It’s been a rough year. I don’t know about you, but several days a week, I run through a range of strong emotions kicked off by current events: rage, despair, bafflement, and yes – numbness, the brown-out of emotion that emerges from overflow of same. One way to deal with it, of course, is to get involved, to turn those feelings into action. However, that alone will not keep you healthy; burn out helps no one. Sometimes it’s easy: a movie, hanging out with some pals, a drink, a book, a jog through the hood, etc.. There’s also a need to shut off all the stimulation and reset in a deeper way. The books on this list might be a place to start. Some come from a particular religious tradition, some do not. Techniques can be universal, even when content is specific. Choose your own meditative adventure.
Meditation Now is Elizabeth Reninger’s guide for meditation noobs. It includes a variety of practices and even a few 28 day plans, which could be helpful for getting started, ie: it might be harder to jump-start a new thing that’s totally open-ended.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, who looks like a 300 year old Jedi master, teaches a particular type of meditation called Vipassana, which focuses on strengthening concentration and awareness. Mindfulness in Plain English is another good one for beginners, as it is step-by-step with lots of simple, clear, detailed instruction.
Into the Silent Land is Martin Laird’s guide to contemplation from the Christian tradition, which, unlike Eastern religions, has long neglected its contemplative/meditative practices. This book tops a few lists I’ve found. “We are imprisoned by the chattering mind. Gradually we learn to distinguish the simple thought or emotion from the chatter, and we discover an inner stability that grows into the silence of God.” Seems pretty practical to me; my mind never, ever shuts up.
When a Benedictine monk spends 25 years in India, you get this modern classic, an intersection of Christian and Hindu thought on “practising the Presence”. Prayer is from Swami Abhishiktananda, and it is not so much about technique but a collection of insights – maybe best if you already have a meditative practice.
Living Simply Through the Day: Spiritual Survival in a Complex Age is another intersection between West and East. Tilden Edwards, an Episcopal priest, spent time in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and produced this book, which offers ways to practice simplicity and contemplation in various aspects of daily life.
Silence. Harder to find than a parking space (under $10) in downtown LA. Maggie Ross’ Silence: A User’s Guide is one of few books on the topic (and a second volume is on the way). Seekers in all traditions know its value, and power-wielders of every stripe – including organized religion – do not often welcome silence: who knows what one might hear in the absence of indoctrination?
Also relevant, the recent documentary In Pursuit of Silence (92% on Rotten Tomatoes)
If you’re looking for a classic, you can’t do much better than Evelyn Underhill’s Practical Mysticism. This is step by step, starting with simple exercises and needing experience in no particular religious tradition. This is a slim volume, though she also has a massive book on the topic. She says, “For a lack of attention a thousand forms of loveliness elude us everyday.”
Brad Warner is our local guy. If some of the books on this list, or even the idea of meditation itself, seems, I dunno… froo-froo (?) – maybe Warner is your guy. [Here’s a little interview we did with him; he’s an expert on Japanese monster movies, so he’s one of us.] You’ve got a few books of his to choose from, and from the titles, it should be obvious that you won’t need to know how to read Sanskrit to follow where he leads.
The holidays are a nice time to start, because you can try a few things out, in herky-jerky fashion, then make an informed new year’s resolution on an approach to try. One last tip: schedule time for this. That way, if someone inadvertently tries to steal that time from you or if you just have other things pressing in, you can legit say, “I can’t right now, I have plans.” Always remember that you are more than just a means to an end. I’m a novice, maybe like you, but I suspect that there is no better opportunity to practice stillness than in loud, chaotic times like we’re living through right now.