Although people have been meditating for over 6,000 years in various parts of the world, the practice has never enjoyed more popularity than it does today. Once largely viewed by most people in the Western world as the province of exotic swamis, gurus, and mystics, in the last several decades the practice of meditation has become commonplace and the discipline is practiced by people in all walks of life from every culture on earth.
Meditation comes in many different forms, and people meditate for many different reasons. For some, meditation is a deeply spiritual activity not unlike prayer and is used to help them become closer to the positive energy of the universe and its deities; for others, it is simply a way to relax and help them better deal with the stresses of everyday life; while still others meditate for the physical and emotional health benefits which can be derived from the practice.
Generally speaking, meditation is a very personal and private activity, and its purpose in most cases will be whatever the individual practicing it wants it to be. And, as is the case with so many things in life, what a person gets from the practice will largely depend on what they choose to put into it.
The Roots of Modern Meditation
The most popular forms of meditation practiced throughout the world today can trace their roots back to antiquity and the rites and traditions of the ancient Hindu religion in India. Wall art dating to around 5,000 BC appears to show people seated with half-closed eyes in meditative positions, while the earliest written descriptions of meditation appear in ancient Hindu Vedas – or scriptures – dating to about 1,500 BC. Prior to this, it is widely believed by most religious historians that meditation techniques were passed on orally and taught by gurus (teachers) to their shishya (disciples or students) who would, eventually, pass them on to their own students.
As the ancient civilizations branched out through trade, war, political relationships and other forms of a cultural exchange over the centuries, various forms of meditation were introduced to other parts of Asia – including Japan and Korea – and were embraced by existing and still developing new religions. During the period between 600 and 300 BC meditation became an integral component of several forms of Buddhism (particularly the Zen school), Taoism, Confucianism, and Jainism – all of which revised and fine-tuned the practices to their needs – which furthered its spread throughout the Far East. With the establishment of stable trade routes along the Silk Road around 100 BC, meditation was introduced to the Middle and Near East and from there – over the next 1,600 or so years – to the rest of the world.
The Growth of Meditation’s Popularity in the West
While various forms of meditation (often of their own design) were practiced by Jewish, Christian and Muslim monks and mystics and some adherents of the older ‘pagan’ religions throughout parts of the Middle East and Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the practice was slow catching on with – or even being introduced to – the majority of the population in the Western world. It wasn’t until the middle to late 19th century that meditation started gaining a small amount of popularity in the West in conjunction with the introduction of yoga, first to Western Europe and then migrating to North America with the turn of the 20th century.
The ‘counterculture’ that arouse in Europe and the United States during the 1960s embraced various forms of meditation (particularly Transcendental Meditation, a form which was developed and taught to The Beatles and other celebrities of the time by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi) and the practice began to gain popularity with the restless and disenchanted youth of the time. The advent of New Age philosophies and spirituality in the 1970s and 80s and their reliance on certain types of meditation including Mindfulness as a central part of their belief systems pushed the practice further into the mainstream of society.
By the end of the millennium, meditation had become so popular and its use so widespread that the medical and scientific worlds began to take notice of the practice and undertook studies to determine what – if any – health benefits regular meditation might have for the general population. Those types of studies continue today and are yielding some important and fascinating results.
Meditation in the Modern World
By some estimates, between 300 and 500 million people worldwide engage in some form of meditation on a regular basis. According to statistics from the United States Department of Health and Human Services, over 18 million Americans (around 8 percent of the US adult population) meditated in 2012 and there is every indication that number is significantly larger today. Estimates from Western Europe indicate that a like or slightly greater percentage of their population also engage in some form of the practice.
As the results of more and more studies conducted on the effects of meditation and the benefits it can provide to individuals across a wide spectrum of life circumstances are released and become more accepted by the scientific community at large, many physicians, psychologists/psychiatrists, and counselors of all types have started recommending the practice to clients in all walks of life to help them deal with a wide variety of conditions and concerns. Studies on the effectiveness of meditation on prison populations; at-risk students in school systems; and military, police, and other high-stress occupation personnel are currently ongoing and showing positive results. Meditation classes are today widely available in community centers, senior and youth centers, and are even offered to workers by some employers. Guided meditation programs can be found all over the internet; meditation apps are available for the smartphone, and by some estimates, meditation-related products and services are over $15 billion per year business worldwide.
It is important to understand that meditation is not a single practice – there are many different types of meditation practiced throughout the world, and many divisions (or schools) within those types. In the Western world, the most commonly taught and practiced types of meditation include Transcendental, Focused, Mindfulness, Mantra, Spiritual and Movement. Each utilizes slightly different techniques which can include body positioning, aromas, ambient noise or music, or repeating words or sounds (called mantras) as a source of focus, and some will work better than others for individuals depending on their personality and mindset. It is not uncommon for people just starting out with meditation to try several different types before settling on the one that works best for them.
The Purposes of Meditation
As meditation has evolved over the centuries from a practice engaged in mostly by holy men and monks into something that is used on a regular basis by individuals who range from CEOs and professional athletes to soccer moms and truck drivers (and pretty much everything in between), so the purposes for which people meditate have increased and broadened in their scope. In many cases, the ‘purpose’ of meditation will be defined not so much by the practice itself, but by the benefits the individual who meditates hopes to get from it – and, by extension, the amount of time and effort that individual puts into it.
Generally speaking, most forms of meditation practiced in the Western world involve training the mind to focus and become more aware. In some forms of meditation, the mind is trained to turn inward and explore thoughts and feelings without judgment with the overall goal of achieving a heightened mindful self-awareness. Other forms of meditation involve becoming one with the life force of all things and tapping in to the positive energy flow of the universe. Still, other forms of meditation are designed to help an individual step away from and eventually let go of the negative aspects of their lives, or at the very least deal with them in a different, more mindful manner.
Although the practice of meditation can be extremely difficult to quantify and define, some people divide the purposes for which individuals meditate in the modern world into three very broad, overlapping categories: Spiritual, Emotional (Psychological), and Physical, and for the purposes of this article we shall do the same. It should be noted that these are not self-contained and that many individuals engage in the practice for multiple purposes.
In considering the various purposes of meditation, it is important to understand that the goals or benefits an individual originally seeks will not always be all that they get out of their practice, as the various positive outcomes available will often overlap. Many meditation experts and instructors suggest that utilizing meditation for a single purpose or to deal with a specific issue will help contribute to a heightened state of overall ‘wellness.’ For example, the individual who starts meditating to help them deal with anxiety issues will often find that their overall stress levels reduce as well, while the individual who starts out meditating simply to help them relax may find themselves with a heightened sense of spiritual awareness.
While most meditation instructors teach that no specific religious beliefs or even acknowledgment of a higher power or Supreme Being is necessary to meditate successfully, for many people throughout the world the spiritual aspects of the practice are of the most importance. As previously stated, meditation has its roots in ancient religious and spiritual traditions, and some of the same reasons that caused the people of antiquity to develop and refine the practice are why many people meditate today.
The search for and attainment of enlightenment is a central part of some types of meditation – particularly the Buddhist disciplines upon which many of the forms most widely taught in the Western world are based. According to Buddhist legend Siddhartha Gautama – more commonly known as the Buddha – achieved enlightenment after meditating for 49 days beneath the Bohdi tree, a type of fig tree.
The exact nature of ‘enlightenment’ is difficult to pin down as it means different things to different people, and it is believed by some that there are many levels to it; the highest form of enlightenment is described by some as a permanent and continual state of joy. In the context of meditation, the term is used to describe an increased self-awareness that can be attained through the practice, an awakening to the deeper meaning of consciousness, and a fuller understanding of one’s place in the universe. Enlightenment is seen by some to be the key to wisdom and insight, providing a clearer understanding of the meaning of life and promoting a deeper relationship – or ‘oneness’ – with all living things and the life-force of nature.
The concept of Mindfulness is important in almost all types of meditation, and it is a word that is widely used by meditation experts, teachers and practitioners regardless of the type of practice they are discussing. Broadly defined, Mindfulness means paying open, active attention to what is happening in the present. In meditation, it is usually used to describe the conscious act of observing thoughts and feelings without judging them, and being completely in the present – not worrying about what has happened in the past, or being concerned about what the future may hold. Mindfulness is considered by many to be the first step on the path to Enlightenment.
In spiritual meditation practices, the purpose of Mindfulness is to clear the mind of the clutter and confusion of the past and the uncertainty about the future, allowing one to be completely in the present moment. It is only when one is completely in the present, some belief, that a connection with something greater than one’s self – be it an individual’s concept of God or a Supreme Being, the universe as a whole, or the positive energy found in nature – is possible. Mindfulness is also seen as being crucial to a person’s overall spiritual ‘wellness’ and inner tranquility, and effectively dealing with the negativity (which blocks tranquility) that may be locked in the unconscious mind.
Along with its use in spiritual forms of meditation, in recent years the value of Mindfulness in psychological, emotional and physical health applications have been (and are continuing to be) studied by the scientific community and, as will be discussed below, some results indicate its positive effects can be both dramatic and far-reaching.
Sometimes inaccurately called self-actualization in the Western world, Self-realization is seen by some as the ultimate goal of Mindfulness and the final step on the road to full Enlightenment. Broadly defined, Self-realization is the knowledge, acceptance, and understanding of one’s ‘true’ inner self, apart from physical and material influences. Attaining various states of Self-realization is a key goal and purpose of a number of meditation practices (including the increasingly popular practice of Ascension meditation) important in Hinduism, Jainism, and some New Age spiritual philosophies.
In some forms of spiritual meditation, it is believed that Self-realization is achieved by understanding and accepting that a person is not what they think, or how they feel – or even their own body or mind. Rather, these are all things that are experienced, are not who a person truly is, and it is only by transcending them that an individual is able to fully understand who they are and their place in the universe. While the idea of a higher self (expressed as the soul in some beliefs) is relatively easy for many people to understand, the concept of Self-realization can be quite challenging, as many in the Western world see it as being contrary to what they have been taught throughout their lives about what is ‘real’ and what is not.
Emotional (Psychological) Purposes
In contrast to some of the spiritual purposes of meditation – which can be quite conceptual and esoteric in nature – the emotional (as well as the physical) purposes for which people meditate tend to be far more practical and results-oriented. Generally speaking, the purpose for which a person will meditate will be directly related to the specific benefits they hope to receive from the practice either in a general sense or as they are related to a specific issue or condition.
Stress Reduction / Overall Emotional Wellness
The increasing pace of life in modern society and the astounding amount of information that comes at us from all sides, continually, and without end has resulted in a kind of emotional overload for many people which, in turn, has directly contributed to increasing – and in some cases unmanageable – levels of stress. Research has shown that individuals who have higher than average stress levels – or who are unable to process that stress effectively – are generally less happy and fulfilled in their day-to-day lives, and are at increased risk of developing depression-related conditions. To put it another way, not being able to effectively deal with stress can make life suck.
For a large number of people the reduction of stress and the development of more positive and effective ways of managing it is the main purpose of their meditation practice. While in most cases meditation will do nothing to eliminate the external causes of stress, recent studies have shown that as little as 20 to 30 minutes of meditation on a regular (most often daily) basis helps to relax the emotional response centers in the brain and allow for more measured, focused responses to the causes of stress. At the very least meditation provides a period of calm relaxation during which the mind is allowed to shift its focus inward in a positive manner away from the negativity that stress causes, and recharge the internal emotional batteries. In recent years increasing segments of the psychological and counseling communities have begun to embrace various forms of meditation as an effective tool in combating the negative emotional effects of stress and routinely recommend it to patients suffering from a wide variety of stress-related conditions.
Application in the Workplace
Along with the benefit of helping to improve overall emotional wellness, a number of recent studies have found that meditation with a focus on reducing stress can also have a significant positive impact in the workplace. Some studies indicate that regular meditation to reduce stress can:
- Help to increase overall individual productivity
- Improve concentration and focus while helping to decrease distraction on the job
- Positively affect memory and receptiveness, which helps to improve training and the adoption of new procedures
- Increases the creativity and allows for better control over situations when under pressure
- Improves employee relationships and helps promote a more positive work environment.
Anxiety / Grief Disorder Management
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), over 19 million American adults suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, and that number is put at closer to 40 million by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Anxiety disorders can range from relatively benign forms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) such as hoarding and mild panic issues and to life-changing and sometimes life-threatening conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Problems processing grief – including Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder (PCBD) – affects further millions of people following the death of a loved one.
In many cases, issues with anxiety and grief are caused and / or exacerbated by events and circumstances over which an individual has little or no control. Unlike many stress-related difficulties, anxiety and grief issues are often the result of things that have happened in the past, or worry about things that may happen in the future. For individuals suffering from these types of conditions, the purpose of meditation is usually not as much about clearing the mind of the stresses of day-to-day life as it is about learning to accept things as they are and letting go of things that cannot be changed or undone. Some studies indicate that certain types of meditation – and particularly Mindfulness meditations, which are designed to help a person pay active attention to what is happening in the present – are particularly effective in helping individuals manage and in some cases overcome their grief and anxiety issues when used in conjunction with counseling and other treatment options.
Anger is a natural – and in some cases quite useful – emotion that everyone experiences on a regular basis. It is believed to be an essential part of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response to danger that all humans are born with. Most people, through the course of their lives, learn to deal with their anger naturally so that it doesn’t become an issue. However, when feelings of anger and frustration begin to take control of a person’s life their emotional wellbeing is affected, their quality of life rapidly deteriorates, and they may engage in violent responses to their anger which, in turn, can cause injury to themselves and others.
Increasingly, various forms of meditation – particularly Mantra, Mindfulness, and Transcendental – are being used by the counseling community to help treat individuals with anger management issues, and some studies conducted within prison populations and with at-risk youth have shown very positive results. In most cases, the purpose of meditation in the treatment of anger issues is not to remove the natural feelings of anger, but to train the mind to control the individual’s response to them. In some cases, this will involve letting go of the negative energy which anger causes, while in other cases it may involve channeling that energy into more positive parts of a person’s consciousness. In virtually all cases, the purpose of meditation in anger management is to help train the individual to step back from the immediate, knee-jerk reaction they may have to the anger (shouting, hitting, etc.) into more considered, mindful and controlled actions.
Closely related to anxiety and grief issues – and often an outcome of them – by some estimates serious forms of depression affects around 20 percent of the world’s population. While the causes of depression will vary from person to person, the effects can harm a person’s emotional and physical health and, with more severe cases, lead to a feeling that life simply isn’t worth living. In recent years many psychological professionals have incorporated meditation into their treatment of individuals suffering from this illness.
In treating depression, the purpose of meditation is often to help an individual mindfully – and without judgment – identify the behaviors or internal stressors (grief, anxiety, hatred, etc.) that are causing the condition and, over time, let them go. For some, simply turning their focus away from their depression for the duration of the meditation session will have an energizing effect which, when used in conjunction with other forms of treatment, will help them better deal with the condition.
The physical benefits a person may derive from a regular meditation practice are closely related to (and, in many cases, completely intertwined with) some of the emotional purposes discussed above. In recent years increasing segments of the medical profession have incorporated meditation into their ‘toolbox of treatments’ for a number of physical conditions, and numerous research studies have found the practice to have a positive effect on multiple aspects of treatment including overall outcome, recovery time, and patient attitude and positivity.
Hypertension (High Blood Pressure) / Improved Cardio-vascular Health
Most medical professionals agree that stress – along with poor eating and exercise habits – is a major contributor to high blood pressure and other conditions that affect the overall health of the heart and cardiovascular system. The use of meditation for the purpose of reducing stress (and its other generally calming effects) has been shown in numerous studies to be effective in:
- Lowering both diastolic and systolic blood pressure
- Helping to lower heart and breathing rates, and oxygen consumption in the blood
- Decreasing adrenaline and cortisol (a hormone released by the body in response to stress) levels
- Improving circulation.
Studies also indicate that – due to the above-mentioned benefits – meditation can help to reduce the likelihood and /or severity of a heart attack, stroke, or another negative cardio-vascular event, and decrease the risk of a second event in those who have already suffered a first.
Improved Immune System
Some research – including studies conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003 and the University of Massachusetts in 2005 – indicates that regular meditation can be effective in improving the overall function of the body’s natural immune system by actually changing certain functions in the brain. Essentially, the improved immune function – and ability to naturally fight off disease and infection – appears to be the result of increased levels of antibodies, growth hormones and serotonin being produced in the brain and central nervous system as a direct result of a reduction of stress and tension in the body. Similar research has indicated that meditation for the purpose of reducing stress helps the immune system to not only avoid illnesses in the first place but also aids in quicker and more complete healing.
By some estimates, over 70 million people in the United States live with some form of chronic pain, and in recent years pain management has become a major segment of both the medical and pharmaceutical industries. Meditation for the purpose of pain management has been found to be effective in helping some individuals decrease their overall sensitivity to certain types of pain, better manage their emotional reactions to ongoing pain, and help to reduce the negative effects of the stress and anxiety associated with chronic pain. Guided Focused and Mindfulness meditations seem to be particularly effective in allowing some individuals to effectively step away from the all-consuming nature of some types of pain by helping to focus the brain on other things, effectively forcing the pain into the background during a session. Some recent studies also indicate that increased levels of certain hormones associated with meditation may also help lower the severity of certain types of pain.
While the inability to fall and / or stay asleep can have many causes, the vast majority of individuals who suffer from some form of insomnia are simply unable to properly relax their minds. Even as their bodies settle into a comfortable and relaxed position, their minds are still filled with thoughts, energy, and activity. Meditation for the purpose of helping with insomnia is not about ‘shutting the brain off’, but is rather about focusing the mind inward and relaxing it, leaving the thoughts and cares of the day behind. Some meditation experts suggest that a 20 to 30-minute meditation session 30 minutes to an hour prior to going to bed is the most effective way of using meditation to combat insomnia. Others suggest that recorded guided meditation programs, apps or ambient sound programs used after an individual has gone to bed are the most effective way meditation can help to ensure a good night’s sleep.