Meditation: History and Western Culture

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Meditation: History and Western Culture

Key Takeaways

  • Meditation is believed to have originated in India thousands of years ago.
  • Meditation in the West began in the 1700s.
  • The decline in formal religion has been caused by societal changes while the rising popularity of meditation is spurred by the realization of its benefits, both mental and physical.

Introduction

Meditation is believed to have started in India as part of a Hindu tradition called Vedantism. The practice later spread to other countries in the East such as Japan and China. In the West, meditation started in the 18th century. The practice has been gaining popularity in the West as people realize its benefits, both mental and physical. The rising popularity of meditation in the West had coincided with the decline in the popularity of formal religious practices.

History of Medication in the West

  • Meditation is one of the oldest and commonest techniques of finding emotional and mental stability. The term “meditation” branches from meditatum, a Latin word meaning “to ponder.”
  • Although the exact date when people started to meditate is not known, experts concur that the practice started before the advent of modern civilization. Archaeological evidence shows that hunter-gatherers practiced meditation.
  • Meditation is believed to have originated in India thousands of years ago. The earliest documented records date back to 1500 BCE. The records show that meditation entailed Vedantism, a Hindu tradition in India.
  • However, historians reckon that meditation was practiced as early as 3000 BCE. Between 600-500 BCE, other forms of meditation were recorded in Buddhist India and Taoist China. The practice later spread to other cultures in the East.
  • Meditation in the West began in the 1700s. During this time, some of the popular Eastern philosophical texts with references to meditation techniques were translated into various European languages.
  • Some of these texts include the Upanishads, the Bhagava Gita, and the Buddhist Sutras. Other sources indicate that Buddhism’s study was vital for meditation to spread to the West.
  • At this point, mediation was mainly used for self-improvement, reducing stress, and relaxation. In the 19th century, the practice was only seen as an interesting topic by intellectuals and philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Voltaire.
  • Meditation became popular in the West in the mid-20th century. The period was marked by the arrival of meditation masters from the East. The masters were invited to share their knowledge and expertise with interested learners.
  • As the popularity of meditation spread in the west, research on the benefits the practice had, both physically and mentally, began. In the United States, meditation became more protuberant when Swami Vivekananda, a renowned yogi, made a presentation at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
  • The presentation spurred a renewed interest in meditation in the West and influenced several spiritual leaders to move to the West. These include Swami Rama, Maharishi Maheshi, and Paramahansa Yogananda.
  • Another influential figure in the spread of meditation in the West was Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Dr. Jon created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which used meditation techniques to treat patients with chronic diseases.
  • In the late 1970s, transcendental meditation was growing in popularity, especially among celebrities. For instance, the Beatles used the technique to help them cope with fame.
  • However, the practice was mainly associated with the Hippie culture until the 1990s when it was adopted as a popular practice in the mainstream culture. In 1993, Deepak Chopra’s book, “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind” further led to the growth of meditation in the West.
  • In 1996, the book sold 137,000 copies in one day after it was featured by Oprah. More endorsements of meditation among celebrities led to the emergence of numerous books about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ to meditate.
  • Today, meditation is prolific across Western societies with schools and resources available, both offline and online, to help people embrace the practice. Statistics show that over 9.3 million Americans have meditated in the past 12 months.
  • Moreover, over 1,000 meditation apps exist in the western markets. Online courses, mediation apps, and websites generate over $100 million per year.

Meditation and Decline in Formal Religious Practices.

  • The growth in the practice of medication has coincided with the decline in formal religious practices. In most Western countries, including the United States, confidence in organized religion has been on a steady decline.
  • For instance, in 1975, 68% of Americans were confident in the church or organized religion. However, the confidence had plummeted to a low of 36% in 2019.
  • The waning popularity of formal religion in the West is partly attributable to the numerous controversies surrounding most formal religions such as Christianity. For example, sex scandals in the Catholic church.
  • Changes in the family set up in most western societies have also contributed to the decline of formal religion. Divorce cases have increased over the years leading to differences in religious upbringing across generations.
  • Children raised by separated or divorced parents have less robust religious experiences during their upbringing. Thus, as divorce cases increase, the role of formal religion in the modern society is losing relevance.
  • Nonetheless, meditation’s rise in popularity has not led to the decline in formal religious practices. While the decline in formal religion has been caused by societal changes, the rising popularity of meditation is spurred by the realization of its benefits, both mental and physical.
  • Meditation classes are increasingly being offered in college campuses and workplaces to curb rising stress levels. Doctors in the West have also embraced meditation because scientific studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in combating stress-related conditions.
  • Thus, the popularity of meditation is hinged on its health benefits rather than as a substitute to formal religion. Spiritually, sources show that the practice is not an alternative to formal religions such as Christianity but a means of spiritual worship.

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