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The History of Meditation

Habits | March 6, 2017

Meditation has been practiced for millennia. Although it existed for such a long time, the word “meditation” did not come about until the 12th century. It originated from the Latin word meditatum, which means “to ponder”. The term “meditation” is best described as a state of thoughtful awareness. Having said this, meditation has been fittingly described as a calming experience that relieves stress, stimulates relaxation, and enhances spirituality. Millions of people practice meditation worldwide, including 8% of American adults. Let’s take a look at how meditation rose to such popularity.

Ancient History

Historians have reason to believe that meditation was practiced since 5000 BC. Their speculations were influenced by wall art depicting people sitting on the floor with their legs crossed with their hands resting on their knees and their eyes closed – a typical meditation posture today. However the first documented evidence of meditation showed up in 1500 BC in the Vedas, which is a document that outlined the meditative traditions of Ancient India. From India, meditation spread to the other continents throughout the centuries. By 500 BC, various forms of meditation were practiced in Taoist China and Buddhist India, and between 400-100 BC, Yoga emerged. During this time, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali was prepared and it outlined the eight components of yoga. Similarly, the 700-verse Hindu Scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, highlighted the philosophy of yoga, and the link between meditation and living a spiritual life.

Early History

The 7th century onward saw a revolution in meditation. It was slowly being integrated into other religious practices and was considered essential for spiritual development. In 653 BC, a Japanese Monk traveled to China and discovered Zen. He brought this practice back to Japan and opened the first hall for meditation. This was a resounding success and it started a community of monks who primarily focused on Zen.

Modern History

After being practiced for centuries in the East, meditation trickled into the Western cultures in the 18th century. This was partially due to the translation of the literature about meditation. By the 20th century, many books were being published on the practice, enlightening many westerners. This included Siddhartha (1922) which chronicled the story of Buddha’s spiritual journey, the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1927), which influenced many westerners and The Dharma Bums (1958) where Jack Kerouac explored his experience with Buddhism. By the 1960’s Hatha Yoga and Transcendental Meditation began to gain popularity in Europe and America. In the 1970’s medical experts caught on and began to recognize the benefits of meditation as an antidote to stress. In response to this, the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program was founded at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. Their treatments for patients with chronic diseases were informed by meditative techniques. At this point, meditation was no longer inextricably linked to religious practices, and the medical community began to notice the benefits of meditation.

Today, many versions of meditation exist across Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and to some extent, Christianity. However, the influence of meditation transcends religious practices. This is evident in the rapid increase in yoga and meditation groups, corporate wellness programs, retreat centers, and spiritual centers. 

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