Tag Archives: steve-jobs

RLST Post #4: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Buddhist Mind

When I was in high school, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks visited our campus for a week, bringing with them bags of colored sand and an assortment of brass tools. School administrators marked off an area of the great room with ropes, and provided a large flat board to the monks. Over the next several days, the team of monks created a very large sand mandala using just a few simple tools. The mandala was complex, it was beautiful, and even three-dimensional, tiny spiral stacks of sand grains poking out of the floor, ready to collapse at a breath.

The idea of the mandala was focus and craft – the creation of something beautiful and complex by applying techniques learned over a lifetime. The concentration of the monks was ultimate. Each movement was deliberate and meditated, no pun indented.

The classic Buddhist image of this hack is that thoughts are like clouds passing through a spacious blue sky. All your life, you’ve been convinced that this succession of clouds comprises a stable, enduring identity — a “self.” But Buddhists believe this self this is an illusion that causes unnecessary suffering as you inevitably face change, loss, disease, old age, and death. One aim of practice is to reveal the gaps or discontinuities — the glimpses of blue sky — between the thoughts, so you’re not so taken in by the illusion, but instead learn to identify with the panoramic awareness in which the clouds arise and disappear. — Neurotribes‘ Steve Silberman

Although the appearance of the orange-clad, bald men was interesting, it was the ceremony at the end of the ordeal that fascinated me and changed the way I appraised material possessions: they dumped the entire thing in a lake. The ceremony had little pomp, a ten-minute event in which the monks walked the result of their weeks’ work down to the water, collected some of the sand in plastic baggies to give to onlookers to distribute elsewhere, and dumped the rest in the lake. All of us stood on the sideline, taking pictures.

Beginner’s Mind

I find the picture-taking quite humorous now. The entire point of the ceremony is to demonstrate the fleeting nature of life – the mandala, complex and beautiful, is limited in time no matter what we do. A human, no matter how important, only has a finite amount of time, and will eventually become like the mandala, broken into component parts and recycled.

“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.” –Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech

We were not supposed to take the sand as souvenirs, a practice which attempts to make the moment permanent. Some people did, including myself. The purpose was to spread the sand at a favorite place, and have our own moment of zen. And yet many of us did not get that message. I still have the sand somewhere in my room at home, cluttering the space. The same with pictures. We – the modern Americans – felt that the moment would be lost if we didn’t record it, take something from it. The Buddhist monks were happy to live in the moment, and required nothing from it except practice, experience, and time to meditate.

I reflected on this last year when the Lawrence Gaming Club was trying to decide whether or not to start a new world in Minecraft. Club members had spent hours and hours building extensive houses, mining chests full of resources, interconnecting the continents with a massive rail system. And yet the server was unstable and liable to crash, and people were becoming bored without things to do. Even I was attached to the work I had done, but then I remembered the monks and their mandala. How was it different from the work we had put into the Minecraft world. Both were transient. We wiped the digital world clean and started fresh, which ended up being the right decision.

A sand mandala of our own, by myself, SIB, and Picone

A sand mandala of our own, by myself, SIB, and Picone. The monks gave us the sand for this. Also: Firefox 😀

Also: Apparently there is a comic about Steve Jobs and zen, a preview of which is available online.

RLST Post #3: Be Observant

My homeroom teacher for all of middle school was a man named Mr. Martin. As I remember him, he was of average height and stature, and wore a kind beard. He was the kind of man who had eyes that twinkled when he smiled, and betrayed the depth of his mind. He taught English, History, Math, Shop, and other general life skills to our class of about fifteen.

There are only a few moments I remember from that era of my life as vividly as a lecture he once gave to our class. I don’t recall the purpose of the lecture, but I do remember the message: “Be Observant”.

I bring this up because I add it to the list of things that Steve Jobs’ Commencement Speech invites us to do: Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish, Be Observant.


“Be observant” works on several levels. To me, it means to never stop seeking knowledge. There is no knowledge that is not worth knowing. Learn from everyone. The now-famous calligraphy class is a perfect example of this. Jobs was observant – he knew that even though he was probably never going to become a calligrapher, the class’ knowledge would be worth it someday. And it was. If you are not observant, you will find that when it comes time to connect the dots, you will not have enough dots to connect.

According to the records I’ve read, Jobs was observant: he saw with his senses and his gut. Even if he didn’t know something, he knew how he felt about it and he would tell people that. And so he saw what other people did and emulated it. That is what being observant is.


“I don’t care how it works,” is a phrase I abhor. Learn everything. If you don’t know how something works, ask around. Google. Take it apart and put it back together. I urge everyone to learn how things work. Observe the entrails of your computer. Eviscerate your television. Stick your fingers into the guts of a cell phone.

I cannot pretend that I know everything about electronics. Far from it. But the important thing for me is to never stop learning about them. That is staying hungry. That is being observant.

If I am hungry and observant, I can be foolish – I have the prerequisites to experiment.

An unwillingness to learn will only leave you frustrated. Knowledge is power. Veritas est lux.


Mr. Martin worked as a melon-picker one summer. According to his tale, he hitchhiked around the southwest, and took a job digging up melons with short-handled shovels, which is brutal work – bent over all day in the sun. Even this is knowledge: knowledge of the human capacity, the source of food, the feeling of exhaustion. Knowledge is not only book knowledge, technological knowledge. Jobs trekked around India, knowing the feeling of starvation and disease.

We are the sum of our experiences: never stop seeking new ones out, or you will stagnate:

“If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away. The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, “Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.” And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently. (Steve Jobs, 1985 Playboy Interview)”

So stay observant, and you will learn new things that will help connect the dots later in life. Stay hungry, stay foolish, stay observant.