Meditation has become wildly popular in the United States, and the number of people interested in it only continues to grow. There seem to be an endless number of self-help books and blogs focused on self-improvement that espouse meditation as if it were the key to curing any and all physical, emotional and spiritual wounds. Many of these helpful guides discuss meditation in spiritual and pseudo-religious terms. As such, some people are uncertain if meditation is for them. Those who are not religious may feel wary of taking up a spiritual practice, and people who are religious may not be comfortable taking part in a practice that belongs to another religion. Is meditation actually religious, though?

The practice of meditation itself is not anymore inherently religious than the instinctive and empty prayers that even devout atheists often make. These “prayers” rarely have any actual religion behind them or are truly directed at a deity. Silent pleas such as “please let me make it to work on time,” are not usually actual prayers, and people of every religion tend to make them. They are almost instinctive. No one would claim, however, that hoping that  your boss did not notice you sneaking into work late would qualify as implying any kind of religious belief or that your “prayer” was a religious practice. 

Meditation works very much like prayer in this way. A person can pray and use it as a way to communicate with the deity or deities in which they believe. They could also simply be hoping to make the green light or desperately hunting for their keys when they are running late. In the same way, a person can use meditation to connect with a wider world than this material one, or it could simply be a way for you to clear your head and relax. What meditation means depends on each individual person.

As a religious or spiritual practice, meditation has a very long history. It has been practiced for millennia by Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. In both religions, it was seen as having extraordinary spiritual benefits. For some Hindu sects, meditation was seen as a way to balance and open the various chakras found in the body. Only when the various chakras in the body were in harmony could a person expand their consciousness and achieve moksha or liberation from the suffering of samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. In many cases, Hindus combined meditation with mantras, syllables or words that did not necessarily have any particular linguistic meaning but were used to focus a person’s mind and guide their meditation. Hinduism also created the practice of using specific poses and movements to guide a person’s meditation. This eventually became yoga, the Hindu version of which is very different from the type of yoga practiced in gyms all across the West. 

Buddhist meditation is closer to what most people in the West practice. Buddhist meditation more commonly focuses on having a person attempt to clear their mind while sitting in the classical lotus position that has become shorthand for meditation across the world. Buddhism also has forms of meditation that rely on koans, paradoxes or riddles that are deliberately set up to be impossible to solve through logic. Such riddles are believed to eventually push a person past their current mental limitations and help provoke enlightenment. Regardless of which form is practiced, Buddhist meditation also has the end goal of reaching enlightenment. Although Western meditation practices may clear someone’s mind or leave them better able to rise above the daily irritations that surround them, most people who practice meditation in the West are not aiming to escape samsara and achieve nirvana or become a bodhisattva in order to help others achieve enlightenment. 

Meditation is not solely the domain of Eastern religions. Christians have practiced forms of meditation since the Middle Ages, but Christian meditative practices began as early as the 4th century. Jewish meditation is even older. Merkavah-Heichalot mysticism sought to elevate the soul through meditative means and has been referenced in Talmudic accounts while the better known Kabbalah practices emerged in the 11th century.

Despite its long history as a religious practice, meditation does not have to be religious in nature. A person who is not religious or does not wish to include meditation in their religious practice could easily still meditate. Rather than focusing on connecting to a wider world, reaching God or improving their own spirituality, they might focus on clearing their mind or using meditation for its stress relieving properties. On the flip side, someone who is religious might benefit from including meditation in their spiritual practices.

Meditation in and of itself is not inherently religious. The practice began in multiple religions independently and was born out of a desire to either better know God or to reach enlightenment. As such, meditation often has a spiritual element to it. That said, a person does not have to be religious to meditate, and someone who is religious does not have to treat meditation as a spiritual practice. That is part of the beauty of meditation. It really is what you make of it.