Mindfulness & The Big City: Ma

Ma: the feeling of empty space.

Ma was one of the first words I learned in Japanese. One syllable, twelve strokes. A single exhale. Easy to pronounce, difficult to understand.

They say that nature abhors a vacuum, so I would like to think I am not the only post-digital revolutionary who has jammed packed my life so full of stimulating ideas, enriching activities, and social connections that not a breath's space of Ma remains. How can empty space be a good thing? Ma produces nothing, consumes nothing, creates nothing? How can Ma be valuable or worthwhile?

Artists whose lives revolve around the creation of beauty and meaning understand the importance of Ma. I came across this concept recently while reading an interview between Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist, and the Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa (Absolutely on Music). Music is composed of both sound and silence, and the accomplished conductor talks about how he mindfully crafts moments of silence in classical music pieces. With his words fresh in my mind, I went to the Cairo Symphony and tried to focus my mind on the expression in the moments of silence, but the notes captured my attention (and then I fell asleep, exhausted from the busyness of my daily life.

Ozawa (left) and Murakami (right)

Ma, or negative space, is critical in visual arts as well. I remember how my Japanese ink painting teacher crafted negative space as easily as he used black ink to create new worlds on rice paper. I will never forget how I once took a painting to him of a winter scene that we had worked on the week before. I had taken the painting to school to show a student. The student expressed his enthusiasm for my work with a wild flourish of his arms that sent a jar of ink flying across the room, ruining the painting. My teacher just smiled and thought for a moment before using the outline of the ink blob to create a snow-covered tree against a night sky.

If it is easy to understand the value of negative space in our aesthetic lives, why is it so hard to for us to leave negative space in our daily lives. Part of the answer may lie in how we are hard-wired as humans. As Homo sapiens we crave new information and stimulation. The desire for novelty, exploration and innovation is perhaps one of our biggest evolutionary advantages. We may not have sharp claws or big teeth, and we don't run very fast, but we maintain an unequivocal place at the top of the food chain.

The problem today stems from our hyper-connected world where the infinite possibility for new information leads to overload. We multi-task, even though research shows clearly that our neural network is wired for serial tasking. Cyber-possibilities enable us to scatter our neural energy so far and wide, that many of us end the day feeling drained and deflated. We are not good at saying when enough is enough, and at some point it becomes almost an addiction. I cannot even stand in line at the supermarket without itching to check my phone, even though I am well aware of research showing heart rate and cortisol levels rise when people check their messages (Alban, 2015).

Why do I do it? When I really look at the role that busyness plays in my life, I see that I am using it to create a sort of numbness. I need to stay in motion to avoid confronting some deeper part of myself. I'm scared of Ma.

Fortunately, I live in a society that rewards busyness. In my social circles, it is cool to be constantly on the move, always aiming to do more, earn more, meet more people, level up more. Even when I went on a yoga and meditation retreat in India to master my wild mind, I found that for the first two weeks I engaged in a hyper-competitive approach to meditation. I was determined to force my body to be still for longer than the others, let my mind wander less than the others, be the first to reach enlightenment (you can imagine my surprise when, at the end of the first week, I peeked). Curiosity got the better of me, and I opened my eyelids just a crack, just enough to see that the teacher and three of the four other students were using the meditation time to fiddle with their smart phones. Even in Himalayas on the shores of the sacred Ganga, Ma is an elusive concept.

I would argue that in our manic modern world, Ma is more important than ever. Ma is the headspace we need to integrate the onslaught of information and stimulation from daily life. Ma is the few breaths when we can feel what it is to be ourselves. Ma is the moment when we can remember the radiant joy of living.

But how do I add Ma do my life? Wawaza writes an excellent article on the little details the Japanese use to add Ma to their daily lives, from the pause at the base of their bow to the arrangement of their houses, You can read it here.

Ma, in Japanese (negative space)

Yet I was not raised in a culture that values emptiness, so I must find little ways that my over-busy Western mind can open up to the Ma in my daily life:

The moment of Ma, before the sun has given birth to the new day, when the first sip of coffee approaches my lips, a cupful of warmth and a promise of a new day.

The glittering silence when one bird has sung, and waits with heavy hope for his mate's reply.

The whisper of the noontime wind, carrying sand from the Sahara from one emptiness to the next.

The bosom of the great Sahara, an ocean of ancient Ma swaddling Cairo in her profound peace.

As I strive to become more mindful in my daily life, I challenge myself to treasure the absences as equal blessings in my life. When are your moments of Ma? Please use the forum below to discuss.