Issue: June/July 2005
John Davies, PhD
In 1981, at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, physician Tony Nader started teaching his patients to meditate. It was the best thing he ever did for them. Shortly after a critical number of people began practicing meditation, the bombs stopped exploding in Nader’s village in the Chouf mountains. The violence continued, even escalated, in surrounding Muslim and Christian villages, but no bombs fell again on Dr. Nader’s village.
I heard John Davies tell this story at a conference last fall. But as heartening as the story is and as startling the implications, it’s only one of many in Davies’ repertoire of heartening and startling stories; and it is only a footnote in a career spent studying the effect of meditation on political and criminal violence.
Until I met Davies I hadn’t given much thought to the notion that a meditation practice might have an effect beyond our personal lives. Sure, it would be great if more people meditated, and sure, if more people meditated we would be better off as a society. Most of us can list the benefits of meditation—cheerfulness, creativity, emotional resilience, and reduced stress, to name a few—but these apply to individuals. Davies and his colleagues have been thinking bigger—much bigger.
Dr. Davies is an internationally recognized expert in conflict management at the University of Maryland , and his concerns are large-scale violent conflicts, wars, and the collective consciousness. As a young man in Australia interested in psychology, science, and spiritual practice, Dr. Davies took the claims of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the colorful guru of the 1960s, seriously. Davies’ first studies on the individual and collective impact of meditation were promising and led to work at Harvard University during the war in the Middle East . He recently spoke at the Sacred Link “Freedom from Fear” conference at the Himalayan Institute, where I had the opportunity to question him further about his work.
Q: I was intrigued by your story of the village in Lebanon that stayed safe
through violent times because a physician had taught his patients to meditate. Can you tell us more
about it? How do you explain such a phenomenon?
That was a wonderful little study we did with a Lebanese medical doctor in a village in the Chouf mountains. This was a village of over 12,000 people, previously subjected to the continuous violence that plagued the whole area. But when one percent of the population of that village began meditating, the violence stopped. There were no more bombs in that village, even though the level of violence continued or even increased all around it for years afterward. None of the residents were able to explain it, nor could those who were independently responsible for tracking the bombings.
In the 1970s, Maharishi started to talk about the practical value of having a critical mass of the population practicing meditation. He said that one percent would have an impact—not just on themselves and the people immediately around them, but also on the collective consciousness of the society. His prediction was that practicing Transcendental Meditation techniques would result in reduced violence in the community and enhance positive, cooperative behaviors.
I thought, “Okay, here’s a guy who’s making a claim that is extremely radical, with enormous implications for peacemaking, and he’s standardized a meditation technique and made it accessible to research. There’s a serious challenge here.” He even gave us numbers: one percent of a population (of more than 10,000) meditating would be sufficient, or even the square root of one percent of a large population (more than about a million) if they practice the more advanced meditation techniques together in a group.
The idea is that once you have a number of people coming together in a group, you intensify the impact of changes in consciousness that happen during meditation when the body, brain, mind, and heart are all aligned and integrated. In that state we can also align or attune much more readily with each other. And because we attune more with those close to us, that amplifies the effect of meditating together. There’s literally a coherence in consciousness that is reflected in brain wave patterns, for example.
With a large group you can have constructive interference. It’s a common phenomenon in physics with waves of any type. A laser is a good example. If you have a cluster of light-wave emitting diodes that emit the same frequency, they’ll all fall into synchrony with each other. So you get an exponentially more powerful wave, proportional to the square of the number of diodes. That could explain why the square root of one percent is all you need if people are meditating in a group.
My initial studies in the small town in Australia where I did my master’s degree supported Maharishi’s claims: crime dropped once one percent of the population was meditating. Then, working with leading researchers at Harvard, I had a chance to test his claims on a bigger scale under tougher conditions: could meditation help to mitigate violence and promote peace even in conditions of protracted war?
By 1983, Israel was deeply enmeshed in the civil war in Lebanon . Beirut and the surrounding Chouf mountains were the main areas of fighting, in what was regarded as an intractable conflict. With external funding we were able to bring a group of more than 200 experienced meditators to Jerusalem from all over the world who were trained in the Transcendental Meditation tradition. This group, along with individual meditators already in Israel and Lebanon , was enough of a critical mass to create a significant impact, according to Maharishi’s assertions, in the occupied southern half of Lebanon where the fighting was, as well as in Israel .
Lebanon was a great place to do research. You couldn’t do it in the Congo or Sudan , for example, because in most war zones there’s no one who can say how many people were killed on a given day. But in Lebanon , the police were trained to keep careful statistics on how many were killed or injured each day, and the local and international media were free to report on daily developments. So there were reliable data available, and we were able to conduct a tightly controlled, critical study. We made public, precise predictions in advance to the international press and to a panel of independent scientists about what would happen while the meditators were in the area and what would happen when they left.
The timing of the experiment was dictated by the funding as well as by when people were available. It had nothing to do with whether or not things looked favorable in Lebanon . We were able to control statistically for changes in the weather that might affect levels of violence. We were able to control for holidays—Jewish holidays, Lebanese holidays, Muslim holidays. We were able to control for weekly cycles over the two months the group was in place, and for fluctuations in group size. As it turned out, there was nothing in the Lebanese press about our advance predictions, and there was not a big splash in the Israeli press, either. So there was no way the press created expectations.
Q: Were the meditators concentrating on Lebanon ? Was it their intention to change
conditions in Lebanon and bring peace?
No. During the group practice they were not thinking about Lebanon. Just doing their stuff, primarily for their own benefit. Just practicing their meditation program together, since the experience tends to be deeper with the support of a group. They practiced a mantra meditation—Transcendental Meditation—and advanced TM-Sidhi techniques, both derived from the Vedic tradition. They might be thinking nice thoughts, but not focusing on Lebanon or peace or on any other potential outcome.
Q: Did those 200+ meditators make a difference in the war?
Yes, absolutely. After the first few weeks, the results were obvious. Then the experimental and statistical controls and the multiple replications made it clear beyond the shadow of a doubt. The level of violence in Lebanon was significantly less during the course of the study, down by 40 to 80 percent on average, depending on the measure used. We replicated this result seven times from 1983 to 1985 with seven different meditating groups. On average, twelve people were killed every day as a result of the war during the two-year period of the study. During the time the groups were in Israel , fatalities dropped to two per day, on average. Over all seven experimental periods, average fatalities were closer to three per day. That’s more than a 70 percent drop. Each of the seven interventions was highly significant. The probability that these results could have been due to chance was less than one in a hundred billion.
It wasn’t just acts of war in Lebanon that were affected. The level of violence in Israel was also affected, with crime, car accidents, and fires all dropping significantly when the group of meditators was in place. A similar pattern showed up with the measure for conflict intensity, which dropped by about 50 percent.
If one measure, such as the intensity of the war, changes direction as predicted, that’s significant. When other measures like cooperation, violent crime in Israel, and the number of deaths from auto accidents and fires—which ordinarily have no correlation at all with the level of violence in Lebanon—also shift in the same positive direction at the same time, over and over again, then something very broad and fundamental must be happening.
The results of the study showed a broad societal impact that only has one reference point that makes sense—the meditation intervention. The implication is that when you have coherence in the collective consciousness, it creates an environment that allows people to approach issues differently. It provides an enabling environment. People not only tend to stop killing each other, but are able to come together and perceive new possibilities for cooperative work and partnership, even with their enemies. In terms of quantitative measures, the increase in the cooperation parameter across the seven assemblies of meditators was 66 percent. But that hides the richness of what was actually happening on the ground. War deaths are war deaths, but conflict and cooperation between the major parties are more qualitative phenomena.
Translating the quantitative 66 percent increase in cooperation into real-world terms indicates a huge change, resulting in major breakthroughs for peace. For example, during one of the assemblies of meditators, the Lebanese government and all major opposition groups finally agreed on a security plan for all of Lebanon and were able to obtain the support of Syria and Israel . During another assembly, Syria agreed to a gradual withdrawal of its forces from Lebanon , and opposition leaders agreed to a cease-fire and dropped their demand that the president resign. In another, substantial progress was made in finally implementing a security plan for Beirut . Unfortunately, without the continued support of the coherent collective consciousness sustained by the meditation groups, they couldn’t sustain progress. You can see in the data how the momentum for each of these breakthroughs fell apart once the group disbanded. Once the group ended or their numbers dropped significantly below the threshold size, we observed a return to the low-cooperation, high-conflict pattern.
Q: With evidence that strong, it seems as if there would be a motivation to continue this
kind of work. On the other hand, it does sound a bit fantastic to the ordinary person. Was your
study well received?
In 1988, we were able to get the results of the first group published in a leading journal, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, but it created such a brouhaha that it took another 15 years to get the other six replications published in a refereed journal. The results were challenging to many people, including scientists who mistakenly think the validity of science is somehow exclusively tied up with the objective and behavioral world, that science and spirituality are totally separate. The success of this research seemed threatening to people with such worldviews.
Q: How do you explain the results? How can a group of meditators, completely unknown to
the perpetrators of violence, influence their behavior—without leaving the comfort of their
Well there are ways to explain it, just not within the conventional materialistic worldview in which everything else is dismissed as sort of flaky. In that worldview, the whole province of consciousness, spirit, meditation, and prayer, as anything more than local epiphenomena of the brain, is separated out and left to religions and the yogis. When we are able to take the best tools of science and say that meditation has a more profound and reliable impact in reducing violence than anything recognized in the conventional, behavioral paradigm, that challenges those who mistake the conventional paradigm as exclusively defining our reality.
So what could explain this dynamic? We spent some time delving into the best scientific theories to understand action at a distance, which is how conventional science would frame this process. And the most profound scientific theories of science do transcend distance. Once you are talking about quantum fields, the essential nature of distance changes. In a unified quantum field theory, such as string theory or flipped SU5 theories or supergravity theories, distance is not primary. In fact, even the gravitational and electromagnetic fields allow action at a distance. That’s how we get on the Web and how we get television and radio and wi-fi. We’re used to action at a distance. It’s no big mystery any more.
This electromagnetic level is one quantum field. Deeper quantum fields emerge at more fundamental levels of time and space than the electromagnetic and are responsible for the strong and weak nuclear forces. More profound still is the gravitational field. You can’t define space and gravity except in relation to each other: they both emerge at the same moment the symmetry of the underlying unified field is broken. We just need to understand the dynamics of space as it relates to our experience. When the unified field from which all phenomenal fields emerge is in its ground state, by definition, there is no distance between observer and observed.
Q: Sounds like meditation.
Exactly. It’s a fundamental unity (or yoga) transcending the duality of the observer and observed. It can only be observed by being it. The unified quantum field is both a field of subjective consciousness and the underlying infinite (or infinitesimal) reality of which the objective universe is an expression or an interpretation. Classical Newtonian physics, which explains the physics of many everyday objects and behaviors, is simply a limited interpretation of much deeper and more pervasive quantum field dynamics through which we are profoundly connected with the universe, both objectively and in terms of our inner or subjective experience.
In meditation, awareness settles below that Newtonian, external behavioral level of separation and objectivity. It settles down to subtler levels of experience, which correspond to much subtler time and space levels, where we are more awake and more integrated within ourselves and also more intimately connected with our environment. You can measure this in terms of brain activity with greater coherence in EEG patterns integrating the whole cortex in meditation, for example, opening the way to subtler connections and perceptions. A simple example of the latter is that when we react to a sudden stimulus, the first interactions reflected in the brain activity are completely preconscious. They have to do with our overall feeling tone—to alert us whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
Q: Like your hand jerking away from a hot plate before you realized that it was hot?
Exactly. So if you flash words like love, happiness, or friendliness, meditators will pick those up much faster (or at shorter exposure times) than they will pick up words like hate and kill, with which they don’t resonate as easily. Their ability to pick up the negative words is the same as the rest of the population. What happens with people who are meditating—and I assume this is true no matter what vehicle you are using for transcendence—is that their ability to pick up and attune to the finer and more uplifting qualities around them is much enhanced.
Q: In other words, whatever you cultivate within yourself is what you most easily relate
Yes, especially if you are cultivating finer levels of experience that are inherently attractive. The qualities we are more alert to through meditating are the ones that attune us to a coherent, harmonious relationship with the people around us; they are the ones that allow us to give to others, to uplift people around us rather than fight with them. The significance of the research on the impact of meditating groups is that it provides critical evidence that we can have this positive effect, immediately and reliably, even at substantial distances and with people we have never met.
It would take a month—or a book—for us to get a grip on this. I’m just giving you a taste of our reasoning as we sought to understand the results. During meditation we’re awake and active and functioning coherently at a much more profound level than we normally are. As a result, we have an impact on our surroundings at a much more profound level than we do if we’re operating at a conscious, surface level.
Quantum field theory is one way of reminding us that when we’re talking about the effects of meditation, we’re not stepping outside science. We’re stepping outside of conventional “scientism.” And there is a difference. Too often, people misuse science as a way of saying, “Oh, we can ignore all this internal subtle stuff. It’s not scientific.” Well, guess what? Turns out it is scientific—it just requires us to recognize that there are several paradigms simultaneously validated through science that take us far beyond the narrow behaviorism and materialism of scientism. Scientists have a responsibility to look at this “internal subtle” stuff because its potential implications for peace are more profound than anything we have found by focusing exclusively on the level of power dynamics and realpolitik, or even on democracy and human rights.
Q: Would more studies help establish the credibility of this work? What do you see as the
most important thing to be done now?
More studies will always be welcome but this should not become an excuse for avoiding our responsibility for acting on what we know. What is needed now is to recognize and include the spiritual, coherence-creating approach along with more conventional peacemaking work. We need to recognize the enormous value of people already employing such approaches either individually or collectively. In my work in southern Africa and Asia , for example, the ability of groups to pray or sing together was invaluable in helping them to find agreement on steps for building peace. On a larger scale, we not only need critical masses of people meditating according to Raja Yoga or Vedanta, but we need to encourage meditation and prayer groups for peace in all traditions so that the impact can be both global and sustained.
In Lebanon we had Muslims and Christians meditating together even in war conditions. Today, we need more Muslims using traditional dhikr (remembrance) practices, for example, to experience the tawhid (unity). We need Christians using traditional contemplative practices such as St. Teresa’s prayers of quiet and of unity. We need Buddhists practicing the meditation of the heart, and so on within all of the different spiritual traditions. It will bring them together and take them to that level of what the Sufis call “the unity” and to peace in their own tradition. Instead, all of these major traditions are caught up in fighting wars in the name of their religion.
We need to promote the idea that even a small proportion—just one percent of people on the planet, or the square root of that if we practice in groups—living from this transcendent level of unity will make a huge global difference. The word transcendence, however, doesn’t translate for everyone. A lot of spiritual traditions don’t understand transcendence. They prefer to talk about immanence, or opening the heart, or surrender to God. But the inner reality is ultimately the same.
I work across religious lines in the conflict transformation and peacebuilding work I am doing now. The first challenge for me is to allow my life to be an expression of that unity, and not to buy into outwardly oriented viewpoints that paint spiritual traditions as mutually exclusive. We have to recognize the integrity of each tradition—to completely support what is happening within the Vedic and Yogic traditions, and also within the Islamic world, the Christian and Jewish worlds, and the Buddhist, Taoist, and other traditions. I keep coming to the same realization: There is no difference on the inside at the deep level. There’s one truth. If you want to use the G-word, that’s fine. If you don’t want to use the G-word that’s fine, too, but the reality is the same. Words get us caught. Words are relative to our culture and our time. But on the inside it’s one reality, and it’s one percent for the society or for the whole planet. The more people meditating, the more impact we have.
At the same time, there are critical transitions where things shift significantly. The one percent level for a society seems to be one of them, as is the square root of one percent for larger populations. One percent is not something that just came out of Maharishi’s head. The societal impact of prayer, meditation, or obedience to God’s law is mentioned in other traditions, both Eastern and Western, with or without specific thresholds. I’m sure there are other transition points I don’t know about. There are two that I’ve been able to test, which hold up under very tough conditions, but there are plenty of stories where a few or even one enlightened, God-realized person seems to have been enough.
Q: It makes you want to go out and teach that one percent to meditate.
People in all traditions need to recognize that it is the responsibility of all of us to create peace. It doesn’t fall on any one group. We all have to do our part, and it has to be sustained at all levels. If more people can do research on the value of meditation and prayer for peace in different traditions, that would be great. The risks are very high in the world right now. The United States is in an impossible situation in Iraq ; Iraqis are caught in an impossible situation. We have to move beyond that type of morass, which intensifies cynicism and draws recruits for terrorism even in the name of God. Not to mention the continuation of deadly conflicts going on in Nepal , Sudan , the Congo , and a dozen other countries around the world.
The Vedic maxim says that in the vicinity of the enlightened—those experiencing unity (yoga)—there’s no violence. That’s the core principle. If we create enough coherence in the collective consciousness as a whole, 9/11 won’t happen again. That’s what we need as our war on terror. It needs to be fought from the inside.
The real jihad is not fought with weapons. The real jihad is to create inner peace, to create an inner unity, and slay the inner demons that hold us in separation from ourselves and one another. That’s the real war on terror. Then we slay terror literally instead of getting caught in the trap of going after “terrorists” and thinking it’s those “bad people” that are the problem. That is a complete fantasy and a tragic waste of lives and resources, blinding us to what needs to change in ourselves. We need to be able to speak plainly and not blame anyone, because people at every level of responsibility are using the best techniques they understand. So it’s our responsibility to share what we know. It’s a big jump for many. We’re not going to change the foreign policy of the United States on the basis of this series of studies—not until there’s a broad enough understanding of the dynamics of collective consciousness in the country. Politicians here and elsewhere are rational people. They’re not going to do something which immediately gets them voted out of office because their constituents don’t understand what they’re doing and feel frightened. So there’s no blame there. Nevertheless, if we follow our present course of relying too much on military action to combat terrorism, there will be a massive waste of lives and resources compared to what could be done through more of us joining the real war on terror. That’s the challenge for us now.
Want to Know More?
Dr. Davies' studies are available in reference libraries around the world. You can read about his work in Lebanon in The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1988, vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 776–812, and The Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 2005, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 285–338.
For reactions to these studies, see also The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1990, vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 745–768, and The Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 2005, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 489–554.
John Davies is co-director of the Partners in Conflict and Partners in Peacebuilding at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland . He can be reached at email@example.com. His lecture, “The Role of Science and Spirituality in Conflict Resolution and Reclaiming Peace,” at the 2004 Sacred Link “Freedom from Fear” conference, can be ordered online at www.HimalayanInstitute.org/sltv