Pause: Ma, the Power of Empty Space, Silence

Most people who know me know I am not the strong, SILENT type, but this week, your hip, non-hipsta’ main street gardener is in a reflective mood. I recently joined Melissa Kinsey, Wellfield’s Environmental Educator, for one of her weekly wellness walks. One of the special things about Melissa, and one of the things I am learning from her, is how she reminds us to pause and notice. Despite being in our Winter hours, Wellfield provides a great opportunity each week to slow down and notice nature; our Wednesday Winter Wellness Walks, presented in partnership with Beacon Health. Walks begin at noon and last about an hour; they are free, and registration is required.

My experience on the Wellness Walk this week reminds me of one of the many ways the Japanese conceptualize space. It should be no shock to learn they look at space in some different and refreshing ways. The Japanese, from what I understand, do not just see space dimensionally, with boundaries containing things inside and outside those boundaries, but rather, they consider a “space” as the object’s dimensions AND the relationships/connections with the space. Look at the word for person: ningen. Nin- means human being and gen means the space between. Thus, a person is made up of the individual AND the surrounding relational context. 

The Japanese honor and respect “empty space” or “voids,” the place without sound, movement or words. This concept is seen throughout traditional and modern Japanese cultural expressions and art forms. The negative space in Ikebana arrangements, gardens, landscape paintings or economy of words in haiku all are examples of “ma” or negative space. The empty void often suggests more than what is “stated”. Ma leaves room for possibility, for potential, for reflection. 

Winter is a great time for ma. The stark, “empty” space created by the absence of spring and summer life is refreshing as a pause, giving us all a chance to breathe and maybe enjoy a walk in the gardens.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager

** Featured image: By Hasegawa Tōhaku – Emuseum, Public Domain,

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