When stress threatened to crash my career and pull me down into darkness, I fled to Paris. There, I set up temporary home in an apartment set in a silent cobbled passageway leading off the Rue de Foubourg-St Antoinne. The long casement windows looked out over a roof garden, it’s greenery flowing untamed. A set of heavy wooden doors sealed the passage way from the traffic flowing from the frenetic Bastille roundabout. There, perched on a high stool at an Ikea kitchen island, I took a phone call that taught me how to redesign my life to contain space to breath. Space to think. Space to live. It was there that I discovered ‘ma’.
‘Ma’ is the Japanese idea that the space between things is as equally important as the things themselves. So, the beauty of a ceramic vessel lies in the space inside that makes it useful. Calligraphy is as much about the space around the sumi inked brush strokes as the lettering itself. Tiny pauses between the notes make the music. It’s not minimalism, which focuses on a taking away, so much as the deliberate creating of space with a purpose. It is linked to how we relate to the things around us.
Ma is about creating moments of awareness and quiet. Spaces for us to reconcile differences, to reflect, contemplate and be still. It is not so much about emptiness as the fact that the space holds room, deliberately designed for experience and interpretation.
The call was a coaching session. I needed help finding my way back to creativity, to imagination, to the joy of expression. “What do you have right now?” my coach asked. “What resources do you have you can access right now, to help you?”
“Very little,” was my first reaction. I had deliberately not packed the multiple undone art projects, the teetering piles of unread books, the ripped out and stockpiled recipes to try. I did not have a fully stocked studio, any reference library, my spice cupboard. I had no piles of magazines, no support group meetings clashing with gallery viewings, no book club needing to be fed their supper. I had next to nothing. And that it struck me, was my resource. I had space.
This physical space, this apartment of necessity-only, gave me time to think clearly, to renew a creative habit that had been buried. It was a cocoon in the wider city, a place to come to renew, to be still, to spread a yoga mat and exhale. It reminded me of a Zen garden. After the call I turned to the Internet, asking, what is it about the design of Zen gardens that make them so peaceful, so serene? The answer was that they are created on the principle of ‘ma’.
A day later, I was browsing in the warren that is Shakespeare and Co, the bookshop by the Seine and found a thick, silk-covered book of Japanese poetry. It fell open at the words:
Thirty spokes meet in the hub, though the space between them is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay, though the space inside them is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors from the house though the space with them is the essence of the house.
Only a few days later, at the Pompidou Centre, I visited an exhibition about the architecture of Tadao Ando. His work, it turned out, is imbued with ‘ma’. He says his aim, when creating his simple concrete structures is to ‘thoroughly purge my architecture of all things in order to create blank canvases. When touched by light and wind, these blank ‘voids’ become imbued with life. When inserted into a city, they can spark unexpected and exciting happenings.”
It struck me that ‘ma’ can also apply to designing our life. Giving space between events and activities need not be a negative. It can be a beautiful design choice. Gaps and pauses can be a conscious activity to allow renewal, consideration, inspiration and decision making. Just as an ikebana flower arrangement carefully leaves gaps between the stems, or a museum curator places one delicate Imari vase alone on a plinth, separating out experiences can help us see them better. Space creates emphasis which leads to understanding. It allows for movement and interaction, room to step back and to move in. After a while it fosters wondering, thinking, creating again.
Or, as Tadao Ando said:
If you give people nothingness, they can ponder what can be achieved from that nothingness.
Too often I berate myself if I am not ‘keeping up’, not doing all my ‘things’, if not simultaneously, at least on parallel tracks, making progress on them all. Not making art for six months is a failure to run my studio business. Not posting the videos of the show straight after is something to write an apologetic blog post for. Not immediately seeking the next show is losing momentum. Productivity blogs tell us how to keep going, artbiz blogs encourage us to plan the next thing, social media gives us the impression everyone else is doing and we are falling away. Non-activity is something to motivate ourselves out of. It’s laziness. It’s career suicide.
Or, its ‘ma’.
There are times when its right to commit, full tilt to the end of a project, to squeeze every moment, to race to the finish line. To get tasks done, to keep up, to press on. It’s a time for action and energy.
Then, there are times for ma.
Time to separate out one project from another.
One activity from the next.
One thought from the next.
It’s not blameworthy.
It’s not lack.
It’s not even inactivity.
It’s necessary recovery.
It’s creative regeneration.
It’s here that you find your essence.