Guided vs Unguided meditation: the pros and cons explained

Published by Olivier Devroede


People often wonder whether it is best to use guided meditation or rather go the unguided route.

Both types of meditations have their own strengths. Unguided mediations are used mainly by beginners or to learn a new skill. it can also be used to bring structure in your mediations. However, if you want to get deeper, unguided is definately the way to go. But it comes with an increased risk of mind wandering.

Personally, I prefer the unguided type of meditation to be able to get deeper. However, I occasionally also use guided ones, but not just any one. They need to allow you to both learn and go deeper.

But before I can explain what that means, we need to start at the beginning.

Introduction

If you ever go an MBSR course, you will see that essentially all the meditations are guided. Obviously, it is to make the people learn how to manage half an hour of meditation. But ..

When you go to a samatha meditation course, you are given the instructions beforehand and then the bell rings an first time. And again one hour later at the end of the mediation. that’s it.

So where does this difference comes from?

The latter approach is usually taken by monks who expect you to do some very serious and hard work. The former is taken by modern day psychologists who know that your meditation will be competing with all of your other, more easy, endeavors of life.

So they try to ease you into the mediation. They want you to experience the nice effects before you go into the more difficult situations.

Essentially, in the monasteries, they are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. it is hard, but you need to be motivated to go this route. It is not an easy one.

Luckily for us, the inventor of MBSR choose a more gradual road, essentially via guided meditation. Not that this approach is easy. No. But at least easier than the one form the monks.

meditation
Meditation can be done anywhere. Even the guided variant can be held on a beach. Photo courtesy of Syed Shameel

What is a guided meditation?

So first, let’s define a guided meditation.

Guided meditation describes meditation where some form of guidance is given by an instructor, a friend, or even yourself.

Usually, the guidance is given through a scripted set of instructions.

You, the meditator, just have to follow the instructions and carry them out.

This explains why you can guide yourself. You can find a meditation script online and record your voice.

Nowadays, you can follow guided meditations via video conferencing as well as via an online taped course.

The instructions can be bot be very intrusive or sparse. It really depends. The Tibetan Lama I join to meditate gives 2 minutes of instructions and then 1 hour of silence. he still calls it guided meditation. I tend to disagree 😉

The reverse, unguided meditation, is of course a type of meditation where there is nobody reading the instructions yo you. this does not mean that you cannot follow a script. It just means you need to first learn it by heart and then follow it during your session.

Zen
Sometimes all we need to go into meditation is a zen garden to stroll. Sometimes, we need to be guided to our destination. Photo Courtesy of Jean Pierre FEVRIER

Pros and cons of guided meditations

The pros of guided meditation

The main use of guided meditation

Everybody who tried to meditate for 2 minutes knows the real problem we all face: our mind is very unruly and wants to do anything but concentrate on what we intended.

So it drifts off very often. This means we need to device something to bring it back to the object of mediation.

Comes in guided mediation. The guiding voice reminds us very regularly that we need to focus.

This is the chief aim you want to achieve. First, the realisation that you lose track very often and second, that you come back often to the chosen object.

Learning new skills

Another reason meditations are guided is to learn the basic principles associated to your chosen mediation style.

If we take the example of MBSR, which is a type of insight meditation, you need to learn a whole new set of attitudes with which to approach daily life.

All of this needs to be done in only 8 weeks. The traditional approach is to learn one skill for a month, and then another one for a month, and so on. Obviously, you will go much deeper like this, but in our fast paced world, we do not have the time nor the patience.

So more than one skill is packed into the mediation. The only way to do this is to guide you along the way.

The same can be said for more experienced mediators. When I want to use a new style of meditation, I always take a guided audio to take me along for the trip. This way, I do not need to learn the instructions by heart.

Very handy.

Wharf
Sometimes your meditation needs to be structured in order for you to get somewhere. Especially in the beginning this is important. later on, you can rely more on your intuition. Photo courtesy of
Adrien Sifre

Giving structure to your mediation

Most meditations require some sort of progression. Usually, you want to first calm down and relax. Then take on some sort of intention or goal. Next becoming present to ease into the main mediation. And only then start the bulk of what you planned to do.

But we have the tendency the rush through this process.

We want to get to the juici parts. Unfortunately, this is often a bad idea. So being forced to follow the template ensures that we do not miss out on the important preparatory exercises.

This structure will help you progress faster.

Revise the Basics

In the same vein, once you become more experienced, you tend to forget what is important.

It is easy to get sidetracked into doing something a practice that is less than optimal.

What happened to me is that I kept repeating the same mistake over and over again, without me being aware of doing it. This made me lose a lot of time.

Coming back to the basics, both in reading and by using guided meditations, put me back in the saddle.

The cons of guided meditation

So, you’d think with all these pros, there would be no cons.

Unfortunately, the main disadvantage of guided mediation is the reason why experienced meditators do not use it very often.

It’s repetitive

The tape you are listening to is always the same. Frankly, after listening to it for a couple of times, I already start to anticipate what is going to come.

It quickly gets very boring.

You can of course be ever on the lookout for new material, but …

It keeps you from going deeper

… I once attended an online mindfulness retreat that had only guided meditation.

Frankly, I wanted to explore the material in depth, but they kept guiding me to the answers they wanted me to have. or to explore this or that side of the problem at hand.

I experienced this as very limiting. There was no depth in it.

Especially for insight meditation, it is so important that you can relate the material to your own life. Your own experience.

Somebody guiding you in a direction that is not relevant for what you experienced is then hampering your progres and the arising of real breathroughs.

In those situations, you need to be able to allow everything to rise up to consciousness. Once it rises, you can attend to it and deal with it.

traffic meditation
Unguided meditation can be done anywhere. Even in the midst of traffic. Although I do not recommend that ;-). Photo courtesy of Samuel Huron

Pros and cons of unguided meditation

The pros and cons of guided meditation are pretty much the opposite of those for the guided case.

In the beginning, mind wandering is a big problem. If you sit for 30 minutes with only mind wandering, there is no real practice.

Since the mediation is unguided, there is no voice bringing you back.

That is a huge drawback. I therefore always recommend that beginners use guided meditation.

But you have to realise that they are training wheels. So keeping them is going to slow down your progress and will diminish what you can accomplish.

Now, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Some people prefer that comfort of a guiding voice and are happy at the level they are. I see many people in the mindfulness tradition like this and there is absolutely no problem with that.

Everybody needs to decide for themselves. I hope this guide will help in this decision.

When I still use guided meditation

I have more than 15 years of experience in meditation, and I still sometimes use guided mediations. Not very often agreed, but I do.

As you can guess from the rest of the article, it is to learn new skills and to bring structure into the meditation.

But, I do not use just about any guided meditation. It needs to be one where the voice is not filling up all the silences. These silences are there for you to experiment with what the voice just said.

In this way you get the benefits of both types of meditation. The overall structure is set, you are reminded to come back to the mediation object, and you have the freedom to go deeper and to explore the material.

This is also an excellent way of transitioning off the guided meditations towards the unguided ones. It eases you into the next level.

Featured image courtesy of Matty Vee

Categories: General

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.