Reconciling Violence and Compassion

This is the continuation of a group discussion of martial arts and compassion. Your thoughts and opinions are welcome.

As martial artists, we naturally develop a certain familiarity, or even comfort with violence. That is a good thing.

And at the same time, as members of a civil society, we are compelled to minimize our violent interactions. That is also a good thing.

Can these attitudes and skill sets be integrated? Synergized, even? Or, must gains in one area come at expense of the other?  Rory says,

Mindfully learning to crush a throat is incompatible with compassion- no matter how hard you visualize or how deep your meditation on your skills, if the first time you break someone’s bone or make them scream it bothers you, you weren’t honestly mindful- practicing violence to acquire a peaceful nature requires a willful blindness.

I say,
In the midst of a crisis, the warrior does what is necessary. Afterwards, they may reflect on what is possible.

To a professional fighter, this supposed incompatibility may not pose a serious problem. They can simply leave their work at the office, so to speak, and adopt a gentler persona during evenings and weekends.

Civilian martial artists are a different animal. I contend that the neurotic martial hobbyist, one who finds themselves unable to reconcile violence and compassion, is a danger to themselves and everyone they encounter.

It’s a Hollywood cliché, with an unfortunate basis in reality: the so-called “peaceful warrior” delivers a peaceful warning to his challenger. His mouth says, “I do not want to hurt you,” while his body secretly yearns for an opportunity. Such incoherent responses are a sign of self-delusion, of psychological crisis. Obviously, a reconciliation is necessary.

As it is necessary, let us now make it possible. And if we must change our working definitions of compassion and violence, so be it. Growth requires change.

Chris is right to point out that compassion means “suffering with” (I would have held it at just ‘feeling with’ but he’s right). You can’t suffer with everybody. The best example is the way some teachers, counselors, medics or just friends can really be there with you in the dark times. I have never seen anyone exhibit that level of compassion to more than one person at a time. Part of the power lies in the focused personal attention that it requires. When someone tries to feel for everybody and everything, it is indistinguishable from angst (which I privately call ’emo whining bullshit paralysis’).

This deep attention is also critical in combat. I don’t always have to be completely in the (head, heart, spirit, motion, whatever it is, all about him) of the threat, I can also (and prefer to be) completely within myself, totally in my action.

So, in the moment of delivering damage, you aren’t thinking about the people you are saving. If you aren’t thinking about them, you certainly aren’t ‘suffering with’ them. This is why it smelled like a sophistry to me- it sounded like the words someone would tell themselves to keep a label.

Protecting people is reason enough. You don’t need to pretend that you were doing it with a certain type of emotional involvement or for a separate reason that you have been told is “the warrior ideal.”

Every attack we endure incurs a cost. We may suffer physical or emotional trauma; we may escape trauma, but exhaust ourselves by doing so; we may maximize the efficiency of our response, but are nevertheless forced to redirect our attention towards the threat. Opportunity costs are simply unavoidable, and ignoring or denying these costs will not erase them.

If we accept inconvenience and annoyance as mild forms of suffering, then we should recognize that compassion—suffering along with those who attack us—is mandatory.

This compassion is not an example of kindness (though it may be a prerequisite); it is a matter of honest self-awareness. As John Donne meditated:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne wrote these words from his sick-bed. I do not suppose he was pretending to Eastern warrior ideals at the time, or “trying to feel” his compassion. Rather, I suppose his illness left him weak enough to feel it without even trying.


  1. As martial artists, I believe we train aggressively … not violently. We look forward to defend ourselves against violence. This is not mutually exclusive from compassion. Colin

  2. I think it boils down to martial artist wanting to know IF they really can defend themselves. It takes a really supressed ego to be able to train and never want to use it in the real world.

  3. Ruthlessness is sometimes a better term for me when I say violence. Violence is so loaded with connotations of evil that we forget it’s first meaning: swift and intense force. The others seem to outweigh it: rough, injurous, unwarrated uses of force. Too bad. It’s a word that can shake the foundations of martial arts paradigms.

    Compassion too is misused. You don’t suffer with someone to discover compassion. You simply experience your own inner softness, your tenderness. From personal experiences of tenderness we may, nevertheless, execute ruthless acts.

    The capacity to do violence and the understanding of its consequence (including the personal, internal consequences) offers a wider range of options and should include diminished fear-reactivity, allowing for calmer, more appropriate responses.

    That’s that seething power lurking in your favorite, most-impressive instructor: the capacity to do ruthless acts lurks beneath a gentle, consistent, pressing guidance.

    A good counselor acts the same way as a good martial artists. Hell, a great bodyworker will impress, with deep-tissue realignment, the meaning of ruthless compassion.

  4. Rory, if such discussions have any benefit, I think it would be better to conduct them in the public forum.

  5. Compassion doesn’t require practice or trainning. It is innate.
    Fighting requires training, great fighting requires more training, the greatest fighting requires training all the time–
    The greatest training is actually all about what not to do– something done all day and all night.

    The motivation of the tiger to protect her cubs does not require training and is completely compatible with fighting other predators.

    Both natural fighting and natural compassion are totally compatible.

  6. martial arts is fighting fighting is violent in nature as martial artists we may not be violent by nature but we all have a violent side to our personality’s without one how would we fight or defend ourselves I cannot hit someone in the face and be nice about it can I.

  7. martial arts is fighting fighting is violent in nature as martial artists we may not be violent by nature … I cannot hit someone in the face and be nice about it can I.

    I disagree with your logic, Cobra Kai.

    I would like to think that the fighting a martial artist gets involved with is the kind of fighting where he/she is protecting himself or the people he cares about.

    There needs to be no niceness about fighting nor with the techniques used nor with the pain he is inflicting. However, the martial artist need not be violent about it. All he needs to do is respond appropriately. Once the threat is diminished, the lethality of techniques can be de-escalated as well. For instance if I hit an attacker full in the throat with an open hand, do I necessarily have to crush his windpipe ala ‘Under Siege’? No. I don’t. I also don’t have to drag his semi-conscious body to the curb side so I can break his teeth in. But yes, I may continue until he is doubled over or flat on the ground.

    I’ve done martial arts for 25+ years. I engage in sparring and I have fought, but I don’t have a violent side to my personality. I don’t harbour dark thoughts to stab the other employees around me and trash their houses or kill their family members.

    On the flip side, when I’m in the dojo when I punch a person in the face I am still considered ‘nice’ … because my personality is ‘nice’ and I am nurturning the people around me to be better martial artists.

    I understand where you are coming from and I respect the level of intensity that needs to be met whilst defending yourself or fighting someone else. No argument with that – if you don’ thave the fight in you, you’ll be overwhelmed. Why it is so important to justify between violence and agression is that there are a lot of abused spouses and scared women out there who may and do equate the aggression needed in self defence with the violence visited upon them by their partners. My job has been to empower them with the understanding that hurting someone for self defence requires their committment and aggression and that when they stop they stop because their actions have been warranted. Is this the same for their partners? A violent spouse or aggressor or sexual predator will continue until he has had his fill. This is violence because it is unwarranted and typically exists when the aggressor has a huge power difference/advantage.


  8. i c ur point colin but in a fight i will drag him into a gutter and break his teeth and i will crush his windpipe i believe i no mercy in a fight but different people different ways of fighting i have met people who are all about self-control and those who will send u to a emergency room with cracked ribs and broken bones but like i said different people different fighting styles and violence to me is just aggression

  9. Well Cobra in the US you just caught a case. Dragging the assailant into the gutter and crushing his teeth and wind pipe isnt meeting force with force so you thereby violated the rule of necessary force. You would at the very least get a misdemeanor and have to pay for the assailants medical bills. Once the assailant is unable to continue his act of violance, by law you have to stop beating him.

    If someone gets mugged in a dark alley or their home is invaded, there is no nice way to take the assailant down. Especially if the home is broken into. I have a wife and daughter and I for one am incapable of “nicely” defending my home. Do I continue to beat him mercilessly? No. Once he is down and out then obviously I would restrain him until the police arrive, same with the mugger, unless he has buddies and then it’s do what I have to do and run.

  10. well no-mind i do not live in the US my country has even worse laws if i were to do even what u said i would get in trouble of the cops so i just go full out why should i care there going to charge me anyway no matter what i do

  11. why should i care there going to charge me anyway no matter what i do

    You could choose to do the right thing irrespective of what happens to you.


  12. i live in a crap country i would rather move to America and the right thing was never my strong point i don’t believe in a eye for a eye i believe in 2 eyes and an arm for a eye

  13. Australia it sucks here but it’s always hot i want to move to America where it is cold or England some where nice and cold

  14. Both compassion and violence are innate. Well, when I imagine the need to pluck a poor carrot from the garden, I consider it violent. So — that’s what I mean — we have an innate propensity to eat and nurture ourselves, and to do so requires violence. Much of our violence is shielded from awareness, true; but actions that support life (even you –vegans) requires violence, destruction, consumption (pick the term).

    Compassion, of course, in innate as well: without it how could I listen softly to my friend’s words or offer a soothing touch?

    When we temper our violence with compassion, we learn to walk softly. We find those fine lines, that razor’s edge, to travel into the deeper recesses of awareness and attention.

    Exisiting as a human, or, even more so, being a martial artist while believing that you do not practice violence is both great denial and a great way to prepare to get hurt.

  15. sucks for me colin

    I would be happy to share my personal inspiration, motivation, and excitement for Australia with you, if you like.


  16. I think compassion comes with a universal connection with others. However I think one needs to recognize that you can’t change the world but you can only heal yourself. Personal connection and positive response is necessary as each “separate” person comes into your existence. However I believe violence is never the answer. Attacking another means you will be attacked. There is no reason to prepare yourself for things anyway. Just stay positive and forgiving through all of life.

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