Mindfulness is a key component to a student or family member’s journey of overall healing. In 2006, Norman Elizondo helped found Open Sky with an emphasis on mindfulness practices like yoga, meditation, and other tools. Norman created the original programming for Wellness Weekends and served as Open Sky’s first field guide, a senior field instructor, and trainer for field instructors. Now as Family Wellness Counselor, he leads Wellness Weekends, Family Quests, graduations, and other family services. He is also known for his influential role in guiding and instructing students, families, and staff through the practice of Group Meditation.
Q: What is your background and ongoing training in meditation?
A: I have been practicing meditation since 1991. In 2001, I began training and studying in the Tibetan tradition and am a certified meditation teacher and instructor. My ongoing training requires me to be in retreat at least six weeks out of the year, stay committed to daily practice, and keep up with academic study. Both the practicing component and the studying component are incumbent upon me as an instructor and trainer. If you only meditate without studying or only study meditation without practicing, there is a huge chance of self-deception and completely missing the point. I train new guides and the Family Services Team in mindfulness practices and lead the weekly Group Meditation at base camp, which is ongoing training for the guides
Q: What is meditation and how does it benefit the mind and the body?
A: The premise of meditation is learning to have a healthy mind and research shows that this happens. Meditation and mindfulness were not buzzwords in mainstream society when we founded Open Sky. But now we have reams and reams of neuroscientific research from teams at leading universities; most well-known is the work of Richard Davidson, Daniel Siegel, Elissa Epel, and Sarah Lazar. These studies show the documented anatomical and physiological changes in the brain and cell structure. There have been studies on neuroplasticity, showing restoration of gray matter in the brain; the healing of the brain.
What we teach at Open Sky is a very basic practice called shamatha-vipassana. This roughly translates as “calming concentration-insight”. Through this practice, one learns how to concentrate, pay attention to the breath, and still the mind. The interesting thing is that when you have a settled mind, you start to gain valuable insights into deep, emotional patterns. You begin to notice patterns of thinking and what you actually feel in your body, which holds our psychological history. When we calm ourselves down and sit still, there’s a chance for the unconscious to actually show itself and speak. Mindfulness practices are about developing the capacity to listen more and receive more of what is unconscious and integrate it into our conscious lives.
A common misconception is that meditation is about separating one’s mind from the body; to enter a blissful state of mind that is separate from the pain of the body. That is problematic. Meditation is actually learning how to receive the communication of the body. It can be blissful and peaceful, but it can also be uncomfortable or terrifying. It’s important to ask, am I willing to still connect to myself even though I’m not feeling positive? It’s 100% about connecting with our lives and finding meaning in them; not escaping from them. People are shocked at how difficult this can be. Meditation is hard work. The path of transformation is hard work.
Q: How does meditation align with Open Sky’s mission?
A: Open Sky’s mission states that “We inspire people to learn and live in a way that honors values and strengthens relationships.” Mediation gives one the capacity to respond to situations in a way that lines up with one’s values. Learning how to simply sit and not scratch an itch or how to sit through a foot falling asleep develops mental strength, which in more modern, clinical language, is called “distress tolerance”. This is deeply and immediately practical for developing impulse control and becoming aware of and changing one’s own unconscious neurotic patterns. As one develops mental strength, he or she may be better able to resist an addiction craving down the road. Ultimately this non-reactivity and awareness are what lead people to live fulfilled lives.
What we practice here at Open Sky is very universal; we make a conscious effort to strip the religiosity and cultural-specific terms from meditation so that it is not a specifically Buddhist practice. Some students have their own specific prayer or meditation regimen that they’d rather follow. They are more than welcome to do that in a way that’s not disruptive to others’ practices.
Q: In what contexts do students and parents meditate at Open Sky?
A: Every Wednesday at noon, all students, guides, and any parents or other visitors at base camp gather for Group Meditation. I lead it most of the time, but when I’m away, we have other trained instructors who lead it. We practice Group Meditation because one of the core values of Open Sky is Community. When students come to Group Meditation, they recognize that their team is not alone in the work they’re doing at Open Sky. Everyone feels more connected to the larger, communal effort. In group practice, there’s a syncing up of nervous systems that creates a field of calmness to hold and contain each person.
Students also practice mindfulness in teams and individually. I train our guides to lead the yoga and meditation in the team context. Our students practice these mindfulness skills at least five days out of the week, if not every day. Parents and families are guided in mindfulness practices during Wellness Weekend, Family Quests, Monday Night Support Group Calls, and other family services.
Q: Are these skills that a student and family can take home and apply to life after the program?
A: Our hope is that students and families are committed to the development of these skills and come up with a plan for how they will implement them after Open Sky. Our programming is in part focused on relapse prevention and wellness plans. That’s where mindfulness and wellness practices like meditation, yoga, “I feel” statements, and the four-line feelings check would fit in. We encourage families and students to name these tools in their plans.
You could have a really good daily vitamin but if you keep them on the shelf and never take them, they won’t help. It’s the same with meditation and other mindfulness practices. You can’t just have knowledge of it. You actually have to do it.