Historical context of Meditation
Understanding the history, religion and science behind mindfulness can help us understand why this ancient practice is so powerful!
From the perspective of controversial evolutionary psychology we can see that mindfulness has always existed. This ability to spend large amounts of time in a conscious state of pure moment to moment aware of one’s environment was key to survival. Innate states of mindfulness can still be observe today in both people and animals.
As humanity evolved man formed indigenous tribal communities around the world. Each tribe developed their own forms of ritual and ceremony that often included intentionally cultivating the mind to meditating into trance-like states to gain insight into the unknown. These states were often reached through the use of drums and/or dance. From experiences in these states of mind the tribe members developed their spiritual belief system. For example, possibly as long as 60,000 years ago (according to carbon dating) the Australian Aboriginal community was forming their religious beliefs, known as the Dreamtime (a collection of stories about the spiritual world, creation and living in harmony with the earth). Through these stories each tribal member received a sense of wellbeing through understanding the spiritual world, humanity, creation and holistic living. As humans evolved so did their ability to control the mind through the practice of various forms of meditation.
All major religions practice a form of mindfulness.
Mindfulness in Hinduism
As mankind developed the ability to write, we find the first ancient sacred text to discuss meditation (apart from the Egyptian and Aztecs) are found in the four Vedas of Hinduism, dating 1500 BCE (over 3500 years ago), speaking of a culture that is possibly over 5000 years old. In Hinduism, meditational experiences or dhyana evolved into several varying states of conscious awareness in order to examine one’s own mind for the pursuit of self-knowledge and knowledge of the universe. These types of meditation included: focusing attention on channeling our powers of concentration; mindful states of present awareness; reflective states of consciousness for nurturing states of love, respect, patience and gratitude, etc.; states for energising the body through Chakra meditation (kundalini); and trance states of mediation (often aided by chanting) to induce deep spiritual awareness, including out of body experience. Although the Hindu religion is commonly named the oldest of the main religions, for some (particularly the Jews) this is debatable.
Mindfulness in Judaism
The Hebrew calendar dates the present year (2017) to be 5776, which places Abraham at 1900 BCE, with stories even older than him that had been passed down through the generations. This suggests that Judaism is the oldest religion. In Judaism there is several forms of meditation (also mentioned in the Talmud). In Genesis 24:63 we learn that Isaac spent time meditating in the field (self-seclusion). Christ also practice self-secluded meditation (with fasting) (as did Moses) to invoke altered states of mind and mystical experiences. This mystical connection between God and the devotee that may be reached through meditation is also expressed in Psalms 104:34, ‘May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord.’ Moreover, both the Torah (Old Testament) and the New Testament speak about visitations from angels, visions and prophetic dreams, demonstrates strong mystical experiences of devotee. This is also mentioned in Psalm 39:3 and Psalm 119:23 which suggests that meditating on the Lords decrees in times of trouble will also promote wellbeing.
On many occasions Psalms speaks of heart felt meditations, meditations that include taking time to sit and think about what God has done, His laws, decrees and precepts, and His unfailing love. Psalm 119:97 also speaks of intellectual or contemplative forms of meditating for the entire day on the love of God’s laws. This is also repeated in Joshua, with instructions to meditate day and night on the Book of the Law. Moreover, we also know that Judaism values meditation due to the fullness of its esoteric knowledge through Kabbalah and Zohar teachings. According to Rabbi Jill Zimmerman ‘Judaism, at its very core, is all about mindfulness’.
‘Mindfulness means slowing down, paying attention, being grateful, taking pauses to appreciate where you are, who you are, and whom you are with. It’s also about forgiveness and compassion, about being conscious of where you are on your spiritual journey and evaluating what’s important. It’s about remembering that we are part of something much bigger than our own selves. It’s about appreciating the earth and that we’re responsible not only for it, but for each other.’
Mindfulness in Buddhism
Buddhism was the next main religion to include meditation around 2,500 years ago, when a Hindu prince named Siddhartha Gautama, left his family to find enlightenment. Buddha developed the eight fold path as a philosophical way of living and understanding his concept of reality (which he named the four noble truths). According to Buddhism, ‘Right Mindfulness’ is the seventh part of the eightfold path. The eight fold path contains three constructs; wisdom, ethical conduct and mental discipline. According to this theory, attaining right mindfulness is the ‘mental discipline’ part of the path, which also includes ‘right effort’ and ‘right concentration’ (The attainment of wisdom is acquired through right view, right intention and right speech. The attainment of ethical conduct is acquired through right action and right livelihood). However, it is the act of practicing right mindfulness that leads to living in accordance to the eightfold path (and the four noble truths). Right mindfulness is the key to understanding the four noble truths, which basically teach us to free the mind from the never ending desires, or continuous cravings that lead to stress or suffering – and attain enlightenment, which includes a cessation of craving (peace of mind).
Mindfulness in Christianity
In Christianity many believers also advocate the benefits of being present and can also make the link with Christ’s own message of not worrying about the future. Additionally, as with every other religion, Christian forms of meditation go a lot deeper than simply being mindful. Other forms of meditation in Christianity include reciting prayer, contemplative or mediative reading of the Bible, fasting, and sitting (self-seclusion) and finding a personal connection through the trinity (Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father). Moreover, many Christians throughout the ages have been mystics. Additionally, when nuns and monks practice vows of silence for short or long periods this is also a form of meditation, or mindfulness.
Mindfulness in Islam
Plenty of links on the internet are also connecting mindfulness to Islam. Additionally, as with other religions, mediation through prayer and reading are also practiced along with Sufism in some Islamic sects (which is mysticism occurring in both Sunni and Shia sects of Islam).
I have emphasised mysticism throughout this blog because most people think mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment, due to the common definition circulating. That is, mindfulness is the practice of non-judgmentally paying attention to the mind and body in the present moment, rather than being lost in daydreams, anticipations, worries, or cravings. While this definition is true – to be fully mindful is to accept that we are not separate from everything else, and that this is an illusion. This school of thought was developed in every major religion through mystical experiences and deep states of meditation of the devotee/teachers. It is also expressed in the various texts.
From religion to science
The conceptualisation of everything being connected is now a universally growing truth due to research from the scientific community. For example, through research in genetics and DNA we now know that we share 98% of our DNA with the chimpanzee and we even share 60% of our DNA with a banana plant. The scientific community has also discovered (in line with certain religious beliefs) that electromagnetic energy (Chi or Prana) is everywhere. It is emanating from everything that has a frequency, which is everything that makes a sound, whether it can be heard or not. Additionally, through quantum physics we have discovered that everything is made up of tiny particles of energy. This means if we were to breakdown material things into their smallest unit everything would appear the same (just tiny bits a jiggling energy).
Now we live in a world in which both religion and science have perspectives in which we can view everything as part of a whole ‘sameness’, rather than through our own judgmental filters of our personal likes and dislike. In Buddhism and Hinduism, this leads to a heartfelt understanding of the ‘oneness’, which brings acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, and love. In Judaism, the Zohar explains that ‘Adam’ represents all of mankind and we are all holographic reflections of each other and must learn to love each other as ourselves in order to for fill the potential of man. This is also echoed through Christianity through the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would have them treat you, as well as Christs commandment to love one another.
Positive Psychology, a mindful revolution
Finally, mindfulness is currently a ‘hot topic’ in western psychology, due to the mounting scientific evidence to support its application. As a result mindfulness has become a form of positive psychology that is slowly replacing the traditional problem focused therapies of western society. For example, many studies have shown when participants are taught mindfulness they demonstrated significant results for increasing attention, learning, martial satisfaction, self-compassion, general psychological well-being; and alleviating depression, bereavement, anxiety and acute stress. Moreover, using mindfulness skills can easily facilitate a change in negative mood, increase positive mood and lead to a better worldview of the self, the world and the future.
Summing it all up with a warning!
As you can see from history, humanity found wellbeing and meaning in the practice of meditation and mindfulness as it was taught to initiates seeking God through the various religions. Now, after a falling away from religion in contemporary western society (which coincides with an ever growing percentage of people suffering from depression, anxiety and various other mental health problems), people are beginning to return to meditation and mindfulness due to scientific discovery showing its numerous benefits. However, when using mindfulness or meditation to improve one’s wellbeing the initiate must also be seeking or yearning for spiritual knowledge. Otherwise, the initiate is merely glimpsing a temporary improvement in wellbeing that may also be due to simply trying to improve wellbeing (and as such the same results could be reached if one was to merely convince oneself that eating an apple every day will improve wellbeing). As such, this type of initiate only experiences an ultimate result of failure – due to not finding the correct path. This is unfortunately happening and evident through scientific research that shows the improvements found with contemporary mindfulness lessons may be short lived for many people. And as a final warning, Buddha himself predicted that his teachings will be distorted and taken out of their spiritual context and taught merely for the exchange of money by greedy people, who only pursue their own selfish desires. Furthermore, Buddha explains that these teachers cannot comprehend the value or depth of Buddha’s teachings because they lack purity of mind.
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