As we reflect on the traditional explanation of anicca—how things are impermanent, inconstant, always changing—it is especially useful to also reflect on anicca as a sense of uncertainty, or as Ajahn Chah would say, “It’s not a sure thing.” We tend to deny or gloss over the fact that we don’t know things for sure. We feel uncomfortable with uncertainty or uncomfortable with not knowing something. It can be intimidating. But reflecting on anicca helps bring us back to the awareness of not knowing, of not being certain. We can be aware of the feeling that arises within us when we’re in touch with that uncertainty.
When we are out of touch with our awareness of uncertainty, needless stress and suffering can occur. Take, for instance, the way it feels to express some view that we later learn is wrong. If we ask ourselves what it feels like when we express something that is wrong, we might say that it feels awful, embarrassing, or uncomfortable. But actually that is not really true. At the time that we’re speaking, if we don’t know that we are wrong and there’s no way to discern that what we have said is wrong, then it feels just the same as when we are right, because at that point we think that we are correct and believe that what we have said is true.
As soon as we learn of our mistake, however, we likely will feel embarrassed—but only if, at the time we expressed our view, we hadn’t been open to the real possibility that our view might be wrong in the first place. In other words, if we have lost touch with the fact that, like all views and opinions, “It’s not a sure thing,” then we may likely feel ashamed or uncomfortable. But if we keep this notion of uncertainty with all that we do and say then when we do make a mistake—an honest mistake, based on some assumption rather than a deliberate lie—then it’s not so much of a problem. It’s uncertain, and we don’t need to take it personally, thinking that “I’m such an awful person, I never get it right, I should have known better.” When we hold our thoughts and words with an understanding that anything we say could be incorrect, it tends to hurt a lot less. If we happen to be wrong, then we can shrug our shoulders and say to ourselves, “Oh, is that so? Okay, no problem.”
This is true with the way we relate to our moods as well. They’re often screaming at us, “This is the way it really is!” To save ourselves the needless suffering that comes from believing and acting on our moods, we challenge them by reflecting, “Is this really true? Is it a sure thing that it is unchanging and permanent? Is it trustworthy?” Well, not for sure.
It’s important to investigate and reflect on anicca—to take it in. When we do this, we’re able to apply a true form of wisdom, which doesn’t require knowing a lot of things. This wisdom is the ability to abide in a place of stability, even as we stay aware of and feel the uncertainty of things.
This reflection by Luang Por Pasanno is from the book, Beginning Our Day, Volume One, (ABM pdf) pp. 200-201.