It was spring of 1999 and my mother had died just a month earlier. I was missing her terribly and feeling unsure of what to do next. For several years my husband, Milt, and I had been producing a 52-part public radio series on Native American Music. This massive project was coming to an end, and I felt rootless and unsure of what was next for me.
Then a friend invited me to attend a demonstration of Family Constellation Work being offered by a German psychotherapist named Heinz Stark. I had no idea what it was or why I should go, but Peg urged me on, and I decided to go. Although earlier in my life I’d been an NLP trainer and coach, I’d long since abandoned the therapy or self-help world. I had no intention of returning to that work.
That evening we drove twenty minutes out into the beautiful Black Hills and pulled up in front of a pretty ranch house nested in a high meadow. The spacious living room was full of the curious and slightly nervous group who had gathered there. Many of them I recognized from local seeking com-munity.
When Heinz Stark began describing the work, I realized that we were going to do something resembling psychodrama or a Satir-like family reconstruction. Heinz invited the first person to cross the room and sit in the empty chair beside him. I leaned over to Peg and jokingly said, “Watch, I always get chosen to be the mother in these things.”
Heinz scolded us for laughing and said that this field of energy must be carefully maintained. He explained that the constellation was a tool designed to show us our right place within the family of origin. He began a short interview with the client and instructed her to choose one representative from the group to stand in for her mother, another for her father, and one for herself—the client asked me to be her mother.
The woman quietly centered herself and then moved each of us into a position that only she could sense. I stood in what Heinz had called the knowing field as the client’s mother. What happened next I still can’t coherently explain. Suddenly I was flooded with thoughts, sensations, and movements that had nothing to do with my previous state of only seconds before. The sensations were, quite literally, not mine. At one point Heinz instructed the woman to choose a representative for her son. The woman moved the representative right next to me, our shoulders touching, and I felt a sudden jolt of heat. Heinz began to work with the constellation doing subtle movements and having us repeat sentences.
The process looked so simple, yet the energy grew as the constellation moved toward resolution. I was intrigued.
The most memorable constellation that night was that of a woman from a typical South Dakota ranching family. The “issue” was that she and her two sons couldn’t seem to hang on to money or material goods. As the constellation unfolded, Heinz traced the family back to the woman's grandfather who had amassed large tracts of land during the Depression. It was clear that this grandfather had taken advantage of the economic suffering of others by buying out his neighbors and gaining from their loss. In other words the wealth he had amassed was based on an injustice to others. From this perspective, the constellation revealed that the great-grandsons unconsciously atoned for this injustice by not holding on to the family land or their own wealth. It also revealed that the young men were not entitled to atone for the actions of their grandfather.
The depth and authenticity of this work moved me deeply. I, like many others who take a first look, was skeptical and doubtful that a grandfather’s actions could wreak such havoc on later generations. It seemed almost unbelievable.
I left that demonstration full of questions. Could this energetic and intricate linking up of loyalty through the generations of a family be true? Are we really so tied to those who came before? And what would that mean about our culture? We Americans pride ourselves on our independence, yet the scene that unfolded that night was one of hidden and powerful interdependencies.
By the time I went to bed that night, I knew with complete and utter certainty that my working life was about to shift again and that all my previous work experiences had been to prepare me to do this work.
In the days to follow, many of the things Heinz said that night echoed through my mind. I realized that this was not just a form of therapy but a way of looking at our primary relationships. There really is a certain right order within families and also within our personal and business relationships. I started reading the work of the founder of this work, Bert Hellinger, and tried putting some of the things Heinz had said into practice.
For example, I had asked Heinz what to about my ex-husband who was often gone for months at a time on his construction jobs. What about our children? I’m sure Heinz detected my resentment and anger about this issue.
He said divorced parents have to let go of their anger. “Honor the presence of the father in the son” were his exact words to me. I contemplated those words and realized that I had subtle and almost sneaky ways of keeping my children from fully accepting their father. The problem was in me—not him.
After seeing the constellation work, I decided to try and support any movement my children made toward their father. The first test of my resolve came within a week. I was out of town and had an e-mail from my then fifteen-year-old son, Thomas. He wrote, "Would it be okay with you if I worked with Dad on a job this summer?"
Summer was normally my time with the children, but Heinz had stressed how important it was for children to make a movement away from the mother and toward the father—especially in adolescence. I could hear the real question behind Thomas’ email. “Is it okay with you if I go to my father?”
I wrote back instantly and gave him my full approval. I also told him a story about how funny and smart his father was—and how much he was like his father.
I nearly laughed aloud when he wrote back and asked, “Would it be okay with you if I send your email to Dad?” Tom wanted to be sure that his father knew I approved.
The release was immediate. Tom was suddenly free to go to his dad and a hidden tension—the energy of a soul whose loyalty was split between separated parents—evaporated.
This, as we’ll explore in greater depth, is a critical movement—especially for divorced or separated couples with children. We need to honor the other parent in our children in order for them to be free to love us both.
Other events confirmed the power of this work. After the demonstration night, Heinz was doing a workshop, and since we didn’t have funds for both of us to go, my husband, Milt, went. He was adopted and had multiple issues related to adoption. We decided he would get the greater benefit by attending.
After the workshop he came home and decided to try finding a daughter who had been adopted almost thirty years earlier. He’d not known of her existence until the adoption was already completed. Three days later he found her on the Internet, and within three weeks of exchanges with a “missing persons coordinator” we had a phone call from Susan. He has since spent several extended visits with his daughter and her children and a rich, new dimension has been added to his life.
By now, I was stunned by my meager experience with this work. In a few short months, my son had found his way to his father, and my husband had found a lost daughter.
I began exploring my own patterns of depression and family connection. My first constellation with Heinz later that fall took about five minutes. I mentioned that my mother had died recently and that my father was deceased. Heinz simply chose two representatives, one for my mother and one for my father. When I stood up in that pesky “knowing field” I simply burst into tears and ran into the arms of my “parents” to feel their love surround me for just one more moment. It was sweet and painful and powerful. Later—I think I was feeling like I hadn’t gotten my money’s worth—I mentioned to Heinz that my constellation was pretty small. He smiled at me and said mysteriously, “There are no small constellations.”
And it’s true. Over ten years later, I am still surrounded by the love of my deceased parents whenever I hold that image.
Finally, I approached Heinz Stark and asked, "What can I do to help? I want to learn this work.” Family Constellation Work was still brand new in America although it was growing rapidly in Germany and Europe. There were no formal U.S. training programs, so I followed Heinz Stark through a year of intense workshops acting as both his student and his coordinator.
After training with Heinz I began offering first a study group, then a training/practice group, and eventually I gained enough confidence to actually do workshops. The original draft of this book came about because I wanted a way for my workshop attendees to be able to explore the concepts of the constellation on their own with simple concepts and practical exercises. Since then, I’ve revised it to include people who have not attended a workshop but are curious about the work. I hope this guide will point a direction for you to strengthen your stand in life within your existing systems.
Chapter 1 offers an introduction to Family or Systemic Constellation Work as both a form of therapy and a way of thinking about relationships. Then it separates into exploring the specific topics or relationships. I’ve included exercises to help you personalize the concepts. After reading the orientation, browse the book by topic or explore it in whatever way suits you.
There are occasional references to earlier decades of my life. In the eighties I worked with individuals using a technology called Neurolinguistic Programming or NLP. Later I spent ten years writing and producing public radio documentaries with my husband, Milt Lee. Then I returned to the human development path with this work.. Writing stories, novels, and books has been a common thread throughout all the working decades of my life.
The names and examples here have been scrambled to protect the privacy of those who have trusted me or others to enter their family systems. I will mix up the gender by using “he” or “she” rather than the annoying repetition of “he or she”. What is presented here is based on my own experience as a facilitator and a student of the work of Bert Hellinger. Any lack of clarity belongs with me. I would also like to thank Heinz Stark and Bert Hellinger and the other German facilitators who traveled such a distance to bring this work to us Americans.
Take me back to the Many Kites Bookstore . . .
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