Origins

The practice of meditation is probably older than civilization. Today it is used worldwide in a variety of ways, for spiritual practice, self-development and medical/psychological therapy. Despite this, its origins will probably always have an air of mystery about them.

It may be that there were individuals practicing the art of sitting quietly long before it started to become part of any specific tradition. Some investigators suggest that the earliest forms of meditation might have involved the effects of staring into a fire. Anyone who has done this knows its allure and comforting effects.

Being still and quiet also allows the mind to think, plan and contemplate more easily than when engaged in the immediate necessities of survival. Being still is a requirement for hunting and this too might have played a role in the emergence of sitting quietly as a practice for its own sake.
The oldest records of meditation come from India, dating back to about 5000 years ago. Scriptures from that time, also known as Tantras, included drawings of figures in yoga poses. It was thought that being inwardly quiet was a way of joining oneself with the larger reality, the Supreme Absolute or God. ‘Yoga’ is a very old Sanskrit word meaning to ‘yoke’ or join with God. The stretching exercises now associated with the term yoga were originally designed to relax the body so that one could sit quietly for longer to deepen the divine connection.

One of the best-known figures in the history of meditation is Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha. He lived around 2500 years ago and is said to have used meditation to achieve his personal awakening to the truth about reality. Buddhism as a religion spread far beyond the borders of India into Tibet, China and most of Asia. Meditation was the main practice of this religion and its spread inevitably led to the evolution of meditative techniques and practices.

3000 year-old records from China refer to meditation in terms of merging oneself with nature. This was well before the arrival of Buddhism. In those days, Taoism emerged in China as both a philosophy and a religion. Meditation was an important part of its practice and it contained ideas remarkably similar to those of Buddhism. The need for a quiet mind and body to optimize spiritual practice is central to both traditions. When Buddhists and Taoists met in China some time between 1000 and 1500 years ago, one result was the emergence of Zen Buddhism that found its way to Japan as a distinct form of practice.

Cross-pollination of this kind has continued to the present with types of meditation and techniques proliferating worldwide. Nevertheless, they all share the idea of being still and using or quieting the mind in some fashion. Meditation practices remain heavily influenced by Eastern culture but our understanding of meditation has grown significantly as a result of Western scientific thought.

Next: Meditation Comes West

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