Alternative University

I am not willing that this discussion should close without mention of the value of a true teacher.  Give me a log hut with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him.

James Abram Garfield (Address to Williams College)

The programming is, so to speak, on the wall.  The modern university is being dissolved like other middlemen, paradigms of our time.  Technology will make obsolete the use of real-world, physical campuses and all their accoutrements.  Indeed, in time we will not have to leave our homes, but rather electronically transform our recreation room into a virtual-reality classroom, populated with desks, other enrolled students, an instructor – each of which is located remotely.  In short – and in far more profound ways than exist now – the classroom will be coming to us.  In this time, the current distance and on-line education programs championed by the modern university will strike us a quaint, but primitive; as snail-mail eventually did with the advent of email.

Alt U is consistent with this trend toward remote, virtual learning environments.  In fact, an alternative professional governing arrangement, like that proposed by Alt U, is just what will be needed in the future.  This is so since the notion of a centrally located, physical meeting area (e.g., a campus) is rapidly becoming a thing of the past – whether your enterprise involves office work, retail sales, or even medicine.  An institution like, the University of Waterloo (Canada), will amount to nothing but a governing body, a logical/legal entity, to oversee its faculty – in many of the same ways indicated under Alt U.  

We think it is time to be proactive and consciously construct this arrangement.  In fact, the increasing introduction of remote and virtual learning environments helps to underscore the essential nature of PSE, as Alt U sees it.  The essence of pedagogy is not larger and larger campuses, with broad, unnecessary, expensive peripheral services.  It is, as Garfield says, nothing but a teacher and a student.  This is the essential logic of learning, of PSE.    

Indeed, if a modern university consisted of nothing more than a wooden plank then we might not see the need for an Alt U.  But of course these non-profit institutions, these mass consumers of the public dollar, these complicated, semi-corporate funded (and so directed) entities are much more than a humble wooden plank.  And in some instances they need to be.  It would be very difficult to find the Higgs Boson with a plank constructed of any material you like.  

But that does not mean that this is true of all areas of study, investigation, analysis, learning, and personal development in PSE.  The acquisition of some forms of higher knowledge certainly requires expensive facilities to pursue.  But equally true is that some, in fact many subjects that exist in the universities today, do not.

Occupy Gaia in 2012: Subtle Activism meets Street Activism

by David Nicol

In early October of 1939, one month after Germany invaded Poland, British esotericist Dion Fortune sent a letter to her network announcing the start of a magical project to support the war effort by opening a channel to allow spiritual influences to uplift the “group mind” of the nation. The project came to be known as the “Magical Battle of Britain.” The letter contained instructions for a specific meditation practice that all members were asked to perform each Sunday from 12:15-12:30 p.m. and then again daily at any regular time of their choosing. A small group of experienced practitioners under Fortune’s guidance formed the focusing point for the meditation work, sitting in circle together each Sunday at Fortune’s home in London.

The meditations involved visualizing certain symbols believed to attract and focus spiritual forces that acted through them. Although the symbols were first created through the imagination, Fortune describes them “coming alive” early on in the group’s work, as though taking on independent forms that maintained themselves of their own accord and that developed organically over time. A set of symbols eventually emerged that were associated with key figures from the Arthurian tradition (King Arthur and Merlin) and from Christianity (Christ and Mary). It was understood that, through meditating on these symbols, the network helped to transmit to the collective British consciousness the archetypal ideals of chivalry and bravery associated with both Christianity and the myth of King Arthur, crucially strengthening the nation’s resolve during its hour of need. Because the myth created by the network was in deep harmony with the British national tradition, it was thought to have been especially accessible to the national mind. The theory was that individuals would pick up the ideas unconsciously and bring them to consciousness by thinking about them. Experts in various positions of influence would then give concrete expression to the ideals through action in the world. Indeed, Fortune claimed that the editorial pages of The Times—widely regarded at the time as the mirror of the national mind—came to give expression to the ideals of the work in a way that was “not only adequate but verbatim.”

Subtle Activism
The Magical Battle of Britain is a striking example of what I call “subtle activism”— the use of spiritual or consciousness-based practices for collective (rather than individual) transformation. Subtle activism is a bridge between the inner world of spirituality and the outer world of activism (as normally conceived) that emphasizes the potential of spiritual practice to exert a subtle but crucial form of social influence. It arises from the recognition that there are many creative ways to support social change and that shifting collective consciousness lies at the heart of any successful campaign. History is replete with examples of victories by armies or social movements that were badly outmatched by their opponents in technology and size, yet which prevailed because they possessed the superior will. Subtle activism feeds the will of a social movement by making it more conscious of, and permeable to, profound evolutionary and spiritual currents that underlie it, adding deeper dimensions of meaning to the movement and inspiring greater levels of motivation and commitment among its participants. It works on the assumption that, beneath the appearance of separation, we are profoundly connected to each other at deeper levels of consciousness, and that the focused spiritual attention of even a relatively small group can subtly and positively affect the collective consciousness of an entire community, nation, or even species.(1) It is not a substitute for direct physical action, but it can play a vital role as part of a more integrative approach to social or planetary change.

While the “Magical Battle” example illustrates a western esoteric approach to subtle activism, it can be practiced in a variety of spiritual forms and traditions. A notable form that has emerged since Fortune’s time—facilitated by the development of the Internet, the growing global interfaith movement, and the increasing hybridization of spiritual traditions—is a global meditation event involving many thousands of people engaged in synchronized spiritual practice in different parts of the planet. In whatever way it is practiced, subtle activism can be seen as one of a growing number of creative spiritual responses to the challenges of our times that recognize the need to integrate the paths of inner and outer transformation.

Looking at our present moment, how might we engage in the practice of subtle activism to support the Occupy Movement and the broader movement for global transformation it represents?

The Spiritual Dimension of the Occupy Movement
From the beginning, there seems to have been a certain magic to the Occupy Movement. Whereas most interventions by progressive activists in recent decades failed to make hardly a dent in mainstream awareness, the Occupy Movement almost instantly struck gold. It was quickly recognized as something more than just another protest, a movement of potentially historic significance. Whether it was the brilliant marketing meme of “Occupy,” the simplicity of the “We are the 99%” message, the strategy of setting up encampments, or just the stars lining up right, it evidently tapped a red-hot vein in the collective psyche and inspired a widespread excitement that fundamental systemic change might actually be possible.

At the time of writing, with many encampment sites largely abandoned for the winter or having been shut down, the movement seems to be in a liminal phase, trying to ascertain its next move. Some are already writing eulogies, arguing that the movement has failed to channel its early momentum into a mission specific enough to gain political traction. Perhaps this is true. Yet the seeds of revolution planted in the fall will inevitably sprout forth again in new ways, and probably soon. The injustices highlighted by the movement have not in any way been addressed and, with the events of the Arab Spring, the emergence of the Spanish and Latin American indignados, and the proliferation of Occupy sites world-wide, it is obvious that we have entered one of those rare historical periods in which the zeitgeist supports revolutionary action.

The bigger picture is that the issue of economic injustice targeted by the Occupy Movement is just one symptom of a multidimensional global crisis that is exerting enormous evolutionary pressure on humanity to make a fundamental shift. To acknowledge the multiple threats of climate change, peak oil, massive species extinction, calamitous loss of topsoil, overpopulation, and potential financial collapse is to recognize that the current form of our civilization is rapidly approaching its demise. In this context, the Occupy Movement represents an inevitable uprising of the life force on the planet to attempt to initiate a new way forward.

The transition we are called to make goes far beyond incremental policy changes within the current system, positive though such changes might be. We are called to re-imagine and re-create our world around fundamentally new organizing principles. The old world is essentially on life support in any case. Our choice really is to participate consciously in the birth of the new era, or to have it forcibly and painfully delivered to us.

At the heart of the transition lies a shift in consciousness from the modern trance of experiencing ourselves as somehow separate from each other, from nature, and from the cosmos to a mode of awareness in which we acknowledge and live the truth of our interdependence and interconnection. Ecologist and cultural historian Thomas Berry succinctly summarized this shift as one in which we will experience the universe as “a communion of subjects” rather than as “a collection of objects.” For human civilization truly to become a benign and sustainable presence on the planet, we will need not only to develop a global culture of cooperation, rather than competition, to solve the many planetary-scale challenges that affect all humans, but also to fundamentally transform our relations with the entire community of life on the planet. 

Although the Occupy Movement has focused its attention on the inequities of the financial system, I believe that much of the excitement it initially generated was because, in the diversity of its participants and in the generality of its aims, it also represented a long awaited public stance for a fundamentally new and more inclusive world on every level. The General Assemblies and the practice of making decisions by consensus, for example, can be understood as an evolutionary experiment to create new, more participatory governance processes that could serve as a model to better harness the collective wisdom of a society. The spiritual significance of the movement can thus be seen in the way it has created an opening in the socio-political domain through which the seeds of the new consciousness can enter.

Whether the new consciousness will actually take root and flower through the Occupy Movement is an open question. As noted, after the initial eruption of energy in the fall, the movement has entered a more introspective phase, an in-breath, to pause, gather energy, and reflect before making its next major outward push. And the movement does face many challenges: how to resolve internal conflicts about whether to adhere to non-violence as a strategy versus ‘a diversity of tactics’ that includes property damage or even physical violence; how to avoid becoming overly focused on disputes with police and local authorities regarding the encampments at the expense of highlighting the primary issue of economic injustice; how to embrace the complexity of protesting against a financial system we still use and depend upon.

Yet this period of inner reflection and dialogue represents an ideal time to channel energy into the movement to help realign it with the deeper impulses that provided it with its power and relevance in the first place. This is the work of subtle activism, accessible to almost anyone. Again, it is not a substitute for more obvious or direct forms of action—which are necessary and to be encouraged—but it represents a creative response that allows many people to become engaged who might otherwise remain passive. Out of the wide spectrum of actions that can be undertaken for social change, frontline engagement does not call to everyone (and of those called, not all can respond). Indeed, in relation to the Occupy Movement, for every person who has camped out in tents and marched in the rallies, there have surely been hundreds, if not thousands, or even millions who have sympathized with the protesters, yet who would not or could not join them in the streets. Through subtle activism, we can link together with all who share our sense of the underlying promise of the Occupy Movement (including those on the streets) and build a planetary field of awareness that holds a space for the highest possibilities to emerge from the movement.

Here is a project that provides a way to do just that.

Occupy Gaia
Occupy Gaia is a subtle activism program convened by the Gaiafield Project ( to help build a global field of support for the Occupy Movement. (2) It is one of a surprisingly large number of initiatives that have been developed to link the transformative power of spirituality to the Occupy Movement (other examples include meditation flash mobs, Sit for Change, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Zen Peacemakers, and various interfaith coalitions). Occupy Gaia involves two free one-hour teleconferences/audio webcasts per month, in which participants engage in a simple subtle activism practice. After callers introduce themselves, the practice starts with a short guided meditation to connect participants to themselves, to the group field, and to subtle and overt dimensions of the natural and spirit worlds. Then a period of silent meditation follows, usually about 20-25 minutes long, during which participants bring their inner attention to the Occupy Movement while remaining open for any guidance that might arise from the field. In the final stage of the practice, participants are invited to share any insights or experiences that came to them during the meditation. The call becomes like a multi-dimensional planetary oracle, with a field of deep collective wisdom about the current state of the movement emerging from the intersection of our human awareness, the inner and outer ecology of Gaia, and subtle dimensions of spirit. Personally I almost always experience the calls to be profoundly meaningful and am usually struck by how quickly an atmosphere of deep intimacy develops from participants sharing their inner worlds with each other.

This article is a call to action for all who resonate with an inner approach to collective transformation. To those who feel the call, we invite you to join us on the second Wednesday of each month, from 5.30-6.30pm Pacific time and/or on the fourth Friday of each month from 8.30-9.30am Pacific. For the call-in details, please visit



1. A growing body of scientific evidence supports this hypothesis. See the many well-documented studies by researchers associated with the Transcendental Meditation movement that show consistent, statistically-significant correlations between the presence of large TM groups and improvements in indicators of social harmony (such as crime rates) in nearby cities. (For a good summary of the research see TM researcher David Orme-Johnson’s website: or Robert Oates’s Permanent Peace: How to stop terrorism and war—now and forever.) Also note the strong evidence of non-local transmission of mental images between human minds in parapsychology research, such as the remote viewing studies undertaken by the US government at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1970’s and 1980’s and the ‘ganzfeld’ studies conducted by a variety of researchers since the 1970’s (for a detailed discussion of this research see Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe).

2. The Gaiafield Project is a project of the Center for Subtle Activism, an action research center associated with the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco. 

About the author
David Nicol, PhD, is Director of the Center for Subtle Activism, an action research center based at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco that advances the study and practice of subtle activism. His forthcoming book Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary Transformation is the first comprehensive academic treatment of the topic. His articles have been published in Tikkun Magazine and the Journal for Transformative Education. He has been on a path of spiritual development for over twenty years and is a long-term practitioner of the Diamond Approach of A.H. Almaas. A former environmental lawyer from Australia, he now lives in Berkeley, California with his wife Kate and dog Jackson. He can be contacted at

What not to do: 100 things to avoid when trying to build a movement for radical change


  1. forget to say please and thank you
  2. neglect to welcome newcomers
  3. be overly protective about ideas you hope to spread
  4. pretend you can make big changes without building broad alliances
  5. give the finger to your allies
  6. heckle Civil Rights leaders
  7. tell a black person that voting doesn’t matter
  8. tell anyone that voting doesn’t matter
  9. insist on a “diversity of tactics” at the expense of a diversity of participants
  10. ignore patriarchy
  11. assume you are the most radical person in the room
  12. assume that people who look more normal than you are less radical than you
  13. confuse poor personal hygiene with radicalism
  14. confuse the political philosophy of anarchism with weird haircuts and monochromatic wardrobes
  15. forget that most of your revolutionary heroes often wore suits
  16. look like a protester
  17. make a religion out of your decision-making process
  18. meet more than you work
  19. over-saturate working group email lists
  20. mic-check in a space where talking would suffice
  21. get too attached to your tactics
  22. assume that something that worked once will work again
  23. be disinterested in the details of your particular context
  24. fetishize occupying outdoor space
  25. dismiss the value of occupying outdoor space
  26. forget to eat
  27. forget to sleep
  28. act like a jerk because you forgot to eat and sleep
  29. reckon you don’t need to prep before a press interview
  30. fail to get a second opinion
  31. stop using a phrase because it becomes popular
  32. need to be the most radical kid on the block
  33. mistake utopianism for social change strategy
  34. say that “things will have to get worse before they get better”
  35. abhor reforms that would meaningfully improve real people’s lives
  36. fetishize revolutionary violence
  37. confuse a revolutionary moment with an actual revolution
  38. believe a mass movement will ignite spontaneously
  39. fail to map the terrain
  40. gravitate uncritically toward the most hardcore idea
  41. fancy that “autonomy” means you can do whatever the hell you want without consideration for how it might impact others
  42. drink the subcultural Kool-Aid
  43. fall into groupthink
  44. spout jargon that doesn’t mean anything to most people
  45. be fooled into thinking the word “neoliberal” is somehow precise
  46. disdain experience and expertise
  47. have more answers than questions
  48. believe we don’t have leaders
  49. believe that we don’t need leaders
  50. believe that we don’t need organization
  51. be self-righteous about your lack of organization
  52. start a totally redundant working group
  53. make a habit of knocking down people who step up
  54. act like every problem is a crisis
  55. mock people whose political analyses are less developed than yours
  56. fail to consider how outsiders might perceive you
  57. mistake 400 strangers mic-checking in a park for functional decision-making
  58. conclude that hyper-transparency inherently means inclusiveness
  59. over-generalize
  60. lump all your enemies together
  61. choose esoteric targets
  62. mistake the phrase “fuck the corporate media” for a communications strategy
  63. assume bad intentions
  64. assume something is getting done just because it was said in a meeting
  65. lump all your allies together
  66. yell at Kanye when he shows up at the park
  67. slam Miley Cyrus on Twitter for her music video that supports you
  68. think you have to agree with everything an organization has ever done in order to align with them on some things
  69. impose a purity test
  70. set a high bar for entry
  71. neglect to build on-ramps
  72. use “security culture” as cover for your clique
  73. become a “cool kid”
  74. suppose you can build a mass movement from scratch
  75. undervalue resources
  76. flake on important things people are counting on you for
  77. taunt cops
  78. be sectarian
  79. be a narcissist
  80. bang on drums at 2AM
  81. dismiss the complaints of supportive neighbors
  82. burn bridges faster than you can build them
  83. steal things from churches
  84. steal sacred items from churches
  85. piss where you sleep
  86. piss where other people sleep
  87. piss where other people hang out
  88. piss (or shit) on neighbors’ doorsteps
  89. accommodate destructive people
  90. let “damage control” take up most of your time and energy
  91. be an asshole
  92. yell at your comrades
  93. forget to tell your friends that you appreciate them
  94. fail to be cordial toward people who aren’t your friends
  95. be petty
  96. neglect to make good and legible signs
  97. forget to drink water
  98. forget to exercise
  99. forget to brush your teeth
  100. introduce yourself as a condiment

Red State Radicalism: What does a VA Republican proposal teach us about social justice organizing?

Virginia to establish a state-owned bank

Last week a Republican state legislator introduced a bill that would move the State of Virginia towards establishing a publicly-owned bank. Other state legislatures are also considering the idea.

The theory behind the proposal is that a state-owned bank would continue to extend credit even in economic downturns, in marked contrast to the behavior of private banks during the current recession. While a traditional bank is responsible ultimately to its shareholders, who demand maximum private returns, a publicly-owned bank would be responsible ultimately to the voting public.

What’s so radical about Virginia’s proposal?

Without considering whether Virginia’s proposal is a good or bad idea, let us admit that it is certainly a radical proposal. From the 19th century, a central radical critique of bourgeois society has been that, despite the extension of universal suffrage (in a highly restricted and formalized iteration), the capitalist economy has remained profoundly undemocratic.

Among other offenses against democracy, capitalism leaves some of the most important decisions a society can make&#151the decisions of where to invest that society’s accumulated economic surplus&#151in the hands of a small number of private capitalists. Radicals have long cried foul over the condition where, We, the People do not get to decide whether, for example, our society’s pharmaceutical industry will focus on producing life-saving drugs, like tuberculosis treatments, or blockbuster lifestyle drugs, like Viagara. Maximizing returns for private shareholders, of course, dictates the latter. And under our current economic system that settles the matter.  

In the current recession, capitalist firms have long since returned to profitability, and are sitting on massive piles of cash. But rather than channel that cash into investments, putting people back to work in the productive economy still stalled at near-10% unemployment, they are returning that cash to private shareholders via massive share buybacks. It is this narrow profit motive that Virginia’s proposal is challenging, in the realm of finance.

Radicals have long argued that banking should be run more like a public utility than a profit-maximizing business. Because banks stand at the crucial node in the economic system where accumulated value is collected from savers and re-allocated to investors, radicals have traditionally argued that it should be subject to democratic control. What Virginia is considering doing is opening up that question&#151are there other demands we want to make of our banking system besides maximizing private profit?

Red state radicalism

This type of economic thinking is more common than many of us acknowledge. Virginia’s public bank proposal is based on the Bank of North Dakota, which is owned by the state and returns all profits to the state and its voting public, rather than private shareholders. Alaska, meanwhile, distributes an annual dividend to its public from the operations of the state’s oil industry.  Moreover, large sections of the rural United States operate largely on non-market barter economies. And dozens of Native American nations return profits from casino operations to their enrolled tribal members via dividends and investments in education, healthcare, and infrastructure.

Socialist ideas, in other words, are thriving in rural red America, while liberal big cities like New York and Chicago continue their neoliberal binge, privatizing airports, roads, and education with gusto.

I want to emphasize that I’m not making a public policy case for or against any of these particular policy ideas. I’m simply pointing out that they are classic radical ideas that have nonetheless been embraced by wide sections of the American public, overwhelmingly among people who would not consider themselves political radicals, or even liberals.

We can argue over whether these policies achieve radical ends (I’d argue “no,” but that’s another conversation). Their popularity, however, argues in favor of a much wider acceptance of radical ideas than many activists would expect.

Why can’t we get away with that?

So why is no one crying socialism over the Bank of North Dakota or Alaskan oil dividends? It’s certainly true that when traditional progressive constituencies, such as labor unions, community organizers or Occupiers call for similar ideas, they are immediately branded the naïve or dangerous notions of wooly wild-eyed anarchists. But in blaming the corporate media, we perhaps let ourselves off too easily.

Our adversaries on the right wish for nothing more than to make every issue another battle in the culture wars, to paint every radical idea as an alien idea foreign to the bedrock values of ordinary people. And we don’t help ourselves when we make radical politics into a narrow subculture, self-consciously different and separate from the rest of the populace.

To crystallize this theme in a single incident, I recall meeting a friend of mine, a union organizer, in a coffee shop. He was dressed in a collared shirt, blazer, and khakis, and was immediately jeered upon entering by a group of young activists displaying all the sartorial markings of “activists.” What were they thinking? Is the point to do political work, or to exercise self-expression and demonstrate allegiance to a “radical” subculture via choice of clothes and hairstyles?

Radical-politics-as-subculture has been an annoying constant throughout my political life (roughly encompassing the past 15 years). Besides ignoring capitalism’s love of subcultures&#151they’re just another marketing niche to capital&#151this kind of almost deliberately alienating activism also seems to preclude any kind of political victory. Shouldn’t the point be to win, for radical ideas of social justice to be widely accepted and become hegemonic, rather than merely to resist as a marginal subculture?

The victory of Occupy Wall Street

The right has had only limited success in transforming Occupy Wall Street into a culture war issue, however, and that is something that is almost unique for a progressive cause in my lifetime. I think that we should credit the discipline and tenacity of the Occupiers in pounding the beautiful, simple message of “We are the 99%.” Despite those profoundly irritating drum circles, they have convinced a great number of Americans that this movement understands their values and is on their side.

Walter Benjamin once argued that it is capitalism that is the dangerous, out-of-control force in the contemporary world. Revolutions, he wrote, are simply “the human race reaching for the emergency brake.” Radical ideas are not terrifyingly alien impositions on Mom and apple pie from black-clad anarchist brick-throwers. Rather, they are attempts to bring the forces that shape our lives under our collective control.

Occupy should be talking about Virginia’s proposal to partially socialize banking. Who cares if it’s a “Republican” idea?

We should learn from what is happening in Virginia and across the country how to articulate our values and ideas and have them accepted as mainstream common sense by our fellow citizens.

BREAKING: Keystone XL Denied!

In case you haven't heard the thunderous celebration by the North American climate movement, today the State Dept is set to outright reject the Keystone XL pipeline. #booyah
This is a reminder that people power works. Direct Action works. Social movements work. Grassroots organizing works. Lets take some time today to celebrate another huge victory.
Every time we win, it builds our resolve for the next fight. We know the fossil fuel industry owns Congress, and so far the Keystone XL campaign has been like playing Whack-A-Mole, or kinda like going to battle with a zombie who just won't die. There may yet be another stage of the fight, and there will definitely be other theaters of engagement heating up in the Tar Sands fights, like the Enbridge Northern Gateway. I'm confident we'll be ready to take em on. Moments like this help us remember our power, and that its worth all the headaches and stress of movement building. So lets keep winning. 
If you're in DC, help build the momentum by joining 500 referees blowing the whistle on congress being soaked in big oil Jan 24th. Or this friday, you can join the J20 (January 20) #occupy actions all around the world mobilizing to take on dirty corporate interests. Here in the Bay Area we will be shutting down the SF financial district with nonviolent direct action (check out the hot Lady Gaga outreach flashmob video here).
Here's a quick sampling of the breaking coverage of the Keystone XL victory from Bill McKibben, and on Globe and Mail, Washington Post, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, ThinkProgress, Grist, Daily Kos, and Politico.
Congratulations, climate movement. What a great way to kick off the new year, eh?
— UPDATE — since this morning we've gotten media coverage across the board from the New York Times to CNN, but my favorite headline of all of them is from Gawker: So Long, You Filthy Canadian Tar Pipeline!