Constellations and “Collective Trauma”

Towards Healing the Shadows in our Culture

by Samvedam Randles, LMHC, Dipl. Psych.

silver lining, a metaphor for trauma therapyThomas Huebl, who has done significant healing work around Holocaust trauma in Europe and Israel, recently sent out an invitation to mental health professionals, scientists and other professionals to explore what can be done to understand and heal collective trauma.

Last month, 150 practitioners answered that call and made the journey from all over the planet (39 countries) to his Pocket Project training in Israel. They brought their knowledge, skills and resources, as well as the traumas that have impacted (and are still impacting) their countries. I was one of them. I’m now back home, and before daily routines claim all of my attention again I want to share a little of the amazing journey that I was immersed in. I feel a new level of peace within, and my understanding has been upgraded a few notches.

What is collective trauma, and why is it critical that we learn to address it?

In The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk explains trauma in simple language. He says that our ability to “stay present” gets hijacked by survival-related emotions and sensations when an incident overwhelms us in ways that we cannot cope with. When the event is more than we can process, we dissociate or go numb. Then, the traumatic charge lands in our physical body, where it can be reawakened by something like a smell, a sound or an image that is associated with the traumatic event, sending us back with a flashback to the traumatic experience.

What happens when trauma gets internalized on a larger scale? Collective trauma, sometimes called cultural trauma, occurs as a result of large-scale events like war, genocide, colonialism or terror attacks. The violence and shock is so overwhelming that the entire culture goes numb, disassociates, or finds other ways to create distance from the truth of it. People may survive and move on with their lives, but the actual feelings associated with the event stay frozen, unintegrated, in the cultural body.

This frozen emotion forms an underlying energy around the culture. Unconsciously, its members then see reality through a lens that is fogged up by this unresolved past. And everyone who is born into the culture thereafter simply assumes that this fogged-up picture is reality.

broken windows, a metaphor for a traumatized psyche

Most Family Constellation facilitators have experienced that moment when a Family Constellation suddenly shifts into a Cultural Constellation. The cultural trauma that impacted the client’s family at some point in history becomes so dominant in the field that it cannot be ignored. It demands to be seen, felt and integrated.

How can this be accomplished?

Who can “host,” or open to such intensity, when the emotion is so overwhelming?

Constellation Work & Collective Trauma – The Boston Marathon Bombing

These questions arose in my own practice as a Constellation facilitator after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. The Saturday after the bombing, our Boston-area Constellation Learning Group met as usual, but nothing else happened in the usual manner. We all were still in shock.

Bombs had gone off in our midst, and the manhunt for the bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had moved into our own neighborhood. Soldiers with dogs and guns had filled our normally quiet streets. They had searched our houses as helicopters lights shone into our skylights, and we were all placed under lockdown.

I had watched from my balcony as the suspect, Tsarnaev, was discovered in a neighbor’s boat and arrested by what seemed like an entire army of soldiers. Others in our Constellation circle had been at the finish line of the marathon. One person’s son was in the same class as Tsarnaev. And some had friends who had been injured. One woman had run for her life with her children behind her. Everyone in our group was shaken. The energy in our circle felt tense, numb.

Any separation between me (as facilitator) and our group members made little sense in this context. We all sat as one unit, feeling the reverberations that flowed through our circle like waves. After extensive sharing, we decided to set up our first Collective Trauma Constellation.

tennis shoe memorial to the victims of the bombing, by Getty Images.
Spontaneous memorial to those killed and injured in the bombing.

First, we took a few moments to attune to the bombing. Then each person in the room chose a person or group that seemed important to include: the police, the perpetrators, victims, and so on. I noted them on index cards, put them in a hat and passed them around. Each person drew a folded up card and found their place in the field without looking to see what was written on it. Then, we simply followed the movements and emotions that guided us.

Not surprisingly, each group of players in the bombing expressed unique needs and qualities.

The police needed to be honored by community. The perpetrators wanted recognition by the government. The victims seemed to be connected to the perpetrators by an elastic band, and the younger perpetrator looked up to his older brother and followed his every step.

Astoundingly, when our representatives looked at the cards they had drawn, about 75 percent of us had pulled the card holding the very ingredient we had called into the circle (police, victims, perpetrators, etc.).

Coincidence?

Our witnessing effort had helped. Some of us walked out that day with more wholeness in our bodies. Others stayed with the shock waves… though the volume was turned down a little. This is when I realized how little we as facilitators really know about how to work with collective trauma. I began to wonder, How can we bear to stay present with trauma at that level? Can we really learn to “host it” within us? 

After the gathering, I was inspired to offer a constellation to the Watertown Police Department, where our officers were struggling with the loss of friends killed in the violence, as well as feeling marginalized by federal law enforcement. But they were not ready for this kind of exploration.

Still, from that day on, we began to practice witnessing current events within us at our Constellation workshops. We do this by attuning to an event and meditating with that attunement for some time. Thomas Huebl had entered my life as a teacher in 2015, so I knew that this was a way to begin addressing collective trauma. But I also sensed that we were beginners in our ability to do this work.

Victim and Perpetrator Energies in Trauma


So that is how I found myself in Israel with 150 other mental health practitioners after Thomas issued the call to work on collective trauma integration. For five days, he guided our multi-national group in working with the trauma that emerged in our midst. We started at the macro level, and then dipped into places where cultural trauma overlapped with our own lives. We made space to feel, witness and integrate the emotions and sensations that emerged as we held each trauma in a space of awareness.

We cried with the girls in Africa whose sexual organs are being mutilated to this day. Stories of rape pulsated through the room, touching anybody who carried that vibration within them. We explored our ancestral lines and exposed whatever truths we found – both painful shadows and radiant love. The large room quite literally heated up as once-trapped emotions began to release from the traumas we held in awareness.

After we had spent a day on holding the energy of being hurt, victimized and shamed, we experienced the other side of the coin. A man in our circle spoke of giving up some of his own integrity once he put on a uniform to be part of the army. And the heat turned right back on as we sat with the perpetrator wound. It was expressed most clearly by a Vietnam vet in our midst who felt “irredeemable” and was furious that his country seemed to turn its back on him and his comrades after the war. Nobody wants to hold that kind of emotion inside; or feel responsible for unleashing it.

But we explored the shadow of perpetrator energy or betrayal energy in our own personal consciousness. We saw to what degree we are able to stay present with those energies.

The Pocket Project training in Israel, June 2017

It became more and more clear that humanity needs to awaken to a kind of global witnessing that is capable of acknowledging and holding cultural shadows.

We need to metabolize these residual energies in much the same way we do in Family Constellations.

We do this by cultivating compassion and a large heartfelt container that allows unresolved energies to resurface, be felt and integrated.

The author with Thomas Huebl at the Pocket Project training.
Talking with Thomas Huebl.

Trauma Will Repeat Until We Integrate it

It matters because if we cannot integrate the unresolved burdens of the past, they continue to seek resolution. As we know in Family Constellation work, they find ways to repeat, either in our lives or the lives of our descendants. Sometimes there is a reversal of polarities. The victim energy of past events becomes perpetrator energy in the next generation.

Witnessing and “presencing” collective trauma is not an easy task until we have cleared and healed our own personal triggers. We need a solid “internal architecture” in order to hold a clear space for the structures of cultural trauma. The inner and outer processes seem to travel hand in hand. Thomas guided us to explore our own personal beliefs that reflect the shadows in our nations. Just like families, cultures make silent agreements about how to relate to the shadows that live beneath the surface of daily routines. These agreements are “shadow pillars” within cultures, holding the density of the culture’s unfinished business. These shadow pillars show up in limiting beliefs and actions, or in a distorted view of reality. You might call it “cultural karma.”

Shadow Pillars in American Culture

Here in the U.S., we have shadows such as slavery, indigenous slaughter, and the up-rootedness of people leaving their homes and families behind to migrate to this country. These shadows have roots in long-ago generations and continue to express in new forms.

These shadow pillars downgrade the immune system of the collective, limiting our intelligence because our means of perception are narrowed. Caught in the shadow material, we lose alignment with the Greater Whole. The natural healing life force is less able to flow within and through us.

Here is one of the statements of the week in Jerusalem that has stayed with me: “Tomorrow is only the future if it brings in the new.”  Yet when we carry unhealed trauma, our tomorrows seem like an endless repetition of yesterday’s unhealed wounds. And that is not the future.

The mission of the Pocket Project is to stop the vicious cycle of recurring collective trauma; and ultimately reduce and integrate its effects on our global culture.

Next April, we will gather again and see if we can take our skills to yet another level, and compare notes on the progress of the actual projects launched as a result of our first gathering.

healing trauma artwork

I am grateful and excited to bring this training into my Constellation practice. My prayer is for a global upgrade of human consciousness that allows us to live in greater harmony with one another and with this beautiful planet!

7/21/18 Update:

Join us October 27 for a day of Collective Trauma work with an international team of Pocket Project graduates.

For further study on Cultural and Intergenerational Trauma Integration:

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