Meditation is a universal human experience found in many cultures throughout the world and it is practiced by most major religions, schools of philosophies and mystics. Meditation is a very large part of the ancient school of yoga, which has profoundly affected other cultures. It just happens to be that yoga is the oldest method of meditation and the most documented. Although most people are familiar with yoga as various physical postures, yoga is not limited to the practice of physical poses.
In Buddhism, meditation was passed down from the Buddha (who lived 2,500 years ago) to twenty eight successors of an Indian monk named Bodhidharma, who later traveled to China and introduced Dhyana (Sanskrit for meditation) to the Chinese. In China, meditation was named Chan (a mispronunciation of Dhyan) and was later exported to Japan where Chan became Zen. The meditation tradition of India was also introduced to Tibet by Jetsun Milarepa in the 12th century, which had a profound impact on the development of the Tibetan Lamas.
In Judaism there have been many mystics who practiced meditation. One such renowned mystic was called Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (Baal Shem Tov) who lived in Poland in the 1600’s. He once remarked that “All that I have achieved; I have achieved not through study, but through the state of the soul. When man gives up the consciousness of his separate existence, and joins himself to the eternal, such a state produces a species of indescribable joy”.
In the Islamic mystical path of Sufism, the mystics (dervishes) practice a meditation called “moragaba”. This closely resembles the meditation practice of yoga. In fact, many of these renowned Sufis traveled to India, throughout the ages, in order to receive meditation instructions, which impacted the development of Sufism. In the West the poetries of renowned Sufi masters such as Hafiz and Rumi are now widely published.
In the Christian tradition, Saint Teresa of Ávila (who lived in the 1500’s) was a renowned Spanish mystic whose teaching is filled with meditation, ecstasy and rapture. Saint John of the Cross is another mystic of the same era, and his teachings are also filled with meditation. There are numerous Christian mystics who practiced meditation including St. Francis of Assisi, Saint Therese of Lisieux and even the modern day saint Padre Pio. In his writings, Padre Pio states: “Whoever does not meditate, is like someone who never looks in the mirror before going out. If he doesn’t bother to see if he’s tidy, he may go out dirty without knowing it.”
The Hopi Indians of North America also practiced meditation. They believe that various spiritual doors have to be opened in order to experience the wholeness of all creation and meditation is the practice that makes way for their spirituality.
To this day, in the far reaches of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, the people of the Kung tribe practice a ceremonial dance and meditation in order to enter into “Kia” or transcendence.