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Social Change Through Subtle Activism

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 18:55
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Subtle Activism – Synchronized Prayer and Meditation Can Create Measurable Social Change

By David Nicol PhD

Spiritual or consciousness-based practices like meditation, prayer, and ritual—in addition to their positive effect on individuals—may play a subtle, yet crucial, role in supporting change in the world. The intentional use of such practices for collective, and not merely individual, benefit can be understood as a subtle form of activism or subtle activism. Subtle activism is a creative approach to social engagement that broadens the traditional scope of both activism and spirituality.

On the one hand, subtle activism can be seen as a novel component of an integrative spirituality that aims to extend our spiritual attention to all aspects of our lives, including our participation in the social and political realm. On the other, it can be viewed as part of an integral approach to social change that seeks to address the underlying psychological and spiritual dimensions of sociopolitical transformation alongside outer actions. In straddling the worlds of spirituality and social change, subtle activism represents a bridge between the consciousness movement and the movements for peace, environmental sustainability, and social justice.

Although tales of yogis, shamans, and other adepts intervening on spiritual levels for the benefit of humanity is the stuff of ancient lore, my work constitutes the first comprehensive treatment of this topic.  I propose that the wider use of consciousness-based practices that focus on social or collective transformation has the potential to support a deeper integration of the positive dimensions of spirituality into modern public life, thereby enabling the public realm to become more permeable to such universal spiritual qualities as compassion, wisdom, and love. I believe that the practice of subtle activism is an especially meaningful response to the contemporary global situation, offering both a stabilizing presence to help humanity through the multifaceted global crisis that looms before us, and a means for enacting the (re-)enchanted planetary awareness that a growing number of scholar’s regard as the basis for an alternative human future beyond, or around, the crisis.


By connecting the paths of inner and outer transformation, subtle activism stands in the lineage of spiritually inspired activism, or socially engaged spirituality, as exemplified by such inspirational public figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, and as articulated by contemporary scholars and teachers such as Michael Lerner, Andrew Harvey, James O’Dea, Joanna Macy, Starhawk, David Loy, Marianne Williamson, Kurt Johnson, Matthew Fox, and Donald Rothberg. Subtle activism is distinguished by its emphasis on the potential of spiritual practice itself to constitute a subtle form of action in the sociopolitical sphere. The use of spirituality as a source of renewal for  overworked activists and of inspiration for wise outer action is vital for  supporting creative and sustainable approaches to social engagement.  But to limit spirituality to these roles in the context of social change work  may be to reinforce the modern Cartesian divide in which mind or consciousness is seen as fundamentally distinct from—and usually subservient to—the “real” world of physical action. This proposal, in its strongest version, affirms the possibility that certain forms of spiritual practice might themselves subtly effect change in the social realm through the principle of nonlocal causality.  Such an approach is not intended to replace more overt or direct forms of activism, or to deny the value of socially engaged spirituality as more commonly conceived. Rather it aims to maximize the potential of a typically overlooked, but possibly crucial, dimension of support in the context of a more integrative approach to social change.

Subtle activism is an umbrella term that describes a wide variety of spiritual or consciousness-based practices intended to support collective transformation.  These practices could include a broad range of traditional practices from the world’s major spiritual traditions (e.g., meditation, prayer, chanting, drumming, ritual, ceremony, mindful movement), various psychotherapeutic and healing modalities (e.g., trauma-release work, dramatherapy), certain transformative forms of art and music, and creative syntheses of these and other similar practices. Although these practices are normally used to support individual growth, they all can be creatively adapted for the purposes of collective transformation, and thus constitute what I mean by subtle activism. Among the many historical and contemporary examples of subtle activism are the following:


  • The (admittedly exceptional) claim by Indian sage Sri Aurobindo to have successfully wielded advanced yogic powers in psychic warfare with the Nazis from his bedroom in Pondicherry, India.
  • The “Magical Battle of Britain,” a project led by esoteric teacher Dion Fortune to strengthen the will of the British people during World War II through the practice of esoteric visualization techniques by a small London-based focalizing group and a wider national network.
  • The “Big Ben Minute,” another initiative intended to provide moral and spiritual support for the Allied war effort in World War II. The Big Ben Minute involved the daily practice by millions of people of one minute of silence during the chiming of Big Ben on BBC radio immediately before the nightly 9 p.m. news.
  • The series of massive peace meditations organized in Sri Lanka in the 1990s by Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne and his Sarvodaya network to help facilitate a peaceful resolution to the Sri Lankan civilwar.
  • The WiseUSA initiative, convened by the Gaiafield Project (an organization I helped found), which brought together dozens of socially engaged American spiritual teachers and thousands of participants for a series of online meditation and prayer events intended to support the emergence of wisdom and compassion in the context of the 2008 and 2012 US electoral processes.
  • The “Be The Peace” event on September 21, 2014 (the United Nations-designated International Day of Peace) that linked more than one thousand meditation gatherings in fifty-nine countries worldwide in shared intention to support a shift to a planetary culture of peace.

As these examples demonstrate, subtle activism can be practiced by individuals, small groups, and sometimes, in the case of mass or global meditation events, very large groups. It can be applied to all scales of social organization, from local communities to cities to nations to the whole human species or all life on Earth. It can be used to address various aspects of collective transformation, such as healing collective traumas from the past, providing support during sociopolitical crises or natural disasters in the present, or holding positive visions of a collective future.


This article is adapted with permission from  Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation.  Visit http://subtleactivism.net for more information

About the Author

David Nicol, PhD, is the executive director and co-founder of the Gaiafield Project, and co-founder of BeThePeace.com and WiseUSA, two initiatives that have united tens of thousands of people worldwide for large-scale meditations dedicated to social change. He is the author of Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation, the first comprehensive academic treatment of the topic. David teaches on subtle activism at the California Institute of Integral Studies, The Shift Network, and the Institute of Subtle Activism.

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