Meditation and prayer contribute measurably to social change. That’s the thought-provoking message of David Nicol’s new book: Subtle Activism: The inner dimension of social and planetary transformation. Nicol teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies and he is a cofounder of Gaiafield Project that launched WiseUSA, an initiative dedicated to social change through meditation.
What is subtle activism?
“It is the use of consciousness based practices like meditation, prayer for collective transformation. It means applying the healing and the transformative power of these practices to the collective rather than the individual realm. Subtle activism is aimed at shifting consciousness at a very deep level so that can lead to shifts in the outer world.”
Just prayer and meditation?
“No, there’s more: Ritual, conscious dance, ceremonial work, the arts et cetera. I’ve seen how drama therapy brought healing for Jews and Germans. There are many ways to achieve collective healing. That’s what I call ‘subtle activism’.”
Is there any evidence that subtle activism can heal society?
“Over centuries, mystics have claimed that their spiritual practices have had far-reaching effects on their societies. Recent quantitative and qualitative studies of directed-intention in group settings appear to confirm this phenomenon. For instance, various research projects performed by the Transcendental Meditation movement have shown that large groups of meditators can bring down the levels of violence in society. That research is rigorous and very convincing. But it’s not the only example.”
Do these examples suggest that subtle activism is a more effective form of activism?
“Subtle activism is never a substitute for pragmatic actions. Activism is most powerful when it has both elements—subtle and pragmatic. Many activists tend to prioritize ‘real action’ and they downplay meditation and prayer. I think that pragmatic action for social change is much more impactful when it’s informed by a deep awareness. By a sense of purpose and love. That’s what made the social movements led by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King so powerful.”
Can everyone be a subtle activist?
“I think it is a calling and it can be a way to contribute for people who have certain spiritual capacities, tendencies or gifts. I am particularly interested in the capacity of very conscious coherent groups to be able to harness a heightened transformative power that goes beyond what people can achieve individually.”
The political debate in society is negative and divisive. The forces of subtle activism seem very small and it’s hard to see them succeed in such a negative climate.
“This movement is still in its infancy. That said: I’ve seen impressive growth since we launched WiseUSA in 2012. That year we had 248 events. This year we have had some 1,600 events worldwide. Recently, 50,000 people around the world jointly meditated to support the people at Standing Rock who are resisting an oil pipeline across their land. That’s a big number. Many people experience a sense of resonance when they hear about this approach. This feels rights, they say, this is how we need to engage right now.”
Is subtle activism a new phenomenon or merely a rediscovery of ancient practices?
“In many ways it is a modern term for an ancient approach. In all mystical traditions spiritual practices are done not just for personal enlightenment but also to serve the good of the whole society. In our culture spirituality only belongs to the private realm. There are good historical reasons for that. The medieval church was too dominant and it was good that church and state were separated as science became the guiding force for society. However, in the process the baby was thrown out with the bath water: The wisdom that can be found in spiritual practice shouldn’t be kept away from the public realm. It’s very much needed to infuse a public awareness, the sense of being deeply connected to the whole, the sense of earth being sacred.”
So, should we cancel the separation of church and state again?
“Obviously, we should not regress and bring back dogmatic religion to the public sphere. But I don’t think you don’t even need to directly challenge that view. I think that, as more people engage in these practices, the awareness of the underlying unity of everyone and the whole, of these universal spiritual values, will seep into the collective awareness. That awareness will ripple through into all aspects of culture and our cultural world view and we don’t have to revisit those arguments about separation of church and state.”
Which subtle activism experience has personally inspired you?
“Some time ago we did a series of subtle activism events to support the health of the ocean off the coast of Seattle. That ecosystem is under threat and the Orca, the killer whale, is the symbol of the health of that system. When we started our events baby Orca’s had not been seen in the waters off the coast of Seattle for four years. In the months after we did our practices, some eight baby killer whales were born in the area. This was reported in all media. We had the intention and then you see these results. We have to be humble and we can not know with a hundred percent scientific certainty that our subtle, invisible actions caused these things to happen. But looking for these sort of correlations is part of the process of understanding how it might work.” | Jurriaan Kamp | More information: www.gaiafield.net
Jainism: The inspiration for Gandhi’s nonviolence
During his conquest in Asia, some 2,350 years ago, Alexander the Great was accompanied by a young Greek writer, Onesicritus, who wrote about his encounter with the “naked philosophers” in—what is now—India. Onesicritus describes how Alexander encountered the sages in the dust in the village his armies had conquered. The details of the conversation are not known but—according to Onesicritus—after the meeting Alexander decided that he had had enough of conquering the world and he took his armies back to Greece.
The sages Alexander was meeting were Jain priests. The Jains have a long history. Their religion is one of the oldest in the world. One of their leaders, Mahavira, was a contemporary and a teacher of Buddha. There are some seven million Jains around the world, but traditionally their main presence is in the state of Gujarat, in the west of India. Gujarat was the home state of Mahatma Gandhi, and Jainism had a major influence on him. His vision of nonviolence came from the Jain concept of ahimsa, as Michael Tobias writes in Life Force: The world of Jainism (1991), one of the few books introducing Jainism to the western world.
The word “Jain” comes from the Sanskrit word jina, conqueror—the human being who has conquered desire, anger, pride, greed, etc. Jains extend the practice of nonviolence to all living beings. Vegetarianism—if not veganism—is at the core of their identity. Jains try to prevent to harm all animals, including insects. That’s why you see Jains walking in Indian towns with a net covering their face so that they cannot accidentally swallow an insect. They also make an effort not to injure plants any more than necessary. They do not eat root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, and garlic because tiny organisms are injured when the plant is pulled up and because a root’s ability to sprout is seen as characteristic of a living being. Still, Jains accept that absolute nonviolence is impossible. As Gandhi said: “Ahimsa limps, but it is the only way.”
Tobias’ accessible portrait of Jainism shows how relevant the Jain philosophy is, as a response to human violence and environmental abuse. On the way to kinder and more compassionate world, there’s no way around the practices for personal discipline that the Jains laid down more than two thousand years ago. Hindus greet each other with namaskar and they bring the palms of their hands together before their chest and they bow. This greeting goes back to an ancient Jain mantra: “I forgive all beings; may all beings forgive me. I have friendship toward all; malice toward none.” As Michael Tobias writes, Jainism is a life force that translates into kindness for all life. There can be no timelier message. | JURRIAAN KAMP
A force more powerful
In 1999, director Steve York produced a feature-length documentary about nonviolence resistance movements around the world. The documentary tells the unavoidable story of Mahatma Gandhi, but it shines a light on the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa through inspiring, lesser-known, personalities. The documentary was later extended into a PBS series including portraits of the Polish Solidarity Movement, Danish resistance to Nazi occupation and the democracy movement in Chile to oust General Augusto Pinochet. Based on the documentary the video game People Power was developed as a unique interactive teaching tool in the field of nonviolent conflict.
A Force More Powerful | Steve York | More information: www.aforcemorepowerful.org