Friday, 2 August 2013

Compassionate Living, with Karen Armstrong - Kate Massey-Chase

Sitting in the marvelous Conway Hall on 18th April 2013, I attended my second Action for Happiness lecture of the year (see the Spring issue of Equilibrium for my write-up of my evening with Jon Kabat-Zinn), this time to see the magnificent Karen Armstrong. Introduced by Mark Williamson and Lord Richard Leyhard, Armstrong’s lecture provided a historical, theological, scientific and cultural exploration of compassion and its fundamental importance to our world. 

Armstrong explained how liberty and the pursuit of happiness are a modern ideal, and how happiness often gets confused with emotions like tiredness, hunger, and hormones. In an oxymoronic world of  ‘must-have accessories’ and post-modern pressures, happiness has become something actively sought, yet still elusive; it is a mirage on the horizon. 

Armstrong contextualized her ideas on compassion with a scientific breakdown of the human brain’s different parts: the reptilian brain (the deepest and oldest), the mammalian brain, and the neo-cortex. Now, you’ll have to excuse my schoolgirl knowledge of science (blame me not Karen Armstrong if this isn’t right!), but she essentially explained how the reptilian brain is the one that is egocentric: all about me; it is only concerned with the four ‘F’s – fighting, fleeing, feeding and…reproduction(!), and was not designed for an age of plenty. Next we have the mammalian bit of the brain, which came next and developed in line with these creatures’ new needs. So, whereas reptiles laid eggs, which they could then abandon, mammals give birth and care for their young, and they started to learn that they were stronger as a group. Thus we can see the need for compassion starting to creep into the evolutionary process. The last brain-section (I have no idea what to call it!) in Armstrong’s codification of the brain is the neo-cortex, the newest part, wherein we find the ability for rational thinking, where we can stand back from our instinctive drives. She also posited a very sobering idea that, historically, the worst human atrocities – such as Auschwitz and 9/11 – happen when the first and third brains (base instinct and objective thought: what do we want and how can we do it most effectively) are used without the second: compassion for another’s suffering.  

Armstrong suggested that we need to think globally if we want to be happy, that the trick is ‘to live with suffering’, kindly, creatively and peacefully. If we are caught up in the endless prism/prison of the self, preoccupied with our own thoughts, feelings and small lives we can never be happy. Happiness, with the essential component of compassion, comes from ‘dethroning yourself from the centre of your world and putting another there’. Author of A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Armstrong also brought theology into the debate, reminding the audience that the ‘Golden Rule’ of all religions and ethical traditions is to treat others as you would like to be treated. 

In her new book, ‘12 Steps to a Compassionate Life’, she suggests that we exercise compassion through remembering our own pain and refusing to inflict it on others, that we use our own feelings as a guide. This doesn’t mean that we literally treat others as we would like them to respond to us, as it is far more nuanced than that; we need to use our knowledge of that person as well, and not assume that their desires and responses would mirror ours. For example, the sentence, ‘Well, I would have wanted to know’ encapsulates this, as it does not encompass the crucial question: but would they want to? It takes a constant effort of imagination to put yourself in other people’s shoes, but is all part of compassionate living (and why I think Drama – active empathy! – should be recognised as an important part of the National Curriculum – but I’ll save that article for another time). 

Her allusion to the ‘12 Steps’, commonly associated with recovery from addiction, is no coincidence, as Armstrong suggested that we are addicted to our likes and dislikes, to our need to compare, to bitch even, and to say things like ‘the trouble with her is...’ – trying to ‘sum up the mystery of a person in a single phrase’. It makes us small, narrows our horizons, and does nothing to aid our own happiness. We need to let go of our opinions and take responsibility for the world’s pain. The pain ‘needs to break our heart, so we reach out into the world in compassion’. This sat slightly uncomfortably with me, as I just feel that there is simply too much pain in the world for me to take on – how could I even process it and, if I did, how would my heart ever recover? But I can do my best, and I will sign up to her Charter for Compassion ( as I do believe we need to make compassion ‘a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world’. Will you do the same? 

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