I interviewed Jack Heath in 2008 for a creative non-fiction biography project. Jack wrote to me after reading the finished product remarking that he had done a lot of interviews before but was not sure anyone had quite got it as close to the mark as I had. It’s one of my favourite things to read over because it reminds me of how ridiculously astounding it was to hear and recount his jaw-dropping life story…
‘Warm Heart, Cool Head, Open Ears’ – Jack Heath
‘Are those jeans skinny leg jeans?’
‘I don’t think so. They look more like straight leg to me.’
‘They’re pretty trendy though.’
‘Oh I’d say they are definitely trendy.’
‘Let’s take a look inside.’
In Balmain, the social and political hub of Sydney’s Inner-West, Jack Heath leads me into a trendy clothing store. The side trip isn’t planned for and yet, like a child in a candy store, Jack is amused and excited to come across jeans in a shop window that he is certain are the same jeans he wore for a photo shoot that day.
It’s Jack’s sporadic nature that leads him from one thought to the next, segueing from one moment where we are perusing the streets of Balmain, to finding ourselves sifting through a clothing store. I fall into step behind Jack and follow with excitement wherever his train of thought leads him.
The first time I saw Jack, the creator of the Inspire foundation, all those years ago, he openly revealed his life story to a group of strangers. We drank in his words then; it was impossible to do anything but. He was placid in his delivery and yet as powerful as though he had slammed a truck into the room, followed briefly by stunned silence, as he recounted horrific and inspiring life events in a tone as diplomatic and as natural as one would adopt when discussing the weather forecast.
Coming to meet Jack one on one, I was a little apprehensive, knowing that on some days, Jack will reveal very little, and on others, it was getting him to stop that proved to be difficult. Jack is stumped when asked, before anything else, to describe himself in one sentence. A hard task for anyone put on the spot, but particularly for someone as modest and altruistic as Jack. Talking about himself exclusively is not something this man is inclined to do. Before he answers, I notice he sits with his shoulders slightly slumped, looking down every so often as if lost in thought. His left hand is adorned with a simple, wooden beaded bracelet, resembling rosary beads.
‘I guess someone trying to make a difference in the world while being a good father and husband.’
I want to get to the core of what Jack Heath is about, but have difficulty unveiling the man behind the mission. With each attempt to uncover a layer, Jack diverts the attention to a topic praising others, divulging information on the work Inspire has achieved, and rallying off his hopes for the future. But who is Jack? The question persists and yet he continues to evade talking about himself exclusively.
I imagine myself knocking on a door that leads to his brain.
Hello is Jack in?
No sorry, he’s away, but would you like to meet his extended family and all the people he loves, admires and wishes to be more like?
Jack was born in Melbourne and raised on a farm just out of Mooroopna in North Eastern Victoria, attending a Catholic boarding school in his formative years. The first of a series of shocking life events occurred in 1992 when his 21-year-old cousin tried unsuccessfully to blow his face off with a gun, before finally ending his life on the tracks of an oncoming train. To escape the trauma this had on his family, Jack threw himself into his career. It was at university that Jack cultivated a passion for politics and wanted to work for the PM. So he ended up working for Paul Keating.
‘Just like that?’
Just like that.
Perhaps it was sheer luck that upon walking into the job on the first day, Geoff Walsh announced that Don Watson, the main speech writer, was unable to work due to family issues and that Jack would be taking his place. So he spent the first week travelling with Keating, despite being warned that he might not get to spend much time with him. ‘You look at politics today, and in some ways a lot of it seems so banal, but we really felt that we were doing noble work and it was exciting times’.
One thing he is particularly proud of is working on the Creative Nation statement in 1994. It was here that he learnt that things could be changed with a strong vision. There was a line they created for Keating in 1994 that was almost prophetic in its delivery – Everyone can become a journalist – referring to great technological advancements, back when the net was still something you used when you went fishing. Jack was enraptured by the internet and what it had to offer. Images of a younger Jack looking at a giant internet screen in a shop window with the same excitement procured by the skinny leg jeans, flash somewhat instantaneously before my eyes.
‘I was adamant that if Christ was alive at the time, he would have had his own web page’.
Jack’s inclination for technology and strong desire to use these innovative tools would later characterise the creation of the Inspire Foundation and the process of reaching out to help young people through the internet medium. He admits that his cousin’s suicide was a turning point in his life and he began to look for ways to address issues of mental illness in Australia. It was around this time in 1995 that he developed his brain child, the Inspire Foundation.
Today Inspire strives to promote international awareness of mental illness and improve the well being of young people through technology and youth involvement. ‘The idea is to attract young people to use and engage with content that improves their mental health and promote their well being’, according to recently appointed CEO Kerry Graham. Reach Out, Inspire’s main branch, has achieved outstanding success in raising awareness of mental illness and depression among young people in Australia with Jack citing cases where young people write to him saying that Reach Out stopped them from committing suicide. The slogan ‘Life sucks now has a website’ adorns billboards and radio slots everywhere. Jack’s achievement with Inspire saw him win the Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2007.
In contrast to the hip surroundings of Balmain, Jack was raised a farm boy. He recounts those days with an almost reverent respect for the land. You can see how the daily ritualistic slaughter of animals and the constant connection to the land has affected Jack. He is halfway through describing the current state of their farm property being compulsory acquired, when he suddenly falls into an almost trancelike state, describing the way it used to be. He recounts the smell of clover, being around animals, and the constant smell of raking hay. Being so close to the earth meant Jack felt quite grounded about, as he puts it in colloquial terms, ‘stuff’. He saw the transition of the seasons and experienced firsthand the cruelty of long periods of drought.
A powerful memory for him is that of a sick calf or lamb that was brought home and put in the shearing shed. ‘They’d be lying there almost dead and you’d have to try and put a tube down their throats to feed them. And you know sometimes they’d survive which is wonderful and sometimes they wouldn’t.’
Following this sombre tone, the monkey mind kicks in and Jack remembers how he used to love climbing trees, where he would climb as far as he could. I can’t help but wonder if his restless mind is his way of staying on the positive side of life.
When talking to Jack, it’s easy to get the sense that you’re speaking with a big kid, someone who never really grew up. But the reality is that Jack was forced to grow up too quickly. He mentions briefly how he was sexually abused by a priest for six months at boarding school. It comes out rather quickly, almost unexpected, but still in the same tone of voice Jack has adopted throughout. He appears unaffected by this revelation despite the fact that it took almost 30 years before he could speak out about this traumatic part of his life. Jack later admits in another interview that he considers taking action and becoming a survivor rather than a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, as one of his greatest achievements.
Jack has always been religious but in different ways. When he was five or six he wanted to be the Pope, but he didn’t know how to pronounce it: ‘I wanted to be the Poke at the age of 5.’ Jack has come a long way since those early Catholic days and part of me wonders if the previous revelation had any impact on this departure from institutionalised religion to a more spiritual and meditative path. His strong affinity with Buddhism is evident in his mannerisms, his patience and his calm demeanor – but also from the continuous reference to past actions and previous lives. It’s hard to imagine that he was once battling to control his anger. I ask him about the beads on his wrist. The Buddhist version of rosary beads, the mala has just 21 beads on it. You say mantras and repeat them 21 times.
‘So it also helps you focus the mind as well. There are times you can’t do without it.’
Even in his answers, I can tell that Jack is thinking about something else or is keen to take the conversation to a different level. When a Tibetan Buddhist teacher warned him against running away and becoming a monk in a cave on the premise that he had a monkey mind, it raised all sorts of questions about what a monkey mind actually is.
‘A monkey mind is just a mind that jumps around all the time from one thing to the other.’ In meditation you have to train the mind to be still and focused, just on one thing. ‘Whereas my mind is jumping around, so my teacher was basically saying, look it doesn’t really matter what your external circumstances are, if you haven’t trained your mind, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a cave or somewhere else.’
Can there be other states of mind?
‘There’s the Rainy Elephant who goes in full steam wherever, and the third one is the Sloth mind, it just sits there and doesn’t do anything.’
In between deciding if I have a Rainy Elephant or a Sloth Mind, Jack orders lunch.
‘Do you think you still have a monkey mind?’
‘Yeah yeah. Oh yeah. You know it’s interesting, when you start off with Tibetan Buddhism, you feel like you’re making lots of progress. Then after a while it’s sort of, I don’t know whether or not it’s the novelty that wears off or you just realise your mind is not anywhere near as controlled as you wanted or thought or whatever… Hi, can I get the risotto? Are you sure you don’t want a cup of tea or something?’
‘I’m fine thanks really.’
‘Please I insist.’
‘Maybe a juice?’
‘And can I get a piece of lemon or something like that? Or a grapefruit juice? Can I get a ginger beer? I like that. Actually what I’d like is lemon grass tea, that’d be better. Thanks a lot. Where were we? Oh right. Monkey mind’
Does Jack want to completely erase the monkey mind through meditation?
‘I think you can in time, if you practice hard enough, and that’s the goal. Part of it is to be able to train the mind so then you can have a bigger impact on the world. So it doesn’t mean you actually stop doing the work, you just train the mind to focus better, and then you’ll have a bigger impact.’
With this revelation I am peeling off the layers with my own hands and making real progress in getting to the bottom of the Jack Heath Monkey Mind Mystery.
One thing that I can pinpoint about Jack and Jack alone is his special affinity with celebrities and people in the public profile. He’s hung out with Cathy Freeman, made business deals with Rupert Murdoch, chatted with the Dalai Lama, drank gin and tonics with the first chief Justice of Burma, bonded with Paul Keating, and yet any special attention he receives from these people has no apparent effect on him. He even describes Murdoch as ‘warm and generous’ and Keating as a ‘nice, friendly, down to earth guy’.
It’s clear from the outset that Jack has a special friendship with Cathy Freeman, a friendship that is not befitted with mere words, but he gives it a go anyway. ‘We have a lot of laughs together which is really important. You know, I think she’s quite an extraordinary person. We took a road trip when she first became a Patron of Inspire, and just had conversations about life, the universe, love. I think there was just a really nice clicking together, a really strong and easy bond.’
With Jack’s Buddhist background, he can’t help but wonder what would have happened in previous lives, if he and Cathy were somehow connected. Jack often speaks about previous lives and karma with certainty, as though he is aware of something that the rest of us are oblivious to.
Jack’s friendships mean the world to him and so the loss of a dear friend in Thailand marked another turning point in his life. Although he describes the rape and murder of Ewa Czajor with the same calm tone of voice that he has adopted throughout, I notice the water in his eyes has shifted slightly at the mention of her. All prior discussion of karma and previous lives leads to an eerie realisation that Ewa was murdered in January 1988, the same year and month of my birth. Something in the air changes and there’s a brief silence before Jack attempts to recount these horrific events.
‘She was a good friend of ours, she was supposed to stay with us in Thailand, but two days before she arrived they told me her body had been found in Northern Thailand’. It happened in a cave and Jack believes she was murdered by monks, a shocking theory that he refrains from elaborating on but mumbles something about not wearing shoes before entering the cave.
Jack wanted to be there during the crisis so he flew up and before he knew what he was doing, he raised his hand and volunteered to view the body. At the time he believed he could handle it, having seen dead animals on the farm. He soon learnt that a human body, much less the body of someone close to him, was an entirely different story altogether. In Thailand it didn’t make the news. Back home it was all over Sixty Minutes.
After Ewa’s death, Jack began to drink a lot, party a lot. He was quite manic at times: ‘a wild, crazy guy’, he says as he calmly pours the boiling water over his lemon grass tea. ‘Until you find your path, you kinda just want to push up against things really hard’. Dancing was a way of ‘getting back into the ground’. Years later, Jack went back to the site where Ewa was murdered, where he found himself at a crossroads. Something inside his head told him to go back, to not continue down this one particular path, and that’s when he knew it was the place where she was murdered. When Jack tried to meditate after going back there, he always heard a women wailing somewhere in the distance.
Jack has an intensity about him when he speaks, but every so often he might laugh and his blue eyes follow suit with a trace of incandescence. It’s this laughter that reassures you of all the clichés about beating the odds and rising above the ashes. He truly is a source of hope and I realise that although Jack’s life has been characterised by as many lows as there were highs, I can’t help but smile in the end.
I click on Reach Out and discover Jack’s life motto to young people everywhere.
‘Walk, don’t run. Attain enlightenment for the benefit of others. Have a good shit at least once a day.’
The picture I seem to have painted in my head of this man is almost complete. Almost.
We have almost come full circle but I’m tempted to ask:
Who do you think you were in a past life? The man before me smiles coyly and I suspect that this little part of Jack Heath will remain a secret.