From yogis to YouTube: the long history of meditation

Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 miniutes

The Dalai Lama does it. The Beatles made it famous. Oprah, Madonna, Emma Watson, Jim Carrey, and even Lady Gaga all swear by it.

And it’s so simple. You get comfortable, close your eyes, and focus on breathing in and out. For anything from a few minutes a day to a few hours, depending on your dedication.

The practice of meditation originated thousands of years ago and has been clinically proven to benefit the mind, body, and soul. The word itself stems from the Latin meditatum, which means “to ponder”. Meditation is believed to help the human mind foster better connections with the body - that is, help us ‘see’ the everyday moments that would otherwise pass us by, and build awareness of how our emotions influence our behaviour.

Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 miniutes

The Dalai Lama does it. The Beatles made it famous. Oprah, Madonna, Emma Watson, Jim Carrey, and even Lady Gaga all swear by it.

And it’s so simple. You get comfortable, close your eyes, and focus on breathing in and out. For anything from a few minutes a day to a few hours, depending on your dedication.

The practice of meditation originated thousands of years ago and has been clinically proven to benefit the mind, body, and soul. The word itself stems from the Latin meditatum, which means “to ponder”. Meditation is believed to help the human mind foster better connections with the body – that is, help us ‘see’ the everyday moments that would otherwise pass us by, and build awareness of how our emotions influence our behaviour.

Although it would be difficult to gauge the exact number of people who meditate globally, rough estimates suggest anything from 200 to 500 million.

The (many) origins of meditation

While no one is really certain who invented the practice itself, meditation has links to many religions and cultures, from Hinduism to Judaism, Buddhism to Islam.

The practice may have evolved in India’s earliest Vedic schools, possibly as long ago as 1500 years BCE (Before Common Era).

The Hindu word for meditation – dhyāna – is an integral part of yoga. Dhyāna is a means to achieving samadhi, which loosely translates as a “state of profound and utterly absorptive contemplation; to be undisturbed by desire, anger, or any other ego-generated thought or emotion”.

Hindu yogi

Yogis and sages of the Vedic culture were known to meditate in Himalayan caves, where they could shut out external distractions and connect with spiritual currents. Cave drawings in the Indian subcontinent dating from around 5000 to 3500 BCE show people seated in the lotus position with their eyes closed. Wandering ascetics and the religious also meditated to transcend the limitations of human life and connect with supernatural forces.

Buddhism emerged out of Hinduism some two millennia later. The prince Siddhartha Gautama – later known as the Buddha himself – attained enlightenment (bodhi) while meditating underneath a fig tree in Bodh Gaya. According to the ancient texts, Gautama meditated for 49 days straight without moving from beneath the tree. But although he was instrumental in promoting the value of meditation, Buddha did not create it himself. Prior to embarking on his quest for enlightenment, he had learned about meditation and the ways of self-fulfilment from other enlightened teachers. Later, other forms of Buddhism (Tibetan, Theravada, Zen, and more) created their own versions of the practice. In Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrayana meditation focuses on deity yoga, which involves reciting mantras, prayers and visualising the deity (usually the form of a Buddha or a bodhisattva) as well as the deity’s associated mandala.

Buddhist meditating

In the same era, other religions emerged with their own approaches to meditation. Jain meditation (sāmāyika) involves sitting for 48 minutes in silence. In Jainism, each period of 48 minutes is equivalent to one muhurta, and one day or 24 hours equal to 30 muhurtas. Sāmāyika refers to the act of being in the moment as continuous real-time.

In the 6th century BC, Lao Tze founded Taoism in China with his classic work, the Tao te Ching. This ancient text references meditative practices and explains how wisdom can be obtained through silence. Tao meditation, or xiu dao, embraces concentration, mindfulness, contemplation, and visualisation.

Buddhism and Taoism may have influenced the meditative practices in Confucianism, which was also founded in 6th-century BC. However, Confucian meditation – jing zuo – differs in that it focuses not on the stopping of rational thought but on tending to one’s current circumstances and mental state. This is believed to help the individual develop and find his or her full realisation.

Meditation has an important history in Islam. The Prophet Muhammed is believed to have spent hours meditating on Mount Noor before receiving the first revelation and continued to meditate during his prophethood. Meditation in Islam is known as dhikr, which means “remembrance” or “mention”, and involves chanting phrases or prayers to remember God. Dhikr is central to Sufi Islam, and each Sufi order has a specific dhikr accompanied by specific posture, breathing, and movement.

As the practice of meditation moved along the Silk Road and throughout Asia, it was gradually transformed to fit each new culture. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that it began to influence the rest of the world.

Meditation and the West

The first references to meditative techniques may have arrived in the West in the 1700s with translated versions of the Bhagavad Gita and The Buddhist Sutras. The West finally took notice of the practice in 1893, when prominent yogi Swami Vivekananda delivered a groundbreaking speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Swami Vivekananda was the chief disciple of the 19th-century mystic Ramakrishna and was later credited with raising the profile of Hinduism to that of a world religion. In his presentation, he called for religious tolerance and an end to fanaticism. He also introduced meditation, describing it as “a process of self-appraisal of all thoughts to the mind”. He suggested to his audience that asserting what we really are – being, knowing, and loving – would result in “unification of the subject and object”.

Vivekananda’s words sparked an enormous interest in Eastern models of spirituality. Teachers from India began migrating to the US to share their knowledge and were joined in time by those from Buddhist schools of thought, including Zen and Theravada.

Word of meditation’s many benefits quickly spread, and the practice gradually shifted from its religious context into a more Westernised path. Transcendental meditation became especially popular after the Beatles stayed at an ashram in Rishikesh, India, in 1968.

The quest for mindfulness grew rapidly throughout the 1990s, particularly following Deepak Chopra’s book, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy later incorporated mindfulness as a means of treating depression and anxiety, with positive results.

Hands in prayer

The term “meditation” is now used to refer to any number of techniques involving relaxation and contemplation. The techniques are used in both spiritual and non-spiritual contexts, from churches and temples to schools and offices.

What the science says

Until the 1960s, meditation had been largely ignored by science. But when medical researcher B.K. Anand reported that yogis were able to meditate themselves into trances so deep “they didn’t react when hot test tubes were pressed against their arms”, scientists began studying the practice for its medical benefits.

According to the original Vedic texts of ancient India, the main objective in meditation is to connect to one’s deep “inner Self”. This inner Self activates the working consciousness, which in turn activates the physical body. In this sense, meditation provides a feedback loop which connects the mind and body. It is suggested that this feedback loop to the deep inner Self provides inner peace and bliss, reducing the accumulated stresses of life and improving overall health.

Over the past few decades, numerous clinical studies have shown that meditation can improve calmness, physical relaxation, and psychological balance. Meditating daily can reduce blood pressure and ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduce insomnia, and help with symptoms of digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis.

It has been used successfully to help people cope with serious illnesses and even control pain. Patients with chronic pain conditions who combine mindfulness-based therapy with their pain medications appear to experience greater benefits than those who only use medication.

Evidence of the first major clinical trial of mindfulness with cancer patients was published in 2000. The results indicated that practising mindfulness-based stress reduction throughout cancer treatment had significant impact on anger, anxiety, depression, and many symptoms of physical and psychological stress.

How to meditate

Meditation class

Today, meditation has evolved in a range of forms: mindfulness, spiritual, mantra, transcendental, and even movement meditation. Classes are available all over the world or via YouTube tutorials and or mobile phone apps. In fact, the past few years have seen mindfulness apps such as Calm, Headspace, and Liberate surge as people all over the world search for relief from anxiety during the pandemic.

So, how is it done?

Essentially, meditation involves four simple elements: a quiet place free from distractions, a comfortable position, a focus (on the breath, a chant, or an object), and a willingness to let yourself be.

The main thing to remember with meditation is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. Techniques may vary between different teachers and schools of thought, but the overall objective is the same.

Get comfortable

Find somewhere that’s quiet, cool, and free from distractions and get into a position that you can maintain comfortably for at least twenty minutes. You can sit down, lie flat on your back, or even rest your feet against a wall. It may help to invest in a special ‘meditation’ cushion or yoga mat.

Tune out

Close your eyes to help shut out any distractions and bring on a sense of calm. It will also allow you to focus inwards, which is the key to meditation. Allow your eyelids to relax over your eyes and release any tension in your shoulders or face. Don’t think about how you look, or what you’re trying to achieve: just let your body be.

Breathe

Begin by breathing naturally, focusing on the air going in and out of your lungs. Picture the air moving into your nose and down through your chest, into your lungs, and down into your belly.

Let your mind go

Don’t worry too much about making your mind be ‘still’. If thoughts or other distractions wander into your head, simply let them pass by. Keep bringing your mind back to the breath.

Practice!

When and how long you meditate is entirely up to you. Some people may find they are more focused in the morning right after they wake up, while others choose to meditate at night before they go to bed. Find what works for you and make it a habit.

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