Meditation has been described as being like “exercise for your brain.” And while basic forms of meditation can be really simple — for example, focusing on the sensations of your breath for a period of time — meditating is not always easy to actually do. This is especially true for beginners, which is where guided meditation can come in handy. Guided meditation is now available all over the Web completely for free, on YouTube, podcasts and even in your local library. And this is good news for everybody, because meditation is one of the best proven stress relievers there is!
New to meditation and wondering what it’s all about? Guided meditation can help you get started, troubleshoot any difficulties you’re having and boost the odds of you sticking with meditation over time.
Because various meditation practices have been practiced for thousands of years, there are numerous different ways to describe what meditation is and how exactly it works. Webster’s dictionary defines meditation as “quiet time spent in thought,” which can be done with religious purposes or intentions in mind, but can also be done without these. (1) Others describe meditation as a practice of focusing the mind, training our attention, learning to recognize your own thoughts and habits, and even giving yourself a giant reality check by snapping out of the mind’s ongoing “trance.”
The practice of meditation has numerous health benefits that extend beyond simply managing stress. Read on to learn how guided meditation can improve your outlook on life in conjunction with your physical well-being.
Benefits of Guided Meditation
Meditation is truly a brain-changing experience, and this is now being proven time and time again in the field of neuroscience thanks to the discovery of “neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity describes how the brain can actually reshape itself, its chemical pathways and cells by adapting to our thought patterns, environments and experiences. Our own thoughts an perceptions about our lives help shape our physical brain structures. (2) In other words, the more we train for “positive thinking” and handling stress skillfully using guided meditation, the likelier we are to think positive things in the future and see the world in a more optimistic way (of course, the opposite it also true).
Meditation also has profound impacts on lowering stress, cortisol levels and therefore numerous health conditions related to the negative effects of stress. In 2014, the Department of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University released a report stating that, apart from thousands of years of anecdotal evidence, some of the benefits of meditation that have now been proven in clinical studies and trials include: (3)
- lowering risks for obesity and overeating
- reducing pain
- helping you fall asleep and improving sleep quality
- reducing headaches
- helping people recover from chronic illnesses, like cancer and heart disease
- treating mental disorders, like bipolar disorder/manic depression, eating disorders and more
- lowering inflammation and building a stronger immune system
- improving decision-making and communicating
- boosting productivity at work
- increasing positive feelings, including happiness, connection to others, equanimity, calm, peace and compassion
- fighting depression and anxiety
- lowering cortisol levels
- helping treat learning disabilities like ADHD
- improving memory, focus and mental performance
1. Helps Relieve Stress and Lowers Risk for Depression
Depression, stress and anxiety are often caused or worsened by cycles of ruminating thoughts. For example, something negative happens that makes you upset, but then it usually triggers even more reactions, including anger about the past, blame, fear about the future, etc. Guided meditation can help you separate what already happened from what you’re adding to what happened, which often helps makes negative situations more manageable and less overwhelming.
Studies, such as one published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice in 2012, have found that mindfulness-based stress reduction and similar meditation practices have broad-spectrum antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects. Meditation helps people focus on the facts of a situation and separate old beliefs or experiences, offering new possibilities for handling tough times in a healthier way, decreasing general psychological distress. (4)
2. Reduces Chronic Pain
Similar to how meditation helps lower anxiety or depression by decreasing ruminating thoughts and “add-on emotions,” it’s also beneficial for lowering sensations of pain (chronic joint pain, back or neck pain, etc.). Researchers know that many cases of chronic pain are related to emotional stress, muscle tension in the body and side effects from a stressful lifestyle (like a poor diet, sedentary lifestyle and poor sleep). Not only is pain uncomfortable, but it becomes much worse when we add negative emotions to the pain, including additional anger, frustration, hopelessness, fear, jealously and so on.
Studies using MRIs have found that people who practice guided meditation regularly boost activity in the regions of their brains associated with emotional control, decision-making and handling stress, reducing negative reactions to the pain and tendencies toward overexaggerating, while helping people learn how to respond to their pain more skillfully (for example, getting better sleep, avoiding alcohol or sugar, going for a walk, etc.).
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that cognitive modulation of pain is influenced by a number of factors: attention, beliefs, conditioning, expectations, mood and the regulation of emotional responses to sensory events. (5) Mindfulness meditation has been found to reduce pain through enhanced cognitive and emotional control and tends to improve quality of life more, and more patients continue practicing.
3. Lowers Risk for Obesity, Binge/Overeating and Emotional Eating
Studies continuously show that chronic stress produces endocrine and immune factors that are contributors to obesity and emotional eating. Mind-body interventions, including meditation, are effective for improving emotional control, appetite regulation, healthy and sustainable weight loss, healthier reactions to stress, and behavior modifications to lower obesity risk and binge-eating episodes. (6)
A meta-analysis published in the journal Obesity Research found that 86 percent of reviewed studies reported improvements in the targeted eating behaviors after participants followed guided meditation. This supports efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions for changing obesity-related eating behaviors, specifically binge eating, emotional eating and external eating. (7)
4. Helps Improve Sleep Quality
Because meditation helps turn down pain, anxiety and nervousness, it can help many people struggling with insomnia or other sleep problems. A 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that mindfulness meditation improved sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances. The majority of participants showed improvements in measures of insomnia symptoms, depression, anxiety, stress and fatigue, as well as inflammatory signaling via nuclear factors. (8)
5. Improves Recovery from Chronic Illnesses Like Cancer
Studies show that guided meditation helps give people hope and a sense of empowerment when they otherwise feel overwhelmed in the face of serious illnesses. Mindfulness meditation is used as a natural intervention for cancer patients and has shown consistent benefits, includin: improved psychological functioning, reduction of stress symptoms, enhanced coping and well-being in cancer outpatients, better quality of life, physiological improvements, health care use, and health-related outcomes. (9)
Because mindfulness meditation has been shown to clinically alleviate many psychological and physical problems in people living with cancer and other diseases, its use as part of holistic treatment programs is growing and gaining attention of clinicians and researchers.
History & Facts About Meditation
- Records show that meditation is “prehistoric in origin” and that people have been meditating for well beyond 3,500 years. (10) Nearly every religion on Earth has ties to some sort of meditation: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. Meditation itself is not religious or even spiritual, although it can be for some people, and has some similarities to healing prayer if you choose to approach it that way.
- Although meditation makes many people think of mystical concepts and spirituality, over the past several decades many more neuroscientists, psychotherapists and health researchers have become increasingly interested in the health benefits of meditation. More and more studies using MRIs or other brain scans, plus patients’ self-reports, have scientifically proven that guided meditations can help many people suffering from all sorts of health conditions or personal problems — even people whose health has not improved from medications or traditional treatments.
- According to research published by Harvard Medical School, studies have now confirmed what meditators have known for thousands of years: Meditation helps lower chronic stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, turning down the fight or flight response and reducing ruminating thought patterns that raise anxiety. (11)
- There are many types of meditation practiced today: mindfulness, transcendental, insight, loving-kindness and body scan meditations are a few of the most popular. (12) What makes each one different is where attention is placed (on bodily sensations, the breath, a mantra or a visual image, for example) and what the end goal or purpose of the meditation is.
- What all meditation forms and practices have in common is developing better concentration, clarity of mind, emotional positivity and stability, and a calm associated with seeing things the way they actually are (as opposed to the way we tell ourselves they are using our judgments, fears, hopes and beliefs). Meditation teaches us that it’s possible to take responsibility for our own states of mind, learn the patterns and habits that drive our destructive or negative behaviors, and relate to stress in a healthier, less anxious (“more skillful”) way.
The Meaning of Mindfulness and Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness is one form of meditation and the focus of many guided meditations and scientific studies. One of the leading authorities on mindfulness meditation is Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor and founder of the world-renowned mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Zinn has been teaching and practicing mindfulness meditation for more than 40 years, taking thousands of patients and students through versions of his scientifically proven eight-week meditation course and reaching millions more through his best-selling books on meditation and mindfulness. MBSR is probably the most scientifically studied and supported forms of meditation in the world. It’s now taught by trained instructors, therapists and health care workers all over the world, available in more than 500 locations and across 42 of the 50 United States. (12)
How Mindfulness Guided Meditation Works:
Ever hear someone say, “Wherever you go, there you are”? This is actually highly related to meditation and “mindfulness” (in fact, it’s one of Zinn’s book titles), since it explains that whatever is going on in your life at any given moment is the only thing that you can really be sure of. In other words, guided meditation reared toward mindfulness teaches you to recognize that what has happened in the past is now over and therefore should be let go of in many ways — plus what’s coming in the future is uncertain and to some degree out of your control.
The goal of mindfulness meditation is to focus on the here and now, appreciating what’s unfolding, even if it seems unpleasant or painful, and learning not to add extra layers of tough emotions or expectations. (13) Instructors of MBSR teach that “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
The “particular way” MBSR refers to means being open-minded and not assuming you already know everything about what’s going on (which leads to habitual behaviors), while the “non-judgmentally” part means that you’re willing to try and accept what’s already happened (stopping rumination and not adding more fuel to the fire). Some of the attitudes and intentions that are most important for mindfulness meditation include: (14)
- non-judging: observing what’s actually happening without adding emotions, fears or prejudices to it
- patience: understanding and accepting that sometimes things take more time than we’d like and must unfold in ways we can’t fully control
- trust: trusting yourself, your basic wisdom and goodness, your feelings and “intuition,” and trusting the same in others
- having a beginner’s mind (open-mindedness): not letting what we think we already know affect us seeing things for what they are
- acceptance: recognizing and allowing what’s happening first without trying to change it, giving us a clearer picture to work with when it comes time to act
- non-striving: trying less and being more; allowing your experience to unfold without fighting against it or wishing it was different
- letting go: recognizing that everything changes, being willing to let go of unpleasant and old beliefs, and also accepting that good things can’t necessarily last forever
How Meditation Works: The Basics of How to Meditate
Tara Brach, Ph.D., is the founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, where she’s been teaching meditation to thousands of students for decades. Her work is often described as “free therapy,” and on her website she specializes in teaching people new to meditation the basics of how to practice. Some key tips and advice for beginning meditation from Brach and many of her collages include: (15)
- Establishing a daily practice: Between 15–45 minutes of meditation daily is a common duration. Meditation takes practice and time to learn in order for the full benefits to be experienced, so consistency is important. Many teachers advise that you think of meditation as a form of exercise that you need to keep up with in order to “flex your mind’s muscles” — the more you practice, the easier and often more enjoyable meditation becomes.
- Choosing a location and time: Many people prefer to mediate in the morning in order to set the tone for the day, but later is OK too. Some people also choose to do two or more shorter meditations (for example, one when waking up and another before bed). Teachers recommend you find a comfortable spot in your home where you won’t be disturbed, which allows you to focus and feel safe. Some people like to create a meditation altar with candles, inspiring photos, written quotes, etc., to set a positive mood.
- Learning proper posture: You want to try to stay alert while meditating, but this can be done either sitting, standing or laying down. It’s common to practice sitting upright on a mat, chair, cushion or kneeling bench, but you can also lay down flat or even be walking or standing while you meditate. Either way, the goal is to remain upright, tall and balanced in an erect posture with your back straight, which allows you to breathe deeply. At the same time, let your muscles relax (especially if you have pains) and let go of gripping or tension as much as possible. You can either close your eyes fully or keep them softly open if you prefer.
- Trying to drop any judgment: When meditating, one of the goals (and hardest things to do) is to keep yourself from getting frustrated, overwhelmed or disappointed with your wandering mind. The point is not to meditate perfectly — in fact, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to meditate. As long as you’re trying, showing interest in what you experience and staying open-minded about the outcome, you’re already meditating. You’re ultimately aiming for “unconditional friendliness toward the whole meditative process,” kindness, and acceptance toward whatever emotions or thoughts come up. Remind yourself this is a “practice” and it can feel like hard work to keep redirecting your attention over and over again, but that’s the whole point!
Instructions for a Basic Guided Meditation
The guided meditation instructions below are for a basic mindfulness/presence/awareness meditation. This type of guided meditation is about “recognizing or noticing what is happening, and allowing whatever is experienced to be without any judgment, resistance or grasping.” What you are doing is learning to pay close attention to what you’re actually feeling in your body, while noticing what thoughts are popping up, without feeling like you need to “problem-solve” or change anything. By keeping an open mind, you’re getting to know yourself better: your sensations, feelings (pleasant, unpleasant and neutral), thoughts and emotions.
Remember that what you do during meditation is really meant to be carried over into the rest of your life. The real benefits of meditation come during the 16 or so hours of the day when you’re out and about in the world, engaged with people and what’s going on, not alone meditating. All of the instructions you’ll learn about during guided meditation are meant to help you apply the practice, your attention and your insight about your habitual thoughts and habits to the rest of your life where they really count.
1. First Set Your Intention
Your intentions set the stage for what is possible during your guided meditation and what benefits you’ll take away from it that you’ll apply at other times. There is a Zen meditation teaching that says, “The most important thing is remembering the most important thing.” In other words, setting an intention before you meditate helps remind yourself why you’re meditating in the first place and serves as your “anchor” during practice. Maybe you’re meditating to be more focused and productive at work, have better relationships, or to show more compassion to your spouse; these are all valid intentions to keep becoming back to when your mind is wandering.
2. Take Time to Relax the Body
As you begin your meditation, try to relax your body and ease into “letting go.” Pay attention to areas where you likely hold some tension, including your jaw, eyebrows/around the eyes, forehead, chest, belly and neck. Soften these areas while you take several full deep breaths, and with each exhale, consciously let go a bit more (almost like you do when falling asleep). At this time you can focus on the ins and outs of your breath as a “skill mean to quieting down the mind.” You can also try a “body scan meditation” to help you relax by focusing on the scalp and slowly moving your attention downward to your toes, making sure to release and un-grip each area.
3. Pay Close Attention to Your Senses
Sense your body as a whole and start paying more attention to individual sensations (hearing, how the floor or chair feels below you, the temperature, any smells). Focusing on the body’s sensations settles the wandering mind and helps “ground you.” Ask yourself what you’re sensing exactly: Pulsing? Vibrations? Seeing colors? Heaviness? Lightness? Whatever you find while scanning your sensations, remember that you don’t need to try to change it or push it away, just stay with it and let it be. Keep exploring how it feels in your body, using your breath as the steady backdrop/anchor if it helps you stay focused. This is the art of learning to be with whatever is already happening without fighting against it and can be used off your meditation mat too.
4. Investigate What You’re Feeling
At this point, you might want to try “investigating” further. Ask yourself if anything feels unpleasant, painful or difficult, or reminds you of any past events that stick out. If your mind begins wandering, just note where it’s going. You can do this saying to yourself “planning” or “remembering,” for example. This meditation technique is called “noting” and helps you learn where your thoughts run off to when you’re not being mindful or paying attention to the present moment. You might notice thoughts come to mind that reveal a lot to you about your deeply held beliefs, fears, plans or other emotions you might not usually be aware of.
5. Keep Coming Back to the Body
Recognize what thoughts are coming up, and see them for what they actually are: simply thoughts but not reality or even “the truth.” Remember that just because you have a thought or judgment about something doesn’t make it a fact. As much as possible, try not to react to the thoughts, adding to them with more emotions or letting yourself go off into a tangent about the past or future. Keep coming back to the body and breath sensations, while working on disengaging from what’s popping into your mind. You might hear “a voice” telling you things you need to be thinking about, but try to remind yourself that this is normal and simply the mind doing what it does, wandering all over the place! The whole point is that you don’t need to believe every thought you have, act on it and let it carry you away; you can “respond but not react” to what goes on around you.
Final Thoughts on Guided Meditation
Meditation has been used for centuries to heal both the body and mind, and science is finally proving these long-held beneficial beliefs. A good place to start is with guided meditation, and practice that, yes, takes practice and patience — but believe me, it’s well worth it.
The benefits of guided meditation start with relieving stress but don’t end there. Meditation has also been shown to lower the risk for depression; reduce chronic pain; lower the risk obesity, binge eating and emotional eating; improve sleep quality; aid recovery from chronic illnesses; and so much more. So don’t hesitate — start to meditate today.