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.”
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 is a subtle activism program convened by the Gaiafield Project (http://gaiafield.net) 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 http://gaiafield.net.
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: http://www.truthabouttm.org 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.