How do I “Clear my mind”?

Ok, this is sort of a trick question. I like the idea of “clearing my mind’ but have never really been able to do it. I mean, I can do it a little bit, but before I know it, I find myself caught up in thoughts again. Is it possible to really clear the mind at all? What are people talking about when they use this term?
Maybe a better way to say this, from a yogic point of view at least, is “how do I increase the volume from the part of my mind that’s clear and centered?” But that’s so complicated! How about “How do I focus on the part of me that’s calm?” Or “How do I pay attention to the calm and centered part of me?”
However we ask the question, understanding the yogic answer to this query means being familiar with the four parts of the mind (as outlined by Swami Rama in Yoga and Psychotherapy).
Manas (Processing mind) – This is the part of the mind that processes information taken in by the senses. The sensory processing mind is clearly located in the brain, as science has identified areas that process sight, smell, taste, touch and sound. This part of the mind is essential for survival in the world! It can have a negative influence on us if we become addicted to sensory pleasures.
Chitta (Memory) – Memories from the past. Some of these are correctly stored memories, and some of these are incorrectly stored memories. In other words, the mind retains it’s own version of memories as colored by our thoughts and opinions and assumptions. Memory helps us retain what we’ve learned, including peoples’ names, and how to make lasagna. Memory can distract us from the present moment when we “show the film” of a given memory or memories over and over and over. If it’s a positive memory it may bring us joy, or may bring us longing for something that is no more. If it’s a negative memory, it may bring us pain or fear long past the event itself has concluded.
Ahamkara (Ego) – I must admit I have only a basic grasp of this part of the mind. Essentially the ego allows us to identify ourselves as individuals. It gives us a perspective that our own health and safety are important and so we need to protect and take care of ourselves. And it helps us recognize which car is ours in the parking lot, and which child is ours at the school pick up. If healthy, the ego keeps us safe and protected and loyal to our family (if appropriate!). If not healthy, the ego can lead us to over value ourselves, making it hard to have harmonious connections with others. Or to undervalue ourselves, with similar results.
Buddhi (Intuition) – The part of us that evaluates a situation and decides on a course of action. Mature discrimination and understanding. This is the part of the mind we are tuning up, or turning up, or paying more attention to, when we practice yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices.
Just learning to distinguish the above parts of our mind helps to center the mind, and have us control what we are paying attention to. Once we notice, for instance, that we keep thinking of the past, or how to better ourselves at the expense of others, we can also notice that those thoughts “come from” the memory (chitta), and the ego (ahamkara) respectively. These parts of our mind our essential to our survival and success! However, when we’re on the mat, or sitting down for a 5-minute meditation, it’s important to notice that the focus is on Buddhi mind, the “deepest” part of the mind. And every time our attention wanders to something else, we notice, identify it, and come back to whatever we’ve chosen to focus on.
While practicing postures the attention is on the physical posture and the breath. While practicing chanting, the attention is on the chant and the meaning of the chant. While meditating the attention is on the object of meditation – a mantra, a kriya, or a visual object.
The more I write about this, the more questions I have, and the more I see the complexity of this topic. This is certainly not a comprehensive overview of the human mind and how it works (!), but a few distinctions to help you direct your mind when that’s what you’re wanting to do.
Most importantly, keep practicing – even a few minutes of yoga, or breathing, or meditation can make a huge difference in refocusing the mind and being on the track you want to be on. Keep starting again. Begin again.