Mindfulness conference at the University of Miami — Coral Gables

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The text of a speech on Oct. 18, 2014 to a major conference on Mindfulness at the University of Miami.

Ladies and gentlemen, not that long ago I didn’t think much of Mindfulness. However well intended, it just seemed way too warm and fuzzy. Could it really make any difference?

Truth to tell, I had never heard of Mindfulness until I sat across the table from Valerie York-Zimmerman at a Foster Care Review benefit at Joe’s Stone Crab four years ago. She clearly welcomed the chance to make a pitch for Mindfulness. I came away thinking it was an intriguing concept and that she was a vigorously caring and compassionate proponent…but that Mindfulness just didn’t seem practical enough. (Remember I was a paid and trained skeptic for 35 years at seven newspapers, though never a cynic and never will be.)

Valerie followed up with a batch of information. I read it all. Two years passed, and she hornswoggled me into a gathering at this university to hear Congressman Tim Ryan make his case for “Mindfulness.” Then I read his book, and bought copies for others. Clearly, Valerie was getting me hooked!

I kept seeing stories – Herald stories, for example, on Mindfulness awareness for law students and football players, and New York Times pieces on Mindfulness training in the military and Mindfulness vis-à-vis technology.

Now I hear about Mindfulness just about everywhere. Just last week, I was walking the legendary El Camino trail in northern Spain. My companions were Mike and Constance Fernandez. Turns out she has a deep interest in the power of Mindfulness; today she is here. Then one evening we had dinner with a couple from Colombia. The conversation turns to Mindfulness. Turns out that Carolina Saravia trains teachers in Bogota in Mindfulness.

Today I am converted and convinced. Convinced that Mindfulness speaks to the people we want to be, the community we want to be, the country we want to be and should be. If it weren’t for Valerie York-Zimmerman, I would be considerably more ignorant and far less enlightened. So I thank you, Valerie, for educating me and so many others. Your work literally speaks to the best sort of future for all of us.

Most of the time, as some of you know, I focus on the earliest years for children because those are the most crucial early learning and investment years. We know, among much else, these three things:

1: That 85 percent of brain growth occurs by age 3.

2: That 30 percent of children start school behind, and then most of them get even further behind.

3: That if a hundred children leave first grade not really knowing how to read, 88 are in similar shape at the end of fourth grade.

Today I won’t focus on early childhood matters, though I do think Mindfulness connects directly with my own work. I believe so strongly that building a real movement in the early childhood years can only be done if we do it for all children. All children need the same basics as my children and yours – that is, the right blend of health and education and nurturing and love.

Believing in all children, we help all of us. It simply makes sense – practical, economic and moral – to be mindful of how everyone is doing, and to give every child the opportunity to fulfill his or her potential. If we want safe and secure neighborhoods, if we want less crime, if we want more people to grow up to own homes and cars, and more people to share the basic costs of societal well-being, then we should know of the quite extraordinary evidence of the power of early investment and the power to grow children who dream and have a real chance to achieve those dreams.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are a long way away from the day when every child – and every grownup – captures the spirit of Mindfulness. In my more perfect world, every principal would be trained in Mindfulness. Were that training done well, and a principal came away convinced and “owning” Mindfulness, then she or he would be eager to make this a central theme with everyone at that school. Teachers would be empowered to use Mindfulness, and their lives – and the lives of their students – would be significantly better. Mindfulness speaks to a focused mind, academic and all-your-life achievements, social-emotional growth, peace, less anxiety and stress, and people who feel better about themselves and people who feel better about other people. What gifts those are.

Today you already heard from the Superintendent, a man I admire and someone from whom I can learn much. But I missed his presentation because even before this afternoon’s invitation to speak, I had committed to speaking to this morning’s opening class of the current Greater Miami Chamber Leadership Miami program. Let me assume, then, that you heard a focus on education from Alberto Carvalho, the nation’s most celebrated school superintendent. So let me give you a different perspective on Mindfulness and its meaning for the future of Miami and America.

I am going to do so in the most straightforward way possible, calling upon what Mr. Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature.” Please take at my word that I am a fully centrist American – not a “radical” of any sort, simply eager for us to live up to the highest promises of our beloved country.

In that spirit, I have come to think that Mindfulness at its soul helps us to be better people. Surely we can be such.

How can it be? I ask you:

That the United States has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during apartheid?

How can it be that we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners?

How can it be that almost a quarter of our children live in the full federal definition of poverty?

How can it be when Mother Teresa, after visiting the U.S. and noting she had never seen such an abundance of things, goes on to say she never had seen “such a poverty of the spirit, of loneliness, and of being unwanted”?

How can it be that we in Florida spend just $2,437 for a pre-K slot for a 4 year old, just $6,937 for a K-12 classroom seat, and $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile?

How can it be that our country is the only developed nation in the world without paid maternity leave?

How can it be that three of every four 17 to 24 year olds cannot enter the American military – because of academic or physical challenges, or problems of criminal justice or substance abuse? Is this not a matter of our national security?

How can it be that we are among only three — of 34 advanced nations – whose schools serving higher-income children have more funding per pupil and lower student-teacher ratios than do schools serving poor students? How can it be the aggregated resources of the 85 wealthiest people in the world amount to the same total wealth as 3.5 billion people on this planet (or exactly half of everyone)?

How can it be that we can figure out how to spend a trillion and a half dollars to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan while 15 million American children have no health insurance?

Now at the risk of seeming to go far afield – but I promise I am not – you are going to hear your first-ever speech that uses passenger pigeons as metaphor for the sort of people we should want to be! My mind on MIndfulness applies to all living creatures, in the spirit of what the world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall had to say: “How terribly arrogant we have become because of a mistaken belief that man has domination over the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea. The word ‘dominion’ was actually a translation of the Hebrew word ‘stewardship’ which means to care for.” Hence, I was struck by this recent headline in The New York Times: “Has the passing of the passenger pigeon taught us anything?” Just 100 years ago Martha died in her cage in the Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last of the breed — a bird population once so populous that flocks of an estimated 2 billion birds would darken the skies for days in 19th century America.

For many years the fate of the passenger pigeon has intrigued me, come close to tormenting me. In my home you will find bound volumes of St. Nicholas Magazine, now long forgotten but a children’s treat for a good chunk of the 19th and 20th centuries. Go to an issue in 1873 — a time when tens of millions of passenger pigeons still shadowed the sky — and the writer tells of seeing overhead “a multitude of travelers who could no more be numbered than the sands upon the seashore.”

She writes: “When the young pigeons…are almost ready to fly comes the exciting time known as robbing the roost. Men arm themselves with long poles with which they upset the nests; the poor squabs fall to the ground and are easily caught in large quantities. They can then be kept in cages, fattened, and killed as they are wanted….

“So many of these birds are killed every year…that it seems as if they must gradually disappear. But they multiply very fast, and Audubon…thought that nothing but the destruction of our forests could lessen their number.”

Ladies and gentlemen, today they are gone…every last one…and we are the poorer for that. Is this any way to treat living creatures? Are we not a smarter, better, wiser people than to let such go during our human watch?

In the semi-immortal words of Walt Kelly’s comic-strip character Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Amen.

The joy of my life, and your own, is learning and giving.

Mark Twain once said: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you figure out why.”

Mindfulness helps us figure out why.

In this audience today are so many of the people that Peggy Noonan, the former Presidential speechwriter and now a Wall Street Journal columnist, had in mind when she wrote: “In a way the world is a great liar. It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day it doesn’t. It says it adores fame and celebrity, but it doesn’t – not really. The world admires, and wants to hold onto, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue. At the end it gives its greatest tributes to generosity, honesty, courage, mercy, talents well used, talents that – brought into the world – make it better…. That’s what we talk about in eulogies, because that’s what’s important. We don’t say, ‘The thing about Joe was he was rich.’ We say, if we can, ‘The thing about Joe was he took care of people.”

Or listen to these words from Anne Frank whose life and meaning have stayed with me for decades. In the darkest days of the Holocaust – a time she would not endure – she wrote: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Mindfulness surely lived in the heart and soul of Anne Frank, who found some measure of peace amidst the horrors of the Holocaust.

I give the last few words to Albert Einstein: “The ideals (that) have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been kindness, beauty and truth.”

That says it well. Your being mindful about what is truly important in this world, and the next, nurtures my optimistic, idealistic – and practical – soul.

Thank you, and God bless you.