“Where does self-discovery begin? Does it occur within, or can a person begin making personal changes unknowingly, spurred from without?” These questions are just one facet of the inner dialogue one might pursue during yoga meditation, a practice that has persisted in the U.S. for more than 150 years.
You may think of meditation as a trendy topic, something that only recently became popular in American yoga community centers or among practitioners of Zen. However, the history of inner contemplation in the Western world dates back to the Civil War at least.
In the middle of the 1800s, American thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and a group of open-minded individualists collectively called the Transcendentalists were using meditation and yoga-based personal change models to go on inner voyages.
The Transcendentalists believed in the primacy of nature. They felt that contemplating it could open doorways inside one’s mind, leading to growth, satisfaction and peace.
In his history volume Meditation and the Evolution of Cosmic Consciousness, author Don Ayre says this group was instrumental in popularizing meditation and dialectics in the U.S.
“[They] looked to meditation as a means of bridging the gap between their ongoing self-discovery and the social action needed to create a community of mutual openness and support,” Ayre states.
Since the 1800s, meditation has appeared in all sorts of Western texts. It makes a cameo of sorts in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor Edge, a seminal novel about the effects of Eastern thought on a disillusioned Western man.
“‘How could you stand it for tow years?’ cried Isabel.
“‘They passed like a flash. I’ve spent days that seemed to be unconscionably longer.’
“‘What did you do with yourself all the time?’
“‘I read. I took long walks. I went out in a boat on the lagoon. I meditated. Meditation is very hard work; after two or three hours of it you’re…exhausted.’”
This passage points to the discipline required for yoga meditation, but also to its ability to sharpen focus and lead to personal change.