History of Meditation

Meditation has started to become really mainstream around the twenty first century — but few people are aware “Modern meditation practices are rooted in practices thousands of years old. Although today meditation is mostly recognized for its health benefits it was practiced thousands of years ago for some very different reasons.

How old is meditation?

Practice of meditation has been referred to as the ‘age-old tradition’ by different research, books, and schools. Some experts suggest meditation practice may be as old as humanity itself with the potential meditative capacities of Neanderthals (Davanger 2008), to have been practiced in the form of campfire rituals.

Main research groups sought to find the origin of meditation focusing on a structured set of practices and techniques, based on artifacts and references in the East. The oldest documented record of practice of meditation go back to 5,000 BCE – 3,500 BCE in Ancient India (then Indus Valley civilization) where archaeologists discovered ancient wall arts depicting people sitting in various classical meditation postures – sitting with crossed legs, hands resting on knees, gaze narrow but not closed etc.

Ancient Indian roots

The oldest written mention of meditation are found is the Vedas from around 1,500 BCE, where the practice of Dhyāna or Jhāna is referred to as the training of the mind (often translated as ‘meditation’), and discusses various contemporary meditation practices of Ancient India. The Vedas provide one of the earliest known paths for spiritual enlightenment. However, it must be noted that the Vedas were memorized and passed down as an oral tradition for many centuries long before they were written down and are therefore are considered to be much older traditions.

In the Ancient India, meditation was practiced by religious and ascetic people with mainly two traditions, the Vedantic rishis (sages) who were scholars of Vedas, and the Yogis who were influenced by and contributed to the Vedas. The Yogic tradition is said to go back to much longer period than written down Vedas. In the core of the Yogic tradition was ‘meditation’ and ‘spiritual enlightenment’— and less to do with stretching and breathing exercises it is recognized for today. The modern day Yoga is but adaptations from these hundreds of Yogic schools. Both the ancient Indian traditionsare still practiced today having hundreds of various lineages and methods. The practitioners sought transcendence from human life and to connect with the Divine, as personified deities, or  unify with a transcendental reality (called ‘Brahman’ in the Vedas).

Across the globe meditation has been an essential cornerstone for spiritual development though methods varied from culture to culture. All of the major religions have incorporated various forms of meditation in one form or another, particularly in their mystical branches. While Hinduism is rooted in meditation, Buddhist religion stemmed from Buddha’s meditations to reach nirvana; Islam has the concept of Muraqaba, and Christians have their meditation.

Buddhist Indian Roots

Chinese Roots

Other forms of meditation are then cited around the 6th and 5th centuries BCE within Taoist China and Buddhist India. In China, forms of meditation are mentioned as far as the 3rd and 6th century BC, linking to Laozi, an ancient Chinese philosopher, and his writings.

The truth is, no one knows for absolute certain when meditation officially started. There are multiple references across different cultures and religions – including Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – to meditative-like practices, which all seem to have contributed to and inform the practice known widely today.

Buddhist Meditations (600 BC)

Buddhism originated from the teachings of Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama— around 6th century BCE. At age 27, Siddhartha Gautama, the Hindu prince of southern Nepal, abandoned his royal life to find the truth of life and attained Enlightenment. He practiced meditation under the best Yogis at that time but was dissatisfied with the outcomes of their teachings. Later he attained Enlightenment and became the Buddha, or the ‘Awakened One’. He spent the last decades of his life teaching meditation and spiritual awakening to people.

In several centuries Buddhism spread all over Asia under many lineages. The Buddhist meditations of Vipassana (mindfulness) and Samatha are perhaps the most widely practiced forms of meditation in the West. Meditation, called ‘Dhyana’ in Sanskrit, in early Buddhism took influence from Vedanta by the 4th century BCE. The Silk Road at that time allowed for transmission of Buddhist meditation into different regions of world and different forms of meditation developed in China and India.

Around the same period as Buddha, three other religions were born, Jainism in India, Taoism and Confucianism in China, which all focused on meditative practices in their unique ways.These religions, like Buddhism, had no specific Gods as such but focused on ethical and moral principles to improve the believer’s relationship with Universe.

Jainism (550 BCE), India

 It was founded by Mahavira in India which was an ascetic tradition placing high importance on self-purification, self-discipline, contemplation, and non-violence. Jain meditation techniques include repetition of mantra, gazing, breath awareness, visualizations, and self-inquiry.

Taoism (400 BCE), China

Also known as Daoism, founded by Lao Tze, it is considered as a Philosophical religion which focused on union with Tao or Cosmic life/nature. Teachings of Lao‐tzu stressed importance of meditation and nonviolence as ways of reaching higher levels of existence.

Confucianism (400 BCE), China

It was founded by Confucius in China, focuses on morality and community. Meditation practice of this tradition is called Jing Zuo which focuses on contemplation and self-improvement. Although these traditions are alive, they are not that popular outside their home countries.

Sufi Meditation (6th – 8th CE)

The Sufi tradition (mystics of Islam) goes 1,400 years back. With influence of Indian contemplative traditions, it developed meditation practices based on breathing, mantra, and gazing. The core of the practices is connecting with God (Allah). This meditation is called Muraqaba. They also developed their iconic Sufi whirling, seen in Turkey even today.

Jewish Kabbalistic Meditation traditions (12th CE)

Around the 12th Century, the Jewish esoteric traditions of Kabbalah developed its own forms of meditation, especially under the influence of Abraham Abulafia (1240–1291) and some later contemplatives, which mainly involved contemplation of philosophical principles, names of God, symbols, prayers, and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.

Meditation introduced to Western World (17th CE+)

In 1700s, the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Buddhist Sutras and several texts of Eastern philosophy were being translated into European languages. By 18th century, Buddhism in the West was a topic for intellectuals. Philosopher like Schopenhauer were its most famous admirers

Yoga and meditation were introduced to the United States early in the 20th century by a yogi called Swami Vivekananda. His charismatic and rationalist presentation at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 caused a huge interest in Americans about Eastern philosophy and spirituality. It was also well received by the Transcendentalist movement in the United States, especially by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Nineteenth-century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was drawn to yoga and Hinduism as forms of resistance to mainstream market capitalism.

Modern Meditation and Science (20th Century)

In the 20th Century several famous Indian spiritual teachers migrated to the USA, including: Paramahansa Yogananda (authored Autobiography of a yogi), Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (teaching Transcendental Meditation) and Swami Rama (Himalayan Institute). Several schools of Buddhism also made their way to teach in the West—mainly Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism. Most of these eastern masters had western disciples as the torch-bearer of their teachings. With this, the practice of meditation began to be taught in a more westernized way, often simplified and decoupled from its spiritual context. Scientific studies began to emerge, and people realized that meditation is not only for those who are seeking spiritual enlightenment.

According to the scholar George Feuerstein, the first piece of scientific research on meditation happened in 1936, and the first one using the EEG was in 1955. The first collection of scientific studies on meditation was made in 1977 by James Funderburk, a student of Swami Rama of the Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science. In fact, Swami Rama was one of the first yogis to be studied by Western scientists. In the 1960s he was examined by scientists at the Menninger Clinic, where he demonstrated his ability to voluntarily control his bodily processes (such as heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature) which science had up until then considered being involuntary. Among other things, he demonstrated: Altering his heartbeat while sitting motionless, to 300 beats per minute for 16 seconds, and then within a few minutes completely stopping his heart from pumping blood for some seconds. Producing different skin temperatures on adjacent sides of his hand by consciously dilating and contracting his blood vessels with his mind. Producing alpha, delta, theta and gamma brain waves on demand. Remaining fully conscious of his environment while his brain was in deep sleep. [Book ‘Yogi in the Lab’ has more details.]

These and other demonstrations triggered interest in the scientific community to further study the effects of meditation in the body. As a result, over the next five decades, the number of scientific studies on meditation increased considerably, and so did their quality. Advanced practitioners of other traditions, particularly Zen monks and Tibetan lamas, were also studied and gave mind-over-body demonstrations. Another pioneer in this process was Dr. Herbert Benson, who probed the effectiveness of meditation through his research at Harvard University in the early 1970s. Before that time, meditation was still considered a religious practice, and thus not appropriate for healthcare purposes. With his contribution this began to change.

Meditation Today

Now, in the early 21st century, meditation has become mainstream and greatly secularized. Even though spiritual meditation continues to exist, it is the secular approach to the practice—for its benefits to the body, mind, and wellness—which is the reason for its ever-increasing popularity.