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Norman Elizondo: “what I want, what I make, what I do”

…Train your team to use reflective listening. With reflective listening, you take in what the other person is saying and then repeat it back to them with enough precision to not add to or subtract from what they said. It is an incredibly powerful communication tool to bring you into the present conversation, make the […]

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…Train your team to use reflective listening. With reflective listening, you take in what the other person is saying and then repeat it back to them with enough precision to not add to or subtract from what they said. It is an incredibly powerful communication tool to bring you into the present conversation, make the other person feel heard and understood, and keep from focusing on your own rebuttal or defenses.


As a part of my series about leaders who integrate mindfulness and spiritual practices into their work culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Norman Elizondo, co-founder and Family Wellness Counselor at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Durango, Colorado.

Norman Elizondo began his career in wilderness therapy as a field instructor in 1998 at Aspen Achievement Academy. As a part of Open Sky’s founding team, Norman served as the first field guide for Open Sky and is now the Family Wellness Counselor. The focus on family systems and parallel process with parents has been an inspiration and driving force in Norman’s work at Open Sky.

Meditation has been a cornerstone of Norman’s life. His years of practice deeply influence his ability to work with teens, young adults, and families in crisis and train others how to develop their confidence and emotional resilience to work with challenging populations. With prior study and practice in the Southeast Asian Theravada tradition beginning in 1995, Norman has been studying and training as a meditation instructor in the Tibetan tradition since 2001. He is a certified meditation teacher with the Dharma Ocean Foundation.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?

I consider myself to be very lucky because I was able to immigrate to this country in 1974 when I was six and a half years old. This has given me a lot of opportunities my family would never have had back in the Philippines. There is no way I would have ever found my calling or my life’s work in wilderness therapy, which is a very western and even an “American” concept.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the seventies, I dealt with racism and prejudice almost every step of the way. It really shaped my worldview and my understanding of how society works.

I actually studied business in college because I wanted to make a good living and continue to fulfill that idea of the immigrant “success story”. That pursuit always confused my mother. Shortly before she died, she told me she had always hoped that I would have done something that is truly useful and directly impactful for people; something like teaching or health care. This exchange planted the seed in me to do something different and is what eventually led me to wilderness therapy.

What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up?

I was raised Catholic, which is very in line with the Filipino culture and history, as the only Catholic or Christian nation in Asia. Growing up, I always felt a genuine devotion toward prayer and spirituality, but eventually felt a disconnect with the church. That’s when I started becoming interested in Buddhism and eastern spirituality, which made a lot of sense to me in my later teenage and young adult years.

I have been practicing meditation since the early ‘90’s. In 2001, I began training and studying in the Tibetan tradition and am a certified meditation teacher and instructor. As part of my commitment and ongoing training in meditation, I spend 4–6 weeks each year in retreat along with my daily practice and 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.

How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?

One of the things that we know about meditation is that it actually helps fight off compassion fatigue, which is so common among health care and mental health care workers. Therefore, one of the things that my daily meditation practice does for my business life is that it builds resiliency. The work that we do is really intense, both working with clients and the business side of things. Years and years of this intensity cause wear and tear on the nervous system.

Another incredibly powerful aspect of meditation is that this practice helps me to be less impulsive. By nature, I’m an impulsive person. My practice shows me how to slow down and be in tune with what’s happening for me intra-personally; to increase my self-awareness. When I’m self-aware, I know what my cognitions are, what I am thinking, what my emotions are, and what is going on in my body. If I can slow down to collect those data points, then I can create a choice point to respond rather than react. I can do something other than behavior that is impulsive or conditioned. I’m more open to genuine inspiration of what is truly beneficial to others and not just to myself. I can really listen to other people, rather than half-listen while preparing my rebuttal. This goes such a long way both in my business life and personal life.

We’re in such polarized times in the world right now. I truly believe this is a superpower and everybody would benefit from it.

Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?

I would have to say, resoundingly, more successful. Of course, success is something that is defined differently for everyone. For myself, I define success as having more joy and the ability to see the abundance of the present situation. That is to say, I’m not always seeing problems and only noticing what is falling short in a given area. I’m also able to notice the positive things. I recognize and point out what the company is doing well and what individuals here are doing well. This is important in helping shift what Dr. Rick Hanson calls, the negativity bias; how we hyper-focus on the problems. By noticing the good things — the abundance of things, the things going well — and then taking the extra step to verbalize what we notice, that goes a long way in terms of supporting the health of individuals and organizations.

As an example, the Family Services Team here at Open Sky meets up each week in the morning before working with our client families. We get up early and create space in our meeting for each person to actually check in with what’s going on for them, to shout each other out for what someone is doing well, and to express genuine gratitude for one another. We can attune to one another as team members, support each other both personally and professionally, and offer clinical consultation to enable the team to serve our families well.

I also find that I’m more successful through mindful practices because when I notice and can enjoy successes each day, I am not enslaved to the ever-receding horizon of self-improvement, nor constantly striving for perfection. It’s not that I’m uninterested in growing, but it can often cross to a neurotic edge. I feel more successful because this practice has allowed me to see through the gigantic myth of more, bigger, better, faster, now. If I buy into that, life is rough! It’s rough on the people around me, it’s rough on my body, it’s rough on my mind.

What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?

That is such a great question. Leading a good life is realizing that life is more than just: what I want, what I make, what I do. Leading a good life is understanding that life is inherently marked with pain and loss and impermanence and there’s no way to get around it. So, we learn how to move straight through it and how to experience it, instead of trying to avoid the pain.

Anyone who works in the field of wilderness therapy gets this. We are spending our waking hours in the service of helping other people learn how to suffer well by not making their suffering worse. This can be shocking and intense, because when our clients really open up, we feel a lot of what they feel. So, training ourselves through mindfulness practice to be resilient allows us to hold other people’s distress for short periods of time more gracefully and sustainably.

Can you share a story about one of the most impactful moments in your spiritual/mindful life?

The two most impactful moments in my spiritual life was being with both my mother and my father at their respective moments of death. My mother died when I was 26 and my father died when I was 50. It’s so powerful to be open to what is happening right there in that moment, knowing there is nothing that I can do or say to change that this person is dying.

How can one be open to what is happening right now, to the sights and smells and energy of the moment and all that death brings? It was unlike anything I was expecting. And I know that my meditation training allowed me to just be there and be totally present. The amazing thing is that once you’re really present, you instinctively know what to do and you know what to say or not say. And you’re actually okay with not saying anything.

In the Buddhist tradition, they say that all of this meditation training is about how to prepare us for the moment of death, because that is an incredible moment of transformation. They say that in death, we experience our emotions seven times stronger than in everyday life. Imagine feeling love, confusion, resentment, joy…x 7. Mindfulness trains us to work with those emotions in life, so that we can experience them peacefully at our time of death. The deeper one goes into this practice, the greater the capacity one develops to face these things. The nervous system and the brain actually physiologically change through this practice.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Right now, I’m thinking of not just one person, but three — the three other owners and founders of Open Sky, Aaron Fernandes, Emily Fernandes, and Danny Frazer. I’m grateful for the fact that they had the vision to build an organization on the values of holistic treatment, which incorporates mindfulness as integral parts of health. They went out on a limb over 14 years ago to be a mindfulness-based program, before it became mainstream. This created a huge opportunity for me to be able to bring my passion and work life together. It’s been an amazing journey.

Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?

The first thing that is so important for leaders, now more than ever, is to slow down and have enough time for your people. Speed kills relationships.

Integrate mindfulness practices into the workday, like a moment of silence or even a five-minute meditation before meetings. It might sound outrageous, but it’s amazing what five minutes of turning inward does for the flow and efficiency of the meeting itself.

Encourage people — especially office workers — to schedule regular self-care during the day. Get outside, move around, hydrate, and stretch throughout the day. This isn’t rocket science! Take notice of your pets: every time they stand up, they stretch. Copy your pets!

And finally, train your team to use reflective listening. With reflective listening, you take in what the other person is saying and then repeat it back to them with enough precision to not add to or subtract from what they said. It is an incredibly powerful communication tool to bring you into the present conversation, make the other person feel heard and understood, and keep from focusing on your own rebuttal or defenses.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to inspire a mindfulness-based social justice movement. Social justice is such a fiery topic that needs to be matched with emotional regulation, healthy communication, and mindfulness skills. I would lead a movement where people are trained on mindfulness skills and learn how to actually work with their emotions when demonstrating or engaging in conversations around social justice topics.

And if I dream super-duper big, I would start a movement to make wilderness and meditation a part of all high school education. I truly believe we would have a different world if every high schooler would have a chunk of school dedicated to experiencing the transformation of being outdoors and learning mindfulness skills.

How can people follow you and find out more about you?

The SKYlights Podcast from Open Sky Wilderness Therapy is a great place to start. I’ve done three guided meditations, as well as an episode about the benefits of and research behind mindfulness and meditation. I also welcome anyone to email me with questions about my journey or about meditation and other mindfulness practices at [email protected].

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