Origami: Therapeutic Magic

Rosemary Browne

Reprinted from "Social Support" issue of Visions Journal, 2011, 6 (4), p. 19

I have been teaching origami—the Japanese art of folding paper to form objects—for the past nine years. I have studied the art form for 16 years. I fold every day, and when time and circumstances permit, I fold for most of the day.

I became enthralled with origami after a calligraphy workshop where we folded five pieces of paper that, when opened, became a three-dimensional star.

Eight years ago I became ill with depression and anxiety. Right at the onset of my illness I realized origami was having a positive effect. If I was feeling really anxious, doing origami calmed me down. I also noticed that as I began to fold the paper, my ruminating thoughts—those negative, emotion-based thoughts that go round and round in your head—were replaced with focused attention. A sense of pride and accomplishment followed once the model (the created object) was completed. Additionally, giving a model to someone else was a joyful experience. And I felt even more joy when I taught someone how to fold.

I began my weekly volunteer teaching position a year ago at the Daly Pavilion, the psychiatric unit of Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital in Trail, BC. I wanted to share the joyful experience of origami as well as its benefits with the patients there. Origami doesn’t require artistic or creative ability. It’s a gentle art form that exercises the mind and delights the soul.

People don’t readily volunteer on psychiatric units. Through my own journey with mental illness, I knew how the struggle to cope is often compounded by judgment, misunderstanding and stigma. So, committed to ending the stigma of mental illness, I arrived at the Daly armed with paper, passion and personal knowledge of the therapeutic value of origami.

Folding at the Daly

The activity coordinator at the Daly Pavilion first assesses patients to see who is well enough to engage in origami (e.g., whether their behaviour would be appropriate; how medicated they are). She then gives me an overview of the various illnesses and behaviours of the patients who may be attending.

We both understand that the hardest part of our work is “the gathering” of patients to join in, as they are often in a state of mind where initiative and decision-making are paralyzed. However, once they arrive and the sheet of paper is in front of them . . . the magic begins.

The weekly origami session at the Daly is an hour and a half long. Attendance ranges from one to as many as six patients. The activity coordinator is always present during the sessions and acts as my other pair of hands, assisting patients when they have difficulty with a step.

Sharing my experience of how origami helped me to cope with mental illness helps the patients/students feel more at ease and helps to establish trust. I know immobilizing depression; I know chaotic thinking. When I’m asked, “Why do you come?” I reply, “I know origami will help.”

I always begin the class with a simple model to assess each patient’s capabilities. By observing their level of concentration and response to instruction, I increase or decrease the level of difficulty for the subsequent models.

I teach using mainly a visual method: I describe verbally what I’m doing as I demonstrate the folding step-by-step. We finish each and every step together. This creates an awareness of others and a common goal. The models in each session are always completed, so the goal is achieved by all. Sometimes patients are so keen that it’s not unusual to teach up to five models in the hour and a half.

I greatly admire the patients’ courage to engage in the folding, as most who attend are often on sedative medication. Origami works both the left and right brain hemispheres intensely. At times I can visibly see the conflict between the effects of medication and the stimulation to the brain as a result of folding. Origami usually wins the battle because the act of being mindful—the moment-to-moment awareness—overrides the medication and brings clarity to the mind. Origami instantly provides both distraction and focus.

Most of the models we fold would be categorized as low intermediate (LI). This is a wonderful success for first-time folders: completing as many as five LI models. The patients’ sense of joy, mastery and relief from chaotic thinking or despair is clearly visible. Their body language is much different when they leave the session than when they arrived: their heads are held higher as they gather up the beautiful paper objects they themselves have made. For a brief period of time, origami has rescued them from the aimless, bored wandering on the ward—what I call “the Daly shuffle”—and given them purpose.

The origami class is also a non-threatening social setting for the patients. There’s no pressure to talk or socialize. Yet I’ve observed that those who are not confident socially will often begin to engage with others between folding models or in helping others with certain steps of the model. Patients encourage each other. Sometimes they interact through animating action models. Often, conversations continue after the session is over.

Step-by-step instuctions for this orgami butterfly available at www.happyfolding.com/instructions-traditional-butterfly

What’s good for the student is good for the teacher

Teaching origami at the Daly helps me therapeutically, as well as the patients. It gives me purpose and keeps me focused. The benefits of doing origami are somehow multiplied for me through sharing the art form.

The sincere appreciation expressed by the patients for giving them the opportunity “to fold” has been the most rewarding of all my origami teaching experiences. And it’s very gratifying to witness participants’ emotions—sadness, confusion, disillusionment—vanish while we fold. I feel pride and accomplishment in helping ease people’s emotional pain, if only for a little while.

I have seen a patient suffering from schizophrenia with recent paranoid delusions join our group, successfully complete the models, join in conversation and leave with a smile. Oh, the magic of origami!

 
About the author

Rosemary teaches origami in the psychiatric unit of Kootenay Boundary Hospital in Trail. A retired preschool teacher from Victoria, she has taught origami and pine needle basketry at Selkirk College. As a volunteer, Rosemary shares the joy of origami with local brain injury, stroke, seniors, women’s and church groups.

 

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