Although rarely emphasized by historians of psychology, besides philosophy, medicine, and further branches of science, esotericism has had a significant impact on certain schools of psychology. In the history of psychology, animal magnetism, spiritualism, and early parapsychology have emerged as the most significant esoteric currents. One of the main reasons for the intersection between certain forms of psychology and esotericism was that esotericism itself provided a unique form of knowledge regarding the human psyche. In many cases, esotericism functioned as a theory that offered solutions to existential crises, suffering, or the pursuit of personal development. In other cases, it provided explanations for the mystery of the universal (collective) soul. In still other cases, esotericism offered a non-materialistic framework for the interpretation of psychological phenomena. Furthermore, in the borderland between esotericism and psychology, questions could re-emerge that were demarcated from naturalistic psychology, such as the concepts of the collective unconscious and telepathy. On the fringes of psychology, this demarcated content could be an attractive therapeutic option. One example of this is the popular but controversial method of family constellation.
Introduced in Germany in the 1970s, family constellation therapy is a transgenerational, phenomenological, therapeutic intervention. It is a form of psychotherapeutic practice that integrates family systems therapy, existentialism, phenomenology, and also the idea of what is referred to as the “ancestor reverence” of the South African Zulus (Mayer & Viviers, 2016).
The founder of family constellation theory, Bert Hellinger, was a psychotherapist, Catholic priest, missionary, and teacher. Today, his work has become so popular that an entire “industry” (Stones, 2006, p. 5) of practitioners has evolved. Thousands of training courses and workshops have been organized, institutes for family constellations founded, and articles, books, and educational materials published. The method has gained popularity not only in Europe but also in South America, China, South Africa, and Australia.
According to Hellinger’s theoretical model, the members of a family are connected by a deep, emotional bond, an invisible link, even if the family lacks actual interpersonal relationships, and excluded, dead, unknown, or forgotten family members are addressed as well. This link transcends space and time and its disturbances might be closely connected to psychological or somatic problems experienced by the living family members.
The practice of family constellation is particularly interesting. Family constellation sessions are usually conducted with ten to thirty participants. The members of the group usually do not know each other. The main aim of the sessions is to identify the unconscious family patterns that determine the everyday functioning of the clients and lead to personal crises and suffering. To this end, clients select members of the group who represent their family members, both living and deceased. Clients do not perform in the group themselves, instead, the family of the person concerned is set up on the basis of the position and embodied feelings of the participants.
Unusual and surprising things then happen in the space of family constellation. For reasons as yet unknown, representatives report that they are able to tune into the so-called collective will of a constellated family system. As the constellation is set, the representatives of the family members report their feelings and sensations regarding their position and relation to one another. The embodied feelings of the representatives reveal the previously hidden family relationships of the person in focus. The field of family constellation is referred to as the “knowing field” and comprises a sensory experience of the representatives that seems to allow direct somatic and emotional access to the feelings, sensations, and repressed experiences of the person they are representing.
During the constellations, trained facilitators help the process of expression by means of positioning or a ritualized language. During this process, the client sits on the sidelines, observes the constellation, and is only brought into the process at the very end. As a result of the process, hidden emotional and cognitive contents of the family dynamic are revealed, creating the opportunity for the client to witness and understand the “phenomenological posture” or the “greater whole” (Franke, 2017).
A closer look at the actual content of family constellation therapy reveals much more about the cosmology of Hellinger’s system. In fact, several family constellation facilitators describe esoteric, parapsychological contents. Enid Welford, for instance, emphasized that the borders of the personality can be altered or shifted during family constellation so that feelings and physical experiences of the other person can be easily transmitted and sensed. As she describes it,
“I have found that a person can represent and speak as if she or he were another person she or he does not know. Although I have no explanation for how this happens, clients repeatedly affirm the accuracy and sensitivity of such representations. The representative does not experience being in a role but rather that he or she is in the service of what the represented person wishes to say, prompted by gut feelings and bodily experiences that are not his or her own. For example, as a representative during constellation work, I have wept bitterly during a constellation on behalf of the person I was representing. I have also felt deep shame when representing a grandmother and certainty that as the grandmother I had caused the death of a child. Once the constellation is concluded, I come back to my own emotions.” (Welford, 2014, p. 324)
The famous, albeit rather controversial parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance provides an attractive explanation for these phenomena and is frequently used by family constellators as an explanatory model (Mayer & Viviers, 2016).
Despite the attempts at explanation, however, there are still many unanswered questions about family constellation and the “knowing field”. The latter is perhaps one of the most exciting and controversial aspects of this theory and practice. How does this field work? What forces are at work? How is it possible that participants in this field report mystical and telepathic experiences? Are the participants’ experiences esoteric in nature? Or is there a rational, scientific explanation for them that is not yet known? Further research is certainly needed to answer these questions. Studying the interaction between esotericism and psychology may also help us to determine the direction of future research.
Franke, U. (2017). The River Never Looks Back. Historical and Practical Foundations of Bert Hellinger’s Family Constellations. Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag.
Mayer, C-H. & Viviers, R. (2016). Constellation Work and Zulu Culture: Theoretical Reflections on Therapeutic and Cultural Concepts. Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology 7(2), 101-110. https://doi.org/10.1080/09766634.2016.11885706
Stones, B. (2006). A Brief History of Bert Hellinger’s Family Constellations. Self & Society, 33(4), 5-9. https://doi.org/10.1080/03060497.2006.11086254
Welford, E. (2014). Giving the Dead Their Rightful Place: Grief Work with the Family System. Transactional Analysis Journal, 44(4), 320–333. https://doi.org/10.1177/0362153714559920
Júlia Gyimesi is an Associate Professor and the Department Head of the Department of Personality and Clinical Psychology at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Hungary. In addition to this role, she also serves as the Program Director of the Theoretical Psychoanalysis PhD Program at the University of Pécs. She is currently a visiting fellow at CAS-E.
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Image 1: By CeSt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7312181
Image 2: By Arden Wong, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18069295