How did meditation originate and what religion does it come from

How did meditation originate and what religion does it come from?

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The ancient practice of meditation has been used by civilizations around the world to calm and focus the mind toward greater physical and mental well-being. Through various techniques and approaches to find this calm, meditation is a practice that millions of people incorporate into their daily lives.

Where did meditation come from? Scholars suggest meditation dates back to hunter gatherers in the Indus River Valley around 5,000 B.C.E. They were depicted as engaging in meditative practices. Throughout history, almost all world religions developed some form of meditation, making its exact origins difficult to pinpoint. Modern meditation practices are generally attributed to Buddhism in India.

Meditation’s long and widespread history suggests that societies and religions around the world came to meditation as an important contributor to their belief systems and well-being. Early meditation was tied heavily to religion, bringing individuals and communities deeper spiritual connection. Today, meditation is practiced outside of its religious roots, becoming a ritual that has proven to provide positive health outcomes.  In addition there are new technologies that assist with meditation leading to a deeper understanding of ourselves.  These come in the form of apps, type tests and other analysis tools.

One of the apps mentioned above is Lasta – which is not just a meditation app but what we’d consider a “health tracker.”  The focus of the Lasta system is a proprietary CBT psychology program. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychological treatment that has been found effective for people with emotional and mental issues such as depression, heightened anxiety levels, and alcohol problems, among others. According to the American Journal of Medicine, CBT has been especially helpful for people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

If you’re more interested in taking a traditional route to meditation there are many types of meditation to learn as well as the ability to study and become a certified meditation teacher.  Most practitioners starting off try beginners courses in meditation and then slowly begin to branch out as they become more comfortable.

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Where Did Meditation Come From?

Before we dive into the practice of meditation and how to implement it into your life, it is important to understand the history of early meditation practices and their global importance.

Geography of Meditation
India

Cave paintings showing humans in seated positions with their eyes closed were found on in the Indian subcontinent some time between 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. These suggest that people were meditating over 5,000 years ago! The first written records of meditation date back to 1,500 BCE in the Vedas (ancient Sanskrit texts). These practices are likely much older as most information was passed down orally. Early meditation was mostly practiced by religious followers.

Certain Hindu followers, known as Yogis, meditated, and practiced yoga in Indian caves. Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, admired the meditation practices of Yogis. They used these practices to develop their philosophical theories and help them concentrate. Alexander the Great’s military intervention in India allowed for these ideas to move west. 

Much more recently (500 BCE), Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha, aimed to find Enlightenment and learned meditation from the Yogis. With these new practices, he broke off and formed his own ideas, teaching meditative and spiritual practices to thousands. His practices spread all over Asia, and variations on his meditative practices were developed. Buddhist meditations are the most commonly practiced meditations in the Western world today.

Jainism is another form of meditation developed in India. It focuses on mantras, self-discipline, breathing, introspection, and visualization.

China

Chinese religious philosophies also incorporated meditation into their doctrine and rituals. They most likely came to these ideas independently of Indian meditative practice.

These included:

  • Taoism: Focuses on the outside world and balancing oneself within nature. Taoist meditation emphasizes visualization and concentration. It ties visualization to the universe and how individuals and their bodies are connected to it.
  • Confucianism: Can be looked at as the opposite of Taoism in that it has followers look inward and focuses more on the individual within their community. Meditation is focused on self-improvement.

Taoist meditation is still widely followed as a meditative technique today. It is similar to Buddhist practices but places more emphasis on visualization and the flow of energy. Many Chinese wellness practices are concerned with the flow of energy and how they balance within our body and the outside world.

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Religious Application

Almost all major religions use meditation in their practices and doctrine. While it may not seem as explicit or obvious as in Buddhism and others dedicated to the conscious practice of meditation, many of the rituals people practice are forms of it.

  • Buddhism: Starting with the most significant influence on the practice as we know it today, Buddhists believe in finding the path to Enlightenment. Meditation is a key practice in achieving this goal. There are various meditation methods in Buddhism, including: Zen, Tibetan, and Theravadan.
  • Hinduism: Yoga is a core practice within this religion. In yoga, meditation and centering oneself is a large component. The goal is to raise energy systems and achieve high levels of spiritual understanding. Meditation is used to understand one’s true self.
  • Judaism: Kabbalah is used to connect followers with God through prayer and focus on words and phrases. Hitbodedut is an active-thought meditation that is often practiced in seclusion.
  • Islam: Tafakkur is mentioned in the Quran and is popular among followers. It requires reflection on one’s life, sins, the world, and religious teachings. Sufism is less mainstream but is centered on connecting with Allah through mantras and breathing techniques.
  • Christianity: Meditation is mentioned in the Bible, but the practice is often associated more with Eastern religions. This does not mean that meditative practices aren’t present in Christianity. The most common examples include: monks spending hours reflecting on God in monasteries, using rosary beads for repetitive prayer, and even prayer itself can be used as a meditative practice.

Recent research reveals that meditation is practiced among almost all religions, with or without a religious application. 

Religion has been historical divisive and continues to be controversial for many today. While meditation finds its most well-known origins in religion and organized belief systems, it does not have to be set in religious context and is typically separate in a modern context.

Depending on your perspective, meditation does or does not have be viewed as being related to religion. Some will argue that meditation can be seen as a form of prayer. Praying is different for almost every person, but it often involves reflecting on your thoughts and the world around you. Prayers may also involve mantras and phrases that are repeated for communication with oneself or a higher power. Many meditative practices focus on these same principles and utilize them to achieve greater health and well-being.

Meditation focuses more on spirituality and inner awareness than adhering to a particular belief system or doctrine. It is clear that praying, and meditation build upon similar practices and goals, but they are not dependent on one another.

Globalization

While meditation has been practiced for nearly 5,000 years, its modern global impact is fairly new. While societies around the world came to meditative practices independently, the modern form of meditation practiced today did not find its way out of Asia until the 20th century. This is primarily due to the fact that it was much more difficult and expensive before commercial travel was available.

Meditation and yoga were introduced to the United States in the early 20th century. A presentation by yogi, Swami Vivekananda, sparked Americans interest and encouraged many teachers to migrate to the United States. The 1960s saw a significant increase in popularity due to the introduction of Transcendental Meditation by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Scientific studies around meditation and yoga skyrocketed.

While meditation has dramatically increased in popularity over the past half-century, only 14% of the American population meditates according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Much of this can be attributed to the lack of knowledge and understanding behind its purpose, incredible benefits, and process! You’ll find out how to meditate and its benefits below!

What is Meditation?

Meditation manifests itself in many forms, using different techniques to achieve greater balance as well as physical and mental health. The different forms of meditation aim to accomplish unique goals based on your needs, but all contribute to your ability to connect with your mind, body, and surroundings.

Types of Meditation

There are more than 20 types of meditation that people use to achieve greater physical and mental capabilities. These vary by regions of the world and the goal of the meditator. They are typically divided into Buddhist (the most extensive), Yoga, Chinese, and miscellaneous. Offered here are a few of the most popular forms of meditation that you can engage in to gain a greater sense of calm.

  • Mindfulness Meditation: Founded in Buddhism, it is the most popular form of modern meditation in the Western world. You are conscious of your passing thoughts and are actively noting their presence. You then refocus yourself on something, such as your breath or an object, emphasizing concentration and awareness.
  • Loving-Kindness Meditation: To lift your overall mood and promote happiness, this form of meditation uses words and phrases to direct good thoughts and feelings toward yourself and then others. You can work through unpleasant feelings toward others as well as positively incorporate friends and family.
  • Mantra Meditation: Found in many parts of the world, you use repetitive sounds or words to focus yourself. Repeating this mantra will allow you to connect more deeply with your environment. This may be easier for some than focusing on your breath.  TM is a branch of Vedic Meditation which centers on Mantra usage.  Check out our article on Vedic Meditation Training Courses to learn more.  
  • Transcendental Meditation: It is the most popular global meditation and has been the most studied. It uses mantras that are specific to each person, allowing them to focus more deeply than breathing alone. It is practiced for 20 minutes twice a day and has an extensive celebrity following.
  • Yoga: It is very common to include meditative practice into your yoga routine. The goal is to have control of your body and mind. You can center yourself through mental concentration as well as bodily movement.
  • Body Scan Meditation: This technique allows you to check in with your feelings as well as your body’s condition. It is a great way to identify any areas that may be causing you pain or tension. The goal is to identify these places, so you can release stress from both your body and mind. It has a great physical component to overall rest and calm.
  • Guided Meditation: Guided meditations can be used for any technique, especially if meditating on your own seems daunting. A voice will help you track your thoughts an surroundings, giving you points to focus on. With an emphasis on visualization, guided meditation can help you envision successful outcomes and promote overall well-being.

There are many more specific types of meditation that use similar as well as additional techniques. The ones mentioned above are popular and provide a clear understanding for the ways in which meditators can bring calm into their lives.

Benefits of Meditation

Meditation offers a host of health and quality of life benefits. Meditation can help decrease stress, increase the quality of your sleep, and improve your ability to focus.

Decreased Stress

When practicing meditation, the opposite effects of the stress response are activated due to a deep state of rest and relaxation.

Meditation reduces stress by:

  • Lowering heart rate
  • Reducing production of cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones)
  • Decreasing inflammation
  • Strengthening immune system

Studies have shown that practicing meditation can actual change your brain’s function and structure over time. One of the ways in which this happens is by decreasing patterns of stress that are wired in our brains.

This not only allows you to feel calmer, but it allows the brain to grow for other important and helpful functions such as memory and learning.

Increased Focus and Energy

Deep rest taking away your body’s stress response allows for the release of important chemicals to promote overall wellness.

Meditation allows your body to produce:

  • Dopamine: Promotes feelings of pleasure in our body and allows for greater focus, mood, and sleep ability.
  • Serotonin: When released, the body feels less stress to allow for greater relaxation and focus.
  • Endorphins: Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. They aid in reducing stress and feeling greater wellness.

These naturally produced chemicals activate focus and improve our energy levels beyond our conscious doing. With the practice of meditation, people are also able to focus for longer periods of time on one task without distractions. This is due to the training of your brain to place all attention on one thing and ignore drifting thoughts and distractions.

Better Sleep

Meditation releases relax-focused brainwaves allowing for greater calm in all daily activities. This relaxation carries over into our sleep, allowing for better quality and more restfulness.

Meditation mimics sleeping behaviors:

  • Closed Eyes
  • Deep breathing
  • Quiet Environment
  • Reduced brain arousal by ignoring fleeting thoughts

When we engage in meditation, we are providing a heightened sense of calm, making it easier for us to fall asleep. Mindfulness meditation is a technique that has been linked to overall better quality sleep.

Meditations for sleep can be practiced at any time of the day. There are specific meditations you can do to fall asleep, but meditation, in general, will have a positive body impact that allows for easier and better sleep regardless of when you do it.

Alternative to Medication

Remember the key benefits to meditation?

  • Stress reduction
  • Improved sleep
  • Enhanced mood and energy levels
  • Ease of focus
  • Rewiring your brain for growth activities

All of these may lessen your reliance on medication to achieve the same results. If they do not eliminate the need for medication, they may at least lessen your dependence or dosage.

Instead of taking sleeping pills or relying on antidepressants, meditation could provide some of these same effects naturally.

Meditation does not have the potential side effects that medication does. If you struggle with an illness and the side effects are unmanageable, meditation may be a great solution. Incorporating meditation into your daily routine can be a useful addition to medication and eventually a replacement if its outcomes meet your needs. 

How to Work Meditation Into Your Life

Meditation really only requires two things:

  1. A quiet place to sit
  2. A timer

Many people will sit in a chair or on a cushion when they meditate. The key is to keep your back straight and try to sit as comfortably as possible. You want to maximize body awareness by centering your weight on your seat. A chair is best for beginners or those with back problems.

Especially in the beginning, a timer is helpful to keep your meditation on track and let you know when you have finished.

When you start meditating, whether guided or on your own, try to be still with your thoughts and bring your attention to your breath. This will allow for greater and easier focus.

Ease Yourself In

You may hear that some people are able to sit quietly with their thoughts for an hour or more a day by meditating and practicing mindfulness. Whether this is your goal or not, you do not need to meditate for an hour to feel its effects. Even two minutes a day will allow you to effectively experience its benefits.

Starting with 2 minutes a day and working toward longer practice will allow you to stick with it.

Be Consistent

Set a consistent time aside each day to meditate. While the same time every day does not make mediation any more effective, it does make the chances of you sticking with it more likely. Creating a routine will make you more consistent in practice.

Many people choose to meditate first thing in the morning because they may have a few extra minutes and it is often a great way to start your day. All of the positive benefits already mentioned will be set into place early!

You’ll Get Distracted

When you first start meditating, your thoughts will wander. This happens to almost EVERYONE, so don’t get frustrated. When you sense yourself wandering, bring your mind back to the room and focus on something, breathing is a common focusing point.

Use An App

There are plenty of helpful mobile applications that will guide you through a variety of meditative practices. Guided meditation is an easy step toward thoughtful and effective practice.

Popular apps include: 

  • Headspace (introductory sessions free, then fee per month)
  • Calm (free, upgrades available for purchase)
  • Stop, Breathe, Think (free, upgrades available for purchase)

There are dozens of apps available, ranging in capabilities. Most are free with additional features for purchase. Starting with simple free meditations may help you develop a consistent routine for this beneficial body and mind practice!