A Brief History of Meditation

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Whilst meditation is often associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, meditation and mindfulness-based practices reach far wider than these two philosophies/religions. Over time, meditation has grown far larger than its roots, and, whilst it is still practiced all over the world in these areas, it is often practiced in a secular approach too, in other words, a practice that doesn't involve religion or certain beliefs.

Meditation practice has a history spanning back thousands of years, and evident in a variety of different cultures and practices, including religious and philosophical practices. Although the general belief to many who are new to meditation may be that meditation-like practices started with Buddhism and Hinduism, or even when it came to the West in the 20th Century, the history of meditation goes much further and wider than that. It is only when the Indus River Valley people (the thought-to-be roots of Hinduism) over 5,000 years ago, and when Buddhism became a popular philosophy just over 2,500 years ago, did meditation become more well-known because it was central to those practices and adopted into the Hindu and Buddhist way of practice and their lifestyles. However, meditation, contemplative practice and meditative-like states have displayed evidence in a range of cultures and practices, rooting from Early Man, to present day. It is difficult, and still unknown, where meditation practice actually started, or who started it, particularly because there are so many different practices and techniques under the umbrella of ‘meditation’


Some of the earliest roots of meditation practice is illustrated in early civilisation cave paintings many thousands of years ago, often depicting a person meditating or in a meditative-like state as they gaze into the flames of their fire and enter a state of very deep focus or a ‘trance like’ state. The understanding of where meditation may have begun in early civilisation is still unclear, however experts agree that meditation (or meditation-like) practices do have close links to early civilisation. This has been reflected through deciphering ancient texts, hieroglyphics and illustrations such as cave paintings, and even some rare archaeological findings have supported the understanding of meditation being evident in ‘early man’ where the hunter-gatherers did practice some form of meditation, as did early Shamans. The knowledge of a meditation-like practice, be it in the form of contemplation, concentration, chanting, experiencing trances or altered states of consciousness, has been passed down through many civilisations, to develop into what we now know as many different schools and practices of meditation today.


Hinduism, the world’s oldest known religion, began from the Indus River Valley civilisation circa 5,000 years ago. In some of the earliest Vedic and Tantric texts of ancient Hinduism, and of the Hinduism we know today, there are many references to the practice of meditation, and in Advaita Vedanta, a school of Hindu philosophy on non-dual spirituality and understanding the explanations of the Atman (the true self) and the highest metaphysical reality of the universe (Brahman), there are references to meditation practice. A common reference to meditation which is widely known in Hindu practice, and Buddhist practice, is the practice of Dhyana (or Jhana) which is a training of the mind, usually translated as meditation or effortless meditation, which in turn, and with practice, can lead to Samadhi (a state of absorption, oneness with the object of meditation, a meditative state of consciousness and single-pointedness) – Particularly in Ashtanga yoga, this is a sort of end result or goal of the meditation practice – to realise or experience Samadhi as a result of Dhyana.


In relation to the previous point explaining Samadhi as being the end-result in some areas of practice associated with Hinduism and Yoga, Samadhi in Buddhism has more of an instrumental value, as, when experienced, it contributes to dissolving the obstructions to the development of the mind, and is therefore a step to cultivating deeper insight and deeper understanding and development of the mind. Meditation is at the heart of Buddhism, a philosophy and means of practice, which, with the application of meditation, the heart of Buddhist practice, can contribute to a deeper understanding of the human condition, a way of cultivating the causes for the end of suffering, and a way of developing a deeper understanding of happiness and the mind. Buddhism developed from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama around 2,500 years ago, a result of the Prince Siddhartha leaving a life of comfort and luxury, and seeking a deeper meaning and understanding of life, and how to understand how to bring an end to human suffering. With this, he taught on the Four Noble truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the pillars of Buddhist practice in all schools of Buddhism, which are supported by a meditation practice, and developing mindfulness, compassion and concern for the suffering of the self and the suffering of others. Buddhism has since developed into many different schools, although meditation still resides at the heart of all of them, and today is considered to be one of the largest religions in the world.


As early Buddhist teaching had popularised in the East and moved through Asia, in the school of Mahayana Buddhism, it reached China, which is where Zen (otherwise known as Zen Buddhism) began in 6th Century AD, with later developments around the 12th Century. Zen began as a result of the observation that, although they supported the observations and teachings of Buddhism, they noticed that Meditation and Contemplation were, in themselves, a means of attaining higher awakening or enlightenment, and a way of life in itself, and so, the combination of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, created Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism teaches that we all contain a Buddha nature, and that through the practice of meditation, self-enquiry and contemplation, we can begin to see that potential for awakening more clearly. Zen is something someone does, and something someone experiences, aside from intellectual endeavour or religious practice. It is often a very misunderstood teaching, and often seems rather paradoxical. Zen Buddhism teaches to look inwards and uncover (and discover) our Buddha nature, which in the opinion of Zen, is no different to the definition of true human nature. Through the application of mindfulness and meditation, it teaches to do things with intention, to not get too caught up in intellect, opinions and thoughts, and to experience Zen (otherwise known as meditation or absorption) Zen is just zen.


Meditation is referred to in the Bible and in the Book of Psalms on several occasions. The application of meditation in Christianity began with the ‘Desert Fathers’ in the Middle East around the 2nd Century AD, the original monks of the Christian tradition(s) we know today. Their lifestyle was devoted to simplicity, going forth in their practice, and doing so as a way of finding a space of peace and a sanctuary of healing and sanctuary – a way into the soul or a way of deepening the connection with God. The wisdom and teaching from the original monks of Christianity was passed on through to St. Benedict [born circa 480 AD], which has developed as a practice in Christianity, although the Roman Catholic Church did aim to suppress this back in the 16th Century. The application of meditation in Christianity has been most evident in Contemplative Prayer practice, which involves the practitioner contemplating/meditation on a passage or message of Christian teaching or text, and developing a closer association and connection with the love of God and God, as a way of heightening the state of consciousness, connecting with/experiencing God and developing Christian communion. In fact, Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, has backed meditation as a practice, including the app 'Soultime' which approaches meditation tailored to Christian faith.


Jewish Meditation (Kabbalah) focuses on settling the mind, introspection, developing insight, contemplation on divine names or teachings/prayer, and elements of visualisation. Kabbalistic meditation began in around 1000 AD, deriving from former Jewish mystics and the wisdom they were able to share on the importance of this practice to enhance the state of consciousness, developing awareness, and developing connection or deeper insight, and overall aims to enable to practitioners to become the ‘true carriers of the light of God’ as a result of the practice – a word known as Devekut (clinging onto God. Kabbalistic meditation continues in Judaism today and has continued to flourish and grow in its uses within Judaism because practitioners have said to develop a deeper connection with God, a deeper sense of peace, and feeling happier. To summarise, the practical use of Kabbalistic meditation is to become a vehicle of developing the connection of faith, joy, respect, love and understanding into what they do.


Sufism is a tradition within Islam that has preserved the spiritual and mythical elements of it, focusing on personal piety – virtue in devotion to practice. Sufi's further developed the understandings and teachings of these techniques – developing meditation as a means of developing a connection to God and the personal experience with God. In time, this further developed into passing on techniques which would include exercises of both the mind and body as a way of developing communion and association with God. The Prophet Muhammad was known to be a deeply spiritual person and is recorded to have often spent time in meditation. Sufi meditation is known as Muraqabah in Islam, which in Arabic, means to observe.


Transcendental Meditation is a practice of Meditation that does not involve any devotion of faith or belief system, and although only became popular in the West in the 1960’s by the works of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, it does originate with ancient Hindu practice and tradition. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to the West in 1959 with the mission to spread the awareness and practice of Transcendental Meditation around the world. He was invited by the Beatles who had adopted TM practice and became close followers of the practice. After this, it had became very well known and popularised hugely in the West as a result of this. Since then, it has been the leading researched meditation technique since the 1960’s and is a practice by many individuals, taken on by the likes of celebrities too. It continues to grow in popularity due to it being non-religious, scientifically backed, and easy to learn.


Mindfulness originates from Buddhist teaching where mindfulness, developed through meditation practice, can be applied into not only meditation practice, but all aspects of our daily lives, whether it is in exercise, eating, drinking or walking. This also links to the Buddha’s advice on applying mindfulness to all of the four postures: standing, sitting (meditation), walking and laying down. Mindfulness really started to popularise in the West in the late 1970’s when John Kabat-Zinn introduced his MBSR programme which, today, is widely used to help treat anxiety, stress, panic disorders and pain management, and is also now being recommended by GP’s in the UK to help with various mental health conditions. That aside, mindfulness has also hugely popularised because of how much research has been going into it since the 1970’s and particularly the 1990’s which has been able to illustrate that there are indeed many benefits of the practice for everyone. John Kabat-Zinn, as well as other modern mindfulness teachers such as Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, are establishing centres and facilities for teaching mindfulness all over the West (and parts of the East) to make it more available. Due to the surge in research and popularity this has given for meditation, it has also been adopted hugely as a secular practice, which illustrates to people how meditation does not depend on a faith or belief system, but it simply a practice of developing positive mental health and a way of training the mind.

#history #meditation #mindfulness #philosophy #religion #lifestyle

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