So many of our modalities for healing, for “achieving our potential” etc are focused on us as individuals and what we “know” and the stories we have made about our lives. Yet meditation, shamanism, spirituality in its deepest sense, all teach us that we are interconnected, parts of a greater whole, parts of systems. One of the most profound systems of which we are part is our family of origin… a living breathing web that holds all the people and events and places of our ancestors (whether we consciously know these details or not!). Many of our most intractable problems, sufferings that limit our ability to live life full on, with fearless open hearts, have their roots in past traumas and events from our family tree.
Healing the Family Tree
Constellations grew out of an approach pioneered by Bert Hellinger, a German systems philosopher and family therapist. Hellinger’s approach – initially called the Orders of Love – is an approach to healing that promotes constructive action and frees us and those we love from suffering.
Hellinger demonstrated the importance of the natural forces (or “orders”) that support or constrain the healthy flow of love in relationships. Ignoring these “orders of love” leads to consequences for family members, often over many generations, consequences that can blight lives and limit our potential in the world. We respond to these invisible forces mostly unconsciously, furthering our own and others’ suffering
Conventional therapy tends to focus on the individual who is manifesting the greatest distress or disturbance. But such approaches tend to ignore the subtle, often hidden, dynamics that occur within family systems as a whole. Constellations, and its “orders of love,” works with these hidden dynamics in family systems, providing felt-experience that leads to insight and often restoring order in troubled family life so that we can lead more full and satisfying lives.
Orders of Love
“Order is the way in which the many can interact. Orders that are living will resonate with life as they unfold. They drive us on and force their discipline on us through longing and through fear. In setting boundaries, they give us space.” B. Hellinger in Rising in Love, 2008.
So what is an example of these “orders” that support the flow of life force and optimize well-being in a family?
Love (life force) doesn’t just automatically “flow” in the most beneficial way for all family members. There is an architecture to the flow of love based on acknowledging everyone (including not-mentioned family members) in a system and everyone finding their right place in time and space. Love flows downward in time, from past to future and everyone born into a family has an equal right to belong. This can appear both as a simple biological truth necessary to support life, and as highly controversial. We create suffering for ourselves and for those who follow when we ignore this “order.”
For example: when parents divorce, often one parent is vilified by the other. Children are then caught in conflicting loyalties: they need both parents in order to be born and must be able to take both parents fully, with respect, in order to fully take their life force. Yet to live with one parent, often requires an overt agreement to the vilification of the other parent. So the loyalty to the “bad” parent is lived out at an unconscious level, often with at least one child (usually the youngest) becoming like the excluded parent. (Mimicry is the oldest form of flattery/loyalty.) This “entangled” child may be seen as disruptive, the “trouble maker,” and as they grow up, perhaps can’t complete things (like school or hold good jobs). She/he acts out their loyalty unconsciously, even to the point of also becoming excluded. There are countless stories in this work where the original excluded family member is given their place with respect, and the “entangled” member, who may have been estranged for many years, calls “out of the blue” to reconnect.
There are many reasons why someone may have been excluded: sometimes a child is miscarried near term, or stillborn, and the mother’s/parent’s grief is too great to be born at the time and so the child is unnamed and unspoken of; or perhaps a father died in a war when the child was very young, the mother remarries, and buries both her loss and the name of her child’s father. Usually difficult circumstances, even traumas, where people do the best they can at the time and then “put it all behind them” to “carry on,” are what lead to the later entanglements that children seek blindly, unconsciously, lovingly, to heal.
There are several other orders of love such as those who come first take precedence over those who come later, and older members give while younger members receive, and then give in turn to the next generation. Optimum love flows in a family when give and take are balanced in the flow of “passing on life” down the generations and within a marriage. We injure ourselves when we don’t take life as it comes to us (for example “refusing” a parent through anger, judgment, etc.), or when we exclude some members of a family system, or when we try to act “bigger” than our allotted place in the system (for example young children taking care of their parents). We “see” in constellations how often these choices are made out of blind love. Some examples include: losing a child very young can be so unbearable, limiting a mothers ability to care for her other children, that the children take care of her; or perhaps a war trauma has so affected a father that he is no longer “available” to his wife and so a young son unconsciously steps in to love his mother in his father’s place; or we are raised by loving adoptive parents and so, out of loyalty to them, we exclude one or both birth parents. Each of these choices, generally made unconsciously at a young age, damages us in some way, limiting our ability to become our fullest richest selves.
In a recent constellation I witnessed, “Pat” reported suffering all her life in loneliness and had even thought seriously about suicide. There is no “obvious” external source for this experience and she has had years of therapy to no avail. In the constellation process we learn that her mother had a stillbirth after the third child (Pat was the youngest of four children). We “see” in the constellation how Pat’s mother felt deep grief and loss for this child, yet she had 3 living young children to care for and so no time to grieve. So the lost child was never named nor even spoken of. Pat came soon after as the “fourth” child. The fate of this lost sibling was “excluded” from the family, and when Pat came she unconsciously, blindly, out of great love, tried to live the fate of this missing sibling so that they too “belonged” fully in the family. Once all these hidden dynamics are seen, and the excluded member is given their place in the family, Pat is freed from this “entanglement” and, in love, can now fully live her own fate and life. She reports feeling lighter and softer.
As we witness and participate in Constellations, we see that is a practice, it is not problem solving: How do we agree to all that life and fate bring us, and still live and love as much as possible while honoring these limitations? The joys and sorrows we experience are both life; rejecting some means rejecting life.
Here is one way you may begin to explore your family soul. Who belongs? Who is missing? Where are people’s “right places?”
Gather together a photo gallery of your current family (spouse, children, etc. if you have them), your family of origin (at least mother, father, siblings, both sets of grandparents). Do you have photos of all these people? Who might be missing? Previous spouses of your parents? (Their leaving made your arrival possible.) Siblings of you or your parents who never survived to adulthood? If you don’t have photos, make a drawing and label it, or select a “talisman” (a special rock or shell for example) to hold the space for someone whose photo you are missing. Set up a place – a shelf, a table – where all the photos can gather, arranged in chronological/generational order. Take a few minutes each day to take in these images. Try not to tell stories about anyone, simply honor everyone’s right to belong just as they are. Acknowledge that each one that came before you (especially parents and grandparents) gave you life. See how the life force flows through you to the generations after you, born or unborn. Or perhaps reflect on how you have taken in and then passed on life in other ways if you have no children.
Darcy Cunningham is a Constellator in Maine, leading workshops nationally. She also teaches meditation and yoga, and is trained in Gestalt Systems and consults to larger systems. www.TurningLight.org/constel.