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Meditation Meets the West

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

The first references to eastern meditation in the west are in the 1700s and come from translations of ancient eastern scripts such as The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita and the Buddhist Pali Cannon. The word meditation comes from the latin “meditatum” which means “to ponder” and prior to the introduction of eastern meditation was used to describe deep, personal, philosophical thought. To an observer, a state of deep thought would have been what eastern meditation resembled, though we know that this is often not what we are trying to achieve, or at least not in a direct way. Until the very late 19th and then 20th century, this form of eastern inquiry remained the interest of intellectuals, particularly philosophers, and was by no means common practice.

In 1893 the Indian Guru Swami Vivekananda delivered an iconic speech to the World's Parliament of Religions, where he introduced Hinduism to America and called for tolerance of all religions. This sparked an interest in Eastern philosophy in the west and by the 1930s, the first references to meditation in academic research were made. By the 1950’s Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had emigrated to America, bringing his Transcendental Meditation practice, which then became popularised, in particular, by the Beetles and other celebrities. At this time meditation was still associated with the counterculture and was not part of the mainstream.

Meditation entered the mainstream through the work of John Kabit-Zinn, who in 1979 opened the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts and developed the Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction program. Much credit is also given to Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, who, from his home in France, toured extensively across the west and wrote numerous entry level books on meditation and mindfulness following his exile from Vietnam in 1966. By the late 1990s Oprah was interviewing Depak Choprah and meditation was well and truly recognised for its benefits to mental health and inner well-being.

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