The Unselfish Spirit - a pathway to good health and positive activism

Permaculture magazine
Tuesday, 26th August 2014

Why our state of our consciousness determines how we deal collectively with climate change and how can we find a coherent and authentic response? Bernie Sheehan interviews Mick Collins, author of The Unselfish Spirit - Human Evolution in a Time of Global Crisis.

Mick Collins' book explains why what we do shapes and refines our consciousness and provides a rationale and encouragement for positive activism. But it is more than that - it is a profound interdisciplinary exploration of the human spirit - and it articulates the deepest of insights about human potential about times of crisis becoming processes for personal and social transformation.

B.S: What has been the response so far to The Unselfish Spirit?

M.C: It’s been really positive. There have been good reviews on Amazon, in specialist journals and a high-street magazine. I’ve had emails and letters from people who describe reading the book as an opportunity to reflect, as a deeply powerful, opening experience. One person said she cried when she read about the 14 year-old girl with a brain tumour, who found her vocation as a neurophysiologist at a time when she was close to death. Others have been blown away by the story of Brother Ralph, the armed robber who became a monk. A group of young people have been blogging about doing the exercises at the end of each chapter, and someone else said they had started having lots more dreams since reading the book!

B.S: How is The Unselfish Spirit different from other books about self-transformation?

M.C: One of the key features of the book is that it focuses on doing. Much of the self-transformation literature naturally focuses on being, which is fine, we need that. But I put doing before being. The book honours doing and exemplifies the purpose of it. In chapter one, I discuss the idea of self-creation - autopoiesis - which is very much aligned to doing. Rather than being a consequence of being, doing brings about being - “I do, therefore I evolve”. The self-help exercises complement the deep ideas and theories in the book.

B.S: How did the book come about?

M.C: It’s very much crafted from an Occupational Therapy perspective and my training in process-oriented psychology. In previous publications, I’ve bridged the worlds of human occupation and depth psychology, using the work of key theorists as a starting point, such as Elizabeth Yerxa on Homo occupacio, and aligning it with the depth approaches of Jung. I explored this in my PhD, and The Unselfish Spirit came out of that. It’s an attempt to bring the ideas to a wider audience, with case studies and simple, practical exercises.

B.S: In the book, you describe your own spiritual emergency in 1986 in some detail. What impact has it had on you?

M.C: The experience has informed my life and work for nearly 30 years. I first became interested in spirituality and consciousness when I was travelling in Europe and Asia in the 1970s, visiting temples, reading a bit about Buddhism. I read Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund at this time, which particularly resonated with me. Initially I honoured my spiritual emergency by training in transpersonal work and writing academic publications, offering new perspectives that were linked to human occupations (doing). The experience drove my professional interest in integrating spirituality into therapy. It took me many years to get a handle on it, to understand what had happened, and longer still to talk openly about it – I feared it would either be pathologised or trivialised. But since then it has become an integral part of my vocation. 

B.S: The book is a call to action for humanity, to wake up to the global crisis unfolding around us. What do you suggest people should people do?

M.C: It’s a good question, but I hesitate to prescribe any particular action. After all, the book is about evolving – and evolution has never happened through prescription! I trust people to do what is authentic for them, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Evolution happens because we ‘do’ it. Do the exercises, see what happens. Ask what brings you meaning, try something different, follow your talent, love what you do. It’s not a quick fix. We can only start with ourselves. It is an invitation to develop a spiritual attitude – connecting our actions to the numinous, a wider sense of the sacred, the divine spark within – which opens us up to the mystery of life. In the book I describe cutting a loaf of bread one day and the spontaneous experience of feeling the flow of evolution through me. Any activity that you do with complete reverence, that brings a deep state of flow, such as gardening or making music, touches into the numinous and can be a spiritual practice in itself. 

B.S: What message would you like people to take away from the book?

M.C: I feel a strong emotion in response to that question. But then the book is about finding an authentic representation of who we are and a real sense of human-ness and belonging, which is emotional! That interconnectivity brings us into a more intimate connection with life. It makes the relationship more transparent and obvious in what we do. Collectively we need to be prepared for crises in very near future. There’ll be huge levels of distress and displacement when we wake up to what we’ve done to the planet. We’ll need to hold our nerve. It won’t be easy but it could be rich and enticing if we can tolerate the fear, the panic, the not-knowing. It’s all part of the journey, the dark night of the soul. Our individual awakening and our collective awakening are interchangeable in this ongoing global crisis. In the book I include the story of Etty Hillesum, who was deported to a concentration camp in World War II. Her inspiring story illustrates that it’s not the experience itself, but what we do with it that matters. The book challenges us to ask questions, to do something different for ourselves, for one another and for future generations. The conclusion of the book is – “We do, therefore we evolve”. We can’t do it on our own.

B.S: What are you doing next?

M.C: I’m already working on a new book which looks more closely at the amazing potential of doing. We are all constantly morphing: evolution is coming through us at every moment of our existence. The critical question is: what are we doing with it?

The Unselfish Spirit; Human Evolution in a Time of Global Crisis by Mick Collins is published by Permanent Publications, the publishing arm of Permaculture magazine. You can buy it from our shopping arm at Green Shopping and save £4.25 or from Chelsea Green in the USA.

Mick Collins will be speaking at The Hostry Festival in Norwich, open from 22nd October - 2nd November 2014. He will be talking about his book on 31st October at the Hostry Norwch Cathedral from 1pm-3pm. For more information visit