Subtle Outreach

By David Spangler

My neighborhood has been alive lately with roaming groups of children—and no few adults either—walking the street, smartphones in hand, hunting invisible entities called Pokémon. They are playing Pokémon Go, a game that uses your smartphone’s GPS tracking capability and its camera to create the illusion of cute “pocket monsters” appearing in your physical vicinity. If you see such a Pokémon, then you can attempt to capture it which, if you are successful, will net you points and raise your overall rating as a Pokémon hunter. It’s as if your smartphone gives you a kind of technological clairvoyance to see beings that otherwise are invisible to the eye.  (How amazing it would be if there were an app that truly let you see into the subtle realms, but that’s a whole other discussion!)

Though I’ve not played the game myself—I don’t own a smartphone or, for that matter, any cell phone—some of my kids do, and they’ve shown me how it works. It’s a clever bit of programming, one that has the merit of getting people outside and actually exercising and interacting with their environment rather than just sitting and staring at a screen. I can understand its appeal, particularly for a generation of children, now adults, raised on the original Pokémon card game and television show.

I bring this up because I was recently sent an article that was critical of the whole idea of subtle activism. The author saw it as an indulgence on the part of people who don’t actually do anything in the real world to make a difference but who like to think they are because they are “working” in some mythical subtle realm.  

I can understand this author’s point of view. To anyone who doesn’t have a direct experience of the subtle realms or of subtle energies, subtle activism has all the reality of playing Pokémon Go, which is to say no reality at all. It makes you feel like you are accomplishing something when in fact you are only participating in a fantasy, racking up points that have no meaning outside the virtual world of the game. The fact that the subtle realms have an objective reality is easy to dismiss in our materialist culture. Metaphorically, one has to turn on one’s “inner smartphone” of attentiveness, attunement, patience, and discernment to become aware of subtle reality, and for many people, there is no compelling reason to do so.

My intent here is not to defend the idea of subtle activism—you either accept it or you don’t, and that choice will largely determine whether you can experience it as something more real that a Pokémon. Instead, I want to suggest that part of the problem raised by this article’s author lies in semantics. Frankly, it’s a misgiving I share as well.

It has to do with the use of the word activism. I’m more guilty than most in promoting its use. After all, it’s a convenient term denoting the taking of an action, and there’s nothing passive about the true application of subtle activism. Still, the word has niggled at me, too.  Activism suggests the doing of something in the physical realm. It implies the taking of some physical action that at least intends to make a difference. A purely subtle action, one composed of thought, feeling, and spirit that shapes invisible energies, is of a different order of engagement all together. While one cannot guarantee the effects of physical actions in a situation, it’s even harder to guarantee—or even see—the effects of subtle actions within a physical context.

Apart from the article’s dismissal of the subtle realms as fantasy, there was a useful and genuine critique of a tendency to use a term like activism, which has such a rich history of taking physical actions on behalf of positive change in the world, to describe inner work.  The fact is that we are not purely subtle beings. We are all incarnate, and this means that we must take responsibility for engaging our world, however we choose to do so, in tangible, incarnate ways. That we also have a subtle nature that can and does engage the subtle aspects of the world simply adds to our toolbox of resources, but this doesn’t mean we cannot or should not act physically as well when and as opportunities arise.

To be fair, the teaching of subtle activism never suggests that it can stand alone as a substitute for physical action. The two are meant to be complementary, each contributing in its own sphere of activity and effect. For instance, I was recently admitted to the hospital in a dangerous state of dehydration brought about as an unexpected deleterious effect of medical treatments I’ve been receiving. The doctors and nurses immediately took physical actions to restore my blood chemistry to its proper balance and bring me back out of a deteriorating physical state. But at the same time, their obvious caring, compassion, gentleness, and love buoyed my spirit and calmed my jangled nerves and emotions. The healing presence of my nurses was as important to my recovery as the medical actions they took. Had they only stood around loving me and feeling compassionate, offering me prayers, chances are I would not be here writing this essay; on the other hand, had they been impersonal and uncaring, treating me only as a collection of symptoms and not as a person, I would have been hard pressed to recover my mental and emotional equilibrium enough to participate in my own healing. In other words, there were both physical and subtle activities on my behalf, and both were needed.

Physical and subtle actions do not simply take place in different realms of being; they operate differently. All subtle work depends on our state of being in ways that our physical actions do not. If I am a skilled carpenter, I can hammer a nail straight and true whether I am happy, depressed, calm, or angry. My emotional or spiritual state need not enter into the effectiveness of my action (though it certainly can!). The inner state of the emergency room nurse who administered the cocktail of chemicals that brought my blood chemistry back into balance did not affect the biochemistry of what he was doing, though his calm and caring nature, as I say, was deeply reassuring in that scary moment.

However, if I am going to work with subtle energies, I have to understand that those energies emerge from and reflect my own state of being as much as anything. To project love or peace into a situation, I have to be that love and be that peace.  For subtle “activism” to be effective, there’s no getting around this.

In this context, we’re not so much “activating” subtle energies that are separate from us as we are reaching out into the world from our own state of being. My nurses weren’t “beaming” caring at me; I was being held in the caring that was part of who they were, held in their loving field, so to speak. It was that caring and healing spirit that led them to become nurses in the first place, and I, like all their patients, was the beneficiary of the natural outreach of that spirit.

Activism suggests actions I can take that are goal-oriented and intended to produce a specific effect. But while subtle “activism” can certainly be directed towards a desired end, it really is being-oriented that creates a relationship more than a product.  It’s a way of being in the world that creates connections and wholeness. In other words, subtle work is one of identity. Here is another area where the term activism may not best serve us in our inner work. It creates a label—I am an “activist”—which has connotations of acting upon the world as a separate force, as one who manipulates rather than as one who participates. This can also lead to a form of glamour, because being an “activist” sounds much more impressive and congratulatory than simply being oneself. Yet, effective subtle work is all about—and depends upon—simply being ourselves, without labels but with a discerning awareness of our current state of being. Put another way, taking on the identity of an “activist” can get in the way of appreciating and working with the identity of being just who we are as a presence in the world.

For all these reasons, the more I learn about and practice subtle work, the less inclined I am to think in terms of “subtle activism” and more in terms of “subtle participation,” or “subtle outreach,” the offering of my state of being out into my world in deliberate ways that hopefully will bring blessing. The more I am grounded in who I am in the reality of all the levels of my world, the less chance I will turn my inner work into merely hunting Pokémon.

Views from the Lorian Community publishes essays from a team of volunteer writers expressing individual experiences of a long term, committed practice of Incarnational Spirituality (and the general principles shaping such a practice.) If you wish to share how your life has benefited from your relationship with Lorian and IS, please email the editor at We prefer submissions between 700-900 words. We rarely accept previously published material (including blog posts.) We also reserve the right to decline or to edit your submission. Any accepted submissions will be published in the order that best fits our topic schedule.