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Purposefully Present (Pt. 3): Building a Meditation Practice

Grant Helmus | Transition Mentor

This is the third installment of our Purposefully Present blog series! In this article, Transition Mentor Grant Helmus gives an introduction to the basics of meditation, the ways it is applied at Open Sky, and tips for starting your own meditation practice. At the end of the article, you’ll also find a helpful list of resources for deeper learning on this topic. Be sure to catch part one and part two of this series on mindfulness, and stay tuned for the 4th and final installment coming soon!


Have you ever felt like silence is deafening? That without the noise of the TV or the hum of the city, you are bombarded with thoughts? Have you simply sat in that silence, drawing awareness to those thoughts? Are you able to observe them and let them pass? Meditation is a mindfulness practice that helps the practitioner attempt a relaxed mental state while observing and letting go of any thoughts or sensations that come. File that under the category, “easier said than done.” Yet just because it is not easy, does not mean it’s not worthwhile.

More often than not, the thoughts that bombard us are useless, repetitive, untrue, or exaggerated. In episode 2 of the SKYlights podcast, Open Sky Family Wellness Counselor Norman Elizondo refers to these as a negative tape playing constantly in the background. “If we don’t know we’re doing it, we’re actually bringing ourselves down,” he said. “We’re making ourselves more anxious. We’re making things more complicated than they need to be. If we know that we’re thinking, whatever it is we’re thinking has less grip on us, especially if it’s scary or negative.”

With awareness of negative thought patterns, one can also become empowered to change them and therefore impact emotions and actions. For instance, you could more easily overcome the fear of having a difficult yet important conversation. Or, you might be able to link your present emotional state to the false narrative that you are unloved or unworthy.


Meditation at Open Sky

Students at Open Sky have been separated from the distractions back home, whether video games or social media, alcohol or drugs, toxic relationships or school struggles, the list goes on. In the absence of these distractions, it’s natural for negative thought patterns to become possibly even more pronounced than they were before. This is why separation from those distractions is incredibly helpful in the treatment process, shedding light on issues beneath the surface.

We introduce meditation to all students through daily practice in the team, led by guides and fellow students. The idea of meditation can be intimidating for students who have never tried it before. For new students, we start from a very basic level, understanding that simply sitting in silence can be challenging to begin with for most students.

As a field guide, something I loved most about incorporating meditation into daily life was seeing the gradual shift, when students start to feel a difference and realize this tool is helping them. Sometimes students would set time aside in their daily schedule to plan some individual meditation. Or when checking in on students during their “solo” experience, I would notice some students meditating independently. Others asked to wake up early in order to meditate before starting the day. My favorite examples are when students would think to use meditation as a tool in-the-moment, such as when they have trouble sleeping or experienced bad dreams.

Now, in the role of transition mentor, I have the privilege of seeing the impact of meditation on parents. Just like the students, parents come in with varying levels of skepticism, familiarity, and comfortability with meditation. Parents are educated and guided in meditation by the Family Services staff through the Virtual Wellness Weekend and the Monday Night and Thursday Night Parent Support Calls.


Starting a Meditation Practice

So, where do we begin with meditation? Meditation has countless forms and levels of difficulty. Think about physical exercise—you wouldn’t be very successful running a marathon if you’ve never even jogged around the block. And at the same time, not everyone needs to run a marathon in order to be physically healthy. But some routine of physical activity does benefit us. The mental exercise of meditation is similar. We start pretty basic and build from there, with the goal that students and families can continue to incorporate this practice into their lives.


Meditation Basics: Posture

The practice of meditation starts with posture. The idea is to sit in a relaxed position of relative comfort, minimizing the need to use muscles to support our sitting position.

  1. Sit on the edge of a chair or on a supportive (not soft) item, about 4 inches off ground. That will allow your knees to rest below your hips and thighs. This is very important for finding a position of balance for our upper body.
  2. Lean forward slightly so your weight is shifted to the front of your buttocks—or “sitz bones,” as you’ll hear it called—and pelvis. This will help you find a balancing point where your upper body feels supported and upright without using a lot of stabilizing muscles. Make small front-to-back and side-to-side micro-adjustments to find that balance.
  3. Focus next on your spine, maintaining its natural curvature without overextending or forcing it to remain in a position of discomfort. To find the natural curvature of your spine, first gently overemphasize your buttocks backward and chest forward. Then, slowly relax the spine so that it settles into its natural curvature and balances with the lower portion of your body.
  4. Position your shoulders such that they are slightly drawn back, supporting your spine’s position. Your hands can rest in your lap or on your thighs to support your shoulders.
  5. Lastly, align your neck and head with your posture. Imagine a string gently pulling up on the very top of your skull toward the sky. Make small adjustments side-to-side and front-to-back until you find that perfect point of balance for your head. Some people like to imagine trying to center a ping pong ball right in the middle of their skull.


Meditation Basics: Labeling

The purpose of being so intentional about posture is so that the body can relax enough for our mind to relax and feel safe. Once the mind is relaxed and safe, it becomes free to do what it naturally does: think. The goal with meditation is not to stop our minds from thinking, but to observe where it goes and let the thoughts pass.

This can be challenging, especially for beginners. We encourage you to mentally label your thoughts or sensations as they come. When you notice your thoughts drifting or getting stuck on a topic, mentally label: “thinking, thinking.” If you feel the wind on your face or hear birds chirping, again, mentally label: “feeling face,” or “hearing birds.” Then, return your focus to your breathing until the thought passes. Remember, it’s normal for thoughts to come and go. It’s also natural to have trouble letting certain thoughts pass. This may shed some light on certain thought patterns or specific recurring thoughts.

Remember the “nonjudgmental” piece of the mindfulness definition from Part 1 of this series? This is important in meditation. Practice being nonjudgmental of your thoughts, thought patterns, or inability to let thoughts pass. Back to the example of physical exercise—meditation also takes effort, repetition, and consistency! Spend small chunks of time regularly engaging in this form of self-care. Be patient with your progress and congratulate yourself for starting. Know that it will have long-lasting effects on your emotional regulation and ability to manage difficult situations.


Additional Resources

To learn more about the science behind meditation, how it can positively impact your life, and ways to begin practicing, check out these resources:

SKYlights Podcast Ep. 2
Mindfulness, Meditation, and Other Superpowers!

SKYlights Podcast Ep. 3
A 5-minute Guided Meditation

SKYlights Podcast Ep. 4
A 10-minute Guided Meditation

SKYlights Podcast Ep. 8
A 20-minute Guided Meditation

Mindfulness and the Adolescent Boy
By Clinical Therapist Morgan Seymour, LCSW

The Transformational Practice of Meditation
A Q&A blog with Family Wellness Counselor Norman Elizondo

October 12th, 2020

Grant Helmus | Transition Mentor