Family Constellations, Systems, Fields and Streams

Morning Sunrise banks of Lake Starnberg, Bernried, Germany
Morning mist on Starnberg Lake, Bernried, Germany

Family Constellations work was developed over a number of years by the German psychotherapist, Bert Hellinger.  Hellinger drew from his own wisdoms and experience, and from many rich seams of centuries old, and new, knowledge, thought and practice.

Below is a brief history of Hellinger’s early life (for more detail click the link above).  Then follows a short, potted history of the shifts and changes that rippled and moved through Western philosophical thought and social action (through some centuries, so it is very “potted”).

Bert Hellinger brief history

In The Knowing Field, (International Constellations Journal Issue 7) Hellinger’s wish to be a priest was cited as a major influence on his later work. He entered the priesthood at 20 years old. He was later sent to South Africa where he spent 16 years as a missionary, running a school and acting as the parish priest in what was then Zululand.

Hellinger left the order after 25 years, went back to Germany and there entered into a psychoanalytic training. He went on to work with many leading figures in the different therapies and modalities.

However, before we step more fully into that excitingly creative time of the late 50’s and 60’s, with the changing theory and practice of psychology in Europe and USA, a small detour to the then current paradigms and the philosophical streams that underpin and feed the Family Constellation work.

Systems and Meaning

Hellinger first named the work Family Constellations. However, over the years the application of the work broadened. This way of working began to be used in many different settings, from organizational, business, environmental to community and the political.  The work began to be known also as Systemic Constellations (note the name of the international organization, ISCA (International Systemic Constellation Association). This name reveals the foundation on which Family Constellations rests – that of a systemic perspective.

Systems theory itself is many layered and complex, but maybe a bit of simplification can be achieved by looking at its beginnings, then move to focusing on a few elements that serve as underlying principles of Family Constellations work. On an ordinary, everyday level holding a systemic perspective, living with an awareness of the complexity of connections, offers up a wide horizon of knowing, with rich information.

Making meaning in our worlds

We make sense of our world and give meaning to it in a commonsense way, by seeing it and processing that information through our five senses. We label and categorise, compare, make assumptions. But underlying this seemingly simple way of processing and making meaning are philosophical and scientific frameworks which have become part of our historical, scientific and cultural heritage.  We make sense of the world and give meaning to our lived lives by looking at the world through the current ‘window’ that creates, that becomes our reality.

The framework that was current for many years, and still underlies much of the way science is practiced, is this mechanistic view of the world, that of Newtonian (classical) physics. It was and still is a powerful commonsense view that shows clear linear cause and effect processes that can be seen and studied. It answered and answers many questions about how we and the world function.

 The great divide between mind and body

Together with this causal world view went Cartesian dualism, which described a division between mind and body. René Descartes was a philosopher in the 17th century, who in 1637 published his famous, Discourse on the Method. This view of the natural world was eventually carried over to the behavioural and psychological ‘sciences’, where the split between mind and body underlay the view of human being as a mix of chemical and physical processes (Heisenberg, 1990).

The human need to know more about ourselves and the world began to be reductionist. That is, it seemed that to know the very essence of a living being, of anything demanded that it be minutely studied, cut up into small, discrete pieces. To find out how it all worked.

This very method of searching for an expansion of our knowledge was lessening the possibilities of a deepened understanding of how we and our world functioned.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy and general systems theory

Ludwig von Bertalanffy was born near Vienna in 1901. While still at University he had already wide interests which went beyond his main areas of biology and philosophy of science, to cover history and the humanities. Bertalanfffy’s reaction against the then current reductionist thinking resulted in his wish to create some sort of unifying umbrella theory that would cover multiple areas of knowledge; philosophy, psychology, physics, chemistry.

The root of the word system comes from the Greek, meaning organised whole. There are many and different types of systems: from a star system in the universe to the circulatory system in the body; closed systems of computer programming and the open systems of living organisms.

Bertalanfffy developed the General Systems Theory, believing that one general organising theory could unite these different areas. He wanted this way of looking at systems to extend to cover societies and cultures. He considered that all open systems, however different had similar underlying organising principles, and a unifying theory would result in a richer understanding in these diverse living systems.

Thomas Kuhn and paradigms

Thomas Kuhn explores the emergence of new theories, which he calls scientific revolutions or paradigm shifts, in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970). He talks of these huge shifts allowing a new way of looking at the world that are triggered by a new theory that is incompatible with the old.  The new theory draws a body of followers who will work with the new model and with the new rules created that will govern this new way of practicing science. This is why, he says

a scientist’s work is qualitatively transformed as well as quantitatively enriched…. (1970 p. 7)

Quite simply this means that a new framework, a new way of framing the world, allows a wider and possibly richer view of ourselves in that world.

And then there is quantum physics

In the early 1930s the sub-atomic, small world of atoms and particles was uncovered, but it did not fit into the 16th century mechanistic paradigm; this smaller world seemed not to behave in the expected way. The old mechanistic, deterministic view could no longer answer questions about this new world of chaotic unpredictability.

There is in quantum physics a phenomenon called “entanglement” (a term that is also used in constellation work). In quantum physics it seems that small atomic particles cluster together and get “entangled”, locking up information in this stuck cluster. When however, the entangled particles are looked at – when there is an observer, they unentangle.  The implication from this is that the particles are able to connect at a distance from each other, one able to act on and alter the other.

Quantum physics offers other ways of experiencing and acting in the world; so what Rupert Sheldrake proposes may not seem so strange.

Rupert Sheldrake and morphic resonance

And then, there is the work of Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist, who feels that although an expanded, over-arching systems view does uncover valuable insights for individuals, societies and cultures, its explanatory power still does not go far enough.  The analysis of the underlying patterns in society, and the functions and interrelations of different structures and the members of these structures and networks, are a rich source of knowledge. Yet.

Again we hear that it does not hold enough explanatory power. For Sheldrake it does not help explain how individuals or societies come into being or change and grow (yes, those very concepts that we take for granted). He feels that there has to be another level of explanation for these phenomena and has developed a theory that he calls Morphic Resonance. And this theory steps out of another theory called field theory.

Fields – in general

A quick detour here into something that we do know about. Or do we?

An image of our Galaxy's Magnetic Field
Our Galaxy’s Magnetic Field from Planck Image Credit & Copyright: ESA/Planck

Fields are something that we cannot see, but we can see or experience the effects that these fields have on our lives. The gravitational field for example, which is all around us and indeed the universe. We feel its effects (it weights us to our earth), our earth moves around the sun, and the moon moves around our gravitational field. The image on the left reveals the Magnetic field lines that have been traced by dust emission. Here is a link to Esa’s picture gallery.

Another familiar, commonly known field is the electromagnetic field. This is a very different kind of field, but one that underlies many things that we take for granted in our world. In a descriptive sense it is a carrier of different types of vibrations. We cannot see them but again, we experience them through the help of radio and cell phone transmitters.  Sheldrake (1988, p 97) further describes fields (rather beautifully) as “non-material regions of influence.” So, a “space” where there is activity; where objects influence other objects, across a distance.

These are the fields that we are familiar with. But there are other fields that Sheldrake describes under his general hypothesis of formative causation.

Morphic fields

The history of biology traces the attempts of biologists over the years to add another level of theory to explain the growth and form of open systems (any system that interacts with its environment be it human, animal or plant).

The question is, what makes a particular plant, animal, human, assume the form, the shape that it does. How does an oak tree know to grow like an oak tree? How does a Jack Russell grow into a Jack Russell and not a Dalmatian? These were questions that Sheldrake was asking with full knowledge of a mechanistic biology of life i.e. protein synthesis, genes, DNA and RNA structure.

The search was for another level, a force that could give a living organism the potential for development and a specific form. Sheldrake’s hypothesis of formative causation puts forward the theory of an organism with its own organising field of structure and activity that is called a morphic field.

 Morphic resonance

These fields are influenced by what he calls morphic resonance. The morphic resonance is that of the structure and activity of an organism of a similar kind, from the past – the organism has a memory of being and acting maybe, like a dolphin, being in the sea and being part of a school of dolphins. It is an inherent memory of, in this example, of dolphin-ness. It is this inherited memory of being-ness that is passed on through the generations of dolphins.

Sheldrake goes on to describe other fields, such as fields of information, social fields, mental fields, and cultural fields.

 Fields of information

Sheldrake talks of fields of information, and the words that we usually connect with information, like programs or instructions. But morphic fields do not transfer information in the same way as, for instance a genetic code. These morphic fields carry information for the organism, society or culture, and with the help of morphic resonance also inherent memory, over space and time.

 Social fields

If we look at societies and cultures in terms of morphic resonance it allows a broader context within which to understand them. The resonance of the past informs the activities and life of the present.

….to think of the past as pressed up, as it were, against the present, and as potentially present everywhere.’ (Sheldrake 1988 p 112).

The past becomes present within communities through the building of a cultural history of a group of people, over a period of time. It becomes the present through the myths and archetypes of a particular culture, and through ritual, initiation and the ceremonies of life.

I end this short piece on Rupert Sheldrake with a link to a wonderful interview with him – long but particularly the first sections, very accessible laying out of his thinking and research.