Steve Jobs gestures during a conference in San Francisco on June 6, 2011.
Steve Jobs gestures during a conference in San Francisco on June 6, 2011. Paul Sakuma—AP

How Steve Jobs Trained His Own Brain

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Steve Jobs is one of the two or three greatest icons of high tech, rivaled only by Bill Gates and perhaps Mark Zuckerberg. He's mostly known for his legendary ability to create innovative, groundbreaking products.

What's less known, though, is that Steve Jobs was a pioneer in what was once a rather esoteric "mind technology"--the use of Zen mindfulness meditation to reduce his stress, gain more clarity, and enhance his creativity.

As the Financial Times recently pointed out, Jobs was quite specific about how he went about practicing this "discipline" (as he called it). Biographer Walter Isaacson quotes Jobs as saying:

"If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there's room to hear more subtle things--that's when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before."

What Jobs described in that passage is readily identifiable as a specific type of meditation, usually called "mindfulness," that's taught in Zen Buddhism and its Chinese antecedent, Taoism. When Jobs was talking to Isaacson not long before he died, he had been practicing such meditation for many years.

I know that for certain because, by coincidence, in the early 1990s, I had a brief one-on-one conversation with Jobs about how Zen related to computer programming. (That's a story for another post.)

In any case, it's now clear that Jobs was as far ahead of his time in the technology of the mind as he was in the technology of computers. According to no less an authority than Scientific American, the latest neuroscience research proves that meditation techniques that have been around for thousands of years have beneficial effects on both your mind and your body.

The mind technology of meditation has since gone mainstream. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, companies as diverse as Target, Google, General Mills, and Ford have begun to teach their employees the same kind of mindfulness that Jobs embraced decades ago.

While the idea of corporate-sponsored meditation sessions strikes me as a bit creepy, you don't need corporate sponsorship to get the benefits of mindfulness. I learned mindfulness meditation from world-renowned martial artist Yang, Jwing Ming. From what I can tell from Jobs's description of his meditation, Yang's method is either identical or closely related to Jobs's own practice.

Here how the technique was taught to me as far as I recall it:

  1. Sit cross-legged in a quiet place, preferably on a low pillow to reduce strain on your back. Take deep breaths.
  2. Close your eyes and listen to your inner monologue, the thoughts that spin through your mind all the time: work, home, TV, whatever. Those thoughts are the chattering of your "monkey mind." Don't try to stop it from chattering, at least not yet. Instead just observe how it jumps from thought to thought to thought. Do this for five minutes every day for a week.
  3. After a week, without trying to silence your monkey mind, during the meditation, shift your attention to your "ox mind." Your ox mind is the part of your brain that thinks slowly and quietly. It senses things around you. It doesn't try to assign meaning to anything. It just sees, hears, and feels. Most people only really hear their ox mind when they experience a "breathtaking moment" that temporarily stops the monkey mind from chattering. However, even when your monkey mind is driving you crazy with rush-rush-rush and push-push-push, your ox mind is still there, thinking its slow, deep thoughts.
  4. Once you're feeling more aware of your ox mind, ask it to start quieting your monkey mind down. What worked for me was imagining the monkey mind going to sleep due to the slow walking of the ox as it moves patiently along a road. Don't get upset if your monkey mind keeps waking up. It's a monkey, so it can't help acting like one. However, you'll find that, despite its protests, your monkey mind would rather give it rest and stop making all that tiring and tiresome noise.
  5. As your monkey mind calms down, continue to shift your attention to your ox mind. Each breath will seem to take a long time. You'll feel the air on your skin. You may feel your blood flowing through your body. If you open your eyes, the world will look brand new and even rather strange. A window, for example, becomes just a square thing that full of light. It doesn't need to be opened or closed or cleaned or repaired or anything else. It's just there. You're just there.
  6. While it can take a while to get there, you'll know you're doing the exercise correctly when it seems as if no time has passed at all between when you started the timer and when it goes off. When you succeed at that, gradually increase the amount of time you spend each day. Weirdly, no matter how long you practice, it will seem as if no time has passed.

In my experience, daily practice of mindfulness has three valuable results:

First, it completely eliminates stress. While the stress may return, it's starting from scratch and thus has less chance of snowballing into something unmanageable.

Second, it eliminates insomnia. When I was practicing this regularly, I was able to close my eyes and go to sleep within two or three seconds. That alone is worth the effort, in my view.

Third, and most important, it allows you to think more clearly and more creatively about everything happening in your own life. In my case, I used the sense of calm to extract myself from an unhealthy relationship and a job that made me miserable.

So, while I can't promise that practicing mindfulness will make you as creative as Steve Jobs, I can promise from my own experience that mindfulness will create positive change in your life.

This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article above was originally published at Inc.com.

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