Napa Valley's (CA-USA) Approach to the Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life Book Club

 Words from Karen Armstrong Regarding Reading The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

It is suggest that at the end of each session, each person resolves to introduce one regular practice into his or her life. This resolution should, for example, be “realistic.” It has to be something that you can feasibly include in your daily routine; it should be challenging, but not so demanding that you give it up after a few days; it is no good saying, for example, “I am never going to say another unkind word to anybody in my life ever again” ~ because this just isn’t going to happen. It should be something really concrete: “I am going to go out of my way to perform one act of kindness each day to somebody (make a list of candidates!) who really annoys me.”

The resolution should also be practical. It shouldn’t be something vague, such as “I am going to open my heart to the whole world.” That is meaningless unless it becomes a concrete reality in your life.

Be creative and inventive; there is no need to stick slavishly to these suggestions: think of ways in which your actions can become a dynamic and positive force for change, not just within yourself but in the world around you. Make each resolution a regular part of your life, and by the end of the course you will have twelve new habits that should be effecting a transformation within yourself and your immediate environment.

These notes from the Napa Valley Book Club will be added to each time the group meets over the next several months during 2013. The work of the Charter for Compassion and The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life are born from Karen Armstrong‘s commitment to provide practical and actionable ideas that can indeed transform our world.

12 Steps to a Compassionate Life Book Discussion Group

Reading Group Guidelines for Discussion

  1. We agree that any personal information shared in this group is confidential.
  2. We intend to balance sharing and listening, allowing everyone to participate, and we’ll pass whenever we wish.
  3. We will allow others to speak without interruption.
  4. We will assume good intentions on everyone’s part, agree that we may disagree at times, and learn together about respecting differences.
  5. We intend to begin and end our conversations on time and participate in all group meetings.
  6. We will listen attentively.

The Importance of Listening

Simply put, there is nothing, nothing in the world that can take the place of one person intentionally listening or speaking to another.  ~Jacob Needleman, Philosopher and Author

Listening is important to practicing compassion.  What does deep listening mean?  Comprehensive listening?  Some ideas below about listening:

  1. Listen with an open mind and heart
  2. Even when we feel impatient to speak, we will allow others to speak without interruption.
  3. Accept that the speaker’s feelings are valid, no matter what we think.  We will refrain from “correcting” the speaker’s feelings.
  4. Listen with no agenda other than to be a sounding board for someone who needs to speak.
  5. Imagine that we are speaking and listening to ourselves.
  6. Listen without trying to solve or fix a problem unless feedback or advice is sought.


When I ask you to listen
And you start
Giving advice,
You have not done what I asked.

When I ask you
To listen
And you begin
To tell my why I shouldn’t feel the way I do,
You are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen
And you feel
You have to do something to solve my problem,
You have failed me,
Strange as that may seem.

All I asked you to do
Was listen,
Not talk,
Or do –
Just hear Me.

I can do for myself;
I’m not helpless . . .
Perhaps discouraged or faltering,
But not helpless.

When you do something for me
That I need to do for myself,
You contribute to my fear and weakness.

When you accept as a fact
That I feel what I feel,
No matter how irrational,
Then I can stop trying to convince you
And get on with understanding
What’s behind that irrational feeling.

When that’s clear,
The answers will be obvious,
And I won’t need any advice.

Step 1: Learn About Compassion

Reading; Prefix: pgs 3-24; Chapter One: pgs 25-64

Discussion Questions

  1. In the preface, Armstrong writes that our “egotism is rooted in the old brain, which was bequeathed to us by the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago” (p. 13). Even though we‘ve developed a “new brain” endowed with the power of reason, our instincts for survival “are overwhelming and automatic; they are meant to override our more rational considerations” (p. 14). Why is it important to the practice of compassion to understand the functions of our old and new brain?
  2. “The Buddha‘s crucial insight was that to live morally was to live for others” (p. 40). Why was it not enough for the Buddha to attain “the very highest states of trance” and practice “fierce asceticism” to attain enlightenment? What was missing?
  3. Confucius believed that “when people are treated with reverence, they become conscious of their own sacred worth, and ordinary actions, such as eating and drinking are lifted to a level higher than the biological and invested with holiness” (p. 42). He also believed in “a constantly expanding series of concentric circles of compassion” from family, to community, state, and world (p. 43). In what ways do Confucius‘ beliefs apply to our world today?
  4. Armstrong writes that compassion is central to the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What stories, quotes, or passages stood out for you in this chapter? What stories or myths in your cultural, religious, family, or other traditions emphasize compassion?


  1. Visit Affirm the Charter and invite your friends to do the same.
  2. Examine the teachings of your own religious or secular tradition about compassion.
  3. Revisit this passage on page 63: “Each of the world religions has its own particular genius, its own special insight into the nature and requirements of compassion, and has something unique to teach us. By making room in your mind for other traditions, you are beginning to appreciate what many human beings, whatever their culture and beliefs, hold in common. So while you are investigating the teachings of your own tradition, take time to find out more about the way other faiths have expressed the compassionate ethos.”
  4. For the next month, keep a journal of notes, passages, poems, thoughts on what you learn about compassion (p. 27).

Step 2: Look at Your Own World

Discussion Questions

  1. Can you think of a twenty-first century equivalent to the li (ancient rites controlling egotism and cultivating compassion, described on page 40) that would make each member of the family feel supremely valued‖ (p. 71)?
  2. How can you make your family a school for compassion, where children learn the value of treating all others with respect? What would life be like if all family members made a serious attempt to treat one another 'all day and every day‘ as they would wish to be treated themselves" (p. 71)?
  3. What would be the realistic criteria of a compassionate company,vorganization, school, or community (p. 71)?
  4. To whom in your life—home, work, school, etc.—would you give a Golden Rule prize and why (pp. 71–72)?


Look at what‘s happening in your family, school, workplace, religious community, penal institutions, etc. What teachings, practices, or policies contribute to a lack of compassion? Identify ways you might help bring them to light and/or change them—whether it‘s writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, creating a curriculum on compassion, starting a mediation program in the schools, or whatever action resonates with you.

Step 3: Compassion for Yourself

Reading: Chapter three pages 75-90

Discussion Questions

  1. How has a lack of self-compassion affected your life? When are you least compassionate toward yourself? What traits do you most criticize yourself for?
  2. We are all imperfect. We are all influenced by our reptilian brain that reacts instinctively to real or imagined threats and can cause us to behave badly. We are all influenced by environmental factors that affect our behavior toward others. And we all have a “dark side”. (pp. 78–79) How does knowing this help or hinder your ability to cultivate and practice compassion?
  3. Armstrong discusses how suffering is a part of life, yet “in the West we are often encouraged to think positively, brace up, stiffen our upper lip, and look determinedly on the bright side of life” (p. 81). Discuss your experience navigating a difficult or tragic time in your life. What would have been most helpful to you at that time? How important was having someone just listen to or be with you? What is your experience offering help to others in difficult times? What helps or hinders you from being fully present when those around you face difficulties? 
  4. “When people attack us, they are probably experiencing a similar self-driven anxiety and frustration; they too are in pain. In time, if we persevere, the people we fear or envy become less threatening, because the self that we are so anxious to protect and promote at their expense is a fantasy that is making us petty and smaller than we need to be” (p. 88). What does it mean to remove yourself from the center of your world?

Idea from the field
In Dubai, participants were asked to take the self-compassion test at, record their score, and then use the resources on the site, as well as tools they learned from one another, to increase their level of self-compassion over a two month period. At the end of the two months, each participant will be encouraged to take the test again to gauge their progress.


  1. Make a list of your positive qualities, good deeds, talents, and achievements.
  2. Our own suffering often increases our compassion for others. Acknowledge the difficulties and suffering you‘ve endured and how you used or might use your experience to help others. For instance, if you‘ve experienced a serious illness or took care of someone who did, consider volunteering to help others navigate a similar circumstance.
  3. Practice the Buddha‘s meditation on the four immeasurable minds of love, on page 85.