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One of the characteristics of our strange new post-US election world is that things are in such flux that it is difficult to orient ourselves to the new environment and know what actions to take. It is as though many of the established pathways of thought have been blown open, leaving us scrambling to make sense of our new reality. We are being required to re-evaluate our most fundamental assumptions about how things are and where we thought we were going.
In this psychic maelstrom there are real dangers. We can hear in our times the echoes of previous traumatic episodes of history, and many of us are working hard to assess whether or not our situation will likely unfold in similar fashion. However, this opening also creates an unprecedented space for the influx into society of radically creative ideas and energies. Thus, we also have an opportunity to make rapid, non-linear progress in our collective evolution.
We are facing what chaos theorists would call a bifurcation point—that moment of crisis in a complex system that leads to either collapse or the emergence of a fundamentally new level of self-organization. It is important to recognize that pressure has been building for some time for human society to transform in much more fundamental ways than has been possible through the traditional political system. In this context, the election of Trump, Brexit, and the emergence of right-wing populism throughout Europe can be seen as trigger events that are pushing an already unstable system into outright crisis.
Chaos theory informs us that when a system approaches a bifurcation point, it becomes highly sensitive to input. Tiny influences have vastly amplified effects due to the presence of complex feedback loops. The flapping of a butterfly’s wings in China leads to a hurricane in Bangladesh.
In such volatile times, our interventions, however well-intended, can easily exacerbate systemic tensions. A variety of creative responses may certainly be called for to save lives, buy time, and disrupt the momentum of destructive forces. However, in the long run, what may be most effective to support intelligent systemic change are new forms of subtle and sensitive actions that apply to the system as a whole.
Subtle activism is a concept I have introduced to describe the potentially crucial role that consciousness-based practices like meditation, prayer, and ritual may play in supporting change in the world. Although in our modern Western culture these practices have more typically been used to support individual growth, they can also be harnessed for the purposes of social and collective transformation. For example, during World War II, millions of people throughout the British Commonwealth observed a minute of silence every day at 9 p.m. to support the Allied war effort. More recently, tens of thousands of people participated in a global meditation in November 2016 to assist the ‘water protectors’ at Standing Rock.
Although subtle activism is a new term, authentic spiritual practice has always been for the sake of the whole. From ancient shamanic traditions to monastic and mystical orders within the major world religions, practitioners have long dedicated their spiritual work for the wellbeing of all life. In our modern, hyper-individualized Western culture, however, spirituality has become largely focused on personal liberation, often to the exclusion of sociopolitical and environmental concerns.
This situation can partly be understood in historical terms as the outcome of the scientific and political revolutions that overthrew the dominance of medieval religious institutions, relegating all religion and spirituality to the private and personal domain. Yet our planetary situation today has become so urgent that we can no longer sustain this division. We don’t want, of course, to see a return to public influence of the dogma of institutionalized religion. But we do need to find a way to reintroduce a sense of the sacred into our public awareness. If we were to relate to the Earth as a sacred, living being, for example, it would be impossible for us to treat her the way we currently do. To bring about this shift at a collective level will require us to expand our spiritual vision beyond personal growth toward engagement with the world at large. It will call on us to develop new ways of being and seeing that are free from the dogmas of both religion and materialistic science.
Subtle activism represents a step in this direction. More than simply a philosophy of engagement, subtle activism is a methodology for connecting spiritual awareness with collective concerns. It is not associated with any one spiritual method or tradition; it describes a wide variety of consciousness-based practices intended to support collective transformation. It is also no accident that subtle activism is rising as a planetary force in the Digital Age. The Internet and its associated technologies are enabling the emergence of new capacities of collective awareness whose transformative potential we are only just beginning to glimpse.
It is important to recognize that the processes of individual and collective transformation are profoundly intertwined. The work an individual does on herself not only enables her to become a purer and more effective instrument for healing the collective, but, at deeper levels, can itself be a source of transformation whose effects extend beyond the individual. Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz (1985) expresses the idea as follows:
Whenever an individual works on his own unconscious, he invisibly affects first the group and, if he goes even deeper, he affects the large national units or sometimes even all of humanity. Not only does he change and transform himself but he has an imperceptible impact on the unconscious psyche of many other people. Conversely, whenever an individual engages in a practice ostensibly intended to affect collective transformation, he himself is also inevitably transformed. By participating in the practice, he contacts a source of healing wisdom that cannot help but positively affect his own consciousness.1
Needless to say, the hypothesis of subtle activism goes beyond currently orthodox scientific theories and may provoke the skeptic in many of us. The proposed force is so subtle that, in contrast with more overt forms of action, it may appear inconsequential as a factor in shaping events in the public sphere. We cannot see the results with our own eyes. We therefore have to trust that our subtle actions are having an impact on the world. Yet we have been deeply conditioned by our modern scientific culture to doubt the reality of unseen or nonphysical dimensions.
Nonetheless, several empirical attempts have been made to assess the social impact of consciousness-based practices, with impressive results. The most prominent of these is the series of studies on the so-called Maharishi Effect undertaken by scientists associated with the TM movement. The series comprises more than forty studies (including over twenty published in peer-reviewed academic journals) that consistently demonstrate statistically significant correlations between the presence of large groups of meditators and improvements in social harmony in nearby cities. Contrary to the assumptions of many skeptics, close analysis of this research shows that it holds up well to critical scrutiny. (See chapter 3 of my book Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation for an in-depth discussion.) More general support for the principle of nonlocality can be found in the large body of parapsychology research, which offers substantial empirical evidence of nonlocal mind-to-mind and mind-to-matter interactions from over a century of scientific investigation.
In my academic research, I came to learn that not all that much was known (or at least publicly written) about how to actually practice subtle activism. One could find fragments of wisdom in various traditions, but in general the field seemed quite undeveloped. In 2006, with my colleagues Leslie Meehan and Sean Kelly, I launched the Gaiafield Project to advance the study and practice of subtle activism. Early on, we formed a Wisdom Council of eight to ten leaders in the field who each brought substantial independent experience in facilitating spirit-based activism. Starting in 2008, we met weekly via teleconference to practice subtle activism together. These calls became a kind of living laboratory in which we experimented with various approaches to collective transformation. Over the years, we developed a standard practice—which we called Gaiafield Attunement—that involved holding a pressing collective issue within a group field of deep contemplation. This practice reliably generated profound intuitive insights and became the solid foundation of our approach. However, I was convinced that there was much more to be revealed about the art of collective healing.
In 2014, after I had completed my book on subtle activism, I was able to take an extended break for the first time in many years. In that period, a sincere prayer arose in me to understand more about how to facilitate collective change through the practice of subtle activism. Some months later, after a significant spiritual breakthrough in my personal life, I received a ‘download’ about a specific, creative way to harness the power of group consciousness to support collective transformation. It was a very exciting time of discovery and revelation.
Many spiritual traditions embrace the notion of a subtle body that underlies the physical body. A central part of the method I was shown involves the co-creation of a group subtle body. Participants are led step-by-step through a process to merge their spiritual centers together to co-create a group heart, a group mind, and a group will. This process consistently leads to profound levels of group coherence. A new subtle group ‘organism’ comes into being with higher-order spiritual capacities. In particular, it becomes an extraordinarily potent transmitter of the sacred into the collective.
The conscious group ‘organism’ or field possesses a complex blend of spiritual qualities that enables it to absorb, metabolize, and respond intentionally to collective events in ways that are beyond the capacities of most individuals. Where one individual in the group is weak, another is whole. In this way, the group field has a harmonizing effect that balances out the deficiencies or egoic distortions of any one of its members. Participants are thus simultaneously engaged in a process of co-creating the higher capacities of group consciousness while themselves being healed and uplifted by those capacities.
This last point is important because creative responses to the stupendous collective challenges we face will not arise from the same states of consciousness we currently identify with. In grappling with these challenges, we ourselves need to be willing to undergo a fundamental transformation. We are all being called to higher levels of integration, personally and collectively. The coherent group field accelerates this process by supporting all its members to rise in awareness together.
When facing fanatical or fundamentalist forces in the world, it can frequently be confounding to know how best to relate to them. Whether we should oppose them with unwavering strength, extend them extraordinary compassion, or respond in some other fashion is not always clear. However, the group field seems to ‘know’ how to respond to these forces with just the right combination of qualities—sensitivity and strength, love and power, joy and sorrow. In meeting these extreme manifestations with such attuned awareness, the group field performs a service that has a profound if imperceptible effect on outer reality. What cannot be felt or faced, persists. What can be faced with wisdom and presence is transformed.
The implications of this perspective for those engaged in spiritual work are profound, for it shifts the goalposts of the path while opening many new and expanded possibilities of spiritual fulfillment and expression. The spiritual journey becomes less focused on attaining personal liberation and more about exploring the world-healing capacities arising from highly coherent groups of spiritually sovereign individuals. I believe that such groups have the potential to exert a powerful magnetic influence on collective awareness, becoming attractors at a deep level around which human consciousness and society can self-organize in new ways that are much more deeply aligned with the whole of life.
For those wanting to explore the path of subtle activism further, the Gaiafield Project offers a variety of free public programs and events. Our current offerings include the Global Shift Meditation series, held on the first of each month (in partnership with the Shift Network), and the Earth Treasure Vase Global Meditation series, held each month on the full moon (in partnership with Alliance for the Earth). We also send out a monthly e-newsletter.
I teach online classes in subtle activism using the principles outlined above through the Institute for Subtle Activism and the Shift Network. We also serve an expanding global community of subtle activists through our Gaiafield Community membership program.
1 von Franz, M. (1985). The transformed beserk: Unification of psychic opposites. Revision, 8(1), 17-26.
David T. Nicol, PhD, is co-founder and Director of the Gaiafield Project (http://gaiafield.net) and the Institute for Subtle Activism. His recent book Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation is the first comprehensive study of the idea that our focused collective intention can powerfully contribute to social change. He is also co-founder of BeThePeace, one […]