In guided meditation, our practice is shaped by another person’s voice. Because the mind has a tendency to wander where it will, many of us find it easier to focus and relax when our minds aren’t entirely left to their own devices. This form of meditation is often led by a (real live) guide in group settings, or by recordings presented on apps, podcasts, videos, CDs, etc.
Three popular forms of guided meditation are mindfulness, stress reduction and relaxation.
Guided mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness may be simple, but it isn’t always easy. This is because we’re training the mind to do something very different from what it’s used to doing. Typically, our thoughts are all over the map, trotting after sensory input, daydreams, remembrances of the past and projections of the future. But during mindfulness practice, we train the mind to stay put. The sensory input, daydreams, thoughts and emotions continue as usual, but instead of following them, we’re encouraging the mind to remain in the present by focusing on a meditation support such as the breathing process, physical sensations or a sound.
Especially useful for beginners, guided mindfulness meditation takes the guesswork out of the mechanics of practice. Some forms of mindfulness incorporate visualization meditation, where an image is evoked and used to anchor and inform one’s practice.
Once they’re comfortable with the basics of sitting and meditating, many individuals find benefit in a progressive meditation course that they can follow at their own pace, according to available time and practice rhythm. Mindworks is a well-rounded app that offers a series of guided meditations, free to download and try (it goes without saying that we consider our progressive Journeys program to be one of the best guided meditation courses out there).
Guided meditation for stress reduction
Stress is a modern epidemic! And you’ve probably heard about how mindfulness practice has been known to relieve stress. But if you sit down to practice and your mind is constantly preoccupied with thoughts like, “Wait! What, exactly, am I supposed to be doing?” or “Why am I thinking so much!?” you might feel like meditation is increasing your stress! That’s why guided meditations are so useful: they gently introduce you to the stress relieving practice.
There are specific courses that teach stress relief meditation. The best-known is MBSR, the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program created by modern mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn for the University of Massachusetts Medical School almost forty years ago. His program is now taught worldwide in a variety of settings from corporations to clinical environments to prisons.
For those who are looking for an accessible, shorter course, Mindworks has developed a Working with Stress module featuring psychologist Maria Camara that only takes 15-20 minutes per day.
Guided relaxation meditation
In keeping with guided meditations for stress relief, there are also dedicated guided meditations for relaxation and sleep. In general, these consist of a pleasant, soothing recorded meditation geared towards helping the listener let go of anxieties and tensions as they relax in bed or a comfortable chair.
Often, guided relaxation meditations incorporate calming sounds, “mindfulness music,” comforting melodies and the like. They may invite listeners to imagine themselves in pleasant, peaceful environments—under a tree by a placid mountain lake, for example, with a gently settling sun and the reassuring sound of wavelets lapping against the shore. Their purpose is to encourage people to unwind, or relax and sleep, and they’re often very good at it! Some individuals discover that to enjoy their deepest, best sleep, meditations of this kind are invaluable.
One big difference between these last exercises and the previous two kinds of guided meditation is that here, you’re looking to let go of anxieties and restlessness by replacing the usual thoughts with soothing images and sounds that are conducive to a state of relaxation.
With guided mindfulness and guided stress reduction meditations, on the other hand, you’re learning to remain anchored in the present moment—to observe what’s going on right here, right now—and this naturally results in a sense of peace and relaxation. It’s not because you’re replacing the busy mind with pleasant imagery, but because you’ve discovered that it’s actually possible to be aware of what’s going on in the mindstream and let it pass on by.