In our frenetic, edgy modern world, it can be tempting to believe that the discovery of important truths is all about cutting-edge research and scientific trials. However, it’s often the case that we are discovering things the ancients knew all along! That can often lead us to a fuller appreciation that wisdom is not just a 21st-century commodity – every age has its philosophers and thinkers. Which, of course, brings us to meditation …
The origins of meditation
Though no one knows exactly how long, meditation has been around for a very long time. There’s also no universally agreed definition, but most would agree that meditation is the practice of thinking deeply or getting the mind focused for a set space of time. One could also speculate that chanting, which can be associated with some forms of meditation, is also a part of rudimentary language development and the transmission of oral culture. So it’s also possible that the beneficial effects of meditation could have been discovered quite by accident.
There’s little doubt that the practice also formed part of early religious rituals. In fact, some of the earliest historical evidence comes from drawings discovered in the Indus Valley, in what is now Pakistan and north-west India. These images, which have been dated to between 5,000 and 3,500 BCE, depict figures sitting on the ground in what seem to be typical meditation postures, with crossed legs and hands on knees.
Meditation in the ancient world
Early Hindu scriptures mention meditative practices, and different styles of religious meditation began to appear from the 5th century onwards. Broadly speaking, Confucian and Taoist forms developed in China, whilst Buddhism in India produced a different form.
One important point to notice is that a difference in emphasis between Hindu and Buddhist forms of meditation soon became clear. The Hindu religion tended to use meditation as a means of getting closer to a higher being, whereas Buddhism saw the practice as a kind of spiritual exercise used to understand one’s interconnection with all things in the universe.
However, many modern-day methods of meditation still have much in common with meditative beliefs and practices first developed in India around 5,000 years ago.
Meditation itself predates religion, nevertheless it is commonly used by religions people as a means of entering a contemplative state. The word meditation is derived from the Latin term ‘meditatum’ –- to ponder. And it was a 12th-century monk, Guigo II, who first gave a Latin description of meditation as a four-step process: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio (read, ponder, pray, contemplate).
Though meditation can still have religious connotations in the West, there is no requirement to adopt or follow religious practices in order to enjoy the benefits of meditation. Which form of meditation one chooses is usually a matter of lifestyle and personal goals. For many people, taking the time to meditate regularly is something they do to relax, to reduce their levels of stress and thus to promote a sense of well-being and improve their quality of life.
Some different types of meditation
Here is a brief description of some of the more common types of meditative practice encountered in today’s world. There will often be some overlap in terms of the techniques taught – for instance, postures and methods of breathing – but the focus and aims will usually be distinctly different.
Mindfulness is a particular way of becoming purposefully attentive, which involves being fully present in one’s thoughts from moment to moment. Some describe this as a ‘direct-focus’ style of meditation which can lead to increased personal awareness.
Transcendental meditation is a simple practice which employs a silent mantra as a central focus for the individual. This could be a single word, a short phrase, or a simple sound which is repeated in a manner described as ‘gentle effortlessness’.
Mantra meditation, which involves the calm repetition of a word or phrase, often uses traditional Sanskrit mantras said to have both a spiritual and psychological effect on the individual. The aim is to develop focus by removing distracting thoughts.
Guided meditation uses sounds, texts or imagery (sometimes in combination) to allow participants to respond by forming relaxing thoughts and mental pictures of their own.
Vipassana is an ancient form of meditation developed by the Buddhist tradition. Its aim is to help the individual see things as they really are. Thus, vipassana translates as ‘insight’.
Metta meditation, another Buddhist-inspired technique, cultivates the ability to show loving-kindness towards all sentient beings.
Chakra meditation comprises a series of relaxation techniques which aim to realign, cleanse and balance an individual’s chakra forces (seven centres of personal energy and spiritual power within the body).
Yoga is an ancient Indian meditation practice centred on a set of physical postures and controlled breathing exercises. Its primary purpose is to promote flexibility as well as to calm and focus the mind.
Meditation and health
Meditation is known to boost an individual’s sense of mental and physical well-being. But in addition, its wider benefits can help to promote positive lifestyle changes, such as controlling any compulsive gambling tendencies and playing online casino games responsibly. Furthermore, some research suggests it can often be used to manage the symptoms of a range of medical conditions.
Meditating regularly can bring some emotional benefits, which include: developing stress management skills, increased self-awareness, building patience and tolerance. In addition, meditation techniques may help individuals to develop a fresh perspective on stressful situations and focus on the present moment.
Many medical conditions either induce stress, or are made worse where stress occurs. There is an increasing number of studies which have shown that meditation can also help people to manage the symptoms of illness associated with certain conditions. These include: pain, anxiety, depression, sleep-related problems and tension headaches. And though meditation is never intended to replace prescribed medical treatments, it has been shown to help some individuals better manage the symptoms of conditions such as: high blood pressure, asthma and heart disease.