The Body and Constellations
by Judith O’Hagan
Judith is a UKCP registered transpersonal psychotherapist, supervisor and constellations facilitator. She has had extensive training at The Centre for Transpersonal Psychology and The Centre for Systemic constellations.
Working with and understanding the body has been her main preoccupation throughout her career. She has specialised in working with people who have cancer, migraines, persistent headaches, neuro-muscular-skeletal issues, and all sorts of chronic illnesses. Thus, Judith developed expertise in helping clients psychotherapeutically, within the context of what is happening physiologically.
Much of this work has been in the context of multi-disciplinary teams, such as the Bristol Cancer Help Centre (now Penny Brohn Cancer Care), The Headache Clinic in Yeovil and NHS hospitals. For more information and to contact Judith please visit www.judith-ohagan.co.uk
The Body and Constellations
Why people manifest one symptom as opposed to another, at this particular time and not another, and what the body is trying to express by the symptoms it produces, are questions I have been seeking to understand in my working life. To do so, it has been important to develop the skills that listen to the quiet voice of the symptom, and to amplify that, so that it can be heard amidst the myriad external voices of Dr Google, the NHS guidelines, exercise gurus, diet advisors, and photographs of the ‘ideal’. All of these have louder voices than the ‘quiet voice’ inside us. However, in order to maintain health it is necessary to attend to our inner wisdom voice, and become familiar with understanding what way is right for us.
The Creativity of Symptoms
A symptom can be read as a message from the inner world to the outer world that all is not well in the balance of psyche (the totality of conscious and unconscious energy of the person) and soma (the body). Making a symptom is an act of extraordinary creativity by the body.
We are more familiar with this than we might realise, and it is there in our language ‘we are pissed off’, ‘something sticks in our throat’, we ‘can’t digest this situation’ and so on. A symptom follows the same pathway as a dream – from our unconscious to our conscious. The difference, of course, being that the symptom is physical – it is a message from the soul, made flesh.
Louise Hay has written about this extensively, but inevitably, she is generalising, and in fact each symptom will have its own unique personal story, as unique to the individual as their fingerprint. Like a dream, symptoms have their own internal logic, subtlety and symbolism, and must be attended to with ‘an ear to the sacred’.
The Inner Cause of Disease
How did an illness evolve? And why this illness and not that? If we have cancer, why did it develop in one place, rather than another? Does the body have any wisdom about these matters? And might this be a useful insight in restoring a good balance between body, mind and emotions, and soul?
Western medicine specialises and therefore different consultants are needed for different parts of the body. This leads to excellence in terms of the knowledge and practice of the specialist but makes it very hard to see the whole picture. The more profound approach of ‘what ails thee?’ will bring the ’dis-ease’ into coherence and focus. The inner world and the outer world are seen as one, and the relationship between psyche and soma can be rebuilt. The whole is then greater than the sum of its parts.
What is the story of the disease, from the perspective of the client? Many people will have an inner knowing of the rightness of their story, and this story will be unique to them. It is not the same story for two cases of breast cancer; and two people with breast cancer will have two unique stories. A symptom therefore will have two stories – the outward, western medicalised story ‘This patient presented with … on …. and the findings were… and the treatment plan is …” but also an inner story, more poetic, more personal, often not articulated.
To begin to articulate that inner story we need to understand that the development of illness is in part a factor of timing – what is going on in life, what are the pressures of life at this time? If there is a gap between emotions and thinking on the one hand (the outer life) and the demands of the soul (the inner life) on the other, there will be tension. If the gap becomes insupportable, symptoms arise.
A man I worked with had an unusual lung cancer, although not a smoker. His recent retirement came as an unexpected shock. He had spent many years working in the emergency services, and his radio was on his jacket, exactly where the cancer had appeared. We talked about how difficult his life was in the services, and how he got a ‘jump’, a small shock, every time his radio sounded. Now retired, he didn’t look back on his working life with any joy. Every time the radio sounded, he felt anxious and inadequate, could he live up to the expectations of his role?
In his poetic mind, the cancer and the many small shocks were connected, although medically there was no evidence for this connection. Our work together concerned processing the traumas of his working life, processing the trauma, his unexpected retirement had caused him, and making his retired life meaningful and fulfilling; so that his battered self-esteem was up to the new challenges of retirement.
Our work together involved freeing up the life force that was previously tied up in the shocks and therefore not available to him, so that it became available to him to live in the present, and to aid his recovery.
The Mythological Lens
A mythological lens for interpreting symptoms is a helpful starting point to understand the story of the symptom. The symptom speaks in the language of soul, heart and feeling, not science and logic. The language is inevitably metaphorical and symbolic.
Chronos is the earliest of the Greek Gods, he is the start of time. (It is important here not to confuse Chronos with Cronos, the Titan, father of Zeus). With Chronos’s influence, there is the factor of time, and therefore ageing and mortality. A chronic illness is named after Chronos – God of Time, or Old Father Time (for example, ‘chronology’ ‘anachronism’, ‘chronicle’). Therefore, a chronic illness can be seen as a snapshot of time. Chronos controls the right order of things, so that everything happens in a timely fashion. He is in control of due process, and if these factors are out of kilter, a chronic illness might be the result.
His sister and consort is Ananke and represents force, constraint, necessity or destiny. With Ananke’s influence, illness can be fated, part of destiny. And for example we might be considering genetic illnesses.
Their children are Aether and Chaos. Aether represents the rarefied air that only the Gods can breathe and brings splitting. The person in question needs ‘special air’ and cannot ‘breathe’ the same air as people who are healthy. The effect can be ‘depersonalisation’ expressed in illnesses of oversensitivity, allergies, and lack of energy, often with a sense of being ethereal. Post viral fatigue, M.E, and situations where people need to withdraw from the world, and may become passive, are under the influence of Aether.
Chaos demands answers to questions such as ‘how can I breathe in this situation? How can I find the space to express my humanity? There might be situations where people need to break free of constraints, and to find a new way to live before they can stabilise health issues.
Chaos is around whenever people are feeling held back from making great leaps forward. In the hesitation of making these steps, illness can arise. Chaos may influence many emotional and mental illnesses, fevers and inflammations. Chaos is present when symptoms come and go, and in situations where there is drama and confusion. Chaos has particular influence on artistic and creative people.
So Chronos brings the element of time, Ananke invokes destiny, Chaos demands space to breathe and express the personality, and Aether brings the capacity to split off, to survive intractable situations.
The Pattern of Illness Through our Life
It is said that introverts retreat into infections, which allow them to withdraw from the world, and rest, alone i.e. they are under the influence of Aether. Extroverts go breaking their limbs and have accidents, often caused by other people. They have projected their dis-ease out onto the world, yet it comes back to them, in the form of an event. They are under the influence of Chaos.
This is a wild generalisation, of course, but some people notice some truth in it. So, it is helpful to look at the pattern of illness throughout our life. Tracking this pattern can give us insights. Is there a story thread through our life, a tendency to some sorts of illness, or illness occurring at some particular time of the year? Are there repeating patterns through families, from one generation to the next? It is helpful to look at illness in context: ‘I suffered a …… in the context of ….. and the consequence was …..’.
To give a personal example, ‘I suffered acute appendicitis when I was 9 unable to digest the rage of my family situation. It was a near death experience that led, ultimately, to my career as a psychotherapist. Reflecting now, I can see that I got ill when everyone else got tense, and my body was acting as a barometer to family stress. I was somatising the lack of harmony in my family, and ultimately my silent rage led to acute appendicitis.
The Factor of Stress
We know that stress has an effect on the immune system, and the nervous system. For the greater part, stress arises in the emotions and the mental life. Factors like grief, insecurity, anxiety, and worry have a measurable effect on the chemistry of our body. Equally meditation, relaxation and mindfulness have a measurable effect on stress reduction, and therefore wellbeing, within our body.
If stresses in life lead to the gap between body and mind (emotions and soul) becoming insupportable, symptoms will arise and illness is shows up as dis-ease, a lack of ease in our life.
My work experience showed that generally it takes 18 months to two years between an emotional precursor and the diagnosis of cancer. Not all cancers have their roots in emotions, but where there is a significant emotional event in that time scale, the patient may feel and/or believe that there is a connection between the two events.
One explanation is that the event lowered the immune system, sufficient for the cancer to take hold. (We all have cancer cells in our bodies all the time, normally safely dealt with by the immune system). Also, events which occurred many years ago can stay dormant in the body and the psyche and may be triggered by a more recent event, leading to the occurrence of cancer.
A woman I worked with had cancer of the uterus. Her relationship had broken down two years before, and she felt that there was nothing left to live for. Behind that was a story of an illegal termination of a teenage pregnancy, 40 years ago, with all the shame, grief and trauma that accompanied the termination. When she made the connection between the termination and her current uterine cancer, she was able to create a narrative that made sense of her situation. By understanding the story behind her symptoms, she was able to reconnect with her life force, and make fullest use of her medical treatment, and find a hopeful future.
The Pace of Change
Change is easiest to adapt to if it happens slowly, at human soul’s pace. Sudden change can be shocking and traumatic and we should not expect a rapid, instant, return to health, but a gradual increase in life force, and the capacity to cope with the everyday.
I usually ask my clients to use self- assessment measurements for the frequency, intensity, and duration of their symptoms. Out of a possible score of ten per measurement, total of thirty, clients can start to see an encouraging decrease in the scores, as the symptoms gradually become less frequent, less intense and are of shorter duration.
As we go through life our bodies make marks – scars, wrinkles, weight, bends and distortions – the graphic history of our lives is drawn on our body. The scars and scarifying, initiations, the marks left by accidents, the operations we’ve had, piercings and tattoos, how we stand, the ways our body reflects if we have been bent out of shape.
We may have stretch marks, defensive stances, armoured chests. These are the wounds that we carry inside, silently, that make no visible mark, but hang around us, changing our responses to the world, and can for example be visible in worry lines or a pale complexion. We all have them, in some measure. Constellations can help us rebalance our inner and outer worlds not only when life-threatening or curtailing symptoms and illnesses arise. All these little marks, symptoms and expressions of our dis-ease can help us address imbalances.
If we have a significant trauma that we are unable to process we tend to store it in our body. We protect the hurt with life force, so that the trauma is well buried and we are distanced from it and from its repercussions. This works well enough for a while. But in time, we start to miss the life force that we have put around the issue, and the issue starts trying to draw attention to itself. Then even more life force is needed to suppress our awareness of the trauma.
We might not recognise that we are not alive as we were, but if prompted, we might see that our thoughts return to this event and see that life has not flowed as well since the trauma. A part of us lives in the past, and the more time passes between the event and the present time, the more difficult the situation becomes.
Again, we are looking at the gap in time between the traumatic event and the present day. We might become inflexible, rigid, ossified. The unrecognised pain might hint at its existence in our frown, or in a tendency to bile and bitterness. If the gap becomes insupportable, a symptom will arise. When the message of the symptom, in this case, the trauma, is understood and addressed, life force can flow again, and we can live again in the present, instead of being stuck in the traumas of the past.
Combining Constellations and Psychotherapy
When I was first introduced to constellations as a technique, I was puzzled about how I could integrate this with psychotherapy and have realised over the years that many therapists share this puzzle. Some resolve it by choosing to focus on one technique, rather than the other, meaning that some psychotherapists become constellators and leave psychotherapy or choose to remain as psychotherapists, using constellation techniques rather sparingly. However, if one is working with body issues, this choice is rather easier.
In the usual way of setting up constellations in a group setting, the field of the issue holder is an area delineated by the circle of representatives. When I am working with a client with health issues on a one-to-one basis, their body is the field and their symptoms are representatives, that can be listened to in many ways.
From the perspective of transpersonal psychology, it is helpful to ask questions that explore and amplify the voice of the symptom. The client can say if a symptom is better or worse, or they can draw an image of the symptom, they can name it, give it an age, say who it really belongs to, what helps, what makes it worse, where would it like to go, what would it like to become?
Similarly, in a constellations interview, the client can say how the symptom feels in response to questions, better/worse, tighter/more relaxed and so on. Modelling the situation on the floor with felts or figurines will give information that is so important to constellators: looking at eyelines, proximity, immediate family and ancestors, entanglements, exclusions, and distortions and blockages in the orders.
The orders of love, loyalties, and taking on the fate of others will play out in the field of the body and be represented by symptoms. This information can also be collected by observing and interpreting the positioning of figurines, and by questioning the client. Then by suggesting movements of the figurines, and perhaps interventions such as bowing, repeating sentences, and putting in healthy boundaries, the client can see possible solutions, and different ways of being that bring peace to the system. This is an important step towards better health.
A Journey with Cancer
A client of mine, ‘Peggy’, had advanced breast cancer, with secondary cancer in the bones in her leg, ribs, and her liver. When I first met her, she wanted to tell me about the shock of her diagnosis, her likely impending death in a matter of months, and her grief about no longer being fit enough to garden or take her dog for long walks.
Listening to her, we focused on what the body was trying to express by the symptom it produced i.e. understanding what was going on in her life what pressures she was experiencing, how her illness evolved and why she believed that she had this particular illness and not another one. It was important to understand how she explained to herself why the cancer developed in her breast, rather than another body part, and why it developed at this particular time.
She had married late and was unable to have children. She described her husband as a violent and abusive man and expressed a lot of grief about her marriage. She found it hard to talk about the subject. It was only with the greatest difficulty that she was able to leave him several years back. Peggy told me that the cancer had first been diagnosed after she coincidentally met her ex-husband, which had reawakened all the terror she had experienced in the marriage. This was a good starting point for our work together.
To anchor her in the present moment we created a constellation by using small objects for different elements of her life now: her new cottage, her dog, her friends and family, her flowers, her medical and therapeutic team, and her belief in the angelic kingdom. This was a safe space to which she could always return.
Then we set up a second constellation for her previous life: the fear and bleakness of life, the painful separation from her family (at the wishes of her husband) and the lack of her own space or privacy. At this point, she reported pains in the cancer in her leg, and disclosed that her husband had tried to run her over because he would prefer her dead rather than divorce her.
This gave me a window into the emotional components of her cancer. I asked her to speak some sentences to her husband along the lines of: “I give your anger back to you” and “You cannot hurt me anymore.” Some of these sentences led to a discharge of emotional tension and with my guidance, I led her further into releasing the trauma around this particular incident.
Over a period of several months we continued to work in a similar fashion. Each time we set up the energy and life force of her present life, and only then constellated the past. This gave her the opportunity to feel safe, and gain a greater capacity to face difficult emotions. The fact that ‘Peggy’ could see her situation in the constellation, as if drawn on a page, gave her the ability to see and feel past events in a different context.
She could move each object around to physically experience the effects of the changes she had made in her life. We talked through each change she made and backed it up by visualisations, creative imagination and journal work. For example, in discussing her garden, we talked about compost heaps, and how compost nourishes the soil, and
enhances plant growth. I suggested to draw a compost heap in which she could put all her fear, misery and trauma. This helped her to find gratitude for the lessons that she had encountered through this journey. Her compost heap transformed her pain and allowed her to let go of the shocks held in her body and listen to her inner voice. She had reclaimed her power and her space.
She began to move her experience from her suffering body-mind to her loving soul. In her imagination, she used the compost to feed and nourish her immune system. She focused her attention on increasing the amount of life force available to her instead of re-living the trauma of the past. Eventually she saw her marriage as part of her past, not part of her present.
Her cancer remained but did not advance. She had several more years of life than she had expected from the original prognosis. When her beloved dog died she felt ready to agree to her cancer. She died easily and peacefully a few months after her dog.
Constellations: Uncovering the Roots and Transforming our Dis-ease
Symptoms can be seen as an active creative expression of dis-ease. Thus, if we develop compassion, understanding, a gentle listening ear to the body, and are prepared to make relevant changes, then constellations can help us return to health and wholeness. In other words, the approach becomes collaborative, rather than adversarial.
Constellations and psychotherapy can work in tandem with the western medical model, so that the body can be supported by the best of western medicine, whilst the soul can be nurtured out of a state of dis-ease and supported towards renewed health and wholeness in the body. Intuition is then partnered with intellect.
What does our body need? To be lived in, well fed, exercised and rested. To be loved, appreciated and cherished. To have opportunities for play, creativity and curiosity. To lead a life that is authentic. The body doesn’t need to be subservient to emotions, to be beaten up, shamed or punished. It doesn’t need to be the dustbin of all the issues we are reluctant to face and sort out.
With this new orientation we can become closer to the voice of our soul and find a path to healthy living that is congruent with our needs, not with a generalised ideal. We can become more embodied, and hence have more energy and a better metabolism. We can be more effective and more present in the world. At this point, the word ‘health’ meets its derivation of ‘whole’, and health and wholeness can start to be at one.