Meditation was first developed in India. The oldest documented evidence of the practice of meditation is wall arts in the Indian subcontinent from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE, showing people seated in meditative postures with half-closed eyes.

First written evidence of any form of meditation was first seen in the Vedas, which are sacred texts of Hinduism, around 1500 BCE. Meditation as a spiritual exercise and religious practice has a long tradition in Hinduism.

Around the 6th to 5th centuries BCE, other forms of meditation developed in Taoist China and Buddhist India.

Dhyana in early Buddhism also takes influence on Vedanta by ca. the 4th-century BCE.

The exact origins of Buddhist meditation are subject to debate among scholars. Early written records of the multiple levels and stages of meditation in Buddhism in India are found in the sutras of the Pāli Canon, which dates to the 1st century BCE. The Pali Canon records the basic fourfold formula of salvation via the observance of the rules of morality, contemplative concentration, knowledge and liberation, thus placing meditation as a step along the path of salvation. By the time Buddhism was spreading in China, the Vimalakirti Sutra which dates to 100CE included a number of passages on meditation and enlightened wisdom, clearly pointing to Zen.

In the west, by 20 BCE Philo of Alexandria had written on some form of "spiritual exercises" involving attention (prosocial) and concentration.

By the 3rd century, Plotinus had developed meditative techniques, which however did not attract a following among Christian meditators. Saint Augustine experimented with the methods of Plotinus and failed to achieve ecstasy.

The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism introduced meditation to other oriental countries. Bodhidharma is traditionally considered the transmitter of the concept of Zen to China. However, the first "original school" in East Asia was founded by his contemporary Zhiyi in the 6th century in central China. Zhiyi managed to systematically organize the various teachings that had been imported from India in a way that their relationship with each other made sense.

With the growth of Japanese Buddhism from the 7th century onwards, meditative practices were brought to and further developed in Japan. The Japanese monk Dosho learned of Zen during his visit to China in 653 and upon his return opened the first meditation hall in Japan, at Nara.

Sufi view or Islamic mysticism involves meditative practices. Remembrance of God in Islam, which is known by the concept Dhikr is interpreted in different meditative techniques in Sufism or Islamic mysticism. This became one of the essential elements of Sufism as it was systematized in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is juxtaposed with fikr (thinking) which leads to knowledge. By the 12th century, the practice of Sufism included specific meditative techniques, and its followers practiced breathing controls and the repetition of holy words.

Meditative practices continued to arrive in Japan from China and were subjected to modification. When Dōgen returned to Japan from China around 1227, he wrote the instructions for Zazen, or sitting meditation, and conceived of a community of monks primarily focused on Zazen.

By the 18th century, the study of Buddhism in the West was a topic for intellectuals. The philosopher Schopenhauer discussed it, and Voltaire asked for toleration towards Buddhists. There was also some influence from the Enlightenment through the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot (1713–1784), although he states, "I find that a meditation practitioner is often quite useless and that a contemplation practitioner is always insane".

The World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, was the landmark event that increased Western awareness of meditation. This was the first time that Western audiences on American soil received Asian spiritual teachings from Asians themselves.

New schools of yoga developed in Hindu revivalism from the 1890s. Some of these schools were introduced to the West, by Vivekananda and later gurus. The first English translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead was published in 1927.

In 1971, Claudio Naranjo noted that "The word 'meditation' has been used to designate a variety of practices that differ enough from one another so that we may find trouble in defining what meditation is." There remains no definition of necessary and sufficient criteria for meditation that has achieved universal or widespread acceptance within the modern scientific community, as one study recently noted a "persistent lack of consensus in the literature" and "seeming intractability of defining meditation". Since then many attempts have been made to define meditation.