Category Archives: Meditation

guided meditations

Guided Meditations

Are guided meditations worth trying? I’ve tried some of these to help me sleep, and in many ways, they are the complete opposite of meditation. In guided meditations, you are literally being guided — the nice, friendly, relaxing voice is telling you what to think about and what to focus on. But in mindfulness meditation, you have to consciously and deliberately direct your attention onto something specific. If the tape or CD is necessarily attention grabbing, how can it help you develop your attention? It would be like having a spotter doing all the work in a bench press – the weight is moving but your muscles won’t get the benefit.

The question is whether the attention directing part of mindfulness is what brings the benefits, or whether it’s the state that this practice puts you in. Is it the fact that you move the weight, or the fact that the weight moves, that brings the benefit? This is quite a hard thing to test, because the two things covary so closely.

One way to test it would be a randomised trial of three groups – one guided meditation, one unguided meditation, and one control group. I don’t think this has been done, although there is a similar study, which looked at somatic relaxation exercises versus mindfulness. This is pretty similar to what I’m talking about here – the attentiveness part versus the relaxation part. I haven’t got the actual paper to go over at the moment, but the conclusions stated that both exercises increased positive moods and reduced distress, relative to the control group. However, mindfulness meditation was the only technique that reduced ruminative and distracting thoughts. So both the state and the attentiveness are beneficial, but for different things.

But guided meditations don’t have to be the sleepy relaxing kind. They can also be used to help mindfulness, for example by having a voice that pops up now and again to remind you to be mindful. Mental Workout have one of these. It lasts about 20 minutes, and every now and then a voice pops up and says “If you find your mind wandering, just return your attention to your breathing.” So there’s probably only about 3 minutes of audio over the whole thing, you just pop the earphones in and forget about them.


These would be good to start off with, like training wheels, letting you learn how to ride the bike without worrying about falling off. But eventually you’d have to outgrow them to progress further. I think some studies have been done using meditation CDs of this kind, I’ll try to look up the studies and what CDs they used.

It seems then, that the traditional hypnosis-type guided meditations aren’t conducive to mindfulness practice, since you can get the benefits and more by actually doing mindfulness. Training-wheel-type guided meditations are more suitable, but they will eventually outgrow their usefulness.

Meditation for beginners

I should be well qualified to write this post because I am a beginner. Although I have only been trying mindfulness for maybe 6 months regularly, and maybe a few years on-and-off before that, I’ve found a few things that might be useful to others who want to get started in this.

Later I’ll look into other aspects of meditation, including the research behind it, so if you want the science before jumping into it you’ll have to wait (or look elsewhere).

Step 1 – Watch this video

This is Jon Kabat-Zinn explaining a few things about mindfulness meditation, what it is and why to do it. Then he talks you through it a little later in the video so you get some practical experience of it too. Although it may appear that Kabat-Zinn has reasonably large breasts in this video, I’m assuming that he is simply wearing a new shirt with some awkward creases in it.

Step 2 – Get some books

I find it really helpful to get immersed in new things. Books are the main way to do this, especially if they are written by people who have gotten to where you want to get. Plus you can learn more about meditation and the ins and outs of it. I recommend The Attention Revolution, and The Joy of Living, but if you know any better ones then leave a comment.

Step 3 – Stick to a regular schedule

You need to clock up a good number of hours before you notice anything. Or so I’m told. So try to do this tenaciously every day, and definitely don’t do it when there’s a potential upcoming disturbance. If you’re expecting a call at roughly the same time, you’ll never settle down.

That’s about all the advice I’m qualified to offer (which is why this is called “meditation for beginners”). Are you experienced with meditation? Why not add step 4 in the comments?


The Buddhist Brain

What happens to the brain if you spend 44,000 hours in focused meditation?

This is a question Richard Davidson and his neuroscience team asked. To answer it, they took experienced Tibetan monks to their lab at the University of Wisconsin, and took various scans of their brains. Is the Buddhist brain fundamentally different than the average?

Types of meditation

Buddhism includes various types of meditation, which can be grouped into three main categories: focused attention, where the aim is to focus on one object or sensation, to the exclusion of everything else; open monitoring, where the aim is to increase awareness of all perceptions, without focusing on anything in particular; and compassion meditation, where the goal is to produce an overwhelming and unconditional mental state of kindness to all things. These all have different effects on the Buddhist brain, as we’ll see.

Buddhist Brain
Obligatory meditation image. (Johan Stigwall)

Focused Attention

As would be expected, focused attention meditation increases activation in the brain areas implicated in the control and regulation of attention, such as the prefrontal cortex. The activation is higher in meditators with more experience, up to a point of about 19,000 hours practice. After 44,000 practice, there is an initial increase in activation, followed by a return to baseline.  This means that after extensive training, it takes little effort for the attention to be controlled.

There are also differences in another brain area – the amygdala. This is an older part of the brain involved in emotion. Expert meditators have less amygdala activation than novices in response to emotional sounds. While sat in the MRI, novice and expert meditators were bombarded with distracting, emotionally provoking noises, such as a baby crying.  Novices react to it, but while experts do hear the sound, they don’t react to it. They are less emotionally reactive to external events, and can hold their concentration in situations where in anyone else, the amygdala would be firing up so strongly that they would be powerless to resist its goal of redirecting their attention.

Open Monitoring

The overall effect of open monitoring is that the meditator is able to attend to all the stimuli coming at them, without getting ‘stuck’ on anything. They can just sit back and watch it all, or engage and disengage their attention as they please.

When under an EEG scan, the meditators were able to increase the gamma-band oscillations in their brain; these are usually quite weak, and difficult to detect. Gamma bands are important in attention and perception, but also in the transmission and integration of information across the brain. It is thought that this type of activity helps to integrate distributed neural processes into more ordered functions. There was also a change in the gamma bands when the monks weren’t meditating; showing that the ‘default’ setting had been altered.

Compassion Meditation

This type of meditation involves deliberately generating a state of unconditional compassion and kindness towards all beings, that saturates the whole mind. This is said to create more spontaneous acts of altruism in the meditator.

This was studied through fMRI scans. After thousands of hours of compassion meditation, the expert meditators were able to increase their empathic response to other peoples’ social signals. The brain area involved (the insula) is thicker in expert meditators than novices, and there was also greater activation in the areas associated with reading others’ mental states. In other words, by systematically creating a concern for others, the meditators are better able to process the emotions of others.

These have been quite revolutionary findings in neuroscience, showing that things like attention can be trained and develop, where previously they had been thought to be relatively fixed.

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