“There is no beautiful surface without a terrible depth. ”
Perhaps one of Nietzche’s greater readings, the idea that in order to explore our own complexity, we must be willing to take a plunge into the unknown, confront the undesirable and find comfort in the unpleasant. For many, the art of meditation is a gateway to a peaceful state of mind, a vacation from the realities of life in order to uncover a higher form of realism. It is a process of training your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts. However, the reasons for meditation vary just as the methods of its practise. In this series we will be exploring what meditation means, it’s origin, the scientific mechanism, and the validity of its use therapeutically to treat mental health disorders.
Alan Watts describes the practise of meditation as a technique to join our minds with reality.
“Most civilised people are out of touch with reality because they confuse the world as it is, with the system of symbols we have about the world we have in our mind”
Constellations are patterns of stars that we grouped to help navigate through the darkness, but do they “exist” ? Are the bright wonders that light up the night sky as mythological creatures, shapes, and animals a reflection of reality? Why does 1 hour have 60 minutes, and one minute, 60 seconds? Our perception of reality is quite unique, for it is a compilation of thoughts, ideals and experiences specific to each of us. We are constantly thinking, planning, observing and learning. Even in silence, there is an internal chattering of the mind. With the development of technology, we may struggle to keep up with the now fast-paced work culture, possibly beginning to sense a lack of meaning. A lack of being fully present in the moment. Have we been fully alive, in body and mind? Is there more to uncover about ourselves? Sanjay Raturi says that, “If you want to open your eyes, close them.” Perhaps the answers we seek can only be found once we have looked inwards and grasped a true awareness of our thoughts and emotions. Many pursue this conscious effort of self-exploration through meditation.
A common problem with definitions is that they automatically assign objectivity to words and concepts. It is, therefore, important to note that meditation can loosely be associated with various different techniques from breathing exercises to Tai Chi. Perhaps, it would be wiser to define it as an individual’s journey to their “source”, rather than the actions that we associate it with. Just as the word “medication” is associated with a healthy body, “meditation” may just be the process of restoring our minds to a natural state of health, i.e. the “source”. We see ideas of self-growth and awareness implemented into many historical practises of meditation. In the classical language of Buddhism, meditation is referred to as “bhavana” which means mental development or “Dhyana” which means mental calmness. In Ancient China, work produced by Laozi, a Chinese philosopher, described meditation practises as, “ Bao Pu” translating to “embracing simplicity”, and “Shou Zhong”, which roughly means “guarding the middle”. Despite the diversity in its practise, its meaning extends equally as far as the unexplored depth carried within us. It is why this age-old tradition has been passed down from one generation to the next, being embraced by almost every culture/religion in the world. In understanding its origins, we can provide purpose to meditative practises and therefore gain the true benefits from them.
Pinning down the origin of meditation is tough, because there is no way to prove that these ideas had not existed long before they were written. Some even speculate that signs of the practise date back to the Neanderthals themselves. But, like all historical sources, there is only so much we can gather before we introduce bias! The earliest documented source of meditation is from the Hindu tradition of Vendatism in India, dating back to 5000BC-3500BC. These were wall paintings of individuals sitting in a meditative position with their eye’s half opened; presumably a form of meditation. According to the Vedic texts dating back to 1500BC, the true purpose of meditation is to connect to your “deep inner self”. Humans, as stated by the Vedic texts, are composed of the physical body, the inner faculty (which includes your mind, intellect and ego), and the deep inner self: a pure, unchanging source of consciousness, that holds the natural laws and knowledge that governs the world. It was believed that through meditation you slowly move from the outer realm of the body into the deep inner self. Only once you have discovered the deep inner self can you overcome inner duality and unite yourself with a transcendental reality. This was the path to a life of peace and simplicity. Strongly associated with the Vedic practise was the Hindu practise “Yogi”, which was the practise of meditating in caves. Interestingly, modern day yoga is believed to have originated from this spiritual practise of self-liberation and discipline. Therefore, we can begin to see how these ancient practises are still in many ways present in the modern day.
The most popular association to meditation is Buddhism, despite the image of the Buddha meditating on a lotus leaf appearing years later. The Buddha took techniques from traditional Hindu practises, including meditative techniques from the Yogi’s, to form the mindfulness technique satipatthana. This can be translated to mean : “to keep attention inside”. Unlike the Hindu traditions, this practise is not emerged in transcendental beliefs or worship, but in spiritual awakening and enlightenment. There is a strong focus on transforming the mind, through developing clarity, peace, and awareness. These ideas were believed to have been developed in 6th century BC, and over the centuries they have spread and diverged into different lineages across Asia.
Other worthwhile practises that emerged around the same century include Taoism, an Ancient Chinese tradition that focused on uniting the self with the “Tao”, or cosmic energy, and Confucianism, which focused more on morality and community. As well as having a deep-rooted history in various Asian practises, we can also see the practise of meditation in almost every existing religion. Christian mystics practised their own form of mediation by repeating words of prayer, while Sufis (Islamic mystics) practised contemplation and gazing in order to connect with God. It seems that the history of meditation has relations to a broad range of cultures and religion. However, it is interesting to consider how these practises have been incorporated into our modern- day culture, particularly in the West.
Ideas of meditation started spreading to the West in the 1700s, when Eastern philosophical texts had been translated into European languages. However, these ideas were mainly discussed amongst philosophical scholars such as Voltaire and Schopenhauer, not yet being known for its therapeutic benefits. It was only around the 1960s that meditation started to be seriously researched, but even then, it was a topic brushed off by mainstream scientific researchers. In 1967, a Harvard Medical School professor Dr Herbet Benson found that those who meditated could lower their heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature voluntarily, something which scientists at the time believed to be impossible. He found that Swami Rama, one of the first yogis to be studied, could produce alpha, beta, and delta brain waves on demand, and could even remain conscious of his environment while in deep sleep. While meditation research was slowly growing in the scientific world, it became a very popular part of the “hippie culture”, popularised by the Beatles who used transcendental meditation to cope with fame.
By the 1990s, meditation became a well-known practise, with books such as Ageless Body, Timeless Mind by Deepak Chopra, selling over 137,000 copies and the Bill Moyers TV specials Healing of the mind becoming increasingly popular. It had become a “Hollywood friendly” scientifically approved practise, preserving its popularity within our modern-day culture.
While meditation has lost most of its spiritual connotations in the West, it has become of great scientific interest amongst researchers, particularly those investigating mental health. The teachings from centuries past can no longer be rendered “superstition”, which is why understanding them may benefit our personal definition of meditation, and even help us to practise it. That way, we can begin to see past the reality built within in our minds and live within the present. As Lodro Rinzler said, “It is no longer your spiritual friend saying you should try meditation… it’s your doctor.”
I hope you enjoyed reading this blog post on the origin of meditation! Feel free to comment below, or email me at : firstname.lastname@example.org
In the next post, in my Meditation series, I shall be discussing the scientific research surrounding meditation, and the possible effects it has on the brain.