History of Meditation

The earliest recorded descriptions of meditation are found in India. Sacred Indian texts are the most often cited origin of meditation, but that is far from the full story. Indian texts are neither the only original source, nor are they even the only source from that time period. Meditative practices are found in cultures across the ancient world - from indigenous North America, to Greece, Mesopotamia and China.

Illustration from "Secret of the Golden Flower" (8th century CE)

Origins of meditation

Many of the most widely practiced techniques in modern day have their roots in India, including Zen, Mindfulness, various new age practices found in the West, and of course Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain meditation. However, once you look further, you will find practices worldwide with no obvious connection to that lineage: Jewish references to meditation in the Torah are as old as the Hindu references in the Upanishads; Daoism has certainly been influenced by Buddhism, but Daoist meditation predates the arrival of Buddhism in China; The writings of the Hellenic philosopher, Plotinus, have had a lasting influence on meditation practices in Europe and the Western Asia,

Then there are the practices that clearly predate recorded history: Judaism, Jainism, Buddhism, and of course Hinduism all have clear references to teachers of meditation in their earliest texts. These texts are often laying down an existing oral tradition rather than introducing a new practice.

The exact origin of meditation cannot be defined, but its purposes are clear. It has existed before recorded history, and separately originated in many cultures across the globe. This article will demonstrate that despite these varied origins, meditation has a common core across cultures. Meditation at its essence is a practice of introspection and self-realisation. These practices have evolved across the world independently because introspection is a natural process in human life, and self-realisation is a natural evolution of that process.

What is meditation?

Meditation is an experience, rather than an action - free from thought, but aware of one's surroundings. It's not an action to be done, but rather a state of being where one becomes connected. In this state you are conscious and aware, but momentarily thoughtless. Through practice one can develop this state, and grow the length of that thoughtless moment into a full state of meditation.

Typical depictions of meditation will show a person sitting cross-legged, kneeling, or even standing on one leg. It's more difficult to depict what is going on inside. The inner experience is something which can only be obtained by being in meditation. Many techniques to achieve meditation involve postures, affirmations, or preparing your surroundings - but these activities themselves are not yet meditation. Put simply: Meditation is a state of thoughtless awareness.

How long has meditation been around?

There are many practices which are grouped under the term meditation. Amongst all those different practices, the earliest extensive descriptions are of dhyāna (ध्यान) in the Upanishad Vedas (Indian sacred texts). However the concept and practice of meditation existed in at least India and Palestine well before these first extensive recordings.

"With mind, meditate (dhyāna) on me as being prana (life force)"

Kaushitaki Upanishad 3.2, ~6th or 5th century BCE

The Torah (written ~6th century BCE, based on earlier oral traditions) describes Isaac as going to lasuach (לשוח) in a field - a word which is universally understood to describe a form of meditation. Judaism has used meditation for thousands of years, and those practices have filtered through to the Abrahamic religions that followed (Christianity and Islam).

How old is meditation?

Meditation has been around since at least the 6th or 7th century BCE, where it is first mentioned in Hindu, Daoist, and Jewish sacred texts.

The three major Indian traditions - Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism - have clear references to meditation predating the Upanishads. Gautama Buddha - the founder of Buddhism - is described as having practiced meditation under two teachers. Jain tradition states the meditation has been a core practice, long before recorded history.

In China, the earliest descriptions of meditation are from the Neiye (Inward training, ~4th century BCE) - a pivotal Daoist text. Neiye contains the oldest known descriptions of Chinese meditation and breath techniques.

Looking towards the west, the greek philosopher Plotinus (3rd century CE) described henosis (ἕνωσις) - a union or oneness with what is fundamental in reality. He detailed several steps to this process, the second phase being that "the intellect ... must ‘withdraw backwards’ and surrender itself to what lies behind it" (Enneads III.8.9). His ideas have had an important impact on meditation traditions in Judaism, Gnosticism, and Islam, but were most notably adopted into Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where it is known as theoria (or contemplation) and theosis (unification with God).

These early meditation practices have continued most commonly through the mystical traditions of various religions (where the primary goal is a direct experience of the divine / universe).

  • Indian traditions spread through Tibet and China, becoming Zen Buddhism in the east.
  • Hinduism and Jainism continued to develop at home, as well as influence meditation in Sikhism.
  • Hesychasm in Eastern Christianity and Hermetic Western Christianity is born of Jewish and Greek Influences.
  • Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, was influenced both by Judeo-Christian and Greek practices, as well as direct Indian influences in the Mughal-ruled India on Emperor Akbar.

Ancient Meditation Practices

According to ancient meditation practices, within each person lies a dormant energy, known variously as kundalini (India), pneuma (Greece), ki / chi (Japan / China), orenda (Iroquois), mana (Polynesia), and so on. Ancient meditation practices, especially those described in Indian scriptures focus on awakening this energy.

For thousands of years, ascetics (a person who gives up worldly life and possessions) would spend a lifetime in remote regions, such as the Himalayan mountains, seeking this awakening through prayer and penance.

Ancient Meditation Techniques

Yoga is now known as a common type of physical exercise. In truth, yoga stems from ancient techniques which Indian sages used to awaken the kundalini energy within them. The word yoga means "union," as this was the goal of any yoga practitioner of that time. Physical postures, called āsana, are just one small part of these ancient techniques, which also include breathe control, austerity, ethical behaviour, mantras and more.

Breath control is perhaps the most accessible and widely described ancient technique, as a first step towards thoughtlessness. However, breath control, mantras, and physical postures are external techniques. Meditation is an inward experience - as described in most ancient texts - these external approaches must be accompanied by self-study and introspection.

In addition to the dormant energy within us, there is also a subtle system encompassing that energy and various energy nodes (called chakras) within that system. Each chakra corresponds to a plexus of your nervous system, and ancient techniques hold that one can achieve the awakening of this energy through the management and balancing of one's chakras. You can learn more about this by exploring the chart of the subtle system, and reading about each chakra.

Shri Krishna, known as the "Lord of Yoga" in Hindu practices.

Meditation Practices in Religion

In this section, we'll give an overview of how meditation is described in each school of meditation across different religions.

Throughout these descriptions, you will see a common theme of meditation being used as a tool towards self-realisation and union with the universe / divine / reality.

Or, skip to Western Meditation Practices ⇒

Religions of Indian Origin

Jain Meditation

Known as sāmāyika (attaining equanimity).

Jainism originates in the pre-Vedic period of India, perhaps India's oldest meditation tradition. Daily meditation is a key practice, taking the form of a 48 minute session, 1 - 3 times a day. Sāmāyika is described as the "act of being conscious of the continual renewal of the universe in general and one's own renewal of the individual living being in particular, [as] the critical first step in the journey towards identification with one's true nature."

"After renouncing all attachments and aversions, and adopting a sense of equanimity in all objects, one should practise, many times, periodic concentration (sāmāyika), the principal means to realize the true nature of the Self."

From Purushartha Siddhyupaya, 95 ~10th century

Hindu Meditation

Known as dhyāna (ध्यान, meditation).

The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga Sutras are the primary sources for Hindu meditation. It has been further elaborated by countless Indian sages since then. In Hinduism, meditation is a key part of the process of yoga (union), where one comes to realise the atman (self or soul), their relation with other living beings, and the ultimate reality.

“Day after day, let the Yogi practice the harmony of soul: in a secret place, in deep solitude, master of his mind, hoping for nothing, desiring nothing.”

Bhagavad Gita 6.10, ~2nd century BCE. Translation by Juan Mascaro

Traditional / Theravada Buddhist Meditation

Known as dhyana (ध्यान, meditation) or jhāna (झान, meditation).

Buddhists practice meditation as a part of a path towards enlightenment and nirvana (liberation or salvation). This includes a wide variety of different techniques including breath-control, mindfulness, compassionate attention, and so on.

Traditional buddhist meditation generally revolves around the 4 rupa-jhānas (worldly meditations) as described in the Pāli Canon (sacred Buddhist texts, circa 29 BCE). Each of these being a sequential step towards the ultimate awakening. Briefly summarised, these stages are described as:

  1. Separation from external sensations, while discursive thought continues.
  2. Inner tranquility, free from directed thought and evaluation.
  3. Equanimity, mindful, and alert; but sensing pleasure within the body.
  4. Pure equanimity and mindfulness, with neither pleasure nor pain.
Credit • Yoshitoshi, 1887
Bodhidharma, the first Chinese patriarch of Chan Buddhism, seated in meditation.

Zen / Chan Buddhist Meditation

Known as zazen (坐禅, seated meditation), kenshō (見性, seeing) and satori ( 悟り, comprehension).

A widespread evolution of Buddhism practiced throughout east Asia. Chan Buddhism traveled from India, through China and then to Japan, Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere - where it is known under slight different regional names. The name itself is derived from dhyāna (ध्यान, meditation), reflecting this tradition's central emphasis on meditation.

When Buddhism arrived in China, there was a significant cultural exchange with Daoism - a native Chinese religion, with its own meditation practices. This branch of Buddhism places a more clear emphasis on stilling or pacifying the mind, compared to traditional Buddhism. Here the central focus is on awakening one's Buddha-nature, which is said to be already present, subconsciously, in all sentient beings.

In Japan (Zen Buddishm), this awakening is known as satori (悟り, comprehension), which is a deep experience of kenshō (見性, seeing). In this awakening one is said to see their own true nature, as well as the true Buddha-nature of all those around them. This awakening, through meditation, is the singular goal of Zen Buddhism.

"But people of the deepest understanding look within, distracted by nothing. Since a clear mind is the Buddha, they attain the understanding of a Buddha without using the mind."

The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma

Abrahamic Religions

Jewish Meditation

Known as hitbodedut (התבודדות, self-seclusion), lasauch (לשוח, meditation) and devekut (דבקות, cleaving to God).

Early Jewish sources - including the Hebrew Bible and the philosopher Maimonides - reference meditation, but provide no instruction on meditation techniques.

The schools of Judaism are quite varied, and there is not a single widely accepted method of meditation. However, the main descriptions of meditation are given in Kabbalistic, Hasidic, and Mussar writings. These techniques often involve seclusion, mental visualisations and kavanot (mystical intentions).

Christian Meditation

Known as theosis (union with God) or simply meditation/contemplative prayer.

Christianity as a religion is built on Judaism, and of course draws on those early Jewish meditation practices. The earliest mystical and meditative movement in Christianity was the Desert Fathers. These informal gatherings of Christian hermits lived in the deserts of Egypt and become the central origin of Christian monasticism and mysticism. The most notable continuation of that tradition was in Hesychasm, a movement of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The ultimate goal of hesychast meditation is theosis, a direct experience of the divine "uncreated light," associated with the holy ghost.

In Western Christianity, other meditation techniques were developed and described by Christian saints, especially the Catholic spanish mystics of the 16th and 17th century CE - such as Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila, and Hildegard von Bingen.

In both Western and Eastern Christianity, meditation is seen as one of three forms of prayer (alongside vocal prayer and contemplative prayer). Contemplative prayer itself, is not far from a form meditation either. It is described as seeking a direct awareness of the divine, and transcending the intellect.

"Just as we cannot stop the movement of the heavens, revolving as they do with such speed, so we cannot restrain our thought. [...] Yet the soul may perhaps be wholly united with Him in the Mansions very near His presence, while thought remains in the outskirts of the castle."

Interior Castle, 1577 by Teresa of Ávila

Islamic / Sufi Meditation

Known as murāqabah (مراقبة, to observe).

Several Islamic meditative practices exist (eg. salah and dhikr), but the most developed form of meditation in Islam, is the murāqabah performed by Sufi mystics. Islam is a part of the same Abrahamic tradition as Christianity and Judaism, recognising many of the same prophets and holy texts, and so Islam has inherited some of those influences, as well as direct influences from India and West Asia.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

By Rumi a Sufi poet

In Sufism, murāqabah is described as having several stages. As we've seen with other practices, the final stage here is to achieve a state of thoughtless awareness. There are three stages of murāqabah:

  1. Somnolence - a state between sleep and waking, while often slipping into a sleep state.
  2. Idrāk - with practice, the sleepiness of meditation decreases. The conscious mind is aware and able to receive spiritual knowledge from the subconscious.
  3. Wurūd - awareness is maintained with somnolence at a minimum. The person becomes sublimated in the experience, no longer an outsider.

Religions of Chinese Origin

Daoist Meditation

Known as xiu dao (修道, practicing the way) and zuowang (坐忘, sitting forgetting).

Meditation is a central practice in Daoism. It is described in almost every significant Daoist text - Zhuangzi, Dao de Jing, Neiye, and others. In this meditation, one seeks a loss of self, and a complete immersion in the universe. Frequently texts discuss discarding one's external senses and reasoning powers in order to enter a state of thoughtlessness.

There are several common phrases used to describe Daoist meditation that give a sense of its purpose and character, such as "guarding the one" (守一), "fasting the heartmind" (心齋), and "embracing simplicity" (抱朴).

The word Dao itself - often translated as "Way" or "Path" - is described as underlying flow or pattern of the universe, its natural order. Through Daoist meditation, one seeks to become one with this natural order.

"My connection with the body and its parts is dissolved; my perceptive organs are discarded. Thus leaving my material form, and bidding farewell to my knowledge, I am become one with the Great Pervader. This I call sitting and forgetting all things."

Zhuangzi, translation by James Legge
Credit • Ma Lin, 13th Century
Quietly Listening to Wind in the Pines

Confucian Meditation

Known as jing zuo (靜坐, quiet sitting).

Meditation was not a major part of Confucianism until Buddhism and Daoism started to have a major influence in Chinese culture. Around the 11th century, Confucianism was reinterpreted in the context of Buddhist and Daoist thought. This is usually called Neo-Confucianism. As a result, Confucian meditation is often described in contrast to Buddhist meditation. Like other forms of meditation, the ultimate goal is the full realisation of one's self, but there are two competing schools of thought - the Rational and Idealistic school.

Neo-Confucian scholars described their meditation - jing zuo - as "oriented to this world and aimed at perfecting one's self, whereas Buddhist and Daoist meditation focused on forgetting the world and abandoning one's self." In the rational school, action and knowledge, and an active investigation of the world are considered key.

However, in the Idealistic school of thought, we can find a familiar theme. Wang Yangming, an influential figure in this school, believed that only way to enlightenment was reflection on an inner principle, which exists in everyone. In the Idealistic school, only self-examination and inward study are needed to achieve enlightenment.

"Nothing exists outside our minds, no supreme principle exists outside our hearts."

Instructions for Practical Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings (傳習錄), Wang Yangming
Handwriting of Wang Yangming
Writings of Wang Yangming, an influential figure in Confucian meditation 

Replied Confucius, "So many decrees! You lay down laws, but you don't think things through. Yes, it's true you'd stop his wrath. But that's all you'd stop. How would you get him to change? You're still making the mind a teacher."
"Then I'm all out of ideas," said Yen Hui finally. "May I ask what your strategy would be?"
"Fasting," replied Confucius. "Let me explain something to you. Using your mind to do things - isn't that too easy? And the easy way rarely accords with bright heaven."
"My house is poor," said Yen Hui. "It's been months since I've tasted wine or meat. Isn't that considered fasting?"
"That's the fasting of Ceremony and Ritual," replied Confucius. "Not the mind's fast."
"May I ask about the mind's fast?""Center your attention," began Confucius. "Stop listening with your ears and listen with your mind. Then stop listening with your mind and listen with your primal spirit. Hearing is limited to the ear. Mind is limited to tallying things up. But the primal spirit is empty: it is simply that which awaits things. Way is emptiness merged, and emptiness is the mind's fast."

The Zhuangzi, Chapter 4
Translation by David Hinton

Western Meditation Practices

Meditation in the West is an ongoing and evolving practice, influenced heavily by Eastern traditions. Few meditative practices have survived in organised European religion and so much of the renewal of Western meditation has been fuelled by the study of eastern practices, as well as the migration of eastern mystics - particularly from India and China - to the West.

"In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions."

Walden, 1854 by Henry David Thoreau

The eastern and western worlds have not developed in isolation from each other. Europeans have studied the eastern culture since as far back as ancient Greece - where Greco-Buddhist societies formed in the eastern parts of Alexander the Great's empire. In 2nd millennium European scholars were shocked to discover the strong similarities between Latin and Sanskrit (the root languages of Europe and India respectively). The great transcendentalist thinkers of earlier American culture - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and others - delved deeply into the study of Indian sacred texts.

Eastern influences are now virtually inseparable from the Western meditation. In the mid to late 20th century the American counter-culture movement and the migration of religious figures from communism in East Asia drove an explosion of interest in Eastern meditation practices in the West. Western meditation has very clear ties to eastern practices, but has also evolved to incorporate western outlooks. Carl Jung - an influential 20th century psychologist - gives his philosophy of meditation, a good example of a philosophy of drawing from eastern influence and adapted in the West.

"In general, meditation and contemplation have a bad reputation in the West. They are regarded as a particularly reprehensible form of idleness or as pathological narcissism. No one has time for self-knowledge or believes that it could serve any sensible purpose. Also, one knows in advance that it is not worth the trouble to know oneself, for any fool can know what he is. We believe exclusively in doing and do not ask about the doer, who is judged only by achievements that have collective value. The general public seems to have taken cognizance of the existence of the unconscious psyche more than the so-called experts, but still nobody has drawn any conclusions from the fact that Western man confronts himself as a stranger and that self-knowledge is one of the most difficult and exacting of the arts."

The Conjunction, CW 14, par. 709. by Carl Jung

Carl Jung, equated meditation in his words with "coming to terms with the unconscious." It was a tool for real self-understanding, and in that sense he distanced it from religious meditation practices, that by his time had often become ritualistic or outward looking.

So where did meditation come from?

The best tracked lineage of meditation originated in India, and then spread east to China with Buddhism - particularly becoming the Zen Buddhist tradition. Greek scholars and American transcendentalists studied this lineage. It has influenced Sufism through the Islamic rule of India. The most common modern practices have strong roots to this lineage, and so India is often mistaken for the source of meditation. But India is not the sole origin. As shown at the beginning of this article, meditation originated separately in at least China, India, and Palestine before recorded history.

Meditation is an innate practice, the natural result of introspection, and so it has no single point of origin Instead it is found wherever and whenever one sets their sight within.

Who invented meditation?

The truth is that no single person or culture invented meditation, it is a natural result of human introspection.

A common misconception is that meditation was invented by Gautama Buddha. Buddhist tradition itself describes that Buddha in fact was taught meditation by others, although he found it lacking and developed his own approach.

Another misconception is that meditation was invented by early Indian sages and recorded in the Upanishads. While this is the root of many modern practices, it is not universally true. We can see independent depictions of meditation in Daoism, Judaism, and Sufism - and that is only to name the most well known religious practices.

Modern Meditation

Historically those seeking knowledge of themselves would go to great lengths: the early christian Desert Fathers lived in the deserts of Egypt; Indian disciples sought gurus in the mountains. Christian and Buddhist removed themselves from society in remote monasteries. In the modern day, such practices are no longer necessary. Everyone can try meditation for themselves and find the answer within themselves.

In the recent decade there has been another resurgence of meditation throughout modern Western culture. Much of this resurgence are, supposedly secular, meditation practices under the banner of mindfulness. However mindfulness is in fact rooted in Buddhism, specifically with an emphasis on the practice of ānāpānasati, mindfulness of breathing. Some mindfulness is presented more secularly than others, but all draw on these techniques. Mindfulness offers an approach to focus and concentration, and in more rare circumstances an approach to being a witness of world around you.

"If the ancient art of meditation is practised at all today, it is practised only in religious or philosophical circles, where a theme is subjectively chosen by the meditant or prescribed by an instructor, as in the Ignatian Exercitia or in certain theosophical exercises that developed under Indian influence. These methods are of value only for increasing concentration and consolidating consciousness, but have no significance as regards affecting a synthesis of the personality. On the contrary, their purpose is to shield consciousness from the unconscious and to suppress it."

The Conjunction, CW 14, par. 708. by Carl Jung

In contrast to traditional Buddhism and other ancient techniques, Mindfulness is an externally focused practice, concerned managing one's external attentions. On this website we present a different modern meditation technique based on the older more internally-focused meditative practices. This is similar to the meditation described above by Carl Jung and the goals described in many historical meditation practices - self-knowledge and inner awakening.

There is much more to life, than the mundane mind, and that first touch of reality is found with that spark of the divine in a state of sublime silence.

Sahaja Yoga

"Now questions and answers were very good. I liked the way they were asked, answers were given. But the best way to learn Sahaj yoga is practical side of it — just like science."

Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi
Lecture at Lonavala, India 1982

The meditations presented on this website are a modern meditation practice called Sahaja Yoga, meaning "Spontaneous Union,". This is an experience-based technique which asks you to experience meditation first and then base your understanding on that experience. This method was developed by Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi in 1970. It begins with self-realisation and then one develops that self-knowledge through meditation and various supporting techniques.

Information is provided throughout this website, but before reading further, we encourage you to:

Further reading