g a t h e r i n g s

Revisiting the Landscape of Family Constellations

The phrase Family Constellation refers to both a philosophical lens and a process. The premise is that the family system and the individual’s internal system are reflections of each other.

The word Constellation is meant to denote a sense of how people inside a system — and the system inside the person — cluster in response to precipitating events. Who runs? Who hides? Who denies? Who shuts down? Who strikes out?

When we are children of a major event, we may carry some or all of these ways of navigating pain forward. Even after several generations certain descendants hold to these trauma patterns. In other words, the impulse to run, hide, deny, shut down, or strike out are the main directions on the internal compass though they are not born of the present circumstances. Why do I always … fall in love with self-destructive people? sabotage great opportunities? hurt the people closest to me? pretend everything is okay when it’s not? The inconsistency between what we plan to do and what we end up doing is mysterious to us — our desires, knowledge, and capabilities at odds with outcomes. In this type of systemic work, we are looking for where the deep-seated logic resides. How might our choices be driven by what we cannot see?

So, what types of “events” are we looking for? Think about life-and-death causation — things that have the power to change the course of the system. On a macro level, this event might be war, famine, slavery, natural disaster, etc. On a micro level, the events include the very early death of a parent, adoption, abortion, murder, bankruptcy, suicide, etc. Things like alcoholism, anger, secretiveness, and so forth, are symptoms rather than ignition switches.

How an event affects individuals or groups of people is influenced by many variables, including developmental stage, history of systemic resilience/support, faith, and sense of meaning. Judgments like “strong” and “weak” are at best inaccurate. At worst, they perpetuate the negative consequences of an event because they imprison people in a time and a way of being, even many years or decades later.

When a Facilitator “sets up” a Family Constellation, she or he is picking up the first threads of the systemic narrative. He or she might say: Please choose someone to “represent” you and your mother (for example). Now, guide them to positions in the circle relative to one another. It doesn’t matter whether the Client is consciously trying to “convince” the Facilitator of a certain perspective or is creating an image according to an unconscious vision that has emerged in the moment. Here, too, judgment on the part of the Facilitator will be at best inaccurate.

In choosing the representatives, Client and Facilitator have the opportunity to let go of their prospective agendas. Other intelligences join the process to contribute different understandings. What we observe is that representatives can access larger movements in the system that are outside of the local experience. It is not that they have the answers — in which case we might simply trade in one “belief” for another — but that they can tell us something new about how life flowed through that part of the family’s geography.

Current obstacles tend to be later versions of the first responses, and the connection is often remarkable. Matthew, a young Jewish man at a workshop, for example, cannot succeed despite great intellect, skills, and integrity. He describes becoming terrified at the threshold of positive change, again and again. I suggest he select four men to represent the line of men on his father’s side. I am not sure why, but it is irresistible to me. The representative he chooses for the great-grandfather immediately crouches down and says he wants to become small. He feels anxious and suspicious. He doesn’t understand his own behavior.

With tears in his eyes, Matthew reports that his great-grandfather had been in a concentration camp. Matthew’s grandfather told him stories about the camp, including that his dad had tried to hide in plain sight, tried to be as unremarkable as possible, invisible. Matthew is really crying now, his eyes shut tight. The representative is staring at him, seemingly entranced, and then a smile spreads across his face. How is the great grandfather feeling? I ask. He stands slowly as he answers, carefully brushing off his sweater and pants. I see Matthew and I feel an unbearable relief. To see that he has survived, something in me lives on. This statement almost knocks Matthew off his chair. He suddenly throws his head back and laughs very loudly, I will NOT stay unremarkable I guess!

What if we told the client about this connection? Would we even see it without the Systemic lens? As a Facilitator, the facts shared by the Client about his or her history have a special resonance. Specifics jump out of the fray of common complaint and interpretation. The process reveals a vast imagination that can only be inspired by the widest view and the potential resources that reside there. Finally, and most important, the Client gains the necessary space to come to the profound insights that are within rather than merely listening to the ideas and beliefs of others.

So, what is a Family Constellation? It is a highly logical, somewhat enigmatic (like the brain itself) process that shows how one’s internal system — and thus lifestyle — may be being determined by the past. The three-dimensional process brings forth a collective intelligence that can point us in the direction of freedom. We must suspect that resolution lies beyond the tensions and dynamics that have clustered in the small spaces, or as proffered by Einstein: No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. A Family Constellation provides access to experience beyond the boundaries of the well-worn tracks.

So simple and profound, once Matthew’s unconscious loyalty to his great-grandfather could be observed and actually felt, Matthew was released from it. Now, overtly connected to and simultaneously outside of the great grandfather’s sphere, the sentence I will live by staying unremarkable could be returned to its owner. From prison sentence to life sentence, Matthew immediately got it: With your blessings, I will take our gifts out into the larger world.


On the occasion of Johnny Cash’s birthday, my mother’s favorite singer, I was flipping through the latest magazine from my high school. I was touched by the photographs of the beautiful students so engaged in life, starting out, full of joy.

Toward the back, there was an “In Memoriam” section. There was a name I recognized but couldn’t quite recall. I didn’t know him, though I could have. Even the smallest groups break into clusters based on ridiculous things, the superficial things that separate. They feel so real at the time. Mindless certainties.

There was just one line written, the fact that he was dead and the time of his death. I googled, and a man came into vague focus, but that one line was most powerful. The simple, stark statement announcing his departure against a backdrop of all those young faces, their chubby smiles and lovely awkward bodies.

I think this evening of Bart, of my mom and father and brother, of friends already gone, of your family members and friends. I think of me and you. I think that life is a constant declaration, whereas death is a simple fact.


In listening to someone’s history I am listening for the systemic events and dynamics that form the secret database for current problems. The process of out-picturing allows both facilitator and client to begin to visualize the undercurrents of the family and of the original community, and simultaneously, the ways in which the client may be caught in those undercurrents.

The systemic out-picturing process also reveals the sometimes-forgotten language of life force that carries our families and communities forward. My focus is trained both on the challenges and the gifts of the given system — including what is embodied by those who have been rejected, whether now or in generations past.

What is called “good” and what is called “bad” will exchange places many, many times over the life of a system, and over the lifetime of an individual. The opportunity to create, and benefit from this changing alchemy requires that we be in motion. What comes next doesn’t have to be defined by the past as long as our feet are moving. Information flows from what was — not destiny.

Being in motion has many meanings. It is physical, intellectual, spirit driven. It is small or big, inwardly directed, alert to the external; it is connecting, grateful, realistic, cumulative, celebratory. Being in motion is feeling, action, sequence; we know it by its results, for as we meet others along the way, our hearts are open to the best in them and, especially, in ourselves.

Optimism draws oxygen from the spaces between gift and challenge. As I stand with you, I am listening for breath.