The Committee of the Mind
One of the first things you learn about the mind as you get started in meditation is that it has many minds. This is because you have many different ideas about how to satisfy your hungers and find well-being, and many different desires based on those ideas. These ideas boil down to different notions about what constitutes happiness, where it can be found, and what you are as a person: your needs for particular kinds of pleasure, and your abilities to provide those pleasures. Each desire thus acts as a seed for a particular sense of who you are and the world you live in.
The Buddha had a technical term for this sense of self-identity in a particular world of experience: He called it becoming. Take note of this term and the concept behind it, for it’s central to understanding why you cause yourself stress and suffering and what’s involved in learning how to stop.
If the concept seems foreign to you, think of when you’re drifting off to sleep and an image of a place appears in the mind. You enter into the image, lose touch with the world outside, and that’s when you’ve entered the world of a dream. That world of a dream, plus your sense of having entered into it, is a form of becoming.
Once you become sensitive to this process, you’ll see that you engage in it even when you’re awake, and many times in the course of a day. To gain freedom from the stress and suffering it can cause, you’re going to have to examine the many becomings you create in your search for food—the selves spawned by your desires, and the worlds they inhabit—for only when you’ve examined these things thoroughly can you gain release from their limitations.
You’ll find that, in some cases, different desires share common ideas of what happiness is and who you are (such as your desires for establishing a safe and stable family). In others, their ideas conflict (as when your desires for your family conflict with your desires for immediate pleasure regardless of the consequences). Some of your desires relate to the same mental worlds; others to conflicting mental worlds; and still others to mental worlds totally divorced from one another. The same goes for the different senses of “you” inhabiting each of those worlds. Some of your “yous” are in harmony, others are incompatible, and still others are totally unrelated to one another.
So there are many different ideas of “you” in your mind, each with its own agenda. Each of these “yous” is a member of the committee of the mind. This is why the mind is less like a single mind and more like an unruly throng of people: lots of different voices, with lots of different opinions about what you should do.
Some members of the committee are open and honest about the assumptions underlying their central desires. Others are more obscure and devious. This is because each committee member is like a politician, with its own supporters and strategies for satisfying their desires. Some committee members are idealistic and honorable. Others are not. So the mind’s committee is less like a communion of saints planning a charity event, and more like a corrupt city council, with the balance of power constantly shifting between different factions, and many deals being made in back rooms.
One of the purposes of meditation is to bring these dealings out into the open, so that you can bring more order to the committee—so that your desires for happiness work less at cross purposes, and more in harmony as you realize that they don’t always have to be in conflict. Thinking of these desires as a committee also helps you realize that when the practice of meditation goes against some of your desires, it doesn’t go against all of your desires. You’re not being starved. You don’t have to identify with the desires being thwarted through meditation, because you have other, more skillful desires to identify with. The choice is yours. You can also use the more skillful members of the committee to train the less skillful ones so that they stop sabotaging your efforts to find a genuine happiness.
Always remember that genuine happiness is possible, and the mind can train itself to find that happiness. These are probably the most important premises underlying the practice of breath meditation. There are many dimensions to the mind, dimensions often obscured by the squabbling of the committee members and their fixation with fleeting forms of happiness. One of those dimensions is totally unconditioned. In other words, it’s not dependent on conditions at all. It’s not affected by space or time. It’s an experience of total, unalloyed freedom and happiness. This is because it’s free from hunger and from the need to feed.
But even though this dimension is unconditioned, it can be attained by changing the conditions in the mind: developing the skillful members of the committee so that your choices become more and more conducive to genuine happiness.
This is why the path of meditation is called a path: It’s like the path to a mountain. Even though the path doesn’t cause the mountain, and your walking on the path doesn’t cause the mountain, the act of walking along the path can take you to the mountain.
Or you can think of the unconditioned dimension as like the fresh water in salt water. The ordinary mind is like salt water, which makes you sick when you drink it. If you simply let the salt water sit still, the fresh water won’t separate out on its own. You have to make an effort to distill it. The act of distilling doesn’t create fresh water. It simply brings out the fresh water already there, providing you with all the nourishment you need to quench your thirst.