A mental health guru for people who absolutely reject the idea of a mental health guru, Hugh van Cuylenburg started The Resilience Project after being thrown in the deep end of a volunteer teaching gig to India in 2008. His lectures are now taught in schools and sports clubs in Australia and he’s bringing his very low-key, “talking shit and sharing stories” show to New Zealand. Emma Clifton meets the world’s most relatable wellness speaker.
Hugh van Cuylenburg of The Resilience Project would like to make it very clear that he’s not the inspirational speaker of your nightmares. “If anyone ever says I’m like an Aussie Tony Robbins, I’ll retire immediately,” he laughs. “All I ever aim for is that after an hour [of the show], people feel like we’ve been at the pub, just talking shit and sharing stories.”
He jokes that a common thread in his sell-out audiences are women and their dragged-along husbands, where the husbands say, “What the f—k is this?’ But without fail, the 1.5 hour Resilience Project presentation wins them over. “Ten minutes in, they’re laughing and having a great time and then an hour later, they’re like ‘Ah. I get it. I get why I was invited here.’”
His origin story as a resilience and gratitude speaker does definitely borrow some themes from the guru handbook. It was a trip to India in 2008 that started it all, but in his very laid-back Aussie way, Hugh immediately strips back any pretense that this was an Eat, Pray, Love style trip. Firstly, he’s quick to point out it was his ex-girlfriend’s idea and that he had no interest in going, plus he says it took him a long time to stop feeling overwhelmed and scared. But once he got over himself, he says, everything changed.
“after two weeks in the community, I thought, ‘I can’t leave here.’ Quite simply, I’d never, in my life, seen joy like this before.”
“I’ve always been really fascinated by the question of what makes people happy, right from a young age,” he says. When Hugh was a teenager, his elder sister was seriously unwell with an eating disorder and this fascination came from purely wanting to make his family happy again. A decade later, he says, he was sleeping on a dirt floor in a mud hut, volunteer teaching in a village where he didn’t think he would last more than a week, because there was no running water or electricity. “But after two weeks in the community, I thought, ‘I can’t leave here.’ Quite simply, I’d never, in my life, seen joy like this before.”
Early on, he says, he would be sitting in these mud huts, with the Western mentality of ‘God, these poor people, life is so unfair.’ But then he realised how happy they were, how connected they were to their families and their communities. It was a world away from the over-scheduled, over-stuffed life he had been living back in Melbourne. “They had everything they needed; their whole family was there. [Whereas] we have all this stuff we don’t need, but so often not the stuff we do need… often we’re working so hard, we’re not around our kids or our loved ones.”
He realised during his time in India that there were three values that were responsible for this joy: Gratitude, empathy and mindfulness. Yes, now, they’re absolute buzzwords but when Hugh returned to Melbourne and started teaching these in classrooms over a decade ago, the effect on the kids was profound. So he ended up doing a post-graduate study in resilience and wellbeing, taking his learnings around to different schools, and The Resilience Project was born. Now he runs speaking gigs all over Australia, wrote a best-selling book, hosts a Resilience Project podcast and is coming to New Zealand to speak in July.
Hugh says he learned the power of gratitude, empathy and mindfulness by watching the community he lived in model those values, every day. The biggest example of cultivating gratitude came from a young boy named Stunzin, who Hugh was teaching English. “He didn’t speak much English but whenever he noticed something he was grateful for, he’d point it out to me by saying, ‘Sir, Look!’ And he’d try and say ‘This,’ but it came out ‘Dis.’” It became a daily practice for Stunzin, pointing out his good luck. He’d point at his shoes, his daily lunch of a handful of steamed rice and sitting with his friends: “Sir, Dis.’ “If he found himself in a good moment, he’d stop and say to me, ‘Sir! Dis!’ I just don’t think we’re good at that, but I think Covid shone a light on that, that we were so spoiled. We didn’t ever stop and think ‘how good is this!’ but this community did and they did it all the time.”
“Without simplifying mental illness too much, I could solve so many people’s problems by giving them a pair of runners and taking their phone off them”
Talking to me via Zoom from his Melbourne home, Hugh is upfront about how hard the duel devils of constant, long-term lockdowns and raising two young children has been. “On the topic of resilience, parenting is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. He was warned, often, he laughs dryly, but because he was a teacher, he assumed he would be fine. “Nothing has prepared me for this.” Like so many young children affected by the Melbourne lockdowns, he and his wife Penny’s eldest child is living with anxiety, which he says makes things harder for everyone. “I keep thinking, ‘What would I do if I had a parent coming up to me in this situation?’ and the main thing would be, ‘You’ve got to look after yourself.’ It’s the old oxygen mask analogy.”
For Hugh, keeping his mental health on track comes down to two key tools that he thinks everyone would benefit from. “Without simplifying mental illness too much, I could solve so many people’s problems by giving them a pair of runners and taking their phone off them,” he says. “Our addiction to our phones is just destroying what it is to be a human being, which is authentic, face-to-face connection and time to ourselves. And then running is what got me through 2020, single-handedly.”
The Resilience Project live event on Friday 13 August at the Bruce Mason Centre in Auckland is sold out, with a second show now scheduled, for ticket information click here