Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


An Overview of Meditation: Its Origins and Traditions

Meditation is a practice that's part of all major world religions.

Meditation is practiced in cultures all over the world. But when and where did it begin? In this blog post, we’ll explore this question.

In the Indus Valley, archaeologists discovered evidence of meditation in wall art dating from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. The images depict people sitting in what many of us would recognize as meditation postures. In other words, the figures sat on the ground with crossed legs, hands resting on their knees, and their eyes slightly narrowed but not completely closed. There are also descriptions of meditation techniques found in Indian scriptures dating back around 3,000 years ago.

As the centuries passed, most of the world’s great religions adopted the basic concepts of meditation. Though the methods may vary from culture to culture, people across the globe believe meditation is an essential cornerstone of spiritual development.

In fact, all of the major religions have incorporated various forms of meditation in one form or another, particularly in their mystical branches.

Yoga and meditation were introduced to the United States early in the 20th century by Swami Vivekananda and popularized by Paramahansa Yogananda. In the 1960s, there was an explosion of interest in meditation fueled by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi teaching transcendental meditation.

In Judaism, there’s Kabbalah, which is, in a nutshell, a meditative field of study. The use of meditation in modern Judaism, “hitbodedut” (hit-ba-dee-doot) is one of the best known meditative practices.

Islam has two forms of meditation: The more mainstream that is mentioned in the Qur’an (or Koran) is “Tafakkur” (taa-faak-kur), which is contemplative meditation and reflection upon the universe. The second, less accepted and more mystical form, is Sufism.

Buddhism has numerous variations including Zen, Tibetan, and Theravadan. Most Buddhist traditions involve finding the path to Enlightenment, and meditation is an essential way to do this.

But what about people who practice traditional Christianity? In his book, The Relaxation Response, Dr. Herbert Benson states, “The term meditation is difficult for some people to grasp because it may connote exotic Eastern cults or Christian monks who spend most of their waking hours in monastery cells contemplating God.”

There are many Christian practices that are considered forms of meditation. Besides Christian monastic life, other connections within the Christian religions include counting rosary beads and the Adoration, which focuses on the Eucharist. Scholars point out references to meditation in the Bible such the statement in the Old Testament that reads, “Be still and know that I am God.” Many interpret this as a directive for people to quiet their minds through meditation. In Joshua 1:8 of The Old Testament, there’s a reference to meditating. In fact, the World Community for Christian Meditation was founded in 1991 to continue the work of the Benedictine monk, John Main, who introduced meditation in the form of repetitive prayer as part of his teachings of the Christian faith.

I could go on and on with examples, but the fact is that you don’t have to follow any particular religious tradition to enjoy the benefits of meditation. The practice, by itself, can be an invaluable tool in healing and stress reduction. Whether you adhere to a particular faith or not is irrelevant—millions of people all over the world believe that meditation is the way to clear your mind of extraneous thoughts so you can listen to God.

With the influx of Eastern philosophy into the United States and millions of Americans now taking yoga and meditation classes, meditation has become more mainstream than ever. And with all of the research highlighting the positive benefits of meditating, this trend is likely to continue.

More from Robert Puff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today