Exploring Uncertainty in Daily Life

Ajahn Amaro

Exploring Uncertainty in Daily Life

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 is steady, begin to reflect upon the flow of experience in terms of anicca, dukkha, and anatta—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 to process our own experience when we relate to the events of the day.

Ajahn Chah particularly emphasized the contemplation of anicca. He would often render annica 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 experience and extremely useful to remember and sustain as a contemplation. In the Thai language, this sense of anicca as uncertainty can be translated as “mynair”: it’s not certain. You can do this for something as simple as drinking a cup of prepared tea: you bring it up to your mouth and you don’t know how it’s going to taste. Who made the tea this morning? It was very good by the way. It wasn’t salty, stewed, or fill in the blank. 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 kind of tool.” But if we reflect that “it’s uncertain” then when you get to the workshop and find that the tool isn’t there, you might think: “Oh, I wasn’t walking up to the workshop to get the wrench because the wrench wasn’t there. I was just walking up the hill.”

If we keep the uncertainty reflection in mind, then we might see that we don’t really know if Ajahn Pasanno is going to get to Sacramento. 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: “Oh, Ajahn Pasanno’s going to Sacramento. Is that so? Really?” All we can know is that there’s a plan to go to Sacramento. There’s a plan to prepare the meal, there’s a plan to go into town. This much we know, but what will happen is uncertain. Are things really the way that we judge them to be? It’s not certain. This is not trying to make the mind riddled with 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, and 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 someone is being greedy, aggressive or selfish because of something we perceive they’re doing. Later we might find out that they weren’t being greedy and selfish and they were actually doing something that was helpful for somebody else. It’s just 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 that 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 or this activity is uncertain. When perceiving this way, the heart is completely ready and open for the changes that 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. Clinging to happiness when things go in a fortunate way, saying, “Oh great, now we’ve got it, this is excellent,” means that the heart invests in that happiness. This happiness is like the tail of the snake. The tail doesn’t bite but it’s not very long before the head whips around and bites us. For example, when you’ve been preparing the meal and you 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?” And the rage or misery that we feel is exactly proportional to the degree to which we have invested in the potato salad being just right or finally pleasing and good. So we see that happening and consider that this is a judgment that is arising now. Is it good? It’s uncertain. If someone says it’s bad, we can realize that it’s just their judgment. We might say: “That person’s a fool for thinking that.” But then we can see that this is our own judgment, it’s just the way we perceive things. It was uncertain. When we see this clearly, the causes for conflict, confusion, stress, and living a burdened life are not generated.