Guided vs. Self-Guided Meditation: Which Is Better for Me?

A student ready for guided meditation at our studio.

A student ready for guided meditation at our studio.

by WITHIN Cofounder Hannah Knapp

How do you know which is better for you: guided meditation with a teacher or an app; or self-guided meditation on your own?

If you talk to any seasoned meditator, they'll tell you they hardly ever (if ever) listen to guided meditations.

You get to a point in your meditation practice, when guided meditation just isn't helpful or necessary. But until you reach that point, it can be incredibly useful to have someone giving you instructions as you meditate.

Guided meditation can be a life-saver:

  • When you're first learning to meditate;

  • If you're particularly anxious or stressed out, or your mind is particularly busy; or,

  • When you want to learn a new meditation technique.

The potential downside of guided meditation, is that you'll be pulled out of whatever meditative state you're in, each time you receive a new instruction from the person guiding you.

This is great when your mind is chatty - the teacher's voice reminds you to bring your attention back to the meditation - but if you've found a quieter state of mind, it can be really intrusive.

Most people find that there's a point after they've learned how to meditate, and practiced with guidance, that they want less guidance and more silence.

Here's what I recommend when students ask me how to get started with self-guided meditation:

  1. Set an interval bell. Use a timer (my favorite is Insight Timer) to ring a bell at intervals throughout your meditation. Choose the amount of time between bells that feels helpful (I happen to like 5 minutes). Each time you hear the bell, you'll be reminded to come back to this moment, if your mind has drifted. It's much less intrusive than a voice, so if you're in a deep meditative state, hearing the bell won't bother you.

  2. Start with a plan. Begin your session with a specific meditation technique that you've practiced with guidance, to help you get going. For example, you could count your breaths, repeat a mantra, or do a body scan. The technique will help you settle into a meditative state.

  3. Let go. Once you're feeling more still and connected, you can let go of the technique, and just keep bringing your attention back to the present moment each time it wanders. Use your breath, or sounds around you, or sensations in your body as your anchor - whatever you've discovered works well for you, when you've practiced with guidance from a teacher.

  4. Ease back into daily life. When you're done (either because the timer tells you, or you decide you're ready to end your session), open your eyes and take in your surroundings. Give yourself a minute to adjust to being back in the room. Before moving on with your day, thank yourself for taking the time to meditate.

At WITHIN, we're passionate about supporting our students, no matter what stage they're at in their meditation journey. We include guided meditation in all of our classes, because many of the students who come to our studio are coping with stress or just learning to meditate.

Our 30-minute classes are almost entirely guided, while our 45-minute classes include space for you to guide yourself in silence.

So if you're new to meditation, start with our shorter morning or midday classes. If you're more seasoned, try the longer afternoon classes instead. Either way, you'll have the opportunity to ask your teacher any questions you have about building your own meditation practice, too.

When do you find guided meditation more helpful than self-guided? Or the other way around? Tell us in the comments below!