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Subtle Activism:
The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation

Press release-PDFQ&A for Nicol

July 1, 2016  •  Paperback  • ISBN 978-1-4384-5750-5
State University of New York Press  •   230 pages •   $29.95

Publicity Contact: Byron Belitsos • 415/446-0166 •   

David T. Nicol, PhD is the Founder and Executive Director of the Gaiafield Project and Institute for Subtle Activism. He is also co-founder of BeThePeace, one of the world’s largest global meditation events that occurs annually on the International Day of Peace (September 21). He teaches on subtle activism in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, for the Shift Network, and for the Institute for Subtle Activism. A former environmental lawyer from Australia, he now lives in Berkeley with his wife Kate.

Meditation and Prayer Contribute
Measurably to Social Change

Unique interdisciplinary study establishes a new field
that is crucial for our time of chaos and transformation

Today’s cutting-edge scientific research points to the irreducibility of human consciousness and the factual reality of psi abilities that were once considered “paranormal.” And while it remains true that our consciousness is directly shaped by our environment, we now know empirically that thoughts and intentions change our physical reality—as seen, for example, with the well-established placebo effect as well as in measurable physiological effects of meditation, and in numerous discoveries in mind-body medicine. But does this same principle also extend to the social realm? Can practitioners of meditation, visualization, or prayer somehow induce societal transformation? If so, what role might such practices play in the popular movements of our time? Such questions are addressed in David Nicol’s Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation (SUNY Press, July 2016)—the first comprehensive study of the idea that focused collective intention can powerfully and measurably contribute to social change. Nicol’s book has been called “scholarly, wise, and profoundly relevant” by James O’Dea, former president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and director of Amnesty International (Washington office).

Scientific support for efficacy of directed collective intention

Over the centuries, communities of contemplatives and mystics have claimed that their spiritual practices have had far-reaching effects on others in their societies. Quantitative and qualitative studies of directed-intention in group settings appear to confirm such ideas, supporting the radical notion that consciousness is a “nonlocal” phenomenon. While many have commented on this research, Nicol brings unprecedented depth to this issue based on his several decades of interdisciplinary academic study, during which time he developed a mastery of the pertinent scientific research. Subtle Activism offers a critical review of the scientific findings, but goes much further, locating this once-obscure subject within the history of ideas and providing a seamless inquiry into a broad range of fields including quantum physics, religious studies, consciousness studies, transpersonal theory, and postmodern philosophy.

A crucial bridge between spiritual movements,
social activism, and the global wisdom culture

Not satisfied with the role of theorist, Nicol’s work is also accompanied by a fervent personal commitment to social and political activism. True to his convictions, Nicol cofounded the Gaiafield Project, of which he is now executive director, perhaps the world’s leading organization in the field of subtle activism. He is also the organizer of WiseUSA, which engages thousands in prayer and meditation around the American presidential election process beginning in 2008, and continuing in 2016.

Subtle activism, he argues, represents a bridge between today’s spirituality movement and contemporary political movements for peace, environmental sustainability, and social justice. It should be seen as a crucial supplement for direct action and thus as a key part of a more integrated approach to social change. Keenly aware of the challenges of our contemporary situation, Nicol believes subtle activism has immense potential to unite large numbers of people worldwide in a new kind of movement for transformation. “Subtle activism,” he says, “is a rising force in support of the emergence of a global wisdom culture.”

David Nicol, PhD teaches in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness graduate program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is also executive director and cofounder of the Gaiafield Project, BeThePeace and WiseUSA.

Subtle Activism:
The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation
Foreword by Christopher Bache, PhD

1  The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation
2  Subtle Activism and Spirituality
3  Subtle Activism and Science
4  Foundations of Subtle Activism
5  Subtle Activism and the Emergence of Planetary Consciousness

Contact: Byron Belitsos • • 415/446-0166


How would you define subtle activism in a few words? What is meant by the word “subtle” in this context?

Subtle activism (SA) involves the use of consciousness-based practices like meditation, visualization, ritual, and prayer for collective transformation. “Subtle” in this context has two meanings:
1. To strike a contrast with more overt forms of social change (such as marching in the street, knocking on doors, etc); the latter would be considered a “gross” activity on graded scale of activities that are increasingly subtle or non-physical—i.e., concerned with the mind and “heart.”
2. To suggest that we are literally working in the so-called “subtle dimensions” or metaphysical planes of reality.

How did you first enter into the field of subtle activism? Did you begin as a theorist, or more as an activist trying to change society?

My work in subtle activism emerged organically after a long journey of attempting to reconcile my twin passions for spiritual realization and political change. I started that journey as an environmental lawyer, but then life events led me to discover the power of synchronized global meditations as a way to seed change at an even deeper level. My work as a theorist in the field came later as a way to provide a coherent explanation for the significance of this new approach.

In your writings you describe real instances of how focused intention in a group setting led to social and political change. What are some of the most important examples in history that demonstrate this phenomenon?

1. The Big Ben Minute, a period of silence each day that occurred during WWII, involved about five million people every day at 9pm GMT throughout British Commonwealth. It was endorsed at the highest levels of British society and is a significant example of a subtle activism initiative that had mainstream acceptance in a modern Western nation.

  1. The Sarvodaya Peace Meditations in Sri Lanka involved hundreds of thousands of people and was followed shortly thereafter by the signing of an historic peace treaty.
    Caveat: In the absence of scientific controls in these cases, it’s hard to know for certain the impact of such historical instances of subtle activism. But in more recent times, scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals provide empirical proof that consciousness-based practices really do have a measureable social effect (see below).

Your book points to the idea that “consciousness is a nonlocal phenomenon.” How would you define that concept? What makes it so important in understanding subtle activism?

Consciousness is not simply a by-product of our individual human brains. It is more like an intrinsic, irreducible property of reality itself. By “non-local” I mean that interactions can occur in consciousness between two entities widely separated in space or time, with no intermediate mechanism involved. This idea is crucial to understanding of what I call the “strong” theory of subtle activism, which maintains that the social effect of our consciousness-based practices is immediate and instantaneous. This notion is common to most of the world’s wisdom traditions and, as I show in my book, has been confirmed by empirical science.

When you first came across the evidence that consciousness is a nonlocal phenomenon, were you surprised, or did it simply confirm what you already knew intuitively?

I already knew it intuitively but I was surprised by the strength of the evidence in many cases, given that this is a phenomenon that is very difficult to quantify or measure.

How does the study of subtle activism relate to the field of parapsychology? Is it a branch of that field, or something separate?

Parapsychology research is important for the study of SA because it provides a large body of empirical evidence which suggests that nonlocal awareness is possible and has been demonstrated under controlled conditions. Subtle activism applies that notion in service to positive social transformation. Subtle-activism research can be seen as a branch of parapsychology that investigates the effect of human intentionality on social systems.

You cite a variety of theories to explain how consciousness-based practices can affect social change. What are the most helpful ones for those who are new to this subject?

Among these are Carl Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious, which he defines as a common or universal layer of the psyche. Associated with this is the idea that when an individual or group works at a deep enough level of their own unconscious mind, they can affect the unconscious psyche of many others—or even of whole nations or all of humanity. Another important idea is Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields, the idea that all living systems inherit a kind of collective memory created by the repeated behaviors of previous members of their species. Each member of the species is influenced by the pre-existing “species field,” but also contributes to and shapes it. This same idea applies to human societies as well, especially if the repeated activity is intentional and synchronized.

What is the current status of the scientific research into the use of consciousness-based practices to create social change? What is it telling us

The main body of evidence we have is research into the so-called “Maharishi Effect,” in which scientists have measured a variety of parameters of social impact on a city or locality when groups of people practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM) in that area for short periods of time. These findings are very substantive, involving over 40 studies, with 28 of them published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The Maharishi Effect seems well established, and has been reproduced many times. What we observe in these studies is strong “effect sizes” that are very statistically significant, such as measureable reductions in the crime rate in the area in which the synchronized meditations take place. I would like to see similar studies performed using different consciousness-based methods other than TM.

What are your views about the current national and planetary dilemmas we now face? Can subtle activism address all of these issues, or just some of them?

SA goes to the root issue of the division and polarization that underlies our many problems. Our work can help bring our planet into balance through a shift in consciousness toward a deeper awareness of intrinsic human interconnectedness. In our turbulent times there seems clearly to be a need for gentle forms of intervention that soften divisive boundaries and allow for the emergence of a more universal and inclusive perspective. SA is not, however, a magic bullet; it works best in conjunction with inspired programs of pragmatic action.

What is your role right now in the subtle activism movement? What aspect of this current work do you find most interesting or exciting?

One primary role seems to be, by means of my book, to name the field and to establish its intellectual foundations. As a teacher of subtle activism, another role is to develop and teach creative methods to groups that apply this approach in ever more effective and inspirational ways. As an event organizer, I help to develop increasingly sophisticated ways to bring large numbers of people together around the planet for truly meaningful experiences of global subtle activism. I’m also called to work collaboratively with other leaders and organizations in the field so that our various efforts can come together in more coherent ways.

Look forward into the future. What role will subtle activism have in the social and political activism of the future?

I hope SA will become widely recognized as a crucial foundation for all forms of social and political activism. My ultimate hope is that it can even transcend the realm of activism itself and become woven into everyday life as a ritual that supports us in accessing our collective wisdom in relation to many different dimensions of contemporary life.

Praise for Subtle Activism By David Nicol

“In the tradition of James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, David Nicol, a practitioner and researcher of subtle activism, has gathered extensive, convincing evidence for the effectiveness of meditation and other consciousness disciplines in service of ecological and social justice.”

—Robert McDermott, PhD, former president of California Institute of Integral Studies and author, Steiner and Kindred Spirits

“Finally, a well-researched exploration of the multi-dimensional nature of real spiritual practice. David Nicol reminds us that spiritual work encompasses both individual and global transformation and has a vital role to play in an emerging planetary consciousness. Subtle Activism is both radical and also grounded in traditional spirituality, whose real potential has been sadly overlooked in our Western focus on the individual self. This is an important contribution to the emerging field of engaged spirituality, which looks beyond the individual to the real need of the present time—a shift in our collective consciousness and the birth of a new story for humanity and the Earth.”

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, PhD, Sufi teacher and author of Spiritual Ecology.

“This is a wise and indispensable book that should be in the backpack of everyone who wants to help change the world.”

—Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism 

Subtle Activism melds both spirit and passion in a work that is scholarly, wise, and profoundly relevant. It is a clarion call to a world careening out of balance—exhorting us to skillfully mine the vast resources of our inner lives and the collective field of higher consciousness to mobilize the transformation our world badly needs.”

—James O’Dea, author of The Conscious Activist and former President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and Washington Office Director of Amnesty International

“David Nicol has brought all the fragmented pieces together to bring us to a full understanding of the subtle planes. He embraces his subject from numerous perspectives—scientific, religious, and spiritual. His most important gift is to bring our understanding from individual consciousness to collective well-being. He has catalyzed a movement for world benefit through subtle activism. This is transformation at its best.”

Nancy Roof, PhD, founder and editor, Kosmos Journal

“Many good books are published each year but important books are harder to come by. One of the marks of a truly important book is that it challenges our deeply held convictions about what is real and what is possible in the world. It opens new intellectual horizons by showing us previously hidden connections. David Nicol’s Subtle Activism is an important book, a very important book.”

— from the Foreword by Christopher M. Bache, author of Dark Night, Early Dawn

“Subtle activism in its myriad forms is a rising force seeking to harness the powers of consciousness for positive social transformation. Nicol’s is the first authoritative treatment of this emerging planetary force. Lucidly written, grounded in relevant science, cultural history, and the author’s personal experience as a leader in the field, Subtle Activism will be an essential companion to anyone interested in the transformative potential of consciousness.”

—Sean Kelly, PhD, author of Coming Home and professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies

“David Nicol has written a superb introduction to [subtle activism], its history, its theory, and its potentials to help us meet the problems we face . . . . I cannot wait to use this excellent book as a text in my own classes on this topic.”

—David Spangler, noted spiritual teacher and author of Apprenticed to Spirit, Blessings, and Subtle Worlds

“At last, a grounded, rigorous, mind-expanding exploration of the true power and potential of subtle activism . . . . David has created a definitive work on the subject that is both fascinating in its implications and empowering for those of us committed to creating a larger Shift. David’s commitments as a scholar and practitioner shine through every word.”

Stephen Dinan, CEO of the Shift Network and author of Sacred America, Sacred World

“As the first-ever book-length treatment of the subject, Subtle Activism skillfully combines academic discernment with fascinating historical examples and exciting glimpses of potential applications in the 21st century and beyond. But the book also touches the heart, because David’s passion for and commitment to subtle activism imbues every word.”

Lynda (Ma Shanti) Terry, author of 11 Intentions and founder of Vessels of Peace

“David Nicol grounds his highly suggestive, groundbreaking, creative, rigorous, and well-written work in an understanding of how subtle activism has manifested in the world religions and in the modern world. He points to how it can be understood in the context of the evolution of science, consciousness, and post-modernity, suggesting its important role for the emergence of a planetary culture able to be powerful enough to address the crises of our time. An inspiring and important book that may itself well play a significant role in such evolution!”

—Donald Rothberg, PhD, Buddhist teacher and author of The Engaged Spiritual Life

“Within these pages are a treasure-trove of intel that seem to have been plucked from wisdom skillfully honed by shamans, adepts, and all manner of seers and sensitives throughout the annals of time.”

Myra L. Jackson, Founding Board Member, Geoversiv Foundation

“In Subtle Activism, David Nicol makes a powerful case for the crucial role of working in the invisible realms for the healing of the Earth. . . . Subtle Activism is a book that will change our understanding of how to create true positive change on the planet.”

—Sandra Ingerman, MA, teacher of shamanism and author of Medicine for the Earth and Walking in Light

“David Nicol has written a masterful and seminal book . . . . The future is calling to us to pay attention. David is a visionary. As you read the book, if you let yourself, you will begin to stand in that future and new possibilities will be abundantly clear.”

—Patricia Albere, founder and director of the Evolutionary Collective

“David Nicol’s Subtle Activism champions the interior dimension of human existence and participation in the world as no other book has ever done . . . . This book is an immense achievement. Deepest thanks to you, David!”

Saniel Bonder, founder of Waking Down in Mutuality® and author, Healing the Spirit/Matter Split 

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