Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Perhaps the most important thing to realize about this book is that, despite the title, this is not a traditional "twelve step" type of book. It does not guide you smoothly through each step, provide you step by step instructions, summarize each step for you, or move you inexorably along. Instead, reading this is like reading a very tightly packed research book which delves into the centuries of background behind how a country thinks, how a religion grows, how a culture changes, and how these various forces intermingle. You barely get a hint of the step involved before you are deep into a discussion of the roots of Christianity and how doctrine has adapted to changes in technology.

First, what are the steps? According to Karen the are: learn about compassion, look at your own world, compassion for yourself, empathy, mindfulness, action, how little we know, how should we speak to one another, concern for everybody, knowledge, recognition, and love your enemies. If you could summarize the whole, detailed saga into a brief lesson, it would be this: over time, with patience, try to bring yourself to a point where you can honestly think about a person different than yourself, perhaps even an "enemy", and find compassion in your heart for them. Certainly this is an admirable task for all of us to work on, and I applaud Karen's desire to have us all reach this state.

My concern is that, with this book claiming it will help us figure out these steps, it really leaves us on our own. Sure, she wants us to form reading groups (the cynical part of me always laughs when authors tell readers "go buy lots more of my book!") and talk about the ideas. However, the book doesn't give steps for us to follow, beyond trying to think nice thoughts and care more. It gets lost in complaining about reactions to September 11th (which doesn't seem to be very understanding or patient) or complaining about people who complain.

At one point (p125 in my proof copy) the author begins quoting Hamlet and his "what a piece of work is man" speech as proof that all humans are fantastically wonderful creatures who should be treasured. However, Hamlet made this speech as a way to indicate that he did NOT feel humans were special and wonderful. It ruins the effect for me - I imagine there must have been many other quotes that could have been used, which were honest in their appreciation.

I do want to say that there is a lot of valuable information in here. The author is clearly a religious researcher who knows her material. She pulls in references from a variety of religious books, from countries around the globe, and helps us to understand that the desire for peace and compassion is universal. It is not the sole trait of one religion or way of life. Her recommendations to meditate - and to try to bring in strangers and even enemies into your meditations of caring - are ones that many different paths recommend. I certainly agree with people trying to work on that. I just wish that she went more into the HOW instead of launching on yet another digression into the role of 8th century prophets on religious change.

Is there anything in particular I brought away from reading this book? There was one section in particular that I made a special area for in my pages of notes. It was one of the few specific recommendations for "things to do" each day.

These were:
* help another person, even a tiny step or kind statement
* refrain from saying or doing something negative
* find one habit / action in yourself to change or tweak

If we each did these every day, our world would make great strides in a fairly short period of time!

So to summarize, I think this book is great as a religious overview, if you overlook her tendency to meander and drift and occasionally make jabs at various groups or beliefs. However, if you are actually looking for STEPS to help you become more compassionate, then there are several other books I'd recommend which do that specific task much more clearly.

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