Published in The Knowing Field magazine, issue 19 January 2012

From the River to the Ocean

Liminal Constellations, a different way of facilitation

By Elmar Dornberger

I have been pondering the events of the first monkey (from the “100 Monkey Syndrome”) and the following paradigm shift. What made her want to wash a potato? She didn’t like the taste of dirt and then she taught her mother how to wash it. Soon thereafter the whole clan was washing their potatoes.

I felt a little bit like that monkey going to the US Conference, wanting to share my findings of facilitation with others on my journey, and found no one with whom to compare notes. At least I was able to share my way of working in a small breakout group one afternoon.

For the last few years I have been working in isolation. I have several unread books on constellation theory, as well as many other more philosophical oriented ones, rites, rituals, tribal and communal laws, all unread on my bed stand.

For quite some time I have been dissatisfied with what I have been seeing in my constellation world. I was even questioning my own work and wondering if there was such a thing as the field, and could it be proven or tested?

My dissatisfaction stemmed from observing heavy handed facilitation, with little room for a field to emerge. Facilitators telling representatives every move and every word they are allowed to speak. It seemed to me more movements of the facilitator’s ego than the clients issue being addressed.

What if there is an intelligent field and what if we would allow that field to express itself with no interference on our part? What if this field is actually more intelligent than we are? What if our attempts to control or direct the outcome actually gives us less effective results than we would have if we let the field’s wisdom work on its own? What if we don’t have to understand what is going on at every moment, because something greater is doing the work?

I have noticed many times when either the client or I would set up a constellation that in a very short time the system would rearrange itself to where it wanted to be. So what if we would allow the constellation to find ‘itself’ from the very beginning, allowing the movement to take place on its own? Just have the representatives stand up and find their own places?

When I tried this it seemed to work just as fast, if not faster, then setting something up that had to rearrange itself anyway. Now the next logical step was to let the representatives speak for themselves. Could we trust that they would say the right things, or would they tap into their own issues and mess up the healing movement for the client? At times the representatives seem to stay stuck, and needed some coaching to say things that would move them out of the entanglement and into a place of more freedom. Yet many times the stuck-ness needed to be expressed and heard. So the verdict is still out on how much freedom to give the representatives on their verbal expression of what they experience.

The next big leap for me was to test if we could trust the field even more. We do believe that representatives tap into the  field which  they represent. The client and the facilitator set up the representatives according to their inner map or field. The question is, how do we actually know what to set up?

Most of the time I am not very interested in listening to the client’s story since from my experience the answer does not emerge from that story, and is often only vaguely related to the narrative, which is repeated over and over to satisfy the mind. Most of the time the story is only one perspective of what really happened. So who really knows what to set up? I don’t think the clients know, since they see only the entangled point of view. I am also not convinced that facilitators are totally objective and free from their own family histories, and might unconsciously project their own personal issues into the circle. Setting up issues, may require us to look at our relationships with our parents, who are the gatekeepers to the ancestral line. Some constellations, however, don’t seem to need our parents at all. So where do we start?  What is essential?

Would it be possible to go straight to the field to set up what is actually needed to find a healing movement for the issue? How do we get to the field? We trust that representatives, once set up, do act in accordance with a benevolent energy that moves them in the right direction. Can we  trust that the communal energy of individuals sitting in the circle might be able to tap into that knowing field of what the system needs to begin with. How about trusting representatives to know what needs to be set up?

In order to find out if this is even remotely possible, I took a chance. With a lot of courage, and prepping my audience that we were going to be playful and try something different, we embarked on this experiment.

The clients would tell their stories as usual in the interviewing process. I instructed the audience in the circle to listen carefully and pay attention to what was happening to them as they listened. After ending the interview, I asked the participants to check in with themselves on what they were feeling and notice if any part of the story interested them, or triggered a physical sensation or irritation. I asked them to forget the story they just heard, pay attention to that “felt-sense,” and see if they could name that sensation with either a word or a phrase.

Using this process now for about 3 years, I have come to trust what shows up when people are introducing parts that had not been mentioned in the story of the client. Now I am amused and tickled about it.

The first constellations I experimented with, everyone was open to try it and see what would happen. The client was talking about her mother, and how disconnected they were; there was no communication, and they did not see eye-to-eye. At the end of the interview a person in the audience stood up and announced that she wanted to represent “The Pony”. Not any pony, but “The” Pony.

Needles to say there was no pony in the clients anecdote. I checked with the client to see if this made any sense, and the client denied it; she could not make any sense of it. At that point I questioned both mine and the representative’s sanity, but kept my comments to myself. Since I had stated that this was an experiment, I allowed it with the intention to remove “The Pony” if it got in the way. To give you the short version of this constellation, in the end, the pony was the most important aspect of the work, and created a new insight into the mother – daughter relationship. The pony was a deep source of pain for the mother, who had always wanted a pony as a child, and this pain kept her from connecting with her daughter.

Since those first experiments of letting people in the circle independently tap into whatever they are feeling, and then subsequently allowing them to label and represent it, many surprising parts have shown up. A few weeks ago, I did a constellation with a man in his mid thirties with a birth trauma. After listening to his story two people stood up and announced  themselves. They were not the mother, father, doctor, nurse, siblings or anything remotely like it. They announced themselves as “The Gift” and “The Pain”. There was an exchange of the two elements at first.  Then I asked the client to find his place in the constellation. In the interaction of the three, the gift insisted it needed to be acknowledged in a meaningful way. The client performed a series of stretches and movements, as if to get into a new and bigger body, like a snake shedding the old skin. This twenty minutes constellation seemed very meaningful and transformative. He reported at the end that he had never felt like this before. His father, a well-known therapist, shared with us that this had been a lifelong struggle for his son. He had done many constellations and years of therapy on this issue.

Other untold elements of clients’ stories that have shown up are; the wall, the old country, the voices of the unheard, the forgotten ancestors, the land, the pain, and many others. Since none of these topics were in the stories, there would have been no way for me to know to set on of them up.

At the 2011 US conference, I was part of the organizational constellation team, and in that context I had a small breakout group of about 20 people for whom I set up a constellation with an organizational context. The client told her story, we all listened, and immediately five people stood up to represent parts that were not mentioned in the story at all. Then another four stood up, and wanted to represent as well. Since I like to work with a smaller configuration that I can contain and relate to, I asked the second group to sit down. We had only twenty-seven minutes left in the session, and since this was a conference, and my main emphasis was on presenting a new way of working, I was not concerned about finishing the process nor neatly having it wrapped up. But then, as it was meant to be, the constellation did end beautifully.  And in only  twenty minutes.

“From the River to the Ocean.”  I think we are the 100 Monkeys and have arrived at a new understanding, a new territory. We have learned to navigate the river of constellation, its currents, its rocks, its driftwood,  as well as a myriad of other obstacles.  Now that we have arrived at the ocean of constellation that has stronger forces and different dynamics, we can let go of some of our control and directives, and trust that there are forces that will lead us to where we and our clients are meant to go.

I  want to be clear that I am not talking about totally letting go.  I am not speaking about chaos constellations as I learned from my dear teacher Sneh Victoria Schnabel. These are guided, held, assisted, but self-forming, and self-organizing representations: Liminal Constellations; (liminal |ˈlimənl| occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold).

This way of working takes trust in what shows up.  It requires the belief that whatever appears will be relevant to the clients and their issues. It is freeing for the facilitator, who does not have to know what is the right course of action. This has been an exciting and worthwhile endeavor, since I believe it serves my clients better. I no longer have to watch my blind spots, thereby inadvertently set up my own family stuff, nor do I have to govern the representatives.  I simply trust that the knowing field is doing its work.

I would like to invite you to join me on this monkey island, washing away the restrictions and controls that are no longer needed in this work.