by Monica Ross
I visited the Shambhala meditation center here in Austin this past week as a guest. During one of the evening practices they had a speaker named Francesca Consagra. She was at one point senior museum curator for the Blanton museum in Austin and has her PhD from Johns Hopkins.
As part of Francesca's talk she explained the Japanese concept of “Ma.” In Japanese “Ma” means "space," "pause," or "the space between two objects." The space in between objects in a museum is very important--just as important as the objects themselves.
She went on to say that if one puts a Degas on top of a van Gogh then attention is drawn to both pieces at the same time and they blend together, losing their distinctive presence and almost becoming one. On the other hand if one places the same pieces several feet apart the observer has to decide on which piece to give more attention and it may appear that the two pieces are not even part of the same exhibit.
Some museum curators she explained often simply tell the installers to place each object in the exhibit 18 inches apart to make things easy. She viewed her position as curator as an art form in and of itself in that she would discern with each object just how far apart it should be from the next.
That space in between each object has a certain tension to it and visually as museum goers when that space in between is just right--it is easier to move from piece to piece and carries more energy. Francesca explained that it's a bit like the phrase “Mind the gap."
She reminded me of my travel to London and the constant instructions blaring overhead in the subway station to “Mind the gap” meaning in that context “Watch your Step” as you step off of the platform and onto the train.
So what does this have to do with spirituality or psychology for that matter?
The point of her lecture was to simply call attention to those in between places in life. Those places where we are in between romantic partners, or in between jobs, or in between cities. There is a certain tension in life in those in between spaces, a kind of anxiety or rush to leave the present and either go back to where we were or to rush just to get through it to the end.
It’s as though we fail in life to acknowledge that the in between, or present moment if you want to call it that—this place of transition, carries meaning as well. It’s not just an empty space or place of nothingness as we wait for the next big thing.
It can be a place of rich meaning in and of itself--almost a separate space. And one could go as far as to say that this in between place gives perspective to both our past and our future. In this space we are in conscious awareness of our experience. It is a space for imagination and creativity perhaps.
It’s a place of uncertainty but also a place of opportunity. Instead of looking at the anxiety that might come from the uncertainty as a potential tipping point that sends us over the edge--it might be viewed as a place of just the right amount of anxiety or fear that gives us the energy to take action.
We know that the catecholamines brought on by stress or anxiety—epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine can enhance the functioning of our prefrontal cortex at moderate levels. If any of these catecholamines get too high, sure our brains get overwhelmed and go offline, but there is also a sweet spot.
So in other words fear and uncertainty can actually serve to enhance both our focus and decision-making abilities at moderate levels. We don’t always think though that stress at moderate levels can actually serve a purpose—almost be a motivating force to take action.
The concept of "Ma" is important to relationships as well. If between two people there is too much space there is often some kind of disconnect in the relationship. If between two people there is codependency then there is a type of enmeshment and the couple seem one and the same person. If however, there is just enough space between the two then they can maintain their separate identities and interests and the space actually draws out the best in each person.
Here is a poem I found on the Wawaza website that speaks to this concept of "Ma":
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 form the house,
though the space within them is the essence of the house.