g a t h e r i n g s

Judgment Forward

Still Thanking Bert Hellinger ... The Brown Hotel, Louisville, KY, an audience of about 350 people. A woman raises her hand to ask Bert Hellinger a question. She describes someone who has gone to great lengths to have a child; perhaps it was a sperm donor, or surrogacy, or one of the many ways of in vitro fertilization, I don’t recall. She wants to know what he thinks. Implicit in the question, if this work is about “natural” order and symptoms of disorder, and people pay various prices for different types of indiscretions, what are the consequences when people make these types of “unnatural” choices?

Bert sat back in his chair for a long moment. He smiled at me. I wondered what he would say. He whispered to me that he didn’t quite understand the particulars of the woman’s question, but I knew he wasn’t asking for an explanation or clarification. After a time, Bert looked up and out at the audience, he put the microphone close to his lips, and he said simply, “Welcome child.” That was it. I think about this moment often. There was a sense of peace immediately. Bert didn’t become entangled in the reasons behind the question. He neither defended nor agreed.

As facilitators of Family Constellations, or of any helping paradigm, we find ourselves working with ever-greater opportunities for diverse ways in the world, for ways of living and being. At the same time, if we are honest with ourselves, we may find ourselves running head-on into our own biases. We may not even realize we have them until we hit the wall.

The secret to “Welcome child” is in its emphasis. Rather than a judgment-forward response, it asks us to look at the question from a wider perspective of love. When we look at the world from a judgment-forward place, we necessarily turn away from the people who come to us. There is nothing to learn if judgment leads — and then nothing to offer.

“I don’t like this way …” “I don’t accept that way …” Who and what is the subject? Certainly, not the client. The subject is “I”. I am pretending to look at the other and only seeing my own face. Do I think artificial insemination is okay? Do I think people should adopt? By some estimates 40,000 gay male couples are raising children. What do I think?

Judgment-first thinking points to one’s own dogma rather than getting to know anything more about the other (client, friend, relative, partner). It warps and narrows intellect, creativity, freedom, and humanity. “Welcome child” is the antidote, the beginning of possibility. When I look at a question in this way — welcome child, welcome life, welcome love — I can see more clearly through the residue of my own preconceived ideas, with a softer gaze that can take in a greater expanse. Judgment-forward keeps me isolated, insulated, separated. What is beyond the limitations of fear-driven judgment? Welcome …

Far From Home

Many folks I meet tell me they are lonely. It’s a condition not easily remedied. It can persist independent of the circumstances of one’s environment. Sometimes it is diagnosed as depression or anxiety, but I have come to see loneliness as its own experience. Loneliness finds itself wherever it goes, and it often looks away from opportunities for companionship. It seems that loneliness has plans that others don’t understand, sometimes not even the lonely themselves. Sometimes loneliness yearns for others while simultaneously blocking their approach. Sometimes lonely people feel that they are actually alone.

I look back on my own life, and I can see the periods of depression, distinct from periods of grief, which I also clearly see. But I can pinpoint moments of loneliness too, different in quality from either depression or grief. I concur with those in the mental health field who are beginning to consider loneliness a condition rather than a symptom, except I do not see it just among the elderly. I suspect that many of the people who are lonely now have been lonely at many junctures during their lives, maybe always.

When I press my memory to retrieve that feeling of loneliness, versus the thought, a sensory charge travels into my chest, fluttery and hollow. It feels like a tiny animal skittering up and down the walls of my chest — and simultaneously I am that tiny animal shivering in a corner of the too-huge world. In those periods, loneliness was swaddled in isolation, a thick-walled cell that kept me safe even as it choked my optimism.

This feeling that I can recall so easily is old, from childhood, even before. When I close my eyes, I can see my mother, and I can feel her, skittering. And when I close my eyes, I can see my father, yes, can feel him, shivering. I don’t pretend to know all the all of who they were — I don’t know why — but there it is, loneliness. Something shared. How do I love thee? In every possible way. “I love thee with the passion put to use. In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.”*

What has changed? It’s true I can easily tap into that shared space, even these years later, but I must deliberately invite it in; it doesn’t swallow me up unexpected. How odd to be more alone in some ways than ever in my life and yet not be lonely. It’s difficult to delineate the steps that led me here; I do not know how many there were. But it seems it was one foot in front of the other, nothing fancy — some stubbornness and curiosity, some insistence, sleepless nights, gratitude for the dawn. I taught when I didn’t feel like it. I wrote when I didn’t want to. I painted though I couldn’t. I walked though I was tired. I showed up when all was lost. And somewhere along the way, I was found.

I close my eyes and see my mother and my father again, and I think they are pleased to see me fading into the future.

* Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806 - 1861

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.