I love guided meditations.
They’re an excellent instructional tool because they can teach you the detailed mechanics of a meditation practice in real time, while you’re doing the meditation.
You don’t need to keep a bunch of meditation instructions in your head while simultaneously trying to learn a new skill.
And so, while you’re learning, you’re able to pay better attention in the moment to what you’re supposed to be doing during the meditation.
Guided meditations are also really great for giving beginners a taste of what a given meditation is like, because they really lower the barrier to entry. They make it relatively easy for someone who hasn’t done much or any meditation before to actually experience what it’s like to do the practice.
But, there’s a dark side to them.
The dark side of guided meditations
I’ve noticed in my students, that those who mostly use guided meditations when practicing don’t tend to progress in their practice nearly as rapidly as those who have weaned themselves off the guided meditation.
I think there’s a few reasons for this.
The downside of using guided meditations to help with mind wandering
One of the big things that beginning meditators need to learn how to deal with, pretty early on in their practice, is how to handle mind wandering.
You’re meditating and you’re paying attention to your object, and then before you know it, you’re somewhere else entirely.
You’re working on your todo list, or you’re thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner tonight, or who’s going to pick up the kids, or some problem you’re trying to solve at work or an argument you had with someone the other day, and so on.
Whatever causes you to lose your meditation object, it’s really common for beginners to experience a lot of this kind of mind wandering during their meditation.
So one of the things that guided meditations are really helpful for are continually prompting you during the meditation, to help you get back to your object after you’ve gotten lost in the content of your thoughts.
So they’re really great that way. The problem with that though, is that as long as you rely on the guided meditation to be the thing that reminds you, “Oh yeah, right, I’m supposed to be paying attention to my object, not working on my todo list”, you’re not actually training your mindfulness to help you out during those situations.
It’s a bit of a vicious cycle.
You use the guided meditations because, without them, your mind wanders frequently during your meditation session.
And part of the reason that’s true is because you haven’t actually developed your mindfulness to the point where its capable of preventing that kind of mind wandering from occurring in the first place, or at least, reducing the frequency with which it occurs.
So, how do you break that cycle?
By developing your mindfulness, of course!
But before I get into how to do that, there’s another problem with relying too heavily on guided meditations.
Over-reliance on guided meditations can stall your practice
In the beginning, guided meditations are super useful because they’re teaching you how to do the meditation properly and they’re prompting you regularly, which helps to interrupt all that mind wandering.
But what happens is, after a while, you kind of go on autopilot, especially if you’ve been using the same guided meditation for a while.
You know what that recorded voice is going to say, and so when it says, for example, “focus your attention on the very beginning of the inhale …” the instruction has lost its immediacy.
You hear it, you’ve heard it a bunch of times before, and it can be really easy to slip into a kind of autopilot, where you’re not really engaged.
You don’t engage with the instructions and with the meditation object to the same degree that you would if this was one of the first times you had ever used that particular guided meditation, or as you would if you were practicing without a guided meditation.
And so you can get into this kind of comfortable, slightly spaced-out complacency.
Where it feels like you’re doing the meditation pretty well, but you’re actually only kind of half doing it. You’re not really fully alert and fully engaged with the practice.
And that often leads to a stagnation in your practice.
This is something I’ve seen over and over again in my students.
You’re able to stick with the meditation pretty well while listening to a guided practice, but you don’t really seem to be progressing. You don’t seem to be getting a lot of the results or benefits.
Of course, you could regularly switch up the guided meditations to try to get around this problem, but that opens up a whole other can of worms.
What happens then is that you’re not sticking with a single practice for long enough to actually get really good at it.
If you keep changing your practice, it may keep things more interesting and fresh, but you’ll have a much harder time getting past just a superficial level of skill.
It may be possible to reduce this problem if you make sure that your collection of guided meditations are just slight variations of the same form of meditation practice. But, I think the real solution is to learn to do without the guided meditation when you feel ready to.
An exception: when it’s great to keep using a guided meditation
Now, just to be clear, I’m not knocking guided meditations at all.
And if your primary reason for meditating is to relax after a crazy day at work or with the kids, then it makes a lot of sense to just keep using your favourite guided practice.
Just put it on and do your 15 or 20 minutes and take a much needed break from your stressful day and get some space and some peace. There’s a lot to be said for giving yourself that time and taking care of yourself in that way.
It’s a really healthy thing to do and you deserve it!
But if you want to be able to develop some skill in mindfulness, to the point where you can apply it any time you need it, in any given situation, or you want to use mindfulness as a vehicle for spiritual development, then you’re going to have to move beyond relying on a guided practice.
That’s where you need a way of weaning yourself off the guided meditation.
When to take the training wheels off the bike
I feel that guided meditations are like training wheels on a bike.
And as you know, if you want to be able to ride the bike anywhere under any conditions, you have to eventually take the training wheels off the bike.
That’s one of the reasons why I emphasize to my students that, when they get to the point where they no longer need to use the guided meditation as an instructional aid, it’s time to move on.
If you’ve done the meditation enough times that you don’t need to be reminded of the actual mechanics of the meditation itself, then it’s not longer necessary to use the guided meditation.
This is the point where you take the training wheels off the bike.
How to become an independent meditator
Now, when you take the training wheels off, you shouldn’t expect to just start riding the bike without any problems. That’s not how it works.
There’s a transition period where it’s actually kind of difficult and can even feel a bit scary and uncomfortable.
And most people experience that when they transition off using a guided meditation, and for the same reason.
Because now, what you need to do is develop a bunch of new skills that, for most of us, are not already well developed. So you need to practice them.
But, because you kind of got good at doing the practice with the guided meditation, it can feel like it’s a big setback or step backwards in your practice, when that’s actually not the case.
What you need to do now is develop a level of mindful awareness that helps you to deal with mind wandering and spacing out during your meditation.
And you need to accept that it will feel harder for a little while after taking the training wheels off.
So, how do you do that? How do you develop mindfulness in a way that solves the problem of mind wandering and spacing out?
Well, there are many ways that mindfulness is trained during meditation, and one of them is by maintain an awareness of what’s going on in the mind while you’re placing and sustaining your attention on the meditation object.
Being mindfully aware of thoughts and other mental activity, once you get good at it, clues you in ahead of time that you’re about to lose your meditation object and go into mind wandering. It’s like a real-time early warning system.
I learned this trick from one of my teachers, Upasaka Culadasa.
I had kind of already been doing this sort of mindful evaluation for a while, by regularly checking in with myself during the meditation session to see what the quality of my awareness was.
But because I didn’t realize that it was this regular mindful evaluation that protected my attention from wandering away, I didn’t understand just how important this checking in process actually was. As a result, my application of this kind of mindfulness was spotty. So, I was able to stay with my meditation object without getting lost in thoughts during some meditation sessions, while during other sessions I had more difficulty with this.
After Culadasa, who is both a true meditation master as well as a fantastic teacher, clearly explained the significance of this process to me, my meditations became much more consistent.
As an aside, this is one of the reasons that it’s so helpful to have a teacher who really knows their stuff. Who can fill in those little gaps in your knowledge that end up making a huge difference in your practice. If you ever get a chance to study with Culadasa, his retreats are amazing!
So, when you get good at using mindfulness in this way, you’re able to monitor, in real time, how shaky your attention might be.
You can tell whether you’re clearly observing the meditation object or whether your object is starting to get a little bit hazy because you’re starting to space out a little bit.
And you notice whether those thoughts that used to be hanging out in the background of your awareness are starting to move more into the foreground. You notice them becoming more predominant and can head them off before they capture your attention and take it away from the meditation object.
So, I think you can understand how, if you’re just relying on the guided meditation to constantly prompt you, you’re not training your ability to be mindfully aware of things like the quality of your attention and your background mental activity.
And as a result, you’re not going to learn the skills that are essential for developing your meditation to it’s fullest potential.
But it doesn’t take very long to develop enough mindfulness to deal with the mind wandering and spacing out. And then you’re not only an independent meditator, you can now develop the full potential of your meditation practice.
I go into the nitty-gritty details of exactly how to develop your “mindful early warning system” in the 30 Days of Mindfulness program. It’s part of the first week of the program where we focus on laying down a strong foundation of mindfulness skills. Students then learn how to apply those skills to all kinds of daily life situations. If this sounds interesting, you can find out more about the 30 Days of Mindfulness program by clicking here.
So, have you ever run into any of the issues I talk about here while using guided meditations?
Does it feel like your practice has stalled or gone stale, and that perhaps it’s time to take the training wheels off the bike?
Leave a comment below telling me if this post resonates with you.
Or, if you’ve already weaned yourself off guided meditations, what was the experience like for you?
Please share any tips you think might help others who want to try ‘going solo’ =)
Let me know in the comments below!
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