Often when I talk with people about meditation or yoga practice or some other type of spiritual practice, they say things like "Oh I tried that but I couldn't clear my mind like they wanted me to" or "yah I just didn't have the patience; my mind was like 'what am I doing this for?' or 'what's the point of this?"
When I began meditation, I spent years trying to do this very thing; trying to make my mind 'clear' so I could get into some special 'spiritual' place or other. Eventually, I realized this was quite backwards really. By this I mean you don't have to 'clear your, mind' at all to do these types of spiritual practices! Not at all. Rather, these types of practices RESULT in a clearer, less obstructed mind.
So saying you couldn't do meditation because you weren't able to 'clear your mind' like the instructor said or were too bothered by thoughts for it to 'work' is a bit like saying you couldn't take up jogging because you weren't able to run 10 miles with a running group or you couldn't start lifting weights because you couldn't bench press 250 pounds!
Perhaps the best explanation of the essence of meditation and spiritual practice I've come across is also the simplest. It is Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki's comparison of the human mind with its ceaseless thinking to a glass of water with sand floating in it making it cloudy. Master Suzuki says if you try to take a stick and push all the sand to the bottom of the glass to 'make the water clear,' all you will succeed in doing is stirring up more sand. The water gets cloudier; not clearer! So what do you do? Just leave the glass of cloudy water on the table for an hour, come back and presto! All the sand is at the bottom of the glass and the water is clear.
Humans want to DO something; to GET somewhere. We want to push the sand to the bottom and make the water clear, but it seems any action we take to do so just ends up making things cloudier. Meditation and all spiritual practice is like that. There is nothing you need to 'do' and no special 'spiritual' state of mind you need to try hard to achieve.
On the very deepest level this means there is actually no such thing as 'meditation' or 'spiritual practice' since there is nothing really at all to do! Or if you like, everything is meditation and spiritual practice. Our job is just to recognize this; to become aware of it. Indeed, a line from a well-known Buddhist scripture tells us this very thing; 'No attainment with nothing to attain,' reads the Heart Sutra. Or if you prefer, 'Be still and know that I am God," reads a line from another famous book.
In other words; you can allow for or be the space for things to happen, but you cannot try to make things happen; or the opposite of what you would like to happen will happen! The water was clear until the sand got stirred up in the glass and will be clear once again after being left alone for a time. Humans just choose to name our particular methods for 'allowing things to happen' or 'leaving the glass alone,' meditation or spiritual practice. Yoga, Tai Chi, Zen, prayer and other 'spiritual practices' therefore are just some different names for various ways of 'leaving the glass alone;' for cultivating the clarity that is awareness.
So don't worry about being 'spiritual' or 'clearing' your mind! Just follow Master Suzuki's simple advice; leave the glass on the table and come back in ten minutes. Or a half hour. Or an hour. The glass of water may not be crystal clear; not yet. But gradually, after some span of regular practice, it will be less and less cloudy.
A 2016 New York Times article cautions readers that the timeworn mantra "be yourself" (commonly described as 'being authentic') is terrible advice; and that taken literally, such advice can do more harm than good. However this article fundamentally confuses 'being yourself' with being blunt or uninhibited. Telling someone “those pants make you look fat” or “I’ve always hated you” or “you’ve written a terrible article on authenticity” does not mean you are 'being yourself' nor does it make you ‘authentic.’ In fact, more often than not, it makes you what many would consider tactless and insensitive.
So then, what does it truly mean to 'be yourself' or to 'be authentic'? The nature of the ‘authenticity’ mental health professionals strive to cultivate in their patients is the same kind those independently seeking such authenticity by yoga, zen or self-help practices strive for in their own lives and this brand of authenticity is much harder to quantify and study.
It’s the kind where your identity, your overarching sense of who you are, comes not from someone else’s perception of you or indeed from your own perceptions and ideas about yourself (which are in turn, often based upon the notions of others), but rather from the ongoing moment to moment recognition that you are not any particular role you are playing; nor are you any particular perception or idea you or anyone else may have about you.
Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players...” Yes, but moment to moment, do you understand the role you’re playing? Do you understand you are acting?
This means you are not a father, a mother, a teacher, a doctor or a businessman any more than you are a person who enjoys hiking, swimming, dogs, cats or long walks on the beach. You are not a ‘TV watcher’ or a ‘good writer’ or a ‘boat enthusiast.’ You are not ‘pretty’ or ‘fashionable’ or ‘successful’ or ‘dumb’ and so forth.
As you grew up, you may have been told you were some or many of these things; the ‘pretty one’ or the ‘smart one’ or the ‘dumb one’ or talented or untalented or artistic or clumsy. Even now people tell us we are these things all the time. We consider some of these things ‘good’ things to be and some of these ‘bad’ things to be. We may keep the ones we like and discard the ones we don’t.
All of these descriptors, whether we consider them ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ are only labels though, unless you make them more; unless you make them self. Then, like Shakespeare says, you are a player on the stage, but you don’t deeply understand you are only acting.
Sometimes we may choose to energize, consciously or unconsciously, one of these ideas about ourselves depending upon our mood, insecurities, potential for secondary gain, feelings about the people we are currently associating with etc.; play a role, put on a costume. This is okay as long as we understand in that moment none of these roles is ‘authentically’ us. Then we don’t hold on to them as ‘authentic’; as self.
So who are you behind all of these perceptions? Who are you after you cut through the web of everyone else’s perceptions of you and indeed, your own ideas about yourself; which you to some degree fashioned out of everyone else’s perceptions of you along the way?
That’s your authentic self and coming to rest in it, by any means you may see fit, is really the only work any of us here has to do.