99u Master Class: Irene Au on Mindfulness Techniques to Make You a Better Creative

Irene Au was a design and user experience leader at Google, Yahoo, and Netscape. She's now a partner at Khosla Ventures, and has been focussing on her yoga instruction in the past few years. She led a session at the 99u Conference to discuss mindfulness mediation techniques for creatives.

Au talked about different methods of mindfulness mediation practice. Mindfulness, in general, is a state of awareness or consciousness of the present moment. Mindfulness mediation comes from the Buddhist practice of controlling the mind, and uses awareness of the present as a form of meditation.

Au talked about benefits of mindfulness practice, including references to scientific research, use in treating psychological issues. Mindfulness practice is also becoming more of a secular, mainstream topic appearing in the media frequently, including a Time Magazine feature on mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn's work on bringing mindfulness meditation to non-Buddhists for its benefits in stress reduction is only one example.

Mindfulness meditation is an element that Au uses in her yoga practice and suggests that we might also be able to practice mindfulness practices to improve our work.

She introduced us to the different techniques of mindfulness mediation. In focussed attention meditation, one can choose to focus attention on one thing. In open monitoring meditation, one may allow the mind to wander and observe without reacting or judging. In both, the focus and awareness of breath and body, bring the mind back to the present.

The audience participated in several mindfulness activities. The first exercise was a warm up. We all practiced yoga breathing with eyes closed, while being aware of our presence in our seats in the room and building. We used counting with our breath to bring awareness back to the room when we wandered.

She pointed out that sitting meditation can help us in daily life in several ways:

  • Enhances single to noise contrast
  • Recover from distraction
  • Improve cognitive capacities (decision making, perspective taking, memory)
  • Emotion stabilization

The second activity was the one that interested me most. Au is a journal writer, and she talked about how she has used journal writing most of her life. I liked the idea of daily journal writing to help get perspective. I once tried morning journaling after starting to read The Artists Way a long time ago, but didn't get through that book, and that sort of journaling felt forced to me. Using journaling to just record and observe the thoughts and activities of the day feels more natural.

The audience was asked to spend several minutes writing in our journals, finishing each of these sentences.

  • When I feel understood, I...
  • When I'm at my best, I...
  • What I really care about is...

Then we spent the next few minutes taking turns telling the person sitting next to us what we wrote about to complete the first sentence. That listener would then take a few minutes to repeat back to the teller what they heard. This was a fantastic exercise in listening, and reminds me of the practice of reflecting back to someone what they hear when expressing needs, something I learned from Marshall Rosenberg's book on Nonviolent Communication.

I think this practice of intently listening to someone and repeating back is something that can be very difficult to become comfortable with, but the reward is invaluable. It is a gift, and is something I highly recommend doing with your partner/spouse or children. We do this in my family, and I can't tell you how much it has helped during difficult times. Doing it in the work day can be very valuable in helping practice empathy and is something that I'm sure a lot of people who do research are already comfortable with. I recommend Rosenberg's book because of this, if you're comfortable getting uncomfortable. It's not easy to use his communication framework, believe me, but it helps to be given a language and framework for doing the work of listening and reflecting.

The final exercise in focussed attention mindfulness involved us each taking a piece of chocolate to fully experience mindfully. We took our time holding, touching, smelling and tasting the chocolate and observing our thoughts during the experience.

Aside from liking the chocolate and the discussion of the emotional and spiritual benefits of mindfulness meditation, I'm really intrigued by the idea of using mindfulness practice to help in your work life. I've dabbled in mindfulness meditation only briefly in my life, introduced to the idea when I was younger and interested in Thich Nhat Hanh's books. I was maybe too restless and unready at that time to meditate, even while walking or washing dishes, and have gravitated to more physical ways to connect mind and body. But I'm finding that the possibilities have changed with everything as I've matured. Sure it took me only a few decades to feel that, but better late than never.

There's a sense of connection in journaling when writing with your own hand that has the same feeling of connectedness I've gotten in occasionally doing yoga in the past and in doing martial arts now. I like that hand writing feels more doable, but I feel like I need something like the structure of those prompts (the starter sentences above) to give me a framework for starting. Motivation is easy, but sustainable practice is hard. Quitting is easy. I like some of the ideas in Austin Kleon's Show Your Work for making yourself capture what you're working on daily. Google tells me a lot of people have come up with these creative writing prompts for inspiration, so I'm also exploring that.

Here are some ideas Au suggested to apply when journaling.

  • Collect list of prompts, randomly pick one daily
  • When a salient emotion occurs, write
  • Begin each day by tapping core values
  • Use as a "brain dump" and clarifier

I suspect that I'll spend some time figuring out how to integrate what I took away from Irene's talk into my daily practice.

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