What is Subtle Activism?

By Jonathan Davis on Friday August 28th, 2015

The practice of subtle activism is growing, but is it effective for creating real change?

It only takes a google search to find a mountain of evidence that personal practices like yoga and meditation are beneficial on an individual level. So what happens when we come together collectively to take the success of this inner work and turn it outwards? I spoke to David Nicol from the Centre For Subtle Activism this week, to find out. David Nicol PhD is the author of Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation, and is the host of the Subtle Activism Summit, a free global web seminar being held from September 8–10, 2015.

What is Subtle Activism?

Subtle activism is the use of spiritual or consciousness based practices for collective transformation; which distinguishes it from the usual focus of using spiritual practice for personal development. We’re not looking at this as a substitute for external action or the practical action that of course needs to happen in the world, but exploring nonetheless that this approach could form a crucial piece, a foundational piece in the shift that we need to make on the planet.
– David Nicol

David described a weaker version and a stronger version of the idea of subtle activism:

The people who engage in these practices, where the intention is to support healing at the collective level, what seems quite uncontroversial [about that] is that engaging in these practices has a positive effect on the participants themselves. Those people get transformed and uplifted and there’s a ripple effect through normal means; how they interact with their family and friends; what projects they’re inspired to do; how it affects their own creativity, and that ripples out into the world.

The strong version of the subtle activism hypothesis is the more radical idea that there could be something of a non-local effect where, especially if large numbers of people get together and create highly coherent fields of consciousness, this may have more mysterious uplifting effect that is felt subtly by people around. That’s a bigger conversation, but that’s something that we’re exploring.

Medmob Mandala
There could be something of a non-local effect where, especially if large numbers of people get together.

What is The Maharishi Effect?

The Maharishi Effect is perhaps the most famous of all demonstrations of subtle activism, where studies conducted during the 1960s set out to prove that a group of people (1% of the population of a give area) practicing Transcendental Meditation at the same time could affect the population in a positive way. Crime rates did indeed go down significantly, as well as other measurable indicators of a more peaceful population. Critics cite a lack of causal evidence tying the results to the meditation. This argument becomes a reductionist catch 22: reductionism doesn’t believe anything where causality can’t be demonstrated; TM doesn’t claim to work within the boundaries of causality and reductionism.

When I asked David Nicol, he suggested that the experiment had been repeated enough times in different locations for him to feel that the recorded evidence demonstrates the effect is real.

My view, at the end of looking at it in depth, is that it does stand up to critical analysis. There’s a lot of those studies that have been done (over 50), and more than 20 of them have been published in peer-reviewed journals – which is not easy to do. They constantly show these highly statistically-significant correlations between when you have large groups of people practicing TM in one place; that you see a correlation between that event and improvements in indicators of social harmony. Crime rates go down, war intensity levels go down if they’re near a war zone. Even things like car accidents seem to go down. The fact is, it’s science, it’s on the books – the statistics hold up when independent statisticians look at how they do it.’
– David Nicol

From Inner Peace to World Peace

David shared his own personal story of turning to inner practice after a realisation around the futility of seeking happiness from external means. He noticed that after setting his mind to a task and achieving a major goal, the happiness that resulted was transient and far from long-lasting. He found his mind quickly turning to the next task to find another modicum of happiness, and couldn’t help but realise the futility of it all. For a time he spiralled into an existential crisis, grappling with mortality and impermanence – a crisis he found his way out of through personal practice. ‘It sent me in a direction of looking into what something that would provide that more real, ongoing sustenance, and led me down this path of discovering eastern mysticism.’ When I asked him how to achieve inner peace, he suggested that ‘it’s more a process of clearing away the things obscuring that reality’.

David described a process of oscillating between two states:

  1. Purification and working through our issues; and,
  2. Realisation through practices like meditation

Abide in that true nature of peace, then continue with the clearing and purification.
– David Nicol

I asked if there was a correlation between between using the realisation of our own impermanence and mortality as fuel for personal evolution, and the fact that humanity is now facing the sixth mass extinction.

It’s a very fascinating moment that we find ourselves, where one way or another we’re going to pass through this crucible. It could end in… we don’t know what. It could end in tremendous destruction or it could be a spur for unparalleled creativity and a collective awakening.

It does feel as if there’s pressure coming in various directions to come together to realise our fundamental unity. We are staring down the barrel, our very survival could be at stake. Those are the conditions that tend to lead to a profound shift in perspective, something erupts out of the psyche that wants to wake up and I think that is one of the big hopes that we have on the planet – that those conditions can lead to not just an incremental shift but something quite incredible… as an antidote to the very extreme conditions that we find ourselves in.
– David Nicol

Meditating Occupy ActivistsMeditating activists in Zuccotti Park, New York during Occupy

The Power of Collective Intention

Part of the power of subtle activism lies in the directing of intention outwards for the benefit of all. It’s a state that David mentions is similar to traditional indigenous perspectives on spirituality which are far less focused on personal wellbeing than collective wellbeing.

What I feel especially passionate about and excited by, energised by, is the potential of group awareness; group intelligence; group fields; as an agent of transformation. This goes hand in hand with this idea of subtle activism. There’s something about the group mind, the collective mind, that gives us an extra access to the collective psyche. It’s different when we are doing our individual work and maybe thinking of how that could impact the whole, but when we’re coming together in collectives, in large groups, it’s almost like you’ve got a sort of public space there. Learning how to harness those fields to impact the whole, I think, is a very exciting process.

That’s why when we do these big global meditation events and you have a conference call which has thousands of people from all different cultures on it it’s a very unique opportunity and a very powerful collective field. To explore the healing potential of those fields, the collective spiritual intelligence that can emerge through that vehicle of the group mind is to me very exciting and where I am putting my focus.
– David Nicol

To me it feels as if one person meditating on their own, calling for some kind of higher assistance, doesn’t have the same power as when we come together as community with a shared intention for something more than the service of our personal desires. When we do this we become like a beacon, a brighter collective light, radiating a frequency to entrain the environment around us. For the first time in history we now have the communication capacity to create global synchronised events, with the potential of affecting the globe as a whole.

David Nicol
Director, Gaiafield Center for Subtle Activism at California Institute of Integral Studies
Author of Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation
Host of Subtle Activism Summit on September 8–10, 2015

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Words By Jonathan Davis

Writer and filmmaker, amplifying personal healing and growth for collective evolution.


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