A couple of months back, my good friend Chris Jones asked me for a reading list related to meditation practice. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why, as Chris is a far more experienced contemplative than me. Nonetheless, I sent him over some notes, adding listening into the reading list; as I’ve pointed out recently, more and more of my information is coming from the world of podcasts, which is going through something of a golden period at the moment, I believe.
So then, as contemplative practice has become something of a cornerstone of my effectiveness practice over the last few years, I thought it might be useful to post here what I said to Chris, with some editing. And before I plunge in, I do want to stress that I’m under no illusions here: I am strictly a novice at this stuff.
I’ve ended up here along a familiar trajectory, I think: mindfulness-based exercises in the MBSR tradition, post-yoga breathing exercises, extended mindfulness of breath sessions, walking meditation and so on. I’ve ended up with zazen partly because I’m drawn to its austerity, partly to keep the distracting peak experiences to a minimum. Mostly, though, I think I like Zen’s straightforwardness, its lack of spaced-out-ness.
So many of the books on the subject – and they’re endless – are about history/philosophy and not about technique. However, all of the books below are to some extent about technique and all have been hugely useful to me.
Jon Kabat-Zinn My gateway drug, the founder of MBSR and a great man, I think. His best writing certainly defies the disparaging “McMindfulness” tag thrown at “secular mindfulness” by some in traditional Buddhist circles. My favourite of his, and certainly the most “Buddhist” is Coming to Our Senses. K-Z is particularly good on technique, as he’s been teaching for three decades – mostly to newcomers and lay people.
Stephen Batchelor Another great man, I think: lapsed monk and author of the controversial Confession of a Buddhist Atheist and Buddhism Without Beliefs. He’s a Brit who tried pretty much every tradition, for decades – Tibetan, Theravadan, Zen – and to some degree settled on the last as a blueprint for a secular but nonetheless rigorous approach to the practice.
Noah Levine Different territory entirely. Levine is a tattoed punk, a former alcoholic and user who has used the practice to overcome some dark stuff. (Interestingly he’s the son of a pretty high profile American Buddhist – Stephen Levine.) He’s resolutely Theravadan, so ultimately not my bag I suspect (“Strictly old school Therevadan”, he notes wryly at one point). But, but – he’s VERY good on technique, and his books all centre on this. Try The Heart of the Revolution – it’s all about compassion and practice and I found it both inspiring and pretty confronting, which may say more than I’m prepared to admit.
Brad Warner Mr “Hardcore Zen” himself. Another punk, and a DEVO fan so already filed under “what’s not to like” – also bass player, Japanese monster film fanatic (he worked for the studio that makes Ultraman for some time) and ordained Zen priest. Coming from the Zen tradition there’s something almost wilfully obtuse about his writing. You get that from title alone of his last book: There is no God and He is Always With You. Sarah and I were lucky enough to see him talk in Glasgow last year. He’s due back in the UK in November so worth keeping an eye out for any talks.
Ben Michaelson I’m including him for a different reason. His book Evolving Dharma is a great introduction to how Buddhism is currently changing in the West – not least in response to communications tech. He’s an erudite writer – he’s written academic texts on, among other things, Kabbalah (he’s a self-confessed JuBu) – but this book is highly accessible. I found it hugely useful in mapping out the range of practice currently out there and how I might relate to it all.
Now that’s a short list, I know, but it’s the stuff that’s been most useful to me. However, as I said, books are only where my research into this stuff have begun. It’s in the world of blogging and podcasting that this has really taken off and so much of my thinking and practice has been informed by these:
- Hardcore Zen – The blog aforementioned Brad Warner
- The Secular Buddhist The blog and podcast of the Secular Buddhist Association; the podcast, hosted by Ted Meisner, is excellent.
- Present Moment The SB’s sister blog and podcast, also hosted by Meiner, looking at mindfulness from a less explicitly Buddhist perspective
- Tricycle Too hardcore for me, I confess, but essential reading – the online magazine of contemporary American Buddhism.
- Buddhist Geeks – My favourite. Vincent Horn is a great podcaster and his show is almost entirely interviews/dialogues that explore the interface of contemplative practice and technology.
- The Naked Monk – A fine blog from a British ex-monk turned mindfulness teacher.
- Dharmaseed – A wonderful, constantly updated, library and repository of Buddhist lectures and talks.
Hopefully that’s enough to go on for any newcomers. I’d welcome any thoughts – including brickbats – from more seasoned practitioners.