When Hugh van Cuylenburg volunteered at a school in Ladakh in 2008, he learnt more from his students than he taught them, because his eyes were opened to what makes humans content. The Resilience Project was born out of that experience and Hugh has since written several best-selling books about positive mental health strategies and he is a regular on the speaking circuit. Due to Covid travel restrictions, Hugh is now holding The Resilience Project events at Takapuna's Bruce Mason Centre on August 12 and 13.
'I was a painfully shy child who lived for football and playing cricket in the backyard with dad. I just tried to keep my head down and fly under the radar, which was in complete contrast to Georgia, my little sister who had an enormous personality and was best friends with everyone.
The first time I ever made a speech, I was in Grade 6. A guest speaker had come to our school and the principal asked me to thank them, on behalf of the class, for coming. Why did they ask me? I was a no one. I had no idea what to say. I was so nervous my hands were shaking, my mouth was dry and I didn't enjoy a single second of the guy's speech because my inner critic was out of control.
'At my secondary school, if you were good at sport, it was a sort of currency, so the better I did at sport, the more confident I felt. Then, during our Year 9 camp, we got in a serious situation while sea kayaking. We were caught in a storm and had no option but to paddle back to shore through monster 2.5m waves. It was so bad, the guys running the camp had ambulances lined up on the beach. Everyone capsized badly. One guy broke his arm. I had a bloody nose but, being a group of 16-year-old boys, we had to pretend we weren't scared, but we were absolutely petrified.
'I'm not sure why, but after that, I was chosen to give a speech about the camp in assembly. But the principal told me not to talk about the kayak rescue, although that was the best material. So I gave my speech, and of course I told the kayak story. I asked the school to picture us all in slow motion, to imagine inspirational music playing. I told it like a blow-by-blow sports commentary for a football game, then I finished by saying I'd been told not to mention the kayak rescue. I could tell from the principal's face that I was in trouble but everyone was laughing, so it was totally worth it. One of the Year 12s said it was the funniest speech he'd ever heard in assembly and from that moment on, I felt confident about public speaking. I'd found my voice.
'My little sister was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when she was 14. It was so bad she was admitted to hospital and we were only allowed to visit her for two hours each day. The doctor said, 'When she is back up to 31kg I'll extend your visits to over two hours', because we were her incentive to get well. That night we got home from hospital and dad was doing the dishes and crying. I'd only seen him cry once before. It was gut-wrenching. And in that moment I knew we were not a happy family. Mum was defeated. My little brother Josh was just 12 and he'd had the security blanket of family ripped from him and I became fascinated with what makes people happy, because I had no idea. I was 17 at the time, so I was also wondering what to do with my life, so I decided to become a teacher, because I wanted to stop other families ever having to go through what we were suffering. I wanted to help kids not feel sad, and stop their families from breaking. That was a ridiculous thing to think, but I felt so strongly about it.
'My first job was at a girls' school — there are so many eating disorders at girls' schools — and once in the classroom, I tried to do stuff that would teach happiness and joy, to be a positive role model, but I was flying by the seat of my pants. Then, at 28, I went to India to volunteer at a school in Ladakh. We were to be given three meals a day and accommodation, staying with the principal. But when we got there, there was no running water, no electricity and we had to sleep on the floor. I'd agreed to two weeks, but I didn't want to stay two nights.
'On my first day, I felt incredibly insecure and out of my depth. The school had no resources except a blackboard and a piece of chalk and I had 15 kids for the whole day. I didn't speak Hindi or Ladakhi, I had no idea what I was doing. But after half an hour of being in their presence, I realised, never in my life had I ever seen joy like theirs. There I was thinking these kids would benefit from me but I soon realised, I was going to learn from them.
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'One kid especially stood out. Nine-year-old Stanzin. I was transfixed by him. Every day Stanzin did three things. He practised gratitude. He stopped and paid attention to the things he had. He practised empathy. He looked after other people and did things to make their lives better. And every morning the whole school practised mindfulness. I didn't join in because I thought it was a waste of time, but every child — aged 4 to 16 — turned up, even though it was optional, so there must've been something in it. One day, Stanzin grabbed my hand so I could join in. Then I understood. I got it.
'I fell in love with Ladakh and I couldn't leave after two weeks, because I needed to work out how these people who had nothing were so full of joy. I observed them, I literally made a study of what they did. Then, after three and a half months, I flew to LA where my sister lived and I told her what I'd learnt and she started practising those things. Gratitude. Empathy. Mindfulness. And the impact on her life was incredible. Her mental health improved and that is one of the reasons she is so well now.
'Modern western struggles. Our addiction to phones and devices is destroying what it is to be human. Genuine authentic connections have been replaced by likes on a phone, getting validation through our devices as opposed to human connections. Staring at a screen has replaced spending time outdoors, or in nature, or being with people face to face. Another problem, so many westerners live by the 'if and when' model of happiness. We are so distracted by material things. If I buy this car or this house I'll feel happy. When I get this job or promotion, I'll be happy. But it doesn't work like that. You get the job and a year later you're looking for the new thing you don't have. Because the thing is, happiness comes from what you already have — and we have so much, but unfortunately we're not paying attention to those things.
'I know this will sound outrageous, but smartphones should be banned till you're 18. Before then people can have dumb phones to text and talk, or maybe play Snakes, but nothing else. Devices are so damaging, the impact they have on mental health. Smartphones are literally killing kids through compare and despair. And bullying. We should treat phones like cigarettes, because they are not good for us. A former president of Facebook was asked if his kids had Facebook. His answer was, 'No way would I let my kids have it. I designed it to make people miserable, to prey on their insecurities'. I feel so sorry for today's kids and I believe we will look back one day, and see the impact phones have had, and someone will owe us an apology.