My Favorite Things
Meditation books are one of my favorite things. Right up there with jasmine tea, spring mornings, and John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things. Meditation can help you deal with stress, anxiety, pain, depression, grief, anger, and sadness. One of the challenges for beginners to meditation is finding guidance that they can trust. When you are full of emotion and feel everything is out of control the last thing you want to do is end up brainwashed and in a cult. Practicing meditation will bring you up against long standing fears and emotions and being in that raw state requires that you can be both vulnerable and safe at the same time. I have found the following meditation books to be helpful to me for just this reason–they offer solid and safe guidance for meditation. I bought my first meditation book more than 30 years ago and that book is still on my shelf and still teaches me how to remain centered in my life regardless of how crazy the world is around me.
Learn to Meditate
You may not know or realize it, but you want to meditate–it will make your relationship with your life better. Meditating will make your relationship with every day more sane. Doing meditation won’t necessarily make every day great, or put you in bliss, or fix your problems. Meditating will help you relate to your moods and states of mind, other people, and problems of any kind with more cool, calm, and collectedness. You can still be triggered by challenging situations, but the way you respond to your reactions will change. If you want to bring more sanity into each of your days then you want to be meditating.
Get a Meditation Book
One book is all that is needed, you don’t need a library of meditation books–you just need one book that will help guide you along the paths and trails of your meditation practice. Classes are fantastic, workshops are wonderful, and retreats are incredible if you have access to them. However, in day-to-day life a meditation book is your passport to new perspectives. It is a rudder in stormy seas, your shelter in a storm, and a walking stick to support you through rough terrain.
There are how-to guides that describe the actual process of meditating and there are guides that focus more on the states of mind, emotions, and thoughts that you will encounter meditating and how to relate to them. Most of the books I talk about here are a little of both. You can find how-to guides online, but it is nice to have a book you can actually refer to while you are meditating (and away from your computer/device!)
Find a Meditation Book Author You Like
There are hundreds of meditation guidebooks, probably thousands. People have been passing down guidance on meditation for millennia so there is no dearth of information. What you need to find is an author who connects with you. When you read their words you can actually hear what they are saying, it sounds like they are speaking to you personally. This can be your meditation guide, someone who can take you through unfamiliar territory safely. You should not feel condescended to, or feel bludgeoned by their words. You don’t need to feel soothed and caressed, but you do need to feel that there is a conversation going on that includes you. There are hundreds of teachers out there, don’t settle for one that doesn’t speak to you.
Cults, Charlatans, Imposters, Fakes
Inappropriate teachers and books exist–it is a fact of life. You need to use your own judgment in finding teachers and books that can work for you. Personally, I am not a fan of anyone promising me anything in the way of ecstasy, superiority, or other-worldliness. I think meditation should connect you to the reality of the present moment–not a preconception of it, but a more real interpretation of what is actually happening. This is the time to trust your gut and if you feel uncomfortable reading something or listening to someone–even if what they are saying is healthy and helpful for others–at that time it may just not be right for you. Find someone else.
Meditation Book Authors I Recommend
I have a small collection of books from a few teachers that I’ve seemed to gravitate to over the years. This is my personal list and most of them are either Zen or Tibetan Buddhists with a couple of exceptions. You can find wonderful lists of great meditation books by searching on Goodreads, Amazon, and other sites and blogs. There is an extensive overview of meditation types on the Live and Dare blog–23 Meditation Types. I refer a lot of my patients with chronic pain to learn pain meditation–Sounds True has a great collection of these. Authors that are recommended frequently include: Sharon Salzberg, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Charlotte Joko Beck, Eckhart Tolle, Josef Zezulka, Jack Kornfield, and Tara Brach.
My first meditation guide was Shunryu Suzuki‘s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind which I was lucky enough to come across in the mid-1980s. This is a fantastic book of short transcriptions of talks that he gave at the San Francisco Zen Center. Zen can be a fresh breeze that blows though stagnant air and Suzuki Roshi imparts that freshness to the reader again and again. I have two other books of his, each of which brings that same freshness off the page and out into the world–Not Always So and Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness. Start with Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and you may never need another meditation book.
Thich Nhat Hanh
In the mid-1990s I came across Thich Nhat Hanh‘s Being Peace and The Miracle of Mindfulness. These books are transformative and continue to restructure my connection to the world. The Miracle of Mindfulness was written while he was in exile during the Vietnam War–it is a guide book for all of the monks that were still living in Vietnam. If these practices can guide monks in a war zone, they can help you in your struggles as well. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the kindest, most gentle-hearted beings–his writing is a steady hand on a shaken spirit. If you feel vulnerable, raw to the core, and battered by life–he can be your solid guide and you can rest assured that you are safe in his hands. He has written many books, so many books, and every one is a gem. I am also very fond of The Sun My Heart and Peace Is Every Step. You can browse through all of his titles on Parallax Press.
I love Pema Chodron. I love reading her and I especially love listening to recordings of workshops she has given. My introduction to her teaching was listening to audio tapes of a workshop she gave titled Good Medicine. Those two tapes got me through acupuncture school. Start Where You Are has these teachings and others in the form of short slogans. This is her rendition of the same lojong slogans that are found in Chogyam Trungpa’s Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness. Recently I have been going through her workshop The Myth of Freedom which is a six week workshop on Chogyam Trungpa’s teaching from The Myth of Freedom and its companion volume, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Start Where You Are is the only book of hers I have on hand–I buy her books and give them away before I can crack their spines. Any one of these books is a great starting place–Comfortable With Uncertainty, When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, or The Wisdom of No Escape. If you are more inclined to listen to audio I would suggest How To Meditate with Pema Chodron.
I first read Chogyam Trungpa‘s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism in the late 1990s. I proceeded to read the companion volume The Myth of Freedom shortly after. Chogyam Trungpa and Shunryu Suzuki were the first Buddhists to move to the United States to teach–Suzuki in 1959 and Trungpa in 1970. The two of them have an uncanny understanding of Americans–it can be very refreshing when reading their books. It is more subtle with Suzuki Roshi, but with Trungpa Rinpoche it is very evident. I think Meditation in Action is a good place to start with Chogyam Trungpa. If Pema Chodron, Chogyam Trungpa, or Sakyong Mipham resonate with you, you will want to read the other two as well. Since they are all talking about the same things in slightly different ways it gives a deeper understanding of the teachings to sit with all three of them at some point in your practice.
Sakyong Mipham is Chogyam Trungpa’s son and head of Shambhala International. He grew up in America and his understanding of the West and the language is superb. If you like to run, play golf, or ride horses pick up this book–he shares your interests. Turning the Mind into an Ally is a wonderful beginning meditation book; it is practical, insightful, and a great entry into meditation. He begins the book by writing:
Many of us are slaves to our minds. Our own mind is our worst enemy. We try to focus, and our mind wanders off. We try to keep stress at bay, but anxiety keeps us awake at night…. It seems we all agree that training the body through exercise, diet, and relaxation is a good idea, but why don’t we think about training our mind?
–Sakyong Mipham, Turning the Mind into an Ally
I just started reading Open Heart, Open Mind a week ago and it is already becoming a favorite of mine. Tsoknyi Rinpoche is another Tibetan Buddhist who participates in life fully as a “householder”–he is married, has raised two daughters, and has to balance his professional life with his personal. His insight into day-to-day living is refreshing and his metaphors come from the commonplace. He has a great sense of humor (look at that smile!) and it comes through in his writing. He openly admits to a previous Coca-Cola addiction that took him seven years to break. This book is full of anecdotes and small stories interwoven with meditation instruction.
Begin Your Meditation Practice
If you did nothing this year except start a meditation practice, it would be a great year! Start with five or ten minutes a day. Go to the library or bookstore, or browse online–you can often read many excerpts from the books I’ve noted above and get a sense of the author’s writing. Pick one that feels right for you, buy it in book form, and start working with it. That is a simple step you can take to start bringing more sanity into your own life and those around you. Remember, meditating is an imperfect art, you do not need to do it perfectly, you just need to keep trying over and over. Practice, and practice some more, and have fun with it. And please, if you have a favorite meditation book, let me know what it is in the Comments section below.
We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves–the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds–never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.
–Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are