How do constellations show what is out of order, or what is in order?
In the classical form of this work, constellations take place in a group sitting in a circle with an open space available so that people may move into that space to form the constellation image. A facilitator will ask the client, or seeker, what the issue is that they would like to understand and perhaps shift. Given what he/she hears, the facilitator will then direct the client to select members of the group to represent people or other elements important to the question the client asks about. In family constellations, these will include family members. In organization constellations, people may represent people or the functions that people fill. The client moves these representatives, usually two to six to start with, into the open space, placing them intuitively in relation to each other. This becomes the initial image of the constellation.
The facilitator then asks each representative to use their systemic perception to sense thoughts, feelings or other phenomena in their body, or about their relationship to the other representatives. When asked, they report on any physical or emotional responses they are having as a result of standing in the constellation. Through eliciting information from representatives, the facilitator aims to uncover the deeper dynamics that hold the entanglements in place. Although describing it in the abstract may make the process sound difficult to relate to, in practice, as the deeper dynamics come to light, there is often a sense among the representatives and the client him/herself that a deep and/or universal truth has been revealed, one that shifts their perspective and helps explain the cause of the difficulties.
What is systemic perception?
Systemic perception is an ability that all humans are born with, but that has been by and large ignored and minimized by many western, euro-centric cultures. It is our ability to recognize energy, connection, and information outside of the five traditional senses. It comes in different forms for different people. Extra sensory perception (ESP) is one form of systemic perception, however in the American culture that has been relegated to the purview of a few on the fringe. In this work, participants are encouraged to trust and listen to their bodies and intuitions as this information appears.
Where does the information come from?
In 1995, Albrecht Mahr, M.D., coined the term, ‘the knowing field’ to describe the flow of energy and information that appears in the space occupied by representatives in a constellation, once a question has been asked. When we tune in using our systemic perception, we can sense information coming from this field. We say that we experience it phenomenologically, which means that we pay attention to sensations, emotions, physical feelings and bits of information that emerge once we are representing an element in a constellation, without judging or analyzing it. Instead, we offer the information we receive in order to move the constellation forward. Other terms to describe the field from other disciplines are the unconscious, or the collective unconscious, or non-ordinary reality.
What is the role of ancestors or transgenerational information?
We sometimes say that constellations are helpful for patterns or entanglements that do not resolve by using other means, such as therapy, for family issues, or problem solving, etc., for organizational issues or social issues. This is because what often emerges in a constellation is that the underlying dynamics causing the current dysfunction happened in earlier generations and is being transmitted to the current one. (In organizational settings, generations can be literal, or symbolic, depending on the age of the organization.) Methods that try to resolve these issues without addressing the underlying, transgenerational causes cannot work because the root cause remains undiscovered.
In other words, in traditional therapy settings, the issue is assumed to reside within the client or their immediate family system; in constellations we look at the larger system that includes ancestors and say that the cause may have resided with them, and is being transferred down the generations.
This is often the most mysterious aspect of the process. How can we receive information from ancestors, whether familial, organizational or social, in current time? There are many partial explanations for how this is so. Current research in biology, for example, shows that trauma in one generation can change DNA, which is then transmitted in its changed form to succeeding generations. Other research documents healing at a distance. Research on altered states such as those created in meditation shows meditation has effects on the energy fields nearby. And more research is emerging all the time.
Some practitioners refrain from taking a position on whether the ancestors are ‘real’ in a constellation, and instead say that the information comes to us from the collective unconscious.
Many practitioners, however, maintain a humble attitude in front of this mystery and note mainly that it works, as evidenced by anecdotal, personal accounts as well as more rigorous research, more of which is coming on line all the time. We see that it works; we see that ancestors seem to be able to be accurately represented in these constellations; and we see that the information received from them through systemic perception has a healing effect.
Where did systemic constellations begin?
In the main, constellations were developed by Bert Hellinger, a German ex-priest and psychotherapist. As a Jesuit assigned for a long stretch of time with the Zulus in South Africa, Hellinger learned about and respected their practice of ancestor reverence. In coming back to Europe, leaving the priesthood and becoming a psychotherapist, he began experimenting with what he learned on European families in the 1980s, and gradually systemic constellations, initially named ‘family constellations’ because family systems were the first place where the work was practiced, came into being.