Reading for War
'Ma' – Exploiting The Space BetweenBy Joe Read October 15, 2019
What is 'Ma'?
The Japanese special concept of Ma suggests that the spaces or intervals between solid objects can actually be where the meaning of those objects resides. In a world where the number of solid PME “objects” is growing, we must also make time for the space between if we are going to fulfil the promises that all this PME makes.
Early autumn in a Rugby World Cup year is a special time; when the competition takes place in a time zone 8 hours ahead of yours, it makes the mornings even more special. It is now worth waking up before 6am on a Saturday or Sunday to see rugby heroics on the pitches of Japan; Fiji being cruelly cheated out of giant slaying on the first weekend only to be defeated themselves by Uruguay. The Brave Blossoms outclassing an Irish side not long crowned the No1 in the world and later a Scotland side fighting unsuccessfully for survival. Alongside all this coverage, sponsors in the UK have taken to illustrating poignant Japanese words during ad breaks. One of these is “Ma”.
In the rugby context, Ma is shown to mean, “the space between objects is as important as the objects themselves”. In other words, creating space between defending players is essential to scoring tries. Certainly it is the more sophisticated way to score them and takes much less effort than the brute force of forwards crashing into one another.
This got me thinking: when it comes to what we learn, and how we develop from PME, the same can be absolutely true. By using the space between events wisely, we can take so much more away rather than exhausting ourselves with constantly engaging but never thinking.
Indeed, it is often space which defines the purpose of the object:
- 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.
Ma - as a concept of time and space
The traditional definition of Ma is the “Gap, Space or Pause” between objects. These could be physical objects and spaces, or more conceptual ones like silences in conversation. In some definitions, it is the space which “takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences it”. The importance of these gaps, spaces and pauses is beyond just having space or time. Ma can be thought of as “an emptiness full of possibilities, like a promise yet to be fulfilled”. Often we take part in fantastic PME that offers up these wonderful promises. However, if we don’t appreciate the spaces between those events then we risk leaving those promises unfulfilled.
Recently at Initial Training Group in the UK we ran an inaugural Training Excellence Symposium (TES). This brought together commanders and instructors from across soldier and officer basic training in the British Army to look at what excellence in training meant. The day featured inspiring key note speakers and 16 stands presenting examples of excellence. Of the 200 plus attendees that took part, not one seemed to leave without taking something away to improve their own training delivery. The only consistent point for improvement was giving more time between stands for attendees to discuss what they had seen with each other. The distance between the objects was going to make the difference to the outcome of the day, not just the objects themselves, regardless of how good they were. The attendees wanted more Ma.
Two weeks ago the Educational and Training Services (ETS) met for our annual branch conference. We were treated to three panels packed with interesting speakers on learning and development. But the possibilities of what listening to those speakers meant was only realised in the breaks; the promises of revolutions in learning and development in the British Army would only be fulfilled with time to think on them. There needed to be more Ma.
We can see this overload even in the fantastic military thought forums, just like The Cove, across the world. We are possibly now given too many promises by great ideas and articles. What we need is to appreciate the Ma too. We can only make something of all this great material if we are given the meaningful space between to make sense and realise what the essence of it all is.
Incorporating Ma into reflective practice
In the philosophical context, Ma is the human need “to identify with purpose, to aspire and personify our lives”. I would argue that one of the ways to achieve this is through genuine self-reflective practice, both on the events and objects (PME, training, experiences) that happen to us and on what purpose we ultimately want to aspire to and to personify ourselves. I was lucky enough to speak about the importance of reflective practice at The Cove Conference in May, and I emphasised how important it is to be able to arrange and rearrange what we learn and experience to make it meaningful going forward. This is where we could find Ma in our PME.
My own learning journey has now developed my understanding of the importance of reflective practice further. I was given so many development opportunities whilst on exchange in Sydney, but the space since then has allowed me to understand why they were important. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I needed that Ma too.
A big step to making our PME, and our own learning journeys, work in a meaningful way is to acknowledge that the space between the events is often more important than the events that bookend that space.
Luckily for the Australian Army, your PME world is moving toward reflective practice and acknowledging the importance of Ma as much as the events themselves. The forthcoming PME Framework will use reflective practice and Ma to turn PME, training and experiential events into meaningful development. In the short term, the new structure of the Forces Command Reading List echoes the importance of not just packing lists with weighty tomes, but giving the space and time to make sense of them, and then coming back to them. Without knowing, Forces Command is already making good use of Ma.
A personal journey
Hopefully this is the way of things to come, that those of us in the profession of arms can make time and space to make sense of what we are doing, to find the space between our busy and important day to day and find a way through obstacles, instead of just breaking ourselves against the objects that we engage with. Hopefully we all take the time to use the Ma that we are given.
Back in Japan this weekend we will see whether England can fulfil the promise of the extra Ma they have been gifted after a cancelled pool game, or whether the Wallabies are able to see the possibilities of their own Ma before the quarter finals. It's game on!