A brief history on meditation – East to west, then & now

History on meditation

Have you ever wondered whether meditation was around long before it became popular? How did it come about and what is the history on meditation?

Did you know there are different types of meditation such as Transcendental Meditation, Zen Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism?

The word meditation stems from meditatum, a Latin term that means ‘to ponder.’ Through the practice of meditation, we can seek to find a better connection with our body in the everyday moments that we often let pass us by, and create stronger awareness for how our emotions influence our behavior (West, 2016). (positivepsychology.com)

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, and while it’s believed to be beneficial to health and happiness, it’s also considered to be controversial.

So what exactly is meditation? Is it good for you? How does it change your life? In this article, we are looking at the history of meditation, along with its meaning and benefits.

Let’s start with what meditation is…

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a practice of focusing on the present moment and slowing down the mind so you can observe yourself thinking or feeling without judging or reacting to what you think or feel.

It helps you become aware of the thoughts and feelings that are going through your head right now.

There are many forms of meditation, each with its own set of techniques and benefits. Some people meditate to relax and calm down, while others practice clearing their minds and becoming aware of their inner self.

Meditation also helps you learn how to be patient and understand others better by becoming compassionate towards their feelings.

Meditation involves focusing on one or two things at a time for extended periods. There are many types of meditation including mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, Vipassana (insight) meditation, Zen meditation, etc.

Click here for a more in-depth article to explore the different types of meditation

Meditation can exist in so many different forms beyond the different types of meditation. We can virtually find and access a meditative state in almost everything or anything we do.

How did meditation start and where did it come from?

There are two main locations where the origins date back to…

India

Some of the earliest recorded written accounts in ancient India describe the practice of Dhyāna or Jhāna as being the training of the mind, sometimes translated as “meditation”. These early accounts date back to around 1500 BCE and come mainly from the Hindu traditions of Vedanta and Buddhism and discuss the various meditation techniques across ancient India.

China

There were early references to various meditative practices dating back thousands of years ago, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that such practices began to be understood as meditation. The term “meditation” dates back to at least the 3rd century AD when it was referred to in the “Classic of Medicine”.

Later, terms such as “shou Zhong” (guarding the middle) are attributed to Zhuangzi, who lived around 400 BCE, and the term “bao Yi” (embracing the one) is attributed to Laozi, who lived around 600 BCE.

So where did meditation originate?

The origin of meditation is said to come from Eastern philosophies through Buddhism and Hinduism although this is still unclear and there is a lot of speculation as to where it all started.

The Buddhist religion originated from India around 500 BC, while Hinduism started around 2000 BC. It is said that it was introduced through the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha.  Meditation in these religions is known as “Dhyana” in Sanskrit, and “Zazen” in Japanese.

There are many debates specifically regarding the origin of Buddhist meditation.

Some evidence suggests that the practice of meditation may have originated among Jews. The Torah (the first 5 books of the Tanakh) describes Isaac walking into the fields to meditate. This might imply that he did so in a group.

Many believe that meditation started with the Buddha who was also known as “The Enlightened One”. He taught his followers how to control their minds and find inner peace. Over time, his methods were copied and modified by other spiritual leaders.

There was a monk who asked Buddha “What should I do to be free from suffering?” Buddha replied: “Meditate.” This means to sit down and try to remove all thoughts from our minds. When we practice meditation regularly, we will become less stressed and anxious. A lot of studies have shown that meditation has a positive impact on our health. 

The who behind meditation is also pretty hazy as there are different origins of meditation as a concept around the world – there are however three key people that should be mentioned in sharing and teaching the practice of meditation

Spreading, developing, and sharing the practice:

The Buddha (Gautama Buddha) – India

The Buddha was an important figure in history – a prince who became a monk, sage, philosopher, and religious leader. He is most notable for teaching people how to live a good life and the creator of the religion Buddhism. But the Buddha did not create meditation. Instead, he learned from others and spread the benefits of meditation as part of his teachings.

According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was born into royalty, was trained by other sages, meditated extensively, wrote extensive texts, spread the message of nonviolence, and achieved enlightenment. He taught others how to attain liberation through meditation so that they could achieve Nirvana. However, he had nothing to do with the actual invention of meditation or its use.

What is enlightenment and how did the monks achieve it?

Enlightenment is the state of full awakening, wherein one realizes his/her true nature. This realization happens when all suffering ceases, and one becomes free from desire and attachment. The Buddha achieved enlightenment through intense meditation practice and contemplation. He taught his followers how to do the same, which resulted in the spread of Buddhism across Asia.

The monks achieved enlightenment through meditation. They were enlightened when they realized that everything was empty. This realization allowed them to be free from all of their worldly desires, such as wanting food, sex, power, money, or fame.

Enlightenment was achieved when a Buddha realized he was already enlightened, and thus taught other people about his realization. This is called “enlightenment through teaching”.

In Buddhism, it is said that a Buddha cannot teach others until he has reached full enlightenment.

However, it takes 8 years for a monk to reach enlightenment, and after that, they must live as a recluse, which means no contact with anyone except their teachers.

Lao-Tze – China

Lao Tse, also known as Lao Zi (Chinese) and Lao Tsu (English), is a great Chinese philosopher and an old teacher/founder of Taoist philosophy. His works include the Tao Te Ching. 

Lao-Tze (or Lao Tzu) believed in meditation and the concept of wisdom without words. His work, “The Book of Change”, is considered the classic book of Taoism. Some believe that Lao-Tze himself did exist. Others say that he is merely an idealized figure. However, some sources claim that he lived between 604 BC and 531 BC.

Although he may have had many students and followers over time, there is much speculation regarding whether Lao-Tze existed as a single person, or if the name refers to a group of people and teachers who shared similar ideas.

Dosho – Japan

At the beginning of the 8th century, a Buddhist monk named Dosho traveled from Japan to China to study Zen. During this trip, he met several great masters and became very interested in learning about the practice of Zen, including how to sit in zen meditation. This led to the establishment of one of the first meditation halls devoted solely to this practice.

The word zazen means “to sit still” (in Japanese).

History on meditation From East to West – How meditation became mainstream

Meditation is an ancient tradition, having existed since at least as early as 2000 BC, though it is difficult to know when exactly it began. 

Some archaeologists believe that meditation goes back thousands of years ago, while others say it started about 5000 BCE. Regardless of when it began, there are religious connections to both Buddhist and Indian religions (Hinduism and Jainism). These were followed by other religions such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. 

It is now practiced by millions of people around the world and especially popularized through Buddhist teachings such as mindfulness meditation.

After traveling out of Asia, meditation began to spread into Europe and North America sometime during the 20th Century.

This was largely due to Gurus and spiritual teachers such as Swami Rama migrating out of India to the States to spread his knowledge on Transcendental Meditation.

Meditation has been practiced for a long time by different cultures and religions. But most research on meditation had ignored its biological benefits.

Meditation was considered fringe science in the 1960s. But later research showed that it had significant physiological effects. Among other things, it helped people relax, reduced stress, lowers blood pressure, and improved blood sugar levels.

People started realizing how meditation affects our body and mind and why this is important. They then also found new ways to incorporate meditation into everyday life through daily practice.

As TIME reported in a 2003 cover story, meditation began to be seriously studied for its medical benefits in the 1960s, when a researcher in India named B.K. Anand “found that yogis could meditate themselves into trances so deep that they didn’t react when hot test tubes were pressed against their arms.”

And yet meditation remained on the fringe of science, the kind of topic that was brushed off by many mainstream Western researchers. In fact, Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Herbert Benson waited until late at night to moderate a study on meditation in 1967, at which point he found that people meditating used 17% less oxygen, lowered heart rates, and produced increased brain waves that could help with sleep.

Benson went on to publish The Relaxation Response and founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute, continuing to pioneer meditation’s benefits on biology. “All I’ve done,” Benson told TIME, “is put a biological explanation on techniques that people have been utilizing for thousands of years.” Benson wasn’t the only person in the U.S. who was investigating meditation’s health benefits. Jon Kabat-Zinn, to take another example, learned about meditation while studying at MIT and turned it into a lifelong career, founding the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Medical Center in 1979.

After the popularity of transcendental meditation increased in the 1960s and further into the ‘hippie era’ of the 1970s, the practice gained a new appeal in the 1980s when celebrities began to use it, including the Beatles, Mia Farrow, and Don Draper. These people brought attention to this practice.

By the late 1990s, the scientific and celebrity sides of popular meditation finally met in the middle. The result was a Hollywood-friendly, health-focused concept that had largely shed the hippy implications it once carried.

With the emergence of Deepak, Chopra’s books and teachings celebrities continued to spread the word, especially as Demi Moore, George Harrison, Michael Jackson, and Donna Karan referred to Deepak Chopra as a guru.

Athletes also started to promote the benefits of meditation, including the legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson who published “Sacred Hoops” (1995), and now Steph Curry, winner of the 2015 NBA Most Valuable Player award, practices different types of meditation. Studies confirmed the long list of benefits, such as slowing or reversing neurodegeneration, reducing pain, managing stress, etc.

Studies kept rolling in showing that meditation (it does not matter what type of meditation it is) helps people live healthier, happier lives, which could only help meditation further its path to the mainstream.

“It’s no longer just your spiritual friend saying you should try meditation,” says Dr. Steven Ginsberg, president of the American Psychological Association. “It’s your doctor.”

The idea of meditation seems simple: sit still, focus on breath and reflect. But the practice of meditating is rooted in a deep cultural history that has seen the practice grow from a religious idea to something that can now seem more stylish than spiritual.

It has grown into a secular and fashionable trend, becoming more than a religious practice.

Creating long-lasting change through meditation

There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to meditation as it stands now in the modern world – especially as it has gone on to blow up in almost a “fad” type of way. 

It is important to know however that even though it is rooted in religious practices it most definitely can and does exist outside of religion too. 

One does not have to be spiritual to meditate or benefit from it. One does not have to practice specific meditative techniques either.

Meditation is therefore becoming increasingly popular across many different types of people – no matter what their beliefs are.

Furthermore, although meditation seems to come from rather regulated and ‘strict’ practices it also pushes the boundaries on what it should or should not be in today’s modern lifestyle. There is no right or wrong way to meditate – it is simply just a tool to practice mindfulness.

These new concepts and ideas regarding meditation make it much more accessible than before and it is not distinctly used only for a specific objective (such as gaining enlightenment) or regulated on how it should be practiced (sitting for hours on end with your eyes closed in stillness) or even the form of meditation.

Meditative practice can exist in almost every sense if it involves doing something with awareness and complete focus on the present moment. This includes insight meditation, mindfulness practice, or any other contemplative practice.

In the fast-paced and high-stress world that most of us live in, practicing being mindful is needed for not only our health but for the integrity of society as a whole.

Realizing what the world has been through by looking back on history and then looking forward – maybe this is when we need these mental shifts as a collective the most.

Coming back to this aware and conscious state (that we have the power to tap into through meditation) might be a pivotal point for us as humans to come to terms with what we are doing, how we are showing up, and realizing the self-destruction we are causing to ourselves, other species and the planet. We can reflect on how we can change our choices for a better future.

By becoming aware of the actions we take in our own lives we can create a much-needed change for ourselves and others.

And all of this through just simply being, noticing, and learning to live in the present moment.