The title says it all for Karen Armstrong’s new book. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Knopf, 2011, 240 pp., cloth, $22) is a how-to guide meant to help readers cultivate and emanate the virtue of compassion. It’s the latest effort in Armstrong’s bid to place compassion at the heart of public discourse on religion and morality. After winning the TED Prize in 2008, an award that gives recipients $100,000 and grants them a wish for a better world, Armstrong launched the Charter for Compassion—a document written by a variety of leading religious thinkers in order to inspire worldwide acts of compassion.

Twelve Steps is a little different from what we’ve come to expect from Armstrong, who, with books like A History of God, Islam, and Buddha, has created a unique niche for herself as today’s popular historian of the major faiths. The history is still present, but this time it’s in service to her pragmatic-compassion manual. Many of the practices found in Twelve Steps—such as mindfulness training—come from Buddhist sources. “I see the Buddha as the star of the axial age,” Armstrong told Tricycle in a recent interview. “With its psychological relevance, Buddhism is so practical.” Because Armstrong is, by temperament, a bit of an introvert—preferring the solitude of study to speaking from a stage—the prose in Twelve Steps can at times feel distant. Armstrong’s writing is not going to give you an inner warmth like that of, say, Pema Chödrön or the Dalai Lama. Still, Twelve Steps is an important and useful book that will help many readers take on humanity’s most important task: creating a better, more compassionate world.

This review will appear in the Books in Brief section of the Spring 2011 issue of Tricycle.

Image: This picture was taken from the 30th floor of the UN Millennium Hotel in New York City, where a couple of Tricyclers were fortunate enough to get together with Karen Armstrong for an interview the day before the one year anniversary party for her TED Prize at the UN.

More Karen Armstrong:

She was recently on Talk of the Nation on NPR to discuss her new book. Listen to that interview here.

Read the Charter for Compassion.

Watch a video of her TED Prize event at the UN.


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