemed like a special emphasis was placed on Buddhism and Christianity, but that was fine by me; the Buddha and Jesus Christ were the two religious figures who spoke most explicitly about the Golden Rule as we know it. ...more
Teri Pool
Oct 08, 2014 Teri Pool rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Many scary things are happening in the the world. At the same time, more and more people are calling for compassion from their employers, governments and religious leaders, but what does that mean? This book lays it out, with a course for action that any person from any religion can follow. Compassion isn't it easy, it calls for an opening of your soul and an acceptance of people not like you. Theologian and author of the Charter for Compassion pulls uses examples from Christianity, Buddhism, Is ...more
Jan 20, 2011 Jaci rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Karen Armstrong advocates for expanding our sense of compassion for others in a short, succinct, heavily researched and documented 12-step program. Karen left religious orders and has focused on religion from a nondenominational viewpoint, culminating in the Charter for Compassion (
p.23: "But it is important to say that the twelve-step program does not depend on supernatural or credal convictions."
p.105: "As we practice the Immeasurables, we are bound to become awar
Jun 26, 2011 Jessica rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I tried to listen to this cd, but did not succeed, during a long road trip. I couldn't make it through the first cd. From almost the beginning the author was pompous in tone and presentation, such as how DARE anyone take into account both the good and the bad of individuals like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King Jr? Then when she talked about the artist's intent for those who painted in the caves in Lascoux as though it were fact, I couldn't continue. Unless you have a time machine there is n ...more
Erika Sajdak
Jan 16, 2011 Erika Sajdak rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
My struggle with Christianity, and with structured religion of any kind, has been ongoing for my entire adult life. I discovered Karen Armstrong on my first day of college while exploring the campus bookstore for the first time, and I have been a fan ever since.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (and the Contract she mentions), is a reminder that the reasons for religion were to teach humanity how to treat one another.

There is more to life than struggling through each day alone, and one way t
Jeff Brateman
Jun 19, 2015 Jeff Brateman rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was able to plow my way through the religion to get to the meat of the Golden Rule. In understanding compassion, we first need to understand our thought patterns, and how they affect ourselves, others, and society at large. Also, the best lesson is that this is not a self-help book where you magically show compassion. Rather, it is one in which shows you the road you must walk, but warns against its length and difficulty. This was really helpful for me to learn and practice opening my eyes to ...more
Breck Mcgough
Mar 28, 2015 Breck Mcgough rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well-researched, concise, and filled with good will. A breath of fresh air that I will definitely pick up again.
Aug 15, 2015 Robert rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There are not many books that I would recommend everyone read, for there are indeed different strokes for different folks, but this is definitely book I would recommend to everyone on the planet. The book stands alone, but is also a support text for Karen Armstrong's visionary Charter for Compassion. Go to for more info. The very idea of setting out a 12-step program like those used in Alcoholics Anonymous points to the very real need that we must first realize "we have ...more
Amy Paget
I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s books for several years, most notably, her biography titled The Spiral Staircase, and her fascinating A History of God. Recently, I listened to the author read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, an unabridged audiobook from Random House. The author reads expertly and it was a joy to listen to her outline the concrete deliberate actions we can each take everyday to build on our intrinsic compassion. As a historian, Armstrong begins her book with a whirlwind ...more
Feb 09, 2015 Deborah rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A fine outline of living with love.

In Semitic languages, the word for ‘compassion’ (rahamanut) in post-biblical Hebrew and rahman in Arabic) is related etymologically to rehem/RHM (womb). The icon of mother and child is an archetypal expression of human love. The experience of teaching, guiding, soothing, protecting and nourishing their young taught women and men how to look after people other than their own kin. Maternal love can be heartbreaking as well as fulfilling, requiring stamina, fortit
Clair Belmonte
I am certain that I expected something completely different from what this work ended up being, but at the same time, I couldn't determine what I preferred: my perception of what this book might be, my shocked reevaluation within the first few chapters, and my warped understanding at its completion.

I went into this expecting a self-help book, full of positivity and mantras and all of the stuff that, I figure, will help me to understand and be more empathetic toward people who seek to live a more
Taymara Jagmohan

So what's it Taymara?

You know, it is the looking into someone's eyes, and knowing whether their stories are also your stories- and if so what do you do? What did you do, in your time? Maybe it is a little more. Maybe it is a stretch of your heart to ken what others are saying, or prophesizing what you will feel in the passing future. What if it is more? What if it begins a relationship you wouldn't have imagined?

Yes, it is more than words can ever serve to describe. :)

We grow upon dif
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British author of numerous works on comparative religion.


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“If it is not tempered by compassion, and empathy, reason can lead men and women into a moral void. (95)” 68 likes
“We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion, and suspicion or work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings. The choice is yours. (22)” 42 likes
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