I was asking this first on philosophy forums, but it is suggested, that answer could be found from evolutionary view of point, so here we go:
Again my question raised when thinking of myths, their origins, mysticism and religious institutions. It is said that prieshood came to existence, when ape first landed from trees to earth collecting and gathering fruits, hunting and then started to plant and farm. Whole agriculture was build organizating leadership of the society among whom were the priests and shamans who tried to understand natural forces with limited knowledge and superstition. Accelerating need for planning future, not only own family's, but whole society's future forced thinking process of humanized apes to become more involved with contemplating. Did some of the deep thinkers find that there was a dimension on meditation which is next to impression of using herbs and drugs to bring mental experiences, were they hallucinations, visions, calmness or anything similar alive? Thus they became ascetics and adept on focusing mind toward itself while other part of high class of the society became adept on aiming mental activity outward, improving skills to master matter and physical nature. On ancient times both still shared same concept of need of supernatural forces to be placated or otherwise controlled to get or avoid certain every day results.
This also brings up a huge evolutionary problem so to say. While apes, if they were just lead by rather unconscious instincts, they would have reproduced and build on the principle of the strongest is the leader. But when reasoning, ability to think "cunning plans" as stated by Baldric on Blackadder came to existence, then the most clever often won the game. But what is clever on the other extreme of the religious practice, self sacrificing and altruistic ethics? It feels almost unnatural, that religions evolved to direction, where ethic and moral rules fights against physical existence or surveillance of the individual. There is a strong hope of afterlife compensation, which explains some of it, but I'm still a bit struggled, why (and when) apes started to retire to the forests to meditate and rather practice altruistic ethics, loving enemies for example instead of getting justice and their own benefit fulfilled in first hand, instead of reproducing and fighting for their lives and space?
To bring whole question to modern life, I think zen buddhism is a good example of such practices brought to other level. While on the most plain form they don't expect belief on the existence of the self nor karmic relations of the acts, they still rather follow high ethics of the teachings of Buddha and live simple middle way life just being aware and mindfull of the things happening at the moment, which is the ultimate goal of the practice and life.