Following on from our recent foray into happiness, I recently read a book with a similar theme at its heart. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong explores how we can live in a more caring and humane way. Using examples from spiritual teachings from around the world and the latest developments in neuroscience, she shows that compassion is an essential part of our nature.
The most basic spiritual teaching, and arguably the only one you really need, is to treat others as you wish to be treated yourself. This maxim is based on the recognition of the interconnectedness of all life. If you and I are one, why would I wish you harm?
True compassion arises spontaneously from the recognition of our innate entanglement. We need each other. But this is so easy to forget when you’re getting caught up in the whirlwind of drama that makes up your life.
Practicing compassion and empathy in small ways every day will grow into a life enhancing habit. Admittedly, it’s hard work at times and you certainly can’t expect to become a serene channel for universal love in a fortnight – more like half a lifetime. I am most emphatically not ready for sainthood.
But in the meantime I can practice and do my best – be mindful (when I remember!), have compassion for myself (when I don’t have a pressing deadline!), speak with kindness and respect (when I’m not losing an argument!), and learn to love and cherish my enemies (when I’m not secretly plotting their ignoble demise!).
To help us on our way to a more compassionate life, we can sign up to the Charter for Compassion. I’ve reproduced it below and I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a noble quest…
“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others – even our enemies – is a denial of our common humanity.
We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.
We therefore call upon all men and women
- to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion
- to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate
- to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures
- to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity
- to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings, even those regarded as enemies.
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries.
Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”
Sign up to the Charter for Compassion by visiting http://charterforcompassion.org/