Recently, many of my students have asked me to do a comparison: Guided meditation VS silent meditation. And to explain the difference.
You might be surprised to hear that there is indeed a significant difference between guided meditation and silent meditation. And guided meditation is not as effective.
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 confusion about the true nature of meditation. And it is definitely worth asking if guided meditation is as good as silent meditation.
Guided Meditation VS 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. A 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, proper meditation 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, guided meditation and silent meditation sound 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.
Difference Between Guided Meditation And Silent Meditation
The primary difference between guided meditation and silent 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. However, 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 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 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 observation we need absolute focus. Hence why we focus the mind 100% on the breath or on another meditation 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 meditation and silent 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. Therefore, we’re not focusing 100% on one thing.
In guided meditation, 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 in guided meditation, 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 of meditation.
Health Differences of Guided Meditation And Silent 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.
The majority of the benefits of meditation come from two facts. Firstly, that meditation leads to calmness. And secondly, that meditation 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 the reactivity that leads to stress and anxiety.
So how is silent 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:. 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 meditation 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 meditation do we gain emotional control.
In summary, the difference between guided meditation and silent meditation 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 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.