Meditation around the World: New Research on Old Traditions

Bobby Miller

At its core, meditation involves deep concentration to achieve tranquility and insight. In the 1960s, Americans usually associated the practice with hippies, who openly acknowledged meditation’s connections to Eastern religions.

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Professor Halvor Eifring

However, in the 1970s, medical researchers began examining the therapeutic effects of meditation, such as stress relief. According to Adiba Osmani, who dubs himself a “novice meditator” on his website, the amount of scientific inquiry concerning meditation has grown dramatically since then. Studies show that meditation can make people more compassionate and creative while relieving the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Because of these practical benefits, people now perform meditation for a variety of reasons, whether spiritual or secular.

Recent research emphasizes, though, that to say meditation is an Eastern concept that eventually traveled to the United States is oversimplifying the story tremendously. In fact, numerous cultures and religions—including those outside of Asia—practiced meditation in various forms for thousands of years. Halvor Eifring, a professor of culture studies and oriental languages at the University of Oslo, investigated the different meditative traditions of the world, noting their similarities and differences.

In the last three years, he edited three books on meditation, according to Some of the essays he has compiled, such as those found in “Hindu, Buddhist and Daoist Meditation,” focus on the traditions with which we usually associate meditation. Other essays, such as those compiled in “Meditation in Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” look at how monotheistic religions define meditation.

As Eifring explains, we usually does not associate the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam with meditation, but they practiced it for thousands of years. In fact, the word “meditation” even comes from Christian traditions. These religions tend to view meditation as a means of growing closer to God. Eifring explains that their meditation is more “content-based” than those of other religions. For example, while a Buddhist may recite an undefined sound while focusing on a geometric shape to achieve a deep state of concentration, Christian meditation involves reciting significant prayers or scriptures. Visualizing the crucifixion or even one’s own death are other means of putting one’s life in perspective. Such practices are still prevalent in monasteries.

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Buddhist meditation emphasizes the connection between a disciplined body and a concentrated mind.

Although meditation is not a common focus of Judaism, Christianity or Islam for laypeople today, it is still practiced in some forms. For example, in Catholicism, using rosary beads to concentrate on prayer is a meditative tradition still practiced today. As explains, using the Rosary for effective prayer involves “contemplating the 20 mysteries central to the lives of Jesus Christ and Mary.” Concentrating on a certain image to gain insight and a form of inner tranquility is, in essence, a form of meditation.

Notice, however, that the body is not involved in this practice. In fact, most forms of Abrahamic meditation focus on the mind and spirit as opposed to the body, as professor Eifring explains in his research. This is a significant difference from Buddhist, Daoist or Hindu meditation, where the body is considered essential to achieving full concentration, insight and tranquility. After all, meditation often calls to mind a person sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed in the Lotus position.

In fact, as professor Eifring found in his research, what we might call “Eastern meditation” actually became more popular in the United States than traditional Jewish and Christian forms of the practice. As he explained in an email, “Eastern” meditation, such as that of Buddhism, is less focused on content and more on technique. That is why a person can recite a nondescript mantra rather than recite a prayer and why a person can focus on a shape rather than visualize a scriptural passage.

This makes Eastern meditative practices “easier to pull out of their traditional contexts and to place within various modern worldviews, including scientific investigations,” Eifring said. “It also, of course, makes them better suited to be practiced within other religious settings than they were originally designed for.” After all, while a Christian could practice Zen meditation by reciting nondescript sounds and focusing on a simple image, a Buddhist would have no reason to recite Christian prayers or focus on stories shared in the Bible.

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As Eifring’s work details, other religious traditions have profoundly influenced how meditation is practiced in America.

As Eifring explained in the email, people of any faith—or lack thereof—could benefit from the technique-based Eastern meditative practices since they focus on relaxing the mind and body rather than drawing a person closer to the divine. Since Eastern meditation can be used in a variety of contexts by a variety of people, its following grew quickly in the United States. While Eifring believes “it’s a good thing that meditation can be practiced with an eye to down-to-earth effects on health and well-being” by all people, he believes it is a challenge to retain the full potential of various meditative techniques while pulling them out of their original context. “Instant relaxation is good,” he explained, “but the psychological and existential reorientation that these techniques can bring about may have much deeper and more long-term effects on one’s life.”

The possibility that Americans are losing their full appreciation of meditation’s benefits is particularly clear in yoga—which is, indeed, a form of meditation. As Richard Corliss explained in an article for Time Magazine, the popular view of yoga changed numerous times since it first became widespread in America. “First it signaled spiritual cleansing and rebirth, a nontoxic way to get high,” he said. “Then it was seen as a kind of preventive medicine that helped manage and reduce stress.” And now, many people view it mostly in a physical light, as a means of increasing flexibility. Practitioners may benefit most, though, if they recognize yoga as a form of meditation that seeks to blend the mind, body and soul. It does not need to limit itself to just one of these areas.

This could be true of meditation in general. Eifring’s research goes beyond the medical gains of meditation, which were the subject of numerous investigations. He gives us a fuller perspective of meditation across all cultures, religions and eras. This can allow us to recognize it as more than an instant relaxation technique; perhaps it has benefits that cannot be measured in a laboratory.

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