Recently, many of my students have asked me about the difference between guided meditation and meditation. It may surprise you to hear that there is indeed a significant difference between these two practices, and that guided meditation is not as effective as silent meditation.
Ever since meditation became a billion-dollar-industry in 2019, companies have been jumping on the bandwagon. Mindfulness apps like Headspace, Insight Timer, and Calm have changed the way we think about meditation. On the one hand this is good because there are millions more people meditating today than ever before. But it has also led to mass confusion about the true nature of meditation. And it is definitely worth asking if guided meditation is as good as silent meditation.
Let’s take a look at both of these practices and how they differ.
Guided meditation is any form of meditative exercise that is led by another person. When we perform guided meditation, we listen to another person’s voice while meditating. The guided meditation script may be based on a traditional meditation technique, guided imagery or music. What makes it a guided meditation is listening to someone else’s voice, which may be in-person or over media. Youtube and other sites have many guided meditations, as do mindfulness apps.
Traditional meditation is a health practice stemming from a combination of Hinduism, yoga, and Buddhism. It was first mentioned thousands of years ago in the Upanishads (Hindu text) and subsequently evolved through the Buddhist text the Pali Canon. Today it is principally taught by experts like S.N Goenka, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Pema Chodron. Meditation involves focusing the mind on one or more elements of the present moment. This is done to produce what Buddhists call Samatha (calmness) and Vipassana (insight into the workings of the mind).
On paper these practices mind sound quite similar. And you might even think that guided meditation is better than silent meditation if only because it is easier.
But when we dig a little deeper, we realise that there are in fact huge differences between guided meditation and meditation.
How Guided Meditation And Meditation Differ In Practice
The primary difference between guided meditation and meditation is that guided meditation involves listening to someone else’s voice to lead us through our practice.
This might not seem like a big deal at first, but once you understand the true nature of meditation it does become significant.
When we meditate, we focus the mind on one thing. In traditional meditation we focus on a meditative object such as the breath. We focus one-hundred percent of the mind on this object. This reduces mental activity and creates one-pointed focus. When we do this, we are purely observing the object of meditation (i.e. we are practicing mindfulness).
When we observe the mind, we start to clearly see the nature of mental phenomena (thoughts, feelings, sensations, and so on). While focusing on the breath, for instance, it becomes much easier to see our thoughts and feelings as they exist in the present moment. Indeed, Vipassana master S. N. Goenka states that the ultimate purpose of meditation is to increate insight into how the mind works and thereby be less reactive to it.
To achieve this level of observation we need absolute focus, which is why we focus the mind 100% on the breath or on another meditation object. Focusing 100% on one thing is imperative in order to produce the mental calmness (Samatha) that we need to create insight (Vipassana).
This is where guided meditation and meditation differ. Obviously, guided meditation is not as good as silent meditation when it comes to focusing because it involves listening to someone else’s voice. This means that we are no longer focusing 100% on one thing. The mind is continually jumping between listening to the instructor and meditating on the object of meditation. Therefore, it is, quite logically, impossible to have either complete mental stillness or one-hundred percent focus. And in this way you might wonder if guided meditation is really meditation at all.
Because we cannot have one hundred percent focus in guided meditation, we cannot truly cultivate Samatha (calmness) and therefore cannot cultivate Vipassana (Insight).
Now, I know what you’re thinking: you don’t care about “Samatha” and “Vipassana”, you want health and happiness. Right. The thing is, you need Samatha (calmness) and Vipassana (Insight) to actually get the health benefits of meditation.
Health Differences Of Guided Meditation And Meditation
You are probably already aware of the benefits of meditation. But what you might not know is that you will not get the same benefits of traditional meditation if you use guided meditations.
To understand why, we need to look at how meditation works both scientifically and philosophically.
The majority of the benefits of meditation come from two facts. Firstly, that meditation leads to the calming of the mind. And secondly, that meditation provides insight into the mind and makes us more conscious of mental processes, which therefore makes us less reactive to mental phenomena (thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc.).
Focusing the mind on one thing produces inner stillness because there is no movement of mind.
When we focus on one thing (such as the breath), we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, and reduce activity of both the amygdala and the sympathetic nervous system. This leads to feelings of inner peace and enters the body into a restorative state that is incredibly effective for healing both the mind and body. [Harvard University, 2019].
Once we have entered this state of focused relaxation, we also gain more conscious awareness of the mind. We are able to perceive our thoughts and other mental phenomena clearly for what they are.
Instead of getting lost in thoughts and feelings, and thereby reacting to them, we become conscious of those thoughts and feelings and are therefore non-reactive. This is essentially what Goenka has stated about Vipassana, and has been proven through numerous studies including this one.
Essentially, when we practice traditional meditation we become mindfully aware of thoughts and feelings. We can then say to ourselves, “This is just a thought / feeling and I therefore do not need to react to it”. This reduces the reactivity that leads to stress and anxiety.
So how is meditation different to guided meditation?
When we practice guided meditation, the mind is never at a point of complete stillness because we are focusing on two things: the voice of the instructor and object of meditation. This produces a to-and-fro, the mind bouncing back and forth, which means we are never wholly focused on one thing.
Because of this, we do not achieve inner stillness and therefore do not produce the same level of relaxation.
This is why guided meditation is not as effective as silent meditation, which was proven in 2019 research by Lancaster University, which shows that meditation apps are not as useful as silent meditation.
The other difference between guided meditation and meditation is that it is incredibly hard to gain insight into the workings of the mind while listening to someone else’s voice, as we do in guided meditation.
Naturally, if you are listening to someone speak, you are not one-hundred percent focused on the inner processes of the mind. This means that guided meditation is not as good as silent meditation for insight.
The insight gained from traditional meditation is incredibly valuable. It reveals how the mind works and the nature of thoughts, feelings, and other mental phenomena.
By learning to understand these phenomena we become less reactive to them, which is incredibly valuable for stress, anxiety, and emotional control.
In summary, the difference between guided meditation and meditation is that when we perform traditional meditation the mind is focused on one thing.
This one-pointed focus leads to Samatha (calmness), which promotes parasympathetic nervous system activity and enters the mind and body into a restorative state.
Traditional meditation also increases conscious awareness, which provides insight in the mind and therefore gives us more control and less reactivity to thoughts and feelings.
Guided meditation may produce similar effects, but to a much lesser degree.
I don’t want to say that guided meditation is bad. It is relaxing and certainly helpful for temporarily releasing stress. However, because it does not truly train the mind to focus and it does not train us to understand mental phenomena, it simply cannot compare with silent meditation.
As you can see, the differences between meditation and guided meditation are significant.