Book | Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation

Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary TransformationDavid Nicol. State University of New York Press (, 2016. 246 Paper, Foreword by Christopher Bache 

A Kosmos featured book for the Sacred Season

by Elizabeth Jennings

What if consciousness-based practices—meditation, ritual, prayer—could do more than induce calm or “charge the batteries” before you head out into the “real world”? What if these practices themselves can influence reality, and on a mass scale?

(image) David Nicol

This is the case David Nicol makes in Subtle Activism: that inner work can affect whole societies’ physical and inner reality. “Subtle activism” holds that non-local causality works, that a hundred people sitting on zafus can influence a thousand that never would. As secular societies continue to marginalize spiritual experience, some fearing abuse of spiritual power, material powers continue to consume and destroy a disenchanted Earth for comfort and money.

What if vast resources, within the deeper and higher aspects of reality, are available to satisfy us? What if there is much greater potential for human beings to heal the world, than through what little we can accomplish physically? If so, aren’t all people of conscience responsible to seriously consider the possibilities?

David Nicol thinks so. And his book is a call to action—but a different kind of action than many are used to.

Nicol briefly shares his own story of recognizing as a teenager that his life was meaningless—if he was not an integral part of a cohesive, participatory pattern. His spiritual seeking finally led him to create interfaith meditation events through his organizations the Gaiafield Project and BeThePeace. Through political peace-building, Nicol seeks to heal the split between public and private, secular and spiritual, reason and conscience, that has widened to a yawning gulf in the postmodern world.

(image) In Subtle Activism, he makes a sweeping survey from the ancient Indigenous roots of non-local causation (recall the classic example of the rain dance) to the present. Nicol’s examples are broad and inclusive, including Hinduism, the New Age movement, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. He presents several especially striking study results of the Maharishi Effect: the fact that crime rates, auto accidents, war deaths—diverse forms of natural and human violence—are reduced in areas where the global Transcendental Meditation movement has organized mass meditations.

Of course, not every reader will share Nicol’s particular political and spiritual views, or his interpretations of the data, but he goes out of his way to prove this information valuable to anyone eager to make the world a better place. He holds the pole of doubt himself, candidly noting failed experiments and possible distortions of data and power. Nicol directs his book toward the widest audience possible: both those with a committed spiritual practice, and those who believe change comes about only through sweat.

Chapter 3, “Subtle Activism and Science,” is a must-read for skeptics and the convinced alike. Nicol distills numerous studies, and makes the point that if scientists refuse to believe their own eyes and their own research if findings overthrow materialist dogmas, they are refusing to be empirical—to be scientific.

Whether Nicol’s book will convince skeptics I do not know. People generally continue to believe whatever necessary to uphold their house of cards, until crisis makes glaringly clear that a worldview is no longer adequate. We as a species are enduring this: facing that dismissing the sacredness of the world is no longer viable. However, I do believe that Nicol’s book will force secular activists to admit they are no longer the only sophisticated paradigm on the block (or in the academy), or even the dominant one. Whether they take up the challenge to examine the evidence—much less to meditate or pray!—is another matter.

Because since the so-called Enlightenment era, magic (“superstition”) has been relegated beyond the back burner of serious topics for study, Nicol wisely saves for the very end of his book (Appendix 2), a discussion of “Subtle Activism: Science, Magic, or Religion?”. However, this may be the most important, paradigm-challenging chapter, because his own conclusion is that it is all three.

Nicol also gives a clear presentation of the current ideological wars little known to laypeople, over whether consciousness even exists or is a delusion (which, ironically, is another form of consciousness). This “problem of consciousness” —if everything is mechanical matter, then how come we feel like more than machines?— has far-reaching consequences. Religious studies professor Christopher Bache has profoundly experienced in his mystical practice that the persistent violence we feel in ourselves and see in our communities stems from trauma stored deeply in collective consciousness.

How can this trauma be healed if consciousness itself is denied?

For the scientifically savvy reader, Nicol presents evidence for subtle activism through quantum physics, again blurring “science” and “spirit.” He quotes physicist E.C.G. Sudarshan describing the vacuum state in markedly theological terms: “The vacuum state is transcendendental and unmanifest . . . omnipresent and all-pervasive. . . immutable and absolute. . . the vacuum state represents perfection.” Nicol presents physicist David Bohm’s implicate order, and biochemist Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields, as well as current research in parapsychology. He questions objectivist epistemology and the currently proscribed limits of scientific research. But in the end, it all comes back home to you and me, to the everyday.

Do you and I believe that what we do and think—each of our attitudes, beliefs, subtle and physical efforts—really matters? Or do we believe, as atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell once put it, that “all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins . . . only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Such words do not exactly inspire activism, subtle or otherwise.

Nicol’s information especially empowers those of us more introverted and intellectual, who have felt that the materialist paradigm denies us that which is most real to us: our inner lives. Nicol encourages such people to use, not hide, their unique spiritual sensitivities. Subtle activism gives a way to more gently contribute to the good. It is a signpost of the global rebirth of the feminine principle, which restores the value of being and questions the patriarchal dominance of physical force as the only “real” way to influence or even exist.

In fact, a thoughtful reader may begin to feel by the end of the book that subtle activism is where the action really is. As the field of depth psychology has made common knowledge over the past century, everything we do begins deep within.

Nicol’s book is of special interest to me as someone whose thinking about these matters has not been mere cerebral play. At age twenty-one I hit disillusionment with the shallow version of religion I knew, and my first act of dissent was to stop praying. Prayer struck me as a cop-out, the foisting of the world’s problems onto God instead of doing something about them. Prayer was passivity, one step from apathy. Based on this conclusion, I spent the next few years in public service, trying to fill the role to a broken world of a loving presence I felt as absent.

Three years into that project, I fell to my knees in exhaustion. I was forced to confront that there were some people and situations I simply could not fix, or inspire, or help. Caring about them made me feel helpless, and not caring felt even worse. For the first time I realized what prayer was for: those very situations.

There are some things we can solve with boots on the ground. There are many we cannot. And in contrast to my first conclusion that prayer was escapist, I’ve found that in a balanced life, it is very empowering. As I rest in the understanding that I need not take sole responsibility for healing the world, that there are great and unseen forces of love at work as well—at work through me—I am able to relax, to be more present and attentive, which, in the end, allows me to do more tangible good.

This is the ultimate gift of David Nicol’s Subtle Activism: It shows a middle way, between exhausting immanence and passive transcendence. A way of ever participating in the healing of the world, even when we as finite beings cannot overtly interfere. This is expansion of power for the oppressed. It is the scientific underpinnings of the work of spiritual peace activists such as Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

If this possibility could get through to enough people, Nicol’s conclusion is that the world would reach a tipping point—a sort of “one hundredth monkey” phenomenon. We would form a planetary consciousness, a universal recognition that each being is an invaluable part of the human family and the Earth community. This is the ultimate purpose of all activism for Nicol. But is a power and greed-driven culture really ready to feel reverence and brotherhood—warm fuzzies—for “matter” and “consumers”?

I once heard Rupert Sheldrake share what happened after a presentation he gave on ESP. The academic audience was properly aloof and distasteful in their reception. However, then the scientists began approaching Sheldrake one by one and whispering that they had had an experience of what he was talking about, but if anybody knew they would be scorned by the other scientists and lose their jobs. This continued until nearly everyone in the room had approached him!

The moment may be ripe for weary activists, hopeful introverts, and closeted scientific academia to take magic seriously again. If so, David Nicol’s Subtle Activism will provide a significant talking point.

Elizabeth Jennings is a Ph.D student in philosophy and religion at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.