How Constellations Work: Representative Perception

Constellations is known as technique to finds “a way out of no way,” as the process has helped many people find relief from old blocks that seemed calcified and unmoveable. Constellations are particularly well-suited to address conditions that have been chronic; for states of mind that have been present “for as long as I can remember”; and for issues that otherwise don’t seem to make any sense.

As the work has evolved over the last decades, each practitioner may take a slightly different approach, refining the process through working phenomenologically, and observing what brings about change for people. What is common to all practitioners of family and systemic constellations is the use of “representative perception.”
Betty Busby Quilt

How constellations are set up


The first step in setting up a constellation, is to get an understanding of the current situation. We look at any situation from a holistic, systemic perspective, starting from the assumption that no person or situation exists in a vacuum, but always has a number of causes and conditions holding it in place.

The technique we use to understand the current situation is to place representatives of the situation. Traditionally this is done in a group, but can also be done in a private setting with a facilitator; individually as a meditation; or in many other ways.

In a group setting a person may want to look, say at their relationship with their grandfather. A facilitator would then ask the person to choose someone in the circle to represent themselves and someone else to represent their grandfather. The person with the questions place these two representatives in the middle of the circle.

Without any special talents or background information, anyone has the capacity to stand as a representative. Representatives are frequently asked to represent family members of a person’s system, but can also stand for other aspects of a system, like a person’s original homeland or a physical or emotional symptom they are experiencing. The representatives usually do not know anything about the person’s history and this is by design. As they are placed, they are asked to simply rely on their capacity to resonate. This is not a special skill that anyone needs to be taught. All of us know what it’s like to walk into someone’s home and have either a good feeling or a bad feeling. We all have had the experience of meeting someone and immediately feeling either drawn to or repulsed by them. This is the type of resonance we are using in constellations.

As the two representatives stand in relation to each other, they become aware of sensation, sound, feelings. They begin to recognize some sensations as distinct or slightly exaggerated. Very often they get a sense for spatial relationships — how near or far away they want to stand from the other representative or which way they want to be looking. We call this representative perception, and this is the main technique we use in constellations.

Camillo Golgi, Cerebellum of a Rabbit, 1882

The representatives maintain ordinary consciousness and awareness. They don’t have to try or concentrate. If the person has an estranged relationship with their grandfather, the person representing the grandfather may be drawn to stand on the edge of the circle looking off in the distance. Through perceptions that come into the awareness for the representatives, a story begins to unfold that tells about dynamics of the situation that are beneath the surface. The mental image that the person walks around with unconsciously is “out-pictured.”

As the representatives stay present, more information flows in, and there is often movement towards resolution. This often happens spontaneously; sometimes no words are needed. Other times the facilitator might suggest an additional representative that can serve as a support. In this way the system works towards reconfiguring, and showing a new picture of how things could be.

Often the way information comes through is metaphorical. The representative makes a gesture that is meaningful to the person bringing the question, that only they could know. Constellations can be like potent haikus. The gaze of awareness is sent back to the moment in time that needs it most. Private winks from the ancestors come through on a regular basis

How does it work?

So how does it work? How is it that virtually anybody can come in off the street, form a circle of people who don’t know each other, and get such specific information? How can the people standing in representation possibly know?

While there are several theories, the truth is we don’t actually know for sure. We only know that it does work and take as our evidence the way it has helped many people resolve longstanding and chronic issues that are emotional, physical, financial, practical. These processes are most definitely able to effect the world of hard matter.

There are currently three prevailing theories for how representative perception works, some new, and some ancient:

  1. The Knowing Field
  2. Morphic Resonance
  3. The Universal Indigenous Field
Julie Dodd

The Knowing Field

The term we used most often in constellations, the “Knowing Field” was coined by German physician and early constellations facilitator, Dr. Albrecht Mahr. He suggested that the field carries information from one’s ancestors to their descendants in the present. He contends that the Knowing Field also can carry information from the ancestors to representatives in a constellation. (1999)

It is as if there is a vault of information that is opened when someone brings a question to a group of people. Sitting in a circle, the group of people creates a field, and anyone who is invited to stand in that field can access certain information from the vault. As a working definition this is a term that has stuck, even though there is not a lot of explanation about how it works — only that it does work.

Cross section of a tree

Morphic Fields

Evolutionary biologist Rupert Sheldrake developed the theory of morphic fields through observations found in nature. Morphic fields are organizing fields of animal and human behaviors, mental activities, and/or social and cultural systems. They contain memories that are built up and shaped by the influences of previous generations. Morphic fields surround morphic units, and are established by the repetition of thoughts or actions. To explain these phenomena, Sheldrake references a series of experiments that defied the laws conventional biology and physics. (1981)

When morphic units are new, they take some time to become established. To use a metaphor from nature, the creation of new morphic units can be like sledding down a hill. After a fresh snowfall, the first time you try to sled down the hill there is friction; the sled doesn’t know where to go and moves unpredictably. But after a few runs, grooves are formed more deeply in the snow. Sheldrake claims that all patterns in nature are formed in a similar way over time, through habit and repetition. New patterns come in to form (are “in-formed”). Similarly once a new morphic unit is established for the first time, subsequent morphic fields for similar units form very easily. As the morphic field becomes more established, morphic resonance is the feedback mechanism that carries “information” from the past to the present, and then to the future (Sheldrake, 1981).

A person’s personality, relationships, and family system are a composite of these morphic units. Any one of these units can be seen as a hologram. When you stand as a representative in a person’s family system, you are interacting with and creating a living picture of that hologram through morphic resonance. Even though you are perceiving and showing one small piece, at the same time it is showing something of the whole.

When we develop a new picture of how things could be through the constellation process, we are creating new grooves in the snow for the first time. It is setting up a new pattern; re-coding the hologram of that family pattern. The individual bringing the question can sled down the hill through those new grooves more easily after it is constellated. They often experience a new sense of possibility, as do the other members of a family system, even if they are not present at the constellation.

Betty Busby quilt

The Universal Indigenous Field

When Francesca Mason Boring saw constellations for the first time, she quickly recognized that practitioners were working with the “universal indigenous field” that traditional cultures have always relied upon, including in her own Shoshone upbringing.

In her trainings on “Constellations as Ceremony,” she explains that indigenous cultures all over the world take it as a given that there is an oracular source that can be consulted for wisdom, healing, and practical guidance. It has been consulted since the beginning of humankind to heal the sick; to know how to feed the community; which plants to harvest and when; and how to organize the community. Every culture has developed technologies to interact with this source. In some indigenous culture there is even debate about what is more real — the dreamtime or the world we encounter in waking life.

“Within the framework of Native tradition, the ancestors can be understood as existing parallel to us. They are dead, but they are not gone. They are a resource, and if there is a ceremony or ritual that has worked for them in the past, it is not beyond them to share it. So, although it may occur in this moment for the first time in recent history, it is not new… Some of the elements may seem ethnocentric at first glance, but with deeper investigation, one encountered the universal indigene.” (Mason Boring, 2012)

As Francesca is known for saying, “we all come from the tent.” In traditional cultures there may be elders or medicine people in the community who are particularly adept at drawing wisdom and knowledge from this fountain of knowledge. But in fact all members of the community know something about it; they know how to use the herbs and remedies based on the advice from their mothers and grandmothers. When they awake from a strong dream they pay attention and listen to its message. They may have a practice of going on a vision quest or a shamanic journey for guidance.

In the practice of Constellations as Ceremony, there is an assumption that each person in the circle is a healer and a teacher. All we need is to be in a human body; our body’s capacity to resonate is the doorway to this universal source of knowledge and wisdom.

“The circle of participants is a circle of healers. Based upon the circles in the sweat lodge, talking circles in many Native traditions, each person is respected as a healer, someone who has been called to the circle by the ancestors.” (Mason Boring, 2012)

Taken in this way, the practice of constellations can help to repair the connection to indigenous ways of knowing that were severed in the Cartesian revolution. In the West, interacting with the Knowing Field may look like a new discovery, and has been very skillfully presented in a way that is palatable to western sensibilities, wearing many of the same garments of western psychology. When looked at in light of the Universal Indigenous Field, we can see how it is drawing on technologies that are ancient and native to human capacities.

This perhaps explains why when people see constellations for the first time, they seem common sense and obvious. And why anybody can stand in the Field for a constellation, and are able to represent. On some level we all know that we live in a symbolically potent universe; and know how to interpret the signs.

In the closing picture of a constellation, when we see a new possibility has been opened, it can be seen as similar to the response that comes at the end of a vision quest in the indigenous tradition. As in a vision quest, the vision may take time to unfold, but something new has certainly been set in motion.

So while how constellations works remains a mystery, for many reasons we can be grateful that the modern practice of constellations has popularized these ancient technologies, and made relevant for our times.

References

Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life, 1981.

Francesca Mason Boring, Connecting to Our Ancestral Past, 2012.

Icones of Japanese algae, 1912

Mysteries of Belonging

Watching a family constellation often feels like seeing a great mystery unfold. There is almost always a missing piece, and when it is discovered, it has the quality of finding a piece of the puzzle that was hiding in plain sight.

What gives constellations the quality of being obvious and ordinary is that we are always looking for simple truths. Their discovery is punctuated by simple sentences that have a way of moving mountains: “You are part of my family.” “You came first.” “You gave, and I benefitted.”

We find our way to these truths by following the Orders of Love developed by Bert Hellinger, which describe how life energy moves through a system. These Orders are most obvious when applied to a family system, but are so universal that they can reliably be applied to any living system.

Kenojuak Ashevak

The Orders of Love

Living among multi-generational families as a missionary in South Africa, Bert Hellinger observed basic governing principles operating in family systems. Over time he found that these principles also applied for families he worked with in post-WWII Germany, and as the work grew, in most every other culture around the world.

In traditional psychotherapy, we usually investigate an issue or symptom, assuming that it is unique to our own lives and our personal psyches. We often attempt to trace the source back to events in our early childhood. In Family Constellations we zoom out and take a holistic approach, looking at ourselves as a member of a mutli-generational family system. No matter what the nature of our family relationships may be today, or whether we personally had contact with members from previous generations, the family we come from has bearing on who we are in the world. We carry patterns from our family system around with us like a hologram, and these effect how much we feel supported and can thrive in the world, and in what circumstances we feel held back.

The Orders of Love describe what homeostasis looks like in a family system, what puts a system out of balance, and how other members of the system unconsciously try to bring the system back into balance. Hellinger named  these principles the “Orders of Love” because they describe what circumstances encourage or prevent love from moving freely through a family system.

The Orders of Love are:

1. It all belongs. Everyone in the family system has a right to belong to the system, always.
2. All who belong must be given their place. Each member of the family system has a right place.
3. There needs to be a balance of giving and receiving in relationships.

Vibrant Owl, Kenojuak Ashevak

It all belongs

This first Order of Love, “It all belongs,” seems like the most obvious. It means that everyone in the family system has a right to belong to the system. However it is surprisingly easy to exclude or forget about someone in a family, either consciously or unconsciously. There are the obvious times when a family forcibly attempts to erase people from memory — the black sheep, the outlaw, or the cantankerous aunt or uncle everyone would just assume forget about. Just as common there are premature deaths, first loves, first husbands and wives, and babies who pass only briefly through the threshold of this world. Many times these losses are too much for the heart to bear and so people in the family put them out of their awareness and try to move on.

All of these people belong to a family system, even when family members attempt to banish them from memory. The family consciousness knows when a person has gone missing. When a person is cast out, actively excluded or passively unacknowledged, the family system will attempt to bring attention to the one who is missing. Even if the person is effectively cast out for one generation, we often see that a child born into later generations, unconsciously adopts their traits or behaviors. They may mimic a form of hiding themselves, or hide an important aspect of themselves. The work then is to see, remember, and acknowledge the original missing person. This gets love flowing again and can change everything.

Raven Shapes, Kenojuak Ashevak

All who belong must be given their place

For all the members of a family system, there is an order that can be represented based on time. For example parents come before children; the first child comes before the second, and so on. If there have been multiple spouses or significant relationships, the first spouse comes before the second spouse, etc.

This is another principle that may seem obvious and common sense. It is simply stating “what is true.” But when members of the system are not given their place, things can really go haywire. They subconsciously become confused about where their place is, who is who, and they may fight with the one that is “taking” their place.

For example if the first child in a family dies prematurely, and another child comes later, the first child still needs to be acknowledged as the firstborn.
Many things can become resolved by acknowledging the first child who died early — or any family member where there is confusion about their order.

People who have been confused about their order feel a sense of empowerment in finding their place. They often have a sense of recovering something that has been missing all of their lives; a sense of finding a place that is more authentic than they have ever experienced.

Ravens Protecting Owl, Kenojuak Ashevak

There needs to be a balance of giving and receiving

When someone gives to you, there is a natural tendency to want to give something back — and maybe even a little more than what they gave to you. When a person takes too much, or takes something they are not entitled to, the system knows there is a deficit, and will attempt to make up for it in some way.

This is not a new discovery, but a very old one. In its most basic form, Hellinger describes the evolutionary impulse to keep giving life energy in the way parents pass life down to their children. Children feel the importance of this gift and naturally feel compelled to do just about anything for their parents in order to give back. Subconsciously out of love they may try to “help” their parents by sharing in their struggles. They hold a stance of “I’ll carry the burden for you…” in an attempt to repay them. This leads to imbalances that we often see in family constellations, as there is nothing children can do directly for their parents to repay their feeling of indebtedness.

From a systemic perspective, the best way for children go “give back” is to say those most important words, “Thank you,” and to let life keep moving through them — through their own offspring or through their creative works in the world. Living into the fullness of the life energy and gifts we were given is a big way to restore balance.

Hellinger stresses that the Orders of Love are not rigid rules and should not be applied in a rigid way. They are the guide that a facilitator checks after a constellation is set up and the first image emerges: “Who or what has been excluded?” “Who is not taking their place in the system?” “Where is the balance of giving and taking out of balance?” The Orders of Love are the map that we follow to find our way back to that the missing piece that changes everything.

Interwoven Owl, Kenojuak Ashevak

“People often treat these orders
as if they were opinions
Which may be adopted or not
And changed at will.

But they are given to us as they are.
They have effects independent of our understanding.
They are not created, they can only be discovered.
We can only recognize the orders from their effects,
In the same way we are aware of the existence of soul and consciousness only by their effects upon us.”
Bert Hellinger, Supporting Love, 2001

What are Constellations?

Constellations make sense intuitively when you see them in person, but are notoriously difficult to describe since they work from a place beyond words. These are some of the most helpful introductory materials available about the history of constellations, how they work, and what you can expect when you attend a constellations workshop for the first time.

Intro to Constellations Books

Some of the most recommended books for an introduction to constellations.

 

The Healing of Individuals, Families & Nations: Transgenerational Healing & Family Constellations

John Payne

The Language of the Soul: Healing with Words of Truth

John Payne

It Didn't Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle

Mark Wolyn

Family Constellations

Family Constellations was first popularized in Germany, in the aftermath of WWII. Some of the first discoveries were made with German families, who were looking at the after-effects showing up in the descendants of victims and perpetrators in the war. This article explains the origins, why there is often historical undertones in constellations, as well as how they are set up in a group process.

Where Germans Make Peace with Their Dead

by Burkhard Bilger. The New Yorker.

Businesses and Organizational Constellations

After seeing how constellations worked in a family system, early practitioners began extending the work to look at a wider range of systems, including businesses and organizations. Systemic constellations is now known as an effective tool for improving businesses. Jan Jacob Stam is one of the foremost practitioners and trainers for how constellations works in management, non-profits, and government.

How Constellations can be used for organizations and businesses

Intro Video Courses

For those who are ready to dive a bit deeper, one of the first generation of constellators, Bertold Ulsamer, offers very a clear and practical video introduction to constellations. Many of them are free.

Introduction to Family Constellations with Bertold Ulsamer