An Excerpt from The Genealogy of the Soul, a personal guide to Family Constellation Work
It was spring of 1999 and my mother had died just a month earlier. I was missing her terribly and feeling unsure of what to do next. For several years my husband, Milt, and I had been producing a 52-part public radio series on Native American Music. This massive project was coming to an end, and I felt rootless and unsure of what was next for me.
Then a friend invited me to attend a demonstration of Family Constellation Work being offered by a German psychotherapist named Heinz Stark. I had no idea what it was or why I should go, but Peg urged me on, and I decided to go. Although earlier in my life I’d been an NLP trainer and coach, I’d long since abandoned the therapy or self-help world. I had no intention of returning to that work.
That evening we drove twenty minutes out into the beautiful Black Hills and pulled up in front of a pretty ranch house nested in a high meadow. The spacious living room was full of the curious and slightly nervous group who had gathered there. Many of them I recognized from local seeking com-munity.
When Heinz Stark began describing the work, I realized that we were going to do something resembling psychodrama or a Satir-like family reconstruction. Heinz invited the first person to cross the room and sit in the empty chair beside him. I leaned over to Peg and jokingly said, “Watch, I always get chosen to be the mother in these things.”
Heinz scolded us for laughing and said that this field of energy must be carefully maintained. He explained that the constellation was a tool designed to show us our right place within the family of origin. He began a short interview with the client and instructed her to choose one representative from the group to stand in for her mother, another for her father, and one for herself—the client asked me to be her mother.
The woman quietly centered herself and then moved each of us into a position that only she could sense. I stood in what Heinz had called the knowing field as the client’s mother. What happened next I still can’t coherently explain. Suddenly I was flooded with thoughts, sensations, and movements that had nothing to do with my previous state of only seconds before. The sensations were, quite literally, not mine. At one point Heinz instructed the woman to choose a representative for her son. The woman moved the representative right next to me, our shoulders touching, and I felt a sudden jolt of heat. Heinz began to work with the constellation doing subtle movements and having us repeat sentences.
The process looked so simple, yet the energy grew as the constellation moved toward resolution. I was intrigued.
The most memorable constellation that night was that of a woman from a typical South Dakota ranching family. The “issue” was that she and her two sons couldn’t seem to hang on to money or material goods. As the constellation unfolded, Heinz traced the family back to the woman's grandfather who had amassed large tracts of land during the Depression. It was clear that this grandfather had taken advantage of the economic suffering of others by buying out his neighbors and gaining from their loss. In other words the wealth he had amassed was based on an injustice to others. From this perspective, the constellation revealed that the great-grandsons unconsciously atoned for this injustice by not holding on to the family land or their own wealth. It also revealed that the young men were not entitled to atone for the actions of their grandfather.
The depth and authenticity of this work moved me deeply. I, like many others who take a first look, was skeptical and doubtful that a grandfather’s actions could wreak such havoc on later generations. It seemed almost unbelievable.
I left that demonstration full of questions. Could this energetic and intricate linking up of loyalty through the generations of a family be true? Are we really so tied to those who came before? And what would that mean about our culture? We Americans pride ourselves on our independence, yet the scene that unfolded that night was one of hidden and powerful interdependencies.
By the time I went to bed that night, I knew with complete and utter certainty that my working life was about to shift again and that all my previous work experiences had been to prepare me to do this work.
In the days to follow, many of the things Heinz said that night echoed through my mind. I realized that this was not just a form of therapy but a way of looking at our primary relationships. There really is a certain right order within families and also within our personal and business relationships. I started reading the work of the founder of this work, Bert Hellinger, and tried putting some of the things Heinz had said into practice.
For example, I had asked Heinz what to about my ex-husband who was often gone for months at a time on his construction jobs. What about our children? I’m sure Heinz detected my resentment and anger about this issue.
He said divorced parents have to let go of their anger. “Honor the presence of the father in the son” were his exact words to me. I contemplated those words and realized that I had subtle and almost sneaky ways of keeping my children from fully accepting their father. The problem was in me—not him.
After seeing the constellation work, I decided to try and support any movement my children made toward their father. The first test of my resolve came within a week. I was out of town and had an e-mail from my then fifteen-year-old son, Thomas. He wrote, "Would it be okay with you if I worked with Dad on a job this summer?"
Summer was normally my time with the children, but Heinz had stressed how important it was for children to make a movement away from the mother and toward the father—especially in adolescence. I could hear the real question behind Thomas’ email. “Is it okay with you if I go to my father?”
I wrote back instantly and gave him my full approval. I also told him a story about how funny and smart his father was—and how much he was like his father.
I nearly laughed aloud when he wrote back and asked, “Would it be okay with you if I send your email to Dad?” Tom wanted to be sure that his father knew I approved.
The release was immediate. Tom was suddenly free to go to his dad and a hidden tension—the energy of a soul whose loyalty was split between separated parents—evaporated.
This, as we’ll explore in greater depth, is a critical movement—especially for divorced or separated couples with children. We need to honor the other parent in our children in order for them to be free to love us both.
Other events confirmed the power of this work. After the demonstration night, Heinz was doing a workshop, and since we didn’t have funds for both of us to go, my husband, Milt, went. He was adopted and had multiple issues related to adoption. We decided he would get the greater benefit by attending.
After the workshop he came home and decided to try finding a daughter who had been adopted almost thirty years earlier. He’d not known of her existence until the adoption was already completed. Three days later he found her on the Internet, and within three weeks of exchanges with a “missing persons coordinator” we had a phone call from Susan. He has since spent several extended visits with his daughter and her children and a rich, new dimension has been added to his life.
By now, I was stunned by my meager experience with this work. In a few short months, my son had found his way to his father, and my husband had found a lost daughter.
I began exploring my own patterns of depression and family connection. My first constellation with Heinz later that fall took about five minutes. I mentioned that my mother had died recently and that my father was deceased. Heinz simply chose two representatives, one for my mother and one for my father. When I stood up in that pesky “knowing field” I simply burst into tears and ran into the arms of my “parents” to feel their love surround me for just one more moment. It was sweet and painful and powerful. Later—I think I was feeling like I hadn’t gotten my money’s worth—I mentioned to Heinz that my constellation was pretty small. He smiled at me and said mysteriously, “There are no small constellations.”
And it’s true. Over ten years later, I am still surrounded by the love of my deceased parents whenever I hold that image.
Finally, I approached Heinz Stark and asked, "What can I do to help? I want to learn this work.” Family Constellation Work was still brand new in America although it was growing rapidly in Germany and Europe. There were no formal U.S. training programs, so I followed Heinz Stark through a year of intense workshops acting as both his student and his coordinator.
After training with Heinz I began offering first a study group, then a training/practice group, and eventually I gained enough confidence to actually do workshops. The original draft of this book came about because I wanted a way for my workshop attendees to be able to explore the concepts of the constellation on their own with simple concepts and practical exercises. Since then, I’ve revised it to include people who have not attended a workshop but are curious about the work. I hope this guide will point a direction for you to strengthen your stand in life within your existing systems.
Chapter 1 offers an introduction to Family or Systemic Constellation Work as both a form of therapy and a way of thinking about relationships. Then it separates into exploring the specific topics or relationships. I’ve included exercises to help you personalize the concepts. After reading the orientation, browse the book by topic or explore it in whatever way suits you.
There are occasional references to earlier decades of my life. In the eighties I worked with individuals using a technology called Neurolinguistic Programming or NLP. Later I spent ten years writing and producing public radio documentaries with my husband, Milt Lee. Then I returned to the human development path with this work.. Writing stories, novels, and books has been a common thread throughout all the working decades of my life.
The names and examples here have been scrambled to protect the privacy of those who have trusted me or others to enter their family systems. I will mix up the gender by using “he” or “she” rather than the annoying repetition of “he or she”. What is presented here is based on my own experience as a facilitator and a student of the work of Bert Hellinger. Any lack of clarity belongs with me. I would also like to thank Heinz Stark and Bert Hellinger and the other German facilitators who traveled such a distance to bring this work to us Americans.
Chapter One: An Orientation to Family Constellation Work
The Origins of Constellation Work
In his earlier years, Bert Hellinger was a Catholic Priest working with the Zulu people in Africa as an educational administrator. He became very involved with both the people and the culture. One of the stories he told was about a seminar he attended on group dynamics. He said that at some point during the training the facilitator asked them what they cared more about—principles or people? Hellinger said that that question stuck in his mind. He went home that night and could hardly sleep because he kept asking himself whether he cared more about principles—or people. In the end, he decided that he cared more about people. He began to study family dynamics and systems work in greater depth and even ended up leaving the priesthood to pursue this new passion fully.
Over the years of working with individuals and families he began to notice deep loyalties that seemed to exist within families no matter what external circumstances existed. Such loyalties often made no logical sense but seemed to exist anyway. Much of his work was happening in post WWII Germany where many families had been torn apart by the war.
What Hellinger observed, and what the tribal elders in clan systems around the world have known instinctively, is that life flows down through the generations of a family from the oldest to the youngest. Two separate families are joined each time a child is born and the new life flows forward to the future. This blood tie is strong and resilient and loyal. Hellinger thought of these ties to our lineage as the natural law or order of families. The more he worked with families, the more he realized that when the “order” is observed in a good way, life goes on in a good way. When something happens to disrupt this natural order, life begins to move toward disorder. This became the basis of Family Constellation Work.
The Goal of Constellation Work
With a word like “constellation,” one thinks of stars arranging themselves into patterns in the distant skies—but this constellation takes place in the inner space of the family system, one member placed in relationship to another. Constellation work—or what we might call family soul work--traces the soul through the ancestral lineage of the family.
The goal of constellation work is two-fold and sometimes this appears to be at cross purposes. The first goal is to help us to gain personal strength by connecting to our own lineage. The second goal is to make sure we have separated from our lineage and are free to begin our own new system. If we are caught up in the fate of our parents or ancestors, we cannot freely move ahead into our own future. This is called an entanglement. An entanglement binds up our personal energy and keeps us stuck. The Constellation is a tool to reveal this entanglement and to gain release and freedom from whatever that is. We’ll be exploring dozens of possible entanglements as we move through the topics of the book.
To be a strong adult who can fulfill the many roles required of us as children, partners, parents, coworkers and grand-parents, we need all of our energy. If we are caught in past patterns, we remain stuck in childlike patterns and unable to use our life energy. Hellinger speaks eloquently of the difference between the “blind love of a child” and what he calls “the enlightened love of an adult.” As adults, we are at last able to see that our parents were also children and, in recognizing that, fully take our place as adults.
According to Hellinger, we often maintain our childlike ways out of loyalty and love to the parents and the family. Again, paradoxically, we seek both a stronger connection to our lineage—and the freedom to separate and go forward. When we are entangled with earlier events or family members, we are not free to do either in a good way.
The constellation gives us a tool for making these entanglements visible, but we have to realize that these hidden loyalties flowing deep within the families can be obscured and difficult to resolve. We also have to realize that the constellation is not a specific formula that cures issues. It’s a fluid, organic process that we must approach humbly and with openness.
For instance, in the constellation I described earlier where the grandfather had amassed land and wealth on the back of his neighbors, the “solution” was for the grandsons to return that burden of guilt to the grandfather—and to let him carry the consequences. As younger members of a system, the grandsons were not entitled to “atone” for what grandfather had done. In handing back the burden of guilt, the grandsons could now be free to build their own prosperity. This will become more clear as we move through the concepts of the work.
The Hidden Orders of Love
In the greater soul of the family, there is a loving glue that binds one generation to another, that crosses known boundaries of time and space, and even operates in the gray zone between life and death. The constellation process gives us visible access to that flow of love and loyalty within the family. We can see both its purity, and the ways in which it obstructs our movements.
When we are entangled or have taken on the pain, guilt, or sadness of someone within our system, we generally can't see that we have done so. The entanglement is hidden from view, operating outside conscious awareness. We are aware that life is not going smoothly—but we have no idea why. We seek outside answers or begin to berate ourselves for not being motivated enough—or smart enough—to get it right. An incredible amount of energy is expended trying to heal what we think is the problem while the true source remains obscured.
Essentially, we all carry a membership card for our own family of origin. This membership connects us energetically to the other members of our system. Time and space are not factors. We can sever all connections and move three thousand miles away and discover, for all our grand efforts, that we are as tightly linked as ever. Like a Chinese finger cuff made of paper—the harder we pull, the tighter the lock. Not even death can interfere with these mysterious links. Each member of a system has a singular place and that place must be held or the flow of love becomes disordered.
Bert Hellinger calls the rules of belonging within our family system, “The Hidden Orders of Love.” These hidden orders exist outside of what social conscience might call right or wrong, good or bad and continue to operate even when we pretend they don’t. They simply are—like the laws of nature, like water that must flow downhill, or winter that must come at a certain time. We all own a particular place in our family. To our parents, we will always be a child. To our children, we will always be a parent. The orders are fixed and immutable no matter the many ways human beings will mess with them.
Discovering what Hellinger termed, “the hidden orders of love” is more than simply generational order or a therapeutic tool. These natural orders are, in fact, a philosophical orientation toward life itself. In shorthand form, the orders of love are:
· All who have a place in a system must be included and their place held;
· A younger member of the system is not entitled to interfere with the fate of an older member;
· One generation passes the life on to the next and, like the natural laws of gravity, the flow is always toward the future;
· We must all carry the consequences of our own actions;
· There is a larger force at work to which we must all submit.
What appears so simple in a bulleted list like this becomes much more complex in the daily practice of living. Most of us stumble along without realizing that we may be coming into conflict within our familial or ancestral systems. Additionally, larger social or cultural systems also have their own “hidden orders” for membership and belonging, but they tend to be less binding than the loyalty ties to the family. Religions, nations, even small community groups all evolve and form their own systems. We will also take a look at these in later chapters. These systems are complex.
For example, I worked with a mother who said her sixteen-year-old daughter was depressed and acting out—making poor decisions. She was being sent to a wellness program to get it fixed. As we worked on the daughter, I found out Mom had been divorced twice, her mother had been divorced twice, the girl’s father had experienced the suicide of a little brother. In this too-typical picture, the young girl was clearly acting as the little pack mule for the family, taking on and carrying the stuff of the family on her tender shoulders. Sadly, she was also being asked to do the penance and serve the sentence for what she had not caused and could not cure.
As you read the following pages, do so with openness and a receptive mind. Set aside for a moment what you think you know about human relationships and families. Notice not what your mind says but what your heart or soul says. Remember that the cord that binds is always love and deep loyalty—even in the face of ugliness or adversity.
There will be those among you that resist some of the ideas presented here. I have heard many of your concerns in my talks and workshops and ask only that you consider for a moment the loving logic behind this philosophical view of how a family works.
The examples provided here are intended to be descriptive—not prescriptive. Constellation work is a specific tool for a specific purpose. It is not a quick fix for missing life strategies. Most of the time, we are unaffected by the actions of those who came before, and we will be misled if we begin arbitrarily drawing lines of connection between family members and events in our own lives. We end up creating another useless story to explain why life does not go well. It is not our goal to uncover secrets or to place blame but to discover both the source and the solution to our current situation. We go to our family system with a humble heart—looking for answers.
Our goal is to discover if we are carrying something that doesn’t belong to us. What is mine, I am held accountable for; what belongs to another, I give back to them; and what operates in the larger, unknown forces of the world, I can only bow to and hope one day to understand its deeper meaning.
What a Constellation Looks Like
Here is an example of a constellation. A woman, I will call her Bertie, comes to the group and expresses that she has been sad and depressed for most of her life. She is educated, has a solid marriage, three children, and feels she has no real reason to feel sad. Traditional therapies and self-help have had little or no effect.
A constellation always begins with a fact-finding mission. We ignore old narratives and go for actual events within the family. In Bertie's case her mom and dad are still alive and still married. She is the oldest of four children and there are no significant events such as war, immigration, trauma, etc. to her knowledge. I ask about any known missing family members, and she suddenly recalls that Mom did have a stillborn child but not much was ever said about how the child died. It simply isn’t talked about. I instruct her to choose representatives for herself, Mom, Dad, and the stillborn child and to set them up in a constellation.
Setting up a family constellation is deceptively simple. The client chooses representatives from the available group members to stand in for each of the selected members, including a representative for herself. Once the representatives are selected, the client places her hands on each one’s shoulders, and then intuitively moves the representatives into the circle. When the representatives have been placed, the client sits and watches as the constellation unfolds. The facilitator counsels representatives that their only job is to report—not to role-play or act.
Setting up a constellation brings the hidden patterns into the visible field. As the representatives stand where they have been placed, they experience the sensations and qualities of the person they represent—a mysterious process we will discuss in a later chapter. The facilitator then enters the field, first taking stock of the initial picture and noting the location of each representative such as who is isolated, who is center, who is looking away or at each other. This early assessment by the facilitator is a combination of intuition, training, knowledge, and experience. What is this picture saying? Each representative is asked to report any information such as physical sensations, movements, or thoughts that occur to them.
In this particular constellation, we notice initially that all members look away from each other, and the client’s representative stands apart from the rest. Dad reports numbness. Mom reports cold hands and a pain in her abdomen with attending sadness. The deceased stillborn child reports feeling anxious and afraid and the client’s representative simply feels cut off from life and from the others.
In the past, Virginia Satir and other family systems therapists have used representatives, circles on a page, or placement of objects to create a similar picture of the family system, but Hellinger took a pioneering step by accepting the revealed picture as a living communication from the system itself. Then he sought to restore order where disorder had prevailed.
With Bertie, I begin a series of trial and error movements relying strongly on the reports of the representatives to discover and restore the right order in this system. I have both Mom and Dad face the stillborn child and test a series of sentences spoken to the child. Mom says, “I couldn’t look at you. My pain was too great.” And then, “Now I dare to look at you and realize that in this pain is my love for you.”
The facilitator is not operating on but operating within the system. I follow the natural flow. If I give a representative a sentence to say, but she says, “No, that doesn’t feel right,” I this response and seek the truer statement.
Bertie’s constellation unfolds in trial and error stages as we discover the right movements for all the representatives. The representative for the stillborn child is placed with the siblings and the parents feel deeply relieved. Then I have Bertie “meet” her sister. Here also are a series of trial and error movements and statements such as, “It’s good to see you, dear sister. I miss you.” This brings the final release and the natural order is restored.
The constellation moves from the first picture into a series of trial movements as we find and restore the natural order. Generally, it ends when all the representatives feel good again. In Bertie’s case, the pain of losing the child caused the family to try to forget the pain. In the forgetting, the unborn child lost her place. As we have seen, often another sibling will take on the burden of that loss and feel sad or “empty.”
At this point, Bertie is encouraged to take the new picture fully into her soul and to allow it to begin further movements toward resolution.
This highly simplified example is just one of the many possible configurations a constellation can reveal. Unlike many therapeutic models, this one requires that the facilitator take an almost Zen-like approach. He or she must be loose and willing to move with whatever is presented within the field holding only a general framework of the hidden orders of love, the known facts of the family, and the reports of the representatives.
Little attention is given to the family “story” as the client has learned to interpret it. Many of us have spent a lifetime trying to explain why we feel bad or why things aren't going well. These stories or family scripts offer little in the way of understanding these hidden dynamics. The constellation generally reveals ties and connections we had not formerly even considered. The facilitator is willing to be curious, surprised, and flexible. A good facilitator is also one who has probed his or her own family system thoroughly to prevent blind spots and directions coming from his or her own soul.
I remember, when my training group first began, many of us would sit through constellations in tears or vibrating with some issue that resonated with our own. We had to clear this out before we could begin to work.
Every constellation is different in the picture that it presents. People have used it to resolve issues with a marriage, a relationship with a child or a parent, and to look into a health issue such as depression, mental illness or physical illness. The constellation process is even currently being used to look into the less powerful relationships within organizations and businesses or cultures which will be discussed in a later chapter. However, each constellation begins with a sincere question and a desire for some shift in our current reality.
In some cases, a person can be severely disturbed with multiple entanglements. I think this plays a stronger role in “mental illness” than we have previously considered. Awhile back I got into reading true crime stories such as Ann Rule. I was amazed at how often severe criminal acts were preceded by multiple and confusing issues within the family. The father is absent, the child is raised as another person’s child, the mother’s father committed suicide, and on and on. In one story, a child was named Colette, but the story revealed that she was the fifth Collette to be born in the family. The first four died at birth or before but were still given the name “Collette.” The writers of these true crime stories have probably not studied constellation work but these stories underscore the importance of Hellinger’s “hidden orders.” This work touches something true and sure inside of us when we witness it.
How Does the Constellation Work?
In an age where the drug companies and the medical model increasingly blame our “disorders” on biology, DNA or neurology, I am increasingly intrigued by this idea of a holistic web of energetic connection. One day science may be able to understand these energy fields better. Personally, I like the term, “the family soul.” There is much that the shamans and yogis have understood about the universe that science has not yet reached.
The constellation demonstrates the possibility of a wider connectedness than we previously may have considered. Are we really tied into the complex web of our ancestral line? Can the earlier actions of others affect us in this generation? Just as Carl Jung tentatively introduced his idea of the collective unconscious, so Hellinger gives us the phenomenological tool of the constellation as a way of connecting energetically with our ancestral line. We can’t necessarily understand these hidden forces at work, but we can use them.
To see this played out within the constellation can be stunning. Representatives act like small antennae able to pick up on accurate and powerful information belonging to another. Again and again my clients report that the mannerisms, expressions, and even exact information provided by the representatives are uncannily accurate.
In one workshop, the representative for a client's mother began limping on her right leg. The client reported that the mother had recently crushed her knee in a motorcycle accident. In another case the representative for the client's father got very dizzy and disoriented, and the client reported that her father died of Parkinson's disease. The representatives did not have these details until after they experienced it. This occurs so frequently that those of us working within this “knowing field” trust that the reports of representatives are accurate and useful.
For many of us the logical mind needs an explanation and casts about trying to understand the phenomenon. We talk of morphogenic fields, physics, the spiritual web of connection, shamanic forces; we make up all manner of ways to explain phenomenological experience.
Personally, I think that just like we have a genetic blueprint in the physical body—we also have an energetic blueprint of our larger system. This is the substance of the family constellation. We are connected both physically and spiritually to the larger system of our family. Another way to consider it is that setting up a constellation creates a kind of hologram for the client—through them, we can see the whole.
For several years I worked with a group on the Pine Ridge Reservation under the guidance of a medicine man. Within the Lakota culture, the involvement of spirits and the ancestors is never taken lightly. Before I could begin doing constellation work with this group, I had to agree to go into the Inipi (sweat lodge) so the medicine man could ask the spirits permission. As a white woman, I had never been in a sweat lodge.
Although I am married to a tribal member and have spent my life around native people, I felt awkward and unsure about entering the Inipi ceremony. It is not my culture. I was also a bit worried about the heat—I have a touch of claustrophobia. I asked the wife of the medicine man who is also a friend if there was anything I should know—protocols and parameters. She eased my fears instantly. “Just think of the steam as the breath of the grandfathers and ask for their help.” This was so consistent with my experience with this work that I went in and each blast of steam brought me a greater connection instead of discomfort.
The spirits agreed that this work was needed for their people. However, the spirits also said that it was important to acknowledge the true source of the help we received. Following each constellation session, we were to again enter the Inipi and ask to be cleansed—and to release the ancestors back to the spirit world.
For the next year I worked monthly with their group. For the traditional Lakota, the distance between the realms of the living and the realms of the dead is not so vast. Before each constellation session, we prayed and smudged with sage or cedar, praying to the ancestors for their help. I found it wonderful to work within a culture that did not question the involvement of the other realms. It helped me come to terms with my own beliefs about why the constellation works.
Regardless of how we explain or understand the infor-mation gleaned by the representatives in a constellation, my experience tells me that we can trust what it provides when we approach the work in a spiritual and highly respectful way. When we do so, help comes to guide us toward a solution and the right order.
Whether we choose physics or a shamanic explanation for the help that arrives in the constellation, it is clear to me that without this deep respect the constellation this would become simply one more therapeutic method. Family Constellation Work is not an A to B to C method, but an intuitive process that unfolds when the group forms.
Facilitating Constellation Work
To be effective working within this energetic field, a practitioner must have the right stuff. First, we need to resolve our own entanglements and issues to avoid blind spots. Secondly, we must let go of all previous belief systems about what is right and wrong about incest, death, abortion, murder, and so called good or bad parents. In the larger soul of the family, there are only actions, consequences of those actions, and the glue that binds the whole. This glue is love and loyalty, even when it appears to be something quite different. We approach the field with an attitude of acceptance and non-judgment. This is not an easy state to achieve. Finally, we need training to recognize the “hidden orders” within families that mysteriously become visible within the field of the constellation.
Constellation work is not a set of ritual movements that can be performed in a perfunctory fashion while looking at a manual in your right hand. During one of my workshops an interested participant sat and wrote down all of my ritual sentences as if those sentences contained the heart of the work.
In an early workshop on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, a Lakota man explained that in their culture working with the ancestors requires that we become a “hollow bone.” In other words, we set aside all knowledge and thought and become a pipe through which the information coming from a larger source can flow. The hollow bone is a good description of the state of an effective facilitator—and of the whole group that comes together to support the constellation work. Personal ego, the mind, thoughts, concepts, and ideas have little value within this knowing field.
We can't learn all the complexities of this work until we actually enter the field as a practitioner. To learn it, we must do it—and we must humbly take the tools and integrate them into who we are and not simply become little clones of our trainer. I expect to always be a student of this work and never a master. Within the mysterious workings of the constellation tool, I recognize that to know is to know that you don't know. We take a humble stance and go forward.
However, you don’t have to become a facilitator to begin integrating these principles into your life. Begin with this manual and your own family of origin. Be willing to set aside common family stories or the many reasons you have told yourself that life is not going so well. We often assume that one or the other parent wasn’t supportive enough, and begin to hang our own failures on this too-familiar hook. Unfortunately, many therapies help us to choose this easy out. It takes courage and strength to begin setting aside common stories and to look deeply into the true origins of our family with adult eyes. Be open learners, ready to explore and experiment in a respectful way.
A word of caution. If you are seeking an opportunity to look at your own family by doing a constellation, choose a facilitator carefully. Besides checking on training and level of experience, perhaps the most important indicator is to look directly at the person. Does he or she have a good, full life? Is she strong? Is he succeeding at what he wants to do? These simple questions can direct you toward a good facilitator or teacher of this work. This same rule applies to choosing a therapist or coach for any inner work. Choose someone who has a life that you admire, qualities you would like to model, and a solid strength in the world. The yellow pages or a glitzy brochure won’t tell you anything.
A final note about constellation work; doing a formal constellation with a trained facilitator is intended to reveal hidden entanglements with your relationship systems. It is not a cure all to life’s daily problems but a specific tool for a specific purpose.
Having said this, there is a wonderful body of knowledge and understanding within constellation work that we can use to explore our place in the world and our relationships. We can use a simple process of constellating small objects in order to see a basic dynamic operating within a relationship. Gaining an understanding of the basic premises of constellation work and how to use them is the focus of this book. Personally, I can hardly talk without beginning to rearrange small coffee creamers or glasses on a restaurant table.
Recently I had a call from my sister who was having supper with a friend of hers on the East Coast. They'd been talking about constellation work, and my sister was using sugar packets to show her friend how it works. The woman had a little brother who had died very early and they called me "mid-constellation."
My sister asked, “Does she have to put the brother in his place with his siblings? My friend doesn’t want to. She says they were always angry with this little brother for dying early and upsetting Mom and Dad.”
I told her, "Yes—give the little brother his proper place."
So, a thousand miles away, two women were doing constellation work with sugar packets. Later my sister said that as soon as her friend put the little brother in his right place a deep, relieving wave of sadness came over her. Afterwards, the woman carried the little packet around for days trying to decide what to do with it.
Finally, during a visit to her mom, she took the small sugar packet and dumped it into her mother’s sugar bowl. She decided to leave the small, sweet package with her mother—where it belonged. She called my sister several weeks later to say how incredible she felt—free and light, released from some burden she had long carried. She said the table-top constellation was worth thousands of dollars of therapy. This is the potential benefit of constellation work.
So, be cautious but be curious. Simple, little constellations like the one above can yield great results. It is, of course, best to deal with serious issues with a trained facilitator, but the first part of a constellation, getting the visible picture of hidden dynamics, can be done in small ways.
The constellation is essentially a group process. There is no real substitute for the full process, but throughout this handbook there will be opportunities for you to do a number of exercises that, though they may be limited, can nevertheless be useful in helping you to see more of your system. At the end of each topic from here on there will be sections on “Things to Consider” and then actual exercises that invite you to write or to do small constellation movements either alone or with just another person or two. There will also be many trial ritual sentences included in the exercise section for each topic. As in a full constellation, trust your own soul to know which sentences have energy—and which ones are inert and have no effect.
To do these exercises, you may want to gather a few small objects to work with. I have used small stones, little wooden pegs, seashells, water glasses on a kitchen table—or sugar packets. Choose things that can indicate a forward direction—like the face of a person. It can be important to know which direction a “representative” is facing. When a representative is turned away from other family members or from life itself, he is often placed looking outside of the circle. You may also use small pillows, shoes, or other objects that allow you to work within the open space of your living room or an office. You may want to try several things and see what works for you. The exercises will direct you more specifically as we move through each topic. My experience with these small constellations is that they can often give you new information although they may not be able to lead you to full resolution of the issue the way a trained facilitator can.
A Beginning Practice Exercise Using Pillows
1. Begin with this simple tuning-in exercise. Consider something that you are trying to make a future decision about, something with only two or three possible choices.
2. Choose a number of objects to represent these possible choices—pillows would work well for this. In an empty space in your house, pick up one pillow and hold it a minute and consider one of the choices.
3. Now walk quietly around the empty space and then set the pillow down wherever it feels intuitively right to put it. Pause a moment and then pick up the second pillow, consider the second choice thoughtfully, and then again move around the space until you feel an urge to set it down. If there is a third choice, do the same process.
4. Now, turn all of your attention inward to your own sensations, thoughts, and feelings. This can mean anything from a tingle in your finger tips to changes in the temperature of your body. Walk slowly and meditatively around the space where you have placed your “choices” and notice any pull toward or away from one or the other, any sensations that arise as you approach or leave one behind.
You are new to this experience, so never mind if your brain tells you that you are being silly or crazy—and be perfectly willing to let your inner self lead you to the “right” decision. Consider that some deeper part of you already knows which choice would best serve your needs right now—you are simply getting out of your own way and letting that become more visible.
Although this is a simple training exercise for understanding that everything around us has energy, it can be a good way to practice this process. When you have finished simply notice what this experience brought you. If you have a clear indication of the right choice, then the next step is to learn to trust this intuitive process and act on this decision. You may even say aloud to the pillow—I choose you.
On Your Own With Constellation Work
On my office table I have a pretty basket full of stones, seashells, and small wooden pegs that, when arranged, look like little people. I use these objects to constellate a client's family system. While not as effective as a real constellation—the objects can't talk or feel—it can provide useful information and insight.
1. To do a tabletop constellation, clear your mind of all the other clutter of the day.
2. Create an empty space on the table.
3. Focus your energy on the relationship you are trying to see more clearly. Then, using whatever objects are handy, assign each object the name of the person or persons you want to constellate. Use something that has a front and a back so that you can see which way the small representative is facing.
4. Now place the items in relationship to one another, keeping it clear in your mind that each piece represents and following your own intuitive sense. Let your mind be free of any preformed pictures.
5. When you've completed the setup, take a look at the distance between each member of the system, the direction they are facing, and your own feelings as you touch each one. Allow yourself to take a distant stance—as if you are looking at them from afar. What do you see? Do they look at one another? Does any member look as if they are leaving the space? What feeling do you get as you look at them? You might even touch each piece again to see if any feelings or sensations are present such as sadness or anger, a tingling sensation, or whatever comes.
6. If you get clarity about how these people are relating to one another, see if you can find the most satisfying position for each one. Move the pieces around—bring them closer or farther apart, have them face one another. Notice any words that come to your mind as you do this.
This handy tool is not meant to resolve big issues but it can be instructive and useful in bringing some dynamic more into visibility. You may use it to get clarity on relationships, decisions, and other things as we will explore later.
In the chapters that follow, we will be examining the many different relationships and combinations. Spend time with the ones most important to you.
The Genealogy of the Soul
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