Yoniso manasikara (pronounced yo-nee-so mana-see-kan in Thai) means to apply the mind skilfully, or wise reflection. It is thinking in terms of causal relations, such as the consequences of thoughts and actions, or by way of problem-solving, in order to help us to see things as they really are, leading to wiser decisions. Ultimately, it is the conscious use of thought to bring the mind to peace.
Yoniso comes from the Sanskrit yoni, meaning “the womb or origin (place of birth).” Manasikara means “directing the mind or attention.’’ So yoniso manisaka means literally “directing the attention to the core or essence of the matter.” In Buddhist texts, yoniso manisaka is listed among the four “virtues conducive to growth,” These are 1) association with a wise friend (such as a parent or teacher); 2) listening to good teaching; 3) wise reflection; and 4) practicing in accordance with good teaching. As such, yoniso manisaka cultivates mindfulness and full awareness, which, in turn, are the conditions for the arising of ‘Right View,’ or understanding the true nature of the Four Noble Truths and the law of kamma.
Venerable Prayut Payutto writes, ‘Yoniso manasikara directly precedes wisdom. It acts as a link between sati, mindfulness, and panya, wisdom. It is that which guides the stream of thought in such a way that wisdom is able to get down to work and achieve results.’
Venerable Jayasaro explains that there are two aspects to yoniso manasikara. Firstly, it is using the reflective quality of the mind to replace negative mental states with positive ones in order to improve the mind. For parents, this might be encouraging our child who is angry with his friend to write down all his friend’s positive qualities. Or to ask him to imagine his friend when he is happy, such as when they went to the playground together. This helps children replace negative feelings with wholesome thoughts and tolerance.
The second aspect is using the reflective quality of the mind to increase understanding of things as they really are, namely, impermanent (annica), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and not- self, or without intrinsic identity (anatta). Having the ability to see our anger arise and pass is helpful, but it will continue to arise in the future until we begin to understand why it arises, its root cause. Venerable Jayasaro suggests that thinking of anger as an illness helps reduces out resentment towards others, not because of ‘positive thinking’ but because we are seeing it as it really is. If we scratch our new car we tend to get upset, but when our neighbour buys an identical model and scratches his, we feel nothing. We are so attached to this sense of self.
In relation to the other Wise Habits, yoniso manasikara is the action of applying critical thinking to them in order to achieve their ultimate purpose: wisdom. For example, we can help children see the impact of applying viriya (perseverance) without khanti (patience), which invariably results in frustration instead of success. Practising yoniso manasikara will help children to develop a true understanding of right and wrong speech, right and wrong action, right and wrong livelihood, as long as teachers and parents encourage their continuous reflection of causal relations, of solving problems with correct attention to underlying causes. Yoniso manasikara creates chandha (enthusiasm) within children because it helps them to see the benefits of doing tasks which they may initially see as pointless or unpleasant. Helping around the house not only gives a sense of achievement once the job is done, they learn skills, concentration and get physical exercise; it makes mum and dad happy, and ultimately the child herself. Like us, children will begin to understand that they have more patience, perseverance and motivation when they see the value and benefits of what they do.
As humans we learn from experience, but not without being attentive to why things happen. We have to think about it. Was it beneficial or not? Examine it, investigate it, understand what actually happened, and then consider whether we would like it to happen again in the future or not. Experience itself does not guarantee wisdom. Skilful reflection, however, moves us towards a richer and more peaceful way of life.