03 September 2012

Ian Gawler Blog: The history and practise of meditation

This week, we feature a guest blog from Ma Devi, a board member of the Australian Teachers of Meditation Association (ATMA). She has expanded on the piece I wrote in the introduction to Meditation – An In–depth Guide, providing a fascinating background to meditation. But first:

Thought for the Day:
     "What day is it?" asked Pooh.
     "It's today," squeaked Piglet.
     "My favourite day," said Pooh.

Just what is meditation?

In its broadest and most universal definition, meditation is a discipline that involves turning the mind and attention inward and focusing on a single thought, image, object or feeling.

Meditation is sometimes called attention regulation (or attention training). Various meditation practices can be further defined according to the object of meditation, whether the mind is focused on the breath, the mantra, the body, a deity, or an attribute like stillness, peace, love, etc.

The goal of meditation varies according to the technique that is practiced. Some techniques instill peace, some reduce stress, bring insight or enlightenment, some instill confidence and creativity, some work with thought and feeling patterns, some answer the most basic and mundane questions, some answer the most soul searching and mystical questions, and some do it all.

The early history

It is difficult to trace the history of meditation, but there were several seals dating to the mid 3rd millennium BC, discovered in India at Indus Valley Civilization sites. They depict figures in positions resembling a common yoga or meditation pose, showing “a form of ritual discipline, suggesting a precursor of yoga,” according to archaeologist Gregory Possehl. Historians also know that techniques for experiencing higher states of consciousness in meditation were developed by the shramanic traditions and in the Upanishadic tradition of Hinduism.

Originally meditation practices were largely aimed at spiritual enlightenment, a central part of which was the alleviation of suffering. Since then the practice of meditation has traversed virtually every culture and religion, although a rise in materialism coincided with a decline in spiritual practices. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th C caused a lapse of interest in meditation in the Western world.

Meditation in the West

Perhaps the earliest noteworthy Western contributor to meditation in the early part of the twentieth century was the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung who explored and drew upon Yoga and other Eastern philosophies and practices in forming his ideas.

However, in the 60s and 70s a meditation revival began with the advent of Hindu and Buddhist teachers travelling the Western world teaching Hatha yoga, Kundalini Yoga, meditation, Zen, Dzogchen, Sufism, Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, the yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Kashmir Shaivism, and other philosophies.

Hence, Western contemplative traditions have largely been influenced by Eastern Gurus, both Hindu and Buddhist. Experimentation with meditation grew significantly during this period, especially in America as the practice of Yoga took on new significance. Meditation began to find its way into a Western vernacular.

Meditation for Stress Reduction and Relaxation

As Hindu and Buddhist teachers were travelling West, a number of Western thinkers were travelling East in search of enlightenment and to study Eastern philosophies. And so modern relaxation techniques and a variety of concepts of meditation began to emerge.

The German psychiatrist Johannes Schultz created the relaxation technique and Autogenic Training, and the American physician Edmund Jacobson produced Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), both still popular today.

In 1963 the Australian psychiatrist, Ainslie Meares published his Atavistic Theory of Mental Homeostasis,pioneering the concept of therapeutic meditation (now known as Stillness Meditation Therapy) for the treatment of anxiety and pain, and which he further applied to the management of cancer. In the early 1970s the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement popularized meditation to a wider audience and was influential in fostering some of the early research activity.

In the late 1970s American medical biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn integrated Buddhist teachings with Western science to establish Mindfulness Meditation for the purpose of stress management. In recent times his work has influenced research into meditation as a healing modality and in the 2000s there has been a literal explosion in interest in the clinical and research applications of meditation, much of this being fostered by the Mind and Life Institute.

While all meditation approaches involve relaxation of body and mind, different styles may be used for individual preference or purpose.

NEXT WEEK: Join us for Part 2 as we explore meditation for personal development and enlightenment, its secular and practical applications.

Meditation in 4 easy steps

Mindbody Mastery

1. I encourage all teachers of meditation to join and support ATMA. Click here for ATMA’s excellent website. Good for teachers themselves, and if you are looking for a registered meditation teacher.

2. Ma Devi along with Sami Shankarananda (author of "Happy for No Good Reason" and other excellent books) also runs the Shiva School of Meditation and Yoga in Frankston Victoria, and is an ex President of the International Yoga Teachers Association.

2. Mindbody Mastery - downloadable meditation program

3. Meditation – an In-depth Guide - my most recent book on meditation


1. New book on meditation and research highly recommended:

“Dr. Norman Rosenthal’s "Transcendence: Healing and Transformation 
through Transcendental Meditation" is a profoundly important book about a topic 
that you need to know a lot more about. Moreover, it has been written by an 
internationally respected psychiatrist and 20-year senior researcher at the 
National Institutes of Mental Health who first described “Seasonal Affective

Dr. Rosenthal is one of those rare professionals who is able to mix
 authority and accuracy with riveting stories that read like a novel. In "
Transcendence", he has given us all a gift that will enlighten, entertain, and perhaps 
even transform.”

Mehmet Oz, M.D., Emmy Award-winning host of The Dr. Oz Show and Vice Chairman and Professor of Surgery, New York Presbyterian-Columbia University.

2. The new edition of You Can Conquer Cancer is now due in November, having been delayed a little by completion of the new Index.


  1. Hi Ian,
    On your recommendation I have bought and am reading 'Transcendence' by Dr. Rosenthal. All his studies refer to TM not mindfulness meditation and I wondered if practicing MBSM and being in the place of Stillness would be the same as TM? I practice and teach MBSM and am not sure if the benefits he talks about from TM would also be for MBSM.
    Looking forward to your response!
    warm regards,

  2. Good question Liz. The answer is that we know very little about how one style or technique of meditation compares with another therapeutically. At present it is a bit like saying antibiotics are good for pneumonia without knowing which antibiotic is best for what type of pneumonia, and not knowing how much of it to take. This is a much needed area for future research and personally I would be very keen to collaborate in such efforts.
    In the interim, it is reasonable to say that the states of mind engendered by TM and MBSM are similar enough to anticipate similar outcomes.