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History of Meditation

Person meditating in the mountains by Moyan Brenn, CC 2.0



It seems today that everyone meditates. The most popular form of meditation is mindfulness.

Apart from being beneficial to your health and performance, it is also strongly associated with the Orient. But – what’s less known – this form of meditation is much more Western than it seems.

So, what’s mindfulness?

The Buddhist term for mindfulness, from the Pāli language, is sati. It does not mean just “bare attention” as it is often described, but it suggests an awareness of things in relation to other things.

Thomas William Rhys Davids in 1881 translated sati as mindfulness, the now standard translation, but some other translations included retention, attention, awareness, inspection and presence.

Sati is one of the seven factors of enlightenment in Buddhism, and “right” mindfulness is the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path. Mindfulness is seen as an antidote for delusion.

Some other terms connected with sati are ānāpānasati, the mindfulness of breathing, satipaṭṭhāna, an establishment of mindfulness in one’s day-to-day life and vipassanā, an insight into the true nature of reality coming from the practice of sati – with this insight the practitioner becomes a so-called “stream-enterer,” the first stage on the path to liberation.

So what exactly is meditation and mindfulness?

It’s a practice of training the mind and inducing a specific mode of consciousness, directly inspired by the Buddhist tradition. Across the world, there are many forms of meditation, found in most religions. Many views and ideas. Some see it as a form of worship, some see it as a technique used to train oneself. It is used to promote relaxation, develop compassion, love, patience, generosity or build life force.

There is no one definition of mindfulness among scholars, but psychologists usually define it, when used in therapy, as a process of non-judgemental awareness of internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, as well as maintaining an attitude of acceptance and openness to those experiences.

A brief history of meditation and mindfulness

Buddha taught meditation around 500 BCE. His most important discourse on the subject is found in Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, or “The setting-up of mindfulness.” He taught that meditation is not meant to disconnect someone from his life, but on the contrary – connect one with every aspect of it. Buddha said that the two most important fruits of this practice are serenity and insight into the true nature of reality.

But the exact origins of Buddhist meditation are a subject of debate among scholars. The earliest substantial records of this practice, as well as Buddha’s life and teachings, are found in the Pāli Canon, written around the 1st Century BCE.

But meditation did not start with Buddha. It didn’t even have a single origin. Among many types and applications of meditation, one thing is common: until the 20th Century, it was bound to a religious context.

The earliest documents on the subject are found in the Hindu Vedas of Nepal and India, around 1500 BCE. Buddhism adapted some of its meditative techniques from Hinduism. Then, in the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE, new forms of meditation formed in Taoist China and Buddhist India. In the 4th Century BCE, it was Buddhism that influenced the Hindu tradition of Vedantism in turn. By the time Buddhism was spreading in China, around 100 CE, Vimalakīrti Sūtra included passages that may have pointed to ideas about meditation that later became the core of Zen. Then, the Silk Road transmitted Buddhism across Asia from the 1st Century CE onwards. Buddhism grew in Japan from the 8th Century CE and formed its own branch, the Japanese Zen, which developed new meditative practices, in many cases similar to today’s mindfulness.

In the West, meditation became widely known around the change of eras, two millennia ago, not only because of the arrival of Buddhist missionaries in the Middle-East. There is evidence that some forms of meditation were practised in early Judaism long before that, probably inherited from earlier Israelite beliefs and practices. Jewish meditative practices grew and changed by the Middle Ages, primarily as forms of prayer and study. Around the change of eras, Philo of Alexandria wrote about “spiritual exercises” involving attention and concentration. Nowadays, meditation is essential in Judaic traditions of Kabbalah, as well as among Hasidic Jews.

In the 3rd Century, Plotinus developed new meditative techniques and his work was evolved by Saint Augustine. Eastern Christian meditation can be traced to the Byzantine period and it then involved the repetition of phrases and keeping specific postures. Between the 10th and 14th Centuries at Mount Atos, the tradition of hesychasm, i.e. of mystical prayer, eremitical life, silence and searching for a connection with Jesus, emerged and is present there to this day. Western Christian meditation was developed by the Benedictine monks in the 6th Century. It was different from meditation practised by Christians in the East: it involved no repetition of phrases or keeping a particular posture. It was called Lectio Divina, or Divine Reading, consisting of four steps, systematised by Guigo II: lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio (reading, pondering, praying, contemplating). Western Christian meditative techniques were further developed in the 16th Century by saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Ávila.

Another wave spreading meditation in the West came around the 8th and 9th Centuries due to Islam. In Sufism, it was systematised and became an essential part of practice in the 11th and 12th Centuries.

Neopagan religions also sometimes require the use of meditation in the preparation of magickal rituals, to help tune one’s consciousness to one’s goals. The forms of pagan meditation are various.

Here come the West

The Enlightenment, fuelled by intellectualism, welcomed new ideas from faraway lands. By the 18th Century Buddhism has become a popular subject of research and debate among Western intellectuals such as Schopenhauer and Voltaire. However, the evolution of meditation becomes hazy at that point due to increasing intellectual and religious interchange between the East and the West.

In the Victorian era, when the streets of England started to fill with mystics and fortune-tellers, the people became fascinated with the occult and the powers of the mind. This included Buddhism and meditation. Asian spirituality has come not only to Europe but also to America.

However, forms of Asian religion and spirituality became influenced themselves by Western Christian Unitarian Transcendentalism and other 19th Century forms of Western esotericism and exported back to those faraway lands. This includes the Vipassana Movement. It presented its version of vipassanā meditation as a centuries-old technique, when in fact, it was a 19th Century reinvention. This meditation technique was modelled after the Theravada Buddhism practices employing the original vipassanā and ānāpāna meditation and emphasising the teachings of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. It gained popularity in the South-East due to the accessibility of English translations of the Buddhist sutras made by the Pāli Text Society and then brought to Western attention by the Theosophical Society.

In the 20th Century, first, the rise of communism in Asia drove Asian immigrants to the West and they brought their beliefs and practices with them. Those techniques were adapted to the Western world and some of them, after being changed, travelled back to the East. There, the first secular forms of meditation emerged.

Then, the social revolution happened and many freethinking people of the time (including hippies) became fascinated with Eastern philosophy and often travelled to Asia to seek guidance and teachings.

The post-war crisis of traditional Western faith and lack of moral guidance from the Church were also factors in the scale of this interest. This surge was more common and lasting than those from the past. This way, the previously Westernised Hindu and Buddhist techniques travelled back to Europe and America from Asia in the 1960s, but now rather than on spiritual growth became focused on stress reduction and relaxation.

Modern mindfulness meditation was modelled on vipassanā meditation and crossed to medicine and psychology. The success of its use as a treatment is widely attributed to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, personally a Buddhist, who started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme at the University of Massachusetts in 1979.

We are the same

As you can see, meditation is not a product coming from a single, oriental origin. It is a technique that was discovered time after time, modified and influenced by intellectual endeavours. Nonetheless, this wandering story shows how interconnected the world has become and how many people strive for peace of mind and happiness.


Bartosz Makuch

Blogger. Publicist. Translator.
Book lover and pizza enthusiast.
You can find him at or follow him on twitter @b_makuch.

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