We’ve all heard of meditation, especially since the mindfulness explosion of the last few decades, but debates about what meditation actually is and how to practice it remain.
The word meditation stems from the Latin term meditatum which means “to ponder.” Most approaches agree that by practicing meditation, we become more aware of how our minds work and how thoughts are connected to feelings and behavior (West, 2016).
You may already have a meditation practice that works for you, or you may be new to the concept and looking to build your knowledge and understanding of how meditation can enhance your life. Either way, the history of meditation is fascinating and well worth exploring, so let’s go explore!
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Meditation is an umbrella term for a variety of practices, but if we broadly define meditation as a contemplative practice that focuses the mind using a variety of techniques, then research suggests it has been a spiritual practice of human beings since our beginnings (Rossano, 2007).
Psychologist Matt J. Rossano (2007) proposed that group rituals and meditations around the campfire between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago helped our ancestors develop the working memory essential for human evolution. He argued that “fire-gazing” meditation literally made us human, by rewiring our brains in such a way that symbolism became possible, and thereby the development of language.
However, dating meditation is problematic without a robust definition of what it actually is, especially as most ancient practices were transmitted orally over many generations before being committed to writing.
For example, ancient animistic religions common to hunter–gatherer societies involved the worship of natural elements like water bodies, the sun, the moon, plants, animals, ancestors, and celestial or spiritual beings (Hayden, 2003).
The majority also relied on shamans as healers and intercessors with the spirit world who performed a kind of guided meditation practice called shamanic journeying (Peoples et al., 2016). However, dating meditation remains problematic as it’s likely as old as humanity itself.
What Is the Origin of Meditation?
Given the difficulties charting the history of meditation, locating the origin of meditation has not been possible.
As stated above, fire gazing that focused the mind (Jaffe, 2007) and shamanic guided meditation practices existed long before written records began in ancient hunter–gatherer cultures (Eliade, 1972). Also, ancient Vedic practices were transmitted orally for centuries before being written down (Sharma, 2015).
The earliest written records of meditation come from the Hindu Vedas around 1500 BCE (Sharma, 2015). The Torah also contains a description of the patriarch Isaac going to “lasuach” in a field, a kind of Jewish meditation most likely practiced around 1000 BCE (Kaplan, 1985).
Meanwhile, other forms of meditation were also recorded around 600 and 400 BCE within both Taoist China and Buddhist India (Bronkhorst, 2014).
In conclusion, the precise origins of meditation are not possible to determine given their ancient roots in orally transmitted practices that were not written down until much later.
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Do We Know Who Created/Invented Meditation?
Given the broad range of techniques that are termed “meditation,” not only is it impossible to date the origins of meditation, but nobody can identify who created or invented meditation. Rather, it’s been proposed that it emerged as a natural human capacity based on introspection (Rossano, 2007).
Given that various practices that qualify as meditation emerged simultaneously in different cultures at different locations at similar points in time, a useful analogy would be to try to answer the following:
Who invented cooking?
Just as cooking practices vary across time and place but emerged as a universally human method for transforming raw ingredients into food to nourish the body, meditation seems likely to have emerged as a universal method for elevating the mind and spirit through the practice of introspection (Hayden, 2003).
A Look at the Roots and Origin of Meditation
As mentioned above, the earliest written descriptions of meditation techniques can be found in the ancient Indian Vedas, which were first committed to writing around 1500 BCE (Sharma, 2015).
However, Indo–Aryan sages (rishis) had been transmitting these teachings orally for hundreds of years before they were committed to writing. Some scholars have speculated that the Vedas emerged around 3000 BCE as the products of these rishis’ philosophical reflections on broad cosmological questions about the nature of existence (Mark, 2020).
The Vedic hymns are described as the songs of Brahma the creator that sang the universe into being. The sages heard these during meditation, and their transmission in Sanskrit is believed to recreate the sounds of the origin of the universe (Mark, 2020).
The Upanishads are the philosophical narratives that describe the techniques the rishis used and are widely cited as the earliest written records of meditation (Sharma, 2015).
However, when trying to trace the roots and origin of meditation, we admit that we simply don’t know, given that the origins of the oral transmission of these techniques cannot be dated with any accuracy.
A History of Meditation in the West
There is a common misconception in the secular contemporary Western world that meditation is primarily an Eastern practice. A myth abounds that meditation only took hold in the West when spiritual seekers returned from their soul-searching journeys to the East and invited their gurus over to teach. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Indigenous forms of Western meditation have existed since the ancient Greeks (Ustinova, 2020) and can be broadly divided into pagan and Christian practices. The European peoples that populate much of the West practiced a variety of indigenous religions with roots in animism and polytheism prior to widespread Christianization in the 7th century CE.
For example, Druidry is a pre-Christian pagan tradition that was practiced by the ancient Celtic people from the west of Ireland to Britain, the west of France and the northwest of Spain (Nichols, 1996).
Druidry practices included inner journeying meditations (now deemed shamanic), as well as focused awareness on the body or breath. Druidry is currently growing in the West in response to a widespread disenchantment with conventional religious institutions alongside a concern for nature and the environment (Greer, 2021).
The tree is a core symbol used in Druid meditations. You can see an example of a modern tree meditation in the video below.
A druid tree meditation - OBOD
In addition, meditation has been a Christian practice since the early Church was established by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt (Merton, 1970). Christian meditation flourished in the Eastern Orthodox Church from the 5th century and was developed further in the Roman Catholic Church from the 14th to 18th centuries.
Following a decline, Christian meditation was revived during the 20th century as an ecumenical movement that embraced all Christian traditions (Schopen & Freeman, 1991).
For example, Father Thomas Keating (2009) was inspired deeply by the writings of fellow Trappist monk Thomas Merton to rekindle Christian meditation through the practice of centering prayer.
This was further developed by the Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr (2019) at the Center for Contemplation and Action in the United States. These teachings frequently refer to Eastern scriptures and practices, emphasizing their common techniques and the shared goal of non-dual awareness of God.
The late 20th century saw an explosion of interest in Eastern origin meditation practices across the Western world, especially mindfulness, which is covered in the sections below.
Timeline of Meditation’s History
This timeline charts the major milestones in the development of meditation practices, East and West. It’s by no means exhaustive but should provide a brief map of the dominant traditions and their overlaps and meeting points toward the end of the 20th century.
The Beginnings of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation can be traced back to the first written records of yogic meditation in the Vedas (Sharma, 2015). The ancient practice of yoga involved very little reference to postures and placed a greater emphasis on stillness, a focus on breathing, and being fully aware of the body in the present moment.
Mindfulness has also been traced back to the early Buddhist practice of satipaṭṭhāna and Daoism, both of which include a strong focus on breathing and self-awareness.
The practice of satipaṭṭhāna involves the cultivation of tranquil observation to gain insight into impermanence, the first stage on the path to liberation (Analayo, 2004). Meanwhile, the Daoist practice of guan meditation involves acute observation grounded in a similar state of awareness (Yun, 2019).
Many other religions include contemplative prayer and meditation techniques that require the individual to turn away from thoughts in search of greater self-awareness and presence. All these forms of meditation are very closely aligned with the practice and purpose of mindfulness (Jaoudi, 2021).
Around 40 years ago, secular mindfulness became more prevalent in Western cultures. Jon Kabat-Zinn (2012) is often credited with being the founder of modern-day mindfulness as it is commonly understood in Western cultures.
In 1979, Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which offers mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)—a clinically proven program to help those experiencing a range of conditions including depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain, and cardiovascular problems (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).
Teasdale et al. (1995) furthered the work of Kabat-Zinn by combining MBSR with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to create Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. This program is clinically approved in the United Kingdom and is commonly used to treat those struggling with emotional regulation, anxiety, and depression.
Researching the History of Meditation
While researching this article, it became apparent that a cross-cultural study of the history and origins of meditation has yet to be conducted.
It would be a formidable task given the term “meditation” refers to such a wide variety of practices (Bronkhorst, 2014).
To date, most historical studies have focused on a specific approach or tradition. Yet there are some common threads across traditions, and it’s likely that they have influenced each other in different ways across the passage of time as cultures mingled (Bronkhorst, 2014).
Our timeline gives a snapshot of the major milestones in the history of meditation, but further research is required. Below are some snapshots of the histories of two major 20th-century traditions.
A Brief History of Transcendental Meditation
Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a meditative practice that involves the repetition of a sound, called a mantra, for 15–20 minutes at least twice a day. TM helps the practitioner move into a state of relaxed awareness (Canter & Ernst, 2003).
The Indian Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi established the technique in the 1950s. Maharishi was a follower of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, the spiritual leader of Jyotirmath in the Indian Himalayas. Maharishi credited Brahmananda Saraswati with inspiring most of his teachings and the development of Transcendental Deep Meditation, later renamed Transcendental Meditation (Russell, 1977).
In 1955, Maharishi began teaching TM in India and quickly developed a following. Then, between 1955 and 1965, he undertook multiple global tours to spread his teachings. TM gained further popularity in the 1970s, with celebrities promoting the practice. During this time, Maharishi also began to train others as teachers and founded an international network of dedicated TM centers (Russell, 1977).
TM continued to gain popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and by the early 2000s, the TM movement had grown to include a variety of associated services, including health products, educational programs, and teacher training courses, with millions of people involved.
TM is still one of the most widely practiced forms of meditation today and has remained largely unchanged since its inception in the 1950s. It is also one of the most widely researched (Benson & Klipper, 2001).
What Is Vipassana Meditation?
Vipassana is one of the oldest Buddhist meditation practices and can be roughly translated to mean “insight” — an awareness of what is happening, exactly as it happens.
This is the core distinction between Vipassana meditation and other techniques (Hart, 2008).
The two core forms of early Buddhist meditation are Vipassana and Shamatha practices. Shamatha is roughly translated as “calm abiding,” when the mind is brought to rest rather than wandering from thought to thought. Shamatha meditation trains the individual to attain tranquility by focusing on an object — often the breath, a candle, or an image — to the exclusion of other thoughts (Lamrimpa, 2011).
In Vipassana meditation, the individual is encouraged instead to cultivate insight into the nature of reality. The ultimate aim is to achieve liberation by breaking down the barriers to direct perception that prevent us from experiencing things as they are.
The most famous proponent is S. N. Goenka, who learned from the Burmese lay teacher U Ba Khin and then began teaching it in India outside of traditional temple environments (Vipassana Research Institute, 2010). His centers have since spread worldwide.
As a meditative technique, Vipassana is very gradual, and achieving liberation can take many years. The technique is gentle but extremely thorough. The purpose is to retrain your mind to gain a deep state of awareness of everything that is happening, as it is happening, and exactly how it happens. Through Vipassana meditation, the practitioner is seeking to create a perfect, unbroken awareness of reality (Pandita, 2018).
A Take-Home Message
We hope you enjoyed this article on the history and origins of meditation. It only scratches the surface because the subject is so vast. However, we hope you find our map of milestones a useful illustration of how meditation has emerged as a spiritual and reflective practice over time.
Meditation seems to be a core part of what it means to be human. It has been practiced and handed down for millennia, from the campfires of our ancestors to the apps on our phones.
We’d love to hear if you have any additional insights into the origins and history of meditation. Please do share them in the comments.
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About the author
Jo Nash, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, and writing coach. Jo obtained her Ph.D. in Psychotherapy Studies from the University of Sheffield, where she was a Lecturer in Mental Health at the Faculty of Medicine for over a decade.
Today, Jo combines her passion for language with mindfulness skills when coaching writers to help them cultivate flow and optimize productivity. She is the creator of the ‘focused flow’ approach to writing coaching.