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Step 11 – Part 1, by Sara Neall

Karen Armstrong launched The Charter for Compassion on November 12, 2009 with the simple rule, “Always treat others as you wish to be treated yourself.”  This golden rule is at the center of her book The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.  Step 11 is recognition. 

In Step 11 Armstrong writes, “during the previous steps, we have been developing a more empathetic outlook based on imagination rather than logic. Our work has revealed that we are not alone in our suffering but that everyone is in pain.” (p.167) Further, “we should regard our exposure to global suffering as a spiritual opportunity.” (p.168) Suffering is an opportunity to turn towards others and treat them as you wish to be treated.

‘There is suffering’ is the Buddha’s first noble truth. It is this recognition that allows wisdom and compassion to arise. At the first sight of suffering we can feel our hearts naturally turn towards it. 

The Buddha asks us to know suffering from its arising to its cessation. When we pay close attention we can notice that suffering is eased by gentle acts of compassion. Conversely, we can notice that when we turn away from suffering, out of fear and judgement it increases.

In this step, Armstrong tells the story of Christina Noble. Growing up homeless on the streets of Dublin, Christina suffered greatly. A profound dream inspired her to travel to Vietnam. In Vietnam she saw, “two destitute little girls playing in the dirt of the street, one of them smiled at her and tried to hold her hand. Christina was immediately overcome with memories so painful that she tried to walk away; she wanted no more grief, no more involvement. Yet all the time she was saying to herself: ‘There is no difference between an Irish gutter and a Vietnamese gutter’….This was a major turning point: Here, [she says] the pain, sorrow and anger of [her] childhood in Ireland would be resolved. [She] would work with the street children of Ho Chi Minh City. Here [she] would stay. Here [she] would find happiness.” (p.165,166)

Karen Armstrong implores us to recognize suffering.  She asks that we look out into our world, without fear,  and know that our own suffering makes us a powerful source of compassion. It is with this recognition that we can “always treat others as we wish to be treated.”