Dear Passionate Creatives
I first heard about James Harding’s story months before I had the chance to interview him. Over the years, the bulk of my interviews have been made up of passionate creatives – photographers, cooks, stylists and painters who have each faced significant turning points in their life by letting go of the safety net, diving into the unknown and following their hearts to pursue what they love. Interviewing a former drug dealer, underworld debt collector and drug addict was not part of my repertoire. Needless to say, hearing about James’s story and the turning point he faced that led to him leaving the underworld and transforming his life had me completely intrigued. His recently published autobiography Hard Cuddles is an unflinching account about this journey. As a reader, you are taken from one end of the emotional human spectrum to the other. It’s gut wrenching, chilling and awe inspiring all at once. I inhaled it in two days. During a recent meeting, I was both excited and nervous at the opportunity to talk to him. James wears his heart on his sleeve. His past life has left no residue on the man he presents today. He commands your full and undivided attention. But he is completely humble. His insatiable appetite for cultivating self-awareness, reflecting on his experiences and how his path could easily have been an ill-fated one is something he is reminded of daily and is the driving force behind his business Hard Cuddles – a learning and self empowerment support group helping men overcome their own addictions and realising their potential. As James describes it: I use humour and my degree in street wisdom to teach audiences how to navigate life’s challenges by reconnecting them to the healing powers of resilience, self-discovery, transformation and the undeniable force of the human spirit. Our time together lasted close to two hours. I could have sat with him and swapped stories all day. I hope you enjoy our interview and the heartfelt, passionate voice of James ‘The Hammer’ Harding:
You’ve faced several massive turning points throughout your life, the most recent one being – leaving your life in the underworld as a drug dealer and debt collector and being led on a completely different trajectory that’s all about cultivating self awareness and empowering men to overcome their personal struggles and addictions through your business Hard Cuddles…What has it been like transitioning through this process and emerging into the man you are today?
A very vulnerable one. I was told by a healer years ago that: when you step into your own power, you’ll be able to lead other men. I knew she was right, but it was a gradual process because I liked the idea of being the leader, but at the same time, I wanted to rebel. It’s been incredibly emotional. There’s so much vulnerability with being your true self. Also addressing your shadow self or as Eckhart Tolle calls it: The Pain Body.Because it’s always there, but it’s knowing how to keep it in check. It’s something that’s so easy to do, but hard to maintain. It’s about being aware and conscious and especially being aware of how quickly the ego wants to run away. Even writing the book, I became obsessed with it becoming a bestseller and that’s the ego again, wanting to run away. I’m constantly reminding myself of implementing that awareness and recognising what got me here and having an open heart. That’s how I’ve arrived at where I’m at now.
From a young age, you’ve had a determined, self-assured attitude regarding your ability to succeed in what you set out to do. Whether it’s winning a race at school or starting a business. Where does this internal drive and confidence come from?
I used to watch the way everybody else did things and I just knew I was different and that sat really well for me. I got into a lot of trouble and people tried to make me conform, but I remember looking at others and the way they would do things thinking: I don’t want to do it your way because your way isn’t working and you look like a bunch of robots. And I was young when I first felt like this. I also had an ability to talk to people that was above and beyond what the average talk was. But when you’re constantly getting into trouble for being a certain way you learn resilience and you start to shut off. And there was this internal knowing, like intuition, that what I was doing was right and not to worry about what anyone else was thinking. It’s better to be wrong your way, then listen to other people and get it wrong. It’s like there’s a voice or someone inside me saying: don’t listen to what anyone else says. But you pay the price for that – I’ve been in so much trouble and made so many mistakes. I’ve got scars all over my body and I’m battered and bruised, and I say that with a smile – emotionally I’ve been torn from pillar to post but that’s the journey. That’s what it’s all about. Because you can always put yourself back together. If you’re going to listen to that unwavering self-belief, you have to be prepared to go the distance and I was never giving up. It’s not in my nature to give up. I sit, without judgment and watch the way people do things and I’m really happy that I’m different and I want to teach my kids that as well, to not ever try to fit in. Since I was kid, I was obsessed with the teachings of Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali because they were mavericks. They talk about never copying other people and you get into trouble for being like that, but the end game of standing true to who you are as a person, far outweighs any punishment or emotional despair you go through when you’re younger.
You have strong ties with your family, particularly the relationship with your grandparents and your father, Do you think these early foundations played a part in reinforcing that determined mindset?
There’s a Celtic belief that suggests you pick your parents before you come into this life and I’m lucky I picked the right ones. My parents were so supportive. I had an imaginary friend at 9 years of age and that was encouraged. We used to set a place for him at the table. When you think about that now – whether it was a spirit or an angel, you wonder, what was that? We were raised Catholic and mum always wanted us to have faith, I said to mum at 14: Buddhism’s about the search for enlightenment, and that’s what I want to do, and she just said go. We were encouraged to do what we wanted and to trust and believe in ourselves. We didn’t have big holidays or fancy cars, but our house was filled with love. There was constant reinforcement and repetition of positivity and self-belief.
The Acknowledgements that struck me at the back of your book were the Thanks you expressed to those who didn’t believe in you, who doubted and questioned your ability to break through. I’m curious, how did you approach being confronted with that, particularly during your lowest points?
It’s a typical male trait, to have something really good, stuff it up, just so they can fix it. It’s a real male thing. The more the screws are turned up, in regards to feeling the pressure of everyone being against you, is something I thrive on. It’s like fire for me.You just start stoking yourself and think: I’ll show you how strong I am. I always knew what I was doing. There were some scary moments where I thought I’d gone past the point of no return, but I was never not going to try. Meanwhile there were people talking suggesting: he’s a write off, he’s gone…and that just fuelled me and made me think: I’ll show you who’s a write off…That’s the motivation, it’s the wood for the fire. I love that. It’s one thing to talk it’s another to actually do the work. There are people that would be shocked to know I’ve written a book, and they’ve pigeonholed me. I always knew I was going to come out the other side and during that time I thought: geez this would make a good story…
There is a deep love and tenderness in the way you describe your relationship with your grandparents and I was especially moved by some of the stories you share of you and your father. I know family is hugely important to you. How have these relationships come to influence what you instil with your own family?
The principles and morals that were instilled in me are what I have passed on to my own family, but I took the bits that I love the most and put my own flavour on it. Dad let me be my own person but he didn’t want me to get hurt or make the mistakes that both he and his dad had made, so there was this element of control from him, but for me, I want to guide my kids, with arms outstretched, not telling them what to do, but just for them to know I’m there and that’s a work-in-progress. There was a lot of love and togetherness in my family and that’s helped me to become a good dad and when you experience that, when you’re raised in that environment, it makes you think: what’s better than having kids? My contribution is raising kids that have grown up thinking: the work my dad does in helping people, is normal. And that’s what I get back from my son, he tells me: we help people don’t we dad…This is what they’ve grown up being exposed to, learning about men’s circles and camps and the value in helping people.
I know you have several personal mentors, but given you are part of such conflicting worlds, I’m curious about how these mentors have come to influence your journey, both past and present?
They have been a huge influence. Especially The King – he was and is the original high roller of the underworld and he is all class. Such a powerful man, yet so gentle and what always struck me the most is the way he treats everybody the same. I knew about this man, years before I met him. Then not only did I have the chance to meet him, but I got to be part of the inner circle and there’s no young guys in that inner circle. There’s so much honour and loyalty in that certain little click. He was always teaching me: if you want to be a good person you have to exceed where you are currently, even if that means you pay to be around good people. Then Trevor Hendy came into my life and he became my mentor and friend. He’s changed my life. You sit back and look at the big picture and the synchronicity of life, the paths you’ve taken, the circumstances that have come your way and you know that things have worked out exactly as they were supposed to…
Why was Hard Cuddles such an important venture for you to embark on and what has been the greatest reward in launching something you’re so passionate about?
I feel such a strong obligation to pursue the work I do through Hard Cuddles, especially because I’ve been able to get away with all that I have done. It’s how I continue to square up the karmic debt, not only for myself but for my kids. Having this heightened intuition and people openly sharing intimate stories of their life experiences with me that they don’t share with others, I knew it was something I had to do. When you’re helping people realise that they have other options and you hear their achievements in overcoming their addictions, knowing that’s something you’ve contributed to, there’s nothing better than that. The work goes beyond money. There’s no ego, it’s just your words and your belief in them and remembering what people did for you during your low points and now not only are you returning the favour, but you believe in yourself enough to heal them with words. You get emotional. You think – how special is that? I’m playing the role of what I needed when I was vulnerable. And I never forget. I’m reminded each time I see a homeless person or someone drug affected and muttering to themselves, and think: that could have been me. And that keeps my feet firmly planted on the ground. It’s been a journey with Hard Cuddles, but if you’re ready to do whatever it takes to go the distance for what you love and you finally get there, and then you look back on your path and the struggle you were pushed to go through, you realise, that’s what it was all about. Not for one second have I ever thought I wasn’t able to do something and that’s what I now instil in others, how to rid themselves of their limiting beliefs, because the challenges we’re presented with aren’t put there to stop you, they’re there to make that process fun and are part of achieving that end goal.
To pick up your copy of the autobiography and learn more about the Mentoring, Men’s Circles, Retreats and Workshops James facilitates through Hard Cuddles, click HERE.
Happy Travels, Paula x