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  • Written by  Ian Gawler
  • // Saturday, 25 August 2012 08:16
Ian Gawler

The history of meditation part two – From the Beatles to the doctors

This is the second in a series of 5 posts on the history of meditation, adapted from Meditation- an In-depth Guide by Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson.
For the first part, see here.

While the 1950s saw the emergence of a few meditation pioneers such as Alan Watts, who only published his bestseller Psychology East and West in 1961, until the early 1960s, meditation in the West continued to remain largely the domain of spiritual seekers.

Most meditation was being taught and practised within the context of either a Hindu yogic, Sufi, Buddhist or Taoist framework.

Then came the Age of Aquarius. The Beatles went to India, met the Maharishi and brought Transcendental Meditation (TM) back to the West. Psychedelic drugs burst out of the experimental laboratories of psychiatrists and the CIA, and flooded the streets. Vietnam galvanised a generation, the counterculture flourished, and people were intent on expanding their minds. Very quickly meditation in the West was popularised, and perhaps even stigmatised to a degree, as the domain of the hippies.


Meanwhile, as an unexpected and positive side effect of what was otherwise a tragedy of epic proportions, the communists invaded Asia and a wave of highly realised spiritual refugees fled persecution and escaped to the West. While His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the best known of these, many other luminaries suddenly became directly available to Western audiences.

Beginning as a trickle in the 1960s and expanding into full flow in the seventies, innovative doctors and psychologists began to realise that meditation had specific therapeutic applications. This coincided with the beginnings of mind–body medicine.

Up until this time the health of the mind was regarded in most medical circles to be quite unrelated to the health of the body. Likewise the capacity of the mind to influence healing was largely ignored. This general lack of professional interest in these subjects was exacerbated by the fact that the philosophy and techniques of analytical Western science seem far removed from the apparently mystical and mysterious world of the mind and meditation.

This was in the days before the development of advanced EEGs, functional MRIs, PET scans and other technically sophisticated techniques which in more recent times have allowed for empirical examination of the brain’s anatomy and function even while it operates.

It is not surprising then that up until the 1970s very little academic research was being published on mind– body medicine in general or meditation specifically. Documenting the advent of meditation as a therapy, therefore, begins with popular books on the subject.

The first significant book focusing on meditation as a therapy would appear to be Dr Ainslie Meares’ Relief Without Drugs. First published in 1967 in the United Kingdom, it appeared in fairly rapid succession in the United States and in Meares’ home country of Australia. The book created a publishing sensation and was translated into many languages.

Perhaps Dr Meares is the true founder of therapeutic meditation.

In the 1970s many more seminal authors appeared. The psychologist Larry LeShan had spent the 1960s delving into parapsychology and went on to become a founding pioneer in psycho-oncology, applying his psychotherapy training to the betterment of people affected by cancer. His book How to Meditate, intended for a general audience, was published in 1974 and became a standard reference for many years.

In 1975 another landmark book emerged, this time out of Harvard. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and convert to TM, published his scientifically based, runaway bestseller The Relaxation Response. Benson advocated a more secular version of TM, detailing a simple mantra-based meditation technique.

Then in 1978 Carl Simonton and Stephanie Matthews published Getting Well Again, which broke more new ground as it applied Stephanie’s training as a performance psychologist to enhance Carl’s work as a radiation-oncologist. Carl and Stephanie focused on teaching their cancer patients imagery techniques to complement and facilitate radiotherapy treatment. They reported positive results and their research findings rapidly opened the doors to developments in the study and practice of the therapeutic use of imagery.