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Uncertainty: The Spillway for the Mind

Ajahn Amaro

Throughout the course of any day, there are thousands of different situations either on the grand scale, like someone’s life ending, or on the minuscule level—“Where have I left that hammer? What am I going to make to go with the broccoli? Who is driving the truck up the mountain?” We don’t know. Instead of feeling frustrated because we’re anxious and without a plan, we simply can recognize, “I don’t know where that tool is, what to make with the broccoli, or who is driving. I don’t know what’s going to happen next or if this is going to work. I don’t know.”

We are bringing that quality of not knowing into our attention, rather than trying to get some information so we can know, or feeling frustrated or anxious because we don’t have a plan or haven’t figured out a particular problem. When we reflect on not knowing, we are letting go of our incessant need to ameliorate uncertainty—that refuge we usually take in making sure that everything has a plan, an answer, or some worldly solution.

Ajahn Chah would often say that this reflection on uncertainty is the flag or emblem of the Noble Ones. He would also say it’s like a spillway for a dam. When we build a dam, we need to have a spillway to relieve the pressure and divert the excess water. Ajahn Chah would say, “Uncertainty is the spillway for the mind.” That’s what relieves the pressure in our lives and in our experience of the world.

So remember: It’s uncertain, we don’t know. When the mind makes a judgment, calling this good or bad, right or wrong, we can reflect, “Is it really a good thing? Don’t know. Is it a bad thing? Don’t know.” When we cultivate that reflection on uncertainty from a place of wisdom rather than from a place of self view and anxiety, it can serve as a spillway that relieves the pressure. Right there we can feel the relief in the heart. Often we think, “Oh, this is going to be great. Now I’ll be happy. Everything is going to work out.” When thoughts like that arise, we need to follow them up with wisdom. “How presumptuous to believe I could know that. Of course, I don’t know.” By frequently reflecting in this way, we can learn to stop looking for certainty in that which is intrinsically uncertain. What a relief.

As the day proceeds and we go about our work tasks, bear in mind that we don’t know. Don’t know. …notice how the quality of the mind depends on whether or not we’re seeing uncertainty in relation to whatever judgment or activity is taking place. When we see uncertainty clearly—the uncertain nature of our lives— we directly experience the qualities of relief and ease.

This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from the book, Beginning Our Day, Volume 2, (pdf) pp. 252-254.

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