Life is busy. There are people that need our attention, daily tasks to do, dreams and goals to strive for. But no matter how busy and full life gets, it can still feel like something is missing.
What if the ‘missing thing’ is not about having or doing more, but about less? Perhaps what you are missing is Ma.
The Japanese word – Ma – refers to the negative space or interval between objects. This space between or pause is an essential element in Japanese art, architecture, and design. The design of the traditional Japanese tea house is an example of Ma, with its intentional empty spaces creating room for endless possibilities. As is the deliberate pause woven into the end of a respectful Japanese bow.
Ma is represented by the character “間” which means gap, space, or pause. It is a combination of two characters, “門” meaning door and “日” meaning sun. Together they depict a door with sunlight shining through the space around it.
Beyond its minimalist aesthetic appeal, Ma also has a part to play in everyday ways of living. As a counterbalance to Western culture’s relentless emphasis on busyness and productivity, Ma promotes minimalism, quietness, and purposeful pauses.
In a world that is dominated by having and doing more, our lives have become full of clutter, stress and overwhelm. Everything has become important or urgent, so that nothing ever stands out or takes priority. Ma is the pause in conversation that makes words clearer, the silence between musical notes that create the song, and the restful moments that add meaning to life.
Ma allows us to regain equilibrium and find balance in the different aspects of our life. In Japanese culture Ma is essential for peace of mind (heijoshin). It provides permission to take breaks to reflect, rest and recharge. It is a way to embrace silence in conversations, to listen better, to escape the busyness and connect with what matters most.
The challenge is adopting the concept of Ma into cultures where gaps, pauses, silences, and emptiness have often been viewed as flaws rather than a valued way of living.
Being ‘busy’ and doing more is quickly rewarded with a weird form of status that is easy to get addicted to. Like the thumbs up emoji on your social media feed, ultimately it means nothing but in the moment it gives you a warm glow, with a hint of mastery and achievement. Untangling yourself from this way of living is hard to do, despite awareness of the scientific evidence that supports it.
We need a cultural shift. We need workplaces that build Ma into their physical and virtual structures. We need social media platforms that release us from the grasp of the endless scroll. That ease off on their tricks and traps to engage our attention, so we can take a collective pause and decide for ourselves what we want to attend to. We need communities that value hard rest – pause and space – as much as they do hard work – effort and endurance.
We also need a personal shift. We need to intentionally build space, pause and rest into our daily lives. We need to embrace and celebrate those opportunities and see them as the mainstay of a flourishing life, not a lazy luxury.
If you are ready to weave more Ma through your life, then you could start here:
- Take breaks: Allow for pauses in your daily routine to rest and recharge. A tea break, a moment to sit in the garden, a mindful pause, a conversation with your cat. Take longer pauses in your yearly routine, schedule in holidays or work retreats to reflect and refocus.
- Create space: In your home or workspace, try to create more open space by decluttering and simplifying your surroundings. In your daily schedule build in transition time to rest, pause and reflect before moving on to the next thing.
- Embrace silence: In conversations, allow for pauses and silences to emphasise a point or give yourself or others time to reflect and understand. Stop and listen to the world around you, tune-in to the orchestra of everyday sounds.
- Be Mindful. Pay attention to your internal world of thoughts, sensations and emotions. Notice if you need a break from your own mental chatter. Make space for emotions as they ebb and flow through your body, alerting you to life challenges and opportunities.
- Value rest: Rest comes in many forms, the most vital for our health is sleep. Prioritise and take care of your sleep-wake routines, knowing what you need to function optimally. Explore rest in other forms – naps, mediation, time in nature, reading, listening to music – and weave them through your life.
Embracing the concept of Ma can cultivate a greater appreciation for a simpler life with more time for pause, rest and reflection. It opens the door to let stress out, and invite meaning and intentional living back in.