Awake & Alive MindExploring the science of consciousness

Self as a Gravity Well

By Georgeann Sack

Making a mandala out of sand. By Paolo_Toffanin

Ideas from psychology and astronomy help me visualize and define my concept of self

Once in a great while, something we read changes the way we think about ourselves. One new concept causes a complete re-framing of all our past experiences. We tell ourselves a new story about who we are.

A particular passage from “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” by Carl Jung, had such an effect on me. In it, he wrote that while in Château-d’Oex, Switzerland, he “sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing, a mandala, which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time.”

His thoughts on the meaning of these drawings had the devastating, exhilarating effect of seeing myself anew. He wrote:

When I began drawing the mandalas, however, I saw that everything, all the paths I had been following, all the steps I had taken, were leading back to a single point — namely, to the mid-point. It became increasingly plain to me that the mandala is the center. It is the exponent of all paths. It is the path to the center, to individuation.

During those years, between 1918 and 1920, I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self.

Carl Jung

In that moment, I stopped seeing myself climbing steadily upward on a straight path, and started visualizing myself on a circular path. The point of the path is not to build myself into something more. It is to learn who I am through experience, and to embrace myself.

Left: My old, linear way of thinking about life. We gain in skills and knowledge until we die. Right: A Jung-inspired way of thinking. We gain in self-understanding and actualization until we die. Illustration by Georgeann Sack.

I ceased having “death attacks,” which is what I called the panic attacks that would regularly bubble up as I lay in bed, alone with my anxieties. Thoughts of my personal goals and failures led to the knowledge that they are ultimately meaningless. I was working so hard to build myself up into something, and then? Death. All that effort gone to dust.

When you instead think of life as a kind of settling into your self and interacting with the world from there, it gives your efforts a purpose, and life a meaning. If you look at the graphs above, you see that the linear evolution of goal-achievement leads to a precipitous drop at the time of death. The circular evolution of self leads inwards, with the attainment of the goal — self-realization — and death at the same point.

That was six years ago. As time passed, this idea stuck and continued to evolve. Another way to visualize a circular path is to plot it as a sinusoid. With the center line as a symbol of self, this concept took on more meaning. Living beings tend to figure things out by trial and error, but we do not do so with perfect logic. We have a tendency to overcorrect (see “The Logic of Failure,” especially the thermostat adjustment experiment, pgs 128–137).

I believe that with time, we learn who we are from these wild explorations and overcorrections. Our displacement away from the center line — the self — become less intense.

Displacement (y axis) from self (0) tends to decrease with time (x axis). Illustration by Georgeann Sack.

One way we learn is by tuning in to our bodily reactions. The farther we move from the center line, away from our self, the more uncomfortable we become. Tension is created in mind and body, and we try to fix it.

This way of thinking has helped me to be kinder to myself. Yes, I have made some bad choices about how to spend my days, but that is ok. I had to try that out for a while to understand that it was a bad choice for me. Each mistake is just another data point.

Looks like it’s time to decide
Are you here, are you now, is this it?
All of those selves that you tried
Wasn’t one of them good enough?

Lyrics from “Upside Down and Inside Out” by OK Go

Recently, as I was watching the below video, I again thought of Jung’s “circumambulation of self” from a new perspective. Another way to visualize the concept of self is as a gravity well.

Demonstration of a gravity well, cued up at the most relevant part. Video from UToledoPhysAstro.

A gravity well is used to conceptualize gravity. Things with a lot of mass, like the sun, warp spacetime, creating a curve that looks like a funnel with the sun at the lowest point, blocking the exit hole. (Given the name, why not ‘looks like a well?’ Wells have walls that are perpendicular to the earth. A funnel slopes gently upward, so that is a better visual description.)

Anything traveling within the gravity well of the sun will follow the curvature of spacetime created by the sun. The planets are in stable orbits around the sun because they are in motion, but are not fast enough to escape the gravity well.

The gravity well shapes the energetic landscape around the sun. It takes an enormous amount of kinetic energy for an object to travel up the curve of a gravity well, but because the planets are in motion they have kinetic energy to spend. At some point, much kinetic energy expended, the potential energy wins out, and the planet travels back down into the well, gaining speed as it goes so that it can climb up the other side. The Earth is destined to follow the curvature of the gravity well around the sun, oscillating between kinetic and potential energy, until its end.

This oscillation between kinetic and potential energy, this pendulum swing, is as prominent in biological systems as it is in the motions of satellites around the sun. Unlike the solar system, unfortunately, the biological system that is the human body can only maintain this oscillation for a hundred years at most.

Biological systems oscillate between potential (green) and kinetic (purple) energy until their termination. 0 is self, Y axis is displacement from self, as above. Illustration by Georgeann Sack.

Like the gravity well around the sun, I believe that our genetically encoded self determines the energetic landscape. In other words, our self determines what actions are energetically favorable. We can elect to act differently, but it requires a lot of energy, creating tension in our bodies.

The genetically encoded self does not completely determine who we are, but it does set limits on what is possible. There is a lot of space to explore within the bounds of our energetic landscape. Explore we do. We try out many ways of being. I believe that these experiences lead us toward acting in a way that is most compatible with our genetically encoded self. This is not a conscious evolution. It is physics. We are simply following the curvature of our energetic landscape.

In summary, I have come to think of the concept of self as the following:

  1. We are born with a genetically encoded self.
  2. The self is defined sensibly: it is a set of environmental factors, behavioral tendencies, social interactions, etc, that create the least amount of tension within our bodies.
  3. Because self is defined through experiences, we are born with a self but must discover it through experience. Thus when we are born we have no concept of self. It is only through experiences and reactions to those experiences that our self is revealed to us.
  4. Body awareness is beneficial because you become aware of the bodily sensations of comfort or tension as you move toward or away from the self. For those of us lucky enough to tune into this, we become more settled with age — our displacement from the self will become less intense with time.
  5. Our “circumambulation” can approach the center during our lifetime, but never reach it. Only as we die can we finally achieve complete knowledge of self.

I look forward to hearing what you think.

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