The first step in any spiritual practice is to be clear of your intention. In general, transformational spiritual practice is a discipline engaged with the intention of freeing yourself from the trance of the ego. Thus freed, you experience reality directly rather than having it filtered and distorted by your past conditioning.
One example of this is mindfulness practice wherein we hold the intention to be fully present in every moment. Working with this intention dissolves the ego’s constructed reality which is always based on the past or the future. Another example is in the practice of generosity which will disrupt the ego’s propensity for acquisition and possessivness.
In transformational spiritual practice you are not trying to attain a specific goal; you are not trying to control your experience or make something happen. You are not striving to “find peace” or to “stop thinking” or to “become enlightened.” You simply set an intention and then do your best to live it in each moment.
An intention is not a future goal, it is something that you are doing (or not doing) right now; when you become aware that you’re not doing it, then simply remember your intention and return to it. “I am present in this moment or I am not.” “I am practicing generosity in this moment or I am not.”
The ego’s basic assumption is that happiness lies somewhere in the future and that if we “get it right” then we are guaranteed happiness. This pattern can hijack your spiritual practice. If you feel frustration or self-criticism in your practice then you may have fallen into this ego-trap. If you find yourself striving for a particular experience or goal then simply ask yourself “I am doing the practice in this moment or not?” -- and if not, then let go of the past and the future and return to the practice in this moment.
The skillful question is not “How do I get to X, or get rid of Y” but “What is my intention… and am I living it right now?” It’s virtually inevitable that you will stray from your intention, so being aware of when this happens is an essential part of spiritual practice. Living your intention is always a choice, and only if there is awareness in the present moment do you ever have a choice.
With mindfulness practice the intention is to be aware in each moment and to accept (nonresist) every internal experience that arises. The primary intention is awareness, the secondary intention is acceptance. Inherent in this intention is to notice when you are not aware or when you are not accepting your present moment experience; then remember your intention and return to awareness and acceptance in this moment; and then return to it again, and again, and again….
If you see spiritual practice in terms of goal attainment then you will become frustrated and will eventually give up—and the ego wins another victory. The only way to defeat the ego is not to do battle with it, but to go to the place where it cannot survive: in present moment. Becoming aware in this moment you then return to your practice.