The Space Between

space-between“THE SPACE BETWEEN” from World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down 

When you are lost, go deeper into the woods.                                                                                Maia


Empty and Alive

In the fall of 2006, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) published a map explaining where to find tranquility. Among its defining categories were the ability to hear bird song and to experience peace and quiet, to see natural landscape (including natural-looking woodland), and to be able to identify the stars at night.

Tranquility belongs to a long list of shadowy essentials to which our culture pays lip-service, but to which we are mostly oblivious, among them, rest, sleep, silence, stillness and solitude. What I am describing here is emptiness, what the Japanese call ma. Ma is found in the silences between words, in the white space on a page, in the quiet understanding between two close friends. The Japanese school of Sumi painting says: “If you depict a bird, give it space to fly.” That space, that spaciousness, is ma.

The western world is filled with things, crammed to bursting point with noise and movement and color and excitement, which to us mean wealth and vigor. From childhood on, we learn to distrust all the varieties of ma, and to replace them, as far as possible, with their opposites. We value action over stillness, light over shadow, sounds over silence. But in Asian cultures, emptiness has value in and of itself. It is seen as generative, sustaining, something one can trust.

As Lao-tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching: 

We join spokes together in a wheel,

but it is the center hole

that makes the wagon move.


We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that holds whatever we want. 


We work with being,

but non-being is what we use.

Twenty-five hundred years later, Lin Yutang declared that a room, like a painting, should be k’ungling, or “empty and alive,” explaining that it is the unused space that makes a room habitable, just as it is our free time that gives our lives their shapeliness and ease. It comes as no surprise that the Chinese character for “leisure” should be made up of “space” and “sunshine” – the pause, the attitude of relaxation, is what creates the gap that lets the sun shine through.

It is easier, perhaps, to write such definitions in one’s private notebook, and agree wholeheartedly that they feel right, than to include such luscious emptiness in one’s daily life. And yet it is unquestionably true that people are able to work better and more creatively when they are calm, unharried, free of stress, and that this is, at least in part, a matter of choice. “No man will ever unfold the capacities of his intellect who does not at least chequer his life with solitude,” wrote Wordsworth’s friend De Quincey, and Kafka too has much to say on this: “You don’t need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, simply wait. Don’t even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”