graphic: MetaSelf Logo

The mind is
inherently embodied.

— Lakoff & Johnson



Structuring the Self in Figurative Space: The Front/Back Axis

graphic: Sketch of the Big Picture
Illustration 1: The Big Picture

Let’s look again at the two main illustrations on this website. The front/back axis is only implied in Illustration 1, The Big Picture, but in Illustration 2, The Front/Back Axis, it is indicated by the double-headed arrow between the two figures. This axis makes these two illustrations the most important, because it runs through more labeled spaces than either the up/down or the left/right axis.

Models that stress the vertical axis, like those based on the Yoga Chakra system, can be similarly detailed.  But MetaSelf gives greater importance to the front/back axis, which I believe has been undervalued and insufficiently discussed.

Illustration 2. The Front/Back Axis, showing the 8 Spaces
(click or tap any of the 8 Spaces to view a description of it.)

In contrast to many vertical models, the front/back axis includes two people, creating a picture of the self that is not only individual but also social. (NOTE: In Illustration 2, the 7 spaces for the second person are indicated only by the numerals 7 through 1 above the figure, because of space limitations.)

Keywords and Prefixes for the Front/Back Axis

NOTE: These words can describe a) the contrasting front and back sides of an object, like a stove or a book. b) the directions the body or object is facing. and c) the direction the body or object is moving. and d) the position of an object relative to another object.

Front and back
Fore and aft
Forward and backward
fore-, pro- and re- (these are Latin prefixes for forward and back as in progress and regress)
Ahead and behind
Phrases that Mediate the Front/Back Axis
The right distance (not so close as to lose objectivity, not so far as to lose important detail or a sense of connection)
In focus (not too close, not too far)
Mean, median
Meeting someone half way
Just the right speed; Don't push the river
Upright (not overreaching, not bending over backwards)
graphic: Maslow's Pyramid of Needs

Consider two other pictures of the self:

Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs  in the shape of a pyramid is, visually speaking, a model of an individual, although social needs are mentioned in its wording. (Read more about Maslow's pyramid image and its use in understanding the self through 5 basic needs or motivations at, and at Wikipedia. Hover your mouse over the pyramid graphic to enlarge it a bit, so the text is easier to read.)

Dan Siegel widens the picture and speaks of our having an I-map, a You-map and a We-map. That is, in a relationship we each have a map of our own self, a map of the other person's self, and a map that shows the relationship overall. MetaSelf is similar (although, as we shall see, it goes farther).

The MetaSelf picture represents a relationship using two spaces. One is between the two individuals (space 8, Between) and shows their fluid, ever-changing interaction — what "goes on between" them. The other shows the solid, more established system that they operate within, represented by the walls of the room (space 2, Inside).

So, MetaSelf is elastic —

1) You can sketch an image of your self as an isolated personality, concentrating on what goes on inside you, including what is at the back of your mind, and the front you put up.

2) You can also extend the front/back axis in your sketch to include another person and diagram the relationship between you, rather like a Transactional Analysis diagram. (MetaSelf presumes that the internal structure of both figures is generally similar and that you can diagram them both on the same axis, facing each other. For exceptions to this rule, see the Exceptions section below.)

In addition, 3) you can extend the front/back axis on both ends and examine any social or natural system you operate within, including the relationship with the second person. While The Big Picture shows only the walls of one room, MetaSelf assumes the possibility of nesting systems. You can imagine that the room is inside a building that represents a larger system. If you like, you can think of the land that surrounds the building as its ecosystem, the Earth or the natural Universe.

4) Beyond all these things are your ultimate, most encompassing values, your view of the nature of reality, your religious values and your philosophy. The colloquial spatial phrase is "things that are beyond space and time." In Illustration 1, it's the space outside the lines that delineate the room.

Starting to Apply MetaSelf

The first way to apply MetaSelf is simply as a spatially organized framework. All three axes and the inside/outside contrast can be used for recording meaningful observations about yourself as they come up over time.

  • Deep values and beliefs,
  • Norms, rules and laws of the systems you are in
  • Painful memories and regrets; plans, hidden hopes and potentials,
  • Present sensations, feelings and emotions; present thoughts and actions,
  • Concerns about image, integrity, and fitting in,
  • Talents, skills, and impulses to create and to work,
  • Impulses to defend oneself, to say no.

These nuggets of information take the form of stories, images, symbols, music, gestures, movements, dreams, etc. They can be jotted down in brief phrases or simple sketches.

Sometimes you can begin work on one of these nuggets of information as soon as you notice it. Other times you will need to collect many bits of information before patterns can be recognized, and that's when having a framework becomes really important.


Because one's personal development is a scattershot, discontinuous process:

We are multifaceted beings, with parts that conflict and even contradict each other. We discover new facets of ourselves that we hadn't realized were there. And emergencies spring up that demand a shift in our attention.

For all these reasons it's hard to stay focused on a problem and solve it. It may be months between one good opportunity to work on a problem and the next.

A further difficulty is that we forget past details, making it easy to deny that there is a problematic pattern or an unacknowledged positive potential. We then spend expensive therapeutic time trying to recall relevant details clearly enough to work on an issue. Have you ever looked at your old journals and been dismayed to see that years ago you had important insights about the same stuff as you are working on now and yet no lasting progress resulted?

It stands to reason that one remedy for these difficulties is to organize our self-knowledge better. That way we can access it quicker and stay focused on it. Good organization of information also helps us see how elements reinforce each other. We can recognize the deep-seated feelings and systemic beliefs that override our small, partial attempts at change.

One aid to memory is sensible spatial organization. Just as you arrange and store things in your kitchen in ways that are handy and easy to remember, so there are natural ways to organize your picture of the self.

In Space to Reason: a Spatial Theory of Human Thought, (2013) Markus Knauff presents a strong, careful case for spatial reasoning based on fMRI studies of the brain. He finds that people who reason spatially actually reason faster because they omit detailed pictures from their mental process. This suggests, perhaps, that the natural, body-based spatial organization of MetaSelf will ease access to important memories so that you can work with them.

How normal it seems that, for example, things that are "out of sight, out of mind" are placed at the back of the head or even behind it. Instead of a vague idea like 'the unconscious," MetaSelf takes a colloquial phrase like "the back of my mind" seriously precisely because it grounds the metaphorical container of the mind in the spatial structure of the body. We do this kind of thing consistently in English. We are not dealing with a miscellaneous collection of unrelated spatial phrases, but an existing model of the self that heals the mind/body split. Let's use its simplicity, suppleness and power to create an explicit, teachable tool for understanding and recreating ourselves.

So, get out a blank sheet of paper if you haven't done so already. A large sheet is good, especially for the Front/Back Axis, which is so wide. But if you don't have a big piece, try sticking some pages together with tape. You can attach more sheets later if things get crowded. Remember, you are making simple notes or sketches, not creating an artwork for display!

Turn the paper on its long side, and draw a line across the middle. You can put down the numbers 1 through 8 if you are creating a picture only of yourself. Or you can add the reverse sequence shown at the right here, to diagram yourself and someone else in interaction and relationship. (Note: the numbers are not drawn to scale here.) You may want to add a few keywords to remind you what the eight spaces represent.

Example Sketch of Front/Back Axis Notes Sheet

We will go over the eight spaces of the Front/Back axis twice more, so you will get very familiar with them.

You can also prepare similar pieces of paper for the vertical axis, the side to side axis, and the inside/outside contrast.

Now you are really ready to start using MetaSelf!

As you read the rest of this section on the front/back axis, jot down words, phrases, feelings, images about yourself that strike you as important. Try to put them in the space on the axis that make sense to you. For example, a painful recollection that comes to mind now and then might be placed in space three, "the back of my mind." If the recollection comes up very rarely, place it farther to the left, "deeper" in your memory. Or place it farther down on the page! Play with the figurative space we call the "back of my mind."

Illustration 2 is especially important. But let's give it its full name: Illustration 2: the front/back axis, showing the 8 spaces. It's important not only because it is the most comprehensive illustration spatially, but also because it includes so much important spatial language. We need both the graphic and the language because we are bodies in physical space and figurative space, and the two are connected by metaphor or analogy. When that connection fails and our language takes flight, like Icarus we fly too close to the sun; the wax of metaphor melts away, our wings fall off, and we crash into the sea.

In constructing the MetaSelf model, I am taking the position, along with Einstein, that picturing something can be vital for understanding it. Especially when we're talking about the self, a person with a body! The pictures in MetaSelf retain the structure of the body so that we see which way they are facing. The figures are standing or sitting in the gravity environment. (See the videos of talks by Dan Roam and Dom Moyer on visual thinking, and sketching, on the Resources: Links page.)

If we are to grow and become better persons, the self must be open to information from both the body and the mind (I'll address the spirit later).

If the thinking mind becomes detached from bodily meaning (too distant process), it can spend years on the therapist’s couch, trying to reason its way out of a maze. This was my own tendency. On the other hand, personalities that constantly rehearse chaotic emotion and are unable to step back even slightly and observe the present moment (too close process), are also likely to progress very slowly. Sometimes repetition only reinforces what these personality types are doing.

sketch: TheAnalytic Brain
Illustration 3: The Overly Analytic Brain
sketch: The Dramatic Heart
Illustration 4: The Overly Dramatic Heart

The MetaSelf approach takes the position that we do best when we exist right at the interface between bodily and metaphorical meaning with access to both. Both contribute to our self-knowledge and growth.

This positioning helps us to be both grounded and imaginative, practical and aspiring, realistic and inventive. In the body awareness practice called Focusing, the two kinds of process described above are characterized in spatial terms as being "too distant" and "too close," respectively. The MetaSelf approach is to develop a consciousness that can move around in both literal and figurative space. The importance of this approach is developed a little further on the page called Consciousness in the Philosophy menu.

The importance of living right at the interface between the bodily and the metaphorical is also the viewpoint of Catherine Kerr, who researches mindfulness and the brain. (Note especially the segment from 10:30 to 13:40.)

Walking The Talk: Three Exercises

Let's put this approach into practice right now, by grounding these concepts/ideas in your real-time experience of your own body.

Exercise 1: Gestures

I encourage you to experience the front/back axis in your own body by using gestures as you read the following section of text. In my experience, this combination of words and body language may be the simplest way to explain the whole MetaSelf model, when I am sitting down talking with someone about it for the first time. We are seated like the two figures in The Big Picture, but we are living examples of what is shown there. I tell my listener that I'm going to explain my model by using spatial words and gestures simultaneously. Within four or five minutes, I have explained the full length of the front/back axis, and they get it! It's really very easy.

In Illustration 2, the different spaces on the front/back axis are numbered 1 through 8, starting at the left. That's just the convention of writing from left to right. But in what follows I'm going to be starting with "what's going on between us," which is item 8. It's usually good to start with this gesture which establishes the contact with the person I am explaining MetaSelf to.

First, I start by gesturing back and forth between them and myself, saying that "The spatial word here is what is going on between us. It's as if there is an imaginary line or axis running between us."

Second, I hold up my hand in a "stop" gesture, saying "sometimes we have to draw a line, set a boundary. ‘Boundary’ and ‘line’ are the spatial words here."

Third, I say, "Then there is what I put out into the world, what I create by my work or gifts or talents. 'Out' is the operative spatial word here, as in output." I extend my hand, palm up, in an offering gesture.

Fourth, I gesture towards my face and talk about the mask or persona or good face that I put on. "That's the front we maintain. Front is the spatial word."

Fifth, "Then we come to our body – the spatial structure for all these expressions." Here I tend to gesture indicating the three axes of the body, often with an emphasis down towards the floor, saying, "What I'm sensing externally and internally right now, in this moment."

"Sixth is the figurative space I call the back of my mind." A gesture to the back of my head. "Painful memories, hidden potentials, deep memory, and so on. Of course these are different for every person and you would fill in your own."

Seventh, I say, "Then there is the room, the wall, which represents any system that we are inside of." With a sweeping gesture I indicate the room we are in. At this point I usually refer to the particular social setting we are in, describing the implicit norms or rules for behavior in that setting.

Eighth and finally, I gesture with both arms, coming up from the center of my chest and way out, as far as I can reach, holding the gesture a while to indicate the all-encompassing nature of it. I say, “And then there is our paradoxical spatial phrase, 'Beyond space and time.' We use the spatial word beyond to talk about what is not spatial but ultimate: our greatest purpose in life, what we believe is true even if everything else is taken away. God, Love, alternate realities, and so on.”

How did it feel to make these gestures? Did they feel appropriate to the meaning? Were there other ones that came up?

What do you notice from doing this exercise? Please take a moment to make a note of anything that you would like to examine further.

Exercise 2: Standing and Leaning

Now I invite you to stand up and find a comfortable stance with your feet about shoulder-width apart.

  • Start with your weight centered over your feet.
  • Really notice how your feet and ankles feel.
  • Can you sense the balls of your feel separately from your heels?
  • Try shifting your weight around, noticing the sensation in your feet.

Leaning forward

Now try leaning forward some, keeping your arms at your sides. What feelings or thoughts come to you? Interest? Curiosity? Inclination to move forward? Danger? Attraction? Or something else?

Next, without moving your feet, try extending a hand forward a little. And a little farther. How far can you reach, how far can you lean? What feelings, what ideas come up? What experiences are you reminded of, and what words express them best? How long would you want to remain in this position? Try exaggerating it and see what happens.

Return to a comfortable upright position, take a big breath and let it out. Notice how you feel in your body now. Is the contrast a strong one?

Leaning back

Now try leaning back on your heels a little. What are the sensations in your feet and your whole body?

And take a moment to allow various feelings and images that might come. Are there scenes or stories that come to mind? And what do they mean to you? Do they reflect an important part of your self?

If it feels OK, you might want to imagine leaning back a little farther. Notice whether you feel different when you imagine someone behind you. Who or what do you most want to be there? Or not be there? And how would it be to fall back in each case?

Once again, return to a comfortable upright position. Take another deep breath. Sit down if you like.

What do you notice from doing this exercise? Please take a moment to make a note of anything that you would like to examine further.

Exercise 3: Empathy and Fourteen Pairs of Shoes

The following is very much a work in progress. I warmly welcome communication on how to improve this exercise, including suggestions for a different approach.

Empathy and compassion are important but rather general abstract concepts. They are often explained in terms of "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" and "perspective taking."

The Front/Back Axis gives us a detailed, organized look at the idea of "putting yourself in someone else's shoes." It shows us that "perspective" is not a simple idea: you are not in just one location when you face someone and interact with them. Your perspective, and their perspective as well, is actually a composite of views from seven now-familiar spaces along the front/back axis.

In examining an issue, it's good to start by considering your own perspectives from various points along the front/back axis. Then, because our bodies are the same structurally, a similar sequence of perspectives is probably a good starting place for putting yourself in the shoes of the other person.

This means that, in the MetaSelf way of thinking, there are not just one or two pairs of shoes in the big picture, but 14! Not to worry. As a speaker of English, you already have a good deal of experience at moving from one perspective to another. This exercise is intended to make the spatial arrangement of all this information clearer, more detailed and, in the end, more useful.

Preparing for the exercise:

Start by thinking of a particular problematic issue between you and some important person in your life. When you have chosen an issue, select a phrase that names the issue in a neutral way, without taking sides. Please write the phrase in large letters on a piece of paper.

Next, place the inscribed piece of paper on a table or on the floor in the middle of the room. This piece of paper represents "what is going on between you" – space 8 in the MetaSelf model.

You are ready to begin

Space 1. Imagine yourself stepping back, way, way back, until you are in that figurative space that we call "beyond space and time." To embody this figurative phrase, you might even want to literally step out of the room for a couple of minutes, leaving the piece of paper where it is.

Take some time to get in touch with your most encompassing beliefs about the nature of reality, your idea of The Big Picture. You might call it your Highest Purpose, the Greatest Good, God, Love, Consciousness, etc. If you are unsure what meaning this space has for you, ask yourself what you want to have in your heart and mind and spirit as you approach the issue you wrote on the piece of paper. That general attitude is a good place to start, at least, and you can return to consider

Space 2. Now, stand in the doorway of the room where you have left the paper. You are on the threshold of the system (or one of the systems) that you inhabit with this important person in your life. Think about the rules that normally regulate this system and how they apply to the issue at hand. How does the part of you that identifies with the system regard the issue? What's its "take" on it? Does part of you wish you were in a different system? And what would that system look like?

Space 3. As you now move forward into the room, you pass into a figurative storage space called "the back of your mind." This figurative storage space contains memories, hopes, grudges, agendas, and even positive potentials. Notice the ones that form the background or back story of the particular issue at hand. Pay special attention to things that need to be resolved in order to retain the values or attitudes you started with outside the room.

Space 4. This space is filled by your physical body as it is structured and oriented in space and gravity. It is here and now. It has a distinct front and back, top and bottom, center and sides, inside and outside. These structural, spatial contrasts are not only physical but are also adapted for figurative purposes to structure your mind and thinking. Your body includes your external senses, your awareness of balance and position, and your internal, visceral sensations that are part of thoughts, feelings, emotions and "felt senses." Any of this can be part of your present awareness, the contents of consciousness.

Space 5. The front of the body, compared to the back, takes in more sensory information about the outer world and gives out more information about the inner world of the self. We regulate this information by the front we put up—our persona, "image." mask, "face," or covering. The self is seen figuratively as a container with an opening or openings through which information flows and is regulated.

With regard to the issue at hand, are you relatively open or closed?

There is a tension between our desire to be authentic, honest and sincere and still be safe from judgment, shame and ridicule. Do you feel safe enough to act outwardly the same way as you feel inwardly with regard to the issue on the piece of paper?

Space 6. Your work and skills enable you to interact with the environment and survive materially. You are also part of a social and economic system, and your output interact with the environment and contribution are part of an economy and may therefore be experienced as vital for your survival. Your work can become an identity, who you are instead of what you do.

Space 7. Your boundary is a figurative border around your personal, private space, which you defend against intrusion; a self-protective shield that you assert (or fail to assert) when angry or fearful.

Related ideas: assertiveness training, social skills, emotional intelligence. Also, a container that marks "your stuff," your area of responsibility. "That's my part of the problem, my business. I own that. Let me take care of that, and you take care of 'X' for your part."

Your Task Now: In order to fully feel compassion or empathy for the other person, your task now is to use the structure of the Front/Back Axis to imagine and inquire about their perspectives — their seven pairs of shoes. Observe, talk, ask questions. You can try to imagine how you would feel if you were in their position, while also being aware that you are different and your imagination could lead you astray.

You may find yourself inhabiting any of these spaces — your own or the other person's — as if you were in a very vivid dream or nightmare, and not in the present moment. You have ceased to be mindful, a consciousness that is aware of — rather than immersed in — its own contents. The figurative space has become "real," and you have merged with it. It is time to step back into Space 1, and try to find a sense of spaciousness. It's remarkable how often that word turns up in explanations of consciousness. I want to discuss this more on the page called Consciousness in the Philosophy menu.


While the sequence of spatial features I have presented in these three exercises seems to make sense, there are a few exceptions that can be anticipated, and perhaps others as well. 

One exception occurs when someone is very unsure about the skills, talents, gifts or resources they have to offer.  They may feel that they will be criticized and rejected as unready. And so the person hides the potential in the back of their mind, "hides their light under a bushel," where it remains undeveloped.

Conversely, someone may be very assertive, even aggressive, in pushing what they have to offer. They feel so confident of its worth, or they need so much to sell it to you, that they try to force their way across your boundary, into your private space.

This seems to be a case in which "the exceptions prove the rule." (Jump back to the MetaSelf is Elastic section.)

Recapping the 8 Spaces

1. Beyond Space and Time

This figurative space is beyond the wall, outside the system (the room), and represents the many different things people consider ultimate reality; fundamental beliefs such as: God, Love, consciousness, highest purpose, nothingness, alternate realities, … you can fill in your own examples.

2. The System I Am Inside Of

Any system I'm inside of, is represented by the room (or the wall), which is a container with an inside and outside. This can be a social system like a family, community, organization or nation; or a natural system, like an ecosystem, Earth, or the entire natural universe.

3. The Back of My Mind

The back of my mind is a figurative space holding whatever is Out of sight, out of mind, hard to bring out — painful memories, hidden potentials, the inner child, the natural self. A metaphorical space, not a region of the brain, … you can fill in your own examples.

4. My Body

This space represents my body, as it is oriented and moves in space and gravity; my external senses, my awareness of balance, and visceral sensations that are part of thoughts, emotions and felt senses; my present awareness.

5. The Front I Maintain

This space is the front I put up, my persona, mask, etc. The self is seen figuratively as a container that is relatively transparent and open, or relatively opaque and closed. There is a tension between our efforts to avoid shame and our desire to be integral and authentic. I can notice whether there is a contrast between how I feel inside and how I try to look outside.

6. My Work, Creative Output

This figurative space represents what I give out, my output; my work, labor, product or contribution; my gifts, talents, skills, ideas, traits, or resources; my abilities and energy.

Or: What I would like to develop and offer; an avocation or passionate interest.

Or: What I am willing to do to get by.

7. My Boundary

The boundary is the figurative border around my personal, private space which I defend against intrusion; a self-protective shield that I assert (or fail to assert) when angry or fearful.

Related Ideas: assertiveness training, social skills, emotional intelligence; also a container that marks my stuff and restrains me within my area of responsibility. "That's my part of the problem, my business. Let me take care of that, and you take care of X for your part."

8. What's Going On Between Us

What goes on between us or among us, our inter-action, play space, connecting, understanding, love.

Winnicott's potential space where meaning emerges between parent and child.

Buber's Between I and Thou.

Competition and conflict. Also where relationship evolves into a system (the room).