Ruthless Compassion – Resolution Without Apology

This is the eighteenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   


R is for Ruthless.

When I first heard Sensei speak about “ruthless compassion” I was sure he was saying it backwards. He must have meant compassionate ruthlessness – tempering our ruthless nature by expressing compassion toward our partner. You know, that whole “protecting our attacker” thing we always hear about in Aikido. He kept saying it wrong, though. Weird, because he’s very articulate. He taught English for years. You’d think he wouldn’t mix it up like that.

I don’t know when it finally sunk in. At least two years into training. “Ohhh!” He meant exactly what he was saying. Ruthless compassion. It was just such a foreign concept to me that I couldn’t hear it.

So, what is ruthless compassion?

My current understanding of what Sensei means is that we can be absolutely clear, with no question about it, without becoming belligerent or aggressive, when taking charge in a situation. We can have boundaries, assert ourselves, and manage conflict while keeping our center. We can calmly, deliberately do what’s required to bring about a good outcome.

Remember that we can think of an attacker is as someone who has lost control, and is posing a danger to us, to others, or to himself or herself. The compassionate thing to do is to manage the situation, to get them safely under control. We can do this without hostility, and without hesitation. An act of compassion, performed ruthlessly.

An everyday example:

An example Sensei sometimes gives is that of firmly refusing to let one’s child eat cookies for dinner. Cookies are OK in their place, but aren’t a complete meal. Besides, the family is having salmon and vegetables tonight.

“No. You may not have cookies for dinner.”

That seems obvious enough. A direct, clear statement. And in this context it seems easy to to. The parent is responsible for the child’s welfare, and is in a position of authority. Of course they should not  let their kid have a dinner of just cookies. The parent is doing, without pity, what is best for the child.

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“No” is a complete sentence.”
~ Anne Lamott
Author of many books, including “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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For the sake of contrast, let’s look at a couple of alternative ways a parent could handle the kid who’s wanting cookies:

“But I went to all this trouble to make salmon and veggies, and I was hoping you’d like to have that.”

“No, you idiot! What are you thinking? Cookies aren’t dinner!”

You can see that neither of these would be an optimal way of communicating what’s going to happen with regard to cookies and dinner.

Clear, direct communication

Let’s hang out with verbal communication for the moment, since it’s an easy way to illustrate the concepts at work here. It’s plain that those aren’t the best responses when dealing with one’s child. How often do we find ourselves saying something similar in other contexts? At work, in traffic, in relationships?

“Oh, please be careful.” “You’re making me uncomfortable.” “I wish you wouldn’t” “Excuse me, uh, I was trying to say something.”

“Back off, you jerk!” “How dare you interrupt me!” “Do that again and I’ll bust your face.” “Where do you think you’re going?”

Both kinds of responses are inappropriate. One way is wimpy, whiny, and powerless. The other is angry, confrontational, and reactive. What if we could just be grounded and direct?

“Take your hand off me.” “I don’t discount my prices.” “Step away from my car.” “I’m speaking.” “No.”

For many of us, at least in some situations, directly expressing where we stand, without pleading or becoming argumentative, can be very uncomfortable. We haven’t had any experience with it. It feels awkward.

What if we could practice it somehow? Make it our default, natural response. Get it into our bones.

Practicing ruthless compassion in the dojo.

There are – of course, there always are – physical manifestations of these ways of dealing with conflict. Our physical presence is a kind of communication, more powerful than any spoken words. In reading the words above it’s easy to visualize the speakers in each case, and imagine their body language. Closed posture, eyes down, hands clasped, or leaning forward, red-faced, fists clenched.

These same habitual and inappropriate responses to conflict often reveal themselves on the mat.

Some of us may find ourselves hesitant to attack with conviction, or to take our partner’s balance (a critical component of most Aikido techniques). We may hold back, or feel unsure. We may not want to seem mean or rude, or we may be afraid of hurting or upsetting our partner. I have (many times) heard fellow students say “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry,” for simply executing a technique well, and throwing their partner with solid form and powerful energy. They are not used to asserting themselves, and don’t want to be a bother. It can be a shock to their system when they take decisive action.

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“It’s nice to be nice, but it can be extremely draining and self-destructive when it mutes our voice, holds us back, and undermines our authenticity.”
~ Arianna Huffington
On Becoming Fearless

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When I started training I found it very difficult to be direct and strong without summoning anger to provide the motivation. I didn’t do the techniques with full commitment because the only way it felt right to be that sharp and clear with someone was to be mad at them, and I didn’t feel mad. The feedback I got from Sensei was that I was being tentative, or too careful. I was doing the Aikido version of “Gee, I do hope you’ll think about having something besides just cookies for dinner.” I couldn’t say straight up “This is what’s for dinner. Not cookies.”

Alternatively, we may find ourselves being forceful or pushy. We may notice that our attention is on getting the better of our partner, and “winning.” We may get reactive and aggressive when we perceive an attack, even in friendly training.

Noticing these dysfunctional tendencies on the mat gives us an opportunity to look and see if we are doing similar things elsewhere in life, too. Do we meekly give others’s needs priority over our own? Do we stand by and watch when we should step in and take charge? Do we bully our way through interactions, getting our way without concern for our affect on others?

By deliberately, consciously, mindfully training we can learn to practice techniques with assertive, clear energy. Ruthless energy. What’s more, we can do so while maintaining our compassionate goal of ending the threat while caring for our attacker. It is through such embodied practice in resolving conflict in a better way, that we can not only be more effective in our Aikido, but more effective in life.


Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”