A Brief History Of Meditation

Meditation is an ancient mind-body practice which draws on the focusing of attention to create a sense of inner peace. The term itself comes from the Latin meaning "to ponder", or to think. In some form or another, meditation has been around for thousands of years and is still practiced today in its contemporary form. Meditation originated in the Eastern traditions and was used primarily for religious purposes. Meditation became popular in the Western world relatively recently, where it is revered for its psychological and physical health benefits.

Many people associate meditation with Buddhism. While these associations are certainly strong, some form of meditation seems to have existed even before this time. The Shamans lived around 15,000 years ago and are believed to have used simple repetitive, rhythmic chants to create an altered state of consciousness known as a "trance". This can be likened to today’s notion of transcendental meditation in which a mantra (i.e. a special world) is repeated over and over either out loud or silently to clear the mind and relax the body.

In India, meditation began as a religious ritual involving a great deal of prayer and devotion along with concentration and breathing techniques. Over time, priests and experts discovered that the object of devotion lies within, not outside of, the self.
The image of the crossed legged Gautama Buddha is well known. The term "Buddha" means "awakened one", and it is with this meaning that the famous historical Buddha was named. The use of mantras was used for spiritual purposes; to align oneself with certain spiritual frequencies.

Nowadays mantras are used to clear and calm the mind, abolish negative thoughts and invoke focus and attention. Modern use of mantras involves simply choosing a word that is personal and important to you, whereas traditional mantras are passed from teacher to student.
Buddhist meditation began as a way to free out minds of negative mental energy (such as jealousy and anger). It is from the Buddhist approach that the mindfulness strand of meditation was developed, which promotes non-judgmental awareness of the self and the external world.
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A focus on one’s breathing is an essential ingredient to any meditation practice. One form of meditation which utilizes breathing techniques to its full advantage is yoga. Nowadays hatha yoga is used extensively as a form of exercise and stretching, but classical yoga, originating in India, is much more than that. It is a form of meditation in which energy is raised through the use of precise breathing and physical poses. It traditional yoga the physical world is rendered meaningless, and practitioners seek to fully realize one’s higher levels of consciousness. Yoga, and some of it’s forms of meditation have worked their way into main stream within Western culture with may elite sports figures and celebrities adopting yoga practice for general fitness and increased flexibility.

From India, the art of meditation traveled east to China where it was transformed. Buddhist meditation gave rise to the discipline of Zen, which is a silent art with a strong emphasis on awareness and being. There are no mantras or chants used in Zen practice. Zen is responsible for much of the modern day interest in meditation in North America. The traditional form of Zen meditation is call zazen, and although no matras are generally used, often Zen masters will provide ‘koans’ or questions that cannot be solved by the rational mind for the students to concentrate on during meditation. Solving or answering a koan to the Master’s satisfaction is seen as a transformational experience when one attains an enlightened mind (a great book on Zen-like thinking and koans is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones).

In the Western world in which Christianity is most prevalent, meditation was present in the form of prayer. Prayer involves directing awareness towards divinity. Such practices incorporate centering oneself during a period of contemplation by repeating sacred words or prayers. It hard not to notice the parallel between the Eastern spirituality of using mantras for meditation and the early Christian uses of repetitive prayer during spiritual contemplation in order to find an ‘enlightened’ state and/or be closer to Divinity. The parallels continue when one studies of the lives of early Christian monks and Eastern monks over the last 100 years. Many historians feel there is a link between early Christian monasteries and Indian, Buddhist meditative practices.

Eastern meditation began to find popularity in the United States and Europe in the late 1960s onwards. The use of mind-altering drugs such as LSD, cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms were used to explore altered state of consciousness. The pursuit for new forms of spirituality began and Eastern meditation, as a more natural means to explore consciousness took hold (some say the New Age movement was born during this time). Famous figures in pop culture such as the Beatles became known to practice transcendental meditation and from then on, meditation entered the mainstream. Meditation in the form of Zen and yoga took the lead in North America followed by transcendental meditation.

In the present day, meditation is practiced all over the world in its many forms as form of spirituality and more recently for it’s health benefits and as a means to unite mind and body. Athletes (and many others in competitive/high stress fields) are often know to use meditative techniques for provide better focus and/or as a means escape from the stresses and hassles of modern life. Meditation has come a long way and has divided into many branches and ranges from the unstructured art of Shaman chanting, to modern yoga practices to Buddhist zazen to Christian meditative prayer.

If your interest is in exploring meditation for health benefits or to explore spirituality, you will find a great deal to choose from. Today there are numerous styles and types of meditation from strict traditional forms to the simple act of routinely sitting quietly and ‘pondering’ what life is about. I commend you for looking into meditation and hope you find a style that will suit (and serve you) well.

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