Truth and Reconciliation in Systemic Constellations

In the opening configuration, when representatives first stand for different aspects of the situation, it often looks completely stuck and impossible. “How are we ever going to get out of this one…” And then as the representatives continue to stand, usually in silence, it is as if a map starts to unfurl, showing the way back to the time and place where this particular trouble was kicked up in the first place. And somehow once we make our way to that place, we know what to do: see this, acknowledge that, honor someone or something. It is a kind of acupressure of the collective conscience. When we touch the right meridians, the relief for those standing as representatives is obvious. There is a perceptible calm even in the outer circle witnessing the process.

Lourdes Sanchez, Geos

As you start to catch on to these rhythms, you see that there is a formula for truth and reconciliation in constellations that makes them energizing and life giving. And somehow it all looks easier and more straightforward than you thought it would be: if there was a place of forgetting, we go back and remember; if there was a place of perpetration, we go back and place responsibility where it belongs. There may be tears, but even the tears have a kind of accuracy to them. They are well-placed; it is the kind of sad that once you grieve, it is complete. Afterwards there is a kind of glow that is hard to name. Call it Freedom. Emancipation. Amazement. Call it “Wow.”

At the coffee breaks between constellations, many of us attending workshops can’t help but wonder, if this is the kind of relief that is possible for families, could a similar process be used for the cultural wounds in our society today? In the U.S. we have not yet known large-scale truth and reconciliation. And by now it has been so long, we hardly know where to start. With the heartbreak of immigration and leaving one’s homeland and loved ones under duress? With the enslavement of Africans, building an entire economy on the riches of slave labor, and the horrendous repeats of racial discrimination that followed? With the first fences put up on land that natives had been living in deep relationship with for thousands of years, then attempting to destroy native people and culture, and build a new society on top of the wreckage?

For many people looking to right old wrongs, as an activist, or social justice warrior, it is not long before we feel like we are doing it all wrong, putting our foot in our mouths, not knowing how to stop being part of the problem. As we start down the road of “fighting for others,” we often find places where we too are feeling victimized by an oppressive system. It’s become so painfully obvious that as a society we keep perpetuating the same historical wounds, in spite of ourselves and our best intentions. This is the definition of a wicked problem; the fact that you are woven into the web makes it harder to see a way out of.

Andres Amador, Sand Murals

1. Listen and see

Listen deeply; know the story in its many layers. Find the truth of the situation. Try to find who or what forces contributed.

2. Acknowledge

Come to a common understanding about what has been found. Certain events and aspects merit particular acknowledgement. Life and death matter quite a lot.

Who lived. In what order was each one born: first this one, then that one.
Who died.
If someone was killed, who was responsible.
Who gave.
Who benefitted.
Who took something that was not theirs.
Whose life was able to continue as a consequence.
What was secreted away.

Sometimes there are things that have been hidden for generations. Often this happens for good reason. At the time, it would have brought on too much shame or difficulty; or it was simply too much for the heart to bear. We are stronger now and with time on our side, have capacity to look at and acknowledge these things.

3. Honor

Getting all of these details straight takes some effort. As you start putting them back into order, getting the timeline straight, that in itself is an honoring that engages your emotions. It is not done in a way that is rote or formulaic, it is a ritual of remembrance. Sometimes there are words used to honor that are said with presence, in a ceremonial way. These are words of esteem that the group conscience can hear.

“I lived and you died.”
“I benefitted from your labor.”
“My family benefitted.”
“My family member’s life was able to continue as a consequence.”

For the honoring to be complete, you feel it in your body. You are calm. Although you are remembering something about the past, you are doing it very much in the present moment. You may find a posture of honoring that feels authentic, bringing the hands to the heart, folding them into prayer, or a bowing of the head. Find a place inside where you experience sincerity; sometimes no words are even necessary.

Lourdes Sanchez, Geos

4. Make reasonable restitutions that all parties are satisfied with

It will look different for each situation. It could be symbolic; it could be monetary. If it’s possible to give back what has been taken, now is the time. It could be a solemn vow to move forward in a new way. This is a practice of reparations, but to say that it is simply a cash payout, is to make it too small.

The amazing part is, after you have seen and acknowledged in a deep way, the fact that we are actually interconnected awakens something in the system, which is constantly seeking for balance. The seeing and honoring has a way of activating a creative life force to spontaneously help find what is needed. A creative solution comes, that is appropriate for the current time and place. It brings peace to the system.

Some words that may come along on the winds of reconciliation are:
“I make the solemn vow to do it differently now.”
“I remember you.”
“I will carry you in my heart.”

You know you have found the right thing when it feels right to the one who took and to the one who was taken from. We check with all parties and if it doesn’t feel right, there is more seeing acknowledging to do.

It’s not just about forgiveness

In the West there is a moral commandment to “forgive and forget” and so out of habit, we often reach for forgiveness. The problem with forgiveness is that it often comes too early in the process. When people try to be selfless, putting themselves aside and only understanding the one who wronged them, they abandon their own pain and distress. Forgetting becomes another exclusion. For a complete reconciliation, the pain cannot be excluded. The pain is valued as a messenger for what is needed to rebalance the scales. If one person has taken something, the responsibility for what they did needs to stay with them.

In constellations this is often the game changer. And the surprise is that it can be very straightforward for the person who has taken more than their share to accept responsibility. Because on some level they know and feel the imbalance too. Returning that responsibility to them, becomes a kind of honoring that is restorative.
 So it is not about simply saying “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” Even though these words might come out along the way these are not the words that bring about a spontaneous unraveling of generations of wounding. The potency, the thing that has transformative power, is doing each step of the process.

It is really beautiful work, full of surprises and awe.
Come join us sometime.



Francesca Mason Boring, Connecting to Our Ancestral Past: Healing through Family Constellations, Ceremony, and Ritual  

Bert Hellinger, Peace Begins in the Soul. 2013.

John L. Payne, The Healing of Individuals, Families, and Nations. 2005.

Bertold Ulsamer, The Healing Power of the Past: A New Approach to Healing Family Wounds. 2005.  

Lourdes Sanchez, Color Abstract #5
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