Best Meditation Books for Beginners: 9 Classics to Get You Started

Buddhist books for beginners

What’s the best book on meditation for beginners? Piles of new books come out each year on mindfulness and meditation, and the best books to start meditation for you might not be the best for someone else—or even for you at a different place in your life. (When I open up one of my favorite meditation books at random, I often see a phrase or a paragraph I’d ignored jump out with such wisdom and insight that it seems to have been written just for me. Has the book changed since I last picked it up? Or was I the one who changed?)

Here are some of the best and most widely recommended meditation books for beginners.

We’ve put together a list of some of the best and most widely recommended meditation books for beginners, from the classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, to popular mindfulness books like Wherever You Go, There You Are and 10% Happier, to books by some of the finest Buddhist meditation teachers in the West, including Pema Chödrön and Thich Nhat Hanh.

How do you know which is the best beginning meditation book for you? Take a look at the descriptions here, read a few pages at a bookstore or online, and see which ones speak to you, right now, in this moment of your life. 

When a meditation book can meet a student where they are at that moment, magic can happen. As the title of Pema Chödrön’s classic book on compassionate living says, “Start where you are.” 

Best Beginning Meditation Books: Start Here

The books in this section are the perfect starting place for your first book on meditation.

1. How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends With Your Mind by Pema Chödrön

“Meditation gives us the opportunity to work with our minds when we can’t control what is happening around us. Panic, anxiety, and fear are all normal reactions to the enormous unknowing we experience in life – but through meditation we can learn to come back to our breath, our bodies, the sensations we are feeling and hold those sensations with kindness.”

Pema Chödrön is an American buddhist nun in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Shambhala Buddhism. One of the best books on meditation for beginners, I chose this compact but comprehensive book as the text for a new beginning meditation class I recently helped to create. It includes clear instructions for the practical aspects of meditation – posture, breath, what to do when the mind is wandering, how to handle emotions – as well as the grounding in Buddhism behind the instructions. 

Drawing on her decades of practice and insight, Pema sympathetically and genuinely validates the experience of being a human being today in the modern and chaotic world we are living in and then shows how meditation can teach us how to relate to our experiences in a way that helps us regain our stability and basic joy in life. Highly recommended to beginners and experienced meditators looking for a refresher.

2. Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

“[Buddhist meditation] is an ever ongoing investigation of reality, a microscopic examination of the very process of perception. Its intention is to pick apart the screen of lies and delusions through which we normally view the world, and thus to reveal the face of ultimate reality.”

A classic beginning book on meditation, Mindfulness in Plain English presents a clear, precise, and no nonsense method for learning meditation for Westerners, using the Vipassana tradition. A big plus, it is available as a free PDF online. One of the barriers to meditation addressed, and one I’ve had to work with in myself, is reading about meditation versus actually practicing. It’s like learning to play tennis by watching YouTube videos about tennis. It’s only when you’re out on the court that real progress can begin. This book helps you get out on the court. 

That said, there’s a lot more than a simple “How to” offered here. A chapter on “Why bother meditating?” reveals the bad news: it isn’t as easy as you hope—and the good news: you can learn a new way to work with your mind that lets you relate to the inevitable chaos and disappointments of life, by learning to see yourself, and accept yourself as you actually are.

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, known to his students as Bhante G, is a Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist monk who came to the US in 1968, eventually obtaining a PhD in philosophy. He has been teaching Buddhism to western audiences ever since.

3. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi established the first Soto Zen monastery in the West, the Zen Mountain Center at Tassajara and the Zen Center in San Francisco. This book of his public talks was first published in 1970.

This classic text exquisitely transmits the purity and simplicity of Zen practice. A great and precious advantage of being a true beginner is that, as we haven’t learned anything yet, we haven’t yet become seduced by the thought of achievement. Suzuki shows how the “beginner’s mind” can be boundless, open to all that it encounters and just the place we want to be as meditators, whether as a true beginner or as someone who has practiced for decades. If you’ve been wondering what Zen is all about and whether it’s right for you, this is the book for you. 

Meditation Books for Beginners: Mindfulness Classics

The books in this section present mindfulness clearly and helpfully.

4. Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn is often considered the father of the modern mindfulness movement. He developed and founded Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. He realized that mindfulness could provide effective ways to help patients with a wide variety of physical and mental health challenges, from anxiety to heart attacks. Many peer-reviewed studies have attested to the effectiveness of these techniques. But lifestyle changes are known to be some of the hardest for patients to make. A practicing Buddhist, Kabat-Zinn translated the spiritual language of Buddhism into practical, non-sectarian, medical terms, Kabat-Zinn helped bring the techniques of meditation to a vast audience.

In Wherever You Go, There You Are, Kabat-Zinn’s first book on the subject, he lays out the case for the practice of mindfulness as a healthy alternative to medication in addressing stress in everyday life. If you are looking for a practical, straight forward, book to help you begin a practice of meditation and keep you motivated along the way in your meditation journey, Wherever You Go, There You Are is a great place to start.

5. 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story by Dan Harris

“Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose.”

This highly accessible, irreverent, and readable book from the TV news anchor Dan Harris follows his journey from an on-air panic attack, a result of overwork, stress and “an extended run of mindlessness,” to becoming just “10% happier” through the practice of meditation. Using a combination of personal memoir, humor, and the latest neuroscience, Dan Harris entertains as he shows how he made the journey from non-believer and skeptic to enthusiastic convert and meditation advocate. 

While not everyone can set up an interview with the Dalai Lama, as Dan did to answer some questions he had on meditation, we can all benefit from his access and connections. Dan writes with humor, honesty and vulnerability to show how meditation can be accessible to everyone and how to integrate it into your life. It’s also a fun romp through the life of a top TV journalist, with anecdotes and high-profile stories that keep the mood light throughout.  

Including step-by-step instructions, Dan Harris’ book is a great introduction to beginning meditation. And if you like Harris, check out his free podcast and the many resources on his website: Ten Percent Happier.

Meditation Books for Beginners: Overcoming Challenges in Meditation

Meditation can be challenging, especially when you’re starting out. These books help you work with challenges in your meditation practice—and your life—as they arise.

6. Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chödrön

“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.”

A great follow up to How to Meditate, Start Where You Are uses a study of the Buddhist mind training practice known as lojong to help us awaken our hearts and strengthen our practice. Lojong teachings take the form of short slogans that challenge our assumptions and teach us to be open to whatever arises in our life.

Addressing head on the fear-based habitual patterns we often use to cope with stress, she shows how to awaken compassion towards ourselves and others as another way to relate to these stresses. Pema draws on a variety of Buddhist writings and uses modern examples from her own life to illustrate these universal challenges. 

Start Where You Are comes from the radical position that instead of hiding from or needing to quickly fix the things in ourselves we perceive of as bad, we can use “all the  unwanted things” in our lives, like anger, depression, frustration, and anxiety, as the means for awakening compassion in ourselves and others. This timeless classic is one of those books I have come back to over and over.

7. Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh

“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We don’t have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky. We don’t have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child. Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy.”

Peace is Every Step is an inspiring, poetic, and deceptively simple book that can help beginners learn to meditate while helping them to rekindle a joyful and grateful spirit many of us last really experienced in childhood. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of those rare teachers who embody what they teach and write with such genuineness, clarity, and immediacy that I feel myself not only believing that his vision could be true but that in reading it I myself can achieve it, if only for a moment. Known as “Thay” to his followers, he  was a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, who lived and taught in France from 1973 until his death in 2022 at age 95, and has an international following. 

His teaching focuses on how mindfulness is something we can practice in every moment and that it can lead to a life filled with peace and joy. He doesn’t pretend the problems we face as humans don’t exist or make light of them. Instead, he presents a different way of interacting with the world and recognizing the precious gift of a human life, and how to make the most of each day in the midst of everything we have to face.

Included are many practical mindfulness exercises such as stopping for a moment of mindfulness every time we hear a bell, be it from a cathedral or the ringing of the phone, or imagining everything that went into the food we eat, including the seeds, the soil, the farmers, and even the sunshine that went into bringing it to us, as way to be present with the food we eat.

Meditation Books for Beginners: Exploring Buddhism

The books in this section are an accessible introduction to the Buddhist tradition of meditation and spiritual inquiry.

8. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh

“Without suffering, you cannot grow. Without suffering, you cannot get the peace and joy you deserve. Please don’t run away from your suffering. Embrace it and cherish it. Go to the Buddha, sit with him, and show him your pain. He will look at you with loving kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, and show you ways to embrace your suffering and look deeply into it. With understanding and compassion, you will be able to heal the wounds in your heart, and the wounds in the world.”

How does meditation as we practice in the west relate to traditional Buddhist teachings? Thich Nhat Hanh presents a clear description of basic Buddhist teachings that is a big help to beginning meditators trying to decipher what part of the practice they are taught comes direct from Buddhism and what has been integrated from other traditions or teachers. With so many meditation traditions to choose from (an embarrassment of riches compared to even 10 or 15 years ago), having a good grasp of the core teachings of the Buddha from which all the other traditions sprang is more important than ever. 

Covering The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, and other basic Buddhist teachings (it seems that Buddhism invented listicles way before the internet), Thich Nhat Hanh presents clear and direct interpretations for the modern age. With simple, compassionate and often transcendently poetic words, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching is a go-to reference you will want in your meditation library.

9. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

“It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort, or whatever it is that the particular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism.”

If you are the kind of person who, like me, thinks spending 3 hours in a coffee shop talking to a friend about consciousness, non-dualism, and the meaning of life is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon, you might find Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism to be just the kind of introduction to meditation and Buddhism you are looking for. I can honestly say that reading the first chapter was as close to a revelatory experience as I’ve ever had from a book on meditation.

The idea that a spiritual pursuit could become as addictive and destructive a desire as the pursuit of riches or sex suddenly made me realize why I had been turned off by so many spiritual teachers over the years. While later chapters delve into more esoteric principles of Tibetan Buddhism, the opening chapters of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism have inspired generations of meditators to overcome their skepticism and really dive into the practice. 

Meditation Books for Beginners: Next Steps

So, you’ve read a book and started practicing, but you still have more questions. Want to take your meditation practice to the next level? Consider an in-person or online meditation course.

Do you have a favorite meditation book for beginners not listed here? Have you read one of the books on this list and have opinions? We’d like to know how it helped you—or not. Share with us in the comments.

And if you’re still looking, check out this comprehensive list, complements of Tricycle magazine, one of the most widely read Buddhist magazines in English.

This article is part of the Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.

4 thoughts on “Best Meditation Books for Beginners: 9 Classics to Get You Started

  1. Great article! I really feel better having a variety of books to introduce me to an activity that I’ve had a hard time incorporating into my life. Both the list and the summaries are super helpful.

  2. I suggest you include Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With by Gaylon Ferguson, Shambhala Publications, 2010. It presents the process of discovering the path in everyday language and simple arguments based on experience. There is no “religious” component, no cant. Dr. Ferguson has many years of experience as a professor and as a director of meditation programs, so his language and humor appeal to the modern generation. There is not a trace of condescension; his measure of success is the liveliness of the conversation in seminars.
    Respectfully submitted, Paul T. Wegener

  3. For individuals beginning their journey into meditation, the article from May 11, 2023 titled “Best Meditation Books for Beginners” is a priceless resource. It’s fantastic to see a carefully curated list of timeless works that can help newcomers through this transformative journey. I appreciate you sharing this thoughtful choice!

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2024-02-24 06:31:06