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.