A wise friend, something of a mystic and a channeler, recently described to me an encounter she had with a non-sentient being who passed through her consciousness some time earlier. In the midst of this mystical encounter with an energy that can only be described as “other” and yet not, she heard a voice in her head speak this gentle reminder, “Remember that your conscious mind is the least of you.”

I have other friends who find that concept frustrating. They view it as a comment on deeply buried psychological conundrums and dark impulses, the sort of material that years of talk therapy would mine and process. It speaks to a world out of our control, one where rational decision making is upbraided and potentially weakened to the point of meaninglessness.

For me that line goes well beyond a comment on the hidden unconscious domains of our psychology. Rather it speaks to other realities, other states of mind, other dimensional armatures that impact our lives every day. I know too well how quickly my outlook on a particular issue can change, or how instantaneous a new awareness can appear on the mental screen, conjured out of nothing (or so it seems). There are flows and currents to life that exist outside of our proclivities to instrumentationalize our world, to track, measure and make sense out of everything that happens.

The idea of other forces at play seems to fit with this recent article by Steve Strogatz in the New York Times. As a catch all for what lives outside our model of reality, “the three-body problem” is a useful metaphor.

Here’s an excerpt from Strogatz’ piece:

In the 300 years since Newton, mankind has come to realize that the laws of physics are always expressed in the language of differential equations. This is true for the equations governing the flow of heat, air and water; for the laws of electricity and magnetism; even for the unfamiliar and often counterintuitive atomic realm where quantum mechanics reigns.

In all cases, the business of theoretical physics boils down to finding the right differential equations and solving them. When Newton discovered this key to the secrets of the universe, he felt it was so precious that he published it only as an anagram in Latin. Loosely translated, it reads: “It is useful to solve differential equations.”

The silly idea that love affairs might progress in a similar way occurred to me when I was in love for the first time, trying to understand my girlfriend’s baffling behavior. It was a summer romance at the end of my sophomore year in college. I was a lot like the first Romeo above, and she was even more like the first Juliet. The cycling of our relationship was driving me crazy until I realized that we were both acting mechanically, following simple rules of push and pull. But by the end of the summer my equations started to break down, and I was even more mystified than ever. As it turned out, the explanation was simple. There was an important variable that I’d left out of the equations — her old boyfriend wanted her back.

In mathematics we call this a three-body problem. It’s notoriously intractable, especially in the astronomical context where it first arose. After Newton solved the differential equations for the two-body problem (thus explaining why the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun), he turned his attention to the three-body problem for the sun, earth and moon. He couldn’t solve it, and neither could anyone else. It later turned out that the three-body problem contains the seeds of chaos, rendering its behavior unpredictable in the long run.

Newton knew nothing about chaotic dynamics, but he did tell his friend Edmund Halley that the three-body problem had “made his head ache, and kept him awake so often, that he would think of it no more.”