Photograph courtesy of Sara Fancy
By Richard Griffin
Sally and I stand at the top of a rolling hill in the pasture. A horse is peacefully grazing some distance away. Spread around us are multi-colored sport cones. They represent Sally's family. Some of them have been tipped over to indicate that this person is deceased or presumed dead. Sally is here hoping to shed light on a dissatisfaction that has been gnawing at her. Where does it come from? What is it about?
Suddenly, she gets the answer. I can see her posture, expression, and breathing simultaneously relax.
These are the signs of an understanding that is deeper than just intellect. It is knowledge that is felt more than spoken. The horse, who has been happily ignoring us, recognizes the change as well and comes over to stand next to her. She looks at the horse and begins to sob. I ask her what just happened.
She looks at me and says, "I never knew how lonely and desperate my mom was back then. Seeing what it was like for her with her abusive husband (Sally's step-dad), and having to take care of us kids when she really wasn't capable of even taking care of herself in that situation -- it's a little overwhelming! And now I see how I took on the job of being the mom to my younger siblings. I never got to be a kid! I became an adult way too soon."
I ask Sally to notice how she is feeling and to describe where and how it shows up in her body. Sally is already skilled at noticing sensations in her body and has little difficulty in answering.
"I feel really sad. It's like my heart is breaking, but it feels warm inside my chest. I also feel calm and present. My body is relaxed."
I tell her to try and remember this feeling, because it represents what I call congruency or alignment among the three major parts of her nervous system: gut, heart, and intellect. The emotional brain is feeling something that the cognitive brain now understands and can articulate.
She can use this feeling as a guide when she leaves the pasture and goes back to her everyday life. This feeling of congruency is quite useful in making decisions both large and small. It represents an internal authenticity — meaning, one is being true to one's essence, one's Essential Self.
Sally and I conclude her session when she reaches a point of completion that feels right to her. There's more work for her to do: integrating this new view of her life, as well as exploring how her limiting beliefs and unconscious habits learned in childhood influence how she relates to the world. But today's session marks the beginning of a shift that will move all her intimate relationships onto firmer ground.
Sally's experience with constellation work in the presence of a horse may sound dramatic, but the only thing exceptional about her experience is the depth of dysfunction in her childhood. Anyone can have a profound experience in this pasture using a few plastic cones and a horse. I have worked with young men and women looking for direction in their lives, professionals looking for solutions to vexing problems at work, and individuals or couples struggling with their relationships.
The magic happens when someone opens to an experience that connects with both the emotional brain and the logical brain.
Starting in 2015
I first began experimenting with constellations in my Equus Coaching™ practice in 2015. That year I was studying Family and Systemic Constellations with Sara Fancy in the high desert outside San Diego, and with Francesca Mason Boring in her Washington, D.C., training series.
Sara does constellations sessions with horses, and she taught me adaptations of her work that were suitable for coaching individuals. My first approach was to offer individual constellations in the 60-foot round pen that I used for Equus Coaching. In particular, if the client wanted to work on something that I felt might best be served by a constellation, I would describe it, and let the client decide if he or she wanted to explore through constellation.
A basic constellation with horse would proceed as follows:
The client chooses a horse and I bring it into the round pen. The client and I collaborate to decide on the details of the constellation. The client enters the round pen and intuitively finds appropriate locations for each representative, then scratches a symbol that feels appropriate into the dirt at each location.
Quieting the mind
Once the constellation is set up, the client stands near or on a symbol, turns inward, quiets the mind, and notices what comes up. When the client is ready, he or she signals to me and I come over and ask what he or she is noticing.
The ensuing dialogue is similar to that of a traditional constellation session with a group of people, except the client is engaged in the dialogue, not the representatives. The constellation proceeds similarly with each symbol until a resolution is reached.
During this time, the horse is free to do whatever it wants. What I began to see over the course of facilitating many constellations was that the horse would invariably move close to the client whenever the client discovered a deep insight and entered the physiological state of congruency.
My understanding of how the horse detects this state is that horses are prey animals that must quickly and silently sense the emotional state of other horses around them, since each horse in the herd is continually scanning the surroundings for danger.
Any sign of danger generates an emotional response that the other horses must immediately sense in order to remain safe. I also have come to believe that horses love to feel this sense of calm and clarity that arises from congruency, and naturally gravitate towards someone who is in this feeling state.
There are other clues I obtain from the horse's body language, and I provide these to the client whenever I feel it might be helpful but, for me, the key piece in helping the client find their inner truth is this remarkable affinity the horse has for being close to a human who is in this state of congruency.
As I continued to experiment with horses and constellations, I expanded my basic Equus Coaching session to two hours. I used the extra hour for a pasture walk and discussion prior to the Equus portion, and 15 to 20 minutes to debrief after working with the horse. I noticed that the pasture walk had a significant effect on both me and the client: we became calmer and more aware of our bodies and of nature around us.
I jokingly called it “Coming Down from the Beltway” since the farm is just off the Capital Beltway and clients often drive through horrendous traffic to get there.
Inspired to buy sport cones
The part of the pasture at the top of the hill also seemed to have special qualities. It felt more peaceful and quiet, maybe even sacred in some way. Clients liked hanging out there and talking. It’s also the place where the horses spend much of their time. One day I was inspired to buy a collection of small sport cones that I could easily carry up the hill.
The next time a client wanted to do a constellation, I asked if she’d like to work at the top of the hill. I warned her that the horse would be free to roam much farther away, and she might not have the same experience as in the round pen. To my surprise, not only this client, but everyone I asked, chose to work in the pasture.
Several things became apparent after I started working in the pasture. Clients had no qualms about using plastic cones as representatives. On the contrary, they seemed to take special interest in attaching meaning to the color and size of the cone, pausing to choose just the right one before placing it.
Working with cones allowed the client to adjust his or her relative positions until it felt right to them. I could also move the cones around to see how the client responded to the new configuration. Clients also took full advantage of the space, with some constellations extending 30 or more yards.
The clients seemed to find this way of working outdoors with a horse as “witness” intimate and unique to their situation. And last, I discovered I really enjoy working on the hill and have come to prefer it to the round pen when doing constellation work.
It is hard to exaggerate the utility of having a horse as a non-judgmental witness. It is such a delight for me to see the looks on clients’ faces when the horse comes over (often from a great distance) to stand next to them as “witness” to their insight. Constellation work is a powerful way of helping clients connect with their emotional brain to uncover limiting beliefs and unconscious patterns in their lives. In my experience, adding the elements of nature and horse supercharges the constellation engine.
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