10 of the best Mindfulness books

Want to delve deeper into the world of Mindfulness? There are some fantastic books out there to offer inspiration, information, comfort and wisdom. Below I share a few of my very favourites. They are all tried and trusted volumes that I’ve returned to time and again over the years. I hope you enjoy them!

Before we get started, just a quick reminder that Mindfulness is a way of life and a daily practice. Books are wonderful, wonderful things, but just reading about Mindfulness will only get you so far and is no replacement for actually practising Mindfulness!

1. ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn

We’re starting with a classic! Jon Kabat-Zinn is widely recognised as one of the founders of the secular Mindfulness movement in the West and in this book he explores what it means to live mindfully in terms of values, attitudes and actions both on and off the mediation cushion. I find his writing deeply grounding – his formidable intellect and discipline come across strongly but there is so much here that is also deeply humane.

The ultimate message is straightforward and simple: don’t miss the richness, beauty and possibility of each moment, otherwise you’ll end up missing out on your life. Like all the great teachers he also draws on his own life with humility and humour (one of my favourite chapters is called ‘Cat Food Lessons’ and starts with him getting angry about his family leaving dirty cat food bowls for him to deal with!) Also recommended from Jon Kabat-Zinn; ‘Full Catastrophe Living’.

2. ‘Self-compassion’ by Kristin Neff, PhD

I’m a big fan of psychologist Dr Kristin Neff. I often use her guided meditations in my own practice (she has a wonderful soft Texan accent) and regularly sign-post people to her website which has some great free exercises to try. In this book she outlines the concept of mindful self-compassion – the practice of relating to our own suffering with kindness and care, the same way we would to a good friend who was struggling.

Given that she’s a researcher as well as a meditation teacher her claims are all backed up with interesting data and examples. What I responded to most in this book though were the brutally honest and highly relatable accounts of her own struggles with work, relationships and parenting which she uses to illustrate how mindful self-compassion can work in the real world.

Other great titles on self-compassion: ‘The mindful path to self-compassion’ by Christopher Germer (who co-founded the Mindful Self-Compassion programme), and Kristin Neff’s second book ‘Fierce Self-compassion’ (which I’m half way through at the moment!)

3. ‘The Little Mindfulness Workbook‘ by Gary Hennessey

Short, accessible, and down to earth; if you’re new to Mindfulness this is a great place to start. This little gem of a book will give you a straightforward introduction to the concept of Mindfulness in bite-sized chapters. This is the book included on my Mindfulness for Stress courses so I refer to it all the time. I like the fact that the chapters are so short, and interspersed with interesting questions to ponder, exercises to try and space to record your own observations. Bonus: includes a range of audio downloads of guided meditations so you can even use the book as a self-guided eight-week course if you like.

4. ‘The Mindful Way through Depression’ by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal & Jon Kabat-Zinn

If you’ve experienced depression and want to learn how to avoid relapse, this book is for you. Combining models from cognitive behavioural therapy alongside mindfulness techniques this book explores the reasons why low mood can take root and offers hopeful techniques to avoid the rumination and self-blame that so often fuel it. A trust-worthy, highly respected and ultimately optimistic book from four experts in the fields of psychology, psychiatry and mindfulness. Bonus: Includes CDs/audio downloads of guided meditations, templates for individual reflective practices and guides for using the book as a self-guided eight-week course.

5. ‘Right here with you’ Edited by Andrea Miller & the editors of Shambhala Sun (now known as ‘Lion’s Roar’)

I love this eclectic collection, which covers every aspect of building mindful relationships including self-love, marriage, break-ups, bereavement, community and more. It features chapters from spiritual leaders, therapists and meditation teachers from many traditions and none, including Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.

A rich and reassuring companion no matter what stage of life you’re at (I’ve dipped into it at so many different points in or in between relationships and have a feeling I’ll keep returning to it). The chapters range from practical advice to more off-beat musings; one of my favourites is ‘Let it Bee’ by Jennifer Lauk, writing about her attitude towards an infestation of bees after going through a divorce.

6. ‘When things fall apart’ by Pema Chödrön

I was first drawn to this book by its title and I still appreciate that Pema Chödrön never shies away from the bleaker side of human experience. Going through a period of despair, chaos, suffering or fear? This book offers a compassionate, reassuring and clear-seeing guide to bravely staying with and fully feeling our difficult experiences, even when our first instinct may be to run away. 

For those who don’t know her already Pema Chödrön is an American Tibetan Buddhist nun so her writing tends to have a more overtly Buddhist flavour to it, but there is so much comfort here for absolutely everyone. (She has many other excellent books; I sometimes carry a copy of ‘The pocket Pema Chodron’ – a tiny little book which you can literally fit in your pocket! – it’s great to have at hand for a quick dose of inspiration).

7. ‘Buddha’s Brain’ by Dr Rick Hanson

Dr Rick Hanson has a real knack for communicating complicated neuroscience in a digestible and down-to-earth way. For those who are curious to start learning about HOW Mindfulness works this book is a great place to start. Bringing together the latest research from the worlds of psychology, neurology and meditation this book is unashamedly positive about the human potential for change and growth. Rick Hanson has written several excellent books on this topic, and his website is full of fascinating articles and videos if you prefer to digest your neuroscience in smaller portions!

8. ‘How to relax’ by Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh has published so many beautiful and accessible books over the years it’s hard to know which one to pick. Beautifully illustrated with simple line drawings, this slim book is written in his trademark clean, clear and simple style. A tonic for all you over-achievers and do-ers out there, it’s less a book and more a gentle series of reflections or reminders to live simply and take time for rest. One to pick up for instant relief whenever life is getting busy. I often open at a random page and use it as a starting point for a moment of reflection.

9. ‘Living well with pain and illness’ by Vidyamala Burch

This book was a HUGE deal for me when I was struggling with chronic pain. I remember feeling a huge wave of relief wash over me as I read it. Vidyamala’s personal experience of using Mindfulness to manage a debilitating health condition underpins the writing, and her wise, reassuring, clear-thinking voice rings through loud and clear.

I found the many case studies of people finding ways to live well with their pain particularly reassuring. It gave me hope that it was possible to live WITH my body as it was, rather than always fighting against it or wishing my experience was different. Includes helpful illustrations, and fascinating explorations of what happens to the breath when we live with psychical pain and discomfort.

(Also recommended for people living with pain or health conditions: ‘Mindfulness for Health’ by Vidyamala Burch and Dr Danny Penman. This is the book my students use on Mindfulness for Health courses and it was awarded First Prize in the ‘Popular Medicine’ category of the British Medical Association Awards in 2014)

10. ‘Lovingkindness: the revolutionary art of happiness’ by Sharon Salzberg

Another of my favourite teachers, Sharon Salzberg was part of the first wave of westerners bringing Buddhist teaching back to the USA, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. I regularly meditate using Sharon’s guided recordings so when I read this it felt like receiving advice from an old and trusted friend. Sharon is a wonderful storyteller and draws on her own life, as well as Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions to explore what it means to cultivate kindness and well-wishing for ourselves and others, including the common barriers people experience (many people don’t like or ‘get’ this meditation straight away). A wonderful guide to living with an open heart.

What are your favourite Mindfulness books?

“This is just how it is right now”; a gentle suggestion for coping with down days

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Nothing has gone horribly wrong today. No huge stresses or dramas, no fights or deadlines. I just woke up feeling tired and world-weary, there’s a niggly ache in my hip, anxious thoughts whizzing around my head and low mood lurking somewhere nearby.

My most reliable mood-lifter is to get out into nature so I set off after breakfast with Tisha, my trusty four-legged walking buddy. We head out along our usual route, into the wilderness down beyond the playing fields. We stop by the river. Today the water’s muddy and there are no kingfishers to be seen. I feel heavy and keep slipping on the muddy path in my wellies. I’m too hot and my hip is hurting more as I walk. Turning a corner we come across two muntjac deer, just a few feet away. They stop stock still and Tisha doesn’t even notice them. It usually seems like a kind of blessing, these chance encounters, but even this doesn’t lift my spirits today. I trudge home, aching and grumpy. A woman on the street stops to tell me how beautiful she thinks Tisha is. That’s a nice moment, seeing her delight. But soon enough it passes.

Then I meditate. Often that helps shift me out of my funk, to feel less entangled in anxious or dark thoughts, more spacious and accepting. Today, however, apparently not. Nothing seems to have shifted by the end of my meditation and I decide to go back to bed for a nap, skipping my weekly Pilates class (which I know would have helped with the pain, but the pull of sleep is too strong).

Later I go for a coffee with a family friend. We chat and smile and I feel more like myself for a while.

Back at home I play the piano but I’m painfully aware of how out of practice I am and get frustrated, my fingers stiff and my head too fuzzy to focus on the music properly.

My partner gets home from work. We talk and hug and eat dinner together and I ask him “What’s wrong with me?”

“You’re just having a bad day my love, we all do sometimes” he answers, gently.

His kindness softens something in me.

This is just how it is right now.

I’m having a bad day.

And that’s OK.

And it will pass.

Sometimes that’s all there is to it. There is no magic wand. We do what we can to stay well; we go for walks and talk to friends, we practice mindfulness and some of us take our meds too. But sometimes we all have bad days and just accepting that this is how it is right now is one of the most powerful, liberating and compassionate responses there is. It releases us from the trap of resisting or fighting against our own experience, labelling it as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. We are not designed to be happy all the time, after all. The odd bit of low mood, worry, or physical discomfort are all normal parts of life.

With practice we begin to understand that our thoughts, emotions and sensations are not fixed or static, that they are part of a wider flow of experience that can be both pleasant and unpleasant, joyful and overwhelming. This is the shared human condition.

I sometimes joke that if I ever got a tattoo I would choose the words ‘This too shall pass’. The irony of having a quote about impermanence indelibly marked on my skin appeals to my sense of humour (although I suppose my body is impermanent too so maybe it’s quite fitting after all). But I also find those words deeply comforting in difficult moments.

This is just how it is right now, and it will pass.

 

PS

In this article I’m talking about my own experience of low mood, the kind of day to day blip we all experience sometimes. If you’ve been feeling consistently down or anxious for more than a couple of weeks or are at all concerned about your mental health, it’s always best to seek out professional advice. Your GP is a good place to start. The charity Mind have a wealth of information on their website too. 

Change IS possible. Just ask my dog.

I do not like dogs. Not. One. Little. Bit.

They’re smelly, slobbery, scary and a general PAIN. They whine and moan, wee everywhere and demand to be taken for walks. They eat random stuff off the street (mouldy pizza anyone?) You have to pick up their poo (which is gross enough) but if you’re extra lucky they’ll roll in some fox poo too and then need to be washed, because they can’t clean themselves, obviously. They bark at everything from the doorbell to the moon and are so needy they can’t stand to be left alone for even a half hour. And then there’s that wet dog smell. Yuck.

I come from a family of “cat people”. Growing up there were always cats around (and sometimes rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and goats too, but that’s a whole different story…) Cats were great and dogs were bad. They were not part of our vocabulary or our experience and they were definitely not to be trusted. I never understood why you would go to the trouble of housing such needy, noisy, messy creatures as dogs when there were lovely cuddly self-sufficient cats in the world. Right?

As a kid my gut reaction to dogs was to run and hide behind the nearest adult. And when I grew up, my response was still to run and hide behind the nearest adult! For years I got by just fine by crossing the street whenever I spotted a canine enemy up ahead, or swerving out of their way on my jogging route through the park. Yes, I probably looked a bit weird but I was OK with that as long as it meant I didn’t have to interact with dogs.

And then, aged 28, disaster struck: I started dating a man with a dog.

At first it didn’t really come up. He would leave his dog at home when we met. Then, when we eventually got to the point of visiting each other’s homes (it was a slow, slow burner), he would keep her under close control, and I would stay well away or cower behind him. I was terrified that I’d get bitten (not that I had any prior experience of being attacked by a dog but I told myself it’s a fairly rational thing, to be scared of a howling beast with huge sharp fangs and claws… don’t you think?)

Ever so slowly though I learned to tolerate Tisha (see, she has a name now). My partner taught me to ‘speak dog’, how to offer her the back of my hand as a greeting, to turn my back if I didn’t want her jumping up at me and to be firm when giving her commands to sit or stay. I resigned myself to having her in my life: “If I want to be with him, I’ll have to put up with his dog I suppose…”

As we spent more and more time together, I saw different sides to her. Rather than just the over-excited hello and frenzy of her walks I also saw her relaxing by the fire, curling up next to my partner, gently licking his hand when he was sad. I could see how much contentment she brought to his life, how much he valued her company.

Four years down the road, Tisha has slowly but surely worked her magic on me, and it’s official: I’m in love.

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I honestly think she’s the most perfect creature I’ve ever come across (I mean just look at her!) Her sleek, shiny coat, her distinguished white whiskers (she’s a “senior” now, according to the vet), her deep brown eyes fringed with thick black lashes, the way she stops to ever-so-delicately sniff individual flowers in the garden. I miss her when we’re apart.  When I’m ill or low, she gives me a reason to smile, laugh, and leave the house each day. I know I can always count on her for affection and companionship even on those days when human interactions seem too difficult.

We even meditate together. As soon as I begin she arrives and curls up next to me, paws and head gently nestling into my legs. I don’t know if she’s attracted by the sense of calm or is just pleased to have found a comfy spot for a nap (the latter, I suspect) but I savour those moments together, her warmth and soft breath, her little sighs and yawns.

So there we go. This creature who once terrified me has become one of my best friends. My fear and aversion have been transformed into love. Now when I meet dogs in the park I’m enchanted by their enthusiasm and zest for life. I look up into their owners’ faces and recognise the loving glow in their eyes as they watch their cherished pet racing around in circles of pure joy, fuelled by the sheer delight of being alive, and outside, and in possession of a tail which needs chasing.

I feel ashamed of the way I used to pity and judge people who went on and on with ‘boring’ stories about their dogs, or who seemed to love them a little more than was natural. I’ve become one of them, and it seems the most normal thing in the world to me now.

And so I can’t help but wonder… If my attitude to dogs can change so dramatically, what other sources of joy might I be missing out on or saying no to out of ignorance, fear or prejudice? In what other ways do I box myself in and  limit my experience? “I’m not a dog person”, “I’m not good with numbers”, “I’m terrible at public-speaking”, “I’m not….”(you fill in the blank).

What if the things which make us most afraid and uncomfortable are the very ones which could bring us the most happiness, if only we opened our minds for long enough to allow them to change us?

Thanks Tisha, for showing me that people can – and DO – change.

Try this: What new opportunities, relationships or experiences might you be missing out on because they’re ‘not you’? Start by just noticing which people, situations, or places you tend to avoid, fear or dismiss and – if you’re feeling bold – start approaching them (with baby steps, plenty of patience and a good teacher, if at all possible). 

How Mindfulness can help with the post-holiday blues

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Hands up who loves holidays?!

Yup, me too!

Every moment on holiday feels so precious doesn’t it? Sunsets and stars get watched, food and kisses are savoured, conversations with loved ones expand and deepen. Hours and days are spent having fun, relaxing, resting, exploring, just ‘being’. Every experience just seems so much more vivid and alive…

Away from our usual habits, commitments and distractions time slows down enough to notice and savour all the small pleasures of life that usually just fly by in a blur.

And it’s not just about having the time to notice, there’s also something about being in a different frame of mind. After all, when you’re on holiday you’re actively looking for all the good things because if you’re going to bother booking a holiday, travelling and paying for it all, then you’re sure as hell going to make the best of it!

But holidays have one fatal flaw: they end.

Sooner or later we have to pack up and head home, back to work and our busy, busy lives. So if we only get to go away every now and again (and some of us, maybe never) what does that mean for the rest of the year? That we’re just plodding through our lives waiting for those few precious weeks of bliss?

What if we could feel that alive and awake to our experiences at home too?

I ask ‘what if?’ because it’s a question I’m still living, one I don’t have the answer to yet.

Within a few days of returning from holiday in Cornwall I can already feel my old habits closing in again and it’s so frustrating. Why is it that rather than watching the sunset (which is just as beautiful here as it was in Cornwall) I have instead been sat here watching Netflix for the past two hours? Old habits die hard I suppose…

But I do get glimpses sometimes, a sense that it’s possible to find those moments of beauty and connection at home too, if we don’t let our routines and habits dull us to them.

Like last night, when my partner and I took our beloved dog out for a walk and stopped to sit by the river. We gasped at the exotic turquoise flash of a kingfisher, laughed at the excitable puppy who just couldn’t control her excitement in meeting us, and drooled over juicy blackberries in the hedgerows. These moments of beauty are all around us, even in our ‘normal’, humdrum lives, if we only remember to look…

So this is a note to myself:

You don’t have to wait until your next holiday to experience life’s pleasures.

You just have to slow down for long enough to notice the beauty that’s already here.   

Try this: start training yourself to notice the beauty around you by writing down 10 pleasant experiences you have today.

They could be as small as the warmth of the sun on your skin, the sound of birds singing, a beautiful sky, a delicious cup of tea, the touch of a loved one’s hand. If you can, try to write them down when they happen, while the sensations are still vivid. What do you notice? 

I’ll be doing this practice myself over the next few days and will be back to share some of my experiences soon! Feel free to share your own experiences too.