In search of nothing – something

japanese ma

In her search for inner peace, journalist Maaike Helmer discovered the centuries – old Japanese concept of ‘ma ’. Thanks to small, barely visible moments, she’ s now able to escape the hectic pace of daily life.

If you delve ever-deeper into the subject of ‘relaxation’, you will end up at ‘nothing’. In many Eastern philosophies, people think about this word on a fundamental level. I was intrigued: what could ‘nothing’ mean in my own life? Could it help me achieve inner peace? After reading a lot on this subject, I discovered the Japanese concept of ma, which essentially means ‘interval’, ‘between’ or something that is neither space nor time. It is used in Japan in the arts (things are suggested through either omission or the use of a white space), architecture (‘space’ can result in either tension or calm), music (the silence between chords), stage productions, flower arrangements (ikebana), etiquette (bowing with short breaks to show respect to the person standing across from you), and even conversations (silence is part of the conversation).

Ma assumes that the space we Westerners may call ‘nothing’ is actually filled with ‘something’. In his book Waar geen wil is, is een weg (Where there’s no will, there’s a way; Dutch only), Henk Oosterling, author and former professor of philosophy at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, calls this the ki, or energy, of kami, or the awe-inspiring. Put simply, and in a very Western manner: Nothing can also contain something.

This concept fascinated me. The more I read, the more I realized that there are set rules as well as freedom for interpretation in ma. Authors of articles regularly recommend, apart from the ‘set rules’ for ma for landscaping or flower arranging for example, trying to ‘live ma’ in our daily lives, but it was never clear to me how to do this. Maybe Japanese people can do this automatically? What I did find out about it was that more than anything, ma is an internalized concept for many Japanese. I also noticed this when I spoke to a few experts about it: I was shown a varying array of manifestations of the concept and oddly enough, I understood all these different interpretations.

Perhaps it is similar to the concept of ‘coziness’. We all know, for example, that fighting is not ‘cozy’, but what ‘cozy’ is differs for everyone. I decided to just translate this ma concept myself. I may not be a philosopher, but I would imagine I’m free to give ‘something’ my own interpretation. What really struck me about the concept is that ‘nothing’ can also be ‘something’. This last line is a typical Western way of thinking, incidentally. We tend to think in dualistic terms in the West; nothing and something are two different things and therefore a combination becomes ‘nothing-something’. In Japan, where they are more non-dualistic thinkers (things can be ‘and-and’ and merge into one), they would probably never come up with the word ‘nothing-something’. It’s just ma, end of story.

  • Read the full story ‘In search of nothing – something’ in issue 32.

Text Maaike Helmer  Photography Aaron Burden/

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