Guided meditations versus “flying solo”

Head of a black man with goatee beard wearning headphones, meditating in a misty woodland setting.

Guided meditation CDs are undoubtedly useful, but can they become a reliance that actually interferes with our practice? On the other hand, what happens when you find that your meditations are so much better with a CD than without: should you give up meditating on your own? Bodhipaksa shares some advice that he’s offered to students over the years.

I often get asked by students how they much reliance they should place on guided meditations compared to meditating on their own. For example one person asked:

I used to meditate without any guided CD and the difference when I used your guided CD is quite amazing. The metta is so much more powerful. The thing that I’m wondering about is should I go back to practicing without the guided CD or would I be better off with practicing with it?

I always recommend that people find a balance of using guided meditations and “flying solo,” as I call it. Guided meditations are great for suggesting new approaches and for helping to keep bringing you back to the practice. When you’re being guided in meditation you’re actually experiencing a form of “kalyana mitrata” or spiritual friendship. Traditionally kalyana mitrata is the experience of being with someone who’s maybe just a bit further along the path than you are and who can give you some guidance. When we listen to a guided meditation CD (or are led by a teacher in a class) we want to be introduced to approaches and perspectives that we might not have come up with on our own.

When you’re being guided in meditation you’re actually experiencing a form of “kalyana mitrata” or spiritual friendship.

But the point of kalyana mitrata is that we become more skilled in the path ourselves. We’re not letting someone else do all the work for us. Instead we’re learning skills from the teacher: in effect becoming more like the teacher. So ultimately we’re aiming to internalize those skills, and the way to check to what extent you’re doing that is to meditate using your own resources — that is, to meditate without a recording.

However, meditating on your own will almost always, at least at first, be less intense than meditating with a guide (assuming that the guide knows what he or she is doing, of course). The added intensity of a guided meditation arises because somehow we’re more receptive to verbal suggestions that are made out loud. When we listen to someone suggesting that we pay attention to the sensations in our hands, for example, we find it easier to do that than when we just decide (wordlessly) to pay attention to those same sensations. So you can expect that generally your solo meditations will be a bit less intense, especially to start with.

However, with practice you’ll develop your own style and approach to any meditation that you do regularly. You’ll find “tricks” that particularly work for you and that allow you to go deeper into the practice. Eventually, you’ll have much deeper meditations unaided than with a guided meditation CD, especially if you manage to get on retreat. And that’s the other benefit of “flying solo” — it gives you the opportunity to develop your own approach, and to tap more deeply into your inner resources.

The appropriate balance of solo and guided meditations will vary from person to person and will change over your meditation “career” (for want of a better word). For most relative beginners it’s almost indispensable to have a high level of guidance, otherwise most of the time in meditation is spent daydreaming, although there are exceptions of course.

As you start to internalize suggestions from a guided meditation, try saying those suggestions to yourself as if you were the teacher.

As we become more experienced a guided meditation becomes something that we do only occasionally, in order to bring more freshness and new perspectives to our practice. We all have a tendency to get into a rut in which we don’t apply ourselves, or in which we keep doing things in our practice that don’t really work. A guided meditation will shake things up a little. But a very experienced meditator may go for months (or even years — although I’d say that was going too long) without being led by another person (whether live or on a recording).

So the balance changes over time, with more of our time spent “flying solo” and less listening to a guide. But early on there may have to be considerable reliance on guided meditations.

Just one more thing: I mentioned that we tend to go deeper in meditation when we follow another person’s voice. Somehow we’re more receptive. Well, I find that the same is true for me when I’m leading meditation; I have better meditations. My meditation when I’m leading a period of practice is more focused, less distracted, more engaged, more calm, and more enjoyable. And I’ve reflected over the years that this is precisely because I’m listening to myself teach, just as if I were listening to a guided meditation. So you can do this too!

As you start to internalize useful suggestions from a guided meditation, try saying those suggestions to yourself as if you were the teacher. You can say things like, “Now, bringing awareness to the sensations in the hands,” for example.

You’ll want to make sure that you don’t keep up a constant stream of self-talk and that you have time to process the suggestions you’re making so that you can put them into practice. It’s important to pause after you give yourself an instruction so that you can then actually do what you’re suggesting and observe the results. I think you’ll find that this kind of “self-guided meditation” is a useful bridge to the kind of deeper meditations that you have when you’re listening to a CD. As you become more experienced you can also to a large extent let go of even of that self-guiding voice, so that there’s more inner quiet.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks for the advice on use of guided meditation. Found your post really helpful;-).

  • As a long time meditator, I have found that guided meditation has a different place in my life than quiet meditation. Guided meditations are wonderful for quickly reaching very relaxed states of mind that are dream like. I wouldn’t be surprised if guided meditation isn’t as effective as “traditional” meditation when it comes to numerous stress reduction and health benefits. However, I also assume that guided meditation is actually going to make one a more mindful person or allow better affect regulation. Then again I could be wrong ;) Many of us who meditate have a certain spiritual arrogance and would be chagrined if it turned out our years of work could have been circumvented by Youtube and a pair of headphones.


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