Seeing is Believing:

The Phenomenological Approach to Healing

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I can see the joy in my young son’s eyes or the strength of my mother in the smile that comes easily to my lips. Sometimes I catch a look of fear streaking across my face that makes me think of my father. All of it’s there I think, somewhere, all of the pain and the loss and the high points. How much don’t I know though? How much of my inheritance—from those who are close and from generations back—have I not even glimpsed, and how strong is its hold on me nonetheless? What will my son see when he looks in the mirror?

In a recent interview, Bert Hellinger, psychotherapist and author, was asked to explain how systemic dynamics – often completely obscured by family mythology or denial – come to the surface when his clients set up family constellations in his workshops. His answer? “I can’t explain it, but we can see that it happens.” The phenomenological approach of Bert Hellinger, and the family constellations that have become a hallmark of the approach, are about “seeing.”

The approach itself, informed by primal therapy, script analysis, and family therapy, as well as by other ways of working therapeutically, has unfolded over many years in the hands of Bert Hellinger in a kind of ongoing collaboration with his clients. Time and again, the therapist, the client, and the representatives (called upon to stand in the place of relatives), unearth the dynamics that hold sway over wellness and disturbance, over life and death.

When a family constellation is set up, the representatives naturally begin to inhabit the people they represent. Typically, a client chooses representatives for his or her family and places them in relation to one another without speaking or otherwise communicating. Imagine a chessboard deep enough into the game that pieces are positioned in no apparent order within in the space. And yet, pieces are moved according to an order that exists with or without the players. Of course, in a constellation there is no competition; however, there is, as in chess, movement toward solution.

Then there is the picture beneath the surface. Representatives begin to experience symptoms and feelings of the others without having been told anything of the history, and often without the client’s even knowing about specific details. The system itself, which holds in parallel the past, present, and future, which exists independently of and dependent upon its members, begins to reveal a path toward resolution of personal struggle and entanglement without the therapist’s, the client’s, or the representatives’ prescient intention or design.

The notion that secrets and lies and missed opportunities of long ago have the power to reverberate through subsequent generations presupposes an essential idea: love fuels all human behavior, for better and for worse. We are born out of a fundamental, biological love, whatever the circumstances—all other aspects of the human condition are earned, secondary.

Bert Hellinger’s family constellations, then, are not mounted to make people feel better so much as to bring imbalances to the surface, to find where love is most charged, and to allow clients to begin to loosen the grip of protective resistance so that resolution can take its rightful place in the system, born out of love.

The collective “seeing” that happens, while often intensely moving, is also momentary, a fleeting and profound message, like the lightning strike that brightens the sky for just a second. Left behind is a diffuse image of a path to a clearing, and the profound realization that you are part of a landscape that exists no matter where you choose to go next.

© 2001 Suzi Tucker
First published in Miracle Journeys (Vol. 5, No. 4), July/August 2001.