Cultivating Compassion in Your Community with Karen Armstrong and the Compassionate Action Network

The Charter for Compassion
On February 28, 2008 Karen Armstrong won the $100,000 TED Prize and made a wish for help creating, launching and propagating a Charter for Compassion.

After the Charter was unveiled to the world on November 12, 2009, the Compassionate Action Network (“CAN”) launched an effort to create the first “Compassionate City” in Seattle. On April 24, 2010, the mayor and city council affirmed the Charter for Compassion and proclaimed the city’s support for a 10-year Compassionate City Campaign, making Seattle the first city in the world to become a Compassionate City.

The International Campaign for Compassionate Cities
CAN established the International Campaign for Compassionate Cities following a wave of worldwide interest in creating compassionate cities. With the unveiling of the International Institute for Compassionate Cities in late 2010, CAN is developing an ability to enable rapid development of compassion-based programs within institutions and political entities (cities, nations, etc.) while supporting a growing culture of compassion that fosters positive, effective, and caring shifts in policy, practices, financing, education, employment, health, and community support.

What You Can Do
You can start by personally affirming the Charter for Compassion on the web. It’s easy to do and you’ll be adding your voice to tens of thousands moving us toward a culture of compassion.

If your city has a campaign under way, join and support that campaign. If it doesn’t, start a campaign. Bring like-minded people together and contact the International Institute for Compassionate Cities. The Institute has an easy-to-use online Campaign Participation Inquiry form. Complete and submit the form to begin getting support from the Institute.

You can also launch a campaign for your school, business, university, faith group, or other organization. Don’t hesitate to let the people at the Institute know if you have questions, needs, or suggestions.


How can compassion help meet the needs in your community? Let us know!

This Special Community Discussion will run from September 12 through October 2. It is led by Ari Cowan and Anil Singh-Molares of the Compassionate Action Network, and Scholar of Religion Karen Armstrong.

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Fredrickson's picture

I hope you will allow me to poise a hypothetical question that we are dealing with in a class I am teaching. It is a question of compassion, and doing no harm.

A scientist has the power to conduct animal studies that are likely to inflict pain on a two-dozen mice, in order to explore a disease that currently affects about 10,000 people. The disease itself is not life threatening but clearly affects the quality of their lives, with some of the inflicted suffering what could unquestionably be described as "anguish". Even though the scientist is question has spent a 20-year career studying this and similar diseases, her hypothesis could be wrong, and/or reveal other physiological relationships that needs to be explored. In either case, further animal experimentation may be required.

Based of the variation in animals for the traits being measured statistical tests were conducted to determine the minimum number of animals to use in these studies and still be able to observe statistically relavant differences among treatments. Furthermore, she has conducted a number of non-animal studies that supports her hypothesis. When the disease condition is observed, the animal will be sacrificed and tissues examined post-mortem. All animals will be sacrificed at the end of the study using methods that minimize pain so that tissues can be compared among treatments. The study itself will be published in an academic journal to inform a community of scientist currently working on this and similar diseases.

The questions are:
1) Which is more compassionate: 1) the researcher forgoes the research in order abstain from taking the life of the mice, or 2) she conducts the study, convinced that her work will lead to a partial cure for the disease in question?

I appreciate your thoughts on this issue.

tOM2's picture


1BiblioTech's picture

In resonse to your questions; I do personally believe that compassionate cities, and a compasionate world are possible. As a Buddhist, I work for it every day. But since I believe one of the core means of change is education, to me, the way to a more compassionate world, is through compassionate schools! Educating more compassionate students not only trains the compassionate adults of the future, but the education influence expands outward to the home and the neighboring community.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As effective (if not more so) in the movement towards human compassion are the actions of a community's leaders. Case in point is the recent announcement by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud that women would be given the right to vote and stand in elections. The announcement was hailed by liberals and activists who said it raised hopes that other demands for greater democratic and social rights might one day be met.
"This is great news," said Saudi writer and women's rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaider. "Women's voices will finally be heard. Now it is time to remove other barriers like not allowing women to drive cars and not being able to function, to live a normal life without male guardians."

mountainzen98's picture

I too am deeply impressed by the Rumi statement that "meditatortoo" quotes. I've written it down to use myself.

Ari, I feel we humans are at the point where compassion is the only practical choice, for each other and for the earth as well. I've come to the conclusion that perhaps one of the greatest causes of human suffering is assuming that we're separate. Of course, in this world of instant images of the massive suffering of mankind, perhaps that's the only way for some to separate from the suffering throughout the planet, so that we're not completely overwhelmed by it. But I fear that that response comes with a price: the closing of the human heart.

Ari Cowan's picture

I agree with your insightful observation that compassion is the only practical choice. In my work at the International Institute for Compassionate Cities, I see many people hungering for a compassionate world: a planet upon which rancor, rage, and meanness are replaced by reverence, understanding, and compassion. Compassion has always been important, but it's especially critical now because we have the ability to bring and have brought devastating harm, sorrow, and suffering to the world.

The presence of so many people adopting and supporting compassionate action is enormously encouraging. I'm delighted to see people, who I wouldn't think would be interested in the subject, step forward. These include those in business, the military, prisons, law enforcement, and academia. (So much for my faulty stereotypes.)

There is a deep and abiding current of compassion increasingly gaining traction. It's fascinating to watch it grow — flying low and fast under the radar of the media. It's as though some deep-seated alarm clock has gone off. The rumblings of awakening can be heard as the dawning comes.

I've come to realize that there is no known defense against relentless compassion. What a wonderful (and important) time to unleash it upon an unsuspecting and welcoming world.

Ari Cowan's picture

I'm interested in knowing the thoughts of those contributing to this discussion about the following questions:
• Is compassion "practical?"
• What do you think the chances are of worldwide success for the International Campaign for Compassionate Cities (
• How would you answer criticisms that compassion is just "window dressing," "feel good," or "unrealistically idealistic?"
• What does compassionate action look like to you?
• Why should anyone support having cities become more compassionate?

meditatortoo's picture

I am extremely grateful to both Tricycle and Karen for their contributions not only for this 9/11 commemoration, but also for their years of insightful assistance that they have shared and I pray will continue to share for many years to come.

Karen mentioned that settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian contribution is a key issue that needs to be resolved for there to be peace in the Middle East, I am in whole hearted agreement.

Yesterday I listened to President Mahmoud Abbas as he launched the bid for the UN and International Community to recognise Palestine as a democratic and independent nation with it's own government, borders and capital. I am pleased that he had the courage to go ahead with this action, and was impressed with the manner in which he presented the bid.

He mentioned the long struggle that has gone on for 63 years now, I celebrated my 63rd birthday this year, and have carried part of that struggle in my own heart since my early twenties. Karen also touched on our interdependence, and nowhere could this have been more apparent and obvious than in the hall of the United Nations. Recently in a book titled 'The Heart of Religion' in a chapter titled 'The Divine Dialogue' the auther Mr. Phiroz Mehta goes one step further than 'interdependence' and introduces the possibility of 'supreme communion' which can take place when there is a vanishing of the opaque barrier of separative self-consciousness, truth, the immortal 'I am' awareness is allowed to shine through, and touches life with energy and healing.

The Palestine/Israeli issue is a knot with compounded entrenchment. I mentioned in an earlier post that 9/11 spurred me on to seek wider for answers than those that I had found during my 50+ years as a christian. One of the conflicts which I carried over the years was the notion of religious superiority. As a christian this centrered around Christ's claim when he said 'I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me', and when the Stars and Stripes were hoisted in th Yankee Stadium to the strains of 'The Truth goes marching in' I heaved a very heavy sigh.

During the week that followed a verse from the Old Testament kept coming up again and again, 'I tell you oh man what is good and what the Lord desires of you, to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God'. Alas, at times, I havn't always walked humbly with anyone over the past decade since then, let alone God. Participating in the Anti War Movement provided me with several opportunities to vent frustration and often yes 'downright anger'.

Before these commemoration discussions came up on 'Tricycle' I had already resolved within my own heart that I would in future try and tread a more humble path. The path of 'protest' is all part of dharma, but for me, from here on in the exercise is to sit patiently and try and unravel some of lifes' complex knots. I would like to have been present when Jesus uttered those words 'I am the the way, the truth ...etc, I would like to have observed his eyes, and noted his hand movements, was he drawing attention to himself, or was he notioning heavenwards? Remember when Moses questioned God on the mountain, who are you? God replied 'I am that I am'.

'I am' the way, or certainly can be, if to quote from Mr. Mehta's book again, ('I am the I which has given up I' as Siva said to Kumara the Karttikeya.) I was extremely disturbed by the Buddhist notion of 'no self' and am very grateful to Rodney Smith for his recent contribution, now I see it as a very liberating teaching. I think that was the beautiful truth which came through in the film 'With One Voice' ... the awesome beauty of a transcendent 'I am'. I don't believe the 'Truth' marches anywhere, rather it steals up on you, sometimes when you are most unaware'. When Tara concluded her contribution with the Rumi quote 'Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field, I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn't make any sense' this was the second time in a fortnight that these words had been shared with me. Strange? I hear nothing from Rumi ... then twice in a couple of weeks!

Sure the path to peace in the Middle East and the resolution of the Palestinian problem is not going to happen overnight, but I hope and pray that key players will be prepared to set aside entrenchment, and reach out compassionately.

So to conclude, thank you Karen for offering the path of compassion, I have bought your book, and will try and contribute in any way that I am able. And thank you Tricycle.

Ari Cowan's picture

Very thoughtful. The topography you explore is one that those developing insight will value (including me). Thank you.

Ari Cowan's picture

We just received word that " Today at UNESCO headquarters in Paris the Chairs in UNESCO's Intercultural Dialogue Program and in the UNITWIN network on Interreligious Dialogue for Intercultural Understanding voted unanimously to endorse the Charter for Compassion.." This is a testament to the power of the Charter for Compassion.

mountainzen98's picture

In the picture that starts the video, I think Karen Armstrong looks like her health might be detiorating. Is she taking care of herself, Ari? (I have a dialup link to the internet, so I'm unable to watch the video).


Ari Cowan's picture

As far as I know, Karen is fine. She may look a bit tired: her schedule is hectic, so she may have been a bit frayed. In the times I've spent with her, her energy, passion, warmth, humour, and bright mind have been clearly evident. She's quite a trooper.

alohalevey's picture

I recently had the good fortune to attend the Buddhist Teachers’ Council at the Garrison Institute with about 250 leading Dharma teachers mostly from the US, Canada, and Europe. It was an inspiring gathering that offered a rare opportunity for dialogue and deep reflection among senior teachers regarding the vital relevance and most skillful means for sharing the Dharma in these complex times. During one of the plenary sessions, I introduced the International Campaign for Compassionate Cities to the community at large and encouraged everyone to consider getting involved with bringing this initiative to their city, town, or community. Many of the Dharma teachers recognized the great potentials for this. Since compassion is such an essential theme in the Buddhist teachings, and is so vital to the Bodhisattva spirit, the Compassionate Cities campaign is a timely and skillful means to affirm and express the spirit of the Awakening Mind. The meme of compassion is a potent one for people in diverse communities and serves to spark conversations for action necessary to encourage greater compassion expressed through community involvement, social services, business, health care, and education. We’ve found this Campaign a powerful vehicle to promote inter-spiritual dialogue and action within communities seeking to realize their potentials for greater compassion in action. I invite you to envision the myriad of beneficial ways this Campaign could ripple out through your community and to invite your Dharma friends and Sangha members to explore ways to activate these potentials within your larger community. May the creative compassionate spirit inspire our skillful means in and expanding mandala of communities around the globe.
Joel Levey - Cofounder,
and member of the Board of Advisors for the International Campaign for Compassionate Cities

abiyet's picture

Through our organizations, Ethiopian American Spelling Bee and Ethiopian Spelling Bee, in US and Ethiopia respectively, We strive to implement The Charter for Compassion and The Golden Rule in to our teachings. Our organizations are in business of teaching the importance of words and literacy, what is the best way to incorporate the teaching of The Golden Rule with the love of reading to these yound fertile minds. Our team is also working diligently to put Addis Ababa as compassionate city to affirm The Charter for Compassion and to proclaim our city Compassionate Addis Ababa.

Ari Cowan's picture

It's such a delight to have you and others in Addis Ababa be part of the International Campaign for Compassionate Cities. Exciting things are brewing in Ethiopia. By the way, one my granddaughters was born in Nasrēt, south of Addis Ababa. My son — a physician — retrieved her from an orphanage and was able to get her healthy enough to make it to the US where she is living a happy life.

joanne.conger's picture

My favorite quote by Karen Armstrong is "Compassion is not a popular virtue." As I navigate a community landscape that can be pretty tough going, I hold this reminder in my heart constantly.

Compassion really is the ONLY thing that can begin to address the needs of our community in any real sense. As a lead volunteer for Seeds of Compassion I have come to the conclusion - over the past three years - that it is compassionate leadership in our community that is seriously lacking and I moved to address building a more compassionate community in this way:

I was so moved by Ms. Armstrong's visit to Seattle in 2010, I worked to develop a week long retreat training inspired by her "12 Steps to a Compassionate Life." The Compassionate Leadership Conservatory is working to bring 40 compassionate leaders to a 220 acre retreat center north of Seattle in November, 2011. With experienced and respected facilitators, participants will learn how to lead with clarity and compassion and practice removing an ego form the work that can be significantly damaging to cultivating compassion.

By building strong compassionate leaders, we will be able to address many of the needs our community has in a comprehensive and engaged way. Compassion is REQUIRED to meet all of the needs in our community. It's the very foundation of identifying needs and recognizing them as essential. Without holding compassion as a priority in our hearts, our families, and in our communities we are just individuals, a little lost and trying to find our own way home. Compassion very clearly shows us that we are all "in this" together - that one person's suffering might as well be our own.

Compassion is the true vehicle of us accepting responsibility - for ourselves and for each other.

Joanne Conger
Compassionate Leadership Conservatory

poetess1966's picture

There are two new homeless shelters here in Birmingham. They are for homeless veterans. The name is Three Hots and a Cot. It was opened when a friend of ours realized that there were men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who ended up homeless for whatever reason. They fought for us and he wanted to do something for them. It's been open a little over a year now and the beds are full. It doesn't yet get federal funding but every week just enough comes in to make the bills. My husband and sons have been working with them. We have a small business that picks up scrap metal and old appliances from apartment complexes for recycling, and we sometimes clean out apartments after someone leaves. We get good beds and clothes sometimes and all of it goes to 3 Hots and a Cot.

The men there sometimes feel as if they have been forgotten. That's why every week I go and take them homemade bread or a cake or something. Just to let them know they AREN'T forgotten. Everyone can find 5 minutes out of their day to offer a smile to a homeless person. Just 5 minutes smiling and asking how they are. It can make all the difference in the world to a man who is considered a throw away by society. A smile, a hello, a how are you, can be a small step towards restoring their dignity.

june's picture

This is a wonderful act of compassion!

Ari Cowan's picture

One of the central characteristics about compassionate action is that it requires that you give something of yourself, that you do not stand apart from the object of your compassion. Your example of putting yourself out to the veterans is a wonderful demonstration of compassion in action. Thank you.

Anil Singh-Molares's picture

I wonder if this all sounds a tad too complicated? Compassionate cities begin (and end) with individuals who commit to daily, practical compassionate actions. Those actions can be quite simple, yet effective. For instance, at the moment, my daily commitment is to drive as carefully and mindfully as I can, with a view to lessening some of the distinct lack of compassion on our roads... Consider the hundreds of people who die in car accidents every year as a result of "road rage;" what if your actions and mine could help reduce that tragic statistic? What other actions could we take to make our cities more compassionate?

lianna's picture

Small steps can make long journeys. I second your commitment to compassionate driving, and I join you.

rpunambo's picture

I thank all of you for all your work implementing this important vision. In response to your question, I believe that the single most compassionate action each one can take today is to first begin by being compassionate and tender to ourselves. It often seems easier to treat others with tenderness and warmth, but we fall short of doing the same for ourselves. We need to reverse this process: begin by being tender, forgiving and compassion with yourself. By doing so, your own compassion with radiate to the world around you. Conversely, if you are violent, unforgiving and judgemental toward your own "imperfections" and mistakes, how can you expect to regard another in the opposite fashion?

Ari Cowan's picture

This is an important point. Human beings are keenly attuned to each other. When one practices compassion toward the self and internalizes compassion — that is, becomes compassionate at their core — others witness their unique presence and, at some level, recognize the embodiment of compassion. This can have a profound impact on others. When one accepts oneself compassionately as they are, being compassionate to others comes naturally and effortlessly.

beatrice's picture

I am working at being ever mindful of those with less by simply turning off unneeded lightning and being less wasteful with food, etc. Just being in the moment when I switch off that light or being thankful for a warm short shower. I want to do more. I will see where this leads me.
Yes, mindful driving is a big one.

Ari Cowan's picture

As Co-Directors of the International Institute for Compassionate Cities, Anil Singh-Molares and I have experienced some unexpected and deeply moving responses to the idea of a "culture of compassion." Let me give you two examples:

In a court room near a confirmed Compassionate City, a particularly scathing clash between two attorneys escalated. The judge stopped the trial. She pointed out that there was a Compassionate City nearby and, since the people there were aspiring to compassion, so will those in her courtroom. The trial continued with respect, understanding, and — most of all — compassion. The juror reporting this was astounded.

In August, I spoke with a school principal of an alternative high school in Colorado. She told me her students had asked that the school constitution be replaced with the Charter for Compassion. They decided that they should make compassion a central focus of their lives. It was obvious that she was deeply touched and proud of these young people.

There is a hunger for compassion and compassionate action. The Institute has never recruited a city, county, country, school, business, or other group. They search for and find us. We are working as fast as we can to meet this wave (tsunami?) of interest, intent, and commitment. We are astonished by the power of the idea and practical application of compassion.

cheryl.lossie's picture

Hi, this question is for Karen. I heard your talk at Chautauqua, NY a year or so ago and you said some things that were very meaningful to me. You said: "Very often in the type of dialogue and debates we have it's not enough, simply, to seek the truth. We also feel impelled to humiliate and overcome our opponents as though truth were a competitive matter." You then tied that back to early Greece, saying: "The end of Socratic dialogue, does not end with one of the opponents bludgeoning the other into the ground, but in the common acknowledgement of the profundity of human ignorance." And, that Socrates and Plato said, "Dialogue must be conducted with gentleness on all sides - you listen to your opponent and allow it to change you." Finally, you quoted Plato as saying, "Any kind of discussion conducted in the spirit of malice or hate will not work." I so much love this! I teach college and would love to pass it onto my students. Can you refer me to some reading materials that would contain this information? I agree that we have lost the true art of persuasion. Along those lines, Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin offer a wonderful alternative called "invitational rhetoric." Thank you for all the work you are doing!

milepost100's picture

Great example, which also highlights the problem. A judge has complete control over what happens in his/her courtroom. If more leaders acted as in this story, we wouldn't need an organization to promote compassion, it would just be happening. What stories do we have of powerless people getting the powerful to act compassionately? I have plenty of stories of resolutions being passed or proclamations made that are not followed or honored.

beatrice's picture

Bravo for you and the others spearheading this idea!