Reading about meditation is a tempting distraction from the practice itself, which is more about revealing wisdom you already have than gathering knowledge.
But reading can inspire you to practice, especially in the beginning, before you’ve been convinced of what meditation can do for you off the cushion, in your everyday life.
Books have been crucial to inspiring and deepening my practice, so I’d like to share three that will help you along “on the path,” as they say.
But first, a warning.It was a book that first turned me on to meditation, Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, yet I would spend another two years reading and fantasizing about meditation before actually trying it. I read a number of books by the British philosopher Alan Watts, who allegedly talked and wrote about meditation more than he practiced it.
Looking back, with compassion for who I was at the time, I see now that I was more invested in appearing clever than I was in applying the teachings to my life. “Ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality,” wrote the Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa, who has a book on this list.
So, read these books for inspiration, but don’t let them replace regular practice and discussion with others on the path.
And as always, avoid using Amazon — Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest human, doesn’t need any more your money. Try to buy these from your local bookstore or directly from the publisher.
Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach (2004, Penguin Random House)
As a psychologist and meditation teacher, Tara Brach strikes a balance between Western psychology and Buddhism that’s a bit like going to therapy. Of course, no spiritual practice or book can replace therapy with a trained professional — that would be “spiritual bypassing.” Her first book, Radical Acceptance, is an accessible introduction to one of the fastest growing forms of meditation in the U.S., Vipassana, or “insight meditation.”
Brach is second to none in weaving stories about her life and her patients throughout her teachings, and this book is no exception. If her compassionate style resonates with you, try her second book too, True Refuge.
Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck (1989, HarperCollins)
The tone of this book, by the late American Zen Buddhist teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, is at the other end of the spectrum from Radical Acceptance. While Brach is a nurturing voice, Beck goes straight to the cold, hard reasons why we meditate. The first sentence: “My dog doesn’t worry about the meaning of life.” The rest of the book is about why we shouldn’t worry either. In true Zen fashion, she keeps directing us back to the simplicity of practice and mindfulness.
If I had read this book instead of Alan Watts, I probably would’ve started meditating years earlier than I did — there’s no woo-woo here. If Beck’s minimalism resonates with you, check out Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind further down the list.
Taking the Leap, by Pema Chödrön (2010, Shambhala)
You could read almost any of American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön’s books and be fired up to meditate by the end of the first chapter. Like many teachers in the Tibetan lineages, she emphasizes the bravery that meditation requires. Counterintuitively, it’s not easy to sit and do nothing. We can’t distract ourselves with email or Facebook, and our thoughts, which usually seem so important, begin to appear as they really are, silly and boring.
Where Chödrön excels is articulating what this bravery looks like off the cushion, especially during the hardest times in life, like when someone close breaks your heart or passes away. In fact, her most well-known book is When Things Fall Apart, which I recommend if you’re going through particularly tough times. Taking the Leap is shorter and more accessible, and if it resonates with you, try Chögyam Trungpa’s books below.
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