Mindful Advice: Focusing Your Thoughts By Reflecting, Doodling and Crafting

Posted by on Dec 29, 2017

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At a time when we’re unrelentingly distracted by smart phones and viral videos, Irene Smit and Astrid van der Hulst founded Flow magazine, a paper publication that encourages slowing down and reflecting on life’s challenges and victories. Both crafty people — Irene crochets and Astrid draws — they recently published “A Book that Takes its Time,” which encourages readers to be mindful and focus on life’s pleasures. The companion work “A Year of Tiny Pleasures” adapts the thoughtful exercises to a desk calendar. To get better understanding of Irene and Astrid’s work, we sent them a series of questions via email (they’re in the Netherlands) and the answers are insightful for artists or anyone interested in focusing a bit more (which, these days, is likely everyone).

Creative people often try to be open to all sensory stimuli. How does a person remain open to the world while also being mindful and focused?
Being mindful or focused doesn’t mean retreating inside yourself. On the contrary, you open all your senses, allowing yourself to pick up all the things around you instead of living on autopilot. Practitioners of mindfulness often refer to this state as seeing the world with a “beginner’s mind” — in other words, seeing the world anew, like a child. And being open in that way helps the creative process immensely.

Do you think an artist’s approach to mindfulness will be different from someone who isn’t concerned about creative pursuits?
Artists are often more open to new ideas and more accustomed to opening up their senses, so even if an artist doesn’t actively practice mindfulness or hasn’t taken a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, they will likely be able to adapt to it more easily. That said, anyone can benefit from being more mindful, whether they consider their pursuits to be overtly creative or not!

What positive and negative influence can technology have on an artist’s mindfulness?
These sleek little addictive mini-computers in our hands are a problem for many artists — and people in general, we think — primarily because they fill up all of our time so easily. When we are waiting for the train, just waking up in the morning, or waiting for our coffee date to arrive, our phones are always there to entertain us. But when all the bored, staring-out-the-window-just-doing-nothing moments are filled with more information and distraction, there is less room for new ideas to pop up.

How do you think our current culture encourages or discourages people to be in touch with their emotions?
Society places so much emphasis on performance and results that there is little room for process and emotion. In the age of social media, we place a premium on instant gratification, making it hard to find time to accept things as they are and find enjoyment in life’s tiny pleasures. It’s one of the reasons we’ve embraced the joys of paper so wholly in making Flow magazine. Turning a page or peeling a sticker is so much more satisfying than swiping or double-tapping a screen—which is why we created the magazine and “A Book That Takes Its Time” to be celebrations of creativity, imperfection, and life’s little pleasures in both content and form.

What crafts do you two regularly do and how do you think they help you?
Irene likes to crochet, and has taken several courses in silversmithing. She has a dream to one day open a shop with her own handmade products, but hey, that can wait until she is 65! Astrid likes to draw, and attends a women’s craft night in Amsterdam. She recently made a perfect miniature house with lots of very tiny books inside! And, in a way, making Flow magazine and the Flow books is also a sort of craft for us. In every issue of the magazine and in many of the books there are different paper goodies. We are always trying to find new things we can make from paper.

a book that takes its time
In the book, you use crafts such as painting stones as a way of stimulating creativity. How do you think crafts help the mind compared with other hobbies?
Crafting is a way to stop your thoughts, stop analyzing, and get more in touch with your senses. Any hobby can offer a similar distraction from your thoughts. Running, for some, allows that freedom; playing or listening to music works for others, but we do believe that there is a special element to working with our hands that helps us get out of our heads now and then.

Why is it important to recognize beautiful moments: Isn’t that what tweets are for?
Because we are often so focused on doing (or documenting that doing), we hardly take a moment to reflect. Society’s pressure to go bigger and better often leads to stress and dissatisfaction. If you take time to slow down, maybe even stop for a moment, sit, and focus on your breath, then you can experience the beautiful moments that are always there on any given day, but that you don’t always see. We used to feel a bit stressed at the end of the day before going to sleep. Our thoughts were with the things that didn’t go well: deadlines that we missed, remaining tasks on our to-do lists, words that people said to us that were critical …. But we try to approach that time of the day differently now: We try to sum up three things that we liked that day, and often they are the small beautiful moments. And while it can be uplifting to others to share those moments, it’s important to fully recognize them inside yourself first.

In one section of “A Book That Takes It Time” you instruct people to cut and paste pictures or create a scrapbook of images. How do you think scrapbooking helps focus the mind or express ideas?
So often we want to solve a problem by thinking about it. Let’s look at all of our options. How can we change things? What can we do? But we’ve found that there can be solutions that only pop up when we don’t think about it and do something with our hands instead. When you draw or crochet or cut and paste, other parts of your brain get stimulated and that often leads to new solutions to a problem. It feels like there are new doors opened in your head when you create instead of think.

How did you get interested in poetry pictures and how would you compare them to more traditional stickers or scrapbook images?

Poetry pictures are something every woman our age in the Netherlands grew up with. We all had a poetry album, something like a friendship diary now, that we gave to our friends and aunts and uncles, and they wrote a short funny verse in there and pasted these poetry pictures next to it. They were always such lovely little paper goodies with such a variety of themes —sheets with animals, flowers, symbols, and so on— and some even had glitter! We still have our old poetry albums and we never knew it was a specifically Dutch tradition until we tried to translate the article we wrote about it in an English edition of Flow Magazine. It was hard to find a good translation! Thematically, they are very much like stickers, but functionally they are more like scrapbook images — it is of course normal to us for them not to be adhesive, but we found out that they confused readers in other countries because they are used to stickers!
flow magazine interview
Why do you encourage writing down learnings and ideas?
Writing helps us structure our thoughts and give us insights about ourselves. The act of writing something down helps us process and commit to an idea. It also offers some distance, too. It’s funny how many new ideas come up — things that were not so consciously front of mind — when we write something down!

What are the first steps someone needs to take toward being more mindful?
The first thing we recommend is to try to slow down. Take your time. Regularly take a moment to ask yourself: How do I feel? What is my inner weather report? What are my thoughts today? How does my body feel? Is there any tension or anxiety? Do this a few times a day, when you are waiting for your coffee, or when you are washing your hands. Switch off the autopilot and tune in to what is going on inside you. Then focus on your breathing, and after that, try to open your senses: Feel the air, notice the fragrances around you, listen to the birds. This sounds so simple, but it can be a challenge to commit to in daily life. But we think that that’s what needs to be done: Take your time. Life becomes so much nicer when you slow down a bit.

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