Fly like a bird, dance in rainbows, find your spirit guide....
It could be a great thing, if only these people who wrote them knew what the hell they were doing.
My realization about the scope of this problem came only recently. I've never been much of one for guided meditation, personally, and it was my husband that brought this issue to light. He'd never had a one-on-one guided meditation before, so one recent evening after the kid was in bed, he laid down and I led him through a short, 15-minute session. As expected, nothing truly earth-shattering came out, but he came out feeling refreshed and connected and peaceful, and with his interest piqued.
Then he began doing some research by reading various guided meditations available from different types of sources. He alerted me to what he found, and I started taking a look for myself.
Most of them suck. Now, many of them, of course, are designed for a person to listen to while they're by themselves. Those are not the meditations I'm worried about in this post - meditations which cannot be interactive are in an entirely separate category.
However, given the prevalence of really shitty meditations written for two people which seem to be floating around out there, I have created a short list of things for a "guide" to keep in mind to create a less distracting, more comfortable, and ultimately more useful meditation experience. Keep in mind I'm far from an expert, but apparently I know more about the subject than some people who get publishers to buy their "spirituality" books.
The "guide" is NOT writing a literary work.
The purpose of a guided meditation is to make the participant relax into a light meditative trance, so that they can more easily (depending on your interpretation) access their deeper consciousness and contact their spirit guides, and then clear their minds to relax and renew themselves. Consequently, the participant needs to be able to direct the situation, and he or she needs to have the freedom to see what needs to be shown.
A guided meditation is not the time to be literary. It is not the time to show off your attention to detail.
For example, take the opening statement, "You're on a mountain trail."
A participant might see a narrow, rocky pathway steeply crawling up an ice-slicked precipice. Or, he or she might see a gently sloping, well-worn dirt trail through a spring forest, with other hikers or travelers stopped to rest nearby.
These differences are the most significant part of the meditation.
Contrast this with a "mountain path" meditation I found on a website:
...imagine yourself now on a path leading alongside an alpine meadow. Towering behind you are the snowcapped peaks of the surrounding mountains. The air is clean and fresh. It is late afternoon on a sunny summer’s day. The sky is a beautiful light blue with a few tall fluffy white clouds moving majestically from the horizon.
The pine trees stand tall and stately to your right, and you pick up on the strong scent of the evergreens.
To your left you can hear the rustle of an aspen grove.
Your eye catches the shimmering of the leaves in the soft breeze.
The description continues from there.
What does that leave up to the imagination, or for communications? The participant has been told what he or she sees, smells, and hears.
Moreover, when you're getting a list of oral cues like this, it requires concentration and deliberate effort to both listen, and to insert the directives into the visualization. This may hinder the participant's efforts to maintain a meditative trance.
As far as descriptions go, keep it as simple as possible, then ask questions.
For example, "You're on a beach. (pause) Can you tell me what you see?"
"You said there are people there. Do you recognize them? What are they doing? What are they wearing?"
Lesson 2: Meditations Should be (Generally) Participant-Driven
For this reason, a guide may have general goals and ideas set out ahead of time, but it's usually not a good idea to have a pre-written, structured set of directives written down. A guide shouldn't worry about changing plans if something seems to come up, and should instead look for significant objects that the participant makes note of, or people who might be in the area. Then focus on those.
Finally, a guide shouldn't tell the person what he or she is doing - ask them to do it.
To build on the example above with the beach, suggest, "I'd like you to approach the people. (pause) How do they respond to you?" and so forth.
A guide should NEVER force a participant into certain areas or push for certain actions. If the people on the beach make the participant uncomfortable, a guide should encourage him to walk away. If the participant describes an area as being undetailed, or going off into a void, or that there's a "wall" somewhere, then they should also walk away from it - there's probably nothing significant there.
ALSO remember that there are some things which must be left well enough alone
Guides should not push to have the participant open locked doors, go into areas which have guards, or do things which otherwise make the participant uncomfortable. It will not help the participant get over ancient childhood traumas or unlock need-to-know past-life revelations. Generally speaking anything in an area which is locked or closed off is not something a guide has the right to make participants access; it will hurt them and a guide's pride or curiosity aren't good enough reasons to push someone go through something like that. Moreover, it's extremely unlikely that most guides have the knowledge and training to deal with the situation if something does happen.
Transitions are Key
A participant should be given an opportunity to have an experience in any environment they're in. However, often transitions are helpful, because an undefined element often gives the participant an opportunity to fill in a blank.
What do I mean by transition? Anything that alters the participant's environment.
This differs from regular description in its method of implementation. A description would say, "You're on the beach, and there are people there." A transition would occur AFTER the initial statement that the participant is on a beach and questions about the beach, and would involve a statement changing circumstance like, "There's a person walking down the beach. Can you see who it is?"
For full-scene transitions, guides should keep in mind the "fill in the blank" principle - if a person is in a room with a door and is encouraged to open the door, they may determine there's something on the other side before a guide can get out where THEY think it should lead. That can be a very jarring experience which can undermine the entire rest of the meditation. Therefore, guides should keep the two techniques separate - if a guide wants the participant to go into an entirely new environment, a guide shouldn't have them open a door, walk around a bend, or use other similar devices. For those of us young enough, here's a helpful rule of thumb: don't do a directed transition using anything which might need a load screen in a video game.
So, how do you get the person from the beach to a new locale?
Well, first off, a guide should consider why they'd want to - is the current location just not a good environment for the person (ie, frightening, dangerous, or unhelpful), or did the guide just want to hit a bunch of places over the course of the meditation? Keep in mind that it really isn't necessary to go on an epic journey in a meditation - often the most effective focus on getting the most out of one environment.
However, if it becomes necessary, there are ways to go about it. In my experience, I prefer having the participant mentally close their eyes, then move them to a new location and immediately tell them where they are, as if I were restarting the meditation in a new place.
For example, "Okay, now you're going to begin to fall backward and close your eyes. It's dark around you, and you're softly, gently falling. You fall onto something soft and realize you're now on a beach. Open your eyes. What does the beach look like?"
I'd welcome any thoughts/comments on this, especially if anybody finds it helpful or thinks of any "lessons" to add (I'm sure there are a lot of them, but toddlers only nap for so long).