History of Meditation

Posted Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology

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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).

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Learning to Meditate

Posted Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology

buddha-918068_640By Barbara Sternberg, Ph.D.

Meditation is a practice that is nearly as old as our oldest ancestors. It has been practiced in cultures around the world and is as popular today as it has ever been. Practiced by holy men and women and by individuals seeking the health benefits meditation can provide, it is a state of relaxed concentration and enhanced awareness. Also, it gives an inward focus that allows you to see and better understand the workings of your own mind.

Simple to learn, meditation is in fact a skill that can take a lifetime to perfect. If you are curious about meditation and would like to sample its benefits, start with one of the meditations outlined here. Remember to give yourself time–the benefits of meditation come with practice and patience. The more you can adopt an openly receptive state of mind, the more successful your meditating experience will be.

Focusing Inward

One of the most popular forms of meditation in the world’s many spiritual traditions involves meditating on one’s breath. Although it may seem mundane, and it certainly is repetitive, the process of focusing on one’s breathing can, over time, lead to all of the physical and mental health benefits meditation promises to provide, including reduced stress, improved mood and improved pain control. It can also provide a deeper pleasure in life and a sense of connection with one’s essential inner core of being.

Most people are caught up in the everyday details of life–our families and jobs, what we need to get done, checking our email and texting our friends, reading the news of the day, and watching our favorite television show. Most of us get so caught up in these details that we fail to pay attention to what is going on inside us–in our own hearts, minds, and bodies. In truth, popular culture is designed to get us to believe that happiness and satisfaction come from outside, in the world of popular culture and advertising messages. Focusing our attention inward can seem like a huge step in a different direction.

Relaxing Your Body

As you gain experience practicing meditation, you will find that the process naturally relaxes your body while at the same time it focuses your mind. As a beginner, however, it may be difficult to experience bodily relaxation in the early days or weeks of meditating. It may be helpful for you to practice a relaxation technique before you meditate, especially if you are aware of feeling tense or stressed.

Meditating on Your Breath

Paying attention to the inhalations and exhalations of our breath certainly isn’t exciting, but it does slow our minds to match the speed and rhythms of our bodies; we breathe an average of 12 to 16 times per minute. There are several different ways to do this, but one to try — in the early stages of meditating — is counting the number of breaths needed to build concentration. The structure of counting provides a structure so that we can quickly notice when our minds are wandering off the task.

Learn more about meditation in our homestudy course, Meditation.

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