Paper, bird… Happiness! How to make paper cranes

According to Japanese tradition, creating paper cranes can heal the soul and bring contentment. Meditation teacher Michael James Wong reveals why we should focus on each fold.

Senbazuru is the Japanese custom of folding one thousand paper cranes (sen = one thousand; orizuru = paper crane). Considered the bird of happiness, this mystical and majestic creature was once believed to live for 1,000 years and, according to tradition, if a person were to fold 1,000 paper cranes, they would be granted a single wish that could bring good fortune, long life and happiness.

paper cranes
Getty Images

But that is no small task. Every fold is considered, each crane inspired. Through folding, it is believed that we discover our own path to heal the soul.

My mother taught me how to fold paper. At first, I rushed through the instructions and she would say, ‘Slow down. Don’t think about where you will end up. Just focus on the fold.’ In time, I learned to let go of perfection. Now there are times when the corners are creased or the edges blunted – and other times, a beautiful crane is created. But I’ve learnt, no matter the outcome, it is the time that should be appreciated most.

I am fascinated by how busy life has become and I have asked myself many times, what if we were to slow down? What would be lost and what would be gained? Life, like folding paper, is a journey of many small steps, so take the time to let it unfold gently, whatever shape it may take.

This is the gift of senbazuru: a mindful practice that is about letting go of our expectations and just being in the moment as you fold each crane. Slow down, turn inwards to discover a path to hope, healing and happiness.

5 rules for mindful folding

  1. Create the space to fold
    Take a moment to find a place to prepare, both physically and mentally. Folding paper is a good way to calm your mind, as it is helpful to give yourself just one thing to do. Find a clear surface and ensure there is nothing that may get in the way or distract you.
  2. Use a delicate touch
    This is a necessary quality. When handling people or stressful situations, use the utmost respect and gentleness; when folding paper, do the same.
  3. One fold at a time
    We can easily be tempted to move too fast and look beyond the present moment, so remind yourself to slow down and appreciate one fold at a time.
  4. Commit to your actions
    There is a certain simplicity when you do this. Commitment first happens in the mind, and then follows in the fingers.
  5. Celebrate what unfolds
    Don’t think you can predict the outcome of this or any endeavour. Nor should you feel disappointed if what you create does not match your expectation. So often in life, we become attached to what we think should or could happen, instead of what is happening, and we miss the moment. As you fold, simply enjoy each step and remember that speed plays no part in the journey. This has been the greatest lesson for me in life and in folding paper.

This is an edited extract taken from Senbazuru by Michael James Wong, published by Michael Joseph, price £12.99*. Michael is founder of the Just Breathe meditation app, @justbreathe; justbreatheproject.com.

How to make a paper crane

Any paper will do, but ensure it is a perfect square. Try paper that is coloured on one side. In Japan each colour has a meaning: red – desire, love; pink – friendship, tenderness; yellow – freedom, joy; green – healing; blue – trust, faith.

Step 1: The Diagonal Fold

paper crane step 1
Niki Priest

Fold the paper with the coloured side facing upwards. Fold up corner C to A, undo the fold and then fold again from D to B. Move slowly. The aim is not perfection, but intention, so fold meaningfully. Ensure that the edges are sharp, then unfold the paper and lay it flat on the table.

Step 2: The Book Fold

paper crane step 2
Niki Priest

Turn the paper over so that the coloured side faces down. Fold the left-hand side of the paper over to the right. Then turn the paper 90 degrees and fold again. Reopen the paper and return the sheet to the original square shape. The coloured side of the paper should again be face down.

Step 3: The Sandwich Fold

paper crane step 3
Niki Priest

Position the paper like a diamond, take the corners of B and D between the thumb and first finger and pull them inwards towards the bottom (C). Now fold top point A down to C, like closing the lid on a hatch. As you press down, run your fingers along the edges of the new folds to ensure the shape sits flat.

Step 4: The Kite Fold

paper crane step 4
Niki Priest

Your paper will now be a smaller diamond. Fold the long edge between corners B and C towards the vertical central line so that the edge lines up with the middle of the shape. Repeat this fold with the adjacent top flap (corner D in the picture). Once you have completed the top-side folds, flip the crane over and repeat them with the corners on the bottom side. Your paper should now be a kite shape.

Step 5: The Triangle Fold

paper crane step 5
Niki Priest

Open the top flaps of the kite on one side: this will return one side of your shape to a diamond. Fold down the top corner of the kite towards the centre of the diamond. Once aligned, run your fingers along the crease, then unfold it. Flip the crane over and repeat on the back side to ensure that the triangle is folded both ways. Return outer corners B and D to the centre on both sides, resuming the kite shape.

Step 6: The Seashell Fold

paper crane step 6
Niki Priest

Start by unfolding the flaps of the kite and open back into the diamond-square shape. Do this one side at a time. Lift the bottom corner of the top folded layer (C), revealing the belly of the fold. At the centre of the belly will be the strong crease that you made in step 5. Press a finger along this inside crease to firm the centre of the fold. You should start to see the shape of the seashell forming in front of you. Fold the outer corners of the seashell towards the midline of the shape, inverting folds, ie, creating reverse folds with creases that were first folded in the opposite direction. Move each outer corner towards the centre of the seashell, creating a new outer edge.

Step 7: The Diamond Fold

paper crane step 7
Niki Priest

Flip your crane over and lift the bottom point (C) up to reveal the belly of the crane once again. Press the outer corners together, one at a time, and trace the long edges of the seashell to sharpen and finish the fold.

Step 8: The Feather of Hope

paper crane step 8
Niki Priest

Take the top layer of the lower right-side flap and fold the long edge of the paper diagonally inwards towards the vertical centre line of the shape so that the edges align in the middle: measure twice, fold once. Once you are happy with this first flap, repeat the second flap, folding the bottom left side inwards to the centre line. This should complete the top side of the shape. Flip your crane over and repeat the steps from the front side.

Step 9: The Chopstick Fold

paper crane step 9
Niki Priest

This is where we begin to see our crane come to life. Holding the base, with your other hand press thumb and first finger together at the corner of the diamond (B) and gently run them down the long edge. Go slowly and you will feel where the paper goes from three-layered folds to two – about a third of the way down. When you feel this spot, press firmly.

Flip your fingers so your thumb is on the underside of the paper and your index finger is on top. Create a gentle crease as you begin to fold the first chopstick upwards at a diagonal. Once you have done the first side, turn your crane over and repeat the step for the second chopstick. This is the fold that creates the crane’s personality: the wider the angle the deeper your crane will bow; the narrower the angle the more inspired it will stand.

Step 10: The Crown Fold

paper crane step 10
Niki Priest

Unfold the chopstick leg back to a straight position and spread the top and bottom layers of the flaps. Slide your first finger behind the top part of the leg until fingers meet on opposite sides of the same paper leg. Fold the leg outwards, revealing the crease that was folded in step 9. Seal the fold by closing the outer flaps back into their original position, running your fingers along both sides of the crane’s neck. Repeat with the second leg.

Step 11: The Wisdom Fold

paper crane step 11
Niki Priest

Run your thumb up the crease of the neck to create some space between the fold. Measure with your thumb around a quarter of the way from the top of the neck and place your first finger on the back of the inverted fold. Pinch gently and fold downwards to create the shape of the crane’s head and crown – you will need to invert the crease to create a pronounced shape for the head.

Step 12: The Final Fold

paper crane step 12
Niki Priest

To fold down the wings, hold the base of the crane in one hand while the thumb and first finger of your other hand trace down the top wing. As your index finger finds the base of the inside wing, this is the point where you create the fold. Gently turn the fold down and use your thumbs to crease it firmly. When you are ready, flip the crane over and fold the remaining wing down to match the wing from the first side. This is the first flap of the wings as the crane prepares to fly. This is the crane’s new beginning.

Turn the crane to face forward so it can look to the future, hold the tip of each wing and very gently spread the wings apart. This final step will breathe life into the body of the bird and gift your crane the spark of life.

*To order a copy for £11.56 until 14 June go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.