The play of paper origami has been called a mindful practice. Why? What is mindful about folding paper? And, why is cultivating mindfulness important?
In daily life, human beings largely operate on autopilot. The word autopilot derives from aviation. Here, technology allows for control of an aircraft without constant hands-on attention and effort. When applied to beings, however, autopilot suggests automatic -and therefore, mindless – carrying out of activity. Daily operations happen against a background of mental distraction, rumination and oblivion. The holism of body and mind is fragmented.
Mindfulness puts a full stop to automatic habit. By attending to – and reflecting on – one’s experience of the moment, mindfulness brings about mind-body harmony. By bringing our attention to the here-and-now, mindfulness helps us realize that every moment can be momentous.
Steps to becoming more mindful can be as simple as pausing, taking a breath, and reflecting on the current state of your thoughts, and emotions. But mindfulness also is a set of meditative practices designed to cultivate self-knowledge and wisdom. There’s nothing new about these practices for attuning mind and body. They date back thousands of years to Buddhist- and other Eastern traditions and teachings. While these practices are sophisticated and elegant in many ways, the steps are simple. Usually by assuming a quiet, upright posture and repeating a mantra, a word deriving from Sanskrit, meaning a sacred message or charm. A mantra is a word, phrase or sound that when repeated, focuses the mind-body and transforms consciousness from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary. Like rosary beads, mantras help silence internal noise and open awareness to the present moment.
In the West, mindfulness became a household word through the research of Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and clinic. The book – Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (1991), explains Kabat-Zinn’s popular science to westerners.
Now unless you intend to become an origami artist, paper folding is more play than art. Either way, paper origami stimulates mind-hand operations to solve problems related to complexity and new dimensions. But here, we are working in activity, not residing in stillness and repose. So, why is it considered mindful?
We can resolve this question by considering the interplay between mindfulness and flow. The concept of flow is the brain child of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (MC). Flow is a state of mental focus in which one is completely absorbed in an activity — like dancing, marathon running, watch making, and, of course, paper origami folding.
Think of this state as somewhat akin to being in the zone. When you are in the zone, time seems open-ended. Mental and physical operations seem effortless. Here, one can easily lose the sense of self and become completely immersed in the task, or situation at hand. MC’s book (1990), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is a seminal work on research into the psychology of flow, which he suggests (in this TED talk) is the secret to happiness.
So, mindfulness becomes available both through activity (physical expression) or through prolonged stillness (meditative contemplation). My own experience has been immersed in both – in contemplative meditation and breathing practices, as well as in expressive movement-based practices. Some of these are with me all day, every day, like the Alexander Technique – a mindful means of reducing mental and physical stress in daily living. Others that remain dear to my heart are movement studies – such as ballroom dance and of course, my own inventions in human origami.
Human origami is a flow practice. It is an iterative, recursive process – in essence, fractal. These repeating folds in paper and fabric are beautiful, Escher-like patterns full of mobility. Movers repeatedly enter and re-enter into a fold. They visit – and re-visit these movements through sensory awareness and effortless movement. The iterative process builds on itself, becoming an ongoing feedback loop of sensation and movement. This gives way to an open field of somatic exploration and discovery into the depths of internal bodily experience. Multiple folds emerge, each smaller and smaller – and in the case of the human body, enter deeper and deeper into the core. Also, like- and unlike paper origami, repeated bodily folds are not exactly the same, giving rise to entirely new shapes, pathways and processes that reflect the complexity of natural processes.1
So, human origami shares a number of benefits with mindfulness meditation – at its essence, becoming a witness to the infinite dimension of human depth of thought, bodily sensation and emotion. Phew!
Next up…self-regulation, control processes in nature, science and, of course, in human origami.
Tessellation origami picture from https://origami.me/tessellations/
- Saito, K, Tsukahara A, Okabe Y (2016), Designing of self-deploying origami structures using geometrically misaligned crease patterns. Proceedings of Math Physical and Engineering Science.