Sometimes I very much understand what people mean when people say they don’t like guided meditations, but if people are really hostile towards them or have a big dislike then there’s some warning bells, because actually guided meditation can be really helpful and quite powerful. After all, guided meditations are essentially Dhamma instructions, and we know that many people became stream enters or enlightened whilst hearing the Dhamma. Guided meditation is Dhamma given at a time when it makes sense: when theory and practice come together in meditation. We can imagine the nuns, monks and lay people sitting quietly in meditation as the Buddha gave instructions - that’s a guided meditation! The importance of instruction is shown by the Buddha saying that all that is needed on the path is the voice of another and wise attention.
In the Vimuttāyatanasutta we learn about 5 opportunities to experience freedom (vimutta), which include listening to dhamma, teaching the dhamma, reciting the dhamma, pondering the dhamma and meditating on the dhamma. Guided meditations are often a good combination of some or all of these things.
Guided meditations are effective ways of outlining the process of meditation in a practical way, which can be learnt and understood by the meditator so that when they meditate alone they have some basic ideas of meditation and what to expect. Guided meditation should not replace an individual’s own practice and there may be some danger if people solely rely on always needing to listen to instruction because they are afraid of being alone with their own minds.
The suttas are full of “guided” meditation, where the Buddha or someone else gives instructions which are memorised and later employed by the meditator themselves . Today, many people have very different starting points and knowledge levels in any given group, and many people have little or no understanding or experience, so it’s great that teachers often do some guiding to help people become more familiar with meditation practice. This is necessary and useful.
Some people who are against guided meditation may have forgotten what it is like to be a beginner, or might have some conceit that they know more or better than the teacher, or an elitist attitude because they have already heard instructions and might not realise that others are at a different place and might need some help, or perhaps they over-estimate their own knowledge, thinking they know it all and that they are beyond instructions! But, again this is a warning sign; people who think that they are above learning something new, or believe their practice cant be improved are often mistaken. Who knows, maybe some guiding will open up completely new paths for us!? Certainly, the bodhisatta tried different strategies for years and approached many teachers for instruction. And in the Uppkkilesa Sutta we see that even very advanced practitioners need to seek out further instruction.
There are good examples of guided meditation in the suttas. We can imagine that teachers at the time of the Buddha taught in this way. Examples of instruction type meditations include all the anussati type meditations (Buddha, Dhamma Sangha, Sila, cāgā, deva, as listed in the Mahanama Suta) where the text gives explicit instructions and outlines the process and results which they can expect, which can be easily mapped by a meditator’s internal journey. For example cāgānussati discusses the inspirational and describes the increasing levels of joy, bliss etc which, through the power of suggestion, can be stimulated by guided practice. When offering a guided caganussati, I use the word for word the first lines below in guided meditation to help them to note the absence of greed and to help inspire joy in people’s minds based on generosity. It works! And people very quickly experience results, gaining joy and happiness at least…
Furthermore, you should recollect your own generosity: ‘I’m so fortunate, so very fortunate. Among people with hearts full of the stain of stinginess I live at home rid of stinginess, freely generous, open-handed, loving to let go, committed to charity, loving to give and to share.’ When a noble disciple recollects their own generosity their mind is not full of greed, hate, and delusion.
At that time their mind is unswerving, based on the Realized One. A noble disciple whose mind is unswerving finds joy in the meaning and the teaching, and finds joy connected with the teaching. When they’re joyful, rapture springs up. When the mind is full of rapture, the body becomes tranquil. When the body is tranquil, they feel bliss. And when they’re blissful, the mind becomes immersed in samadhi. This is called a noble disciple who lives in balance among people who are unbalanced, and lives untroubled among people who are troubled. They’ve entered the stream of the teaching and developed the recollection of generosity.
Another guided meditations include the description of radiating metta in the Simile of the Cloth Sutta, which tells us what kind of mind we should develop when practicing the bhrahma vihara type practices and is one of the ways that many teacher’s guide metta meditations.
They meditate spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. They meditate spreading a heart full of compassion to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of compassion to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. They meditate spreading a heart full of rejoicing to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of rejoicing to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will. They meditate spreading a heart full of equanimity to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of equanimity to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.
Then there’s the instructional nature of the Satipatthana suttas, where the breath, 31 parts of the body, 4 elements and death contemplation are laid out, very much in the same way we might do a guided meditation on those themes today. When I am teaching, I start my guided meditations on the parts of the body with the image of the bag of grains and follow the order of the parts. For guide 4 elements contemplation, I use the image of the butcher as a starting point. When guiding a death meditation, There is the repeated refrain of the corpse meditation "They’d compare it with their own body: ‘This body is also of that same nature, that same kind, and cannot go beyond that.’ and I use the 9 stages given in the sutta as the journey of the meditation. For all these meditations, I also employ the repeated refrain below:
And so they meditate observing an aspect of the body internally, externally, and both internally and externally. They meditate observing the body as liable to originate, as liable to vanish, and as liable to both originate and vanish. Or mindfulness is established that the body exists, to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness. They meditate independent, not grasping at anything in the world.
The following sections in the sutta on feelings and hindrances are also verses that teachers tend to draw on in guided meditation instructions.
I think these examples show how powerful guided meditation can be to get people familiar with the Dhamma, and to give them the tools, strategies and processes to use in their own practice later. They might not need instructions forever, but instructions are very important as a starting point and also good for even experienced meditators to come back to from time to time.
If we dont like guided meditations, always want to have perfectly quiet conditions or only do things our way, and we find our mind getting agitated, becoming very resentful and hating the speaker, then maybe we need more guided meditation to relearn the instructions!
We often ask people if they want to do a guided meditation or a silent meditation. And actually, 9 times out of 10 the majority of a group asks for guided. This is actually more work for us Maybe people who come to meditation classes and talks see this as an opportunity to refresh their learning with a teacher, but still enjoy quiet sessions at home? There’s a difference between attending a silent group meditation session and attending a talk where people have specifically invited a teacher who is experienced and knowledgeable to share meditation instructions with a group, yeah?
I wanted to offer some alternative viewpoints here and suggest different ways we can consider guided meditation practice. But also I understand why sometimes people are not into them.
Once, I invited a 7 year old boy to guide a group meditation session, He gave such an excellent metta meditation! It was wonderful, I loved it . Of course, he learnt that from someone else… so I guess that’s the point, right?