Lon's Reviews > Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong
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's review
Mar 29, 2011

it was amazing
Read from March 29 to April 11, 2011

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 empathy-fueled altruism.

She identifies the Golden Rule as the common thread running through all the major religions and calls for greater emphasis on compassion among devotees of the various faiths. In fact, while acknowledging that every religion has a history besmirched with violence, and that sometimes that violence was supposedly justified or rationalized through scripture, she posits that any interpretation of scriptures that justifies violence or mistreatment of others should be seen as illegitimate. Here's where her understanding of the three Abrahamic faiths comes in handy: she can disabuse us of the notion that Islam is inherently violent. She contextualizes the Koran well and also points out the many references that promote peace and compassion and non violence. Mohammed was way ahead of his time, in fact, by rejecting the tribalism that typified Arab culture. She looks at modern-day tribalism too, in the guise of politics, nationalism, and religious intolerance and the demonization of others. She laments that everyone doesn't learn about the traditions of others and find in them much that is good. Just as intellectual humility is a necessary ingredient to learning, a religious stance that other faiths have something admirable to offer can yield greater insights into one's own tradition. No where does Armstrong denigrate religious people, but she does inveigh against the fundamentalistic tendency to shout "I'm right, therefore you are all wrong and have nothing to offer."

A perfect encapsulation of my personal feelings about the beneficial role of doubt, and intellectual humility comes in one of the chapters on developing compassion by assuming we don't know everything. Since it's a library book, and I can't preserve these insights with highlighting, I've typed them to save for future consideration. Here I paste them in:

"The people who came to see Socrates usually thought that they knew what they were talking about, but after half an hour of his relentless questioning they discovered that they knew nothing at all about such basic issues as justice or courage. They felt perplexed, like bewildered children; the intellectual and moral foundations of their lives had been radically undermined, and they experienced a frightening, vertiginous doubt. For Socrates, that was the moment when a person became a philosopher, a "lover of wisdom," because he had become aware that he longed for greater insight, knew he did not have it, but would henceforth seek it as ardently as a lover pursues his beloved. . . .
"Socrates used to describe himself as a gadfly, stinging people to question every one of their ideas, especially those about which they felt certainty, so that they could wake up to a more accurate perception of themselves. Even though he was conversing with Socrates and others, each participant was also engaged in a dialogue with himself, subjecting his own deeply held opinions to rigorous scrutiny before, finally, as a result of the ruthless logic of Socrates' questioning, relinquishing them. You entered into a Socratic dialogue in order to change; the object of the exercise was to create a new, more authentic self. After they had realized that some of their deepest convictions were based on faulty foundations, Socrates' disciples could begin to live in a philosophical manner. But if they did not interrogate their most fundamental beliefs, they would live superficial, expedient lives, because "the unexamined life is not worth living." (Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, p.119-121)
How do we account for the aggressive drives as well as the capacity for compassionate? Armstrong cites neuro-scientific research to shed some light on the question:

The "old brain" or reptilian brain provided mechanisms for our survival "that neuroscientists have called the "Four F's": feeding, fighting, fleeing, and--for want of a more basic word--reproduction. These drives fanned out into fast-acting systems, alerting reptiles to compete pitilessly for food, to ward off any threat, to dominate their territory, seek a place of safety, and perpetuate their genes." These are neurological systems "located in the hypothalamus at the base of the brain, and it is thanks to them that are species survived. . . . Over the millennia, however, human beings also evolved a "new brain," the neocortex, home of the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and on ourselves, and to stan back from these instinctive, primitive passions.

"neuroscientists suggest that the "positive emotions of compassion, joy, serenity, and maternal affection did not emanate from the hypothalamus . . . but from the limbic system." Later refinements, suggested the dichotomy between the left and right brains. The right brain "emotes, weeps, responds to symbolism, and is the home of art, music, and the "softer," more "pliable" emotions. We are hardwired for compassion as well as for cruelty."

An interesting note. I thought this was really cool! Brains and Birth canals.
"The arrival of warm-blooded mammals led to the evolution of a brain that was able to care for others and thus help to ensure the survival of their young. At first this care was rudimentary and automatic; but over millennia, mammals began to build nests for their infants and learned to behave in a way that would ensure their health and development. For the first time, sentient beings were developing the capacity to protect, nurture, and nourish a creature other than themselves. Over millions of years, this strategy proved so successful in establishing genetic lineages that it led to the evolution of still more complex brain systems. The process seems to have been symbiotic. In order to accommodate these new skills, the brains of mammals got bigger; this meant that increasingly their young had to be born prematurely so that they could pass through the birth canal; the infants were, therefore, helpless and need the support, care, and protection not only of their parents but of the entire community. This was especially true of Homo sapiens, which had evolved an enormous brain. because his mother had no fur, the human baby could not cling to her; instead, she had to clasp and carry him for hours at a time, subordinating her own hunger, needs, and desires to his in a process that was no longer automatic but emotionally motivated and, to a degree, voluntary. But parental affection ensured the survival of the species, helped the young to thrive, and taught humans to develop other alliances and friendships that were extremely useful in the struggle for survival. Gradually they developed the capacity for altruism.
"When animals are not warding off threats or engrossed in the quest for food, they relax and become content. A soothing regulatory system takes over, balancing the systems that control the response to threat and hunger, so that they can take time out and allow their bodies to repaire themselves. It used to be thought that this quiescence was simply the result of the more aggressive drives zoning out, but is has now been found that this physical relaxation is also accompanied in both mammals and humans by profound and positive feelings of peace, security, and well-being. Produced initially by maternal soothing, these emotions are activated by such hormones as oxytocin, which induces a sense of closeness to others and plays a crucial role in the development of parental attachment. When human beings entered this peaceful state of mind, they were liberated from anxiety and could, therefore, think more clearly and have fresh insights; as they acquired new skills and had more leisure, some sought to reproduce this serenity in activities, disciplines, and rituals that were found to induce it." (Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, p. 17-19)
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