The Potential Of Emptiness

There is a concept in Japanese culture that refers to emptiness, negative space, or nothingness. This concept is called 'Ma'.

Ma is one of the ideas that governs Japanese understanding and expression of space. Japanese conceptions of space and spatiality differ from those of the Western world: their interpretation centres around various concepts that encompass not only space, but also time and human relationships, contrary to the West’s interpretation of space as a place between physical boundaries.

This concept of Ma is normally defined as ‘negative space’ or 'emptiness'. This means a space (or time) that is intentionally left empty, in order to allow the existence of relations and functions between people and things. It imbues a magical unseen potential. Japanese conceptions of space are influenced by Shinto, a spiritual tradition that places almost as much importance on the spaces and relationships between objects and people as it does on the objects themselves; this means that all things are made up of not only themselves, but also the space and relations that they affect.

Traditional Japanese Torii - more space than form

Ma is therefore the literal grey area that allows different people, things, places and experiences to co-exist with less friction between them.

Japanese conceptions of space and spatiality differ from those of the Western world…

The Japanese consider it important to create and maintain spaces of Ma, in order to minimise tension and favour contemplation. To give an example from everyday life, Japanese conversations favour pauses that a Western listener might find uncomfortable. Owing to its importance in Japanese culture, expressions and explorations of Ma appear in both ancient and modern Eastern art and literature.

Ma has been described as a pause in time, an interval or emptiness in space. Ma is the fundamental time and space life needs to grow. If we have no time, if our space is restricted, we cannot grow.

See if you can find a little Ma in your life this week...

References: The Oxford Student – The Oxford Student article

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