A few years back, we stumbled upon the Japanese concept of ma, which roughly translates to “the spaces between everything.” In western cultures, we might think about the artist’s idea of negative space: the shapes made up of spaces between objects in a painting, drawing, or photograph.
Many wise and creative people know about ma. A poet leaves a pause between words to emphasize them. A musician knows that the silences are what make a song or performance great. Athletes watch the space between players, between the ball and the goal. We think of physical space as rooms, not walls.
Often, it is the empty space that actually gives things a shape and even makes them beautiful.
That space is important because it’s where anything can happen. Often, it is the empty space that actually gives things a shape and even makes them beautiful. Ancient wisdom tells us “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” If you are curious about the spaces between things, you might notice those spaces are what connect everything. Tuning in to this helps us perceive the world differently, cultivating even more creativity, perhaps, as we explore this concept. Different people and different cultures even perceive artwork differently. Some see the whole, others see parts; some start with the background and context, others with the foreground and subject; some of us see objects, others see the spaces or relationships between them. It’s a useful exercise in mindful noticing to play with these different modes of perception as we take in all that is around us through our senses.
Increasingly, we have taken to deliberately noticing these spaces and how they reveal beauty and potential. It’s the space between the plants in the garden that make it beautiful, like the flowers in the bouquet. It’s the spaces between the notes in the song, or the pauses in a poem. Michelangelo is said to have found the sculpture inside the marble and chipped away the stone to reveal it.
But ma can be space between anything—people, things, time, sounds, emotional space, and even more. It’s the emotional space between friends or the silences in a conversation that bring intimacy. What lives in the emotional space and silences between you and your friends?
Leonard Cohen, a famous musician and meditator, reminded us “There’s a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in.” This, too, can help us see that growth needs space, and how space reveals. The old mindfulness saying from Viktor Frankl suggests that “Between stimulus and response lies a space, in that space is our power to choose, in that choice lies our growth and our freedom.” Lou Reed sang in one of my favorite songs, “Between thought and expression, lies a lifetime,” a beautiful reminder that meditation teaches us about noticing spaces between our thoughts and emotions.
Consider: What do you think about the spaces, the stillness, or the silence between anything and everything? Where else can you notice these spaces? What might you discover there, and what do you think could happen there?
A Mindfulness Practice for Noticing Spaciousness
A Mindfulness Practice to Notice Spaciousness with Chris Willard
- Eyes closed or lowered, tune in to your breath at first, then to the stillness between the inhale and the exhale.
- Listen more deeply now to your heartbeat and the spaces between.
- Feel where your body makes contact with the world, and the spaces between.
- Notice body sensations, and places where there is little or no sensation.
- You might listen now, noticing sounds near and far, left, and right, and the silence in between.
- Open or raise your eyes, aware of when they go from closed to open.
- Take a look around at the objects in your field of vision, as well as the spaces and shapes between them. Notice the walls, the corners, and the spaces between rooms, aware, too, of what you might not have noticed before.
- What else do you see? When does one color become another—red into orange, yellow into green? Light into shadow?
- Continue noticing these spaces, as well as experiences in your mind. The space between thoughts, memories, or emotions. Take some more time to continue noticing all of these spaces in between.
After you finish the practice you can keep noticing space throughout your day to freshen your perspective. Outside, notice the shapes between clouds, the stars in the night sky, the moment when day becomes night. You can notice the spaces between raindrops, the lull between the waves in the ocean, or where the ocean meets the land. Notice the space between you and others, physical and emotional, and consider the space between meeting someone for the first time and becoming friends; between a joke and a laugh, and a question and an answer; between eating and being full. You might explore the space between waking up and opening your eyes as you start your day. If you are creative, consider what you decide to put between the edges of the camera frame, what you take away to form a sculpture, or what happens between the inspiration in your mind and the final form of your creation. We hope that in the space between this page to your mind, you can simply let yourself notice the world in new ways.
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