The History and Development of Meditation - By Briony Bassett-Lowe
The English word ‘Meditation’ stems from the Latin term ‘meditatum’, meaning ‘to ponder’. Meditation has evolved over many thousands of years and is still changing and developing to this day.
Although we do not know exactly when people began to meditate, there is evidence from archaeological findings suggesting early mankind were practitioners of some forms of meditation. Evidence was found of this through cave paintings, of early man gazing into the flames of his fire.
Aboriginal Australians, one of the oldest known civilisations on Earth, can trace their ancestries back to over 75,000 years ago. They practice the meditative practice ‘Dadirri’, which means deep listening and silent awareness.
This practice was passed down through the generations orally as they knew no writing. Listening to the story teller was vital to retell the story accurately to the next generation of story-tellers. Deep listening describes the process of deep and respectful listening to build a community. When Aboriginal people experience dadirri, they are made to feel whole again and find peace in the silent awareness. Dadirri also means an awareness of where you have come from, where you are here, where you belong and where you are going now. It is can be used as a tool to quieten the mind, to be still and to wait. This practice is still used today, not just by Indigenous people, and can even be accessed through mainstream outlets like YouTube.
The earliest written records of meditation come from Hindu traditions, in India. This form of evidence of meditation is found in the Tantras. These are ancient Hindu scriptures written in India over 5000 years ago. Upanishad Hindu texts discuss meditation as way of removing ignorance and to acquire knowledge and oneness with the Absolute. The state of attaining oneness of the practitioner’s spirit and the absolute is called Moksha in Hinduism. Meditation is central to the Hindu religion.
Buddhism began in Lumbini, near the borders of Nepal and India, around 500AD. Siddharta Gaumata was born a prince and it was predicted that he would either become a great king or spiritual leader. When he was 29 he was confronted with suffering and impermanence, when on a rare outing from his palace. He saw someone very ill, the next day an old man, then he someone who had died. He turned his back on his wealth and privilege and left the palace secretly, leaving his son and wife behind in search of realising full enlightenment. He met many meditation teachers on his journey and learnt their techniques. It was in Bodhagaya, whilst sitting under a Banyan tree, that he gained this full spiritual insight. After his enlightenment, Buddha travelled throughout northern India and shared his knowledge and understanding to others, from all castes and professions. Meditation is the heart of Buddhism still today, as it is a comprehensible way to achieve peace of mind and generosity of spirit.
Christian meditation dates back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were the first monks living in the desert areas of the Middle East around the second century AD. The desert monks gathered to hear scripture recited in public and would then recite them privately. They would use meditation as a way into the soul and they created a quiet sanctuary from the busyness of ordinary man in the desert. Their wisdom and guidance was passed down to St Benedict. He was born in Italy in 480AD and was known as the ‘father of Western monasticism’. His Rule was a book of precepts St Benedict wrote for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot. It consisted of a daily routine of pray, study and manual labour, which shaped Christianity for nearly 1500 years. Christian meditation is still widely used today, as a peaceful focus on God.
There are descriptions of meditation practise in the Torah, when Abraham connected with God in the morning, Isaac in the afternoon and Jacob in the evening. During the time of Tanna’im, Jewish mystics sought to elevate their souls by meditating on the chariot visions of Ezekiel. This contemplation practise became known as merkavah mysticism. A skilled prayer-leader would improvise on the existing themes of prayer, which evolved to being written down and by the Middle Ages became the forms used today. Kabbalah, which is a branch of the mystical tradition, began around 1000AD. It includes all kinds of contemplative and meditative practices and is still practised today. The practices elevate the mind to a higher plane of consciousness. Kabbalah meditation aims to make the practitioners true carriers of the light, uniting one’s soul with god. It brings with it a sense of peace and happiness through this connection with God.
The Sufis and Islam
Sufism is an ancient Islamic tradition that dates back as far as 1400 years. Sufism is the practise in which Muslims seek to connect with Allah through self-reflection and contemplation. Sufism developed its certain practice of meditation including a focus on breathing and the use of mantras. There was a focus on person piety and a shunning of material goods. Techniques were passed on to others over time, with some mental and physical exercises created to support the ongoing development of communion with Allah.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) originates from ancient Hindu traditions but was created and introduced in the 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. His mission was to teach and spread the concept of TM around the world. The Maharishi initiated thousands of people, including famously the Beatles, then he devised a teacher training course as a way of bringing TM to more people. TM is a form of silent mantra meditation, practised for 20 minutes, twice a day.
Mindfulness practices were inspired by Buddhism and Zen traditions and have grown increasingly popular over the past 40 years. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme in the 1970s. This programme has been instrumental in bringing the benefits of mindfulness practise, without any religious links, to the public. MSBR uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, yoga and exploration of patterns of behaviour, thinking, feeling and action. The basis of MBSR is mindfulness, which Kabat-Zinn defined as “moment-to-moment, non-judgemental awareness”. It was originally designed for stress management, but is used today for treating illnesses such as depression, anxiety and chronic pain.
The development of the main schools of meditation
Buddhism was founded by the royal prince Gautama Siddhartha, who abandoned his life of luxury and privilege around 500BC in order to seek spiritual enlightenment. He attained this enlightenment which provided both the truth and answers to the causes of suffering and permanent release from it. The most important doctrines Buddha taught included the Four Noble Truths. The first being that life is suffering (dukkha). Life as we live it is full of the pleasures of the body and mind but pleasures do not represent lasting happiness. The second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by attachment and desire (Samudaya). The three ultimate causes of suffering are greed, ignorance and hatred. The third noble truth is our suffering can end though discipline, effort and by following Buddha’s teachings (Nirodha). Becoming enlightened is being filled with compassion for all living things. The fourth noble truth is the truth of the path to the end of suffering (Magga) is to follow Buddha’s other main teaching known as the Eightfold Path.
After the Kalings war (c. 260BCE), the ruler in India, Ashoka the great, renounced violence and embraced Buddhism. He spread the Buddha’s visions throughout India and sent missionaries to other countries including Sri Lanka, China, Thailand and Greece. Buddhism became more popular in China and Sri Lanka than it ever had in India.
Buddhism is now one of the four largest religions in the world. There are over 500 million practising Buddhists in the world, each following their own understanding of the Eightfold Path and spreading the message that one only has to suffer in life as much as one wants to and there is a way which leads to peace.
Zen meditation, part of Mahayana Buddhism, is an ancient Buddhist tradition that dates back to the Tang Dynasty in 6th century China. It is also known as Zen Buddhism. It was brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma. From its Chinese origins, where it was called Ch’an, it spread to Korea in the 7th century CE and to Japan in the 12th century CE, places, along with Vietnam, where it is still practised today.
Zen teaches us that we have the potential to attain enlightenment as we all have a Buddhist nature within ourselves, but our Buddhist natures have been clouded with ignorance. It rejects scriptures and religious practices and is in its most simplistic form mindfulness meditation used in everything that is done. Enlightenment can be achieved through meditation, self-contemplation and intuition, instead of through faith and devotion. It is a way of life, living completely in the moment.
Zen Buddhism became very popular in the West from the mid-20th century. The Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, founded a Zen monastery in Plum Village, South West France in 1982. Under his spiritual leadership, it grew from a rural farmstead to what is now the West’s largest and most active Buddhist monastery. Over 10,000 people visit each year from around the world, to learn “the art of mindful living’. As a young monk Thich Nhat Hanh was actively involved in the movement to renew Vietnamese Buddhism. He was exiled from his native Vietnam for almost four decades. Thich Nhat Hanh has played a key role in introducing Zen mindfulness around the world with wisdom and compassion.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) is based on ancient Hindu traditions and its purpose is to bring inner calm to your daily life and to bring your mental, physical and spiritual capacities to their fullest potential. TM spread through the world from the 1950s to this day, through the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He came to the west in the 1960s after meeting the Beatles in India. The Beatles became meditators through TM.
Transcendental Meditation does not belong to any religious faith, belief system or lifestyle. It is thought of as an elitist practise as it can only be learned through an approved TM teacher, at a cost. The course can take place in several sessions, in as little as a weekend. A personal mantra is assigned to the pupil by the teacher, which come from the Vedic traditions of India. This mantra is then repeated twice a day for 20 minutes each session. Transcendental Meditation is very popular in the USA and there are many TM centres all over the world. It is now one of the most commonly used meditation techniques used. It is an area of meditation which is one of the most researched and is still being researched today. Many well-known celebrities are TM advocates, including Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah, Paul McCartney and Clint Eastwood.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the most influential advocates to mindfulness in the West. He developed his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme in the 1970s. It addressed the unsolved problem of stress and stress-related illnesses for patients who were not finding sufficient relief from stress and chronic pain within the standard medical model of care. Jon Kabat-Zinn was first introduced to meditation by a Zen missionary who gave a speech at the college where he was a student in 1965. His MBSR programme is an eight week course which combines mindfulness meditation practices and Hatha yoga. Today his model is used in over 700 clinics, medical centres and hospitals around the world. Mindfulness courses derived from his work are being used in the UK to school children, convicts and civil servants.
In 1975 Sharon Salzberg, along with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, established the first western meditation centre in the US: The Insight Meditation Society. Sharon Salzberg is a pioneer in the field of meditation and she has played a crucial role in bringing mediation and mindfulness into mainstream culture. Sharon has written many books and articles and she is known for her accessible down-to-earth teachings. Sharon Salzberg offers a secular, modern approach to Buddhism teachings. Her emphasis is on vipassanã (insight) and mettã (lovingkindness) methods.
More recently, in 2002 Mindfulness-Based-Cognitive-Therapy (MBCT) was developed by Welsh psychologist Mark Williams. He worked with colleagues at Cambridge and Toronto to combine the US programme of MBSR founded by Kabat-Zinn with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It is now being prescribed on the NHS in some areas to prevent recurrent depression, with 2256 people completing the eight-week course in 2016.
Today mindfulness is very much in the public consciousness, given the current climate of Covid and the stresses and pressures of daily life. On the current NHS website, Mark Williams writes about the importance of being mindful and how it can help mental wellbeing, just by being fully present with what is. Mindfulness has a long history and is still evolving and changing.