Fenne Kustermans, art blog, mental mastery practice, staying focused at creative work, www.Fenne.be

Fenne Kustermans, art blog, mental mastery practice, staying focused at creative work, www.Fenne.be

I love chocolate. All chocolate, I thought, until one day I took a bite of an easter egg only to discover a horrendous feeling on my tongue, going all the way up to my ears and there is no escape but waiting until it’s over. I had no clue what was going on but it felt like a million small tingling firecrackers went off, taking over my senses by surprise.
That was my first experience with popping sugar- often described as a fun and joyful sensation. *Error*.

But while I now actively avoid this destroyer of the ultimate chocolate experience, it did had a remarkable resemblance with another feeling that I often find hard to describe. Sometimes my brain feels like popping sugar took over. Some days it’s having too many ideas that rush through my head, screaming at me altogether- like trying to find the oranges at a market while doing dizzy cartwheels. On other days, mostly when I’ve been seeing a lot of people or went to a party or busy place, my body can be super tired but my mind is just full of popping sugar going off.

Unlike the sugar, this overwhelming sensation isn’t so easy to avoid but knowing that I’m sensitive to sensory overload and difficulties with focus, I’ve been trying and practicing different solutions the past decades that help me avoiding the overload and keeping the focus on the ideas that I want to develop further. But, of course, I’m no superhuman and sometimes I forget my practice, get carried away on the rollercoaster of joy and action and pay the price afterward :-). It’s ok. Shit happens. And then I just pull my cart back on track.

Through the years, I’ve noticed that the main concepts behind what works for me are very straightforward: staying true to who I am, practice focus and staying away from junk-stimulation and mindless distractions. When coming across topics about overstimulated senses, I mostly read suggestions like taking downtime, taking a bath surrounded with candles and fluffy stuff like that. While I certainly love a hot and relaxing sauna, warm shower and scented body oils, it’s not enough for me. When my mind takes off, there is nothing hot enough that won’t melt my body first. There is nothing that smells good enough to extinguish the firecrackers in my brain. You won’t get a group of runaway horses back by boiling carrots, right? My key to focus and balance are in daily habits, routines, and practices.

What works for me:
1. Reading books on paper. Yes, I know it’s 2020 by now and digital books are so much lighter and you can even read them in the dark- I love all these features, I really do. But I’ve noticed that in order to surrender to the story or insights, the old way works best. So I curl up under a blanket with my book and a small ruler and pencil at hand. I love underlining interesting ideas, beautiful words or things that I have to look up later (avoiding to start googling right away and get lost in www-space). Feeling and smelling the paper, the weight of the book and seeing your progress by turning the pages makes it more of a 360 degrees experience. Compared to listening to a story or watching a youtube clip, reading is a more active way to take in information. As a reader, you are in control of speeds, re-reading, training the imagination and excluding other external input. Although much shorter than books, reading magazines on specific and interesting topics works well for me too. Some of my favorites are “Pressing matters” which is all about printmakers and their craft (I was featured in issue 9 btw) and “De Stripgids” which is all about comics.

2. Practicing yoga. I’m still looking for the right balance between the joy of having fun flows and challenges and the practice that gives me the best results in the long run which is Ashtanga yoga. When I took my first yoga class, a series of injuries had left me completely disconnected from my body and this type of yoga brought it all back together. Back in Belgium, I had some great teachers which helps a lot to work through challenges and get directions. Here in Sweden, I tried some yoga classes but that was a serious disappointment and I noticed both my strength and focus suffering. So now I practice at home and when not doing the Ashtanga series, I use an app called ALO moves (Cody app before) to learn new skills, find new flows and classes on different subjects in a range from meditation to strength training. I find a lot of the teachers on there annoying Barbie dolls but I can’t get enough of some of my favorites like Dylan Werner, Talia Sutra and Patrick Beach. Whatever I do, I do something every single day.

3. Breathing exercises and meditation. Especially when I don’t do the Ashtanga training, I have to make extra time for this. Meditation can look like such a heavy and important word, something for the masters of a faraway country or all fluff and angels that I feel hesitant to talk about it. I’m certainly not the fluff type and my practice is mostly about returning the mind back to the breath, body-awareness and using the breath to calm the mind and senses. It’s an ongoing and neverending training.

4. Analog art techniques. Again, I’m oldskool, I know. And while I am finally learning some digital illustration techniques, the full experience of creating while hearing, feeling and smelling the materials incomparable with anything else. Making marks takes time, things need to develop or dry, get warm or cold, interact when layering. Mixing colors takes time and practice and there is always time to look back on what you’ve created when you have to clean all the tools 🙂 (especially with printmaking, right haha).

5. Hiking in nature is one of the main reasons why I moved away from Belgium and probably my biggest annoyance when I visit my home country. While I love meeting people and chatting about our dogs or the weather from time to time, sometimes I just need to let go of everything. Just put one foot in front of the other, surrender to the wind and enjoy watching my dogs play. Taking the time away from work in order to feel the elements opens up space for new thoughts. An interesting book all about hiking/walking/… is ‘A philosophy of walking’ by Frederic Gros.

6. Entering the Flow state. Flow, as named by Mihaly, is a specific state of mind like ‘being in the zone’ where you are completely absorbed by an activity that you lose the sense of time and space. A requirement for this activity is some kind of challenge (enough to not be bored, not too much so you don’t give up). For me, this occurs when practicing yoga, drawing and painting, cutting wooden spoons, pottery classes and much more. It’s actually rather addictive but looking at most writings from brain scientists, psychologists and researchers, it seems like one of the healthiest things to be addicted to 😀 :D. I’ve seen it in others when cooking, making something in macramé, drawing, making candles, running or even doing math! It’s certainly not only for creative outlets that require paint or ink. On the contrary, Mihaly has written in great detail about creativity in many different fields like physics and math- things that are often claimed to be the opposite of creativity. In his books “Creativity” he unravels the concept of creativity, the systems behind great work and new discoveries in any field.

As you can see, no shortcuts have been discovered so far but I’ll report back if I do stumble upon something :-). As usual, it takes effort and focus to work on the things that matter.  Even when living in the Swedish countryside I continue my practice because I noticed that even though there isn’t as much distraction in my surroundings, the nature of my mind isn’t changed just by moving. Just avoiding any type of input to your senses won’t help you deal with them and as creatives, I believe we do need to filter inspiration from the world around us.

Feel free to share your take on this, what works for you or what doesn’t.



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