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Posts Tagged ‘PhD’

When you start to think and write about something called “Personal Ideology”, there must be a need to question the assumptions behind the words. An Ideology is, according to dictionary.com, “the body of doctrine, myth, belief etc., that guides an individual, class, or large group.” It apparently dates to end of the 18th Century and was coined by Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy. But you knew that…

Personal conjures an image of something that belongs to me, is mine and not anyone else’s. Private, in fact.

But it’s not so easy to reconcile these two ideas. None of us makes up our own guide to life from scratch, without reference or in isolation from everyone else’s personal ideology. Surely, regardless of where we end up, all our guiding principles, values and beliefs are inculcated in us (knowingly and unknowingly) by the world we come into and which we tend to become conscious of only with reflection. It just feels like it’s private because that’s just how we encounter the world, as agents in it.

So, first off, I my guiding principle is that whatever belief system I have, it is there because of all the inputs I have had from and with other people and theirs are the result of all the belief systems and values that define them.  Whether these things are expressed as the result of a rational thought process or the poorly articulated attempt to express something that is more basic than language, that is something I have started to reflect on more recently.

I know that this step in this reflection (and we’re getting to the home straight now, with only nine postings left) starts by asking me to relate my fundamental beliefs (or values, which are the bedrock of beliefs) around the existence of a god or deity, or force in the universe. But actually I have a question  – “why do so many people have a belief in a deity?”

This is not to criticise them (or you), but to wonder why. What is it about us and our ability to abstract our thought that has created in us the need for myth, for religion, for belief? Even the counter-argument to theism that has grown in eloquence and force over the last 200 years at least, seems not to dent in otherwise intelligent, thinking people the wish to believe in something more than the blink-of-an-eye that each of our lives constitutes in universal terms. It’s not a blink of an eye to us, of course. The idea of a life-span, fully lived, is apparently enough for some people, but not for most – so perhaps there is something in what makes us humans that demands we reconcile the self-knowledge of mortality with the self-belief in the worth of living, and that we do so by calling in an exterior agent.

But isn’t the existence or not of a deity (what Heinz von Foerster would describe as) an “undecidable question”?  That is, all our stories of origin must remain conjecture.

My own guiding belief is that, for us, this is it. I experienced oblivion before I was born and I will experience oblivion after I die, and the two states of nothingness are exactly the same. I should be bloody grateful for the chance to spend a lifetime wondering about it all in-between. I like the expression ‘a system is the best explanation for itself” and I feel no need for a teleological explanation of why we are here. I think the “how” of us being here is pretty fascinating and important if we are to see what we can do for our children and other generations, but not the “why”. There’s no why.

And yet, I am really interested in understanding this fascination for belief, and I won’t deny that something of who I am is a result of a very long history of these ideas. I’ll try to reflect on my own history with all that tomorrow.

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Yesterday the task should have been to speak about a current problem or a stress. I didn’t. I weaseled out of it with a little bit of wordsmithing and some extra smoke and mirrors around the topic of time, and the connectivity of past in present and future in present, and the weird nature of “the present”.

The reason it was so difficult, when all the other tasks so far had been relatively simple, I think has something to do with the need to acknowledge fallibility. People keep their problems hidden, and if someone offered to swap you theirs for yours, you’d be wise to refuse.  One of mine is “the fear of not pleasing others”. 

It should be therapeutic to admit something like that, and the fact that I can shows me that it’s not the mountain it used to be, though I still get out of breath walking up its hill sometimes. All fears and phobias (except, apparently, the fear of falling and fear of loud noises, with which we are born) are learned.  Luckily, this is no phobia, more an occasional social ailment. Its effect? Usually a combination of reserve and accommodation and a patience that can drive some people nuts. And, of course, a frustration sometimes that I’m not doing what I want to do. Its source? Well, Dr Freud, ich habe keine annung… except perhaps that as a facet of one’s interaction with others it can make one seem charming.

I’m glad to say that I have got over it at work, though. I really enjoy setting up and then teasing, or needling participants in workshops to make a valuable learning point.  The antecedents of this imbalance (I think that is what it is) are contained in my past, always construed in the present and recursively connected to my interaction with my context, but the consequences of this lie in the future. Perhaps that is the only thing which makes it a problem. It limits what I can be, my possible future selves, and therefore is a problem?

This all feels like talking on self-indulgent thin ice, to mix up the metaphors a little. Perhaps the task tomorrow will feel more solid and straight-forward. I get to write and reflect on my “Personal Ideology”, fundamental beliefs and values. What could be more fun?

At any rate, the “what just happened?” effect from yesterday made me go back and look again at the Atkins and Murphy Reflection model. I think what’s missing is the dimension of “going in-going out”. If all reflection is dialogue, then the model needs to acknowledge this. Just an early thought.

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The topic now is “stresses and problems”.  I am supposed to highlight two, providing descriptions, details, source, case history and my plan for dealing with it. It’s 10:46 and I know that this is asking me to focus on something quite signficant in my life, but I can see where this is going.  It’s a commonplace to say that time causes stress, but that’s because we place time in a context where one of its properties is measured by “stress”. You can only come up against a deadline when you have set yourself a deadline. “Disappointment takes planning!”

Where are the stresses in my life? Well, I had a nice little wake-up call from one of my Supervisors, which ought to be stressing me (in a good way). I had sent one of my occasional “up-dates” which is intended to show whether I’ve moved along. Yes, came the answer, you have, but where is the indication of contribution to knowledge? This is, after all, a PhD, and while I have done a good job of creating an idea in a very practical project on Learner Identity, I still have to frame its worth within some dark and dusty corner of academia. I totally get the point, and it’s one that has been nagging at me as I leapt from academic discipline branch to academic discipline branch in my reading.

[As an aside: stress seemed to be a common denominator this evening in feedback sessions at Henley with the two teams of Executive MBAs I’m personal tutor for (who had themselves spent the day alongside the even more stressed out Full-Time MBAs). Not surprising, really, given the nature of the course generally, and the specific tasks of two big assignments immanent for submission.]

Is stress, like everything else, entirely contextual?  Is it viral, passed between people? Actually, “stress” must be the name for a collection of feelings. Something in and of itself cannot be stressful. It becomes so by defining the meaning of that “thing” as a member of a class of things.

Contextual or not, I do think I have “stress and problems”.  For the first time in writing these entries, though, I don’t think I can bring these up on such a public forum. This is an odd feeling. Aha, a “what just happened?” moment. I wonder whether this is because to do so will involve talking about characters and events that have not yet happened, and this is sometimes the most difficult part of reflection (assuming that reflection involves thinking about past, present and future).

Pause, while I think.

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The thread of the life-span exercise (or so my book says), having considered my past and my present, now considers my future. “What might be the script of plan for what is to happen next in your life?” (McAdams).

Recently the topic of the link between past, future and present has appeared and re-appeared in my reading. Paul Ricoeur’s book “Time and Narrative” (the clue is in the title) makes a strong connection between our sense of lived time (as opposed to cosmic time – which I take to be the undifferentiated and unknowable time of Jung’s pleroma) and our need for ’emplotment’ via a narrative which is constantly open to revision, and which is how we construct our identities. The present only has meaning because we experience a historical time and anticipate a future time.

The problem is that we just don’t think about it.

We experience ourselves in the present, but not of the present. Without our thinking about it (which is the point of raising “reflection” as a new skill) our pasts  and our futures are incorporated in our presents  and are “deeply grounded in habitual, unreflected, and mostly unproblematic patterns of action by means of which we orient our efforts in the greater part of our daily lives” (Emirbayer & Mische 1998).

So my future script is written in the present, and my present is the summation and the continuation of my past, and my past (for all that I tell and retell the story as if I wrote it) is all the people I have met (and some I haven’t) and all the facets and traditions and purposes and (the list goes on) of the culture I grew up in, and from where my family came from. Does this make sense?

My future script could be analysed in detail. Some hopes for the next 5 years – to complete the PhD, settle in to a rich vein of teaching and research at Henley and understand and enjoy what that means, find ways to challenge the thinking of people coming on the MBA at Henley, find a community of practice that suits me. There’s a work cluster there. Pay off the mortgage, clear away as much other debt as possible, support, love and be loved by close family, see my children continue to blossom as independent adults, reach out to several key friends who I have neglected and reaffirm those friendships. These cluster around home life. Continue and complete the novel that my father started work on but never completed, look for other creative outlets for myself, continue (struggling) with Yoga. There’s a hint of another cluster, “me” things.  

But, according to Erikson’s life cycle, the crisis in this time should revolve around “generativity” versus “stagnation”. I hope I’m cooked enough to avoid the inward-facing misery of stagnation in my late forties and early fifties, so I see generativity as the time in one’s life when it becomes correct (having done all “that stuff” that one is supposed to have done earlier in life and got it out of the way) to have concern for what will come after you. It’s the beginning of the completion of the cycle of life, an early nod to death, and yet coincides with the time in one’s life when you are probably best equipped to live and, for me, a time when I suddenly have some important projects I would like to see through. I’ll admit to being sentimental about people in distress, but I’ll also admit that so far in my life I haven’t ever done anything constructive about it. Perhaps this is important for me in my future script. I would like to think so, and if George were still around, he would be the one I would model for this.

Before all of that, I’ll have to put together a 15 minute presentation about undertaking this exercise at the PhD Experience conference in Hull next month!

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I’ve stopped at a sort of mental picnic spot on this journey, and I went back to the Day Two posting, and revisited the definition of reflective learning and the Atkins and Murphy model.  I still like the definition of Boyd and  Fayles :  “reflective learning is the process of internally examining and exploring an issue of concern, triggered by an experience, which creates and clarifies meaning in terms of self and which results in a changed conceptual perspective” (1983),  but would now wish to qualify the meaning of “internally examining”. I am not sure how that, alone, would be enough. If it is true that our conceptual perspective is a product of us and our environment, then surely the examination must also in some way be external.

The model for reflection, which I also still like, did get me thinking about models, though. Is the intention here to map what people naturally “do” when they reflect, or was it to provide a step-by-step recipe for reflection, a sort of “how-to”? Or perhaps a bit of both? I’m not sure.  Most writers on the subject of learning would agree that a] we are learning the whole time (though what kind of learning is going on might be open for debate), and b] we reflect as we go. However, we don’t easily reflect that we’re reflecting (though we can, we do have the ability to abstract), which means pointing this out to us inevitably results in us using that consciousness to start reflecting on our actions. We just can’t help it. So the model is both? My head spins.

I do think it is reasonable to suggest that this reflection-on-reflection is itself open to development (and, of course, reflection) and that practice is needed for this to happen and become habitual. So for this reason, these blog postings are probably having some kind of “muscle-building” effect on my reflective powers. 

Now, here is a list of concepts:

  • Time
  • Identity
  • Reflection
  • Learning

Are these individual or social phenomena?  I have an idea, but am curious what anyone (anyone out there?) reading this thinks. Come on, have a break in your day, and join me in the picnic spot.

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I’m on to my fourth and final “significant” person today. Tomorrow is a rest day, or more exactly a reflection day, since I want to revisit the opening intention of this month’s experiment, and also re-examine the model for reflection that caught my eye.

The final character is my father, Desmond. As I have already mentioned in prior postings, Desmond died when I was still relatively young, so I have to say that I do not know him. In fact, it would be fair to say that he has not played an active part in my life. Not unless you accept that an absence, just as much as a presence,  can make a difference.

It’s an interesting thought that the “non” state of a thing or a person can and does have impact all the time in our lives. The email not sent, the phone call not answered, the secret not told – all these things can become a difference which alters us in some way.

So it is with the person not there. Alongside my siblings, we grew up with our mother (she also brought us up, of course, but I mean that she grew, too).  I think we all turned out OK, mostly well equipped to deal with the world, and I am very lucky to have had such a loving, caring and patient parent who worked hard, remained steady and sacrificed a lot in the process. My hanging the “signficant person” medal round my father’s neck is neither a compliment to him nor a put-down to her.

But then why him? It is because without his being something there (no artefacts and very few memories, even), it somehow became necessary to struggle with the whole idea of him not there. In that tug-of-war there were no pointers, milestones or denouement. During the period of my own development through school, early employment, marriage and fatherhood, mid-career employment, unsettling and then resettling of identity in a new environment with a new spouse, the phantom character of my father has played many parts. I have had periods of anger, of sorrow and of regret, and also of defiance.  I felt sorry for him – he missed out on my growing up and on seeing grandchildren. And I was able to put the phantom to rest and honour him for having made me.

Yet I found (still find) I was eager for scraps of information about him, about his story, and this actually proved to be very rewarding (healing?). Some of that narrative I’ve written about, and in fact taking some of his story and placing it in context with the circumstances of his own upbringing have been useful for me.  Another fragment came the other evening when I had supper with my brother in London. He mentioned that he had himself had a meal with a very old family friend, John, someone who had known my father well in the 1960s when they both had connections with one of London’s top private casinos (my father liked the good life!).  John told my brother of a time when he had met Desmond in a pub in the Edgware Road, a place where both men were regulars and known to the landlord. My father had come along with no cash to pay for the drinks. On realising this, he proceeded to remove his starched, white collar from the shirt he was wearing, write out a personal cheque to the landlord on it, and pass it across the bar to be cashed. “It was typical of the man”, said John.

So, here we are again, speaking of and in narratives to better understand ourselves. And this PhD space, although never superficially about it, turns out to be another aspect of story-telling.

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Reflection

It’s not lost on me that all four of the people I’ve named are male.

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We spend a lot of our adult lives engaged with projects that singly we call work and that cumulatively we call career. Most of us, I guess, do this as a part of an organisation and at some more or less clear level within a hierarchy. Hierarchies require leaders and most of us would, I think, like to be able to look up to our bosses. Usually we find that we can’t.

My own experience is that the majority of those people in the organisations I have worked for have not made much of an impression. Those in my experience have sometimes been pleasant people who have just made little impact on anything at all (including on me). Some I found have gone some way to leaving behind a bigger mess than the one they had so many grand intentions on changing for the better when they were put in charge, and have shown regard only for themselves or their “legacy”. I don’t know why this is so. Perhaps you reach a certain level of title or responsibility you simply remain there, being moved forever along by the impetus of rejection from your old organisation, which though happy to see the back of you would damage its own reputation were it to reveal all your shortcomings.

Exceptions to this pattern of poor senior management exist, of course. I’ve even met a few. I think Bruce Kent at CND was an exceptional person, and he inspired confidence in those around him. I wanted to make the second of my four significant people the man who was Dean of the Budapest-based business school (IMC) where I worked for in the 1990s, Peter Bartha.

The School had been going through a series of crises. Not only was it never sure that there would be sponsorship and funding for the following year’s work (although, when it came to it, there always was), the original set of exchange and co-operation agreements with the Canadian and US business schools which had got the Hungarian institution going were coming to their natural end. The original Dean returned to her original post in Calgary and there then was a succession of odd-ball, temporary Deans, each one more inconsequential and inappropriate than the last.

Peter was born in Hungary but left when he was 18, in the 1950s. He ended up in Toronto, where he had a career in journalism and then a career in business/management and (latterly) in academia. When he applied for the Deanship, the faculty and senior staff at IMC were given some time to interview him and the other shortlisted candidates. Where the others were vague and mining us for information, Peter was informed, and where they were anxious to sell themselves, Peter was listening. In fact, he interviewed us, but in a way that left you feeling you had something valuable to say.

Peter showed me my potential. He had high expectations of you, but they were always . He could write well, and he could speak well (without notes), and he was as at ease guiding IMC’s Founder, George Soros, toward his own vision of how to grow the school as he was making the students feel that he knew them all by name (I believe he did). He could focus on a topic with incredible intensity, and he would find the fault in your argument with unnerving speed, and he had a genuine interest in your world. In short, he made you want to be doing not just a good job, but your best. It was Peter who encouraged me to enrol on the Henley MBA and to accept the inevitable knocks and challenges along the way with grace. For that alone, I am grateful.

He wasn’t always the easiest person to be around, or to be working for. He had an ego, and sometimes a quick temper, but he also had the good grace to admit candidly when he had been in the wrong (not that often).  He combined energy with a strategic eye for the world around him, and always knew when to apply the human touch.

So few of those people at the top of organisations I have worked for have been inspirational characters, so I allow Peter’s voice to be the one that reminds me quietly from time to time whenever the occasion call for it.

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In the next four posts, my plan is to describe four people who have had an impact on me, have played some part in my narrative, and who have helped make me the person I am. I’m very comfortable with the idea of defining who we are by our interaction with others (there was a TV ad campaign in 2008 for a UK mobile phone provider Orange which depended on the same idea for its premise), and I think it is a very helpful activity to see who, when push comes to shove, are those people who have inspired you or formed you directly. Because I think this category needs to be populated by people you have a direct connection with, it will rule out some inspirational characters who by definition will have remained oblivious of their effect on who I think I am over the years. That list would include John Peel, Albert Camus,

So the first (real) person on my list is George. George is, or was (since he died very suddenly of a heart attack in 2004) a corporate lawyer for an oil company in Houston, Texas.  I “met” him online, via eBay, in about 2001.  I was at that time dabbling the sale of pieces of exquisite hand-painted porcelain made by the famous Herend porcelain manufactory. It was mostly a hobby, albeit one with a modest return, and a way of fuelling my fascination for the unique way that Herend was surviving with a 19th century production process in the 20th century. Many of the people buying my stuff were in the US, and some became repeat customers.  Then, as now, I revelled in the use of the written word to communicate more than the basic transactional information, and after two or three successful sales to George in Texas, we began to enquire into each other’s worlds.

Our emails grew longer and more frequent, and it was clear to me that not only did George know quite a lot about collecting fine porcelain (though I prided myself on finding snippets of information he did not know, and he delighted in finding these out), he had (even on the page) a “glass half full” outlook and an infectious enthusiasm for

I think the fact that we both had an interest in Herend, that of the amateur enthusiast, spurred him on to suggest that it might be a bit of a lark to go into “business” together on eBay to supply eager collectors in the US (where Herend was often difficult and always expensive to obtain). “Hey, Pal,” he would say, “how about it?”. So, that’s what we did.  We created a small “fund”, which I used for scouring the second-hand shops in Budapest for likely pieces. I would take my purchases and scan them, then launch as lots on eBay. Every couple of weeks, I would send them carefully wrapped in paper and bubble-wrap via DHL to George,  and  he would then supervise the collection of payment and distribution. We did all of this without ever meeting, simply on the strength of the rapport we had created via our long email chats, and the occasional phone call.  I don’t think there was anything we didn’t talk about. I don’t know how you perfect the art of active listening on the Web, but George managed it.

George, it turned out, had a big heart. So big, in fact, that he invited me and my family over to stay with him and his family in Texas. Fortune smiled on the idea, and we actually were able to make the trip. When we arrived, I quickly realised that I was meeting my Mentor. George was level-headed, clever and trusting. He was also the centre of many things in his community, and seeing someone in this position was new for me. Above all, above all, he had a good heart. He made you want to repay that by having an equally good heart. He was usually one step ahead of you in generosity, though, and we were more than once the recipient of that goodwill (hand-made Christmas puddings sent out of the blue by courier to our house one Christmas comes to mind).

When he heard that my marriage was in difficulty, George got on the phone immediately. He asked me how I was, but he was also clear about the situation with me, and he is one of perhaps three or four people who helped me get through it. It was typical of the man (remember this phrase, because it’s going to crop up in a day or two in another context) that he offered to fly over to England to cheer me up, and he bought two pitch-side tickets at Stamford Bridge to watch a soccer game with me.

George died about two weeks before that trip would have taken place. I don’t think I have ever felt such loss so keenly. He was an ally lost, and I wish that I had got to know him better because he was one of those very, very rare people that inspires us to become… better. At his memorial service, I am told that in excess of 600 people turned up. That doesn’t surprise me in the least.

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Reflection

I’ve thought about George on many single occasions since he died, but aside from what I wrote to his widow soon after that day, I don’t think I have ever written any of this down. I wasn’t hard to do, and in George’s case, my concern is that I don’t do him justice, or that I don’t do what he meant justice. What it says about me, I’m not yet sure.

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I’ve been watching the full version of President Obama’s speech in Tucson on YouTube. Two things struck me.

One was that, in order to understand it properly, it is not enough to dissect the rhetoric or the orator’s performance (both of which are no doubt being studied by students of that kind of thing already) but the fact that those elements only come into their own because of the wider and grander discourse of the occasion. There’s something in the “air” in the auditorium, a sense or emotion that wishes something important to be said and to be said with feeling. It’s more like this particular speech is sucked out of the speaker. There is frequent applause and almost as frequently the ovation is made standing.

The other thing which I noted was how Obama used narrative as a device to make his connections between the act, the players and the audience (and not just those in the hall). Elements of the bigger discourse (is this the American narrative?) with its reaffirmation of certain values or beliefs, which I guess were used to hearing, these were certainly there. But then he did more than mention or just pay tribute to each one of the six fatally wounded victims, he created a story around them. And because the wish for this, or need for this, it’s almost impossible not to connect and not to be moved during the speech, and the quotation (repeated three times, each time with more feeling) from the President in the title of this post kind of summarises the micro and the macro contexts of the speech.

I mention this only really because I thought it significant in light of the narrative intent of this month’s postings here. I’d be interested in hearing people’s opinions.

As for today, I wanted to reflect and review the previous eight entries, which collectively make up a section of this self-research, to see whether anything of a pattern is discernible, either in detail of content or in study of the process of writing them at all. What I find is something which came to be today – that one personal theme which might connect my choosing these particular episodes over the last eight days occurred to me when I found a small black and white photograph of myself to illustrate the kibbutz posting. It was taken in my last week there, can’t remember the exact context, but I think I was planning to apply for a visa for somewhere.  As I looked at it I found myself thinking of that person I was and how poorly qualified he was. Qualified in the sense of formal qualifications, that is. Is this my “thread”? And does this, in part, at least drive me to occupy this space working for a PhD?

Another thought is that generally it was not always possible to be sure of the voracity of the story details, which the mind tends to supply you with when you reflect on your own. The more I thought through a particular episode the more I seemed to want to fill in (or manufacture?) gaps. I found that I was often less certain of the peripheral details than I had thought I would be. Was one of the police officers who came to our door in Deal that day really a policewoman? I’m not sure. Does it matter? Probably not. Not as much as noting in myself that my mind wants to fill in the details.

Finally, I took a look again at the Atkins and Murphy model for reflection. When I referred to it with one of the MBA groups in a workshop this week, someone in the group spotted that what made this model different to, say, Kolb was the requirement to describe emotions and feelings, not just facts. I’m not sure I have been doing this, nor am I sure it’s an easy thing to do, though I think this may be the key to developing this reflective practice as an ongoing aid to learning.

So a short pause on the narrative trail today. Tomorrow I’ll return to the McAdams list of things to do, and select for discussion and description of four “significant people” who have had an impact on my life.

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Today was another day-long workshop, this time with the full-time MBA group at Henley. It was a very interesting session to run, though I was feeling quite drained by the end. They were really ready to spend some time out from what must feel like a constant onslaught of “stuff” (and nonsense?) of subjects for which they are about to enter an intense period of assessment. I was somewhat surprised that most of the learning teams had, now four months in, not spent any time deliberately reflecting, sharing and discussing how the team-work was going.  My session gave them permission to do so, and I was also determined to keep the message going regarding the purpose of PD on their programme. Overall, one of the most entertaining and rewarding sessions for me so far.

I’m now on the eighth and final task in these personal/biographical key events. It’s the wild card, the “other”, the one they couldn’t predict when they wrote the questionnaire.  Again, as with some of these other daily postings, I have ‘ummed and aahed’ about what to pick. Something related to Henley (such a big part of my identity, even before I got the job there)? Or something to help explain my area of interest in research, which is people’s ways of making sense of themselves through their stories?   Or, since we’re in the territory of history, something from the family vault?

I’m going to go for one that I don’t think I’ve written about on the Blog before, but it was an experience that had a profound effect for me. A release, in fact. Before I left Hungary, in a period of some introspection during which I mixed professional interest in systems thinking with personal curiosity, I was taken along to take part in a Family Constellation workshop (which ran over two days). Constellation Therapy is the work of a German psychotherapist named Bert Hellinger. Hellinger’s experience of the rise of Hitler in Germany, conscription, capture and escape as a German soldier, entry to and ordination in the Catholic Church, travel to and around Africa, interest in group dynamics and African social traditions, return to Europe and departure from the Church, marriage and then study of psychoanalysis in Vienna, followed by travel to the States and study of Transactional Analysis all led him to develop a (controversial) alternative therapy for individuals to address present and recurring problems in their lives. According to the UK Hellinger web site

“Hellinger discovered that the fates of those earlier in our families influence those who come later. Bert Hellinger noticed the presence and observed the actions of the family conscience which guards the integrity of the family system. What Hellinger has articulated are hidden orders supporting the flow of systemic energy in the service of bonding. In families, this energy is love; when these orders are ignored, love is harmed and family members, usually children, come under systemic pressure to balance the harm. Bert Hellinger’s systemic therapy provides a way of restoring balance to the system and alignment with what is.”

That’s the blurb. The programme I attended, run in Hungarian, was attended by about 20 people, mostly strangers to each other. We all sat in a large room in a circles and the first person volunteered to state what they felt their problem was. Then they were asked by the therapist to give information (facts only) about certain family members. The therapist then asked them to choose people from the circle to represent some or all of the the family group, going back two or three generations (the numbers varied depending on the story being told) and also one person to stand in for them. The next step was then for the person to guide the various characters into the empty space in the middle, to whichever spot felt right, and to face them wherever felt most appropriate. They also did this for their own character. The effect was clear, the person was creating a physical representation of their own family dynamic.  Once this is done, the person sat back down and we waited. The ‘characters’ were then free to reposition themselves according to whatever emotion, idea or impulse they felt appropriate, and to keep moving until they felt they were in the “right” position. This sounds odd, and it did look odd (it was even odder being selected a couple times to “be” someone’s grandfather or brother in their constellation. But, amazing things happened. Every time. First, people did react, and did reposition themselves, and they did report feeling certain emotions (including joy and fear), and certain attractions. The therapist watched the unfolding moves, and would sometimes ask a further question (sometimes people were sent out to phone for family info, since we were in Hungary and were often dealing with traumatic family stories of love and loss from the Second World War, and many families had secrets), and would sometimes introduce new characters. The process was designed to realign the constellation, to surface the business of the past stuck in the present (sounds strange, but this is how it looked) and achieve healing. Eventually, the subject of the constellation replaces the person who is playing them, and this was often when emotion was highest in the room (people cried – a lot), and the sequence usually ended with the person acknowledging their debt for living to their parents, grandparents etc and affirmed verbally their intention to now be responsible for living their own lives (“our parents always have a task for us?”). Over the weekend, then, I sat through (occasionally stood in) about 20 such scenarios, including my own.  For me, I was able to resolve a major mystery surrounding the fate of my grandfather in Ireland (a man I never knew, but someone who lived an extraordinary and tragic life) as well as understanding more about my own father and his reasons for his loyalties. I identify this workshop as the moment at which I could begin to work 100% on my life as my own project.

The whole experience was pretty powerful, with people’s entangled energy dissipating, sometimes instantly and sometimes over the next days and weeks.  It never felt religious, or even spiritual (I don’t believe that the dead haunt us, though their past actions are part of our present), but on the other hand I am at a loss to explain how a bunch of strangers could experience the flow of energy and sometimes accurately the secrets hidden in family stories of others.

Tomorrow I will try to see what pattern there is, if any, in these eight short stories.

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