Giving that it originates from the East, we all know that people have been practicing meditation for a long time; but did you know that it’s possible that meditation may have been practiced even in prehistoric times?
That’s right; some researchers speculate that primitive hunter-gatherer societies may have discovered meditation and its altered states of consciousness while staring at the flames of their fires (some people even today stare in fire in order to focus their thoughts).
Origins of Meditation
Some of the earliest written records of meditation date to 1500BC in Hindu Vedantism (the Vedas are ancient Indian scriptures that discuss the meditative traditions of ancient India), and around 500-600BC Taoists in China and Buddhists in India began to develop meditative practices.
The Buddha, one of the biggest proponents in the history of meditation, has been around since 500 BC, and his teachings were soon spread across India. The first written records of Buddhist meditation are the records of the Pali Canon (the standard collection of scriptures in the Buddhist tradition, preserved in the Pali language) which date to 1st century BC. These records mention meditation as a step along the path of salvation which can be achieved through the observance of the rules of morality, contemplative concentration, knowledge and liberation.
Meditation as a practice has been introduced to other oriental countries via the Silk Road (the series of regional routes used for trade and cultural transmission across the continent). Many separate countries have adopted different forms of meditation creating their own special ways of practicing it. The first meditation hall was opened in Japan in 653.
But West didn’t wait this long: according to Wikipedia, by 20 BC Philo of Alexandria had written on some form of “spiritual exercises” involving attention (prosoche) and concentration and by the 3rd century Plotinus had developed meditative techniques, which however did not attract a following among Christian meditators.
Meditation has also been used in other religions: there are indications throughout the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) that Judaism always contained a central meditative tradition, and in the Torah the patriarch Isaac is described as doing some form of meditative practice in the field. In Islam, the practice of Dhikr had involved the repetition of the 99 Names of God, and the followers of Sufism practiced breathing controls and the repetition of holy words.
In the Middle Ages meditative practices continued to arrive in Japan from China, and were subjected to modification. Around 1227 a a Japanese Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen wrote the instructions for Zazen, or sitting meditation. Jewish meditation also grew and changed, so it became a deeply religious activity that involves Kabbalistic practices involving prayer, mizvot and study.
Meditation and Christianity
Eastern Christian meditation can be traced back to the Byzantine period. It involved the repetition of a phrase in a specific physical posture. Hesychasm, Christian practice of prayer and retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God, was developed between the 10th and 14th centuries on Mount Athos in Greece (this practice continues to the present).
Western Christian meditation progressed from the 6th century practice of Bible reading called “Lectio Divina” (“divine reading”). It is different from most other approaches in that it doesn’t involve the repetition of any phrase or action and requires no specific posture. The word that is used in the West – “meditate” – comes from the Latin root ”meditatum”, which means “to ponder”.
Meditation in the Modern Times
Despite the early historic origins and development of meditation via Buddhism, it remained confined almost exclusively within Asia until the middle of the 20th century. Before that the study of Buddhism in the West was a topic for intellectuals such as Schopenhauer and Voltaire.
In the 1890s the Hindu reform movements introduced the new schools of yoga. Yoga slowly gained in popularity in the West, introducing the Eastern meditative techniques and oriental religions. Some of the schools were designed as non-religious, for use by non-Hindus, so the Western people started practicing secular forms of meditation, such as Transcendental meditation taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s and 1970s.
These non-religious meditative techniques don’t focus on spiritual growth (although they can be used that way as well) but they rather emphasize stress reduction, relaxation and self-improvement. Researchers learned of the multitude of benefits that meditation had to offer as they began testing the effects of it.
Among other benefits that practically anyone can get through meditation, the deep rest that a person achieves through meditation can rid him or her of stress, influencing both mental and physical health.
People today use meditative techniques to help them quit smoking and to put a stop to alcohol and drug addictions, to reduce blood pressure and lower the symptoms of menopause and premenstrual syndrome – simply, it has been proven to be able to help a person in a multitude of ways.
Meditation has even entered the western medicine – there are more and more doctors who prescribe this natural yet highly powerful remedy and preventative measure as an overall mental and physical wellness tool.
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