By Barbara Sternberg, Ph.D.
The earliest roots of meditation go back too far to trace with full confidence. We do know, however, that the practice of meditation was refined in the temples, caves, and monasteries of the East and Near East. Meditation has found its way to the West in the past century. In slightly different form, meditation also appears in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Meditation dates back to our earliest ancestors, who stared in wonder at the sky as they waited for hours to hunt for prey. Perhaps these ancestors waited while communal fires burned. Our ancestors had plenty of time on their hands. Because meditation entails a shift from thinking and doing to just “being,” these ancestors were probably able to meditate during the course of many of their days.
Long before the arrival of Buddha in the East, or the great Indian yogis, shamans — people with alleged access to what is good and evil — living in hunter-gatherer cultures all over the world used meditative techniques to enter altered states of consciousness known as trances. Focusing their minds using simple rhythms and chants, and sometimes employing hallucinogenic substances, these shamans traveled to the “spirit world” and returned with wisdom, healing abilities, magic abilities, and spirit blessings to bestow on their people.
Cave paintings dating back at least 15,000 years show figures lying on the ground in poses of meditative absorption. Scholars have determined that these were shamans in a trance state asking the spirits for a successful hunt. Other cave pictures showed shamans transformed into animals and taking on the animals’ magical powers.
Although shamanism has declined considerably, there are still world cultures that utilize shamans as healers, guides for the dead, and intermediaries between humans and spirits. Recent years have shown an upsurge of interest in shamanism, due in some part to the writings of Carlos Castaneda, Michael Harner, and Joseph Campbell.
But perhaps meditation’s deepest roots can be traced to India, where sadhus (traveling holy men and women) and yogis have practiced meditation in one form or another for more than 5,000 years. It was in India that meditation first flourished, and it is from India that meditation later traveled and spread to distant parts of the globe.
The earliest Indian scriptures, the Vedas, don’t have a word for meditation but described what are now known to be meditative rituals requiring great concentration. Over time, these practices evolved into a type of prayerful meditation that entailed the use of breath control with devotional focus on the Divine. From these earliest roots, three of India’s best-known meditative traditions blossomed: yoga; Buddhism; and tantra (a range of religious traditions).