Love’s Hidden Symmetry

Family Constellation Work: Love's Hidden Symmetry
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Hello. So in this particular version or chapter of this ongoing blog, I’d like to spend some time exploring in initial detail, a methodology or a practice, you might say, that is adjacent to Psychosynthesis, sort of a complementary but different model. One that I have some experience in both as a client and an observer, and one that tends to work more in group settings than it does in the individual, although it can be adapted and used in individual settings one to one. And that is, what has come to be most commonly called Family Constellation work, sometimes known as Systemic Constellation work.

Bert Hellinger & His Integration of Indigenous and Western Therapeutic Practice

This work has a number of origin points. I don’t mean to try and cover them all here but I’d like to tease out one of the main flows within that tradition, which comes basically to us through the work of a German phenomenologist, Catholic priest, thinker, writer, and practitioner, innovator, one might say, called Bert Hellinger, who lived between 1925 and 2019.

So Bert Hellinger was born into a Catholic family, kind of spent the early part of his life growing up in Nazi Germany. He refused to join the Hitler Youth on religious grounds as a practising Catholic which made him an object of some suspicion, as you might imagine. As many of his contemporaries, he was conscripted into the German Army in 1942, the Wehrmacht, and fought in the mid and latter part of the Second World War, and at the end of the war, was interned in a prisoner of war camp in Belgium, from which he emerged in due course.

And he went into a Jesuit seminary, and there spent time studying and taking Holy Orders, becoming a priest, and in due course, becoming a missionary. And following a bit of a teaching career, he was posted to South Africa. So he finds himself suddenly in South Africa, where he lived for 16 years, famously among Zulu people in particular, he became fluent in speaking various Zulu languages. And increasingly, his story is one of becoming deeply impressed by the Zulu understanding and worldview which are so very different than that of the Jesuits or of the European kind of mindset, the rational enlightenment mind. So much so that Hellinger returned to Germany after his 16 years, left the church, became interested and enrolled in analytic training in Vienna in the early 70s, spent some time training further with Arthur Janov in the States, the father of Primal Scream Therapy, and also with Eric Berne, one of the people behind the Transactional Analysis approach.

So you can see Hellinger as a great synthesiser of traditions, but he never forgot this understanding that came to him through his experiences with the Zulu people. And it was this that he took into shaping his own way of working, which becomes something very much in its own right. It’s a kind of fusion of some of the best aspects and insights of a Western European North American sort of therapeutic psychological understanding with this deep indigenous practice of, as the Zulu would say, going to the ancestors for consultation for understanding of one’s problems and one situations in life.

Family Constellation Work Origins

So over time and through practice, Hellinger evolves this into a whole system and he ends up writing or producing books that are kind of transcripts, frequently of interactions that he’s running with groups. In particular, I’d like to pull on a couple of those books, one called Love’s Hidden Symmetry, which is well worth checking out. Another in English that’s called The Orders of Love, also very much worth checking out. And the reason I wanted to talk about this is because one of the ways in which it’s adjacent to Psychosynthesis is its use of and reliance upon what we’ve come to call the field, the knowing field or the field of resonances. You could call it the collective field, that which is beyond the individual, beyond the immediate here and now present. That seems to offer through, you could say morphic resonance, that would be one way of describing it, or through Quantum processes, that would be another way of framing it, capacities to know and see into and feel one’s way towards healing, even when we don’t know the story, the narrative or the detail.

Family Constellations, by the way, is a term that was first used by Alfred Adler, one of the three kind of original pillars of the Psychological Psychotherapeutic project along with Freud and Jung, he first used that phrase Family Constellation. In practice, in Hellinger’s mode of Family Constellations work, the questioning client brings a problem or an issue and says a little about it, the experience of it, the immediate history of it. And then, with the guidance of the practitioner, will draw upon the resources of a group of other people, to place them in space as a representative of different figures within the story. So, “Would you please step forward and be my mother in this situation? I place you here, you’re looking that way”. Then placing other people who feature within the story, and then the client steps out and the field takes over, so to speak. 

And in the hands of a skilled practitioner, certainly Hellinger being the originator, but there are many other very gifted practitioners, people who’ve developed this in other directions and fused and combined it with other approaches, even people who work with non-human participants. So in particular, there’s a branch of equine facilitated psychotherapy that uses horses, a herd as the representatives and the embodiers of the fields, shapes and dynamics. So the field itself gets a chance to speak and to shed light upon some of the problems or the blockages within the system. And according to Hellinger, all systems, most notably family systems, are attempts at optimising the flow of love. 

That’s really what’s behind all of this. They’re optimising the flow of love through a system from the past to the present and into the future, which again, has a deep resonance with certain things within the Psychosynthesis framework, which also move through time in that way within one individual or within whole groups. So you could say, Family Constellation work is a way of working with illness and symptoms, with systemic issues, inter-generational issues, loyalties, distortions, traumas, and so forth, and also with the symbolic realm of that. And it also is working with time, order, and the presence of the past. In other words, the system as it exists in this moment right now and the field as the operating system of that constellation will bring what apparently in chronological terms is the past fully into the present. 

So it’s a deeply fascinating, humbling at its best and mysterious process. You’d want to quote Paracelsus here, who says in one of his texts, “The most worthy basis of medicine is love”. And I think you might say that Family Constellations work as we have it today is an attempt an expression of that very desire, that very seeing through. It’s in the service of love.

Stephan Hausner’s Soul Knowing and Loyalty System Exploration

There’s another practitioner who’s very much still around and practising, another German guy called Stephan Hausner, who I was lucky enough to work with earlier this year and to see in action. I’m deeply impressed by his approach and his method and his humanity actually. And he, having been a student of Bert Hellinger, has continued to evolve the method and to refine it and to ensure its currency, you might say, in the field today with emerging issues and trends. And in particular, his focus has been upon constellations in service of working with serious illness.

So there’s a book that Stephan Hausner wrote that is available in English, it’s called Even If It Costs Me My Life. I think the subtitle is Systemic Constellations and Serious Illness. So that too would come highly recommended. And a couple of things to take in very short order from that approach would be questions that may be seen as challenging or observations that may be seen as challenging to more conventional therapies. So for instance, Hausner makes very explicit that expectation of any kind, of all kinds, is the opposite of relationship. So wherever we find expectation, in ourself, in someone that we’re relating with, actually energetically, we or they are moving apart – we’re moving away, we’re not moving into relationship, we’re moving from it, outwards, away from it. So expectation is the opposite of relationship – that’s a good T-shirt slogan kind of way of encapsulating something really important.

There are many orders of love, as Hellinger called them. They’re almost kind of systemic laws, you might say, the laws of nature, or rather functions in the way that gravity functions in the outer world. Again, I won’t go into them all here, but just to bring your attention to that. Hellinger is fond of quoting the Irish poet, philosopher John O’Donohue, who in his book Anam Cara, which I think in the states in North America was known as or was titled as A Celtic Book of Blessings. And John O’Donohue in his usual poetic way, he has this phrase where he says, “Your soul knows the geography of your destiny”. And that again is almost like a motto, you might say, for this approach. That there is existing and held and encoded within the field, and within the system itself, the system as an expression of it, this deep knowing of destiny that is probably being distorted by our working through it or through various layers of loyalty or pathology, which one can notice in patterns as they run through systems. 

So, for example, Hausner observes that parents, as he says, can live without their children, but children cannot live without their parents. So if you hear that at its deepest level, there’s a deep, deep, resonant truth to that. That’s a natural truth, one might argue, but in systemic terms, symbolic terms too, it’s absolutely the case. The child of the parent has to resolve something about their having been made and created and given life by these parents, even if the relationship with those parents is completely impossible, or prohibitive. And so, there are within this way of working, statements or place holding insights, sort of symbolic matrices, you might say, shapes really, that arise or can arise that perhaps need to be said in the space of these constellations.

So one of the representatives may be asked to make the statement or the client might be brought back in and asked to repeat these words, for instance. And they may be something like the child addressing the parent and saying something like, “I give this back to you, whatever it might be. This belongs to you, it’s not mine. I have carried it for you this far out of love. But now I must give it back. It belongs to you, and I must live my life”. Or they might say something like, “I take my life through you. And I honour the price, I honour the cost of doing that”. The individuation or the separation from the trance of prior loyalty to a system that may be in itself quite dysfunctional. So there’s lots within this way of working.

Questioning: The Key to Understanding and Solving Problems

And a couple of other things before we wrap up as this is becoming longer than I intended, as seems to be the case, each time. There’s a lovely thing that Hausner quoted during the time I was observing him work with a big group in England in January 2023. He’s very good at taking his time pausing, reflecting, deepening, being sure to have understood what had been shared, but also the mystery of the shape that was set up with these representatives before him. He was asked a question about that, you know, why do you do that? How do you do that? What’s the importance of doing that? And his answer, he quoted Einstein and he said, Einstein was once asked about his minds capacity for solving problems. And he said, Look, if you gave me one hour to solve a certain problem, I would take 59 minutes to formulate the question, and then the final minute to answer it.

And I think that’s an incredibly useful reminder, therapeutically, that a great deal of the work is involved in how we articulate what it is we’re actually trying to say, or question or work with. And the beautiful question, as David White would call it, or the living question, one might say, is actually the point of the work if we can come to that, if we can put together the right question, the question that we perhaps would rather not ask or not reach. Then the answering of the question is contained within the questioning itself. So this is referred to in constellation terms, in terms of tension.

So again, taking this from the Hausner understanding, he says that there is no one closer to the solution than the client. In other words, the solution, if there could be such a thing, is within the problem, is within the question, and it’s certainly within the one asking the question, within the client themselves, which is actually a deeply reassuring and a deeply merciful understanding of the way the world and the universe and human relations work.

Tension in Evolution and Growth: Nature’s Flow of Love

And I’ll end with this. So another thing that comes from that tradition, and again makes for good slogan, and it is this, There’s nothing more evolutionary than a field of tension. In other words, tension is not the problem, or indeed, the symptom. Tension is the underlying condition by which anything happens, and anything moves and grows, and in this case, evolves. If you think about your human body, the only way we’re able to move and control our movements bio-mechanically is because tension operates through our skeleton and through our joints. To move your arm, something has to contract, something has to pull, something has to stretch. This oppositional tensions that create a field through which movement, and often incredibly fine, dexterous, graceful movement can arise. And it’s the same at the systemic level, the presence of tension is what permits life to thrive, and to grow and for healing to happen. So, we don’t want to mistake that for part of the problem. It’s actually the solution. 

And if we come back to this idea, this notion of systems functioning rather like a river system – tributaries flowing into channels, flowing into streams, flowing into rivers, flowing into bigger rivers, flowing into deltas, and then into oceans. There’s this sort of dendritic pattern that we find in nature again and again and again. The way trees and roots grow, the way the human lungs organise themselves, the way you see patterns of the movement of different liquids on alien moons and planets. Again and again and again, it’s this dendritic patterning that describes the flow. And if you think about it in terms of human connections and relationships, the flow itself is nothing other than love. So you could say, the health that underpins all of this, the system itself and its own resolution, is that which moves us towards openness to more flow, the capacity for more love to flow through us and to us and beyond us.

So, I would like to end with that note and to encourage you if you’re interested to check out constellation work if you’re lucky enough to bump into it where you are in the world through various practitioners. They’re never more than a Google search away, of course. Or if indeed, you’re drawn to look up the work of Stephan Hausner and Bert Hellinger, there are plenty of resources available and organisations that support the work of these and others in that tradition. And indeed plenty of examples of their work that exists online. If you were to search on YouTube, for example, you’ll find classic examples of Bert Hellinger in full flow working with groups in different parts of the world. And there are increasing numbers of other practitioners and Stephan Hausner is doing the same. So, on that note, I shall finish there and until next time, thank you very much for reading and listening. And do check out forthcoming courses and forthcoming blogs and further workshops and information that will appear from time to time on my website too. Thank you.

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