Reading About the Ego: Books For Serious Meditators

Texts that has Helped My Spiritual Path and Mental Health

This is the reading list I wish I had when I started diving into meditation, and subsequently, spirituality. It does three things: (1) answers questions, (2) gives structure, and (3) places spirituality, neuroscience, and psychotherapy in mutual context. Yes, it’s biased towards intellectuals recovering from a Western, Christian upbringing. Here it is, a PhD’s reading list on awakening.

Explaining the “Awakening-based” Spiritual Path

These books attempt to explain the nuts and bolts of the idea of “spiritual awakening” (whatever that might mean), rooted in Buddhism. This is the heavy-hitting stuff.

Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield — Seeking the Heart of Wisdom. A serious but easy-to-read book explaining “insight meditation practices”, of which Mindfulness Meditation is one. This presents the western derivative of Buddhist meditation you will find at secular meditation centers across America.
Jack Kornfield — After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. This book digs into balancing the spiritual path with the everday life. It specifically helps you integrate spiritual experiences into western life. Furthermore, it helps you avoid “spiritual materialism”, where you strive for material accomplishment within the context of spiritual pursuit.
Sam Harris — Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Famous and controversial atheist Sam Harris dives into spirituality. A great high-level tour-de-force through meditation, neuroscience, psychedelics, and how to have a spiritual practice.
Alan Watts — The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Alan Watts is famous for his blending of Eastern religious and Western science ideas. In this book he lays out the idea of “nonduality” (the lack of separation between you and the universe), drawing from Hindu “Vendata” mythology. It’s beautifully written, I recommend it even just for the prose.
Alan Watts — The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. A similar venture by Alan Watts, arguing that living in the current moment is the best recourse to an uncertain world.
Jay Michaelson — Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment. Jay Michaelson lays out the current developments in East-meets-West Buddhism-meets-Technology. Not a practical manual, rather, a vibrant book about the state of western Buddhism and its secular influences.
Chogyam Trungpa — Meditation in Action. A thin book that digs into the Tibetan practices around meditation. Full of useful if slightly challenging metaphors and concepts around the process of arriving at enlightenment.
Andrew Olendzki — Untangling Self: A Buddhist Investigation of Who We Really Are. A more academic work that catalogs the Buddhist idea of nonself. Full of lists and definitions, its a good gateway to the Suttas.
Shunryu Suzuki — Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Suzuki founded the American Zen movement. This book digs into the Zen practice, especially focused on the idea of “Beginner’s Mind”: meeting each moment anew, without expectations and judgement clouding our perception of reality.
Sharon Salzberg — Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. A “roadmap for cultivating a feeling of peace” by the great Sharon Salzberg, one of the core founders of today’s secular meditation movement.

Source Materials (Suttas)

“Sutta” (or “Sutra”) is a teaching on a specific technical subject. These are source materials, written by traditional practitioners such as the Buddha.

Bhikkhu Bodhi — In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (The Teachings of the Buddha). The core of the Pali canon, the original teachings of the Buddha.

Neuroscience, Psychotherapy, Physics

Neuroscience is undergoing a revolution through its investigation of the emotional and spiritual life. The 20th century has seen the systematic disassembly of the idea that we must “subjugate our emotions”. Now, the 21st century is seeing new tools and techniques directly applied to investigate meditation, love, attachment, and enlightenment. I’ll even throw in one physics book that explains how science has transcended reductionism. These books are written by neuroscientists, medical doctors, and scientists-turned-monks.

Richard J. Davidson Ph.D — The Emotional Life Of Your Brain. Explores the connections between your emotions and many neurological factors. The author, Dr. Davidson, is one of the most-cited scientists in the field of neuroscience applied to meditation, read it mainly for him.
Mark Epstein M.D. — Going To Pieces Without Falling Apart. This book examines psychotherapy and mental health issues in the context of buddhist mindfulness.
Amir Levine and Rachel Heller — Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment. Not a spiritual book, but a fantastic tour-de-force through understanding how we form attachment. Particularly useful to folks who find themselves very anxious around relationships.
Shinzen Young — The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works. The science of enlightenment is still thin and young, but Shinzen Young makes a good attempt to connect neuroscience and spiritual enlightenment. I picked this up for his pedigree through deep involvement in Harvard Medical School’s meditation studies.
Daniel Coleman — Emotional Intelligence. A bit old and dated by now, but still the main book on being aware and capable around handling emotions well.
Thomas Lewis M.D., Fari Amini M.D., Richard Lannon M.D. — A General Theory of Love.
James Gleick — Chaos: Making a New Science. Explores the new science that lies beyond reductionism: why we can’t break everything into pieces and explore each piece separately. Specifically, explores the idea that, for many systems, small differences of the initial conditions leads to giant changes down the line. This came as a strong recommendation from Stanford Prof. Robert Sapolsky, famous for his Human Behavioral Biology courses.

Applied Meditation

These books look at applying ideas from meditation and enlightenment to general life, both personal and on a global scale. Dealing with negative emotions, handling destructive behaviors, working wisely with people, and striving towards world peace — all in here.

Jon Kabat-Zinn — Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. A almost-clinical manual on how to work with many different challenges using meditation. Explores all kinds of pain and stress techniques. This is written as a text for a course in mindfulness-based stress reduction.
George Mumford — The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Peak Performance. A sports psychology book that explains how to achieve peak performance and the Flow state through meditation.
Judson Brewer, Jon Kabat-Zinn Ph.D. — The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love — Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits. Not spiritual per se, but dives into addiction behavior. Chronicles the latest Mindfulness-based techniques to overcoming addiction — techniques that are beating our the previous gold standard of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Tara Brach Ph.D. — Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha. Gets into Radical Candor and Radical Acceptance, all about wisely working with what is there rather than getting egotistically involved in anger or loathing.
Thich Nhat Hanh — Being Peace. Applies meditation to world peace.
Jay Michaelson — The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path. Applies meditation and spirituality to sadness.

Stories, Novels, Personal Accounts

These books are less about meditation and enlightenment directly, and more about people’s novelization of ideas around living spiritual lives.

Dan Harris — 10% Happier. An ABC news anchor’s account of his discovery of meditation. Easy to read, easy to relate to, and searingly open and honest, Dan takes us on his spiritual journey with candor and honesty. A wonderful book for anyone who is curious, a good first book to hand a friend who wants to know what you’re up to and why you seem happier than before.
Dan Millman — The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. An autobiographical novel about a UC Berkeley student (Millman) who learns to apply awareness and focus practices to his gymnastics, and subsequently making it to the Olympics. Incidentally, this was the first book I read about the awareness-based spiritual path!
Robert M Pirsig — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A book that’s neither about Zen, nor about Motorcycle Maintenance. It digs his specific ideas around values, quality, and the pros and cons of western reductionism. Filled with ideas around the state of egolessness, and a fun story to boot.
Ram Dass — Be Here Now. A difficult book to explain, but at its core, a book about the transformation of one man from a Stanford PhD to a Hindu Yogi. Also filled with practical advice and todo lists. A hippie classic!
Hermann Hesse — Siddhartha. A classic, retelling stories of the Buddha.

History, Anthropology, Archeology, and a Broader Context

We know plenty about the history of the human race. In this knowledge lies many compelling perspectives on humanity’s development and rise: what we got right, and where we went very very wrong.

Steve Taylor — The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and the Dawning of A New Era. A tour-de-force that shows how the overbearing strength of the current-day Ego is a relatively recent development. Backed up with a huge amount of archeological evidence, builds a strong case for our core egalitarian nature.

Psychedelics and Drugs

It’s no accident that spirituality and psychedelics go hand in hand. They’re both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.

Aldous Huxley — The Doors of Perception. One of the original books that put the whole psychedelic thing on the map. By the author of Brave New World, this book lucidly describes the psychedelic experience.
Timothy Leary — The Psychedelic Experience. Get this book just for the foreword, written by Daniel Pinchbeck. He does an amazing job highlighting where these first psychonauts got it wrong, and lays out a path away from ego-death and towards ego-freedom.
Alan Watts and Daniel Pinchbeck — The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. Alan Watts’ description of an Acid trip.

Slightly Related Work

These books go beyond spirituality, and dig into interesting metaphysical or quite practical ideas.

James Carse — Finite and Infinite Games. Explores the concept of infinite games, where the goal is to keep play going rather than win. A fascinating view on life as play. Some similarity to Alan Watts’ Vendata-inspired concepts of life as a drama.
Viktor Frankl — Man’s Search for Meaning. Written by a Holocaust survivor, digs into the ways people find meaning in life.
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