Systemic constellations is known as technique that finds “a way out of no way,” as the process has helped many people find personal relief from old patterns 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 group dynamics 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.”
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 see 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 or individually as an exercise based on felt sense. It is now being done widely over Zoom.
In a group setting a person may want to look, say at a relationship or work pattern that was very similar to their grandfather’s. A facilitator might ask the person to choose someone in the group 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 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.
Resonating 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.
The representatives maintain ordinary awareness. They do not 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, rebalancing the system, 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.
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 provide guidance and clarity for the world of hard matter.
There are currently three prevailing theories for how representative perception works, some new, and some ancient:
- The Knowing Field
- Morphic Resonance
- The Universal Indigenous Field
The Knowing Field
The term used most often in family and systemic 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.
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).
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.
Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life, 1981.
Francesca Mason Boring, Connecting to Our Ancestral Past, 2012.