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, 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 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.