Guided Meditations: If you want to deepen your practice, limit these

I’ve had this blog for almost 6 months now and I think it’s about time that I get a little controversial on here. I have heard about so many people using meditation apps for guided meditations (like Headspace) or doing guided meditations through classes (either through independent studios or on YouTube); and I feel the need to provide my two cents on guided meditations. Meditation, like yoga, is becoming “Westernized” at an exponential rate; where it’s being marketed as a way to relax more so than what it was originally intended for. Although I think that guided meditations can have their time and place, I don’t think that they actually “teach” you to meditate or help you deepen your practice and become more aware. For these reasons, I would argue that guided meditations hinder your practice rather than help it.


When I took a meditation class last year in university, the first questions I asked were, “what am I supposed to be doing during meditation?” and “should I use a guided meditation to help me?”. My professor, Dr. Salay, HEAVILY discouraged us from following guided meditations. She said that guided meditations don’t actually teach you to meditate, you need to learn how to meditate on your own. At first, I was a little annoyed because the thought of someone telling me what to do with my body, how to breathe, what to focus on, and what to think about would have been really helpful. However, a year into my meditation practice I am so thankful I never learned to meditate through guided meditations because I have experienced transformative effects and a whole new level of personal growth that I fundamentally don’t think I could have experienced through guided meditations alone.


You might be thinking now, “Tiffany, what’s your beef with guided meditations? I love them, they are so relaxing!”. I would say back that, yes, most of the time guided meditations are relaxing, but they are not helping you actually meditate. The whole purpose of meditating is to continue down a path of awareness (or enlightenment). This has to do with the awareness of your body, awareness of your environment, awareness of your breath, awareness of your thoughts, awareness of your feelings, and so on. When you are doing a guided meditation, you are listening to the direction of another person; and you are focusing on what they are saying rather than developing your own awareness. Therefore, the sound of the instructor's voice is distracting you from embarking on your own personal exploration. Contrary to popular belief, relaxation can be a desirable by-product of meditation, but it is not the main goal.


I like to think of guided meditations kind of like training wheels on a bike: while the training wheels are on, you can practice riding your bike and develop confidence while practicing. However, once you take the training wheels off, you still have to somewhat “re-learn” and adjust to riding the bike without them. Further, if you never take the training wheels off, you really can’t say that you know how to ride a bike or that you properly learned how to ride a bike. In this way, guided meditations may help you ease into the practice, but if you never make the switch from guided meditations to independent (silent) meditation, then you never really “learned” how to meditate.


So, should you swear off guided meditations forever? Well, not necessarily. Although the main purpose of meditating isn’t for relaxation, adding more relaxation into your life is never a bad thing. Guided meditations can be great for helping you relax, especially after a particularly long and stressful day or if you have difficulty sleeping. Further, guided meditations can also help ease you into the idea of meditating for those that want to try it out and learn more about the practice. Lastly, guided meditations can be useful for trying out different types of meditations, that you may not have otherwise tried on your own. Let me be clear, both forms of meditation have their pros and cons; and there is nothing inherently bad about guided meditations. However, if you do want to deepen your practice and learn to meditate to be on the path towards greater awareness and enlightenment, then I’d make sure you're also putting aside time for silent, independent meditation!


SUMMARY: Pros and Cons of guided meditations


Pros:

- Relaxing (can help with difficulty sleeping, stress, etc.)

- Can help ease you into the idea of meditation

- Can try out different types of meditation

- More entertaining than silent meditation (less likely to get bored)


Cons:

- Distracting (focusing more on the instructor rather than your own awareness)

- The entertaining nature can be a crutch (you may be less likely to silent meditate because it is more boring than guided meditations)

- Can’t continue to deepen your practice (training wheels analogy)

- Aids in a by-product of meditation (relaxation) rather than its original purpose (awareness)


If you want to learn more about meditation, see my podcast episode with Dr. Nancy Salay, where we discuss some of the benefits of developing a meditation practice, tips for beginners, where people go wrong, common misconceptions about meditation, and advice for those looking to deepen their practice.


Do you use guided meditations? What do you think of them? Let me know in the comments!