As an MS patient (and an insatiable polymath), I’m always on the lookout for new information. Recently, I learned about an interesting concept in Japanese culture called “Ma,” and ever since, I’ve been trying to work out how I can incorporate more of it into my life. Let me try to explain. (A thousand apologies to the experts if I mangle this!)
Ma is a concept that is pertinent to every area of life: physical space (concerning both objects and people), emotional space, and even spiritual space. It is a pause, an emptiness, but just because it is empty doesn’t mean it’s without weight or substance. As ikebana artist Donna Canning writes at the site Unique Japan, “Ma is the fundamental time and space life needs to grow. If we have no time, if our space is restricted, we cannot grow.”
And that’s certainly something we need more of these days: time to pause — to be — between tasks. Our lives feel overcrowded with chores and obligations, our rooms overfull with stuff, and as a result, it’s impossible to be calm. I don’t know about you, but sometimes my life is so hectic that it feels hard to breathe.
The symbol for Ma is a combination of two other symbols: door and moon (though some people use sun instead). The idea is to capture the moment when one thing combines with another. Imagine watching moonlight filter through the cracks in a door, filling a space with something gentle and lovely. That beautiful space, empty and yet somehow filled, is Ma.
In Japan, this is part of everyday life and affects everything from how and where people eat to how they arrange flowers. Even their custom of bowing is dictated by Ma; they pause very deliberately to make sure there is enough space, enough Ma, to show respect and intentionality.
Compare that to our crazy-busy Western ways where we fill every “awkward” silence, shout to be heard, and race to be first in line. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired. MS makes me tired, and I’m all about finding a way of being that allows me space to contemplate, to be intuitive rather than aggressive, and to sit in stillness, free to be with my own thoughts and feelings.
For instance, tonight has been a hectic one in our house. One child had a counseling session to attend; the other had to make Joulutorttu for a class project. I had a lesson to plan for tomorrow night at church, about 50 pages to read for my fellowship, and this column to write. I was flying through each task. Checking the boxes. Getting $^!% done. But let’s be honest, fatigue is a thing for MS patients. It certainly is for me. But more often than not, I run myself over the edge of the cliff before stopping.
Thankfully, tonight my cat Baker showed up, put his paws on my legs, and gave me the sweetest little “mew” you ever did hear. So rather than launch right into this column, I picked him up and we snuggled for a while. I left space for myself and him to be together for a peaceful moment, and it was rather lovely.
It couldn’t have been more than two or three minutes, but sitting in my library petting my cat rather than remaining frazzled helped me remember the importance of Ma. I need to remember to leave space between the segments of my life, to give myself a chance to catch my breath and rightly order the hours I’ve been given. And because I took those few minutes of rest between moments of work, I was better able to write this piece and think through the words I wanted to share. It was worth it. That time was not wasted.
Ma, the space between the tasks, made both experiences richer and fuller. What could be better than that?
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