Understanding the origins of Meditation and Mindfulness

As somebody who guides meditation classes several days a week, I find  I am often answering questions about, not only the difference between meditation and mindfulness, but also other questions such as the origins of the practices, health benefits, requirements for practice, etc.  

The word “meditation” comes from the Latin, “meditari” which means to think over, reflect, or consider.  The act of thinking, reflecting, and considering is the product of well developed brain.  Early evidence of our ancestors thinking and contemplating can be seen in Neanderthal burial practices dating over 50,000 years ago and through depictions of life as seen in cave art such as those found in Lascaux from over 20,000 years ago.  

The Sanskrit word Dhyana means to contemplate.  The earliest writings to the practice of contemplation or dhyana comes from the Vedic texts of India dating back to approximately 1500 BCE.  Later Vedic texts, written in approximately 600 BCE, called the Upanishads detail the spiritual practices of Hinduism.  The word dhyana, in the Upanishads, begins to include yogic practices with contemplation.  These practices also inspired the practices and beliefs of Buddhism and Jainism.  

Buddhism spread throughout India, Nepal, Tibet, China, and southeast Asia.  Around the mid 1800’s Chinese immigrants came to North America – in particular the West Coast of the United States.  They brought with them Buddhist practices including meditation.  As more North Americans and Europeans began travelling to Asia, some of them brought back with them Buddhist and Hindu texts and practices.  Writers such as Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson began to use the word meditation in their writings.  By the late 1800’s Hindu gurus and Buddhist teachers were coming to North America to spread their teachings which included meditation practices.  By the 1960’s, the Beat Generation of writers such as Kerouac and Ginsberg had traveled to Asia to learn meditation from gurus.  

Probably the biggest boost for popularity in meditation came when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught Transcendental Meditation to the Beatles.  The Beatles traveled to India in 1968 to learn the meditation practice from him.  Eventually the training and practice of Transcendental Meditation spread throughout Europe and North America.  Still, meditation remained a bit of fringe practice, that is until the health benefits were discovered.   Researchers began examining for health benefits of meditation back in the 1970’s.  Since that time hundreds of studies have been conducted.  While many of the studies have questionable methods in terms of internal validity, better studies are now being conducted in controlled environments in labs which are showing improvements with anxiety, depression, short-term memory, decreasing blood pressure and resting heart rate.  

A modern form of meditation is called MBSR.  It was put together by MIT-trained scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970’s.  It stands for Mindfulness-Based, Stress Reduction.  Many studies have shown the combination of yoga and meditation techniques to be very helpful in people suffering from stress- related illnesses.  MBSR was a significant change from the early forms of meditations taught by Hindu gurus and Buddhist teachers (lamas) in that it was not centered on religion or spirituality but rather the scientific health benefits of meditation and yoga.  

There are many different kinds of meditation that have come from the early Vedic traditions.  There is Transcendental Meditation (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi), Vipassana (Buddhist), Zen (Buddhist), Kundalini (Vedic), MBSR (Jon Kabat-Zinn), etc.  The meditations all have in common a mechanism to help the subconscious mind to settle down by paying attention to something happening at this moment.  Focusing on breathing, the actual movements of breath, can help to do this.  For some people it is chanting, visualizing movement of energy or counting beads.  It does not really matter what a person does to help them pay attention to present moment.  

The word mindfulness refers to the act of paying attention to present moment.  Meditate, means to set aside time for your practice of contemplation or conscious thought.  You can have a mindfulness-meditation if you set aside time to focus on something like breathing.  If you have ever tried to meditate or just be mindful for a minute, you know what happens: your chattering subconscious mind interrupts your brief moment of silence.  It is important to know that this is NORMAL.  Even the Dalai Lama experiences this.  The goal of practicing meditation or mindfulness is to turn the volume down on the chatter so the dominant “voice” is the conscious voice of breathing or counting, or visualizing.  This takes practice but significant benefits can be seen in only a few weeks of daily practice.  

If you are thinking about wanting to try meditation.  Begin with a goal of five minutes.  Don’t worry about how you are supposed to sit or hold your hands.  Just sit upright in a comfortable position and follow the movements of your breath in and out for five minutes.  When your thoughts get interrupted, just notice them and move your awareness back to focusing on your breathing.  It will get easier.  

Mindfulness can happen anywhere at anytime.  The next time you are doing something mundane like brushing your teeth or showering, see if you can be fully present of this act that you have done many times.  What does the tooth brush feel like on your teeth?  What does the shampoo smell like?  What does the water sound like?  This is mindfulness and it has the same benefits as sitting in a meditation.  The secret to the health benefits of meditation or mindfulness is that the conscious focus is cooling off your over-heated brain that is dominated by subconscious thoughts and chatter.  

If you are looking to learn more about meditation, the Ekahi Center in Kelowna offers three FREE meditations each week.  The classes are open to anyone and do not require any past experience in meditation.  

Brett Wade, PhD, PT