by Michael W. Taft
There are zillions of books on meditation, but there are very few I would recommend, especially for somebody just starting out. Below you’ll find just the books I feel are the most helpful and clear; the best meditation books in 2020. Some of the books here have reviews, and some of them are simply in recommendation lists. If there is a particular book on this page you’d like reviewed, please let me know.
Mindfulness Meditation Books
Seeing That Frees
I have been reading Seeing That Frees for several years now, after talking with Rob Burbea on the Deconstructing Yourself podcast. It’s taken me that long to feel like I’ve engaged the text deeply enough to both be able to summarize it, and to be able to assess its value. It was clear from the start that it is an extraordinary book, but I now place it at the coveted number one place on this page. It is the best meditation instruction book, by far, available in 2020. (It was published in 2014.)
This is the sort of book that has single chapters that you will read and re-read many times over. You will underline passages, make notes in the margins, and later go back and make other notes in different colors. You will need a separate notebook for your experiments with the techniques. It will engage you in a deep practice dialog that you will find rewarding and even liberating.
The somewhat idiosyncratic title refers to the core idea of the book, which refutes the usual “seeing things as they really are” teaching concept so prevalent in vipassana these days. The job of the meditator, according to Burbea, is to learn new ways of looking at things. New ways (plural) of looking that bring relief from suffering. To learn, as it were, ways of seeing that free.
Although the book makes an attempt to begin at the beginning, I suspect that all but the very couple of chapters will be incomprehensible to anybody who hasn’t at least had some glimpses of the sorts of deeper meditation experiences that Burbea is describing in the book. While doing his very best to describe such experiences clearly and simply, certain revelations of emptiness are just too subtle, weird, unfathomable, or even too mundane sounding to relate to. If, on the other hand, you have begun to sink into the slightly deeper practice of vipassana, and can relate to some of the experiences Burbea discusses, Seeing That Frees becomes an invaluable and perhaps singular guidebook to the territory you are exploring.
You will learn many ways of seeing; ways of meditating; ways of thinking. The theory and praxis of each method is clearly elucidated. Burbea spends a lot of time exploring the finer issues and questions that may arise in the practice he describes. It’s clear that the material in the book has been honed through years of working with students and responding to their difficulties.
Overarchingly, Burbea uses the experience of emptiness to tie the book together. From early contact with impermanence, nonself, and dukkha, to more obvious expressions of emptiness, and to the very deepest sorts of meditative experiences, emptiness is the key to the unfolding of the path. He even re-imagines the practice of the jhanas as a progression of ever-greater emptiness, leading to cessation.
As helpful and interesting as this all is—and it is both of those things, in spades—it’s possible that the most unusual characteristic of the book is Burbea’s perspective. As a jazz musician, poet, and artist who has taught at Gaia House in England for years, Burbea writes of meditation as a playful exploration, an activity of increasing subtlety and gentleness, a joyous expression of ever-deepening freedom that is quite different in tone from the mechanical, instrumental, and concentration-obsessed books of so many other teachers.
Highest possible recommendation—with the caveat that it’s not for beginners.
Here is an interview I did with Rob Burbea: Emptiness, Liberation, and Beauty
The Mind Illuminated
A past winner for best book for learning to meditate is The Mind Illuminated, by Culadasa (John Yates). This massive tome takes you one step at a time through a system of 10 stages—completed dedicated to deepening your level of concentration. Technically, this isn’t a book about vipassana, but rather almost completely only about shamatha. The main method used in the book is focusing on the breath at the nose.
Note: the author of this book was recently involved in a major scandal involving sexual misconduct, which he didn’t deny. Nevertheless, the book offers excellent meditation advice. Do not read the endorsement of the book as tacit endorsement of the author’s misbehavior.
This book also offers an entire brain-based theory of meditation—catnip for the neuroscience junkies among us (although it’s also problematic as theory) —as well as expert advice on deeper levels of meditation, many additional meditation techniques, and a method of analytical meditation.
Furthermore, Culadasa has a whole appendix section that makes sense of the “jhana wars” (my term, not his) by adding a dimension of depth to the usual dimension of the jhana numbers. This is a huge step forward, and something I haven’t seen unpacked in depth in any other text.
An added bonus is that there is a huge and thriving practice community based on the book, as well as programs with Culadasa, teacher trainings, and much more. The Mind Illuminated subreddit is a great place to start.
Here are some interviews I did with Culadasa:
Awareness, Attention, and the Great Adventure
Are More People Achieving Stream Entry These Days?
Meditation and Therapy
Mindfulness in Plain English
Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana
This book is an utter classic on the basics of mindfulness meditation. “Bhante,” as he is affectionately known (which is just a polite term of address for a monk, something like “venerable sir”), has been a Theravada monk almost his entire life. Born in Sri Lanka, he has been teaching Vipassana in the United States since the late 1960s.
The text covers the why of mindfulness meditation, delves into the how of doing the sitting practice, and also has several sections on what to do when problems inevitably crop up.
Best of all there’s a free (early) version of the book you can read online here.
Shinzen Young has been my main meditation teacher for over 20 years now. I first began working with him when I was editing an audio program called The Science of Enlightenment in the mid 1990s. I was stunned by his erudition, his knowledge of world religions (not just Buddhism), his mastery of many of the original languages of Buddhism, and his ability to clarify otherwise very difficult points in the dharma.
Somewhere in the 2000s, I was asked to create a book version of the program, which we all thought might take a few months.
Twelve years, and a lot of laughter and tears later, it was released.
The Science of Enlightenment is not an unusual book because it was created based on Shinzen’s dharma talks and lectures—that is very common for meditation teachers, who basically give talks for a living. It is unusual because it starts out with the basics of meditation and with each progressive chapter, takes you deeper and deeper into the profundity of spiritual insight. Along the way, you learn many ways to practice, including working with impermanence, no-self, and nonduality.
This is not a practice manual, but more of a transmission of the spirit of meditation. (If you want to dig deeply into the meditation system invented by Shinzen Young, here is an enormous, comprehensive, and highly technical—and totally free of charge—PDF file, entitled The Five Ways to Know Yourself. This is an epic practice manual that is quite complete.
Notice that in Shinzen’s way of working (which is heavily influenced by Zen and Vajrayana), there is no sense of levels, or stages, or getting anywhere. Awakening is always and everywhere.
Breakthrough Pain, also by Shinzen, is an unusual text. It concentrates on how to use mindfulness meditation to cope with intractable physical pain.
Shinzen uses examples from Japanese meditation tradition, the “marathon monks of Mt. Hiei,” as well as his personal experience in Native American sundances, to demonstrate methods of working with pain.
These techniques are not easy, nor are they for beginners. However, if you have a serious pain problem, and cannot find relief in any standard medical method, then this book is worth experimenting with. The methods work for many, but not all people, to a greater or lesser degree. But if they help you to find relief, the input of time will be more than worth it. Comes with audio guided meditations by Shinzen.
Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, by Daniel Ingram
Surely one of the most unusual meditation books ever published, this book, (called simply “MCTB” by its adherents) started a revolution in western Buddhist practice. Less a meditation manual than a feverish practice diary, MCTB tore the lid off the “mushroom factory” model of meditation—i.e. feed them shit and keep them in the dark—that had been in vogue for decades, and inaugurated a new era of unusual openness, clarity, and sharing in the dharmic world, as well as unleashing a firestorm of criticism upon the author.
Upon release this book seemed to break every rule of the typical Buddhist center in the West, and to have something to piss off absolutely everyone. Meditators are supposed to let go of all striving? Well, let’s aim directly for stream entry, presented as a clear goal. Meditators are supposed to patiently sit for decades with no discernable improvement or even change in their practice? Fuck that, any reasonably motivated person can hit first path within a few years of dedicated effort. Most details about how to judge the level of someone’s attainment must be kept absolutely secret? Nah, we’re just going to publish them right here in excruciating detail, and use them to rank each other’s practice. No one should ever discuss their spiritual attainments? The author calls himself an arahant (arhat) on the cover of the book.
While it undoubtedly seems less revolutionary today, that is only because the reaction to the book has been so great in so short a time. Even while heaping opprobrium upon the author, the Buddhist world has sprinted to catch up in the dialog around the details of practice and attainment put forth in the text.
Some of the highlights include a lot of material on jhana practice, practical use of the Progress of Insight model, deconstructing unhelpful models of awakening, and a lot of very good material on the Dark Night (more properly referred to as the dukkha ñanas).
That said, as a very personal book, MCTB doesn’t always give the best advice and sometimes is overly pedantic or too black-and-white in its presentation. You may also be put off by the massive amount of the book dedicated to gaining siddhis or magickal powers. Nevertheless, it’s an important book to read and understand, so just get it (free here) and read it.
And I have to add in my own book:
The Mindful Geek, by Michael W. Taft
This is not the best mindfulness meditation manual for beginners in the world. It is, however, the best mindfulness meditation manual for beginners who are geeks allergic to Woo, folklore, and mysticism in the world.
If you love science fiction, are comfortable with code, like flow charts, and appreciate research paper citations, this book is definitely for you. It will get you started with your sitting practice in a fun, smart, and pain-free manner. You can always get a free e-copy of the book (in several formats) by signing up here.
More Mindfulness Books to Check out:
- Lovingkindness, by Sharon Salzberg
- Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, by Joseph Goldstein
- The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Mindfulness for Beginners, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Books on Jhana Practice
Understanding how to practice jhanas is its own gigantic and controversial topic. Here are a few excellent books which, of course, disagree about the method, depth, and definition of jhanas, but which together will give you a very good idea of the spectrum of possibilities. Leigh Brasington’s book is the most accessible and also the easiest to practice—I highly recommend it.
As I mentioned above, The Mind Illuminated also contains very good instructions on the jhanas, and is the only text which attempts to unify the methods described in the following books:
Zen Meditation Books
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki
A Zen classic from the San Francisco-based Japanese Roshi Shunryu Suzuki. This book affected me deeply when I first began meditating. I still remember reading the electrifying words, “Life is like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink.”
Now more than 40 years of practice later, I still find it powerful and illuminating.
(more Zen books coming)
Vajrayana Meditation Books
Roaring Silence, by Ngakpa Chögyam and Khandro Déchen
An approachable and very interesting introduction to dzogchen teachings.
In dzogchen we look at the nature of mind, directly perceiving the primordial freedom of the natural state.
This book contains several simple, powerful meditation exercises and practices, as well as quite bit of (to me, somewhat boring) question and answers. It presents the meditation methods known as the “four naljors” which include shamatha, vipassana, and several nondual practices.
Very interesting and useful.
(Note to pedants: Yes, I know that dzogchen is considered by many to be distinct from tantra. Deal with it.)
Spectrum of Ecstasy: Embracing the Five Wisdom Emotions of Vajrayana Buddhism by Ngakpa Chögyam
One of the most important differences between early Buddhism (think Vipassana) and later Buddhism, in my opinion, is the differing treatment of emotions in the two traditions. Theravada casts “negative” emotions as something to be annihilated completely, going so far as to picture a fully enlightened person as having only positive, wholesome emotions.
In the later formulations of Buddhism, on the other hand, all emotions are considered to have potential qualities of awakening. By learning to work with difficult emotions skillfully, we can realize their uplifting and ultimately liberating qualities.
Advaita/Nondual Meditation Books
The End of Your World, by Adyashanti —
I highly recommend this text for anyone with advanced experience in meditation. The audio version is also excellent. In this text Adyashanti deals with the deeper blockages to awakening which can arise, and also some of the difficulties that arise after awakening.
Shift into Freedom, by Loch Kelly
This is a unusual book, written in a idiosyncratic language. Loch Kelly takes the nondual teachings of Mahamudra and translates them into simple, often strange-sounding language.
The payoff is that the techniques allow even beginners access to some of the more esoteric states and understandings of nondual awareness. Totally worth checking out.
Effortless Mindfulness, by Loch Kelly.
(review to come)
I Am That, by Nisargadatta Maharaj
– A full review coming on this. Certainly a spiritual classic for all the ages.
Meditation Books on Special Topics
When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön
Simply put, if you are going through a difficult time, then this book will help you to get through it. I love that this is not some kind of rainbows-and-unicorns feel good text.
Instead, it fiercely looks reality in the face, as in this this typical quote: “Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”
While this can sound harsh or unhelpful, there is something truly comforting and even uplifting in her unstintingly no-nonsense outlook. The subtitle describes the work accurately: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. This book has been a bestseller in spiritual circles for over 20 years, which is testimony to its power and efficacy.
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.~ Pema Chödrön
Good Sex: Getting Off without Checking Out, by Jessica Graham
Jessica Graham, a major contributor of articles to the Deconstructing Yourself website, is a fantastic writer. When she began writing articles about mindfulness as it relates to sexuality, people noticed. Her groundbreaking series on Mindful Sex, originally published here, became the inspiration for a book on the topic, entitled Good Sex.
The book is unusual for several reasons. Firstly, Jessica is a powerful meditation teacher and practitioner, and she brings her own experience of working with mindfulness of sex directly into the material presented in the book. It is fresh, unexpectedly engaging, and different from anything you will read anywhere else on the topic.
Secondly, and most importantly, Jessica is characterlogicially incapable and unwilling to fit into the boring and tame model of the typical mindfulness of sex book. You know, the completely unsexy, uninteresting, straight/cis normative, and frankly sex-negative view of most consensus Buddhist practitioners in the West. Yeah, not in this book.
Instead you get, as the description promises: Not only a tool kit for creating a rich and deeply satisfying sex life, this playful, explicit, and transformative book conveys the deeper message of how combining meditation with sex can bring about profound spiritual awakenings. Graham discusses everything from open-eyed orgasms to threesomes to how to deal with a partner with a low sex drive. From a sex-positive and nontraditional stance Good Sex explores nonmonogamy, the benefits of pornography, sexual trauma, consent, and much more.
Highly recommended, and not for the faint of heart.
Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, by Chögyam Trungpa
The Making of Buddhist Modernism, by David McMahon
American Dharma, by Ann Gleig
Why I Am Not a Buddhist, by Evan Thompson