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Origins, growth & research

A continuing quest to unravel our conscious and unconscious minds

One of the great strengths of meditation is its longevity. The earliest written records of meditation being practiced come from China dated around 5,000 BC. In India, written records first appeared about 1,500 BC, and in Greece, about 750 BC. Meditation has been practiced continuously in virtually all cultures. While this practice is often associated primarily with Eastern cultures and religions, it is apparent that meditation is a widespread and long-lasting phenomenon.

During the 1800s, meditation in the West was largely the domain of Christian contemplatives and a few explorers of the occult, spiritualism, mental healing and transcendental experience. This all changed when the first World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago in 1893. For the first time major spiritual leaders from the East gathered and presented their experience and knowledge to a large gathering of influential Westerners. The Interfaith Movement began, and a serious interest in the study and practice of meditation was sparked in the Western world.

The rise of meditation in the 1960s

While the 1950s saw a few pioneers such as Alan Watts, who published his bestseller Psychotherapy East and West in 1961— meditation in the West remained largely the domain of spiritual seekers until the early 1960s. Most meditation was within the context of a Hindu Yogic, Sufi, Buddhist or Taoist framework. Then came the Age of Aquarius - the 1960s. The Beatles went to India, met the Maharishi and brought Transcendental Meditation (TM) back to the West. The Vietnam War galvanised a generation, the counterculture flourished, and people were intent on expanding their minds in different ways! Meditation was quickly popularised, and even stigmatised, as the domain of the hippies.

Meanwhile, a wave of spiritual refugees persecuted at home arrived in the West. While His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the best known of these, many other luminaries suddenly became directly available to Western audiences.

Meditation as a therapy

Beginning in the 1960s and expanding into the 70s, innovative doctors and psychologists realised that meditation had specific therapeutic applications. This coincided with the beginnings of mind-body medicine.

Until this time, the health of the mind was regarded in most medical circles to be quite unrelated to the health of the body. Likewise the capacity of the mind to influence healing was largely ignored. Very little academic research was being published up until the 1970s on mind-body medicine in general or meditation specifically. Documenting the advent of meditation as a therapy began with popular books on the subject.

Landmark publications

The first significant book came from the Australian psychiatrist, Dr Ainslie Meares. Relief Without Drugs was first published in 1967 in the United Kingdom and it rapidly created a global publishing sensation and was translated into many languages.

The psychologist Larry LeShan spent the 1960s delving into parapsychology and also became a founding pioneer in psycho-oncology, applying his training to the betterment of people affected by cancer. His book, How to Meditate was published in 1974 and became a standard reference for many years.

In 1975, another landmark book emerged. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and convert to Transcendental Meditation (TM), published his scientifically based, runaway bestseller The Relaxation Response. Benson advocated a more secular version of TM, detailing a simple mantra-based meditation technique.

Then in 1978 Carl Simonton and Stephanie Matthews published Getting Well Again, which broke new ground. It applied Stephanie’s training as a performance psychologist to enhance Carl’s work as a radiation-oncologist. Carl and Stephanie focused on teaching their patients imagery techniques to complement and facilitate radiotherapy. They reported positive results and their research findings rapidly opened the doors to developments in the study and practice of the therapeutic use of imagery.

The 1970s and 1980s saw excellent books published on meditation. In the therapeutic arena, Pauline McKinnon, a patient of Dr Meares’ who used his methods to recover from agoraphobia in 1983, published, In Stillness Conquer Fear. Ian Gawler’s first book, You Can Conquer Cancer, with its emphasis on the therapeutic application of meditation was released in 1984, followed by his first book specifically on meditation, Peace of Mind in 1987, then Meditation - Pure and Simple in 1996, and The Creative Power of Imagery in 1997.

The next major wave in therapeutic meditation was propelled by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s first book, which detailed the use of mindfulness in the therapeutic setting. Full Catastrophe Living published in 1990, has catalysed huge interest in mindfulness among the public and the scientific research community.

In 1992 Sogyal Rinpoche published his spiritual classic The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which to date has sold over two million copies and has been translated into over 30 languages.

At the beginning of the 21st century, a series of breakthroughs in neurological research were summarised in Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself. A research psychiatrist, Doidge documented revolutionary discoveries in the new and exciting field of neuroplasticity demonstrating that our brain changes both its physical structure and function according to how we use it. This has tremendous potential for those hoping to recover from major head injuries or disease.

The year 2007 was a vintage year for mind science breakthroughs. In The Mindful Brain, Daniel Siegel, psychiatrist, educator and leader in the field of mental health, introduced recent research identifying what have been termed ‘mirror neurons’. These specialised cells form a system that has the capacity to mirror internally what we are experiencing externally.

More recent works by a new generation of young Tibetan teachers include Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s excellent books The Joy of Living (2007) and Joyful Wisdom (2009).

Scientific research

When TM came to the West it brought two exceptional benefits: a reliable meditation technique that was relatively easy to teach and to learn; and organizationally, a strong commitment to research. By 1990 David Orme-Johnson and colleagues at TM’s university in Iowa compiled and edited 508 scientific studies on the therapeutic benefits of TM. Of these studies about one third each came from peer-reviewed scientific journals, TM conferences and TM’s own publications. One of TM’s leading advocates, Herbert Benson, established the Mind-Body Medical Institute at Harvard and continues to have a powerful effect in catalysing research.

Another wave of groundbreaking research, was orchestrated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness has a long-standing interest in science and the mind in particular and was instrumental in establishing the Mind and Life Instgitute. This collaborative approach to research between modern science and Buddhist scholars has resulted in regular dialogues since 1987 between the Dalai Lama and others such as Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence; Matthieu Ricard; neuroscientist Richard Davidson; and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Many popular bestsellers come directly from these dialogues, such as Healing Emotions (1997) and Destructive Emotions - and how we can overcome them (2003), both edited by Daniel Goleman.

The development of academic research has been underpinned by the ongoing influences of Michael Murphy and Stephen Donovan whose famous personal development centre, the Esalen Institute was established in 1961. They have provided a wonderful contribution to this field with their work The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation. First released in 1988, an updated edition is now available at noetic.org. The noetic bibliography is regularly updated and includes around 7,000 scientific articles.

The body of research evidence is huge and powerfully attests to meditation’s many benefits in the prevention, management and treatment of a wide range of physical and psychological conditions. This evidence base is arguably more extensive than that relating to many well-accepted treatments carried out daily in medical practices around the world.