Month: June 2019

The History of Meditation: A Brief Timeline of Practices and Traditions

Meditation started to become really mainstream around the turn of the millennium—but few people are aware of how old and broad this art really is, and how it got developed in different parts of the world. In this short essay, I’ll attempt to give a general map of the history of meditation, and its many contemplative traditions.

The information in this article was collected from my years of study in different traditions. Other than that, it’s not easy to find this information laid out like this, as each tradition tends to focus only on its own history, and offers just one piece of the puzzle.

Understanding the bigger picture of meditation will allow you to discover which tradition or which type of meditation you would like to explore.

At the end of this page you can download a free PDF of this article.

Finally, part of the material here was also published in my new book Practical Meditation, and is reproduced here with the permission of Dorling Kindersley Limited (DK).

1. Cave Yogis and Vedic Sages

Meditation was first developed in India, a very long time ago. The oldest documented evidence of the practice of meditation are wall arts in the Indian subcontinent from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE, showing people seated in meditative postures with half-closed eyes.

The oldest written mention of meditation is from 1,500 BCE in the Vedas. That is the time when the Vedas made it to paper, but it must be understood that the Vedas had been memorized and passed down as an oral tradition for centuries, long before they were finally written down.

During this ancient time, meditation was a practice for religious people and wandering ascetics, who through it sought to transcend the limitations of human life, connect with universal forces (personified as deities), and union with the transcendental reality (called Brahman in the Vedas).

The Hindu tradition of meditation includes both the Yogis meditating in caves, as well as the Sages (rishis) of the Vedic culture. It is the oldest meditation tradition on Earth—still alive and thriving. It has hundreds of lineages and techniques.

The modern Yoga movement, which emphasizes postures and breathing exercises, is an adaptation of just one of these hundreds of Yogic schools (the Hatha Yoga school). In general, Yoga is a wisdom tradition whose core is meditation and spiritual development—not a system of stretches and breathing practices.

2. The Buddha

In the 6th century BCE, Siddhartha Gautama abandoned his royal life as a prince and set out to attain Enlightenment. In this process, he learned meditation and philosophy from the best Yogis he could find in his region.

After a while, still dissatisfied with what he learned, he diverged from that tradition and created his own methodology. He achieved the Enlightenment he sought and became the Buddha. He then spent the next decades of his life teaching meditation and spiritual awakening to thousands of people.

Over the next several centuries, Buddhism spread all over Asia, and many different lineages were formed. Nowadays, the Buddhist styles of meditation (Vipassana, Samatha, Loving-Kindness) are perhaps the most widely practiced forms of meditation in the West.

3. Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism

In the same “golden century” as the Buddha, three other religions were born, all with their own approaches to meditation. They are:

  • Jainism in India (founded by Mahavira)
  • Taoism in China (founded by Lao Tze)
  • Confucianism in China (founded by Confucius).

Jainism is a very ascetic tradition that places great emphasis on self-purification, self-discipline, contemplation, and non-violence. The Jain meditation techniques involve mantra repetition, gazing, breath awareness, visualizations, and self-inquiry,

Taoism emphasizes union with Tao, or cosmic life/nature. You can learn more about Taoistic meditation here, and check the chapters on Zuowang and Neiguan in my book for step-by-step practices from this tradition.

Confucianism focuses more on morality and community life. Meditation was developed in this tradition centuries later, with a focus on self-contemplation and self-improvement. It is called Jing Zuo.

These traditions are still alive today, although not as popular outside their home countries as Buddhism and Yoga are.

4. Greek Philosophers

The Greek philosophers, partially under the lively influence of sages and yogis of India, developed their own version of meditation. Such cultural influence was enhanced by Alexander the Great’s military exploits of India (327–325 BCE), which brought both cultures in touch.

In the words of the scholar George Feuerstein, in his excellent book The Psychology of Yoga:

“Plato and Aristotle, as well as the historian Herodotus, freely admitted the influence of the Orient upon Greek thought. (…) For the Greeks, the Indian sages exemplified the highest virtues of the philosophical life that they themselves sought. The Greeks admired the sages’ apparent immunity to pain and discomfort, as well as their disinterest in pleasure and what the Greeks saw as their contempt of death.”

Greek philosophers practiced navel-gazing (omphaloskepsis), as an aid to philosophical contemplation. Later on, philosophers Philo of Alexandria and Plotinus also developed meditation techniques, especially involving concentration.

The influence of Eastern thought and contemplative traditions on the West was cut once Christianity began to dominate Europe—and for many centuries. It was only in the 20th century that the dialogue East-West began to flourish again.

5. Christian Mysticism

Christian mystics developed their own form of meditation, mostly based on the repetition of a religious word or phrase, and the silent contemplation of God.

One form of Christian meditation is called Jesus Prayer, which was developed between the 10th and 14th centuries in Greece, in the Hesychasm Christian tradition. Historians speculate that this group of Christians might have had contact with the Sufis and the Indians, which is where the influence of meditation might have come from.

Another form is found in the Eastern Christian sect, also involves repetition of a phrase, and is much older than Hesychasm.

Further developments of Christian meditation happened by the work of Benedictine monks, Ignatius of LoyolaTeresa of Avila (16th century), and the Trappist monks.

To learn more, check out my article on Christian Meditation.

6. Zen Buddhism

Zen is a popular school of Buddhism founded by the Indian/Persian monk Bodhidharma, who in the 8th century traveled to China to teach meditation. From that point, his teachings developed into the lineage of Chan in China, being later exported into Korean (Seon), Japan (Zen), and Vietnam (Thien). All of these are known collectively as “Zen”. In all of these lineages, there is a strong influence of Taoism and Chinese culture, which partially explains the uniqueness of Zen in relation to other Buddhist traditions.

Nowadays the many types of Zazen—which is the meditation technique of Japanese Zen—are still popular forms of meditation in the West. Some lineages of Zen also emphasize the practice of Koans as a form of meditation.

7. Sufism

The tradition of the Sufis (the mystics of Islam) goes as far as 1,400 years back. Sufism, under some influence of Indian contemplative traditions, developed meditation practices based on breathing, mantra, and gazing.

The core of their practices is connecting with God (Allah). They also developed their iconic Sufi whirling, which can be seen in Turkey even today.

To learn more, check out my article on Sufi Meditation, and the chapter Sufi Heartbeat Meditation in my book.

8. Jewish Meditation

The Jewish esoteric tradition of Kabbalah, especially under the influence of Abraham Abulafia (1240–1291) and some later contemplatives, also developed its own forms of meditation. These are mostly based on the deep contemplation of philosophical principles, names of God, symbols, prayers, and the Tree of Life.

9. Modern Western World

In the 1700s, several texts of Eastern philosophy began to be translated into European languages—especially the UpanishadsBhagavad Gita, and Buddhist Sutras. By the 18th century, the study of Buddhism in the West was a topic for intellectuals, with the philosopher Schopenhauer being perhaps one of its most famous admirers.

In the US, major figures of the Transcendentalist movement—such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—were also admirers of the ideals of Eastern philosophy and spirituality.

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 (1893) triggered a big interest in Americans in 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, 

As a result of his influence, in the 20th Century several famous Indian spiritual teachers migrated to the USA, including: Paramahansa Yogananda (Self-Realization Fellowship), Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (teaching Transcendental Meditation) and Swami Rama (Himalayan Institute). Likewise, representatives of several schools of Buddhism made their way to teach in the West—the main ones being 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.

10. The Era of Meditation and Science

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 alphadeltatheta and gamma brain waves on demand.
  • Remaining fully conscious of his environment while his brain was in deep sleep.

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.

A Brief History of Meditation

Meditators swear by the practice’s ability to bring enduring positive change into their lives. But where does meditation come from? What are its origins? Who thought it up?

We don’t really know. The earliest records of meditation practice date from approximately 1500 years BCE (Before Common Era). It seems to have been an integral part of the earliest forms of the Vedic, or early Hindu, schools in India. In the 6th to 4th centuries BCE, the Chinese Taoist and Indian Buddhist traditions began to develop their own versions of meditation practice. Further west, early forms of meditation practice were developed by such notable figures as Philo of Alexandria, the Desert Fathers of the Middle East, and Saint Augustine.

The origins of meditation

The English word “meditation” stems from meditatum, a Latin term meaning “to ponder.” Although we can’t know when, exactly, people began to meditate, experts agree that the practice probably began many thousands of years ago, before the birth of modern civilization. When scholars look to establish the origins of meditation, they first have to decipher ancient texts and recorded hieroglyphs to find references to this discipline. Several archaeological findings suggest that hunter-gatherers were practitioners of some forms of meditation, as were early shamans. Their knowledge was passed down orally from one generation to the next, helping to lay the crucial foundations of modern meditation.

It can be difficult to pin down the origins of meditation because there are so many practices that fall under the “meditation” umbrella. Is it mindfulness? Contemplation? Communion? Chanting? Trance? See What are the Different Types of Meditation to understand the variety of practices of what might be meant by the term “meditation.”

Meditation in the East

Although many forms of meditation can be found in ancient religious traditions around the world, the practice as a formal component of a spiritual path is probably most closely associated with Buddhism. The Buddha, who lived and taught in Southeast Asia about 2600 years ago, founded an experiential path that inspired generations of practitioners to sit in mindful awareness and breathe their way to lasting peace. According to his teachings, meditative concentration is one of three trainings that when practiced together result in awakening, or enlightenment. The other two are proper ethical conduct and the wisdom of seeing things as they truly are.

Men and women who gained insight and wisdom by putting the Buddha’s teachings into practice taught others. And seekers would travel to learn from great teachers who often lived in cultures far removed from their own, then bring the teachings back home. At one point, people were practicing some form of Buddhist meditation from the territories of modern-day Afghanistan to Mongolia and from Japan to Indonesia. Buddhism is known to be a spiritual practice that has adapted to the cultures of the regions where it has taken root.

An example of this is Zen meditation. In the 7th century, the Japanese monk Dosho traveled to China where he studied Buddhism under the great master Hsuan Tsang. Upon returning to Japan, he opened a meditation hall and started teaching a form of sitting meditation that became known as zazen. This has given rise to generations of Japanese monks and nuns whose primary practice is sitting meditation.

Meditation moves west

In modern times, the art of meditation has mainly been associated with Asian spiritual traditions such as Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism, to name but a few. Western interest in Eastern religions and philosophies seems to have begun in earnest in the 19th century due to colonialism and improved means of transportation and communication. In those days it was mainly the domain of scholars and missionaries.

Eastern philosophy caught the attention of western “seekers” and artists as early as the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that meditation became popularized in the West. This period saw the arrival of meditation masters from the East who were invited to share their skills and knowledge with interested students. There were also many western students of mindfulness who were able to travel east and train under great masters in India, Thailand, Burma and other Asian countries, then bring their understanding of mindfulness and awareness practices back home and share it.

One of the most influential figures in the sphere of mindfulness today is Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. His program, MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), has been instrumental in bringing the benefits of mindfulness practice – without any religious overtones – to the public attention and scientific communities worldwide.

The History and Origin of Meditation

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne is quoted as having once said ‘The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.’ Never is this truer in our current, fast-paced society.

With so many demands on our time and minds, it takes conscious effort to take a moment and allow ourselves the time we need to explore who we truly are. Even when we do make time, many people are stuck on how to actually do this. The practice of meditation has certainly been recognized as a key method that can help.

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).

You may already have a meditation practice that works for you, or you may be new to the concept and looking to build your knowledge and understanding of how meditation can bring value to your daily life. Either way, the history of meditation is fascinating and well worth exploring.

How Old is Meditation?

The answer to that question is more complex than you might think. Different research, books, and schools of meditation refer to the ‘age-old tradition’, but as to how long meditation has been around as practice really depends on your definition of the concept.

Davanger (2008) reviewed a cross-section of research looking at meditation and speculated that the practice might be as old as humanity itself with the potential meditative capacities of Neanderthals. There are more schools of thought that have placed the origin of meditation within a structured set of practices and techniques based on artifacts and references in Eastern countries.

Below are the main two, and how far they date back.

  • India – In some of the oldest written records from around 1500 BCE in India, the practice of Dhyāna or Jhāna is referenced as the training of the mind, often translated as meditation. Many of these records come from the Hindu traditions of Vedantism and discuss the various meditation practices across ancient India. Buddhist Indian scriptures and texts dating back to only a few hundred BC are even earlier recordings of the practice, but many argue that these are somewhat ambiguous in their references directly to meditation.
  • China – Early forms of meditation are referenced as far back as the 3rd and 6th century BC and linked to the Daoist, Laozi, an ancient Chinese philosopher, and his writings. In this work, many of the terms used in later centuries to describe meditation techniques are used, including:
    • Shou Zhong – roughly translated as ‘guarding the middle’
    • Bao Yi – roughly translated as ‘embracing the one’
    • Shou Jing – roughly translated as ‘guarding tranquility’
    • Bao Pu – roughly translated as ‘embracing simplicity’

However, some argue that it is difficult to tell if these were already widely used techniques when the text was written, or if they were newly created terms for the text. Other writings from the early centuries that describe meditative practices include the Zhuangzi from the late Warring States period, roughly 476–221 BC, and the Neiye from the 4th century BC.

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.

Where Did Meditation Originate?

Much like pinning down how long meditation has been around for, pinpointing where exactly it originates is equally tricky.

The earliest written records come from Hindu traditions, in India, of Vendatism from around 1500 BCE. Vendatism is a school of philosophy and is one of the earliest known Indian paths for spiritual enlightenment. Other forms of meditation are then cited around the 6th and 5th centuries BCE within Taoist China and Buddhist India.

The precise origins are heavily debated, especially around Buddhist meditation (Wynne, 2007). Some early written accounts of the different states of meditation in Buddhism in India can be found in the sutras of the Pāli Canon, which dates back to the 1st century BCE. The Pāli Canon is a collection of scriptures from the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

Some evidence has also connected meditative practices with Judaism, thought to be inherited from its earlier traditions. The Torah (the first five books of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible) contains a description of the patriarch Isaac going to ‘lasuach’ in a field. This term is generally understood as being some form of meditation (Kaplan, 1985).

Do We Know Who Created/Invented Meditation?

In a nutshell, no we don’t. Because the where and when are quite hazy, discovering the who is equally ambiguous. Some of what we do know, however, indicates a few core people who have been instrumental in spreading the practice of meditation. Below I’ve outlined three of the key people, but there are many others who were equally prominent in sharing and spreading the practice of meditation.

The Buddha (India)

The Buddha, known by other names including Siddhārtha Gautama in Sanskrit or Siddhattha Gotama in Pali, was a prince who became a monk, sage, philosopher and religious leader. It is his teachings on which Buddhism was founded.

Because of this, it might be easy to assume that the Buddha created or invented meditation but this is not true. Buddhism texts refer to many different practices of meditation and the Buddha sought out other enlightened teachers to learn the practice and ways of self-fulfillment from. Although he was instrumental in spreading the value of meditation as a practice, the Buddha himself did not invent it.

Lao-Tze (China)

Lao-Tze, also known by Lao-Tzu and Laozi, was an ancient Chinese philosopher whose name is essentially an honor title meaning ‘Old Teacher’ or ‘Old Master’.

He is credited as the author of the Tao-te-Ching, a work of text that exemplifies his thoughts and teachings that founded the philosophical system of Taoism, which references meditative practices and the idea of wisdom in silence. There is much speculation as to whether Lao-Tze actually existed as a single man, or whether the name refers to a collection of individuals and philosophers who shared the same ideas.

Dosho (Japan)

Dosho was a Japanese monk who, in the 7th century, traveled to China and studied Buddhism under Hsuan Tsang, a great master at the time. It was during this journey that Dosho learned all about the process of Zen, which he then returned to Japan with.

When he returned, he opened his first meditation hall dedicated to the practice of Zazen, a sitting meditation. He created a community of monks and students with a primary focus on teaching this form of meditation in Japan.

A Look at the Origin and Roots of Meditation

Although meditation as a practice today is pretty common and widespread, it’s good to understand that the origins and roots of meditation go back a long way. Today, meditation has been and continues to be adapted to suit our lives and going back to its roots can help you to develop a strong appreciation for how broad the practice is, as well as how it developed across different countries at different points in time.

Below I’ve given a brief writeup of these origins and roots:

India, Vendatism, and Yogis

The oldest documented images of meditation are from India and date back to 5000 to 3500 BCE. Wall art paintings depict people sitting in meditative-like seated postures with their eyes half closed, presumed to be deep in meditation.

The oldest documented text of meditation is also from India, from the Hindu traditions of Vendatism, from around 1500 BCE. Although the Vedas created texts describing meditative practices it’s important to know that these had previously been passed down orally through storytelling practices for centuries.

Alongside the Vedic practice, Hindu traditions also describe the Yogi practice of meditating in caves. It is believed that many modern practices of meditation stem from this lineage, including the modern yoga movement whose techniques are predominantly based on the Hatha Yoga practice.

Although it’s good to understand that the origin of these techniques is based in meditation for spiritual development, not the common practice of stretches and movement many Western schools teach today.

Buddhism in India

Meditation is often most closely attached to Buddhism, even though the image of the Buddha meditating on a lotus didn’t come until much later, a long time after Buddhism itself began. In the classical language of Buddhism, meditation is referred to as bhāvanā, meaning mental development, or dhyāna, meaning a mental calmness.

The various techniques and practices for meditation are many. Around the same time that Buddhism was growing, three other practices were also developing, each with their own way of approaching meditation. Although these are not as popular globally as Buddhism, they’re worth knowing about:

  1. Mahavira and Jainism in India – Tirthankara Mahavira, also known as Vardhamāna, is credited with reviving Jainism. Tirthankara means ‘Ford Maker’ and the word indicates a founder of a ‘tirtha’ – a passage across the sea of births and deaths. Mahavira was the twenty-fourth Tirthankara. He put forward the spiritual, and ethical teachings of the Tirthankaras from the pre-Vedic era that led to the revival of Jainism in India. As a practice, Jainism places a strong emphasis on self-discipline and contemplation, as well as non-violence. The meditative techniques in Jainism specifically focus on mantras, visualizations, and breathing.
  2. Lao Tze and Taoism in China – Although there is some dispute over whether Lao Tze existed as a single person, or whether the title refers to a collective of individuals if he did exist it is thought this would have been around the 6th century BCE. Taoism places an emphasis on becoming one with ‘Tao’, meaning ‘cosmic life’ or nature. Traditional Taoist meditation techniques include a focus on mindfulness, contemplation and using visualization.
  3. Confucius and Confucianism in China – Confucius was a Chinese teacher, politician, and philosopher, who existed in the 6th century BCE. His teachings and thoughts were expressed through the philosophy now known as Confucianism and are still quite prominent in China today. Confucianism places an emphasis on personal growth, morality, and social justice. Meditation in Confucianism is known as Jing Zuo, and has a focus on self-improvement and contemplation.

Sufism and Meditation Practice

Sufism is an ancient Islamic tradition that dates back as far as 1400 years. It is a practice in which Muslims seek to connect with Allah (God) through self-reflection and contemplation, and through shunning material goods. It is thought that through some Indian influence, Sufism developed its particular practice of meditation that includes a focus on breathing and the use of mantras.

Judaism and Meditation Practice

As well as what is believed to be descriptions of meditation practice in the Torah, the Jewish esoteric method and school of thought of Kabbalah, also includes some of its own forms of meditation. These are generally based around deep thought on philosophical topics and prayer.

A History of Meditation in the West

Meditation first began to be of interest in the West in the 1700s, when some of the Eastern philosophy texts, containing references to meditation techniques and practices, were translated into different European languages.

This included:

  • The Upanishads – A collection of religious and philosophical texts from India, assumed to have been written between 800 and 500 century BCE.
  • The Bhagavad Gita – A Sanskrit scripture made of 700 verses that form part of the Mahabharata: a Hindu epic detailing the narrative between Pandava Prince Arjuna, and Krishna.
  • The Buddhist Sutras – Scriptures that are assumed to be the oral teachings of the Buddha.

By the 18th century, meditation was seen only as a topic for discussion and interest by philosophers and intellectuals, including Voltaire and Schopenhauer (Abelson, 2008). It wasn’t until the 20th century that meditation became more prominent, especially in the United States, when a prominent yogi, Swami Vivekananda, delivered a presentation at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

The presentation created a new surge of interest in Eastern models of spirituality in the West, and influenced a number of other spiritual teachers from India to migrate to the States including:

  • Swami Rama from the Himalayan Institute
  • Paramahansa Yogananda from the Self-Realization Fellowship
  • Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with his Transcendental Meditation practice

Alongside these teachers, spiritual representatives from different Buddhist schools of thought also began to migrate to the West including individuals from the Zen school of thought and the Theravada school of thought. Every time meditation has been introduced in a new place, it has been shaped by the individual culture it finds itself within.

With its introduction in the West, meditation began to become more removed from the religious connections and teachings of its roots and taught in more westernized ways. By the 1960s and 1970s, meditation was being researched via scientific studies, further removing its spiritual contexts and encouraging the practice to be used by anyone, not just those seeking spiritual fulfillment.

Benson (1967) began some of the first studies in the West to explore the impact of meditation on mental and physiological outcomes. Benson would go on to write his best selling book, The Relaxation Response, in 1975 and he also founded the Mind Body Medical Institute in the same year.

In the late 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn discovered meditation through his studies at MIT and also began investigating the potential health benefits of meditative practice. In 1979 he introduced his Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR) program and opened the Stress Reduction Clinic.

Around this time, Transcendental Meditation was growing in popularity too, with many celebrities turning to the practice to help them cope with fame, including The Beatles. Although during this time many meditation techniques were connected predominantly with Hippie culture and were not very mainstream. It wasn’t until the 1990s that this began to change.

In 1993 Deepak Chopra published his book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, and in 1996 it was featured on Oprah, selling more than 137,000 copies in one day. As more celebrities came forward to praise the practice of meditation in their lives, more books about the how-and-why to meditate began to appear.

In the 1990s, mindfulness was also growing in its applications. Williams, Teasdale, and Seagal (1995) further developed Jon Kabat-Zinn’s program to be used positively with individuals experiencing depression and anxiety. The Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) approach combined mindfulness with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with some excellent results.

The MBCT approach has been clinically approved by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence in the UK and is considered a ‘treatment of choice’ for depression.

By 2012, there were over 700 mindfulness-based programs available across the world and Kabat-Zinn’s original program was the main program used in research on meditation.

Today, mindfulness and meditation are prolific across Western society with resources and schools – both online and offline – available to help guide you to find a practice that works for you. The research and medical science communities continue to keep studying meditation’s benefits, with more and more studies demonstrating its positive implications for a range of mental and physical conditions.

8 Ways Meditation Can Improve Your Life

Shrimati Bhanu Narasimhan, a petite Indian woman wrapped in a bright fuchsia sari, has a soft voice but a big presence. She holds the rapt attention of some 100 people who have come to learn how to meditate at the Art of Living Center in the District of Columbia. The type of meditation she teaches is called Sahaj, Sanskrit for effortless. It’s a mantra-based meditation she advises doing twice a day for 20 minutes — before eating. “Mental hygiene,” Narasimhan calls it. Sahaj is just one type of meditation. Others are based on compassion, mindfulness, yoga and transcendentalism, among others. While their aims are different, they share common benefits. Here are eight of those.

Meditation reduces stress.

“Meditation is mind without agitation,” Narasimhan says. Stress creates agitation and is something most of us deal with on some level. And it’s increasing, given the rising use of anti-anxiety medications, notes Stanford University researcher Emma Seppälä. Meditation allows people to take charge of their own nervous system and emotions. “Studies have shown improved ability to [permanently] regulate emotions in the brain,” adds Seppälä, who is also the associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford. “It’s very empowering.”

It improves concentration.
“I’m more centered and focused in everything I do. I don’t find myself getting as distracted anymore,” says Sara Robinson of Indianapolis, who did the Sahaj course last February. The ER nurse and sky-diving instructor adds that multitasking is easier. At least one study has shown an improved ability to multitask, Seppälä says. “Meditation has been linked to a number of things that lead to increased ability to focus, memory … We’ve seen this at the level of the brain.” Greater concentration is related to the increased energy meditation provides. “It connects you with your real source of energy,” Narasimhan says.

It encourages a healthy lifestyle.

“I tend to want more things that are better for me,” Robinson says, adding that she eats more fresh foods and has cut out nearly all alcohol. She also stopped smoking. Susan Braden, who lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, and also did the Sahaj course, says the practice has made her apply the Hippocratic oath — “First, do no harm” — to herself. “You just want to put good things in your body,” she says. That means “closest to what’s natural. So if it doesn’t look like a tomato, I wouldn’t eat it.” Braden also gave up coffee, replacing it with tea.

The practice increases self-awareness.
Before Zaccai Free, a District of Columbia resident, began meditating in college two decades ago, he had a very short fuse – to the point, he says, of wanting to commit acts of violence. Meditation taught him to recognize his own anger and become more detached from it. It cleared his mind and calmed him down, he says. Mostly, “it made me more comfortable in my own skin,” adds Free, who does many types of meditation, including Sahaj, Agnihotra, laughter and walking meditations. “When you take more time to dive inside yourself, you are more comfortable showing who you are.”

It increases happiness.

“Meditation puts you on the fast track to being happy,” says Ronnie Newman, director of research and health promotion for the Art of Living Foundation, the umbrella organization for the Sahaj meditation course. Studies have shown that brain signaling increases in the left side of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for positive emotions, while activity decreases in the right side, responsible for negative emotions, Newman says. The other benefits of meditation, including increased self-awareness and acceptance, also contribute to improved overall well-being.

Meditation increases acceptance.
Braden was a high-profile senior policy advisor in the State Department, constantly on the go to trips around the world, until seven years ago, when she was struck by multiple sclerosis. She turned to meditation, and her world view flipped. “I have a disease which really brings you back to yourself,” Braden says. “Meditation helps me accept that. You explore your inner self and realize that’s just as big as traveling to Burma.” For Braden, learning to meditate has been harder than learning Arabic. “It’s a lifetime job. But it changes how you feel life, and it’s made it more enjoyable for me,” she says.

It slows aging.

Studies show that meditation changes brain physiology to slow aging. “Cognition seems to be preserved in meditators,” says Sara Lazar, a researcher at Harvard University. Lazar adds that meditators also have more gray matter – literally, more brain cells. Lazar’s colleague, Elizabeth Hoge, did a study that showed that meditators also have longer telomeres, the caps on chromosomes indicative of biological age (rather than chronological). That meditation lengthens life “may be a bit of a stretch,” Hoge says. “But there is something about meditation that is associated with longer telomeres … [perhaps that] it reduces stress and its effects on the body.”

The practice benefits cardiovascular and immune health.
Meditation induces relaxation, which increases the compound nitric oxide that causes blood vessels to open up and subsequently, blood pressure to drop. One study, published in 2008 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, showed that 40 of 60 high blood pressure patients who started meditating could stop taking their blood pressure medication. Meditation also improves immunity. “I hardly ever get sick anymore,” Robinson says. “I don’t think I’ve had a cold since I started this.”