by Jeffrey Rich
Systemic Constellations are a means of revealing the hidden structure of relationships in a system. By representing parts of the system with people or objects, we connect with the energies and information of those parts and with the system as a whole. When asked represent a portion of a system, a person receives information for that part through her body. This knowing is twofold: information about her specific part, and context about her part’s relationship to other parts of the system. The experience is familiar for those who have experienced mediumship.
In the same way we receive unique and shared wisdom for a question when we go on a shamanic journey in a drumming circle, each representative gets unique and shared insights from the information Field of the system. In a journey circle, clarity emerges when we share our unique portion of wisdom, putting all of the information together after the journey. We get to see our insight in a greater context. No one receives a complete answer to the journey question; the answer comes from the sum of our individual experiences.
In a constellation, clarity appears when we put representatives for different parts of the system together. We can then see a bigger picture. This is like assembling a holographic image from shards of the original. Putting the pieces together increases the resolution and sharpness of the image, giving us more information than any one piece can hold.
In a systemic constellation, the facilitator perceives the information presented by the Field via its representatives. Representatives ‘speak’ in a visual language, moving into clusters and patterns that mean something about what the system contains. Unlike a journey circle, the constellation facilitator interacts in real time with the embodied system through the representatives by using statements and questions, and suggesting physical movements. The facilitator nudges the system to find the unseen energy tangles which cause dysfunction. The constellation is like an oracle, speaking for the system through many voices, listening with many ears and ‘answering’ when questioned. Answers may come in the form of new cluster patterns, newly revealed relationships among members. They may also come in body postures, looks, and in words of the representatives.
If we are crafty in using these two aspects of constellation technology—the ability to embody a part of a system and share its information and the ability to interact with the whole living system—we bring new capabilities of knowing and seeing into our shamanic practices.
My first constellation happened while studying mediumship with Betsy Bergstrom. Our first activity in her course was to form a “sacred landscape.” Betsy asked our circle, “Who feels as if they stand for the trees?” and “Who feels as if they represent a rock?” She asked us to “Find your place.” I don’t remember what I represented, but I do remember feeling a tug within to go stand in the working area. I remember the beautiful feeling that came over me when other representatives came into the constellation and settled into the “place that felt right.”
As shamanic people, we know everything is alive. Everything is connected. Everything grows, transforms, and has a destiny which includes needs and desires. Constellations allow representatives, either humans or objects, to connect with a part of the consciousness energy, the spirit and intelligence of a system. In constellation terms, the system strengthens when each element finds its proper place. Two of the primary goals of constellation are to strengthen the system and increase the flows of love in it. Often they occur simultaneously. Early facilitators became aware of this consciousness, which German constellations facilitator Albrecht Mahr named the ‘Knowing Field’.
Constellations often take place in a circle of people who come together in a sacred way to be in service to their families. People come to a constellation workshop to shift something troublesome appearing in their life or family. When a person states their issue, the facilitator asks some basic questions about the family, who died early or in an unusual way, who was excluded, and any large events that affected the family as a whole. The facilitator connects to the Field of the issue in an intentional way and forms an assessment. He or she asks representatives to embody a part of the system’s Knowing Field to bring the hidden structure of its relationships into clearer view.
Each representative can speak and move in ways which give information about what the system needs and wants to bring into the world. In a family constellation, a person might represent someone’s father or mother, or a concept such as Life, or The Church, or perhaps Money. When the representatives are placed in the working area of the circle, the facilitator may ask for a few moments of silent stillness so each representative has time to deepen their connection with the portion of the Field they represent.
Constellation work was discovered and developed by Bert Hellinger, a German psychotherapist, in the 1980s. Its roots lie in Family Sculpting, Psychodrama, and the family work of mid-century psychological trailblazers such as Virginia Satir. Hellinger became less satisfied with the results of Family Sculpting and the role-playing of Psychodrama, and began to notice that when he would place representatives for family members, interactions were happening spontaneously even when the representatives had not been given a role or any instruction. He saw that representatives seemed to be receiving information about the system on their own. They became like oracles.
Standing as a representative, we receive information about the system through our body in a phenomenological way. Representatives follow the wisdom of their bodies and move in ways and into places that match the urges they are getting from the Field of the system. Like the stars in the heavens, when representatives complete their movement, this new constellation reveals a new and deeper meaning we were unable to see before. The language of constellations is deeply visual. Body sensations for representatives in the constellation can be powerful, and the urge to move or stand in a certain way, or to speak a particular phrase can be quite strong. This happens through our innate Middle World abilities to receive, translate and report energies and fields.
How can we use this oracular power of seeing in our shamanic practices? Not long ago, I was performing a Soul Retrieval ceremony for a client in my office. I was in the middle of my seven-month constellations training at the time. The soul parts had been found but not yet blown into my client; they were waiting in my crystal soul holder. My Helping Spirits whispered in my ear for me to try something. I took a small piece of felt for each soul part and placed them in a semi-circle on the floor of my work space, intentionally designating that each represent one of the soul parts waiting to return. I told my client that each felt square represented a soul part and each part had unique strengths, abilities and power to return to her. I asked her to stand in the semicircle and take a moment to tune into the field of each of these soul parts one at a time. Not knowing if this was going to work, I asked her to listen to her own body tell her the strength and ability held by each part. She stood for a while and then pointed to the first piece of felt and then the next, accurately describing one by one exactly the strengths and abilities I’d seen in my journeys for each soul part! Even with only a felt square holding the Field of her soul part, she got it immediately as if it were the most natural thing in the world. My client was now quite eager to have these strengths and abilities back.
I believe constellations are deep Middle World work. They involve our bodies, after all, which live in the Middle World. We can read these Fields because our bodies always give us strong and reliable information from them. Our beautiful bodies faithfully and truthfully convert energies into signals we can understand via our senses and via our memories of the mind and memories of the body. I believe this is simply a part of being human, a natural and built-in ability for all of us. These mediumistic abilities are part of the natural early warning system that helped our ancestors survive. Though few of us have been taught how to use these abilities, our ancestors knew them. My hope is that this awareness is now changing and more people are learning to exercise their beautiful abilities.
Here are some other ways I’ve started using constellations using objects or designated areas instead of people to get information from specific parts of the Field of a system: Before I go to a physical place to do energetic clearing work, I use a small rug or mark out part of the floor of my office and ask it to represent the land and home my client wants cleared. I slowly step in to this area and “walk” this Field, carefully noting anything my body reports. The first time I did this, I thought my office floor had water underneath it: my feet ‘squished’ in a certain area and felt wet (I was in sock feet). I picked up my feet and looked at my socks; they were perfectly dry. I was puzzled. When I got to my client’s house, all became clear. That particular part of my client’s property which corresponded to the ‘squishy’ part of my office floor suffers from severe drainage problems. It is always wet. She fights a constant battle to keep water out of the part of her home that is below ground.
I also now occasionally use a type of constellation for journeying. Using colored pieces of cloth and various scarves I mark out areas on the floor and ask these to represent the different parts of the Lower World journey we all know so well—one area for the starting place, one for the opening into the Earth, a part for the tunnel, another for the opening into the Lower World, and a last part for the waiting Power Animal. I pay close attention to the thresholds between areas. I ask my student to walk these areas slowly, tuning into their bodies to give their impressions. When I tried this with someone who knows nothing about shamanic work or constellation work, the result was extraordinary. As she walked slowly through the areas she gave vivid reports about the beginning place (“Lots of trees and a mountain!”), the opening, the tunnel (“It’s lighted with torches and feels like it has a sandy floor”), the opening to the Lower World, and finally her waiting Power Animal, who gave her a message! I was stunned. This took about a minute and a half. I now work with this kind of constellation as a way of helping people who have trouble journeying initially or doubt themselves in the process to have a vivid journey experience.
Using constellations to speak directly with Nature is eye-opening. During a family constellations workshop I offered recently, I set up a quick Nature constellation to use the time just before the lunch hour. We had about twenty minutes left before lunch and no one had any questions about our previous work, so I needed a fun process to offer. I asked someone to represent a local spring on our mountain where I make sacred offerings, a person to represent the Tree People, and someone to represent the Stone People near the spring. When I placed a cushion down to represent the offerings I had been making (objects can represent parts of a system, too), the spring said, “That’s nice. It’s OK.” Taking advantage of the oracular nature of this representative, I asked the spring, “What could I add to make this offering better for you? What is missing that you need or want?” Immediately the spring said, “Touch. I want you to touch me.” I was floored. Before I could say anything, the spring said, “The people here nowadays don’t know how to talk to me like the people who were here before.” In a Nature constellations workshop I presented a few weeks later, a representative of Nature also talked about “The people who were here before.” This emerged independently from the Field: she knew nothing about that first Nature constellation with the spring and had never done constellations before that day.
Spurred on by this, I continue to ask these and other questions of the Nature Beings and the Spirits via constellations to find out what they need and also what they want:
“How did the people talk to you ‘before?’”
”How can we improve our connection and our relationships with our Nature neighbors?”
“What does it mean to be human?”
“What is our job, our responsibilities as good and healthy Human parts of this Nature community?”
“How can I have a better relationship with you?”
“What are the essential ingredients to right relationship?”
The answers the Field and representatives gave to these questions offered a far deeper understanding of relationship, what it means to be human, and the delicate nature of how we humans must hold Power to approach Nature in a good way. Many of these answers echo my indigenous teachers; some are excitingly new. What is striking is that in most cases, the representatives know nothing of these teachers or of the traditions and lineages they carry. The power of constellations and shamanic journey lies in our willingness to hear and embrace an answer from the Field different from what we believe it ought to be, to be willing to hear an answer outside of our ‘knowing’ coming directly from the Field itself.
In my first family constellations workshop, I saw beautiful compassionate depossessions, unraveling of old beliefs and curses, returning of essence and vitality, and the unraveling of ancient ancestral unfinished business, all happening with ease. Constellation work gives us a brand new lens through which we can look into a healing issue and new mechanisms for handling what we find there. For example, in one client’s constellation a representative for “the insomnia” began dancing around and annoying the client’s representative as a small child might. After half a minute “the insomnia” representative turned to me and said, “I feel like a spirit without a body! Is that possible?”
Absolutely. Hearing this, I was certain this was a possessing spirit with my client. I didn’t say this out loud because I didn’t want to inspire fear in my non-shamanic constellations clients. Most people equate possession with dark Beings rather than the run-of-the-mill spirits we mostly meet while doing that work. I then designated, using intention only, an area of the room to represent “The Light” and brought in representatives for compassionate Psychopomp beings, naming them as a “resource” for the client. The Psychopomp representatives gently walked over to “the spirit without a body” and gradually and gently moved her to the place I had designated as “The Light” in my intention. “The insomnia” looked up at the ceiling and said, “It’s so light here! I feel great!” A while later “the insomnia” representative said, “I feel like something just lifted out of me. I don’t feel like I represent anything anymore.” My client’s insomnia has never returned.
I believe these things happen for me because I already use those shamanic techniques in my practice. I have the ‘signature’ for them and the full awareness of how they work and what is possible. The Spirits and the Field show me new, simpler ways to do the same work without drama or the freight of the words that describe it. In the same way, in later workshops we have performed compassionate deposition of a dark Being who was “the energy that enables heroine addiction” without anyone batting an eye. What alerts me to possession is when a representative for an energy or a concept says something like, “I feel like a person” rather than a concept or an energy. In the constellation we simply move the ‘enabling energy’ away from the client, also making sure that the energy receives help, too. The client usually begins to feel better.
Dream exploration is another beautiful use for constellations. I host a regular dream exploration group using some of the techniques of Robert Moss, which enable us to re-enter our dreams and the dreams of others using drumming and journeying techniques. We have begun doing dream constellations in our group. When people represent parts of a dreamscape, those parts can talk with us in real time and give us more information. This is an incredibly rich application. Constellations are turning into our favorite way of re-entering dreams and dream-wisps to discover more information.
Constellations dovetail beautifully with shamanism and shamanic practice. I think we are just beginning to scratch the surface of how these can combine into a much richer whole. In my facilitator training, one third of us students were well-trained shamanic practitioners. All of us independently have begun having the experiences I describe above, as if the Field wants this merging to happen. We are discovering innovative and exciting ways to integrate shamanism and constellations into powerful healing techniques that are simpler and easier than how we have worked in the past. Well-known and respected in Europe, Asia and Oceania, constellation work is slowly gaining popularity in the US. The possibilities are endless. I love how it allows my clients to participate in their own healing and experience things through their own bodies. I no longer have to tell: I can now show.
Jeffrey Rich, LMT is a bodyworker, systemic and family constellations facilitator, and shamanic practitioner and teacher. A child of the mountain beings of Western North Carolina, he presently has a full-time healing practice in Huntsville, Alabama, the place where he lives and has deep ancestral ties and whose compassionate Spirit graciously and patiently continues teaching him about good relationship. His beloved teachers include Betsy Bergstrom, Seattle; Adolfo Ttito Condori, Peru; Francesca Mason-Boring, Washington; Ana Larramendi, Wisconsin, and the beloved Spirits and Apukuna of the Andean Cosmology.
He can be found at www.shining-mountain.com
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A Short Systemic Constellations Bibliography
Faust, Jamy and Peter. The Constellation Approach: Finding Peace Through Your Family Lineage. Regent Press, 2015. (includes do-it-yourself exercises)
Hausner, Stephan. Even if It Costs Me My Life: Systemic Constellations and Serious Illness. Gestalt Press, 2011.
van Kampenhout, Daan. Images of the Soul: The Workings of the Soul in Shamanic Rituals and Family Constellations. Carl-Auer, 2001. (Out of print, but possible to find at reasonable cost with enough patience)
Mason-Boring, Francesca. Feather Medicine: Walking in Shoshone Dreamtime; a Family Constellation. Aeon Publishing, 2004.
Reddy, Michael. Health, Happiness and Constellations: How Ancestors, Family Systems and Hidden Loyalties Shape Your Life — And What YOU Can Do About It. ReddyWorks Press, 2012. (includes do-it-yourself exercises)
Schneider, Jakob Robert. Family Constellations: Basic Principles and Procedures. Carl-Auer, 2007.
Wolyn, Mark. It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are And How To End The Cycle. Viking Press, 2016. (includes exercises)