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A Brief History of the Origins of Meditation

Updated: Aug 8, 2020



Meditation has proven to be an effective way to calm our busy minds and create greater feelings of peace and wellbeing. It can also help us to heal from traumatic life events. The modern world has many stresses, and it takes a conscious effort to develop an effective meditation practice.

The word meditation comes from a Latin word, meditatum, which means to ponder. By practicing meditation, we can improve our overall wellbeing and have a stronger awareness of how we feel. Our emotions influence our behavior, and by meditating regularly, we can feel more positive emotions and even affect our bodies' chemistry.

If you already have a meditation practice, you’ll be well aware of the benefits meditation can bring. But are you aware of where meditation originated? Meditation has a long and interesting history. This article will look at where meditation originates and will give details of how the practice developed over centuries in the east before being brought to the western world.


The Origins of Meditation

It isn’t easy to pinpoint exactly when or where meditation originates from, as it was being practiced in various ways in many countries simultaneously. Meditation was practiced in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions in India and within Taoist China. There are also records of meditation regularly being practiced by spiritual groups across Japan.

The first written records that describe meditation date back to 1500 BC. These records detail how meditation was practiced in the Hindu traditions in India. At this time, a school of philosophy was developed known as Vendatism; this was one of the earliest known paths to spiritual enlightenment. As well as scriptures, wall paintings have been found which show people sitting seated postures with their eyes closed, apparently in deep meditation.

There are also records of various forms of meditation being practiced around the 5th and 6th centuries BCE by Taoists in China and Buddhists in India. Those with a historical interest in meditation debate where meditation originates from.

Early written accounts of Buddhist meditation can be found in the sutras of the Pāli Canon. This is a collection of scriptures which were written in the 1st century BCE by Theravada Buddhists.

Meditation practices have also been found within Judaism, as the Torah contains a story about a profit who went into ‘lasuach’ in a field. This term, recorded in the Hebrew bible, was thought to be some kind of meditative state.


Who Created Meditation?

As you can see from the description above, it’s hard to tell precisely when and where meditation was developed. We know through written records included in religious and spiritual scripts that there were a few core groups who caused the practice of meditation to spread. Let’s look at some of the people who helped to share the practice of meditation.

The Buddha in India

The Buddha was an Indian prince who, after leaving home and becoming disillusioned with the unfairness of the world, in particular with the abject poverty he saw all around him, and became a monk. Throughout his childhood, he had been shielded from much of the world outside his home. After leaving, he saw the poor living in slums and wanted to do something to help.

He became a sage and philosopher, as well as a religious leader who tried to help others. Buddhism was founded and based on his teachings, and meditation was part of a practice that the Buddha taught to help students free their minds and reach enlightenment.

Buddha himself didn’t create meditation; there are many different types of meditation documented in Buddhist texts. The Buddha learned meditation from enlightened teachers, and they helped him to practice various methods through which he gained self-fulfillment and eventually enlightenment. Buddha was instrumental in spreading meditation practices to his students, although he didn’t invent it.

Lao-Tze in China

Lao-Tze, who is also sometimes called Lao-Tzu or Laozi, was an ancient Chinese philosopher. His name means ‘Old Teacher’ or ‘Old Master.’ It’s unknown whether Lao-Tze was a man, or if the name was given to a group of philosophers who shared ideas about Taoism and meditation.

Lao-Tze is the author of a book called Tao-te-Ching, which documents his thoughts and feelings about Taoism. He taught students in the traditions of Taoism and often references meditative practices. Lao-Tze taught that there is wisdom in silence.

Dosho in Japan

Dosho was a Japanese monk who lived during the 7th century. He was greatly influenced by Buddhist traditions and traveled to China to study under Hsuan Tsang, who was a wise master. Here Dosho learned about Zen meditation. When he returned to Japan, he opened a meditation center and taught meditation to others.

The meditation practice was called Zazen and was a form of sitting meditation. He soon had a large following and a community of monks and students who listened and followed his teachings.


Meditation in the Modern World

Today meditation is common and widespread; it’s good to know that the roots of meditation go back a long way and to understand a little of the practice’s history. Meditation has changed slightly through the centuries to suit our needs and our modern lives.

Meditation was brought to the western world as early as the 1700s. During this time, some traditional texts which contained references to meditation techniques were translated into English and other European languages. This included the Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit scripture, and the Buddhist Sutras, which gave details of the Buddhist teachings.

During the 18th century, meditation was widely discussed by philosophers and intellectuals. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the general public started to have more of an interest in meditation. Thanks to yogi Swami Vivekananda, meditation was being practiced across America. The yogi delivered presentations and became a teacher across the states.

There was a new surge of interest in Eastern spirituality in the West, and many spiritual teachers migrated to America from India. Amongst them, Swami Rama from the Himalayan Institute and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who taught Transcendental Meditation practices.

By the 60s, meditation had become more removed from its religious connections and was practiced by people of all faiths and none. It had become westernized, and scientists started to research the positive effects meditation had on people’s lives.

New meditation programs were being developed to make meditation more available to the masses, and these included Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction and Transcendental Meditation programs. Celebrities such as the Beatles used meditation to help them cope with the stresses involved in performing and becoming famous. Throughout the 70s and 80s, meditation was connected with hippie culture, and this didn’t change until the 1990s.

In 1993 meditation became mainstream after Deepak Chopra published his first book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. The book became a great success after being featured on Oprah. In the 1990s, mindfulness was also becoming popular, and programs were being developed to help people with depression and anxiety.

The growth of the internet meant that by 2012, there were over 700 mindfulness and meditation programs available. Today meditation is till prolific across the western world with programs on and offline and hundreds of meditation and yoga retreat centers around the globe.


Conclusion

Meditation remains popular across the world today, and more and more studies have been carried out to demonstrate that it has a very positive impact on a wide range of mental health problems and physical conditions.

From its origins as an Eastern philosophy, meditation has been developed to fit in with our modern lives. Hindu traditions have scriptures that describe the Yogi practice of meditating alone in caves, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. It’s thought that many modern meditation practices stem from this lineage. Modern yoga movements and meditation techniques are based on the Hatha Yoga practice.









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