Like other religious teachings, the Buddha’s teaching originates as a response to the strains at the heart of the human condition. What distinguishes his teaching from other religious approaches to the human condition is the directness, thoroughness, and uncompromising realism with which he looks at these strains. The Buddha does not offer us palliatives that leave the underlying maladies untouched beneath the surface; rather, he traces our existential illness down to its most fundamental causes, so persistent and destructive, and shows us how these can be totally uprooted. However, while the Dhamma will eventually lead to the wisdom that eradicates the causes of suffering, it does not begin there but with observations about the hard facts of everyday experience. Here too its directness, thoroughness, and tough realism are evident. The teaching begins by calling upon us to develop a faculty called yoniso manasikāra, careful attention. The Buddha asks us to stop drifting thoughtlessly through our lives and instead to pay careful attention to simple truths that are everywhere available to us, clamoring for the sustained consideration they deserve.
– from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Introduction to the chapter “The Human Condition” in In the Buddha’s Words published by Wisdom Press
Careful or appropriate attention, yoniso manasikāra in Pali, is a critical skill if we are to understand the elements of experience that make up our lives. Every form of difficulty can be untangled, perceived correctly and responded to wisely, but it all starts with paying the right kind of attention. Careful attention can allow us to see deep into the very roots of our dis-ease with experience, and to frame the situation in such a way that we can take effective action.
The ultimate appropriate attention is to focus on our actual experience through the lens of the Four Truths. This is the opposite of figuring out what we think should be happening; we have to lay aside our expectations and desires and see only what is true. We can ask ourselves: Is this (whatever’s present now in our mind and body) dukkha or is it peace? If it’s dukkha, what’s causing it? What is the internal source of this unease right now? What are we holding on to that’s causing the problem? What are we wishing were not so? We may not find an answer, but we are looking in the right direction. The source of the difficulty is not “out there”, it’s “in here”. Once we see things more clearly by removing our internal obstructions to acceptance, we are better able to address anything outside of ourselves that may need seeing to.
A longer, more thorough exploration of this principle can be found in an essay titled “Untangling the Present” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/untangling.html)
We can only apply appropriate attention to our own experience; it’s not a theory and it’s not generally helpful to instruct others to pay careful attention. This is the starting point for our own reflective processes that slowly loosen the bonds that keep us imprisoned in unhappiness.