Commentary: The ‘fullness of nothing’ can teach us much

By Dr. Theresa del Tufo

The concept of “Ma” is a Japanese word, which can be roughly translated as “full of nothing.”  This mindset is predominant in Japanese art, music, and culture.  In music, it is the pause – the silence in between musical notes that gives it substance and depth.  In Japanese conversation, there is that short silence that allows both the speaker and the receiver to reflect on what was said, fully understand it, and then frame an appropriate response. The only equivalent of the concept of “Ma” in English is the word “empty.” 

It can also be applied to life’s transitions, or the up-and-down cycle of life.

Dr. Theresa del Tufo

During the down cycle, we go through the disruptive feelings of confusion, disorientation, anxiety, and fear. It’s much like the uncertainty and fear that we’re experiencing right now with the Coronavirus pandemic. Author William Bridges (1980) identified this descent as the “neutral zone.”

This transition phase can be a productive interlude if we think of it as “full of nothing,” instead of plain “empty.” Dr. Bridges pointed out that “…this seemingly unproductive time-out … is really an important time for reorientation.” Although it appears to be a dark and dormant period, there is often an invisible growth during this short and sterile interlude. It is a time for reflection, introspection, and growth. It’s much like the darkness and lack of activity during the dead of winter that blossom into the hope and promise of a bright and vibrant spring day.

 I experienced this dark, gaping hole when my husband died. At first, I resisted living in this temporary “neutral zone” that’s enveloped by darkness, fear, and anxiety. I tried to convince myself that “Quick action, jumping back into the fray, and some random activity” should propel me to snap out of this spiraling vortex.

It didn’t work! There were NO shortcuts! I had to give myself time to simply be – be miserable, cry my heart out, sleep 10 hours a day, or talk to someone if I feel like it. But there’s no escaping this dark and dreadful place. I simply had to live through these rotten times.

To snap out of this darkness, I first had to accept and experience it. I had to breathe in the fear, the gnawing grief, or the benign anger or whatever emotion I was feeling at the time. Embracing the raw emotions and breathing them in stripped away their power. There was no escaping the process.

Having survived this period, a respite of sorts, gave me a clearer vision of what I needed to do to survive.  Looking back, I can say with conviction that I wouldn’t be the person that I am today if I hadn’t taken a respite from ordinary life, plowed through the neutral zone, and embraced the empowering “fullness of nothing.”

The take-away here is to embrace the “fullness of nothing” and use this dormant period to reach out and lift someone, take a deep dive into your inner selves and try to search for meaning and purpose. Embrace the fear and accept the darkness that will eventually vanish.

Secondly, you might need to adjust your attitudes, and attempt to see the opportunity side of this event rather than the threat to your way of life. Maybe, you might get a job that would make you happier, or have a deeper relationship with a friend or a family member, or realize how really good your life is. Yes, you’re stuck at home, but you have ample food, a comfortable house, and now, the time to spend with the people you love.

Now is the time to draw up a plan of action. You have this wonderful discretionary time at your disposal. What are you going to do to survive and thrive? You’ve always wanted to start an exercise regimen to lose weight, go for a walk in the woods, learn to dance, or do yoga. Maybe you’ve always wanted to write a novel or learn how to write a poem. For those interested in self growth, you have the gift of time to meditate and reflect on your purpose and your passion. The “Stillness” that best-selling author Ryan Holiday glorifies is now accessible to you. The author notes that stillness is “…the ability to slow things down. To clarify your thinking. To center your soul. To direct your efforts. To be steady while the world spins.” Perfect timing! This is your golden opportunity to be ruthlessly strategic about the direction of your life.

Finally, remember, nothing stays the same – even bad times disappear. Everything in life is temporary! Think about it: The source of your unhappiness and fear can be the source of your newfound peace, meaning, and purpose. This could be your chance to morph into a better version of you!

As Americans, we have to ask ourselves difficult questions of character, identity, and legacy. Is this who we are as a nation: divided, separating at the seams, no one truly listening to each other? We don’t trust our leaders and appear to have fragile faith and belief in our democracy. Is this how we would like to shape and remember this experience?

Is this our generation’s legacy? It doesn’t have to be. We all have the power of intentional choice! It’s all up to us. Let’s take the first step.  

Dr. Theresa del Tufo is a community leader, an educator, an organizational consultant, a technical and motivational writer, and CEO and principal consultant at Del Tufo Consulting, LLC. Her books are available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. She lives in Dover.