Distractions are everywhere. We’re so often summoned by smartphone notifications, emails and other obligations that sitting still can seem like a fantasy. But research shows that meditating regularly, for even a few minutes a day, can reduce anxiety and help us recognize and interrupt negative thought patterns.
If you’re interested in learning to meditate, you might look for a book. But, with so many options, it’s easy to reach for titles that aren’t meant for beginners, said Sara Lazar, director of the Lazar Lab for Meditation Research at Massachusetts General Hospital. And that is how people “tend to get into trouble,” she said.
So we asked half a dozen meditation experts — teachers, spiritual leaders and scientists — about their favorite beginner-friendly books. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list, but these titles might help you cultivate a practice.
1. “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
This straightforward and accessible guide, written by the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk playfully nicknamed Bhante G, is a favorite among meditation teachers and scientists alike. Written in 1994, the book presents a clear picture of mindfulness and meditation and provides insights on how to begin a practice.
Dr. Jud Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, turned to it repeatedly when he was starting to meditate, and he frequently recommends it to beginners, he said. Another plus: “Mindfulness in Plain English” is available as a free PDF online, making it even more accessible.
2. “Real Happiness: A 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation” by Sharon Salzberg
Ms. Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., has been instrumental in popularizing mindfulness in the United States. (She also provided recommendations for this list.) “Real Happiness,” her 2009 title, has been popular for years, in large part because it’s full of real-world examples that help illustrate the principles behind mindfulness.
“Salzberg’s teaching style and communication style are very sensible, very thoughtful,” said Dr. Lazar.
3. “Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life” by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Several experts recommended works by Dr. Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School who developed mindfulness-based stress reduction. In “Mindfulness for Beginners,” Dr. Kabat-Zinn urges readers to challenge what he calls their “current default setting,” the automatic thoughts and reactions that govern our actions.
4. “The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation” by Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Thien Buddhist monk, activist and teacher and the author of more than 100 books. “The Miracle of Mindfulness,” published in 1975, was written to offer advice to those suffering as a result of the Vietnam War.
Ms. Salzberg recalled reading it early in her meditation years. “Here was somebody actually expressing the beauty and the magic of living with more awareness and more clarity,” she said. “I never really heard it talked about in those terms.”
5. “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body” by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson
This 2017 title was written by Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and science journalist, and Richard Davidson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds. While it does not necessarily offer direct instruction, it’s a great way to learn all of the health benefits that a regular practice offers, said Maya Shankar, a cognitive scientist and host of the podcast “A Slight Change of Plans.”
This book is also useful for “dispelling some common myths” about the science behind meditation, Dr. Shankar said.
6. “How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends With Your Mind” by Pema Chodron
Pema Chodron began studying Tibetan Buddhism in her mid-thirties and became a novice Buddhist nun in 1974. Ms. Salzberg recommended Pema Chodron’s 1996 book “When Things Fall Apart,” which she said “destigmatizes states like anger, fear, sadness, and describes how to use meditation to work with them.” But “How to Meditate” sets beginners up with mindfulness basics without overlooking the obstacles that may emerge during the process.
7. “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
While not a how-to-meditate title, this 2014 memoir speaks directly to skeptics. Mr. Harris’s “aha” moment happened after he had an on-air panic attack on “Good Morning America.” He re-evaluated his life and turned to meditation.
Mr. Harris “tells a very relatable story” of a high-achieving person working toward self-awareness, said Mr. Davidson, one of the authors of “Altered Traits.” It’s an accessible read for anyone beginning their meditation path, he said.
8. “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice” by Shunryu Suzuki
Shunryu Suzuki, often called Suzuki Roshi, was a Zen Buddhist monk who helped popularize Zen in the United States. This book explains the basics — such as posture and breathing — of zazen meditation, practiced in Zen Buddhism, but it should not be considered a step-by-step tutorial. Instead, this short classic, published in 1970, is packed with insightful thoughts about the philosophy behind Zen, making an argument that keeping an open mind is critical, Ms. Salzberg said.
Hope Reese is a journalist who writes for Vox, Shondaland, The Atlantic and other publications.