Over the last decade, meditation and mindfulness practices have taken the well-being world by storm. In countless research studies, meditation has been proven to be a profound tool to help enhance physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. As a result, the wellness community has been quick to capitalize on meditation’s appeal and make mindfulness and meditation offerings a part of their services. From fitness centers to yoga studios, hospitals, spas, martial arts schools, HR departments, recovery clinics, public and private schools, law enforcement units, branches of the military, and collegiate sports facilities, meditation has become a familiar component in the curriculum. In addition, a wide variety of meditation apps can be downloaded to your mobile device for use on the go.
I am not a teacher, but an awakener. - Robert Frost
It seems clear that meditation is here to stay. And that is a good thing. It’s hard to imagine a time in our history when tapping into the restful awareness response was more needed than it is today. However, with so many options to learn or practice meditation, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to turn or know what meditation practice is best for you.
In evaluating meditation content, possibly the most important distinction to make is recognizing the difference between following a guided meditation and being taught how to meditate. On the surface, this may seem like a minor difference, but it can ultimately have a huge impact on your meditation journey.
Of the meditation content available today, the vast majority consists of guided meditations – scripted instructions that lead the practitioner through a series of steps or a procedure to take their awareness inward. Guided meditations may be facilitated in person or virtually in real-time, or via recording or download on-demand. Let’s face it, guided meditations are popular. If the sheer number of meditation apps and recorded meditation libraries are any indication, guided meditations are likely being used thousands (if not more) times each day worldwide. A wide variety of meditations are out there, with more being released on a regular basis. Guided meditations can cover an assortment of topics such as stress management, manifestation, abundance, healing, performance, and spiritual awakening, to name a few.
It’s important to note, however, that in general, a guided meditation is designed to give or lead you through an experience in awareness, rather than thoroughly teach you how to meditate. Again, this may seem like splitting hairs, but due to the rather complex nature of teaching meditation, a guided meditation experience isn’t usually set up to provide the quality instruction necessary to train a beginner in the subtle nuances of creating a sustainable meditation practice. Truth be told, reading or memorizing a guided meditation script can’t and shouldn’t be compared to delivering detailed and comprehensive meditation instruction; they simply aren’t the same thing.
None of this is to say that guided meditations are bad or ineffective. Quite the contrary. Guided meditations are a wonderful and extremely accessible way to harness the transformative power of this practice and allows meditation to meet us where we are. For many, having another direct us through a meditative experience releases us from the need to follow a more formal practice and allows us to simply, relax, listen, and follow the leader’s instructions. For others, guided meditations serve as an ideal “onramp” or gateway experience toward committing to a self-led practice. In this way, guided meditations can be a perfect vehicle to experience stillness, peace, or higher states of consciousness – whether you are someone new to meditation, an experienced meditator who wants to take a break from a more traditional practice, or one who has made guided meditations their primary method.
By contrast, teaching meditation is a significantly different experience than leading a meditation practice. Meditation instruction is a systematic and methodical approach to educating a student in the art and science of stillness. While meditation is not difficult to do, it can be challenging to articulate some of its more abstract, intellectual, and philosophical concepts. A common myth regarding meditation practice is that some individuals are good at it while others are not. But in truth, there really are no bad meditators, only less effective ways to teach it. When taught correctly, however, anyone can learn to meditate and enjoy its rich benefits.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. - Albert Einstein
Meditation is a rich and complex field of study that touches on several disciplines – physiology, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, spiritual and wisdom traditions, and wholistic mind-body-emotional-spiritual wellbeing practices. Knowledge from these varied fields forms the palette that a skilled instructor will draw upon to create an ideal learning experience for the student. However, as most newbie meditators may have little experience in the practice, the instruction needs to be kept accessible, practical, and easy to understand. In addition, meditation instruction is taught best when it consists of an ideal blend of theory and experience to help the student 1) intellectually grasp the concepts and principles of meditation practice and 2) have the opportunity to test and sample meditation techniques and directly feel what the practice is like.
In a nutshell, ideal meditation instruction consists of answering the following four questions:
1. What is meditation?
With such a wide variety of meditation styles and traditions available today, the word meditation can mean different things to different people. Therefore, arriving at a solid working definition is an essential point of departure for teaching meditation. For example, in the Vedic and Yogic traditions, meditation is generally defined as the settling of the fluctuations of the mind into stillness. The definition of meditation is important as it identifies the intention behind the practice and guides the direction of the instruction itself.
Additionally helpful to defining what meditation is, is defining what it is not. By exploring common meditation myths and misconceptions an instructor can often remove potential obstacles new students have to begin a practice.
2. What are the benefits?
In practical terms, this question helps to answer why a student would want to invest their time and energy in practicing meditation. Over the last 50 years, a robust body of research has documented the numerous benefits of regular meditation practice for body, mind, emotions, performance, and spiritual growth. When students grasp these benefits and recognize the tangible value meditation provides, they are often more inclined to make the practice a part of their lives. This can often be an “Ah-hah” moment for a student as they recognize how meditation could benefit them personally and use those potential benefits as a point of leverage to pursue their meditation journey.
3. How do I do it?
Answering this question provides the specific technical know-how and hands-on instruction in the meditation technique. A detailed explanation of the particular steps from start to finish, as well as explaining what to expect helps lay the intellectual groundwork for the practice. In addition, training sessions allow the student to take meditation out “for a test drive” and accumulate experiences that will either help validate what they’ve learned or generate questions to further clarify the teachings. This is where the real nut and bolts teaching takes place.
4. How do I make it sustainable?
This question explores what’s necessary to create a lifelong meditation practice. This aspect of meditation can be of critical importance, for even if the first three questions are well addressed, without a way to fit meditation into your life, it’s not likely that you’ll continue your practice for very long. In answering this question, the instructor would address practical matters such as:
- Preparing to meditate
- How to sit
- When to meditate
- How long to meditate
- How to handle interruptions
- Expectations during meditation
- Timing your meditations
- Concluding the meditation
- Meditating with others
- Any number of additional “what ifs”
Ultimately, the objective of thoroughly answering these four questions is to take a new student from knowing potentially nothing about meditation to being a fully knowledgeable, trained, and practiced meditator who is self-sufficient in a technique that can serve them throughout their life.
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. - Anne Isabella Ritchie
In the end, both guided meditations and comprehensive meditation instruction have their own unique value. Which you choose depends largely on how familiar you wish to become with the territory. Guided meditations can show you around the destination much like a skilled tour guide would; meditation instruction allows you to become a local resident of the field of infinite possibilities. Ultimately though, the best meditation practice comes down to the one that feels best for you. Follow your intuitive heart and it will lead to the path best suited for you.