AL Andrew Leigh
JH Jack Heath
JH But that’s the scary thing is changing oneself, not necessarily even changing politics or countries or whatever, but doing the internal work is the really hard work.
AL My name is Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. Although I’m a politician and an economist, this isn’t a podcast about politics or economics. It’s about living a good life, which is an idea that goes back to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. What Aristotle meant by a good life was the life that one would like to live, a life with pleasure, meaning and richness of spirit, the life that most of us were trying to live until everything else got in the way.
In this podcast, I’ll seek out guests not because they’re smart but because they’re wise. I’ll speak with writers, athletes and social justice campaigners, with people who’ve been lucky and those who’ve experienced hard times. I found their stories fascinating and I hope you do too.
The thing that first strikes you about Jack Heath is that he’s calm, really calm, almost spookily calm. If I had to pick someone to sit next to me as our plane hurtled towards certain destruction, it would be a toss-up between my wife and Jack.
I first met Jack about 2001, when he was visiting the United States, and we had lunch at an Asian restaurant in Harvard Square. I loved hearing his stories about working for Paul Keating. I was intrigued about his shift into the world of suicide prevention, creating the Inspire Foundation, which runs the ReachOut.com youth mental health service. Four years ago, Jack became the CEO of SANE Australia.
But it was only as I’ve gotten to know Jack better that I’ve realised the most important thing about him isn’t his CV. It’s how he lives his life. Jack, thanks very much for joining me today.
JH Thanks, Andrew.
AL I want to start with your childhood and your experiences at boarding school. Do you want to talk a little bit about how life was for you at boarding school?
JH Yes. So I grew up on a farm in North Eastern Victoria and was sent off to boarding school at the age, I think it was 11 or 12. I went off bright-eyed and eager for that to take place. Three years or two and a half years after I had started at boarding school, I was abused by a priest over a period of about five or six months. And in the end, I developed… It was a form of hepatitis.
And it felt a little bit like my body just rescued me from the situation. And so I ended up having to go home. And I spent, I think, about six weeks in bed before I came back towards the end of the year.
AL What a terrible experience for a young boy.
JH Yes, it was. I think the thing is that, at the time, priests were up on a pedestal. And when you’re young, you don’t have any experience of another reality so you almost just accept this is just how it is. And so it’s only the passage of time that gives you a bit of perspective, that you start to understand that that was quite, if you like, an unusual experience and obviously has a profound effect on someone.
AL You were on a path to becoming a priest yourself, a Jesuit priest at that time, weren’t you?
JH Well, I felt that that was actually going to be inevitable. I felt like I had no choice in the matter, that I’d grown up in a family that was very strongly devoted. I used to go to mass when I was at boarding school every morning. And it was very much about wanting to pick up the messages of Christ and wanting to try and be of service to others. And it was almost a sense of I would just end up being a Jesuit one day.
AL And what did you end up doing as you left school? Did you go and study at bible college?
JH No, I didn’t. No, I think, in some ways, it might be related to my experience of abuse. But what happened when I was in my final year of high school, I was starting Renaissance and Reformation history. And what struck me there was the way in which man became, if you like, on a par with god or that thing of god was sort of inverted.
And this might sound strange, but I was getting towards the end of HSC, or sorry, as we call it, VCE down there, and I’d done reasonably well in the trials and I actually made a conscious decision not to pray for success in my results. And my results ended up being quite good.
And so in a sense, I stepped away from, if you like, god as the dominant framework that I was operating in, went to university, and quickly became consumed in a lot of Marxist and other studies. So salvation went to being salvation in the world and in the world of radical politics. And in fact, when I was in those early days at university, I wouldn’t even go anywhere near the ALP because they were far too conservative, so I was hanging out with the Trots and all the other ratbag groups.
But at the same time, which was quite strange, was that I was also though living at Newman College, which was a Catholic college and which was probably one of the most conservative colleges. So I’d come from studying Althusser and Gramsci and that to heading back to college and putting on the footie boots and going and playing the footie.
AL Were you a serious AFL player through this period?
JH No. Look, no, I wasn’t a great footballer. I played for Newman and I played I think about a year and a half in the Amatil League, so I played for Uni Blues. Look, I was an okay footballer, but not a star at all.
AL Did you enjoy your time at Melbourne University?
JH Yes, I did. I ended up being there for seven years. I did an Honours Arts degree and also a Law degree. So normally that would take six. I actually had a pretty tough time, and I only realised this recently when I was speaking to a Melbourne University Law School alumni recently.
I got to one stage where I was just absolutely exhausted. I hadn’t finished an assignment. They were always famous for the fact that if you didn’t have anything on the dot at five o’clock, you just weren’t able to submit and you would be a fail. And I remember going and seeing the Dean of the Law School at the time.
And I just walked into her office and I just said, I can’t get this done. I think I burst into tears at the time. And I was pretty well close to finishing my Law degree. And she quite extraordinarily said, oh look, that’s all right, you can have another couple of weeks. And anyway, I got it in and then completed the law degree. So look, I enjoyed the study immensely. I enjoyed a lot of the philosophy, a lot of the social theory. And also too, I actually enjoyed law and I like the whole approach of law and I like argument and good reasoning as well.
So it was a good time. I was at Newman College for I think about four, maybe five years all up there, ended up becoming president of the students’ club, which was interesting because once you expressed an interest in it, if you gave any glimmer or sense that you were campaigning, you were absolutely ruled out. So all you’d just say, I’m running for it and that’s it. You couldn’t even talk to anyone about it.
AL Some people argue that a Federal election should be run on the same principle, but they haven’t quite gotten there. And you were going to study acting for a while, weren’t you?
JH Yes. Look, I did a reasonable amount of acting during uni and in the final year, and that was part of the thing, I think, that was contributing to not doing so well with my Law studies. But I had a passion for acting. And I think it was that thing about the intensity of the experience and being there in the moment. Again, it was a bit like my football. I was okay at it but I wasn’t outstanding.
But that was when I actually connected up with my wife, who was a far better actor than me. And that was in our final years. We both went off and did auditions for NIDA. She progressed further than I did. But at that stage, I was thinking, yes, I want to be an actor, but I’d finished the degree.
What happened was that I didn’t quite know what to do, so I applied for a number of the cadetships in the public service and had interviews with our Prime Minister and cabinet. But I had a sneer on my face, I think, throughout the interview and was quite arrogant.
And then, I’ll always remember, I got phoned. I used to work throughout my university days as a storeman to pay my way and that. And I can always remember when I got the call, and it was from the Australian government Retirement Benefits Office, and offering me a position in, I think it was either their administrative law or superannuation area.
And my admin law wasn’t very good at all, and my heart just sank and I didn’t quite know what to do. And as things transpired, fortunately there was an opportunity coming up in the Federal Public Service Board. And given my legal background and that, I ended up working as a junior advocate there for a couple of years before joining Foreign Affairs.
AL And in Foreign Affairs, you were posted off. Was Thailand your first posting? Is that right?
JH Yes, so Bangkok was the first posting. Headed off there as the Economic Third Secretary, which was rather interesting given I had no background in economics. Yes, but I went off there. It was a big, wild adventure. I knew nothing about Thailand. And my wife, at that point we weren’t married, but she had been working in publishing when she didn’t pursue an acting career.
And what happened was that when I got the posting to Bangkok, not long after that, she got offered quite an exciting position as an editor but decided that she would come over to Bangkok with me. And she knew the lifestyle because her father had been an ambassador in many countries and things, so she knew what she was putting her hand up for. But there was a sense that she was sacrificing her career a little bit to come over to Thailand.
AL How did that affect your relationship, that sense that she was trading off her career for yours? Is that something you had to make right in subsequent years?
JH Oh yes. Look, in some ways, I think I’ve probably only redressed that in the last four years. Because when I was offered the job at SANE originally, we were planning to move to Melbourne, which we both went to school and university there, of course. And we couldn’t move for six months because our eldest daughter was doing final year high school. So the deal was we’d move at the end of the year. And we actually went and started looking at suburbs, houses and all that sort of thing.
But about five weeks into the job with SANE, Cath, who had been working at Allen & Unwin, got a big promotion as a publisher at HarperCollins. And despite the fact that there’s probably no one in the world that would rather live in Melbourne than Cath, she said to me, you know, I’ve spent, whatever it was, 20-30 years following you around the world, we’re not moving to Melbourne. So I was confined to the Qantas lands at that point in time.
AL And now, your time in Thailand was marked by a horrendous episode that happened to a friend of yours who had been visiting. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JH Yes. Look, I arrived, I think it was on New Years Day or the second. And it was a friend, Ewa Czajor, who had actually been a theatre director and she’d directed the play where my wife and I got together. And Ewa was travelling in the North of Thailand and I think we’d made the arrangement that what would’ve been my second week in Bangkok, she was going to come and stay with me.
And the day after I’d arrived, I went in to see the Chief Administrative Officer just to talk about my accommodation or something. And I walked in there and I sat down. And he said to me, oh well, Jack, they’ve found the body. And I had no idea what he was talking about. And I said, what do you mean? He said, oh, didn’t you know? He said Ewa Czajor had been murdered. And I was just obviously in shock.
And the thing was that she was then up in Chiang Mai. They had brought the body to Chiang Mai. And there was talk of a couple of her friends coming over from Australia. One was a lawyer and there was another who was a friend. And so I said, well, look, I’ll go up to Chiang Mai. I had a smattering of Thai because I’d had, I think, about six weeks’ training.
And anyway, so I went and saw the Ambassador and he was quite good. And as it turned out, I think it was his daughter or son knew of Ewa, or there was some relationship there. And so he said, that’s fine, you can go up to Chiang Mai. And I think in the course of me departing and arriving in Chiang Mai, word came back that apparently she was meant to have had heroin in her body. Now, for someone from all my days at theatre who never drank, who’d never go more than the camomile tea, this was quite extraordinary.
So I went up to Chiang Mai. A couple of friends, they came over from Australia, and they brought things like a beautiful shawl of white silk and a couple of Ewa’s favourite little objects. And I thought, oh well, I grew up on a farm, I’ve seen lots of dead animals and stuff. And so I volunteered to go to the morgue and to ask the person there to dress up the body and then I’d let them know, because the thing was that she’d been strangled and raped as well.
And anyway, so I went into the morgue and I thought I’d explained in my faulty Thai to the person there, look, can you make up the body, do it up, and once it’s done, let me know and I’ll come back and have a look. And as it was, he just pulled open one of those fridge doors and just pulled the body out. And so I could see… It was very confronting, but you just sort of saw death and there was just a profound sense of this was a body without life.
So anyway, we then had the body done up and we had a cremation there, which was quite wonderful. And I’m only remembering now, but at the cremation, it was almost like Ewa was there. She was always a beautiful spirit and presence.
But then the issue became very complicated because this was Visit Thailand Year. There were all the issues about had she been taking drugs or something, and all that. And I imagine the Ambassador at the time thought, well, what’s this new young Third Secretary I’ve got on my plate here? So that was a pretty torrid introduction.
And the thing was that because Cath was still finishing up her work, she wasn’t coming over to Thailand, I think, until the end of January. So it was very much a sense of dealing with that on my own. But then also what happened was that the friends that had come over from Australia went back.
And in some ways, I don’t think I ever really went through a proper grief process. And then I got very taken up in all the work in Thailand, and in many ways, it was very exhilarating in terms of some of the things that we did there. But when I look back, it was quite a manic period for basically about two years.
AL A manic and a productive period, right? You were involved in Australia funding a bridge across the Mekong, which is a career achievement that many people would regard as the capstone of a career in the public service.
JH Yes, look, it was. It was. I was partying a lot, I was drinking a lot, but I loved the work. I think I’d moved more because… If I can just go back briefly was that after my wife and I started going out, this would’ve been at the end of 1984, her father at the time was the Ambassador in Burma. And I went over there and we spent, I think it was about ten days there.
But I met this extraordinary man called U Myint Thein, who we referred to as Uncle Monty. And when I went there, I had long, curly hair, I had a leather jacket, I had a sneer. Going off to this toffee Foreign Affairs stuff, I didn’t want to have any part of that, so I had a lot of attitude.
But I met this man and I was very taken by him. He’d been their first Chief Justice. I think, like me, he’d been a bit of a ratbag when he was studying Law. But he came back and he did all their negotiations at the UN. He was then imprisoned twice by Ne Win, the second time when his wife was dying so he wasn’t able to go to her funeral when she was unwell.
But I met him and I remember sitting in his lounge room, very modest as it was. But I’d look around and there were photos of him and Mao and him and Chiang Kai-shek and him and Ho Chi Minh and the people I’d studied at university. And I was just taken. I thought, oh well, if Foreign Affairs is about meeting individuals like this, I think I might have a go at it.
So I then went back and in my very ambitious way went to Monash and thought, what are going to be the things that Foreign Affairs is going to be most interested in? And so I did my first paper on the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, and then the second one was on Australian agricultural trade in the GATT. I got good marks and then got in to Foreign Affairs.
But what happened was that I did an essay on agricultural trade in the GATT and it got published in the Australian Business Law Review. But when I went to Thailand, I went and saw a young professor who’d just come back from Harvard and he’d done his Law degree there. And as my way of introduction, I showed him the article and he said, oh, I read that recently, I think you should subscribe to the Australian Business Law Review.
Anyway, we developed a little bit of a rapport. He then became part of an inner kitchen cabinet when Chatichai became Prime Minister. And because I think they regarded Australia as fairly benign and not having an agenda, we developed a nice relationship.
And it was when Hawke was about to come in, in the beginning of 89, we were asked to try and think of initiatives and things that Australia could do with Thailand because that was when Hawke was just starting to try and get the whole APEC idea up and running.
And so with Surakit, I was having lunch with him and I’d read in the paper that the Japanese were talking about building a bridge across the Mekong. And I thought, well, maybe Australia could build a Customs House or something on one side of it. And so I mentioned that to him when we were having lunch.
And then maybe it was about Friday that week, he had me around to his place for dinner and he had one of his professors out from Harvard. So anyway, at the end of the dinner, he pulled me aside and he said, Jack, you know the stuff about the Mekong and that? And he said, I’ve spoke to the boss. And I said, well, who is the boss? He said, oh, the Prime Minister. And he said, oh, we’d like Australia to build that bridge. And I went, oh my god.
So I went back. And Richard Butler had just arrived as the Ambassador, and I told him. And he took it in his stride, and I think we were phoning Hawke’s Chief of Staff, who was in Korea at the time. And in the period of a couple hours or whatever, it was decided that Australia was going to build the bridge. So that was quite exciting and wonderful.
And then the other thing that happened through Surakit, and again Richard Butler was involved here, was that he basically went out on a limb around the whole Cambodia peace process because the official view, which partly the Americans were driving as well as the Australians, was that there had to be comprehensive settlement, so that the Khmer Rouge had to be part of the settlement.
And basically, Butler went out on his own and said, this is ridiculous, we should look at having a partial settlement. And so partly working with the advisors to the Thai Prime Minister, we ended up… There were three of us. We went and we were the first Westerners to meet with Hun Sen. So we had this secret meeting in a hotel just outside the Bangkok airport. And so again, very heady stuff and you had very much a strong sense that a small group of people could really shape national destiny.
Surakit went on to become the Foreign Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and until the coup took place, he was the candidate for the UN Secretary General position and had a lot of support within Asia. So when the coup took place, I forget the year exactly now, but he’d just come back, I think it was from New York and lobbying there, and then suddenly, he was out of a job.
AL It’s an important period for Australian foreign policy, isn’t it, that moment in which a lot is changing in our region and we’re deeply engaged with it. And then you came back to Australia to work with what I regard as an extraordinary trio of Labor frontbenchers, Gareth Evans, Peter Cook and then Paul Keating. What’s the most important thing you learned from each of them?
JH Gareth I’d known a little bit for a number of years from when he was running Labor Lawyers, and it was back when I was in university days. I had a deep respect for his intellect and also for his passion about wanting to build a better world. And I remember when we had him come and speak at college, it was all about a new constitution for Australia. So I just really admired his passion, his determination, but a really strong sense of social justice.
With Peter Cook, actually, I wrote speeches for him and Gareth, when was that? In 93. It took me a little bit longer to get to know Cookie because he’s a little bit more… How would you say? Maybe sort of taciturn or whatever. But the thing that I learnt from him was about he was very good in terms of building rapport and relationships with people and he was also a great listener.
AL I went from working for Michael Kirby to work for Peter Cook.
AL And you probably couldn’t find two Australians with more different working styles, Kirby, a lover of paper and careful briefings, Cook, somebody who wanted a yarn, wanted to chat.
JH Well, that’s exactly right, because at the time, I was writing for both Gareth and Peter Cook. And I knew Gareth. I could hear his voice in my head. It was drafting speeches for him, which obviously he’d rework himself, but it was a bit like I was just taking dictation. I could hear the voice.
And with Cookie though, it took probably about four or five months before I could get it right. And then it suddenly clicked, it was all about having conversations with people. So then all you’d do is that you’d start a speech by the phrase, last week, I was talking to someone who said something.
JH And suddenly, you had the entrée. So it was harder getting to connect with Peter. But he was a kind man, and yes, he was a pleasure to work for.
AL And PJK?
JH Well, PJK. Look, I always wanted to work in the PM’s office. And I was hoping to go and work when Hawke was PM. And then when Paul came in, I went and worked for Steven Martin for a while, and obviously then with Gareth and with Peter Cook.
And what had happened is because of the speeches I’d written, Paul was looking for a second speech writer to support Don Watson. And Geoff Walsh who’d been my boss in Foreign Affairs was his new Chief of Staff. And, look, at the time, I was pretty tired and exhausted. I’d had chronic fatigue. There was probably hangover PTSD or stuff from a number of traumas there.
And also too, despite the fact that I was writing for both Peter Cook and Gareth Evans in an acting role, at the end of that year, in 93, I didn’t even get the promotion into the role that I was acting in. And I was really angry about that because I’d worked so hard for that. And so I was looking.
I worked for Cookie for a while when he was, I think it was Industry, Trade and Technology, but I really needed to take a break. And so I said, look, I’m going to take a couple of months off. But then the carrot of working for Paul got dangled.
And as ambitious young men are wont to do, you grab the carrot. But I went off to have the first meeting with him, and I was going there to be his speechwriter, and he proceeded to tell me how he wrote all his own speeches. I was just going, well, not quite sure about this.
But I think the thing was that one of the things I think was attractive as well was that after my experience of Thailand, where a few people were shaping national destiny, I had assembled a group of really impressive young Australians, people like me who at that stage would’ve been in their 30s, but working in a variety of fields. And they were the up and coming stars of the McKinsey’s and the people at Graduate School of Management.
Anyway, I think the thing was I was able to bring a little bit of that new thinking, but the fact that these people were a lot more engaged with technology and where trends were happening. And so I think that was part of the reason that I was brought in.
But the thing about when I… I was told that you might not get to spend a lot of time with Paul. Don’t presume that you’re going to be there too much. You might see him every so often. And anyway, I walked into the office on day one. And my wife, Cath, at that stage, I think it was about seven weeks before Lucy was due to be born.
I walked in there and Geoff Walsh said to me, he said, mate, you ready? And I said, what do you mean? He said, oh, didn’t you know, Don Watson’s wife, Hilary, had a massive heart attack. And he said, you’ve got three speeches on Wednesday, one on Thursday and two on Friday. Some of them were short ones, but this was week one.
And so I spent almost most of the first week in Paul’s company. And on the Friday night, we were standing there at Kirribilli, looking out over the harbour, and I think we might have all had a couple of drinks, and he was telling me interesting stories about working with Bob. And so I thought, wow, here we are, flying around in planes and stuff, and feeling very pleased with myself. When we went back to Canberra, I said to friends, I’ve got another six baby-free weekends of this.
And then Cath’s waters broke on the Monday. And so I think Don might’ve been back at work by then, but the whole thing was that Paul was completely unphased about you taking off to spend time with family.
And one of the wonderful things about working there was that come a Friday afternoon, if you went into the PM’s office, the staff was all there, kids would be there running around. And so he had such a strong sense of the importance of family. And so notwithstanding the fact that I’d just landed in the job, I think I took a week or something off because, yes, Lucy was six weeks prem so that was all a bit of a shock as well.
And then from then onwards, I still had the chronic fatigue. I’d been getting acupuncture three, four times a week, which would just give me a clarity to write. And I got to the end of the year and I was just really struggling to keep it together. I’d be writing speeches and then you’d have to go… I might’ve got numbers mixed up and some simple mistakes. Excuse me.
But one of the big things that we did there though was when we were coming up to the Creative Nation’s statement. And I remember Daniel Petre was running Microsoft at the time, and Michael Rennie and Dave Herrington both at McKinsey, and we brought them in because we wanted to talk about technology and that. And we spent I think about two, two and half hours with us and Paul just sitting around the… I think we were sitting in the cabinet room.
And the thing was that Paul just completely got the technology, the internet thing from the get go. But I think it might have been because possibly Rennie said, Paul, imagine that you could talk to anyone around the world about French antique clocks. And suddenly, he just had a sense of the power of the technology to bring together communities of interest. And Paul just got it, and ran with it.
And so we put together a package of initiatives which I think we then called the multimedia initiatives or something. But that really, for me, got the whole internet piece on the public policy agenda. It wouldn’t have happened without Paul’s ability just to see where things were going.
So, wonderful working with him. He was always incredibly generous. So sometimes, you’d draft a speech and he’d just put it in his pocket and not use it, but he’d always make a point of saying, look, thanks, mate, for that, really appreciated it. So he was very nurturing, which was interesting because the way in which he was in the world and politics and that, it was like…
He’d come back into the office or he’d be with family and he’d take off all his armour and he’d take off his scabbard and put his sword down. But then once he went out into the public world, it would be there and sword poised. So we saw a side to Paul Keating that we certainly tried to get out there for the public to understand, but Paul had a very strong sense of this is your public life and this is your private life.
AL Do you do any of that armouring up when you’re out in public? Or do you consciously try to avoid it?
JH Oh, that’s an interesting question. Look, I suspect I do quite a bit of it, but not in the sense of… I’m not someone that wields a sword. I think Paul did that. I’ve never felt at all comfortable about putting your hand on a sword.
But there is an extent to which… I’m not sure if it’s quite an armouring, but I was quite surprised to hear you say that you thought I was extremely calm. So suddenly, I’m wondering if I’m looking like one of those ducks that goes across the water that’s looking like they’re completely gliding, but underneath, there’s a whole lot of frantic activity going on.
When I go out into the world, I think I can, if you like, lock into a bit of an external persona, if you like. I don’t know if it’s part of the actor in me or whatever, but you’re going, and then there’s an extent to which you’re performing a little bit, but I think always by and large trying to do it for the right reason in trying to advance things rather than trying to create some sort of false personality, if that makes sense.
AL It does, yes. And then you make a big shift out of politics and into creating the Inspire Foundation. What was the catalyst for that?
JH Yes. So in a sense, these shifts sometimes happen of a force of their own rather than I’ve decided I’m going to go and do something else. But in 92, when I’d been working up in Parliament House with Steven Martin, I had a young cousin who had developed catatonic schizophrenia.
My mother was probably the primary carer for him because his mum wasn’t coping so well. My mother was also looking after my aunt, her sister-in-law, who had had paranoid schizophrenia. And then in the midst of all this, mum became quite unwell herself. And I remember going down to see mum at a hospital then in Melbourne.
And we were sitting in the public area there and my cousin came in with his mother. And then, in some ways, you almost have to laugh at it, but he suddenly had a catatonic attack. So he’s sitting there in the chair, rigid, not moving, and there’s mum who is quite manic, racing around like a balloon going off. And in that moment, you just experienced quite the extremes of just frenetic activity to someone who is just completely frozen.
So I think that would’ve been around June or July, I think. Cath and I then got married in August at St John’s in Reid, which was where her parents had been married, and I think it was her grandfather, who was a minister, had been there as well.
AL Beautiful church.
JH Beautiful church. But the only thing was that having been brought up very devout Catholic and very much Black Irish, my father was refusing to go into an Anglican church. So what happened was… Anyway, there was a whole lot of stuff going on. And Richard Butler came along to the wedding and someone came up and said, oh, your dad is refusing to go into the church. And Butler came up and said, oh, it’s all right, Jack, leave it to me, I’ll get him in there.
And I thought, oh well, if this guy can do all these negotiations around non-proliferation treaties and that, it should be fine. And anyway, so we went and we had the wedding and we did it in a traditional way. But at the end, we turned to walk down the aisle and I looked over and there was just mum and my brothers and sister and the old man wasn’t there. And so he’d spent the whole time outside the church, just because he couldn’t bring himself to actually go in. Anyway.
AL So the man who could bring the Cambodian peace process to fruition still couldn’t move your dad.
JH Couldn’t get my old man in there. So we then went off on honeymoon and we came back, it would’ve been, about a week later, but came back to the news that my young cousin had tried to kill himself, and on our family farm. And I won’t go into the details of it, but he’d left himself with horrendous injuries.
And a couple of days later, I remember going into the hospital. He was at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. And I went in with my brother. And I’ll always remember just going in there and suddenly I saw… I remember you used to watch the old Phantom comics or something, or you’d have those things of mummies with their heads all wrapped up.
And I walked into the hospital, and there I could see him, his entire head bandaged so it was about three times what you’d normally see, and he had all these tubes in his body. And when he heard my brother and I talking, it was like he was trying to get up out of the bed and I think they ended up sedating him. He spent, I think it must have been about three months there in hospital, having a lot of very severe surgery and stuff.
And then, I think it would’ve been early December, he was sent back home. And so the idea was that he’d be back on the farm, and he’d be there for I think four or five weeks, and then he was going to go back for a whole series of surgery beginning in the next year, and get prostheses and all that sort of stuff put in place. He’d only been there a couple of days and then he found a way to end his life. And so that was huge. And mum was still not well.
Anyway, once that was over, I was still in my careerist, ambitious, political thing. So if you like, I put the horror of all that to the back and pursued all this stuff. And then when we were with Keating and we did all the work around the internet, I was still struggling to keep things together.
I went and did a meditation course at the end of 94. And through that, I went off with all my ambition, I was going to become enlightened in world record time, but put myself through excruciating pain and then suddenly had to realise, I need to look after my body, I need to look after myself, stop work. So I just took time off.
And I came back and went in to see Geoff Walsh. And again it was like, are you ready for a big year? We’re about to run into an election. And I said, mate, I’m out of here. And so, yes, I took about six months off, and would’ve been clinically depressed during that time.
I ended up spending a lot of time looking after my daughter because Cath ended up going back to work. And in many ways, that was a very special time. And I think someone at the time quoted to me, this is the thing that Dostoevsky says about by spending time with children that we are healed. And that was wonderful, spending a lot of time looking after Lucy.
But I knew things were not going so well when I found myself being like a commando on the floor, trying to get past her cot to get to the bathroom, not wanting to disturb her, because there was all that stuff about kids when they’re waking up and all that, disrupting patterns and stuff. So anyway, look, it was a very special time.
And then we moved. And during that time though, again because of the interest we had around the technology piece, I was trying to do a little bit of consultancy. I think I set up a business called Punya Multimedia. And punya was the Parley word for wisdom.
Anyway, I remember sitting on my computer in Howitt Street in Kingston. It was a Dell Pentium 90 that cost me about $5,000 and had 20 MB of RAM or something. And you had that whole sound of do-do-do-do-do-do, trying to connect into CompuServe or something.
But they’d just set up the Microsoft network and they were having celebrity chats once a week or so. And so I found myself one of 30 people around the world in an online chat session with Deepak Chopra, who was in San Francisco at the time. And so I just said, well, couldn’t we be using this technology for social good? And it was a fairly inane, not inane, but a fairly simple question. But he just replied, and I was blown away by the fact that we could have this global conversation.
So straight afterwards, I got on the phone to Daniel Petre and I said, Daniel, this technology, it’s unbelievable. And he said to me, he said, well, look, you talk about youth suicide all the time, because off the back of my cousin’s experience, and then in 94-95, the rates were starting to really escalate. He said to me, why don’t you do something about youth suicide using the internet? So I went, oh, okay.
So not my idea. And he gave me some seed funding, ten thousand or whatever, and we developed the prototype and then linked up with Michael Rennie and Paul Gilding, who’d just come back from running Greenpeace International, and we set up the Inspire Foundation.
And the idea then was about how can we use the internet to try and do something about the youth suicide rates? And we didn’t have any brand, vision or strategy. It was more just a very visceral reaction. We’ve got to find ways to connect with young people who are feeling isolated.
And our sense was that technology, the anonymity of it, offered huge opportunities. But then even when we launched ReachOut first time, we were getting a lot of critique, people saying, oh, this is just going to be for rich young white men in the inner cities. But I think we always had a sense that it was more powerful than that.
But the thing that really helped confirm what we were doing was that we launched a beta site prototype, and within about three weeks, we got a message from a young woman, saying, look, I just want to say thank you. My friend visited this site, and if she hadn’t, she wouldn’t be alive today.
So there was just this wonderful, if you like, confirmation from on high that what we were doing was of use and of value in the world. And then, when we came to formally launch the service at the beginning of 98, that young woman who had sent that message came and was part of, if you like, the youth involvement from the very beginning.
And I think that’s probably one of the things we’ve been most proud about ReachOut’s work, was that we always… Initially, I thought we were going to go and save young people and that, but we gave space for young people to play a key leadership role. And in fact, Jono Nicholas, who was one of our first employees, has been doing an outstanding role now as the CEO there. And in many ways, he was the one that did a lot of all the great work. I tended to do the spruiking and the storytelling and that.
But when we launched, I remember there was a piece in the Brazil Daily or something, saying the world’s first online youth suicide prevention service is launched. People were unsure. We were a little bit seen as cowboys. But we knew, anecdotally we knew it was just having a profound impact.
And so it was a few years down the track that Jane Burns came and was our Director of Research. And she came a bit apprehensive, thinking, oh, is there any evidence base for what these guys are doing? And she said, actually, there’s a hell of a lot that’s there. So I think, yes, over time. And then we took it to Ireland and also to the US as well.
AL Now, it’s an important space to have those conversations, the hard conversations about mental illness. One of my school friends, Andrew McIntosh, took his own life in 1994. And I’ve often thought back. That was just a few years before all of this stuff was taking off and none of us knew that he was suffering depression so none of us asked the are you okay sorts of questions.
But Andrew was a bit of a tech geek. We were in the lighting crew together. I’m sure he would’ve been an early adopter of technology. Had only the internet been around five years earlier than it was, then the wonderful Andrew might still be with us.
But I want to move from your professional career to the personal changes that are happening. Because during this period, the Jesuit boy is getting pretty interested in Tibetan Buddhism. You mentioned, before, your retreat. What you didn’t mention though was, as I recall, it was a ten-day completely silent retreat.
JH Yes, it was…
AL How is that?
JH Yes, it’s a Vipassana retreat. It was up in the Blue Mountains. And that was in what’s called the Theravada tradition, which is it was a Burmese meditation style. So what happens is that, yes, you go there, and essentially you’re not allowed to talk for ten days. And you’re sitting on a mat for about maybe 12 or 13 hours a day. And if you’re not used to doing that, it’s excruciatingly painful.
But I went there with all my ambition. And you get to about day three or something and you’re meant to sit for a total of about three hours without moving. I ended up sitting for five hours and it felt like I had a knitting needle in my knee. And there was, I guess, the Catholic self-flagellating message was, if it’s really painful, it must be doing me a lot of good.
So after that, I resolved to keep doing that particular practice for 12 months, but every so often, I’d walk into a bookshop and I’d see The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and so felt this pull towards the Tibetan thing. But again, I resisted it very strongly, because again, oh, that’s Richard Gere, it’s Dalai Lama, that’s all celebrity, I’m not going anywhere near that stuff.
And what happened was that then, as it’s turned out, my whole journey with Inspire or working around the mental health coincides exactly with when I started getting involved in the Tibetan Buddhist stuff. So Dalai Lama came out in, I think it was, September 96. I went along to a major teaching he was doing at The Hordern Pavilion.
I walked in there and was sitting down in the back and I was thinking, oh, this is really nice that they’ve got a whole lot of Aboriginal people playing the digeridoo. In fact, it wasn’t the digeridoo. It was the monks chanting. And at that stage, look, I was going through quite a difficult time. I was seeing a Reiki therapist. We’d have sessions and I’d be highly emotional. I remember during the process, I had certain dreams of when Dalai Lama was giving his teaching.
I then went looking, after that, at a few different Tibetan groups. And I’d become very addicted to the meditation. I had a sense then… It was a bit like wanting to escape all the… I had the sense that my destiny was to be a monk in a cave, which was more about my desire just for the experiences of meditation.
I think Lucy would’ve been… How old is Lucy? She would’ve been about three or four then. I was a pain in the ass at home because I was thinking that my family was holding me back from my spiritual destiny. But genuinely and honestly, I was trying to resolve how do I balance family and this thing?
And after the Dalai Lama’s talk, I just rang up a… There was a Buddhist Centre in Balmain, and I rang up and spoke to this guy. And his English wasn’t great. And anyway, he said, come round, and I went and met him. And he very gently, but I think firmly, told me that maybe your family is your spiritual destiny, so let’s get over that.
But I felt very calm with him. And for someone who’d been abused by their spiritual teacher as an adolescent, I came to this stuff with a very strong degree of vigilance. My antennae were up. And I felt completely safe with this guy. And over the time, I started going along and we were back talking about hell realms. I thought, oh god, I’m back in the Catholic church again and stuff. But I just had a really quite positive experience. There was a sense of coming home.
I remember the Lama that had set up the centre a number of years ago had passed away, and then my teacher, well, my current teacher, he’d come to replace him. But we used to sit in the… We used to do our prayers in Evans Street in Rozelle. We just had a small house there.
And one of the things that you do was you’d do these prayers for the person that’s died to take rebirth, to come back and to help the world. And often, there would be only two or three of us there and we’d be doing these chants. And sometimes you’d just have tears which would start coming.
So there was a sense, for me, of a coming home. There was a sense of safety. And also then within that Tibetan tradition or the Mahayana thing, there’s a notion of being of service in the world. And so we talk about what’s called a bodhisattva. And so the bodhisattva’s resolution is to say, I’m going to come back time after time until everyone is happy.
And in a sense, it was a bit like Christ squared, because it was, sort of, you’ve got a whole belief about future lifetimes or past lifetimes. So then I was encountering men, deeply spiritual men, who had a generosity of spirit that to me previously was unimaginable. And so in a sense, I think that gave me a container or something of safety while I was going out into the world.
And so when we launched the ReachOut service, Kenpo, who is my teacher, he came along and he was sitting there in the front row, I think it was next to Joe Hockey, because it was in Joe Hockey’s electorate. And so that whole journey with ReachOut and Inspire was done hand-in-hand with my Tibetan practice. And in a sense, I think it kept the motivation up about wanting to help people, particularly people who were suicidal, but also too, there was a sense of, if you like, a bigger framework or a bigger context for it.
And so it was difficult, and as difficult as it was, one of the things we did, there’s a practice called tonglen. So the idea is that you put yourself in the shoes of other people. And so when I would find things were really difficult, often you’d just say, okay, well, imagine if I’m a young person that’s feeling suicidal or whatever. Whatever difficulty I’m having here and now, it’s nothing compared to that.
And then I also too, when I was doing some retreats and that, I would imagine and go back and think of my cousin and of his level of suffering and stuff. And so I think that trying to focus on others pulls you up out of the difficulties that you’re having on a daily basis yourself.
Also then, early on, I connected up with Rev. Bill Crews. And it was interesting because the person who was the Founder of our Tibetan Buddhist Centre was actually good mates with Bill Crews, and they had this wonderful rapport. And I don’t know if it was through the Buddhist Centre, but anyway, I heard that Bill was holding sessions in his church at Ashfield for parents who’d lost kids to suicide.
And so I went along to maybe three or four of these sessions. And that was profoundly humbling and inspiring because I remember one of the mothers saying that when you’re going through the depths of your despair, when your grief couldn’t possibly be any worse, to go and hang out the washing or going and doing the shopping is some extraordinary act.
And for me, that was so incredibly valuable because there was I, thinking me and a few others were trying to do this stuff around suicide, but I realised the world is continuing to spin because each and every day, there are millions of people doing extraordinary things that just get passed unnoticed. And so I think that was really, really special. And since then, I’ve maintained a wonderful relationship with Bill. And yes, so a number of special moments where…
AL He’s a special man.
JH And these are things that I can write my career about I decided X, Y, Z, and all that sort of stuff. When I look back, it’s almost like things just… You go, it was Daniel Petre’s idea to do ReachOut and all these sorts of things.
So part of it is there about trying to be… At the same time as being incredibly… Having been ambitious, I think within the Tibetan Buddhist context, I found a level of ambition that could not be surpassed, that there are people who are saying not this lifetime, not two or three, but hundreds of lifetimes. And so in a sense, I think that gave me a bit of a container.
But the other thing too, and this is an image that’s been quite strong with me in recent times, is that you have a sense of being like a horse or a powerful horse that’s got a big energy. And what happens, whether it’s my religious practice or whatever, is that you need a harness by which you can actually harness all that energy.
And your harness is about… Whether you call it your ethical framework or how you live your life, you need that. But increasingly, excuse me, you also need someone, a sense of someone or a higher power or your higher self or god or something else holding the reins. So there needs to be that surrendering over to something else, about okay, you just send me wherever it is that I need to go.
Because my experience if you think about the more manic periods is it, yes, put a harness around me, and yes, I could go off, but I could career the cliff edges and stuff. And given a bit of that history of trauma and stuff, in many ways, that’s when I felt most alive. It’s like when you’re hypervigilant.
And so the work for me, I guess more recently, is about how do you try and get away from the cliff edge where you feel sharp and focused? How do you try and get, if you like, to the mountain, where you’re calm or where you’re more radiating light, where you’re trying to draw people there rather than, as I was in the US, trying to stand at a cliff edge to stop a million kids attempting suicide each year?
And part of the thing is it’s actually harder to do those internal changes. And I remember reading Doug Hammarskjold’s private diaries, called Markings. So I think he was UN Secretary General. And these were diaries that weren’t meant to be made public. And I stumbled across a passage where he talks about… I can’t remember the exact words, but it’s to the effect that sometimes we create these grand, noble projects because they’re easier to deal with than things closer to themselves.
So I feel that my work in the world now, if you like, is internal work, and me being better and, if you like, not so much… More grounded, will be of more benefit to the world. But that’s the scary thing, is changing oneself, not necessarily even changing politics or countries or whatever. But doing the internal work is the really hard work.
AL And you spend a fair bit of time on it, right? I always feel a bit guilty about the amount of time I spend, as a marathon runner, training every day. But your training is pretty intense, isn’t it? How much time…? Well, what is your daily meditation practice?
JH Yes. So every morning, I would do about an hour’s meditation in the morning. So for example though, if you had seen me this morning and seen me sitting on a mat, looking cross-legged and looking like a Buddha, you’d say, oh wow, that guy has really got his act together.
And that might have been the calm person that you see. But if you had a bit of MRI or you had an insight into my mind, you’d see that my mind was focused on the meditation for probably about 0.5% of that hour. But I do find that that’s helpful and that’s very grounding. And then in the evening, I’ll probably do usually about half an hour as well.
What was interesting was that when I first started doing that Vipassana course, they required us to commit to an hour a day. And to me, initially, that seemed like such an imposition. But having started to do it, I actually found it transformed your day. It actually gave you extra time because it gave you clarity, it gave you calm. So any time spent in prayer or in meditation is actually an incredible investment.
One of the things I’ve got to be careful about is it’s easy to think, oh, I do an hour every morning, whereas the Tibetans are very strong in saying it’s the quality of the meditation, it’s not the time. But irrespective of that, the thing for me of having a morning and evening practice, and it would be very, very rare that I wouldn’t do a morning practice because something was on, but that is really critical in terms of grounding me. Yes, and if I didn’t have that, without being overly dramatic, I’m not sure that I would have been alive today.
Because when I came back from Thailand, I was drinking a lot. I remember I came back and went and bought an Alfa Romeo on loan. And I was still grieving very much from Ewa’s death. And I remember driving up to Sydney one time and I was just driving and I was saying, how fast can this car go?
And I think I got up to about 160 or something. And I think I’d had a few drinks as well. And that was off the back of I’d run into a friend of Ewa’s just before that. And I remember pulling over on the side of the road and going, oh no, I think I’d better stop, and sleeping the night.
So the thing for me is that I’ve had lots of energy and strong emotion, which is a little bit like the wild horse. And my sense is get a good harness around it and, if you like, try and give the reins over to someone, and then you will go in wonderful, magical places because there’s someone up there who has got a better view of things than you. And so that’s partly enabling me to be a little bit more… Surrendering isn’t quite the right word, but being ready to go where things take you.
AL Yes. And as well as your daily routine, you’ve also got an annual retreat, don’t you?
JH Yes. So I find I actually need… I look to go and do probably a four- to six-week retreat each year. When I started at Inspire, we actually set up that people got an extra week of paid leave to go and take reflection. It was partly selfish. But I do need that time on my own to reground, as it were.
And when I’m in retreat, that’s when I feel the most calm, I feel the most at peace. So there’s probably a little bit of me that resents coming back into the world, as it were. But my teacher is always saying, the work is in the world, so don’t go and do retreat just to escape. And he says, anyway, he said, if you go and live in a cave, if you’ve got a monkey mind in this world, you’re going to have a monkey mind in a cave.
So part of it is that thing of trying to straddle between, if you like, the spiritual practice and the work in the world. And I’ve got a long, long way to go there because there’s a lot of emotion that goes on. So despite the appearances of being extremely calm, and there are times when I am very calm, but there can be a lot of stuff that’s sitting there below the surface.
AL How does your family feel about you going away for four to six weeks a year?
JH Well, my wife is highly supportive. And I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but she says, whenever you come back, you’re a profoundly calmer and more relaxed person. My family has always been quite extraordinary in terms of giving permission and space for me to go and to do retreats or to do my practice.
I live a very busy life. I’m travelling a lot. So in a sense, whether it was when we were setting up stuff in the US and Ireland and I was travelling a lot of the time or even with my current job, because SANE is based in Melbourne, I’m travelling every week, so there is an extent to which I’m not a regular part of their life. So me going away is not quite as disruptive as it may be in other circumstances.
But one of my great blessings is to have a wife and kids who are just incredibly supportive of me doing whatever it is that I need to do to nurture myself. And with my wife, when I first was addicted to the meditation, we had a deal that if the mortgage was paid off by the time I was 50, I could go and become a monk. But anyway, I’m now at 56 and the mortgage is bigger than it’s ever been, so I think my chance of having time in the cave might be a couple of decades away.
AL Sydney property prices bite again. Just to wrap up, Jack, when you look back over the arc of your life’s experiences, if you could sit across the table from your teenage self, what advice would you give him?
JH Oh, I think it’s to say that things will be okay, that it could be a wild ride, but that so long as you keep your motivation being about wanting to be of service to others, that the world will organise itself around that, and that that thing about focusing on others, that’s where you’ll find true happiness. So don’t worry about yourself so much. Take care of yourself. Don’t push yourself. Don’t go too hard. But if your work can be in service of others, then you’ll find long and lasting happiness.
AL Jack Heath, thanks for your time today.
JH Thanks, Andrew.
AL Thanks for listening to today’s episode of The Good Life. If you liked this podcast, please rate us on iTunes. Next week, I speak with palliative care nurse, Nikki Johnston, about endings, what makes a good death, and how a fuller understanding of death can help us live a better life.