Religion » Buddhism

A Meditation Expert’s Favorite Books

recommended by Andy Puddicombe

Interview by Cal Flyn

From Japanese poetry to Tibetan philosophy, meditation and mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe talks to us about his favorite books, why he co-founded the hit app Headspace, and how we could all benefit by bringing more mindfulness and purpose into our lives.

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Andy Puddicombe

Andy Puddicombe is the co-founder of Headspace, a popular app that teaches simple, 10-minute meditation techniques. Puddicombe began learning to meditate at the age of 11, and traveled to Asia in his early twenties to become a fully ordained Buddhist monk at a Tibetan monastery in the Indian Himalayas.

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Let me start with a simple question: What is meditation?

When we talk about meditation, I think it’s really helpful to see it alongside mindfulness. The two things are different, but at the same time we can’t really separate them.

Mindfulness, the way I was taught, is the quality of being present. So: not distracted, being in the moment, moment to moment, no matter where we are in our life or what we’re doing. But it’s really hard to be more mindful in life, so we need an exercise where we remove ourselves from the busyness of life, from the distractions in life, where we can actually train and familiarize ourselves in that quality of mindfulness. That’s what meditation is. We just take ourselves away from everyday activity for three, five, ten minutes or however long, and become more familiar and confident in being present.

You were ordained as a Buddhist monk around 20 years ago. But, since then, you’ve returned to lay life, co-founded the meditation app Headspace, and published three books on the subject. My point is, you must be extremely busy. How do you fit meditation into your daily routine?

Yes, life is very full. Although, actually, having a family and young children has been more of a shock to my levels of busyness than work or books or anything like that.

When you train in the monastery, or train in meditation for that length of time, the idea is always that you are training in mindfulness to take back to your life. It’s not that you’re training to become really good at sitting with your eyes closed—that is never the intention.

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So in that sense, all of that training . . . it’s not like I left it behind in the monastery—it’s come with me. The mind that I had in the monastery is the same mind that I have now; there’s just more to work with. But definitely having a regular daily practice of meditation is a really important part of maintaining that stability of awareness.

And having some kind of connection with the tradition and the lineage in which I trained—so, still being in touch with my teachers, and reading some of the books that we’re going to talk about today—I find really helpful. It’s not that in reading a book all the difficulties in life will go away immediately, but it helps me to frame those situations, and to get a sense of perspective. So that’s my relationship with meditation now.

When you put together this list you described the books as ‘old favorites.’ It includes translations of ancient texts, like the 8th-century Bodhicaryāvatāra. Do you think it’s necessary for those who meditate to have a strong grounding in the philosophy behind the teachings?

I don’t think it’s essential at all. I think the most important thing is that people find something they can relate to, and something that they can trust. For me, that trust comes from authenticity; it comes from lineage; it comes from tradition. In delivering these tools on a daily basis, I feel it’s really important to be in touch with that, so that people in turn can have genuine confidence in their practice.

Then the second part of my role, I guess, is to make it accessible. If you look a lot of these books, some are commentaries on texts that if you look at the original text, there’s no way my mates down at the pub back in England are ever going to be looking at those texts, no matter how much I rave about them. There’s a very good chance that they’re not even going to be up for reading the commentary either, so how do we take the essence of something incredibly valuable—and I think often very beautiful—and make it accessible and feel down to earth without losing any of that essence?

My job in many ways hasn’t changed from being a monk. As a monk, it was to deliver those teachings and those techniques in an authentic, understandable way. I’m still teaching, but I guess the only thing that changed is that I present them in a secular context.

Perhaps we should talk about your first recommendation: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryū Suzuki. This is a series of informal talks from the monk and teacher who popularized Zen Buddhism in the West. Why do you recommend it?

It’s genius. I really think it’s one of the best books on the planet. I mean, I’m not the most widely read person, so take that with a pinch of salt, but I really do. When you go into retreat—long-term retreat, a year or more—you’re not normally allowed to take books in with you. Occasionally, though, some teachers will let you to take a few books. I was told by my teacher—even though it was a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and this is teachings from a Zen master—he said: “If you take just one book in with you for the year, take this book.” So that’s quite an endorsement, you know. It says a lot for the book.

It’s about meditation, but it’s bigger than that: it’s about life. And he talks a lot about ‘big mind’ and ‘small mind,’ small mind being our intellectual/thinking mind, which is very important. It’s the mind of relativity; the relative mind, the dualistic mind. But he also talks about this ability to fall back and rest in ‘big mind’, or awareness, and to see life with a different perspective and approach it.

“Every time I read it, it still has the effect of pulling me out of everyday life, and making me see the world in a very different way”

So, meditation is a technique, and there are lots of different techniques. But actually, the technique is not really the important thing, although most people think it is. It’s actually how you approach the technique. This is what Suzuki Roshi focuses on. And this is true for so many things in our life: it’s often not about the things that happen; it’s about how we’re relating to them.

It’s amazing. You don’t have to read the whole book—you can just read one of the chapters, which are only four or five pages long. Every time I read it, even now when I reckon I’ve read it more than 40 or 50 times, it still has the effect of pulling me out of everyday thinking, out of everyday life, and making me see the world in a very different way. I have no idea how he does it: he’s transcended religion, transcended tradition, transcended mind itself. And therefore he’s able to deliver it in a way that anybody can relate to.

When he says ‘beginner’s mind’—what’s he getting at? Does he mean this book is for a meditation novice?

It’s a book for anybody. Regardless of whether they have an interest in meditation, as it’s about more than that. It’s about life.

But that whole idea of a ‘beginner’s mind’ is an important part of the meditation journey for sure: it’s very easy to assume that if we’re sitting down and doing the same thing—sitting in the same position with our eyes closed each day, to fall into a routine or habit, because we’re trying to replicate an experience. But if we look more closely, we see the mind is always changing.

Like watching the weather.

Different people, different places in our mind; different thoughts, different sensations. So, maintaining that sort of interesting, curious, open mind—or as he prefers it, ‘beginner’s mind,’ is a really important part of the practice.

Well, thank you. The second book we’re discussing is very different. This is The Life of Milarepa, a classic Tibetan text dating from the 15th century, as translated by Lobsang Lhalungpa.

This definitely isn’t a casual read for someone with no interest in meditation or Tibetan Buddhism. But in the same way that my teacher recommended Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind as my one book to take with me, this book was the one title we were told to read before we went into retreat.

The reason for that is that this book is a rallying call for giving up life as we know it and transforming the conditioned mind. The fact that I read it, shaved all my hair off, ordained as a Buddhist monk and went into retreat at a monastery is a good indication of how it made me feel.

I’m not suggesting that if you read it, that’s what will happen! That’ll put people off from reading it. But there’s something just incredibly motivating about reading how somebody from an ordinary life could make this transition, make a decision that they weren’t happy in their life as it was. He realized that simply changing things around in his everyday life wasn’t going to make the difference. He needed something more to find fulfilment and contentment in life.

“Even though we’ve chosen a path of simplicity and renunciation, it’s still really difficult”

That journey is really challenging. It’s not straightforward. There will be just as many challenges on that journey as there are in everyday life. Even though we’ve chosen to go on a path of simplicity and renunciation, it’s still really difficult. But in the end, if you follow the story through, there is something incredible that each and every one of us can find in ourselves. But we have to go on a journey to realize that it was always there, always here, all along.

One thing that I’ve heard people say about this book is that it’s particularly moving because Milarepa was not born enlightened—as, for example, the Dalai Lama was said to be—and in that way, it’s relatable. Do you agree?

Yeah, I would share that sentiment. Well, in no way could I relate to the divine quality that he obtained at the end, but I can very much relate to his mischievousness at the start of the book. He was just an ordinary guy, you know—challenged and not always making the best decisions. But in all of us there is this quality that can be discovered, a mind that can be transcended and transformed, and I felt in reading this story, well, if he could do it, then maybe, even if it was remote, there was the possibility that I could, too. So I found it very relatable, but also very moving as a story.

Absolutely. Let’s move on to Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Again, this is a book based on a series of lectures, this time from Chögyam Trungpa—a charismatic former monk who became well known in the 1960s and 1970s for an unorthodox approach to spirituality he dubbed ‘crazy wisdom’.

Yeah, Chögyam Trungpa was obviously quite a controversial figure. But he taught in a way that was quite revolutionary at the time. I think within any religion or philosophy, generally people had always spoken in a serious way, a dry way. Trungpa cut through all of that. He would say it as it is, he would call people out and say, ‘that’s a load of nonsense.’ I like that. I think it was very bold, it was very brave, it reflected a new time and the spirit of the sixties, the seventies: something different was happening.

I also felt he was calling out probably the biggest trap in the journey of self-discovery, that of spiritual materialism. Although it’s easy to say in the West that everything is great in the East . . . It’s not like that. But I do feel like in the West, as many of these traditions have come in, as they’ve landed and people have adopted them, it’s had less to do with going on a journey, giving up identity, and transforming the mind, and more to do with, ‘Oh, this looks nice, this is a bit different.’

So, this phrase, ‘spiritual materialism,’ is getting at the way people can get into spirituality for the wrong reasons—narcissism, say, or aesthetics. He warns that this is ego-driven practice, and notes: “Whenever teachings come to a country from abroad the problem of spiritual materialism is intensified.” I suppose because it’s easier to engage with a practice like meditation faddishly, or for superficial reasons.

You hear people say things like: ‘Oh, he’s a spiritual person,’ or ‘she’s spiritual’—but I don’t even know what that means. If we meditate in order to let go of labels, to let go of identity, the last thing we want to do is take on another label: of being ‘spiritual.’ We’re looking to let go of that kind of judgment.

It’s not about becoming—it’s actually about stripping back, letting go of, and simply being. We can call it spiritual, but ultimately it’s about being present. It’s about being open, curious, kind, compassionate. If we do that, it doesn’t really matter what we call it, as long as we’re living that life. I feel like he gets to that point in a way that I haven’t seen, still to this day, in any other book.

Maybe this comes back to something you said earlier about the secular approach to meditation. Do you still draw from your Buddhist religion, or do you now see it as something that runs separately, even in parallel, to your own work in popularising meditation?

I actually don’t see them as separate. All of the teachings that I was fortunate enough to study in the past or study now, there’s no longer an idea of separation. I’m not sure why, but over time, it has become less thought-through, and more spontaneous.

But I do feel that Trungpa was unusual in that way, that he had come from a deep tradition, in that he’d been a Buddhist monk for a long time, yet he was presenting it in quite a secular way. He wasn’t talking in the way Tibetan Buddhist masters have talked in the past. He was a little bit like, ‘I’m a regular guy, just living in the world.’ That was a real shift.

Absolutely. Well, your next choice moves back in time to a more traditional text: this is Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, an epic philosophical poem written by a Buddhist scholar in the 8th century. The legend goes that he was a student monk resented for his apparent laziness—but when he was challenged, he recited this remarkable work, and as he did so, he began to levitate before disappearing into the sky . . .

Śāntideva’s is a really interesting book. It’s so lofty, so aspirational, although there is some commentary in there; in some ways the traditional text is quite dry. But it’s so rich in terms of its intention; I feel really attracted to it, and like it sets a goal and a direction in life.

In no way am I suggesting that I am living his ideals, moment to moment, day to day. I wish that I were that transformed. But I think there’s something really healthy about having a sense of direction in life. You know, just knowing where we’re going.

Whether we think about it in terms of purpose or fulfilment, there’s the day-to-day kind of living, but also the where-we’re-going kind of living. I don’t see where we are going as a physical place, or a place in our career, or in our family, or anything like that. For me, it’s in our sense of purpose or intention, and I feel like that text, well, if we were to have a north star, that’s a really beautiful north star to have.

How would you suggest someone approach this book? Can I read it in one go? Or is it more like approaching a book like the Bible?

Whatever you do, don’t sit down and try and read the book cover to cover. It’s not designed in that way. The instructions themselves are normally split up into four or five lines of text. The first time I read it, I read the commentary at the start. Then I tried to read a page or two a day.

It might be I would only read four lines of text. Not even full page lines either, they’re what—10, 20 words? But for me, that is the purpose of the book. It probably took about a year to read it the first time, and once I found something that stood out, I would put a little mark by the side of that passage. I’m not a big believer in writing in books normally, I just don’t do that, but this is one book where I would so I could go back to it later.

The purpose is not to read cover to cover; the purpose is to find out what is the essence you need in that moment that’s going help you live a happier, healthier life, and in turn to help others lead a healthier and happier life. And that’s enough. I still use the book in that way.

Finally, let’s talk about One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan. Ryōkan died in 1831 after living as a recluse for much of his life. Why do you love this book?

I’m not really into poetry. I haven’t had loads of exposure to that in the past. But when I was a monk, my mum really struggled to know what to buy me on birthdays and at Christmastime, because monks are not really—well, you can receive a gift, but you’re not really supposed to keep it unless it’s related to one’s training.

That was always really hard for my mum. So, I went home to visit one Christmas, and she thought this was the one thing she could buy me that I wouldn’t give away, and I would be allowed to keep in my room. I read it, and it had such an impact on me.

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To this day, I’m still not too sure why. But I have a sense. I felt like what he was expressing was my experience of living in the monastery. Most of his poetry is about living in a home that’s up in the hills, away from everybody else, an incredibly simple life. Really, it’s just a commentary on the passing experience of life; on impermanence and everything changing.

I think in everyday life it’s very difficult to see that, because we are so busy. But when you’re away like that, you see the leaves changing colour on the trees, those things that perhaps feel very ordinary if we have lots going on in our life, but in that context, they’re everything. This is life, happening all around us. So I felt that in those simple haiku in that book, he just captures a moment, that, for me, reflected a very similar experience at that time.

I think many people find the idea of life as a hermit monk very moving—even if they’re not ready to commit to that themselves. What do you think a meditation retreat, however long, can bring to your life?

I’m a little biased. But I’m a huge believer in taking retreats. I think retreats can take many forms. You definitely don’t need to become a monk or a nun, you definitely don’t need to go to live alone in the mountains, but I do think that retreating into nature can be a really helpful shift for both body and mind. When most people go into nature, we let go of some of the tension. Our body and mind tend to quiet down. There’s less distraction, so we tend feel a bit calmer, more at ease.

For people considering a more meditative-type retreat, I always say—because it was recommended to me in this way—dip your toes in the water before jumping into the deep end of the pool. Rather than saying, ‘Right, I’m going to do a 10-day, or a month-long, retreat,’ try a weekend. And see how the weekend goes. Make sure there’s a teacher there who’s very supportive, who understands that you’re new, and that you haven’t done this before. You can then build it up from there.

That can really begin a journey of a lifetime. A journey of not only better understanding our own minds, but of better understanding the human condition. If we better understand the human condition, out of that arises empathy, and out of that arises compassion. As a consequence, we tend to live in the world in a more harmonious and peaceful way.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Andy Puddicombe

Andy Puddicombe is the co-founder of Headspace, a popular app that teaches simple, 10-minute meditation techniques. Puddicombe began learning to meditate at the age of 11, and traveled to Asia in his early twenties to become a fully ordained Buddhist monk at a Tibetan monastery in the Indian Himalayas.