You might be surprised to hear that there is a significant difference between guided and silent meditation. And one of them is much better than the other.
Ever since meditation became a billion-dollar-industry, 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 confusion about the true nature of the practice and has massively shifted the scene towards guided meditation. But is this a good thing?
Guided Meditation Or Silent?
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. We listen to another person’s voice while meditating. A guided meditation script may be based on a traditional technique or guided imagery.
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 recordings, 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, proper meditation is principally taught by experts like S.N Goenka, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Pema Chodron (as well as myself). It 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, guided meditation and silent meditation sound similar. And you might even think that the guided version is better if only because it is easier.
But when we dig a little deeper, we realise that there are in fact huge differences between them.
The primary difference between guided meditation and meditating in silence is that guided involves listening to someone else’s voice lead us through our practice.
This might not seem like a big deal at first. However, once you understand the true nature of meditation it does become significant.
When we meditate, we focus the mind on one thing (in most techniques, with a few exceptions). In traditional practice, we focus on an object such as the breath. We focus one-hundred per cent 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.
When we do this we produce inner stillness. And this makes mental phneomena (like thoughts and feelings) much clearer. Because of this, we can then observe the mind.
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 increase insight into how the mind works and thereby be less reactive to it.
We need 100% focus
To achieve this level of internal observation we need absolute focus. Hence why we focus the mind 100% on the breath or on another object. Focusing 100% on one thing is imperative to produce mental calmness (Samatha). And we need calmness to create insight (Vipassana).
This is where guided and silent meditation differ. Obviously, guided is not as effective as silent when it comes to focusing because it involves listening to someone else’s voice. Therefore, we’re not focusing 100% on one thing.
In guided, the mind is continually jumping between listening to the instructor and meditating on the object. Therefore, it is logically impossible to have either complete mental stillness or one-hundred per cent focus.
Because we cannot have one hundred per cent focus, we cannot truly cultivate Samatha (calmness). And so, we 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 get the health benefits.
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 if you use guided recordings.
To understand why, we need to look at some science.
The majority of the benefits of meditation come from two facts. Firstly, that it leads to calmness. And secondly, that it provides insight into the mind and makes us more conscious of mental processes. In turn, this 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 gain more conscious awareness of the mind. We can 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 it has been proven through 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 reactivity, helping to alleviate issues like stress and anxiety.
Guided meditation is not as effective because it does not cultivate inner stillness
When we practice guided meditation, the mind is never at a point of complete stillness because we are focusing on two things: Firstly, the voice of the instructor. And secondly, the object of meditation. This produces a to-and-fro, the mind bouncing back and forth. The result is that we are never wholly focused on one thing.
Because of this, we do not achieve inner stillness. And therefore, we do not produce the same level of relaxation.
This is why guided practise is not as effective as silent meditation. And this was proven in 2019 research by Lancaster University, which shows that meditation apps are not as useful as silent meditation.
Only through silent practice do we gain emotional control.
In summary, the difference is that when we perform traditional meditation the mind is focused on one thing.
This one-pointed focus leads to Samatha (calmness). In turn, this promotes parasympathetic nervous system activity and enters the mind and body into a restorative state.
Traditional meditation also increases conscious awareness, which provides insight into the mind. Thereby, it gives us more control and less reactivity to thoughts and feelings.
Guided sessions 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 practice.
So yes, use guided recordings for some basic relaxation. But if you truly want to get all those benefits that you have heard about, you need to meditate properly. And until you start meditating properly you will never really improve your meditation skills.
Indeed, one of the main things I do in my private lessons is lead people from just using apps to becoming a true meditator.
Giving Is Caring
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison