Editor’s note: There are numerous factors to consider when leading a meditation practice. In this four-part series, clinical psychologist Greg Serpa, PhD, and physician turned mindfulness teacher Christiane Wolf, MD, PhD, answer some of the most noteworthy logistical questions about teaching mindfulness. Keep your particular population in mind as you go through their tips; it’s possible that you may have valid reasons to adapt or change the guidelines to suit the needs and experiences of your participants.
Lead practices with your normal speaking voice. Please avoid a special “meditation voice.” Sometimes when listening to guided meditations the voices might be very soft, even hypnotic or singsong. Practicing mindfulness meditation is not magical; it doesn’t need a special voice. Speak with your normal tone of voice and volume so people can hear you across the room. Make sure your voice has a normal intonation and doesn’t become monotonous.
Be aware that your voice might get softer when leading a class through a meditation. You want to find a balance between ensuring all group members can hear you without ever yelling. But if the volume and tone become too low, you will lose the class.
You can also use your voice to help regulate the energy in the room. For example, if you notice that people start falling asleep (you see a lot of head bobbing when you look around, or you hear the sounds of sleep), you might increase your volume and intonation—that might be enough. Or you might say, “If you notice being sleepy, you might want to sit up straight, maybe open your eyes for a moment.”
When you are guiding a meditation, you are typically either giving instructions or providing cues and space. Giving instruction is the how-to part of the meditation. A typical meditation frontloads some instruction (and then moves between cues and silent pauses of varying lengths). Keep in mind that when you give instructions, you ask your students to listen, not to practice. Be clear with instructions. But avoid overexplaining, as you want the meditation itself, not necessarily your directions, to inform the practice experience.
Instructions tell the participants what you want them to focus on in the meditation. For example: “Feeling the sensations of your breath” or “If you notice the attention is not on the breath, gently guiding it back.” In general, avoid giving instructions that lead the attention outside the meditation. For instance, you wouldn’t want to say, “And this is how you would also bring the mind back during the day,” since it references a time outside the present moment.
Cueing and Space
Cueing is reminding participants to bring back their attention, and space is the silent time given to put into practice what you ask participants to do. Here are three examples:
“Where is the mind now?”
“If the mind wanders, just noticing it and gently bringing it back to the breath.” (This is an example of an instruction that is also a very common cue.)
“This moment is like this… And this moment is like this.”
The facilitator titrates the cues and space to match the needs of the particular group and practice. You can adjust both the rate of cueing to impact the spaciousness of the practice and the contents of the cues themselves. For new practitioners, facilitators may want to provide a bit more support with more frequent cues, ensuring the content includes normalizing the wandering mind and any judgments that might arise. It is an important conceptual point that every practice should have enough spaciousness for the meditator to notice that the mind has wandered but not so much that she feels unsupported, lost, and overwhelmed by the task at hand. The more the class advances, the fewer cues are necessary and the more space or silence we want to allow for.
Beginning facilitators have a tendency to talk too much throughout a practice. This might come from a sense of nervousness (which changes the sense of time: a pause might feel a lot longer than it actually is—check your timer if in doubt!) and the feeling of needing “to do something” as the leader, which is typically expressed in talking. Silence can feel awkward to a new facilitator, especially one with little background in a personal practice. It can be hard to trust in the beginning that by holding the space for the group we provide what is needed.
Teaching Tip: Vary pause lengths during the practice from two breaths to eight or more (counting them helps!). If in doubt, talk less.
On the other hand, those who come to teaching from the practitioner path have a tendency to cue too little or to stop cueing altogether, which can leave beginners feeling abandoned. As a general rule, be sure you leave regular silent spaces throughout the practice.
During practice, if you want participants to explore a particular area, it can be helpful to give some examples so they get an idea what could be there to experience. For example, with the Body Scan we give the class many options, including numbness. For example: “Now feeling into your lower legs. What is here to notice? Pressure? Temperature? Position? Maybe nothing at all? There is no need to evoke a sensation. We are just showing up for whatever is already here. Or what is not here.” If you ask them during a practice to focus on, let’s say, emotional states, list a few. For example, “Now bringing your [or “the”] attention to any emotional flavors that might be present right now.” That can be enough, or you can add something like, “There might be some anxiety or restlessness. Or maybe sadness. Or joy. Whatever it is.”
Offer Cues from the Middle of Your Own Practice
When you guide your class through a meditation, you have to do the practice yourself. You can’t just talk (and please, please don’t just read a script—ever). Your example actually helps the participants to get into their own practice. In fact, you and your students will co-create the experience of kind awareness in the room. While you are attending to your own personal experience, doing it together is a shared event that helps stabilize everyone’s practice.
On one end of the spectrum are facilitators who just read the script, do not participate in the class meditation, and do not have a personal meditation practice. On the other end are facilitators who plunge so deeply into their own practice while leading the meditation that they become completely oblivious of the participants, barely present for what goes on outside themselves, and hardly audible; the participants can feel abandoned and will often get fidgety as a result. These two extremes contribute to vastly different class ambiences.
Newer teachers with less personal practice experience tend to believe that in order to “get it right” they have to use the exact words from the meditation transcript. This is particularly true among well-trained clinicians who have a strong sense of adherence to a technique from other forms of interventions. But it isn’t about the words. It’s about the authentic moment-by-moment unfolding. When you lead from your own experience, everyone can sense this.
Leading a practice is different than doing your own practice. While facilitating, you have to balance your own practice with contact with the class so as not to lose anyone, especially beginners. It’s important to never lose track of where the group is, what cues they might need, and how much spaciousness to allow.
Teaching Tip: Imagine there’s an immersion scale that can chart how deeply you engage in the meditation while leading it. A 0 equates reading a script and just focusing on the words, while a 10 means getting fully caught up in the meditation to the class’s detriment. Aim for a 5.
“Cueing from the middle” is a technique all facilitators need to practice and is a skill related to but separate from practicing itself. In the pauses between your sentences or cues, really connect with your body, your breath. Feel it. Then say the next sentence. Then feel back into your body, your own present-moment experience. Practice this back and forth until it feels natural and not like a back and forth anymore.
Practice Tip: Leading practices in class does not count as your own daily meditation practice! After all, your main focus is on the class, so you can’t attend to your own experience the way you do when you just meditate.
For more from Christiane Wolf, MD, PhD, and Greg Serpa, PhD, check out their new book, A Clinician’s Guide to Teaching Mindfulness.