Infinite Loop 25: Jobs’ Mysticism and the Mac Mystique

I talked about Jobs’ philosophical background
at Reed College and his trip to India in 1973. We mentioned
that after a semester of taking classes he “dropped
out” as it were and “he hung around campus
for a year, taking classes in philosophy.”  (Quote
from here.)This
installment of Jobs’ philosophical background will focus
on his Mysticism and how we might see it in the products
Apple produces and the methods Steve uses to create

This is a logical gamble. Because Jobs
went to India and sought spiritual Enlightenment in
the seventies, it does not follow that he still adheres
totally to it today. Yet, we all know about his spiritual
leanings. So something seems to have remained since
the seventies trip to India. But just what?

Q: What’s
the coolest stuff you have coming down the product


We have some pretty cool stuff coming, but we
don’t talk about it.


Q: Will
they be computers?


Yes. We’re not going off into la-la land.

Interview with Steve Jobs, May 25,

Even if we put aside biography, there
is another way to look at this essay. We are taking
two things which we all know Jobs takes very seriously,
namely, Apple and his Mysticism, and combining them
to see what happens. As it turns out, some very interesting
connections and conceptual extrapolations follow upon
this method. Just follow along and you’ll see…

But before we begin, we want to address
an issue that came up after the last installment.
Someone said, in an email, that Steve’s temper and
such do not allow us to make reliable statements about
his spiritual leanings. He is no “role model.”
Well, in some ways this is true, but in others it
is not. As a Mac user he is a model of taste (Flower
Power iMacs excluded!). But of course we look to others
for spiritual Enlightenment, and the best ways to
live our lives. Few Mac users have become mystics
just because Jobs subscribes to an eclectic form of
mysticism himself! We do not deny Steve has faults.
In fact, it is one’s faults in the first place which
drive him to seek spiritual direction.

One issue we wish to address is somewhat
of a puzzle, if we may put it like that. It is simply
this: Steve Jobs, from his days at Reed to the present,
seems to have dabbled in different, not altogether
consistent, philosophical and religious traditions.
So can we say there is a consistent view he
has? We think we can say this. The prima facie
case is simply that Jobs does nothing haphazardly;
he is a serious thinker and serious person. Also,
that he takes his views seriously is indicated by
the fact that he has regulated even his diet (he is
a vegetarian) based on certain philosophical grounds.
These are only prima facie grounds, but enough
for us to undertake the current investigation.

This article has four parts. First:
We look at Job’s trip to India and look at who he
went to see as a kind of background, biographical
investigation. What we find is that he seems to borrow
from different traditions. Second: We then try to
tie this within a larger context of what Job’s possible
views about such things might be. We do this by looking
for common elements of the views he has involved himself
in. We discover that he is more of a spiritual person
than a religious person. Third: We apply what we find
to “thinking different” and “thinking
outside the box.” Finally, we look at the Mystic’s
notion of aesthetics and Beauty and apply it to the

The Sixties Background

1973 Steve Jobs and Dan Kottke took off to India. They
went to go see Neem Karoli Baba (pictured to the right).
He was born in Laxshmi Narayan Sharma in the tiny agricultural
village of Akbarpur in central India in 189? and died
in 1973, the year that Jobs and Kottke went to see him.
He was a mystic, of whom it is said, came to know All
at an early age. Many were flocking to see him. How
did they know about him?

Earlier in the sixties, Baba Ram Dass
(a.k.a., R. Alpert) was writing about Neem Karoli
in the US. His book “Be Here Now
was probably what came to Jobs’ and Kottke’s attention.
It is not surprising though, as Mysticism flourished
in the sixties and early seventies, especially in
universities, because it seemed to synch with the
drug culture and LSD experimentation Timothy Leary
was preaching at Harvard and elsewhere. At any rate,
in the sixties and early seventies many Americans
were traveling to India to meet Neem Karoli, as well
as other spiritual guides. Jobs and Kottke are not
special in this way; they were actually swept along
by larger social trends of the times like thousands
of others. Literally thousands dropped what they were
doing and went to India, including the Beatles, to
find ‘Enlightenment’.

Now whether they planned their travels
out well, or whether they were impulsive, seems to
be indicated in that they may have ended up lost,
and Kottke ran out of money in India. And when they
arrived they found that Neem Karoli Baba had died.
At this time they traveled where ever the roads would
take them and, as has been well documented, read and
talked philosophy, most likely Eastern philosophy.
Finally, they split up and Jobs traveled the subcontinent
of India alone for several months. He then went back
to the US and founded Apple with the Woz. (Kottke
was involved in Apple too. In fact, Jobs refused to
give him shares of AAPL just before it went public,
and others, feeling generous, gave Kottke some of
their shares to make up for it. It probably cost Kottke

If sparse evidence from his biography
is any indication (he is very private), Jobs picked
up elements of different kinds of Mysticism as he
went along. Some call him a “Zen” master,
which is a Buddhist school. Even Freiberger and Swaine
in their book “Fire in the Valley: The making
of the personal computer,” titled the section
on Jobs’ trip to India “Blue Boxes, Buddhism
and Breakout.” But reducing Jobs’ possible
world view to a simple Buddhism may be mistaken, even
though Jobs does not discourage the title. You see,
he and Kottke went to see Neem Karoli, but Neem Karoli
was not Buddhist and never taught any Buddhist doctrine.
He was thoroughly a Hindu bhakti mystic in the tradition
of Advaita (monist) Vedanta. Yet Jobs dabbles in Buddhism.
It is also doubtful whether he has renounced completely
what he sought in the seventies, if his current pactices
are any indication. So what’s going on?

Jobs’ Eclectic Mysticism

There are two major divisions
within Buddhism: The Theravadin school and the Mahayana
school, or the Southern and Northern (Asia) Schools.
There is also Vajrayana Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism is also associated with Zen Buddhism.
It incorporates the concept of Dzogchen, a
nondualist, monist view of everything (all is ultimately
One, see below). Now Neem Karoli, as we just said,
was a Hindu bhakti mystic in the tradition of Advaita
Vedanta, which is also a monist (nondualist) school.
So they share a common monism, and this grounds their
mysticism. In other words, we are saying that Jobs
seems to have an eclectic view in which commonalties
between teachings are more important than differences.
He does not seem to be drawn to Hinduism or Buddhism
qua religious schools, but rather is drawn
to each as practices with a common nondualist
view of the world which grounds a kind of Mysticism
Jobs seems to embrace. Got it?

Let us state the point this way: All
religions manifest themselves at two levels, some

1) The propositional/religious level:
Subscribing outwardly to the beliefs, ethics and
morality of the prevailing philosophy, (that is,
religion as a ‘doctrine’ or a (hopefully) consistent
and complete set of beliefs, stated in propositional

2) The practical level: This is a
prescribed way of life one lives presumably based
on the religious level. Here one is devoted to the
spiritual practices of the religion in question.

The point to see is that these levels
are logically distinct.
That is, one can adopt the doctrines without the practices
or the practices without the doctrines in any religion.
We suspect that Jobs has done the latter. Jobs does
not seem to discriminate between the different schools
of Buddhism and Hinduism per se. As one might say,
“I am a Christian” without committing to
Catholicism or any other denomination, so Jobs might
say “I am a Mystic” without prescribing
to any particular school of mysticism other than monist
schools which ground the mysticism he seems to embrace.
This seems to be one of the better ways to make sense
of his history and current practices.

Monism: The Common Element

We have suggested Steve has followed
both Hindu and Buddhist teachings. One point of contac
is monism: The Dzogchen of the Zen school and
the teachings of the Advaita (monist) Vedanta Hindu
school of Neem Karoli. Isolating this seems the best
way to make sense of Jobs’ seeming dabbling with various
religious and spiritual traditions. That is, he may
have found within several traditions one thing which
grounds his mystical, practice-based bent. This one
thing is monism.

What is this monism?
Glad you asked, but we’re not glad to have to answer!
Generally, philosophically, monism is just the view
that ultimately there is one basic kind of reality
(one kind of thing, a single stuff, everything else
comes from). Ultimately, that is to say, “All
is one.” In Eastern traditions this one thing
is called “the Eternal” and is identified
with a Universal Consciousness or the Nature of the
Buddha and so on.

It is this monism which shapes the mystic’s
practices. We mean, for example, if ultimately
all is one then all distinctions ultimately collapse.
(See below.) Because perception does not indicate
monism (it seems to indicate a plurality of things
in the universe), one must continually remind himself,
or bring before his consciousness in some way, the
fact that much of his experience suffers from a systematic
and pervasive error. This practice is called “meditation.”
It leads one away from the ever-changing noise of
his senses and thoughts into a consciousness of consciousness.
Now in all mysticism, the practice of meditation leads
to the same state(s): inner stillness, peace, equipoise.
It is a way of aligning oneself with monism.
Now ultimately the One is some kind of Consciousness,
which is viewed as divine. All things ultimately ‘go
back’ (if you will allow this license) to it. Through
certain mystical and spiritual practices one identifies
(literally) with this One Consciousness. Thus monism
grounds mysticism’s meditative practices.

This monism is the common element of
the various views Jobs has dabbled in, as far as we
can tell, and thus we say that he is best viewed as
a spiritual mystic who does not subscribe to
a religious view at all. He is a much more eclectic
thinker than that. In a word: He has likely grasped
the common mystical ground of various ‘religions’,
and practices a meditation that is grounded in an
eclectic philosophical view of the world. The only
‘religious’ notions he may accept are those which
ground his own mystical bent which is focused on practices.
Thus, it is better to say that Jobs is a ‘spiritual
person rather than a ‘religious‘ person. Ergo:
It may, in fact, be incorrect to call Steve a Buddhist
or a Hindu or a Zen anything; the best label, after
looking at his biography, seems to be “spiritual

Thinking Different & A Thought-Experiment

So how might we think of “Thinking
Different” or “thinking outside the box”
in light of this?

The first point is simple to state but
hard to explain: You never know, through purely rational
means, what Steve is going to do next. Because…

Eastern and Western epistemologies (theories
of knowledge) differ in that Western traditions tend
toward a rational (logical) and Eastern toward a non-rational
(self-evident, intuitive) approach. Mysticism stresses
an inner stillness in which insight does not come
from logic and reason, but a sort of intuition,
an intuition of oneness and the collapse of all distinctions
(based obviously on monism). If inner stillness opens
the portal to a priori (self-evident, foundational
or most basic) insight, then some course of deduction
might diverge from any deduction constrained by Western
. That is, “thinking” collapses and transcends
traditional Western rational categories and logic.
To one still caught up in dualism and pluralism, and
the subject-object distinction, some courses of “deduction”
might seem strange. We shouldn’t think that anything
Jobs does is constrained by any particular (Western)
logic we may have antecedently adopted. This difference
between logics means that we will more than likely
be surprised by what direction Jobs takes any technology.
If Steve Jobs is disciplined
to some form of meditation (Buddhist, Vedanta, etc.)
then we might expect him to lead technology in directions
not constrained by Western “logic.”
rumor sites.

The second point is that “thinking
outside the box” takes on a more cosmological
and metaphysical sense.

Let us set up a thought-experiment,
so as not to assume too much about what Jobs himself
thinks. Imagine a perfect Spiritual Mystic, if you
will. Now what would “thinking outside the box”
mean to such a person? Based on what we just said
it means thinking outside traditional Western categories
and logic in which dualism (e.g., true-false, subject-object)
abounds. Thinking outside the box becomes “thinking”
outside the West’s logical traditions from Aristotle
to Russell and Quine. It means nothing short of trying
to extricate yourself from traditional Western values
and categories. This is a much richer and deeper concept
than is ordinarily associated with this expression.
In fact, since ultimately there isn’t a box or an
“outside” or any of it anymore, in a strict sense
there is no thinking involved either. This takes a
great deal of guts and effort, to say the least (as
Nietzsche pointed out long ago).

The same goes for thinking different
— one thinks differently when he thinks outside
the traditional Western categories. Talk about “different”!
Actually, we can put it better if we say “intuit
different,” or “see different.” But
we cannot really follow this strand of thought without
increasing the length of this essay dramatically,
so we’ll just let you think about it…

Aesthetics: Buddhist and Mac

This intuitive approach to knowing
based on monism has further consequences. We see it
in aesthetics (theories of beauty and art) in important

Consider the classic Buddhist monastery
garden: a quadrangle of meticulously raked sand with
boulders placed in a balanced arrangement. This beauty
is harmonious, austere and objectifies repose, and
inner stillness; it is a reflection of what one tries
to acquire in the meditative state. It all reflects
the goal of the meditative state so as to give it
an occasion. Harmony. Symmetry. Repose. Simplicity.
Kind of sounds like, well, a Mac.

In every biography of Gautama Buddha
there is the story of his most famous sermon in which
he does not speak for some time, then simply holds
up a flower for his chelas to contemplate the meaning
of his sublime action. Being and Beuty are ultimately
the same. Obviously, one cannot prescribe being. Ergo:
Purely speaking, beauty is appreciated,
but not prescribed in
at least the Mystic and Buddhist canon. That is, everything
embodies beauty on some level, as an expression of
divine Consciousness itself, and one must learn to
see it and live in it, as well as produce it. It is
found in striking ways in nature. But it is not prescribed,
for it really can’t be. That’s the nature of beauty
for the Mystic: To prescribe it is to place limits
on it where no limits are applicable (limits assume
distinctions and monism inplies that all distinctions
collapse). To put in a mundane way — to prescribe
it is to ruin it and its appreciation. The moment
we talk about and try to understand it (with traditional,
rational categories) beauty it escapes us. (So we
on the Mac Web talk about it endlessly!)

Steve’s talk of “art and technology”
thus begins to take on a new tone, for he is not thinking
of Beauty as some think about it (he is not thinking
of technology as many think of it). Beauty
is found everywhere in nature; in fact everything
can express and embrace it. Thus,
Mysticism supplies a presupposition for even thinking
that an object like a computer can ever capture beauty
For unlike the West in which terms like “art”
are applied to only certain kinds of products, and
can be found only in certain places, the Mystic’s
assumption is that no such delimiting factors apply.
Thus it makes perfect sense to call a computer “art.”
(This is not to say that the Western tradition lacks
the conceptual tools for saying this, please note.)

That is, when one combines technology
and Mysticism’s aesthetics, technology is transformed
into something more. It becomes, not unlike the Buddhist
garden spoken of above, an occasion for something
that is greater than itself. But it can become such
an ocassion only if it reflects and embodies that
to which it points, namely Beauty resulting in quietude.
If you feel repose and equipoise while at your Mac,
it is no accident. The Mac Mystique?


What we have tried to do is connect
two elements of Steve Jobs’ life which he places great
importance on: Apple and his Mysticism or spiritualism.
We cannot say with complete authority that Jobs has
thought like this, obviously. We are extrapolating
from certain concepts to see what results from their
admixture. But when we do connect the two we find
some very interesting new ways of looking at Apple
and Jobs. That is, it supplies us with yet another
way to try and make sense of those simple machines
and their insanely great properties. And if you think
about it, the Buddha many times answers a question
with only a simple smile, reflecting inner
harmony. A simple smile … hum … sound familiar?
Boot your Mac and take a look.


(This article was written with Dennis
Hill. Dennis has actually taken the trip to India
and made the same journey that Steve has made. He
is a scientist, philosopher, and mystic himself. Our
long discussions about mysticism were the inspiration
for this article, and without him it could not have
been written.)

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