A Brief History of Meditation

Historical evidence attests to the practice of meditation across time and diverse cultures. One evocative hypothesis suggests that early man meditated as he stared into the flames of his fire. We can only surmise that early woman watched him from the cave, earnestly praying that he might learn the art of conversation. Many narratives at the core of major world religions include references to the centrality of meditation and analogous forms of contemplative prayer.

Scholars disagree about the exact dating of the origin of Hindu Tantric practice, but Indian wall art, circa 5000 – 3000 BCE, illustrates meditation postures. Although much of the teaching would have been passed down orally, it has found its way into key religious texts of the Hindu religion.

Mindfulness meditation is described in early dialogues which contain the Buddha’s teaching, preserved in Chinese, Sanskrit and Pāli texts. Meditation, according to the foundational truths of Buddhism, aimed to be aligned with: an acceptance of suffering; a healthy detachment from circumstance and materiality; a disciplined effort to alleviate suffering in ourselves and others; and as an aid to follow the Eightfold Path of the Buddha.

Zen Buddhism is a school of Mahayana Buddhism, concerned with a spirit of enlightenment and universal compassion, acknowledging a cycle of rebirth until enlightenment is attained. There is no exact counterpart in the religions which have been influenced by Greek and Roman philosophy, which is probably why a syncretistic form of Zen practice attracted western minds in the mid 20th century as an exotic form of spiritualty. Developing from the 6th century AD, Zen continues to influence Japanese culture. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the best known contemporary disseminators of Zen mindfulness meditation.

During the 2nd century after the life of Jesus, holy men and women, known as the Desert Fathers, retreated to the relatively empty regions of the Middle East. They were disappointed that the early church had not ethically and religiously transformed social relations in the cities. They developed a contemplative type of prayer which became one of the foundational pillars of the order of St Benedict during the late 5th and early 6th centuries. In common with other meditative practices , contemplative prayer was used to mark the hours of the day, and to focus the mind and heart on God. Contemplative prayer, however, differs from meditation. Prayer looks outward, to an object which transcends the saeculum (the here and now);  meditation most commonly looks inward, to find the creative spirit which is not necessarily associated with a realm outside of time and space. In this respect, meditation can be regarded as a secular activity, and the transcendence it seeks is not freedom from the body, but freedom within the body.

Kabbalism, developing from circa 1000 AD,  belongs in the Jewish mystical tradition, its aim being to reach enlightenment and the ascent of the soul through the repetition of holy names. It should be noted that Kabbalism is not the only mystical practice within Judaism. Forms of meditation also arose in the Hasidim, Conservative, Reform and Musar movements. From the Tanakh (Jewish Bible, parts of which are known as the Old Testament), it is possible to infer that the prophets and patriarchs practised a form of meditation. Jesus, who was a Jewish prophet, regularly withdrew to mountain and wilderness for solitude.

The origins of Sufism, a mystical tradition within Islam, are disputed. There are those who would trace the Sufi trajectory back to Muhammad, and others who locate its beginnings between the 8th and 10th centuries AD. A central concern of the Sufis is to quieten the ego through a concentration of repentance, sincerity, remembrance, and love. Meditation is known as murāqabah in Sufi terminology: a form of deep and reverent observation. Through murāqbah, a person attempts to gain insight into the creator, and to rid the self from base characteristics.

In the second half of the 20th century, tectonic shifts took place in the relationship between the local and the global, including a collapse of a dualistic distinction between classic and popular art and music, and the western dissemination of esoteric religions and culture through the media. Two of the most famous results can be traced to the Beatles’ fusion of eastern and western music, and their embrace of Transcendental Meditation (TM) through the work of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. TM held a particular appeal for both young and old people who had become disenchanted with traditional religion, the church and the authority vested in ecclesiastical leaders. Also in tune with the speed of 1960s culture, TM appeared to be a type of meditation that could be learned in one weekend, and practised without undue interruption to drugs, sex and rock and roll.

As the 20th century continued to wind through diverse incarnations of the secular, the demise of religion appeared to be inevitable. Conversely, however, the growing use of terms such as authenticity and identity required some kind of spiritual path to match. Enter Jon Kabat-Zinn, teaching Mindful-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR). Kabat-Zinn’s books continue to be used by practitioners of meditation, medical personnel, writers, and others who find that the regular practice of Mindfulness allows the body to heal itself of many 21st century ailments.

The art of meditation belongs in the wide field of mystical practices as they can be traced through the history of world religion and culture. One of the most significant things to hold in mind is that mystics commonly represent a counter-culture within their own traditions, to the extent that, historically, the gatekeepers of religious orthopraxis have attempted to subdue the power of mysticism by aligning spirituality more closely to dualistic rationality. I would suggest that meditative practices will release positive energy to the extent that they remain resistant to the closure of the universal creative impulse when that is circumscribed and touted in the name of orthodoxy.

Celia Grace, Dublin 2020

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