Meditation Comes West

Space does not allow us to trace the entire history of meditation in the west. Certainly, some very old practices in western religions such as different kinds of prayer and chanting have much in common with some eastern practices but sitting quietly for its own sake is a relatively recent arrival in Europe and the Americas.

The very word meditation had meanings that differed in the east and west. In the east, it is conceived as inner quiet that opens one to the larger reality in which one is immersed. In the west, it was generally associated with contemplation of a particular subject. One meditated on something. One might say that in the west meditation meant a way of working with thoughts, while in the east it had to do with letting thoughts settle down.

A few highlights of the movement of meditation westward are worth noting. In 1893, an Indian swami named Vivekananda was invited to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He electrified the audience with his message of the unity of religions. He said the meeting ground of them all was the perfect silence of meditation. He led the way for other Indian teachers who followed him west to England, Europe and North America. Wide acceptance of these strange men from the east was not to happen for several decades, but now pockets of seekers were meditating.

After the Second World War, Allied soldiers returned home after serving in the Pacific theatre. Many had intimate contact with local cultures. The westward flow of Asian practices increased. Elements of Japanese culture held appeal for many servicemen and women, especially the warrior philosophies of the Samurai. The Samurai approach to life and death was informed by Zen Buddhism and the practice of meditation. Westerners were fascinated by the dignity of those practitioners who seemed impervious to suffering. Some stayed in Japan and entered monasteries to learn the unique Zen way of life that had great appeal when contrasted with the horrors of war. Those who subsequently returned home brought Buddhist meditation with them.

Influences from India, China, Tibet and Japan found expression in the writings of such American authors as Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg in late 1950’s. It was the time of the beat generation whose members initiated the cultural revolutions of the 1960’s. Western researchers in medicine and psychology began to look more closely at relaxation, biofeedback and the workings of consciousness, pushed in part by the growing interest in eastern practices.

In 1962, a little known Indian sage named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi published his books on “The Science of Being” and “The Art of Living”. In these, he introduced the method he called Transcendental Meditation. By the end of the 1960’s, his followers included the Beatles and other public figures. This helped raise the profile and acceptance of meditation to new heights as it entered popular culture.

After this, eastern philosophies and practices spread widely. Books were written, centres for study established and eastern martial arts popularized. People like Bruce Lee captivated the public imagination with displays of skill founded on meditation combined with rigorous physical training. The Dalai Lama started to have a significant influence on western thought and became a world leader in the eyes of many.

Meditation had entered the mainstream.

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