The history of meditation is intimately bound up with the religious context within which it was practiced. Some authors have even suggested the hypothesis that the emergence of the capacity for focused attention, an element of many methods of meditation, may have contributed to the latest phases of human biological evolution.

Some of the earliest references to meditation are found in the Hindu Vedas of India. Wilson translates the most famous Vedic mantra "Gayatri" as: "We meditate on that desirable light of the divine Savitri, who influences our pious rites" (Rigveda 3.62.10). Around the 6th to 5th centuries BCE, other forms of meditation developed via Confucianism and Taoism in China as well as Hinduism, Jainism, and early Buddhism in India.

In the Roman Empire, by 20 BCE Philo of Alexandria had written on some form of "spiritual exercises" involving attention (prosoche) and concentration and by the 3rd century Plotinus had developed meditative techniques.

The Pāli Canon from the 1st century BCE considers Buddhist meditation as a step towards liberation. By the time Buddhism was spreading in China, the Vimalakirti Sutra which dates to 100 CE included a number of passages on meditation, clearly pointing to Zen (known as Chan in China, Thiền in Vietnam, and Seon in Korea).

The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism introduced meditation to other Asian countries, and in 653 the first meditation hall was opened in Singapore. Returning from China around 1227, Dōgen wrote the instructions for zazen.