A Contemporary History of Meditation in the West

Ever since humans developed the ability for abstract thought we have tried to understand our place in the cosmos. In pre-historic times that role often fell to the spiritual leader of the tribe. These spiritual leaders were usually people who were considered gifted and thought to be able to converse with the spirit world. As part of the ritual of preparation for talking with the spirit world, the practice of hours or days of fasting, chanting, ritual dancing or inward contemplation was considered to be an essential part of the process of opening one's self to the wisdom or messages of the gods. In essence, it can be said that the subject attained a state of divine grace through the practice of meditation.

Tens of thousands of years later, in today's western society, we generally look upon meditation as originating in India within the Hindu and Buddhist religions from where it spread throughout Asia. And while the practice of meditation was known in the west in the early 20th century — particularly in Victorian England as a result of the empirical conquest and occupation of India — it is generally accepted that it came to public (western) attention in the early 60s in the form of Transcendental Meditation.

Transcendental Meditation owes its popularisation through the Beatles' introduction of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to the west — under whose direction all four Beatles took up transcendental meditation — and was instrumental in meditation's spread worldwide. The early 60s was also a time that saw the rapid growth of many types of experiential and existential psychologies, many of which used varied forms of meditation in their therapeutic sessions. All these factors helped to popularise and develop awareness of meditation in the western world.

If we take a look at the application of meditation in (western) society today we can find a diversity that is unparalleled in its history. Meditation is taking the western world by storm, with more and more people seeking a sense of personal and spiritual fulfilment within their lives. This phenomenon also appears to cross most religious boundaries as individuals seek to enhance their spiritual wellbeing and find a greater degree of peace in a world that is full of contradiction and discord.

Holistic medicine and alternative therapies are another area where meditation is found. For example, many alternative therapy colleges teach meditation both as a discipline and as part of larger courses. Meditation groups are often fostered by past-students of these groups, or meditation taught or suggested as part of a treatment to inspire, relax, and particularly to avoid, reduce and cope with stress.

The use of meditation as an alternative to anti-depressants is also promoted among alternative health practitioners.

Once shunned by Newtonian-Cartesian science and medicine, meditation is fast becoming the modern equivalent of the mediaeval alchemists', sorcerers' and soothsayers' "Alchemist's Stone". Western medicine is discovering meditation as science uncovers more and more evidence of the value of meditation through controlled experiments.

Even in more orthodox medical circles, meditation techniques have been used to enhance immune functioning in cancer, AIDS, and autoimmune patients.

Meditation is used in conjunction with neuro-feedback to normalise brain rhythms and chemistry in alcohol and drug addiction, as well as other addictive conditions. Meditative techniques are used in learning self-regulation for disorders such as anxiety and hypertension, and for stress management

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The long term practice of meditation leads to a greater inner awareness that usually brings the individual to a greater understanding of their spiritual needs. Hence, the traditional forms of meditation are as relevant today as they were in the past and, no doubt, will endure well into the future.