The Best Potato Salad I’ve Ever Made

Ajahn Amaro • July 2005

We often think of insight meditation as something that we do as part of the formal practice. The usual instructions are to take some time to focus and concentrate the mind and when it’s steady, to begin reflecting upon the flow of experience in terms of anicca, dukkha, and anattā—impermanence or uncertainty, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness or things not being self. Luang Por Chah encouraged us to employ these themes of investigation and contemplation, not just on the meditation mat, but also throughout the day, during all of our activities. We can use these themes as constant companions to explore and process our own experience as we relate to the events of the day.

Ajahn Chah particularly emphasized the contemplation of anicca. He would often render the word anicca as uncertainty, rather than impermanence. When we think of things being impermanent it can have a remote or objective quality, whereas uncertainty describes the feeling of the mind and heart when we experience change and transiency. That’s what we perceive—the feeling of uncertainty. We don’t know. It’s not certain because things are changing. It’s not predictable.

This experience is easily accessible in our day-to-day lives, and is extremely useful to remember and sustain as a contemplation. We can understand this with something as simple as drinking a cup of tea prepared by someone else. As we bring the cup up to our mouths, we don’t know how it’s going to taste. There’s that moment of almost palpable uncertainty. Or when we are on our way to perform some task, we might think, I’m now heading up to the workshop to get this particular tool. But if we reflect that finding the tool there is uncertain, then when we get to the workshop and find that in fact the tool isn’t there, it’s not a problem.

Although Ajahn Pasanno is leaving for Sacramento this morning, if we keep the uncertainty reflection in mind, then we can be clear that we don’t really know if he is going to get there. The van driving him might have a burst tire or the drive shaft might snap somewhere along the highway, and then he would spend the day contemplating the heat element in the valley. Not that I wish for that to happen, but I can say to myself, Oh, Ajahn Pasanno is going to Sacramento is he? Is that so? Really? All we can know is that there’s a plan for him to go to Sacramento. There’s a plan to prepare the meal, and there’s a plan to go into town. This much we know, but what will happen is uncertain. Are things really the way we judge them to be? It’s not certain. This is not meant to create doubt and confusion, but the more we perceive each moment as uncertain, the more we see clearly that we don’t know what will happen. We don’t know what the outcome will be. We don’t know if what we’re doing will work or will happen the way we expect.

Similarly, we may judge the people around us and think that they are being greedy, aggressive, or selfish because of something we perceive they are doing. Later we might find out that they weren’t being greedy, aggressive, or selfish—they were actually doing something that was helpful for somebody else. It’s merely my perception, my interpretation of a particular act, my presumption, my guesswork, or what I read into it. When we see our assumptions clearly and find out that we were wrong about someone’s motive, the framework of anicca can provide a quality of spaciousness and freedom for ourselves. The perception of anicca loosens the boundaries and obstructions we continually create through thinking, presumptions, opinions, judgments, expectations, and plans. We can learn to hold material objects, thoughts, feelings, and actions in the context of uncertainty. This judgment is uncertain. This activity is uncertain. When perceiving in this way, the heart is completely ready and open for the changes that can and often do occur.

If things go in a fortunate way, then we feel the pleasure of that. If they go in an unfortunate way, then we feel the painfulness of it. Ajahn Chah would say that clinging to happiness is just as bad as clinging to unhappiness. It’s like trying to take hold of the tail of the snake rather than the head. If things go in a fortunate way, we might be clinging to happiness and say to ourselves, Oh great, now I have it, this is excellent—which means the heart has invested in that happiness. This happiness is like the tail of the snake. Even if we grasp the harmless tail, it’s not very long before the head whips around and bites us. For example, if we’ve been preparing the meal, we might think, Oh great, this is the best potato salad I’ve ever made. It’s really good, I’m really pleased with this. Then someone comes along, takes a mouthful and says, “Is it supposed to taste like this?” The anger or misery we feel is exactly proportional to the degree we had invested our happiness in the potato salad being just right, pleasing, and good. So we can learn to see that judgment as it’s arising and consider, Is the salad truly good? It’s uncertain. That way, we don’t take hold of the snake’s tail. If someone says it’s bad, we can realize that it’s simply their judgment, and the snake’s head doesn’t bite us. We might say to ourselves, That person’s a fool for thinking that. But then we can see that this too is our own judgment. “Good salad” or “bad salad” is just the way we perceive things. It was uncertain to begin with. When we see this clearly, the causes for conflict, confusion, stress, and living a burdened life are no longer generated.