The crane garland.

28 cranes later: origami and the art of mindfulness

Usually, we mark the passage of time by subtraction, crossing something out. Think of Dantès’ notches on the wall of Château d’If, or putting an “X” in the appropriate calendar box. We measure success of a diet or exercise regimen by the pounds we lost, or the amount of cigarettes we abstain from during our attempts to quit smoking.

But rarely does the passage of time associate with the gain of something — something positive, not pounds or years or that extra bit of cynicism. Over the past few months, I’ve become hypersensitive to the elusive way days, weeks, even months can pass. And what I quickly realized was the universality of this concern, most commonly summarized by the question “Where did the time go?” I saw it on my social media feeds, I heard about it in my yoga classes, read articles on the subject in smart magazines. Some called it “the busy trap,” some just ascribed it to being a “real grown-up,” some said it was inevitable in the present day and age. There are also many different attempts to bring back the ownership of that time, from practicing various forms of meditation to keeping a gratitude jar — all aimed at developing an awareness of the present moment, which is supposed to help us slow down.

I thought a lot of the moments in my life when I was intensely aware of the passage of time, but in the way that each day seemed long, full and memorable. Sadly, what immediately came to mind were trips: family vacations to tropical countries, romantic weekend getaways, or holiday breaks during university. In short, any break from routine with a set end date. I also came to the realization that all of my life, up to a certain moment, had some sort of a finish point. There was the end of high school, the end of a degree, the end of another post-secondary program.

With a full-time job, there is no concrete deadline for any sort of life-changing accomplishment (unless you set one for yourself, of course), so in the process of getting used to the daily grind, you don’t notice yourself hitting the fast-forward button. And I’m not even talking about the TGIF, working for the weekend kind of fast-forward. Sometimes, it’s as simple as eight hours of scarce winter daylight spent inside, and then being too tired to do anything memorable in the remaining five or six waking hours.

It’s the short winter days that inspired me to start this sort of a mindfulness project in February. Being the last winter month and a short one, it seemed perfect for the idea, which was this: I wanted to mark the passage of each day in a unique way, but without any verbal cues. So I decided to make an origami crane for each day in February, 28 cranes in total.

In Japan, it is said that a person who folds a thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish, or will have eternal good luck and a blissful life. I decided to start small, holding only one wish: that taking a couple of minutes each day to fold a bird out of paper will help me harness the time that’s been slipping away from me.

So I took out my supply of origami paper, and put it on my kitchen table next to a bowl where all the cranes were to be collected. I made a point of not differentiating the cranes by colour or documenting which crane corresponded to which day. Every day in February, no matter how exhausted, irritated or busy I was, I tried to make a point of sitting down at the table and folding a crane. I folded cranes while sick; catching a minute before and after yoga classes; folding while waiting for the kettle to boil; during conversations with friends or my partner; sitting down late at night after a few beers.

I have to admit, while I thought of the idea on February 1st, I didn’t actually fold my first crane until the next day. This was a trivial but surprising discovery: no matter how small the task was, and no matter how determined I had been to fulfill my mission, some days the cranes just slipped my mind.

It was the perfect demonstration of a truth I heard once: just because something is simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

While cranes are an indulgent personal improvement project, a lot of other, more important things slip our minds the same way: family birthdays, tax submission deadlines, promises we made to friends… None of these slips happen due to lack of care or significance attached to them — I think it’s just difficult to be mindful without being stressed out by all the things we have to do or remember.

So the minutes it took me to fold a crane became an exercise in mindfulness, creating tangible proof of the passage of time. These twenty-eight paper cranes, that’s my February of 2015. And although I still can’t remember which crane was folded on which day, or which ones were make-up origami for days I skipped, the act of sitting down and being intensely aware of today, and then another today, and then twenty-six more todays helped me reflect on the events of the day and my own state. “You can’t lose time…but you can lose yourself in time” In that reflection, I consciously placed myself in that moment in time, and tried to recognize that the day will pass, for better or worse, and may leave nothing behind but a colorful folded sheet of paper.

What I didn’t anticipate is that the exercise didn’t really stop there.

I couldn’t finish writing about the project when it wrapped up. My crane garlands, daily reminders of this need to stay in the present, hung in the living room. But perhaps the reason the right words didn’t come to me is because I didn’t really learn anything, at least not in a way we think about learning. The mindfulness project helped me confirm something I couldn’t articulate, so the writing stalled.

Instead of confronting the blank page, I thought and read and talked about the future and the past. I learned, through my old journals, that the past has always been attractive to me: as a purer time, an increasingly unreachable luxury of spending time daydreaming of the future. But I never gave much real thought to the future then. The future was some faraway time that was going to happen, where I finish school, start university, get a job, get a career. I think a part of me kind of thought things would just happen, if I wished for them hard enough, and spent more time thinking of all those possibilities instead of working hard to make them happen.

Then, we moved. Among the obvious changes, I think moving disrupted the flow of things in a way that totally erased the smooth narrative of my childhood. I knew people in Canada still finished school, went to university, got jobs, but I had no concrete proof of this happening. So I was constantly looking around me to find evidence of this continuous flow of life; but in the beginning, a lot of that looking resulted in me turning back to grieve my life in Russia, smoothing over any past challenges to make it seem, to myself, truly a paradise lost.

I chose to deal with this regret in two equally inadequate ways: either by isolating myself from the new environment, with its people and experiences; or recklessly throwing myself into this new world, turning everything dear to me into collateral damage for whatever new identity I strived to establish. Those may have been my adolescent versions of living in the moment.

And then, somehow, I got back on that original track that I hadn’t prepared for: graduations, first from high school, then post-secondary; first steps in a career. Each one of those stages had a clearly defined end goal, and it was easy to define the future as “when I get my diploma” or “when I get a job.”

But then you cross those finish lines and suddenly face the realization that this isn’t the end; and what’s more, it’s not even a race. There are no winners, there are no losers, there is no final prize — just you, forced to confront yourself, maybe for the first time in years.

So what did 28 origami cranes teach me about mindfulness? I learned that, before I know how to truly live “in the present,” I need to pinpoint my relationship with the ideas of past and the future, and what made it this way.

Most of all, the cranes taught me that you cannot force an epiphany just because you found a cool gimmick to help you with it.