Who Attends a Living Maps Workshop?

Workshops are suitable for anybody regardless of their experience of Systemic coaching. The approach provides deep levels of resolution for personal issues such as, but not limited to, relationship difficulties, addictions, mood and behavioural issues, eating disorders, and family ruptures. It is also effective in illuminating new directions, structures or futures for businesses or organizations. In addition to those bringing an issue, others may come to act as support people or to be representatives. Counsellors and therapists may come with their clients in order to augment therapeutic work. People from the helping professions may also attend in order to explore the benefits of this systemic approach.

When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child we were and the souls of the dead from whom we have sprung come to lavish on us their riches and their spells.

Marcel Proust

What Happens in a Living Maps Workshop?

In a group of usually between eight and twenty people, a Living Map is made in relation to the presenting issue using the group’s members who come either to support the work or map out an issue of their own. Once made, under the guidance of the facilitator, this can be ‘read’ enabling relational dynamics, entanglements and loyalties that were previously hidden to be clearly seen. Primarily we work with internal memories, images and stories of the people, places and events that shaped our lives and the lives of the generations preceding us. We don’t need the actual people to be present, who, of course, we can’t change, but we can remember their unrealized potential and their essence in a fresh way that supports the restoration of systemic order and balance. By reaching further back into the lives and circumstances of previous generations we can see the bigger picture and a place in it for ourselves that is free from prior limitations and unnecessary suffering.

As the family is, so is life.

Bert Hellinger

More About Living Maps

The overall LIVING MAPS process includes an initial interview, choosing representatives relevant to the client’s issue from the group, setting up the MAP in the group space using the representatives as markers, working with the client’s ancestral field to identify the dynamic, and, finally, bringing the MAP to a resolution that is less burdensome for the client and therefore better for every member of the system. When a client is burdened it is usually with the fate of another family member, often one from a previous generation. Therefore the overall LIVING MAP process is intended to reveal what entangles the client with the fate of another and to resolve this entanglement. The resolution, or at least a new forward looking image for the client, are not sought at the level of the individual but rather in the interconnected realm of family and society and the events that have had an impact on them.

To begin, we have to find out what the issue is and what surrounds it in terms of people and historical events. In a group, usually between 8 and 20 people seated in a circle, I work with the issue holder sitting next to me to clarify precisely the issue under consideration. This initial interview, a highly attuned encounter between facilitator and issue holder, is the foundation on which a LIVING MAP is built. In a very small amount of time the facilitator must make good contact with the client, filter out information that could bias people who will later stand as representatives in the MAP, identify and work with primary feelings (those that make action possible) and dampen down secondary feelings (those that prevent action from happening).

Extensive descriptions and minute details about the past are usually biased and distract from the task at hand which is to establish the bare facts of the issue and the relevant history. Ruminating about the past can have a hypnotic effect on all present and block the client from moving forward. Having ascertained concrete facts about the client’s family and ancestral history along with those of his or her current living situation I can move on to forming a hypothesis, the next stage.

From the information obtained in the initial interview I form a hypothesis (sometimes more than one). Usually this is constructed in relation to events that have happened in previous generations of the client’s family and appear to be affecting the client at the present time. This connection between past and present gives me ideas of what to set up in the MAP, for instance, when I find out that the client does not feel fully engaged with life and nothing in his or her personal biography appears to explain this I look for someone in the client’s ancestral field who may have a reason to feel that way.

Such trans-generational identifications often have loving but damaging attitudes which, if made conscious, might be expressed in sentences that entangle clients with the fates of their ancestors. Sentences like, ‘I’ll follow you’, ‘I’ll go in your place’ or ‘rather me than you’ are examples of a blind love that entangles. Instead, I have in mind resolving sentences like ‘I see your burden and I honour it’, I respect your fate and honour it’, or ‘with respect I’ll leave it with you’. These types of sentences, when spoken by the client to their ancestor’s representatives, facilitate the process of disentangling identifications by leaving difficult fates with whom they belong and orienting the client toward the future instead of the past. In this sense we are moving from blind love to love that can see. With these and other considerations in mind including Hellinger’s ‘orders of love’ which act as a guiding principle for how family systems work I streamline my hypothesis and am ready to start working with the Map.

The representatives that I expect will be needed range from dead or living family members to abstract concepts such as war, forced migration, courage, pogroms or the spirit of the blitz. They are usually chosen by the client who carefully sets them up spatially in relation to each other in the centre of the group space. The client places the representatives in terms of how he or she holds the issue in their subconscious mind. Under my guidance this is done in an attentive, respectful manner. This quality is required throughout the beginning, working through and completion stages of the constellation. The positioning of the representatives is not a result of some preconceived idea or even logical thinking. Usually the issue holder is invited to include a representative for him or herself. Typically, the client places their hands on the representative’s shoulders and moves them into place guided by an inner sense of what feels right thus forming the constellation. Then the client can sit down and observe the process.

It is really important at this stage to realize we are not doing Psychodrama, Body Sculpting or Role play. The representatives have simply been placed by the client and are then asked to report their experience. What the representative wants to happen or thinks ought to happen are not important here. Simply reporting the experience that comes to them while standing in the client’s field is what counts. Numerous unique possibilities exist of what they may feel ranging from being drawn toward or repulsed by another, to numbness or being overwhelmed, or, steering into a space where they sense somebody should be. In these various forms information about the relationships between the members of the client’s family system becomes available to the representatives. This may be a significant departure from how we have previously thought about where information is held and how to access it. Sometimes the process can look like magic although Rupert Sheldrake’s work on Morphogenic Fields and Gestalt’s Field Theory gives us some theoretical insight into what is happening. More recent research on epigenetics also gives theoretical insights into the inheritance of genetic material of an emotional nature from previous generations.

During the LIVING MAP I am guided by the field which is created in the process of the initial interview, selecting of representatives, setting the MAP and the group itself. It is possible my hypothesis will be proven wrong and I must then modify it as the MAP unfolds. Sometimes it becomes very obvious what the dynamic is and at other times it takes some fathoming out. Occasionally it is obvious that one or more people are missing from a MAP as in the case of children given up for adoption or perhaps a Grandfather who may have committed war crimes.

I gather data about the family system and it’s dynamic by asking the representatives how they feel, and by moving representatives around and checking if any difference can be perceived. Giving truthful but sometimes painful sentences to representatives to say to others in the MAP and finding out if things are better or worse afterward is another technique used in the LIVING MAPS process. Adding in abstract elements and watching the reactions of representatives is also used to reveal dynamics. Sometimes I simply ask representatives to move to where they are drawn to go. Invariably I see that simple cause and effect thinking is not helpful. Usually the reason why a client behaves or feels the way they do is complex and hidden. However by going back into the family history and surrounding the issue with the events unique to their family the complexity underlying the client’s problem can be seen and felt.

I am in service to the system and ensure everybody represented in the MAP is carefully and respectfully included because attending to these is the best way to support the client and their system at the same time. In a constellation I usually strengthen the weakest and most vulnerable member of the system before working directly with the client. At times I get stuck but if I wait something always emerges from the field. The MAP shows what arises within it, even if it is counter to my hypothesis. In this way we are truly taking a phenomenological stance which is at the core of Hellinger’s teachings and application of his family systems philosophy.

Relational dynamics and inter-generational identifications quickly surface as does a picture of systemic order or lack of it. Universal ordering forces that govern systems called by Hellinger, ‘Orders of Love’, for example, belonging, history, place and exchange, also inform what interventions I make. Offering difficult but true sentences, rituals or a new spatial ordering to representatives are the primary tools at the facilitators disposal. These tools are used to resolve identifications, ensure merit or guilt stays with whom it belongs and to make sure people are in the right place in their family system. In this way LIVING MAPS reveal not only how things were but how they could be.

When I sense that all the representatives are at ease this tells me that the LIVING MAP is near completion. I may bring in the client now to replace their own representative and feel the full impact of their resolved issue. A new image is seen, felt and experienced by the client and it is backed up with one or more reinforcing sentences. At this point I usually check with each person standing in the LIVING MAP that they feel okay and if so the process is finiahed. Importantly this new image must be cared for and nurtured like one would a seedling planted in soil. Too much talking, ruminating and analysis of the constellation afterward can have a negative impact and is not recommended.

A LIVING MAP can be completed in as little as 15 minutes and rarely lasts longer that an hour. Always solution focused the work falls into the category of short term, brief therapy. Ideally the facilitator meets the client on an adult to adult level, does their very best, offering a balance between challenge and support, then withdraws. It is not the type of approach that encourages dependency as part of its therapeutic paradigm. However, when appropriate a ‘check in’ may be scheduled via email, phone or in person after the process.

Often counsellors and therapists refer clients to me when their process has become stuck. In these cases the counsellor or therapist usually attends the workshop as a support person and witness to the dynamic and resolution with a view to supporting the continual unfolding of their client’s process.

Invariably what we see in a LIVING MAP is something that has parallels to Shamanic work on one level and, on another level, has parallels to the phenomena that occur when we think of someone we know and then almost immediately see them or receive a letter, email or phone call from them. Where does that information come from? Representatives have access to information in the form or feelings, impulses and sensations that always belong to the person for whom they are standing in the LIVING MAP. It is in this process that new information emerges showing what was previously hidden and telling us about larger influences on the family of the client and where he or she may be entangled.

Of course the work is also known as ‘Constellations’ but has nothing at all to do with astrolgy. In those terms I have described a ‘classical constellation’ here but many other types exist including structural constellations, organisational constellations, political constellations and ‘movements of the soul’, a version that is almost entirely non-verbal. Fundameantally what we do is make a LIVING MAP of the elements surrounding the client’s issue and let the field reveal to us a dynamic that has been hidden. We usually find this dynamic is burdensome for the client. By seeing and agreeing to this usually complex dynamic and then finding a fresh solution via a combination of healing sentences, re-ordering or rituals that are less burdensome to the client, we help not only the client but the entire system.

Widely regarded as one of the most influential and effective family therapists in the world today, Hellinger acknowledges several important influences on his life and work: his parents, whose faith immunized him against accepting Hitler’s National Socialism; his 20 years spent as a priest and missionary with the South African Zulus; and his participation in interracial, ecumenical training in group dynamics led by Anglican clergy. After leaving the priesthood, he immersed himself in the study of the major forms of psychotherapy, including Psychoanalysis, Gestalt Therapy, Primal Therapy, Transactional Analysis and Family Systems Therapy, out of which, Family Constellation Work evolved.

Copyright John Harris 2014 – 2020

Copyright © John Harris – 2014 – 2023. All Rights Reserved.