The Buddha emphasized the importance of compassion, including it in the four virtues known as the brahmaviharas, or four immeasurables. But while Buddhist teachings provide many tools for cultivating compassion, the particulars of how to effectively act on our desire to save all sentient beings is largely left to each practitioner to figure out.
It’s a question that weighs heavily on Radhule Weininger and her husband, Michael Kearney. Weininger, a Buddhist meditation teacher and clinical psychologist, and Kearney, a palliative care physician and Buddhist practitioner, run a monthly meeting called the Solidarity and Compassion Project, which gathers speakers from a variety of backgrounds, including religious study, science, social theory, and activism, to discuss the pressing issues of the day and our emotional reactions to them.
Unlike other town hall-style gatherings, the Solidarity and Compassion Project places an extra emphasis on self-care and self-reflection to help people become socially engaged in an informed and healthy way.
Tricycle spoke with Weininger and Kearney about how the Solidarity and Compassion Project evolved from a way of coping with their own political anxieties into a regular gathering of interfaith and interdisciplinary thinkers.
Why did you start the Solidarity and Compassion Project?
Radhule Weininger (RW): The Solidarity and Compassion Project is a spiritual or psycho-spiritual town hall meeting that we started right after President Donald Trump was elected. I grew up in postwar Germany, and after the election I had this immediate jolt of fear and worry. Some of the things Trump was saying and doing reminded me of the Nazis.
Was your family Jewish?
RW: No, they were not Jewish. But my grandfather was a philosophy and history professor as well as an anti-Nazi activist, and he was incarcerated for speaking out. He was Catholic and a very ethical and principled man. In 1933, he read Mein Kampf, and he saw the inhumanity and the danger of it. Being a history teacher, he knew what it meant, and from the beginning, he didn’t take it lightly. He felt he had to speak up, and when he did, it didn’t go well.
I also studied history—it was my major—and we read the original Nazi documents for class. We were taught to recognize the first signs of totalitarianism. So after the election, I got alarmed. I wasn’t able to sleep. I woke up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning feeling anxious and worried.
I thought, I have to do something. I felt my grandfather standing behind me.
My grandmother was a four-foot-two little lady, and when the Nazis came to search her house, she threw one of the officers down the stairs. So I had that activism in my past.
I have to wonder what the Buddhist take on pushing a Nazi down a staircase is. I can’t fault her, but it’s not exactly nonviolence.
Michael Kearney (MK): [Laughs.] Well, I think Granny wasn’t so much of a Buddhist, but she was very intuitive.
RW: She had an interesting intuition that was something like a vision. In 1936, she got very worried—bordering on paranoid—and started having delusions about deadly gas coming out of the electric outlets. It was odd because the gas chambers weren’t used until 1940–41.
She couldn’t go to a doctor because the Nazis would euthanize her as part of their so-called psychiatric genocide. So a Jewish doctor friend helped her out and diagnosed her with delusional disorder. But it quickly went away, and she was fine through the war and until she died.
A right-leaning person would probably say that you are being paranoid in comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler. How would you respond to that?
RW: People would say that to me—until recently. Now, everybody has kind of shut up. But in the beginning, people would say that I was making too big of a deal out of the political situation whenever I would bring up my background. I got some letters from people saying that I shouldn’t mix politics and spirituality together. I still try not to harp on it.
What does a Spirituality and Compassion Project meeting look like?
MK: The meetings have evolved since we first started doing them. Now they take place monthly at an Episcopal church at the center of Santa Barbara, California. At the first meeting, Radhule invited all of the other Buddhist teachers in town to hold an evening of solidarity to see how sharing the dharma could help the community, which was in shock. It gradually evolved from there to more of an eclectic and interfaith gathering.
Each month, we gather around a different theme; for example, our last meeting in September was on fear and how can we can remain open-hearted in a culture of fear.
The meeting starts with Radhule welcoming everybody, sharing an introductory comment or a short teaching about the theme, and then leading a 20-minute meditation. Usually that is followed by some music or poetry, then we move on to our panel of speakers, which I moderate. Our panels are very eclectic: psychologists, sociologists, climate scientists, religious leaders, and so on. After the panel speaks, we open the discussion to the floor before ending with a short gratitude practice.
How did this start transitioning into more of an interfaith and interdisciplinary project?
RW: The early meetings came out of our meditation group, the One Dharma Sangha. My mentor is [Spirit Rock founder and Buddhist teacher] Jack Kornfield, and I’m close with Tara Brach. So that mix of Theravada Buddhism and modern therapies and psychology is my background. I’m a clinical psychologist and was previously a medical doctor.
During the first three months, I invited other Buddhist teachers from the Zen and Tibetan groups and from more traditional Theravada groups. The problem was that this group of Buddhists put a great emphasis on equanimity. The idea was that if we can be quiet inside, we will transcend our situation and be able to be better people even in difficult times. But the social activist in me felt a little stir crazy.
I felt that the issues we’re facing were all about diversity. The people who are being picked on are immigrants, Muslims, and other people who are considered different. So we needed to go wider than just the Buddhist groups. We started to mix it up, and place extra emphasis on inclusiveness.
MK: Our friend [the Buddhist scholar and environmental activist] Joanna Macy once said that lighting a fire under a spiritual seeker—or promoting activism through the spiritual path—can be very challenging.
There’s a difference of opinion sometimes on how to approach activism. Some would say if we go more deeply into our spiritual practice, it will bring us to a deep sense of compassion, which will create a desire to act. Others start with a strong desire to act and a sense of urgency and impatience. I think our gathering has brought together both of those groups into the same space, which is part of what we’re trying to do.
Have you found that there are people in your community who have moved from the far ends of that spectrum—largely driven by politics or dismissive of politics—toward the middle?
MK: I think there are. That’s one of the things that has encouraged us to continue with the project when things get difficult. We get feedback from people who say they’re feeling totally paralyzed or overwhelmed by what’s happening in politics. They say that they feel small or useless but that these gatherings give them a sense that they can make a difference.
People come to feel empowered. A lot of those people go out and join the marches in the street or are heavily committed activists in other ways. But the more spiritual seekers also end up feeling like their lives and their choices make a difference.
RW: That said, we won’t tell people how to vote. We try not to talk explicitly about politics or even talk about Trump, for instance. But we talk about issues like immigration.
MK: And we talked about moral distress and how to live with grief, fear, and uncertainty.
How do you manage to leave the specific politicians out of it, especially when they’re dominating the news?
MK: We don’t fully succeed.
RW: But we try not to indulge discussions about politicians or use their names too much.
Michael: We’ve visited local meetings from activist groups that we admire, such as Indivisible and Resist, and we saw a lot of outrage at injustice. We wanted our space to be different. In this culture of divisiveness, in which we tend to isolate ourselves, we want to provide a mindful heart space.
RW: And also create a vision for something different.
MK: Our activism will come from that. There’s a story that one of my teachers, Cicely Saunders, who is the founder of the modern hospice movement, told me. She started St. Christopher’s Hospice in London back in the sixties, and one day two psychiatrists were visiting. They were really impressed and noticed how open-hearted the patients were. And she said:
I recall remarking to these two psychiatrists that when patients are in a climate of safety they’ll come to realize what’s happening in their own way and not be afraid. One said, “How can you speak about a climate of safety when death is the most unsafe thing that can happen?” To which the other replied, “I think you’re using the wrong word. I think it should be security. A child separated from her mother during an air raid may be very safe, indeed, but she feels quite insecure. A child in her mother’s arms during an air raid may be very unsafe, indeed, but she feels quite secure.”
In essence, what we’re trying to do in these meetings is to create that kind of deeply secure space like a child in her mother’s arms.
RW: Often pain and trauma throws us into frustration, numbness, and hopelessness. If we then, in community, develop a sense of a new meaning for ourselves and for something more than ourselves, we can reconnect with life. Even though times may be difficult, our lives can now make sense again. Joanna Macy said, “An activist is anybody who is active for a pursuit bigger than personal gain.”
How do you distinguish between the type of security that allows you to act bravely and a type of comfort that might soothe you but can create a feeling indifference or apathy?
RW: The security that allows us to reach out to others is the one in our heart. So if I go home, turn on the TV, and pour myself a beer, I’m really just hiding. That type of security is a way of separating myself from the world, rather than reaching out to people. There is a very different energy behind feeling secure in your heart, which is where activism comes from.
MK: I agree. The difference between being in our comfort zone versus deep security is that comfort is an external buffer, whereas security is about deep connection. And that sense of deep connection feeds the desire to act on behalf of those we care about. The fear doesn’t go away, but it isn’t in the driver’s seat anymore.
That idea of compassion-driven security is akin to the idea of bodhicitta, the wish to awaken for the sake of all beings.
RW: Right. Bodhicitta is an important word for us. We all have bodhicitta, the capacity to care for all sentient beings, innately inside of us. But our bodhicitta can get wounded through fear, unawareness, or personal experiences that leave us preoccupied with the self or tied to our comfort zone.
How do you respond to troubling events in the news—such as the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, the revelations about the child separation policy at the border, or the hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh—when they come up?
RW: When the child separation news broke, we addressed it by selecting speakers who had expertise around those themes. For example, we brought in a Chicano studies professor from University of California, San Diego and a professor of early childhood development, who is a Latina activist.
MK: And a few weeks before Charlottesville, we held a meeting with the theme of forgiveness and a culture of polarization. That meeting ended up being very popular, so we planned a second part the following month. Meanwhile, Charlottesville took place between the two meetings, and the second one had a big turnout. It was this amazing sort of synchronicity.
RW: At the first forgiveness meeting we had an imam and a rabbi join us. Then for the second one, we added Terence Keel, an African-American studies professor at University of California, Los Angeles.
MK: We try to offer people these ideas and tools that we hope are actually helpful, practically speaking, as they go forward in their engaged activism.
How do you choose which meditation practice you’re going to use for which meeting?
RW: I got my PhD at the California Institute of Integral Studies in 1990 and have been working as a clinician and group therapist. Since I started in the Theravada tradition in 1980, I’ve found that while the lovingkindness and compassion practices are very important, they can be a little bit too formulaic. So by trying out different practices with clients, and with some help from Jack Kornfield, I’ve been developing practices that are more particular to a person or group’s needs.
These more client-centered meditations call for the guide to intuit what those needs are. For example, when we talked about the environment, I had a meditation that really included our care for the earth and our sense of interconnectedness.
Other times I lead a compassion meditation, where we work to widen the spiral of compassion from ourselves to somebody who shares our predicament, and then to other human beings. So my question is always “how can we expand our hearts slowly?”
I wrote a book last year, Heartwork: The Path of Self-Compassion, which contains these types of meditations.
What do you hope to ultimately accomplish with this project?
RW: I hope our group might inspire other towns to have their own Solidarity and Compassion Project—or they can call it something else. But we’ve found that this format encourages people to wake up to the issues while also providing a sense of belonging and security and grounding their activism. Every town should have their own bodhicitta group.
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