Guided meditation seems to be all the rage at the moment, and every website dealing with meditation feels it necessary to tout its merits. At the time of writing, Google reports over 60,000 web searches a month on this subject, and a whole lot more if we include variants on the term. I do not share this enthusiasm, and not just because of an instinctive anti-herd instinct. For if your main goal in meditating is the attainment of altered states of consciousness – either to experience them for their own sake, or to use them for certain purposes – guided meditation can actually impede your progress.
What Is Meditation, Anyway?
Before we discuss guided meditation specifically, it’s worth reminding ourselves what we’re trying to do. There is no one answer to the question of what meditation is; in fact, there are multiple answers depending on whether you include all the world’s religious traditions – obviously with Buddhism and Hinduism being most influential – or limit yourself to more secular concepts. Further complicating the picture, as we discussed in our post on the bizarre world of Transcendental Meditation, there is an unfortunate tendency for practitioners of one strand of meditation to view all others as illegitimate or inferior. And this tendency even extends to otherwise strong writers who wade into the New Age pool with lead-footed preconceptions. A good example occurs in Salon.com, where the self-assured author asserts that meditation is about inculcating mindfulness, not about quieting the mind. That’s about as accurate as saying that the only proper evening meal is fish and chips. Very nice, but what happened to the rest of the menu?
At the risk of making the same mistakes myself, let me try to define meditation for our purposes on this site, meaning no disrespect to any other traditions that do not fall within this definition:
Meditation is a self-directed, personal, mental activity in which the practitioner trains his mind to attain a desired state of consciousness. The practitioner may concentrate his attention on a specific focal point – be that an external object or some internal process – or may simply monitor his experience in an open, non-judgmental way.
The latter part of that definition embraces the two main, western, secular conceptions of meditation – concentrative and mindful. But in the current context, it is the first part of the definition that matters most. Clearly, this site places a heavy emphasis on attaining altered states of consciousness for particular purposes. The use of brainwave entrainment audio recordings, while not featured in the Bhagavad Gita, is perfectly compatible with self-direction and personal control, unless you want to argue that the sound engineer is calling the shots. But this compatibility breaks down altogether when we start working with guided meditation.
Why Do You Need A Guide?
In guided meditation, your activities are explicitly led by someone else’s speech. You are supposed to go where they tell you – explore the issues they raise, answer the questions they ask. Clearly, you are only in control in so far as you choose which guided meditation product (or counselor) to work with; once the session is underway, self-direction flies out of the window. Why would you want to give someone else that kind of control?
Guided meditation CDs are often marketed on the basis that meditation is too difficult for most people to master by themselves. I could hastily point out that brainwave entrainment audio has completely changed the game, obviating the need for years of diligent training. And, in fact, some producers of guided meditation MP3 and CD audios have combined brainwave entrainment techniques with vocal guidance for allegedly greater effect. However, because of the loss of self-direction, and the conversion of a quintessentially personal activity into a kind of social interaction (clearly so when working with a counselor), it seems to me that this exercise is simply not meditation at all, even of the mindfulness variety. It is more like psychotherapy, perhaps even hypnotherapy, or simply introspection. Of course, there is a legitimate place for this in personal development: exploration of one’s beliefs and emotions, with a view to understanding undesirable behavior patterns or just know oneself better, is absolutely vital. We just shouldn’t think we’re meditating when we’re really not.
Moreover, there is little chance of attaining any kind of altered state of consciousness when you must pay close attention to – or constantly be interrupted by – someone else’s voice (especially if you don’t like that voice or what it actually says). The nature of this discourse is likely to keep you in a Beta state, maybe high Alpha at best if you listen with eyes closed. (Falling asleep doesn’t really count as a successful entry to Theta or Delta!) Listening to instrumental music, on the other hand, eliminates this distraction and is a wonderful way to ease the descent into deeper levels of the self, especially when enhanced by brainwave entrainment techniques. And it leaves you firmly in control of the experience – setting the goals and working towards them as you see fit.
Your Voice Is The One That Matters
There is a final, crucial point that needs to be made here. Listening to someone else’s voice is a passive activity, even if you really become fully absorbed in a guided meditation session. Again, this is fine if you feel you need help getting to the bottom of some intractable inner problems. But if you want more than that from a meditation session – if you’re looking, for example, to reprogram yourself by using tailor-made affirmations – then not only should you be the one choosing those affirmations, you must be the one to say them. The process of internally giving form to those words gives them life and power. And as experienced meditators know all too well, repeating a mantra is a classic method of focusing attention and, with practice, can be done in deeper levels of consciousness with direct access to the subconscious mind.
If meditation, whether concentrated or mindful, is proving too hard for you, I would recommend high-quality brainwave entrainment audio before any kind of guided meditation. However, if your disposition is fundamentally hostile to introspective activities, you may need guided meditation to help you begin your journey. We all have to start somewhere. But this website is dedicated to the attainment of ultimate individual autonomy, experienced through exploration of the deepest levels of the self. That place – a place of incredible freedom, power, and wisdom – is a private place. It is yours, and yours alone.