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How (not) to use meditation guidance

Meditating on your own, in silence, is sometimes referred to as "self-guided" meditation, presumably because guided meditation is seen as the default. Which is extremely weird, because no one guided anyone in meditation for almost the whole of its more-than-2,000-year history, until about 40 years ago. People gave you instructions, usually quite briefly, and then you went away and followed them, in silence. But now guided meditation is so popular that it's become the norm, and I would bet that most meditation today is done to recorded guidance. And while in one way this is great - it's getting many people to meditate who wouldn't otherwise - I think that it might be causing some problems.

Learning to balance

Recorded guidance makes meditating easier and more pleasant. Having someone talking in your ear helps you to stay focussed on the meditation, rather than getting so distracted by your own thoughts that the whole experience winds up feeling pointless and demoralising. And that's helpful, insofar as it keeps people meditating who otherwise might give up.

But think of the guidance as like the stabilisers on a bike: they help you to balance (i.e. concentrate), but if you never take them off, you never learn to balance on your own. The most fundamental, and arguably most important, skill that you will learn in meditation is to notice when you get lost in thought and come back to the present moment. That’s mindfulness, and the more the more you do it, the better you get at it, both in meditation and outside. But if you only ever meditate with guidance, then you never have to learn to notice distraction on your own, and so you don’t build the habit of mindfulness as much as you otherwise would. The difficulty of meditating in silence is precisely the sign that you're doing something useful.

Tools of the trade

Meditation is a craft (or an art, or a science). And as in any craft (or art, or science), you need to use certain tools and techniques to get the desired result. But if you only ever meditate to recorded guidance, you won't really get to know how the tools and techniques work. The temptation will be to passively consume meditation, following the guidance without really noticing or reflecting on what effects different techniques have, and when or why you might use them.

Whereas if you're doing it all for yourself, you will have to be very aware of what you are doing and why. If I am a little too distracted, shall I count a few breaths? Or maybe I'm making too much effort and that's stirring up more thoughts - perhaps I should stop trying and relax a bit more. Or maybe I'm getting self-critical about the distraction and I should take a few moments to generate some kindness towards myself, before re-focussing on the breath.

If you're meditating without guidance, you'll have to decide for yourself what to do. You'll have to try things out, notice the results, and learn from them. You'll have to learn how different techniques work and how they fit together. You'll have to learn about the idiosyncrasies of your own mind, instead of relying on something pre-packaged for the median meditator. You'll have to become a skilled craftsman (or artist, or scientist).

How to use meditation guidance

Let me say again: meditation guidance is great. If it starts you off meditating, that's great. If it keeps you meditating when you otherwise wouldn't, that's great. If it introduces you to new ways of meditating, that's great. And you should use it however suits you: meditation is a very personal, idiosyncratic thing, so neither I nor anyone else can tell you what to do.

But my advice, for what it's worth, is to use meditation guidance mostly as a way to learn new techniques in meditation. Once you have listened to an audio track a couple of times and grasped the instructions, then you are ready to ditch the guidance and start following them on your own, in silence.

If you are not used to meditating in silence, then going cold turkey on the guidance might be difficult: you might find it so hard to concentrate that you don't feel like meditating at all. If so, one option is just to persevere: it will get easier. Another is to seek out guidance that's a little more sparse than what you're used to, i.e. that leaves longer gaps in between instructions. And then, once you're comfortable with that, perhaps you're ready to go it alone. And if you're not sure where to find sparser guidance, I have some here. Each track is intended to teach you a single technique, which you can then weave into your meditation.

But most importantly, once again: do what works for you.


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