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From Ancient to Modern, the Practice of Meditation Endures

Meditation, a form of introspection and reflection that traces is roots to ancient religions, today is a widely used practice in America -- and for good reason, said David McMahan, Franklin & Marshall College's Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies.

"Meditation works," McMahan told a Common Hour audience at Mayser Gymnasium Oct. 17. He lectured on "Meditation in Context: From Ancient Buddhist Monastery to Modern Psychologist's Office" for the event, which is conducted every Thursday through the academic year to bring together members of the F&M community for culturally and intellectually enriching experiences.

McMahan, who has written extensively in papers and books on meditation, said the practice is popular in psychotherapy and recommended by doctors as part of a health regimen. Insurance companies provide coverage for meditation, and there has been a spike in scientific research to understand how meditation works. 

  • Common House David McMahan
  • Franklin & Marshall College's Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies David McMahan told a Common Hour audience at Mayser Gymnasium on Oct. 17 that meditation works, but is used differently by each culture. He lectured on "Meditation in Context: From Ancient Buddhist Monastery to Modern Psychologist's Office." (Photo by Melissa Hess)

Meditation does not work in the same way in all cultures, but within the context of each culture that practices it, McMahan said. Meditation -- and the other popular practice in America today, mindfulness -- is based in the Buddhist religion, but has changed as other cultures have adopted the practices, he said.

"The transformation in this case has been profound," he said.

McMahan described the number of self-help books and programs about meditation, and how meditation is pitched as beneficial to improving everything from digestion and health to sports and stress. This is far from the ancient practice of separating yourself from worldly pursuits to find your true, spiritual being, he said.

"This is a practice that was invented in the Bronze Age," said McMahan, a recipient last year of the Bradley R. Dewey Award for Outstanding Scholarship who has written several books on Buddhism including the 2012 "Buddhism in the Modern World."

F&M Junior Katie Grant, a psychology major and F&M swim team member, said she started meditating this summer to help her focus while she's waiting behind the diving blocks to compete in long-distance events.

"I'm a swimmer, and I'm trying to mediate to focus my mind and relax before competition," said Grant, who earned a gold medal in the 1,650-yard free in the Centennial Conference Championship last year.

Grant and Courtney Collins, a sophomore considering business as a major, said they found the part of McMahan's discussion about meditation becoming commercialized in American society striking.

"You don't think of it that way," Collins said. "At least I don't."

Peter Limburg, a sophomore who is considering economics as a major, said the lecture has him considering meditation as a means to improve his concentration. "It helps you stay in the moment," he said.