AIK Kenpo Seniors: Compassion

Kenpo Seniors Blog - Compassion #1

The thing about being a warrior is you have to be patient, and kind. It’s what makes you a weapon for good in the world. Without it, you’re a loose cannon in a very real sense. But patience and kindness can be a tall order, especially in situations where your warrior skills might be called upon.

But something being hard doesn’t make it unimportant, or less necessary. Because you are a warrior, potentially violent situations require more patience and kindness than situations which are less fraught. Without it, you might be the one responsible for escalating a situation into actual violence when it could have been solved with words.

Bushido has a tool for maintaining that patient kindness. That tool is compassion.

Compassion means having empathy, even in the most difficult moments. It means looking even at people who are annoying you, or trying to hurt you (at least emotionally) and finding the reasons for that behavior. It means understanding deeply that those reasons rarely have anything to do with you. That the behavior has to do with events that took place some time ago, and in a different place. When you can do that, you’re able to maintain the quiet patience and kind resolve that mark the demeanor of the greatest warriors.

The excellent book The Four Agreements includes the agreement “Take Nothing Personally.” It reminds us how that dude flipping you the bird in traffic isn’t actually flipping you the bird. He’s flipping the bird to somebody who annoyed him at work earlier, or to the girl who broke up with him an hour ago, or to the cancer he just found out his dad had, or even just to the fact that he’s running late for work. By practicing compassion, you can better remember not to take those acts personally. It helps you avoid misusing your skills, and can even push you to offer a helping hand to somebody who’s being unpleasant.

Compassion does not mean sympathy. The difference between empathy and sympathy is subtle, but important. Empathy is understanding that others feel pain, and working both to avoid causing pain and to alleviate that pain. Sympathy is accepting responsibility for and power over that pain. Stepping into that space steals agency and responsibility from the person you’re trying to help. It also sets you up to be used and taken advantage of. You’ve probably heard the term “enabling” used in recovery and addiction conversations. It’s an excellent example of sympathy allowing compassion to run amok.

Which brings us to the question of what to do when somebody who deserves your compassion starts asking for sympathy. This is where your strength and training as a warrior really kick in. No, you don’t have to punch them (though let’s be honest, sometimes you’ll want to). You have to instead use your mental blocks and parries to push away arguments that don’t truly help your friend. You have to be willing to inflict a little temporary pain to help your friend on the path to long term gain.

Compassion isn’t just another way of saying “be nice.” It’s a way of saying “be kind.” Many people use the two terms interchangeably. Though you should be nice as often as possible (see our posts about Courtesy, another Bushido Value for details on that), if you are in position where you have to choose between being nice and being kind....choose to be kind.

Choose compassion, even when it means not getting into conflicts you would really enjoy getting into.

Choose compassion, even when it means not giving help to somebody who wants it but doesn’t need it.

Choose compassion, even when it’s frustrating or difficult.

Always choose compassion. It’s what makes you a warrior.






Kenpo Seniors Blog - Compassion #2

One of the biggest challenges for compassion in adults is when compassion seems inappropriate. In theory, we should be compassionate at all times and with all people, but that doesn’t always work out in real life. For example…

Giving money to every panhandler you meet supports substance abuse, and could set you up as a mark for future crime

Some people in your life demand so much compassion and attention they interfere with your ability to care for others, or even yourself

If you love an addict, sometimes almost any expression of compassion enables the addiction

At times the soft, kind words aren’t what a person needs. They instead need a verbal kick in the pants to change self-destructive behavior before it’s too late

An employer -- even of a babysitter -- might have to fire somebody who is dong a poor job, or being dishonest, even if it means taking away that person’s livelihood

Soldiers and law enforcement officers must sometimes use violence against somebody who isn’t acting evil of his own free will, but is rather a solider in an enemy army or a drug addict or mentally ill person acting dangrously

This is a dilemma all adults face at one time or another, begging the question of when is compassion appropriate? After decades of considering this issue and asking men and women we respect deeply, we’ve come up with three strong answers.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

This is a concept we learned from various zen practitioners and psychological counselors. It splits a pretty fine vocabulary hair, but we’ve found it very useful in our own considerations. For purposes of this exercise…

Empathy is putting yourself in another person’s shoes for a time, to really view things from that person’s perspective

Sympathy is feeling actual compassion, sorrow or pity for the hardships somebody encounters

For a warrior and practitioner of Bushido, empathy is a useful compassionate stance. Sympathy is potentially destructive. Using the example of a family member with a drug problem who wanted to stay in your house with you and your children. Sympathy would make you feel sorrow and pity for your homeless relative, and maybe push you to invite him to stay despite the danger he posed to your children and the fact you would be enabling his future drug use. Empathy would put you in a position to best consider his needs, while at the same time keeping your head clear about your other responsibilities.

When practicing compassion in the complex modern world, seek empathy rather than sympathy and see what happens.

Act From Love

If you’re juggling two courses of action in your head about what to do with somebody for whom you should be compassionate, look at the choices through a lense of love. In most cases, only one choice will look truly compassionate through that lens.

For example, a housesitter you hired has been doing a poor job with keeping your house clean and locked. You know the teen means well and needs the money, but has failed to do a better job when coached. You have to choose between firing him and keeping him on.

Viewed through a lens of love, firing the housesitter is (perhaps ironically) compassionate. It teaches the teen long-term lessons about responsibility and work ethic that will improve his life moving forward. It may be difficult for you both in the short-term, but has the best possible outcome. 

Viewed through a lens of love, keeping him on is actually the opposite of compassion. It doesn’t teach this teen good work habits, or strengthen the relationship between you and him. It just spares you the short-term pain of the conversation where you fire him. It’s clearly the wrong choice.

The Golden Rule

You know this one, and it applies to compassion as much as it does to so many other aspects of treating other people.

Treat others how you would like to be treated.

Here’s the trick about the Golden Rule though: anybody who’s been married knows that treating somebody exactly as you want to be treated can actually be pretty uncompassionate. Take being sick. Some spouses want to be coddled and cared for. Others want to be left alone to rest. A type a sick person caring for a type b sick person would be crazy to follow the Golden Rule, right?

Only kind of. If you take it a step further and (like with empathy above) really analyze how you would want to be treated if you were that person in that situation, you almost always find the compassionate answer.

Your Assignment for the Month

To help you think deeply about compassion this month, consider three situations you encounter that contain a dilemma of compassion. For each, apply one of the three answers we provided here today. Don’t write anything down, or do anything formal. Just think about what the answer has to say about that situation, and if the solution it suggests will likely be the right solution. 

We’ll work with that more later in the cycle, but for now just think it all through.





Kenpo Seniors Blog - Compassion #3

Enrichment Topic - 3 Phases of learning

When he was writing about kenpo, Ed Parker identified three stages of learning for martial arts. These are not to be confused with the three stages of learning as identified by influential education researcher Jean Piaget, but they are a solid model for understanding how one learns martial arts.


Which means they are a solid model for understanding how one learns any physical skill (and probably any mental or emotional skill as well).

According to Grand Master Parker, learning happens in three stages:


The Ideal Phase

The What If Phase

The Spontaneous Phase


The Ideal Phase is where you memorize a technique. Taking for example Delayed Sword. You learn to defend yourself against a right punch by stepping back with your left foot and blocking the inside of the arm with a right inward block. Then you kick the attacker in the groin with your right foot and finish him with a right chop to the neck.

You memorize this string of responses to a specific stimulus, the same way a new pianist might learn exactly how to play a set of scales for a blues song, or how you might memorize the steps of a recipe for soup. With practice, you learn how to do it in the air, then on a partner, and then in a technique line.

When you’re firmly, comfortably in the Ideal Phase you can do this technique from a cold start and perform it exactly right. Many students at the very end of this phase find themselves correcting their instructors in small deviations from the canonical technique.

The advantage of beginning learning in the Ideal Phase is it helps you confidently learn the basics building blocks of technique. Without this clear early instruction, it can be hard to understand what’s going on. Like the old saying goes: you have to learn the rules before you can break them. The disadvantage of the Ideal Phase is that improvisation is difficult. A technique you know in the Ideal Phase isn’t a technique you can take apart to see what makes it work.

The What if Phase begins to explore the how as well as the what of a technique. It’s here that you understand the mechanics of why an inward block works against a punch from the opposite side. If you’re practicing Delayed Sword, you might opt to try it left-handed as an exact mirror to the canonical technique to defend against a left punch. Of you might attempt it against a wrist grab, or from an attack from the side. The mechanics of the technique remain same, but you are able to adapt to variations as long as you know about them ahead of time.

Our new pianist enters the what if phase transitioning from memorizing classic scales and rhythms to being able to change pitch or tempo according to instruction. A chef still follows the basic recipe, but can account for larger or smaller groups than originally instructed, and can make appropriate substitutions with time to prepare. All are other examples of the what if phase in action.

The two chief advantages of the what if phase are the ability to improvise and the ability to understand. Although improvisation is rarely successful in real time for what if practitioners, they can still make changes with warning and execute with reasonable effectiveness. This ability to alter a technique also gives new insights into what works and doesn’t work in self defense, by seeing what happens when a kenpoka puts a move to work in a new context.

The biggest disadvantage of the what if phase is that it can be a serious rabbit hole. There is a literally infinite number of variations to every technique in the system, and only so much benefit to be gained from studying each one. After a while, amassing a long list of alternatives begins to stunt growth and development to the final phase.

The Spontaneous Phase is where you perform techniques without performing the technique at all. If a right punch comes at you, you don’t really do Delayed Sword anymore. You understand from your spontaneous phase understanding of the technique what makes the pieces work, and instead of a block deliver a middle knuckle strike to the attacker’s biceps. The kick becomes a rising knee to the solar plexus and the chop a clinch, which you use to gently place the attacker on the ground with the wind knocked out of him and a knot in his arm.

Did you perform Delayed Sword? Yes and no. You didn’t do the technique, but you spontaneously applied all the elements of the technique in a way that was successful and faithful to why the technique was developed the way it was.

Here is where your pianist begins running riffs and minor keys in his scales to put extra flourishes into his music, and where a chef applies what he knows about alfredo sauce to make a cheddar cheese sauce for his broccoli. It’s where creativity and mastery begin to play a role in excellence in any skill.

The advantage of the spontaneous phase is that you can apply a single technique to many situations, and combine concepts from multiple techniques to find the perfect solution to a given problem. Master teachers do this consistently, finding effortless flow and technique-without-technique.

As a beginning student, you’ve likely already seen the disadvantage of always training in this phase. Sometimes you improvise so well, you forget what the canonical, exact technique looks like. This can make it hard to further your training, and frustrate younger students when you can’t remember how the specifics of an older technique work.

Of course, progress between the three phases is not a straight line. You start a technique in the ideal phase, then train until you can handle “what-if” situations pretty well. Then one day you’re working with a partner who intimidates you a little, or you’re tired or distracted, and you’re back in the ideal phase again. This is normal, so don’t get frustrated. Little by little, with lots of backward steps, you’ll progress in your learning as long as you practice regularly.

For a deeper analysis of each of these, read about them in Parker’s Infinite Insights Into Kenpo, or ask one of the teachers at American Institutes of Kenpo for his or her own insights. Or do both. This is a valuable way of looking at your training, and worth some consideration and further research.





Kenpo Seniors Blog - Compassion #4 (Assignment)

This testing cycle is drawing to a close, and as always you need to complete three sets of requirements.


Know, and demonstrate your knowledge, of all physical requirements for your belt: all of the kata, techniques and basics associated with your new rank.

Complete any reading and knowledge requirements for your promotion

Finish your Bushido Compassion Assignment


Your Bushido Compassion Assignment will take you a full month to complete, so get started early and do a little every day to make your totals happen. It’s simple in concept, but requires the same kind of incremental, daily dedication that memorizing your kata does. Your assignment is:


Perform 30 random, anonymous acts of kindness by month’s end, and make 10 of them PERMANENT!


Like we said: simple, but not easy. A random, anonymous act of kindness is anything that improves an individual’s life, or the world, in some small but concrete way. Here are some examples of random acts of kindness from the Random Acts of Kindness website:


Write encouraging messages on post-it notes and leave in random places

Leave enough change to buy a soda in the change drawer of a vending machine

Pick up litter when you walk from point a to point b

Smile and say “thank you” using the name of any service worker you interact with

At the coffee shop, pay for your order and the order of the person in line behind you

Fill out one of those survey cards at a business and just glow about someone or something

Put change into parking meters that are about to expire

Leave a book you’ve finished at a bus station or in a waiting room

Give food to the local food bank

Keep cold bottled water at the ready for your mailman, UPS driver or other person who’s working out in the heat

Let somebody go ahead of you in line at the bank or grocery store

Share a positive blog post or news item on line

Wake up early and finish a household chore for somebody in your home

Leave a positive comment on a blog, or a stellar book review on Amazon

Send flowers anonymously to a hospital or funeral home. The staff will give them to somebody who isn’t receiving gifts

Donate blood and/or switch your donor status on your driver’s license

Be polite online even when it’s hard

Send a thank-you card to a teacher, police officer or firefighter


Keep some kind of journal of your acts of kindness, though the format doesn’t really matter. You can write them out longhand in a notebook, keep a tally of hashmarks on a post-it note, or even post them on your social media to try inspiring others to do the same.

This assignment works best, and has the most impact, if you aim to complete one random act of kindness each day. That adds up to 30 by the of a month, but leaves you plenty of time for (a) other things and (b) thinking about acts of kindness and their potential impact. If you procrastinate and try doing 3 a day for the last 10 days, you’ll be so focused on the acts themselves that you won’t be able to internalize the benefits. Be sure to take note of the 10 acts that you choose to contunie beyond this month’sassignment as part of developing your personalcharacter as well as to set an example forthe around you at AIK and in your own life.

Compassion has a ripple effect just like unkindness. You remember the last time somebody flipped you off in traffic? That person didn’t really flip you off. He was flipping off somebody who had done an unkindness to him earlier, and that person was probably unkind because she had suffered an unkindness earlier still.

You can do the exact opposite with compassion. If you leave a buck in a vending machine, the person who finds it will smile. She’ll be in a better mood for a while, and during that while might say something kind to someone who needed it. Then that person might be inspired to do something compassionate and kind to somebody else…

It’s the job of a warrior to make the lives of people in their community better. Isn’t it great that we can do it in ways besides committing violence against threats?

Finally, write a few paragraphs or about what you experienced in your Bushido assignment journey and turn it in by month’s end.

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