Step 10, Part 2~ by Sara Neall

The book The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is an active guide to develop compassion towards self and towards others.  Each step requires us to dig deep into our own hearts and minds in order to build the world in which we want to live. Step 10, knowledge, challenges us to examine our own prejudices in order to learn about the world and each other with heartfelt curiosity. 

In this step, Armstrong asks each of us to, “overcome the limitations of the unexamined life and the dangers of habitual tribal thinking”(p.162) in order to, “develop a wider, more panoptic knowledge and understanding of our neighbors.”(p.156) When she wrote this step, it was with the intention that ‘our neighbors’ were countries away. She held a global view. I write this with a national view. It seems timely and necessary. 

In these last few weeks before the election we are all too familiar with what “habitual tribal thinking” feels like and sounds like. We share our opinions on politics to our like minded friends and shutter in disbelief at those who don’t agree. As things get louder and more confusing  we naturally get more entrenched in our own views. The more frightened we get, the more we seek comfort and safety from our tribe.

However, deep compassion requires knowledge of the ’other’. It takes a courageous look at our own entrenched beliefs. It “presupposes an awareness of [our own] preconceptions, attachments and blind spots that can cloud our understanding.” (p.158) It seeks an “objective overview that sees the situation as a whole.” (p.158)

In this contentious election cycle, I know from the yard signs along my street that my next door neighbors and I hold opposing political views. In moments of fear and of righteousness, I have been tempted to dismiss them as ‘other.’  And then …they email to ask about my dog, they wave as they head off to work, they take time to chat as I take the garbage out. I am continually reminded that they care about our community just as much as I do.

The knowledge that builds deep compassion,  asks questions and listens deeply. It reaches out and it remembers that we are more alike than we are different. Deep compassion challenges us, as Sister Henrita wrote in Step 10 – Part 1, “to realize and continue on a way of love and join others on the journey of love.”

Step 10, Part 1: Knowledge*

May our loving thoughts fill the whole world,
above, below, across— without limit;
our love will know no obstacles—
a boundless goodwill toward the whole world,
unrestricted, free of hatred or enmity.
Whether we are standing or walking, sitting or
lying down, as long as we are awake
we should cultivate this love in our heart.
This is the noblest way of living. Source: Sutta Nipata 1.18.

This is the noblest way of Becoming Compassion.

Following contemplation on the Four Immeasurable Meditations (Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity), I rested in the concluding thoughts that are quoted above. These thoughts elicited hope within me, hope for our mysterious time, hope inspiring me to believe my presence, my beliefs are needed in this world. The challenge is to realize and continue on a way of love and to join others on the journey of love.

As citizens of a Global Community, we are unable to know everything about our sisters and brothers. However, our call is to be persons with a concern for everybody and to be persons who take time to be aware of what is happening in the Global Community – take time to reflect, how can I help? We may respect ourselves for our concern for everybody, but also we need to be aware of our failures which have resulted in negative relationship with our sisters, brothers and also some nations.

Indeed, our call is to open our hearts with compassion for all. As we meditate on the Immeasurables, we are encouraged to extend friendship and offer loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity to all peoples. Together, we now stand in a profoundly difficult time in our Nation’s Life and Future, a time that begs us to be concerned for everyone. What shall we do? Let us meditate on the beginning reflection and respond with love and compassion.

*Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

Henrita Frost, SSND

Concern for Everybody

Step 9 – Part 2, by Sara Neall

The 9th step to living a compassionate life is cultivating a concern for everybody. Karen Armstrong defines this concern as, “understanding different national, cultural and religious traditions.”  She goes on to say, “we cannot confine our compassion to our own group: we must also reach out in some way to the stranger … – even to the enemy.” (p.144)

The coronavirus pandemic continues to challenge each one of us. As it travels around the world infecting people indiscriminately, it has revealed the depth of our interdependence. This pandemic has laid bare the fact we are connected and that our care for each other must include everybody. Realizing this interdependence is both terrifying and beautiful.

When we are afraid, we live in survival mode. Fear narrows our borders and we focus on caring for ourselves and those closest to us. But if we live too long in fear it becomes harmful. Our narrow borders can lead to regard “one’s own group as inherently superior” (p.144) This breeds arrogance and divisiveness. Our thoughts, words and actions become defined by an attitude of superiority.

However, the beauty of interdependence arises when we realize that we are One. In Step 9 – Part 1, Sister Henrita writes, “we each have a place in the Earth Community” When we see ourselves as part of the whole world, fear, and connection meet.

Step 9 helps us nurture this beauty. Concern for everybody, even those with whom we disagree, must guide our compassion. It is in this step that we move away from fear and towards beauty.

Holding complex ideas can lead us to the beauty of creativity.

Stepping out of our comfort zone can lead us to the beauty of greater diversity.

Widening our borders can lead us to the beauty of deeper insights.

And remembering that

we are not free until all beings are free

can lead us to the ultimate beauty of liberation.

Concern, Care and Empathy

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong

 Step Nine: Part One – Concern for Everybody

In the midst of a Global Community experiencing overpowering violence in thought, word and deed, we are entrusted with a profound, loving call, Concern for Everybody.  As I hear the plea, a trio arises: Concern, Care and Empathy!  These three closely connected words slide together into empathy as together they share Brene Brown’s incredible healing message about empathy, “You’re not alone.”  Together we are one, and with open hands may we feel inspired to give compassion and love to the Global Community – a Community of all, our Earth Community. 

We each have a place in the Earth Community.  However, we are challenged to be interdependent, so interdependent that it can be overwhelming.  As sisters and brothers our mission is to know one another, to be concerned about all of our sisters and brothers, near and far, and to understand diverse national, cultural, and religious traditions.  As I reflect on these thoughts, I remember living in Brooklyn, New York when immigrants frequently arrived on New York’s shores, close to the Statue of Liberty.  

Now we build walls to stop immigrants from entering portions of our Earth Community.  Conflict among people and nations enters into our daily lives.  Strangers have become part of our lives.  Our challenge is to stretch out and offer concern, care and empathy to our sisters and brothers within our reach.  Yet, our hearts must remember the whole Earth Community needs us.      

Today, September 5, 2020, I sit with mystery, worry, fear and confusion about the future of ourselves and the Earth Community.  The more I read and hear, the more worried, confused, and reactive I become.  I try to be observant of Karen Armstrong’s suggestion, “to expand our mindfulness practice to encompass the way we think and speak about people from other countries, cultures, ethnic groups, or religions.”   Each day the greatest sorrow, I experience, is the suffering of children worldwide and feeling so incapable of bringing comfort to their lives.

We all know that there is so much needing our concern, care and empathy.  I close with two thoughts: the first is a hope and desire to live a nonviolent lifestyle in thought, word and deed.  The second is to offer the Loving Kindness meditation for yourself and others. 

A closing thought from Sharon Salzberg –

Loving Kindness is a profound recognition that our lives have something to do with one another, that everyone counts, everyone matters.

How should we speak to one another? Part 2

The 8th step of Karen Armstrong’s guide to a compassionate life asks us to examine how we speak to one another. This is such an important question. In part one of this blog post, Sister Henrita illustrates the challenge. She writes, “There [are] moments when I [say] to myself, ‘I have it, I know how to dialogue, then a surprise dialogue occurs that reminds me that the call to growth is never ending.”

Wise Speech, as it is know in the Buddhist 8 Fold Path, is a challenge. A challenge which seems to increase as important topics such as climate change, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter become more and more divisive. Often, when I wade into these tough conversations my emotions rise and quickly reveal my frustration and my anger.

So how should we speak to each other about issues which desperately need to be raised, talked about deeply and responded to collectively and with compassionate action?

In step 8, Armstrong writes about the “science of compassion” and the “principle of charity” (p 139). Both, she writes, are crucial for engaging in deep conversations.

The ‘science of compassion’ studies discourse in an attempt to understand its divisive nature. When an opposing view is heard it can initially feel very distressing. In this distressing moment compassion requires that we stay open and curious. We must try to hear the words spoken in the context (historical, cultural, political, intellectual) which they are being spoken. This context can help us ‘hear’ the person speaking. Then perhaps we can begin to ‘see’ where the person is coming from. In this open curiosity we can hold our conversation partner with empathy and we can better listen with the intent to understand.

The ‘principal of charity’ expands this curiosity with the generosity to ‘make place for other’. It asks us to let go a little. Not to let go of our values, nor our knowledge but rather to let go of our notion that we already know everything. Our words too, are spoken through our own historical, cultural, political and intellectual context and when we hold our own words too tightly there is no room to grow.

This is, of course, hard and loving work. It is a practice. One of my teachers, Jesse Foy ( ), offers up this wisdom,
“Words express, they do not define. They bring an expression to the present moment experience. When we hold words lightly, we receive or offer them just enough to sustain wise and compassionate presence. At the same time, we let go just enough to allow for integration, growth, and new possibilities. Finding the right words does not always come easily, and do not reflect the speaker’s deeper intentions. Holding words lightly allows for an open-hearted grace and room for growth.”

Read widely. Think deeply. Speak lightly.

Sara Neall

How Should We Speak to One Another?

August 7, 2020 Step 8: Part One

How Should We Speak to One Another?

Step Eight from the Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong, has guided me on a journey of memories about learning to dialogue, a daily challenge. There were moments when I said to myself “I have it, I know how to dialogue”, then a surprise dialogue occurs that reminds me that the call to growth is never ending.

Karen Armstrong’s questions on pages 141 – 142 are treasured guides in my ministry for myself and others. Usually, following an interaction with a person and/or group, taking time to reflect about it is imperative for dialogue, to enable growth and an open-minded stance. Sometimes further discussion with a person or persons may be critical, for which Karen’s reflections are a priceless guide.

As I reflect on my history with dialogue, I share a time when I was young and attending an International Meeting of my Congregation in Rome. It was there that I was initiated into other cultures. My companions at the meeting, with kindness, awakened me to the realization that we are all different. This gift of learning about diversity enabled an openness to “make a place for the other”.

Plato’s description of dialogue as communal meditation with the essence of compassion is imperative for us who hope for a Global World where all people can feel at home. It is also important for our call to be peace-makers. The challenge is ours to assume our crucial part in social dialogue with nonviolence, according to the example of Gandhi. Conversion is the activity of each moment as cultures struggle for their rightful place.

St. Paul presents us with the garment of love for our responses to the needs of our times, “Love is patient, love is kind. . . . There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its truth, its hope, its power to endure.” 1Corinthians 13:4-7

Henrita Frost, SSND

How Little We Know

Becoming Compassion-New

Step 7 – Part 2

by Sara Neall

When I look out into the world and see so much suffering, I want to do something. This desire to ease suffering is the root of my compassion. However, when I pay attention, what arises next is often judgment and righteousness.  My mind often fixates on how I think things ‘should’ be rather than on seeing the complexities that exist.

Step 7, of The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life offers me clarity on how to understand the righteous quality of my mind.

In this step, Karen Armstrong asks us to “make place for other.” (p.117)

She outlines how to ‘make place’ in three ways:

  1. to recognize and appreciate the unknown and unknowable
  2. to become sensitive to over-confident assertions of certainty in ourselves and in other people
  3. to make ourselves aware of the numerous mysteries of each human being we encounter

As I contemplate these steps through my lens of the Buddhist teachings, it feels to me like the practice of “sampajanna” or clear comprehension. Sampajanna is not a practice of acquiring knowledge; it is a practice of seeing thoroughly. Rather than seeking to be right, it guides me to be more open. With this practice, I imagine that I am training my mind to be balanced, strong and flexible.

I have recently begun to learn to draw. In this pursuit, I realize that drawing what I ‘think’ I see and drawing what I actually see are two completely different things. In order to draw the scene in front of me, I must deconstruct it. I must look at my subject, line-by-line; shape by shape and most importantly see how each part of the scene exists in relationship with the other parts. It requires seeing thoroughly.

In part one, of step seven, Sister Henrita reminds us of, “how little we know about the needs of the world community.” How little we know shouldn’t stop us from acting with compassion, simply it should reminds us to ask questions, to listen deeply and to see how our individual actions are related to the bigger world.  It is this humility that is a key to compassion.

How Little We Know

Becoming Compassion-New

Step 7 Part 1: How Little We Know

The words How Little We Know echoes in my being as How Little I Know! Having lived many decades and having been present in many nations, I feel empty as I gaze upon my World Home. Every day for many decades, I have prayed for the gifts of compassion and wisdom. Now I ask myself, what has happened to what I know, where is my compassion and wisdom, and to what is today’s world calling me?

As I continued to read about – “make place for the other,” “knowing and not knowing,” “freedom of speech,” do we know what we are talking about? Questions also arise: What is happiness, what is truth, how do we live in today’s world with all the changes? So much beckons to me about our present historical moments.

The one awareness to which I am attracted is “that the world is unbelievably mysterious.” And what shall we say about these times except that it grows even more mysterious day by day. Then there is the challenge of the statement “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The pace of these uncertain times seems uncontrollable. The swiftness of change in areas of our daily lives can be overwhelming. We hardly have time to examine life and change happens. Some areas of our lives also need redefining. How shall we define justice for today’s world as we hear cries for justice that break our hearts.

In this moment, I hold the mysteries of Covid-19 and the outcry for racial justice and ask God – Why? I hear no answer, but know that it is a mystery. Our challenge is to care about those who are ill, health care givers, all those involved in caring for the living and deceased, and those suffering from racial injustice.

How little we know about the needs of the World Community! My desire and call is to remember the gifts of compassion and wisdom which empowers me to help create an environment where all are one in our mysterious world.

Henrita Frost, SSND

All Actions Count

Becoming Compassion-New

Step 6, Part 2 : Action

by Sara Neall

In part one, of step 6, Sister Henrita describes an insight she had while protesting at The White House. She was told that if she crossed a certain line, she would be arrested and she was afraid. Her fear challenged her commitment to her cause.

In the Buddhist tradition Right Action is part of The 8 Fold Path. Right Action takes the form of observing the precepts of non-killing and non-stealing. It is easy for me to think, I am a good person because  of course I don’t kill or steal.  In reality though, when I pay attention, I notice that embedded deep into my habits and patterns of thought are subtle ways I support stealing and killing.

The Buddhist scholar Joseph Goldstein writes, “if practicing the precepts doesn’t make us uncomfortable, it’s probably a sign we should investigate them more deeply.” (Mindfulness: A practical Guide p.380)

2020 is a year full of fear. Our climate continues to be in crisis. We are living in the midst of a global pandemic. And White comfort continues to kill Black people. My mindfulness practice and my commitment to the Buddhist precepts help me to challenge my actions in relation to these atrocities. Each time I waste food, I see that I am stealing resources. Each time I forget to wear my mask in public is an action that may contribute to someone’s death. Each time I fail to speak against racism is an action that  supports a brutal system of oppression. All my actions count.

In chapter 6 of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong reminds us that, “we have the ability, with disciplined repetitive action to construct new habits of thought, feeling and behavior.” (p.113)

It feels possible with practice, to examine my habits and my patterns of thought and to challenge the fear that keeps me tied to them.

Daily, Sister Henrita asks herself, “What lines to assist others, am I willing to cross?”

This inspires me to ask, “What am I willing to give up and what am I willing to change, day by day, to ease the suffering of all living beings?”


Becoming Compassion-New

Part 1, Step 6

Several times I have read and reflected on the Sixth Step, ACTION, of the TWELVE STEPS TO A COMPASSIONATE LIFE by Karen Armstrong.  Recently, I turned on the television and my world was shaken as I, once again, read the head- line, Thousands march across America for Black Lives!  Daily, I have read these and similar words about Black Lives, not only in the United States, but also in the Global Community.  However, this moment was different because I was concentrating on my call and obligation to ACTION.

Many years ago when I lived out East, I was involved in a march on the White House.  When we arrived we were given a place across from the White House.  We were soon informed that if we crossed a certain line we would be arrested.  I was afraid.  I still regret today that I didn’t cross the line.

I think of that moment of non-ACTION as a lost opportunity to pursue the cause of justice.  By my life-long efforts to pursue justice for all, I pray that I have paid a debt to all those I failed to assist in my lifetime.

In this new time, the word ACTION inspires me.  What lines to assist others, am I called to cross today?  Now that I am in my older adulthood and have less speed, I can’t excuse myself from taking ACTIONS.

My goal for my actions has always been Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.  This includes a focus of working for nonviolence and racial justice.  From a contemplative stance, the challenge each day is to become educated in the new understandings of today’s reality, offering me an opportunity to participate in the coming of a future full of peace.

“We Cannot Tolerate or turn a Blind Eye

to Racism or Exclusion of any Form.”

Pope Francis


Henrita Frost, SSND