The International Art Of Meditation (And Why Americans Are Hooked)

Meditation and mindfulness may have global roots and use ancient language, but their proven benefits have made them very popular in the U.S.
Resolution Week: Art of Meditation

It’s resolution week! All this week, we’re highlighting how countries around the world tackle Americans’ most popular New Years’ Resolutions.

Amid our busy, tension-filled lives, we’re always looking for a moment of reprieve. A way to relieve stress and clear our heads. Increasingly, Americans are turning to meditation — a practice relied on by people in the eastern part of the world since ancient times.

The essence of meditation is the ability to take a few moments out of our day to turn inward and to focus on our breathing, rather than our (often chaotic) thoughts.

In recent years the practice has become fairly common across the United States, with at least 18 million Americans saying they meditate (and that was in 2012; the number has surely increased).

How did this ancient practice take hold in modern America? And how does the art of mediation differ around the world? Let’s dive into these questions, and take a look at the ancient language that lies at the heart of the practice.

A Brief History Of Meditation

Though it may be a relatively recent trend for Americans, meditation’s origins can be traced back thousands of years. The earliest evidence of related practices came in the form of ancient wall art that archaeologists have dated back to between 5000 and 3500 BCE. The paintings appear to show people in meditation poses.

Around 3000 BCE, descriptions of meditation practices appeared in Indian scriptures. Fast-forward to 500 BCE, when the Buddha — the first major meditation guru — began to share his teachings with the world.

Interestingly, meditation remained primarily in Asia all the way until the mid-1900s. In the 1960s and ‘70s, western researchers began to study meditation and its effects. One such researcher was Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School, who conducted a secretive late-night study of the practice in 1967. Dr. Benson found that people who meditate experienced a slew of benefits, including lower heart rates and increased brain waves to improve sleep.

Meditation and mindfulness became popular among hippies in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even the Beatles and Mia Farrow joined the craze.

Americans Jump On The Mindfulness Bandwagon

Meditation really began making its way into mainstream American culture in the 1990s, with the rise of Deepak Chopra. Chopra is a doctor, speaker and author who champions alternative medicine and is a vocal meditation and mindfulness advocate. One of Chopra’s claims to fame is that he taught celebrities including Oprah, Madonna and Michael Jackson how to meditate.

As athletes, musicians and movie stars were touting their reliance on meditation, numerous scientific studies were being published laying out benefit after benefit of the practice.

So what are the benefits? Studies have found that meditation can reduce pain, strengthen your immune system, reduce anxiety and depression, decrease stress, help with concentration, and much, much more.

Today, an onslaught of yoga classes, guided meditation apps and workplace relaxation rooms provide a clear picture of the practice’s popularity (and commodification) in the United States.

Fortune 500 CEOs and business leaders have begun turning to meditation to ease stress and help them tackle the tasks at hand. ABC News anchor Dan Harris even published two books and launched a podcast about meditation and how it helped him after he had an infamous panic attack on live television.

In 2014, 60 Minutes aired a segment about mindfulness, which sent correspondent Anderson Cooper to a meditation retreat, the halls of Capitol Hill and the Google offices to see how Americans are increasingly making meditation and mindfulness a part of their lives.

Meditating Around The World

The growing buzz around meditation in the United States may dominate the spotlight, but the art of meditation and mindfulness is practiced around the world, in a number of different ways. Each type of meditation tends to correlate to a specific culture or religion, usually Buddhism or Hinduism.

Here are a few of the most common forms of meditation:

  • Mindfulness meditation (Buddhism)
    This is the most popular form of meditation, particularly in the West. It involves sitting with your eyes closed and back straight and focusing on your breathing. When thoughts or distractions arise, you acknowledge them but then return your attention to the breath.
  • Qigong (Chinese)
    Qigong comes from ancient Chinese culture and combines body posture and movement, breathing and mindfulness. The goal is to circulate energy through the body and “to promote health, emotional happiness, and spiritual development.”
  • Transcendental meditation (Hinduism)
    This practice, developed by spiritual leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, involves sitting with your eyes closed for 15 to 20 minutes twice daily and repeating a mantra in your head. The technique is generally taught by certified teachers for a hefty fee.
  • Visualization (Buddhism)
    Visualization differs from other types of meditation in that it focuses on imagination instead of concentration. Buddha Weekly describes visualization as “activation, rather than pacification, of the mind.” Depending on the type of visualization, you might picture a Buddhist deity or you might imagine yourself in various situations.
  • Zazen (Zen Buddhism)
    Zazen is a type of seated meditation that is a core component of Zen Buddhism. It can be a group or individual meditation, in which you sit cross-legged on the ground (often on a pillow or meditation cushion) and focus on your breathing — count your breaths at first, and then eventually stop counting and just follow the breath.
  • Mantra meditation (Hinduism)
    Mantras — words or phrases you chant either silently or aloud — are a major part of Hindu-based meditation. The use of mantras is useful because it helps you concentrate and not get distracted by other thoughts, and the vibrations of the sound can have a calming and healing effect. In mantra meditation, you sit and repeat the mantra. First out loud, then whispered, and then silently in your head. The goal is to focus solely on the mantra.

The Language Of Meditation

The words associated with meditation tend to have ancient origins, primarily from Sanskrit. Many of them have already been mentioned in this article.

These are some of the most common meditation words:

  • Namaste — generally used as a greeting at the beginning and end of a meditation or yoga class. Derives from Sanskrit: namas means “bowing” and te means “you,” so it translates to “bowing to you.”
  • Om — used as a mantra during meditation. Comes from the Sanskrit word for “source” or “supreme,” but the calming vibrations the sound makes are the most important part.
  • Mantra — a word or phrase chanted during mantra meditation. Sanskrit for “sacred message or counsel,” literally “instrument of thought.”
  • Zen — Japanese for “meditation,” from Chinese chán “quietude,” from Sanskrit dhyānathought, meditation.”
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