Storytelling and Constellations

A version of this article first appeared in The Knowing Field, July 2008

Meanings, moments and movement: Storytelling and Constellations

© 2009 Geoff Mead, Centre for Narrative Leadership

When I first encountered family systems constellations in 2005 it struck me that the way it works has much in common with creative story work. Both forms can help us understand the stories through which we consciously and unconsciously shape our identities; both offer valuable opportunities to free ourselves from narratives that constrain or bind us into painful and dysfunctional patterns; both can enable us to ‘re-story’ our lives so that we can live in more productive and inclusive ways.  My experience as a participant in numerous constellations has been hugely valuable and stimulated such a strong (albeit undefined) sense of connection with the healing power of story that I want to share the fruits of my inquiry into the relationship between them in this chapter.

For readers not familiar with the process of a constellation, let me give a very brief and rather simplistic description. The work is generally done in a group: an issue-holder relates the essentials of what they are seeking to understand better or resolve to the constellator who then assists them to choose members of the group to represent people or elements in the family (and wider) system and place them in relationship to each other. The representatives – guided by their physical, emotional and intuitive responses to each other and whatever they sense of the tacit knowledge held collectively in the field – speak and shift their respective positions until a more functional and generative pattern of relationships emerges. At this stage the issue-holder is often invited to take their place in the constellation and experience the new possibilities of this pattern for themselves.

This way of working systemically with personal issues (often deeply entrenched issues that have defied more conventional therapies) was originally created by German therapist Bert Hellinger and has since been taken up and developed worldwide by various practitioners.  For example, I have been training in the organisational application of constellations with Judith Hemming, of the Nowhere Foundation in a Community of Learning, Practice and Innovation (COLPI) since 2007. Recently we have been exploring how the fields of storytelling and constellations might inform and support each other.

There is very little published material that addresses this question directly, though the constellation practitioners’ journal The Knowing Field carries a review (Hyde-Grossman, 2005) of Ach wie gut, ich es weiss (Schneider and Gross, 2003) in Issue 6 which explores the use of fairy tales in family systems constellations and looks to be very informative. Unfortunately the book is not yet available in English and the examples quoted in the review focus on what patterns a therapist might infer from a client’s identification with a particular fairy tale, Snow White, rather than how such stories are actually used in conjunction with a constellation.

It is also clear that Bert Hellinger is familiar with many traditional stories and has written about their therapeutic effect. In Love’s Hidden Symmetry (1998) he makes an interesting assertion that a client’s identification with fairy tales about something that a child could experience before the age of seven indicates that their problems are most likely to be a result of actual traumatic experiences, whereas identification with stories that only adults could experience (Hellinger gives Othello and The Odyssey as examples) indicates that their problems are most likely to be a result of systemic entanglements. There are also several examples of him telling stories as a non-intrusive and respectful way of indicating to clients where change is possible.

Valuable as these sources are, they still do not help us get much of a feel for the ways in which storytelling and constellations might come together in practice. More useful is Vivian Broughton’s (2003) fascinating account of her experience as a representative in a constellation of the biblical/talmudic/koranic story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar and their respective sons Isaac and Ishmael which gives us a visceral sense of the potential power of constellating an archetypal myth.  Representing Sarah, Vivian says:

“I howled. I don’t know where it came from…but I had an image of multitudes of people coming from my belly, an outflow of humans into the future. I felt as if I was giving birth to centuries of hatred, rage, persecution, violence and evil. I disgorged pain and torment. I saw the generations that came from my belly suffering and hating and killing… I felt almost wholly something else, completely immersed.”

I hope this enough to whet your appetite for my own ongoing inquiry into the connections, similarities and differences between storytelling and constellations.  As an action researcher I believe that good theorising is based on a solid platform of practical experience so I want to start by sharing a story I told at a three-day workshop on storytelling in organisations in July 2007 and again in September 2007 at a COLPI learning forum: The Giant with No Heart in His Body1.  I will then show how the story affected some of those who heard and responded to it, initially through creative improvisation and subsequently through a structural constellation.  Finally, I will draw upon these two sets of experiences to consider how storytelling and constellations work through the human soul to make meaning of our experiences and give meaning to our lives.

The story

The Giant with No Heart in His Body is a very old Norse wonder tale collected in the nineteenth century but with its origins in a centuries old oral tradition, told and retold and distilled into its essential form through a collective folk wisdom. The characters are both particular (in our imaginations) and universal (in their archetypal forms). It is not a well-known story and I think it will serve our purpose better if I tell it here much as I told it then – with at least a flavour of the storyteller’s art.

As you read the story I invite you to allow yourself to enter its landscape and to find the story inside yourself.  Which characters do you identify with? What moments catch you?  Whose fates do you care about? What images well up in your mind? How are you moved? What resonances are there with your own life? In what ways is this also your story? What insights and understandings does it bring?

Once upon a time there was a king who had seven sons, and he loved them so much that he could never bear to be apart from them all at once. When they were grown up, the six eldest set off to find themselves brides. The king kept the youngest at home and told the others to bring back a princess for him too. The six brothers went off dressed in the finest clothes and riding the finest horses that money could buy.  At last they came to a king who had six daughters: they fell head over heels in love with each other and soon six marriages were celebrated. After a while they set off to bring their brides home, quite forgetting to bring back a bride for Boots, their youngest brother. On the way, they passed a huge wooden door set into a steep hillside where unknown to them a giant lived. The giant came out of his house and turned them all to stone.

Meanwhile, the king grew sadder and sadder waiting for his six sons to return home, “If you were not here,” he said to Boots, “I think I would die from sorrow.” However Boots was determined to go in search of his brothers and begged his father for so long that eventually he was forced to let him go even though there was no money left for fine clothes or a fine horse. Boots did not care about that; he sprang up on his sorry old steed and bade his father farewell.

After a while he came across a raven lying in the road, flapping its wings and unable to fly.  “Dear friend,” said the raven,  “give me some food, and I’ll help you again in your utmost need!” “I haven’t much,” said Boots,  “but I can spare you a little. I see you need it.” So he gave the raven some of the food he had brought with him.

When he had gone a bit farther, he came to a brook where a great salmon was thrashing around, stranded on a sandbank. “Dear friend,” said the salmon,  “shove me out into the water again and I’ll help you again at your utmost need!” “Well,” said Boots, “I cannot see how you will be able to help me but it is a pity you should lie there and choke.” And he threw the fish out into the stream again.

After that he went a long way and met a wolf which was so hungry that it was crawling along the road on its belly. “Dear friend, let me have your horse,” said the wolf. “I’m so hungry the wind whistles through my ribs; I’ve had nothing to eat these two years.” “No,” said Boots, “I was happy to help the raven and the salmon but what you ask is impossible. Besides if I gave you my horse I would have nothing to ride on.” “If you help me,” said the wolf, “then you can ride upon my back, and I’ll help you again in you time of utmost need.” “Well,” said Boots, “I cannot see how you will be able to help me but you may take my horse, since you are in such need.”

When the wolf had eaten the horse, Boots put the bit into the wolf’s jaw, and placed the saddle on him. “I am Greylegs,” said the wolf. “Climb on my back and tell me where you want to go.”  “If only I knew.” said Boots. “I am searching for my six brothers but I have no idea where they are.” “I know where to find them,” said Greylegs. “Hold on tight,” and they rode off like the wind. After a while they came to the giant’s house and Boots saw his six brothers and their brides standing motionless like stone statutes. “If you want to free them you must go in that door and face the giant,” said Greylegs. “When you get in you’ll find a princess and she’ll tell you what to do to make an end of him.” Boots went in although he was very frightened. There was no sign of the giant but in one of the rooms sat the princess and she was so lovely that he fell in love with her immediately.

“Oh, heaven help you!” said the princess; “it will surely be the death of you. No one can kill the giant who lives here, for he has no heart in his body.” “But now that I am here,” said Boots; “I must try to free my brothers, and you too if I can.” “Well, if you must, you must,” said the princess, “but we need a plan.  Hide under the bed as quiet as a mouse and listen carefully to what he and I talk about.” He had only just got under the bed when the giant returned. When night came the giant and the princess went to bed. After a while, the princess said, “Tell me, my dear where do you keep your heart, since you don’t carry it about in your body?” “That is none of your business,” said the giant; “but, if you must know, it lies under the door-sill.

The next morning, as soon as the giant had left the house, Boots and the princess set to work to look under the door-sill for his heart; but the more they dug, and the more they hunted, the more they couldn’t find it. “He has fooled us this time,” said the princess. “We’ll have to try again.” So she picked all the prettiest flowers she could find, and strewed them over the door-sill, which they had put back in its right place again; and when the time came for the giant to come home again, Boots crept under the bed.

“What’s the meaning of all these flowers?” said the giant. “Ah!” said the princess, “I’m so fond of you that I couldn’t help strewing them there, when I knew that was where your heart lay.” “Well actually, it doesn’t lie there at all.” said the giant.  So, when they went to bed again in the evening, the princess asked the giant where his heart was. “Well,” said the giant, “if you must know, I keep it in that cupboard against the wall.”

Next morning, after the giant had left, Boots and the princess turned everything out of the cupboard hunting for his heart; but they could not find it. “Well,” said the princess,  “we’ll just try asking him once more.” So she decked out the cupboard with flowers and garlands, and when the time came for the giant to come home, Boots crept under the bed again.

“And, pray, what’s the meaning of all this tomfoolery?” asked the giant. “Oh, I’m so fond of you, I couldn’t help doing it when I knew that your heart lay there,” said the princess. “How could you be so silly as to believe any such thing?” said the giant. “How can I help believing it, when you tell me? I so want to know where your heart really lies.” said the princess. “Well, if you must know, I will tell you,” said the giant. “Far, far away in a lake lies an island; on that island stands a church; in that church is a well; in that well swims a duck; in that duck there is an egg; and in that lies my heart… you darling woman.”

Early in the morning, the giant strode off to the wood. “I must set off too,” said Boots, “if only I knew how to find the way.” He took a long farewell of the princess, and when he got out of the giant’s door there stood there stood Greylegs. “Climb on my back and tell me where you want to go.” So Boots told him everything that had happened inside the house, and that he must somehow find the well in the church. “I know where to find it,” said Greylegs, “Hold on tight,” and they rode off like the wind. After they had travelled many days they came to the lake, Boots did not know how to get over it but the wolf told him not to be afraid and he jumped into the lake with the prince on his back and swam over to the island. There stood the church but the door was locked and the keys hung high up on the top of the tower. At first Boots did not know how to get them down.

“You must call on the raven,” said the wolf.  Boots called and immediately the raven came and flew up and fetched the keys and so the prince got into the church. There was the well and a duck swimming backwards and forwards on the water just as the giant had said. Boots stood and coaxed it , till it came to him, and he grasped it in his hand; but just as he lifted it up the duck dropped the egg into the water. Down, down, down it went to the bottom of the well. Boots became very distressed as he could not think of a way to get it out again.

“Now you must call on the salmon,” said Greylegs. Boots called and immediately the salmon came and fetched up the egg from the bottom of the well. Then the wolf told him to squeeze the egg, and as he squeezed it the giant screamed out. “Squeeze it again,” said the wolf; and when the prince did so, the giant screamed even louder and begged to be spared, saying he would do whatever the prince wished if he would only not squeeze his heart in two.

“Tell him you will spare his life if he will restore your six brothers and their brides to life again,” said the wolf. Yes, the giant was ready to do that, and he turned the brothers into the king’s sons again and their brides into the king’s daughters.  “Now, squeeze the egg until it breaks in two,” said Greylegs.  Boots squeezed the egg until it broke into pieces, and the giant burst at once.

Now he had made an end of the giant, Boots rode back again on the wolf to the giant’s house, and there stood all of his six brothers, alive and merry, with their brides. Then Boots went into the hills in search of his bride and when he had found her, they all set off home again to their father’s house. And you can imagine how glad the old king was when he saw all his seven sons come back, each with his bride. “But the loveliest bride is the bride of Boots after all,” said the King, “and he shall sit uppermost at the table, with her by his side.” So he sent out word and called for a great wedding-feast and the mirth was both loud and long, and they are dancing still.

Responding to the story

When I first encountered the story I was struck by the image of the princess strewing flowers across the doorsill and later hanging garlands of flowers on the cupboard where the giant had told her he kept his heart hidden. I found something ineffably poignant about this offering (or perhaps sacrifice) of nature’s beauty to the unfeeling giant – and something searingly sad about the giant’s eventual – and fatal – capitulation to her entreaties to reveal its hiding place.  “You darling,” he calls her: the only words of affection he utters in the whole story, the half-mute stumbling attempt to express a love he is unable to embody and by then it is too late to make any difference, his fate is sealed.   

As I told that part of the story in the workshop in July 2007, I too stumbled over the words “You darling,” choking them back to an inaudible whisper, and had to repeat them at the request of the audience. So maybe that is why the story caught me and demanded to be told, I wondered. On the last day of the workshop when the whole story had been told, my colleague Sue and I asked the group to position themselves around the room according to where the story spoke most strongly to them. I realised that I would have placed myself exactly at that point where the giant and the princess were in the bed and he – affected I believe by her offering of flowers – was contemplating telling her where his heart was hidden. 

This feels like familiar territory to me: I too have demanded love but withheld my own heart. I too appear strong but am sometimes terrified of my own fragility. I too have a choice to make right now in my life about living more wholeheartedly, risking my heart in loving others and myself, embracing my own creative spirit and following my passion. Some clarity is emerging and I am holding these thoughts and seeing myself exactly on this cusp when Lucy, Angela, Wallace and Nancy2 come forward onto the small stage area to show their improvised response to finding themselves at the point of the story where the princess is strewing flowers.

Angela stands on a chair facing the audience with a vacant expression and begins to speak about organising bus routes and moving people from place to place.  Her voice is flat and emotionless, she gestures with her hands but stares over our heads. After a minute or so Wallace, Nancy and Lucy enter the stage silently. They kneel and lay wild flowers on the ground round a candle.  One of them lights the candle then they stand, look at each other and hold hands.  Hands are extended towards Angela and she grasps them and steps down from the chair.  She stops talking. This is all done slowly and with intense gazing at each other. I can see that both Lucy and Wallace are shaking slightly and their eyes are damp with tears. The whole improvisation takes several minutes.

I was very moved by this scene; it seemed to be touched with the same poignancy and sadness that I experienced when first reading the story. In this version however, the strewing of the flowers was an act of compassion rather than one of betrayal. The giant reclaimed his heart and his humanity. He gave up his grandiosity and power, revealing another facet of the story – that of love, forgiveness and redemption.  I felt and still feel a renewal of hope and encouragement to open my heart.

Wallace and Lucy have also subsequently written accounts of their experience of this improvised response to the story.  Lucy relates that Wallace told the members of their quartet that he had been working on post-conflict reconstruction in Bosnia and that he was struggling to deal with the “terrible, terrible stories” of suffering that he encountered there. One story in particular stuck in his mind, that of a woman who had been imprisoned and as a result of camp life had subsequently miscarried or lost babies very young five times… How could he deal with his professional life of “just going and doing the reconstruction” in the face of such horror?  With Angela and Nancy they decided to improvise a scene incorporating both the mundane practicalities of reconstruction and honouring the dead children. Lucy recorded her immediate reflections as she drove home from the workshop.

“Angela came in with the lighted candle. She stood on a chair and blew out the candle. I remember feeling quite shocked by the finality of it. The rest of us came in and knelt by the unlit candle… Then we laid our flowers, wild flowers from the garden at Emerson. One by one, Wallace, Nancy and I all brought flowers: red clover, cowslips and lavender… All this time, Angela was talking above our heads giving this brilliant unscripted monologue about getting the trams and the buses running, so there was this real enactment of two parallel and unconnected stories going on, completely missing each other.”

“Then Wallace lit the candles and we knelt beside them.  We hadn’t planned what to do next. I found myself wanting to hold Angela’s hand too and to do this I had to stand up, as she was standing on a chair. In holding her hand I realised I really wanted her there, not just Angela as a person but what she represented – I realised in that moment that we couldn’t have done it without ‘reconstruction’.

“We then spontaneously started trying to move round in a circle and we couldn’t because Angela was on the chair. She had to get off her chair before any of us could move, which she did without anyone needing to suggest it. Then I moved the chair back because it was in the way. It felt good, everybody was there and we had our flowers and our candles and we were going round hand in hand all at the same level… Then from everyone (i.e. spectators) in the semi-circle, there was a huge hush, as though something important had happened…”

In his account, written several weeks after the event, Wallace reflected:

“Our planning for the tableau was brief in the extreme, and as it unfolded a voice was shouting in my head ‘No, no. That’s not my story!’ and as that attachment to ‘my’ story faded, I feel that the power of the story grew in inverse proportion to my ‘ownership’ of it. And of course it was exactly as it should be – the story was so powerful because the actors were presenting their truth not mine.”

“At this distance in time, I make a connection with the Flowers of the Forest and the poppies of Flanders. There are so many more similar stories. Will we ever learn? I feel so powerless, yet I know that what I am doing is important. That is why strewing the flowers on the giant’s threshold is so important. It is the corollary of Pastor Neimüller’s thought that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men (sic) to do nothing. Now, I know what the meaning of the giant’s story was for me and why the flower-strewing was significant.”

So here we have three different experiences; my reflections as storyteller and workshop facilitator, Lucy’s from within the improvisation and Wallace’s on telling the story that formed the basis of the improvisation and the meaning he made of it several weeks later. We could call these three different perspectives on the same scene but I think it would be more accurate to think of them as three parallel – and connected – processes of ‘storying’ and ‘re-storying’, prompted by the improvised response to the moment in the original story when the princess strewed flowers for the giant.

I am particularly struck by Wallace’s observation that the power of the story grew in inverse proportion to his attachment and ‘ownership’ of it. There seems to be enormous power in letting our stories go and receiving them back transfigured through the creative imagination of others.  In this way, meaning-making extends beyond the original teller of the story and is re-constructed in the bodies, minds and responses of the listeners. In this case, the collective improvisation also acts as a vehicle for the emergence of multiple meanings in the actors and spectators. There is a reciprocal flow of meaning between individual and collective intelligences, in and out, back and forth, at both the conscious and unconscious levels, an activation of what, in constellations work, is called ‘the knowing field’ and in story terms might be called eddies and currents in the sea of stories.

Constellating the story

At a COLPI learning forum in September 2007, after telling the same story (albeit much more briefly) to a group of twelve people, we decided to constellate it using a two-stage process.  First, I invited each person to name the place in the story that most ‘caught’ them and then to stand chronologically in a horseshoe-shaped line from the beginning of the story to its ending back at the castle.

Then Judith Hemming suggested that, we each walk in a silent meditation around the horseshoe, traversing the whole story.  By putting ourselves in spatial relationship to the elements of the story and moving through them mindfully we created a simple yet powerful structural constellation.

This is what one participant, Terry subsequently wrote about each stage:

“The tone of your storytelling invited me to respond in words and images but it was the visceral experience which was most powerful for me. I realised from a meditative place, I was listening almost entirely with my body – a direct experience of the story. Each turn and twist in the story evoked a particular response; an emotion, a thought which registered in me momentarily as the story moved on at its gentle and inevitable pace…”

“When asked which particular part of the story resonated with me above all of the others, I knew immediately. It was the point where the prince Boots offered, selflessly to find his brothers… For me there was something important about the embodiment of his unconditional love for his brothers without knowing whether he would succeed and his willingness to trust in the people and animals he met…”

“Turning it into a walking meditation whereby I could register each of the parts of the story was wonder-ful. It was a very creative structural constellation…”

 Another participant, Sonya also wrote about hearing and moving through the story: 

“I stood in the place of the salmon when it retrieved the egg from the water and brought it up to the surface for the prince, having carried it carefully in its mouth. What struck me about this character, in particular, was the strength it would have taken to swim down to the bottom, retrieve the egg and return to the top whilst caring for this delicate and fragile egg. How hard it must have been not to break the egg; to hold it tight enough but not too tightly; the sheer determination and effort that this would have taken and how pivotal this act was to the outcome although it could not have occurred in isolation i.e. without the raven getting the key etc. ”

“As we moved through the story, I was struck by the way in which my legs ‘wobbled’ at the beginning. It was really quite overwhelming and disturbing. I felt unsteady and lost and then relieved when this feeling eased about halfway round the semi-circle. In contrast, for the second part of the story, I had a feeling of being grounded and rooted; my legs felt stable and my breathing eased. I had a recognition of space, yet a fullness in my stomach.”

Subsequently, she reflects on this experience and asks herself:

“…whether my physiological response in the earlier part of the movement was linked with exchange: my pattern of behaviour of giving far too much which is often at a cost to me, and of course, to others? The story evoked a sense of this in the earlier stages; the real sense of giving too much, unquestionably giving too much. I wonder whether this was what made me have a sense of instability and unease: A recognition? An embodiment of my bias?”

Even though I had already worked with this story many times, I found the walking meditation a tremendously liberating process.  Having gone immediately to the familiar place of the giant’s tragic declaration of love for the princess; “…and that is where I keep my heart you darling woman,” I was able to move through that moment to the joyful coming back to life of the six brothers and their wives and the marriage of the prince and princess.  By moving through the whole story I felt less identified with any one moment or character and I felt a surge of life-affirming energy move through my body as I imagined myself joining them all in the eternal dance. 

Speaking the language of soul

Reflecting on working with the story creatively, both at the storytelling workshop and at the COLPI learning forum, we can begin to speculate on what might connect story work and constellations.  We might say that all constellations are based on story. The client is interviewed with the intention of becoming clear about what solution the client wants and the basic information, the bare bones of their story. This is done in a deliberately spare way, focussing on who is included in the story, who is missing and what has happened.  Representatives are then chosen for selected characters (almost invariably including the protagonist). One could describe what we then see unfolding in the constellation as a story in motion. Representatives are ‘moved’ either in response to embodied feelings or by the constellator in accordance with the ‘orders of love’ (belonging, exchange, place and time).

The intention in a constellation is to explore the hidden dynamics of the family system and to move towards a resolution of the client’s issue if possible. What we witness, time after time, is the innate desire of the system to reconstitute relationships so that they become more congruent with ‘lawful’ patterns.  When it occurs, we might call it a movement of the soul. By soul I mean (without any religious connotation) the part of us that seeks wholeness, the oak tree latent in the acorn, the universal animating principle of being and becoming in which we all, human and non-human, partake.

Working with a story like The Giant with No Heart in His Body, opening the story up, enacting and embodying our responses, can implicitly help us connect with our souls.3  Such a story speaks the language of the soul, which understands that kings and queens, princes and princesses, horses, ravens, salmon, wolves, giants, lakes, islands, churches, wells, ducks, eggs and the hidden heart are all aspects of ourselves

If as I surmise, storytelling and constellations are both concerned with (and speak to) the human soul then some important questions arise: How does the soul make meaning? How does the soul perceive? How does the soul carry knowledge and communicate what it knows?  I am not – you will be pleased to hear – going to attempt a comprehensive or definitive answer. However, I think the different accounts of engaging with the story of The Giant with No Heart in His Body, offered by Lucy, Wallace, Terry and Sonya, taken with my own account, have several interesting correspondences that throw some light on this question.


All of the accounts refer to particular images, moments from the story that created striking pictures in the imagination of the listener. The moments and, no doubt, the pictures were different in each case, so much the better, for the very diversity of connection with different aspects of the story helps to confirm the significance of the active imagination in the soul’s sense-making.  As James Hillman (1983) says:

“Word-images… are [the] immediate property of imagination … they are free from the perceptible world and free one from it.  They take the mind home to its poetic base, to the imaginal.”  pp46-47

In constellations too we are presented (either as witnesses or participants) with powerful images through the relative positions of representatives, their gestures and expressions, their ritualised movements (such as bowing) and through spontaneous and stylised use of language (e.g., “I have missed you;” “I am small and you are big;” “I agree to my fate.” etc.).


The second obvious common feature in most of the various accounts is the embodied nature of our responses to the story. For example; Lucy and Wallace “shaking slightly…their eyes damp with tears” as they created their tableau in response to the story; Terry listening “almost entirely with my body – a direct experience of the story;” Sonya being “struck by the way in which my legs ‘wobbled’ at the beginning part of the story;” my own experience of feeling “a surge of life-affirming energy move through my body as I imagined myself joining in the eternal dance.” 

Constellations rely upon the non-rational embodied responses of the representatives to provide systemic data and to manifest what is held in the knowing field. Thus: “I’m falling over;” “I feel small;” “my left shoulder hurts;” “I cannot keep my feet still;” etc. As an issue holder in a constellation too, it is common for whatever sense of resolution is reached to be experienced physically, for example: “I’m feeling lighter;” “more solid;” “grounded;” “I feel that I am standing in the right place;” “I can turn and look ahead into my future.” etc.

Both storytellers and constellators are likely to encourage us to stay close to our experience of the story or the constellation, not rushing to interpret or explain either what has happened or our response to it.  Doing so, in either case, seems to diminish the power of the experience; we ‘talk it away’ instead of allowing it to go on working in our soul through our imagination and our body.

Different ways of knowing

It seems pretty clear that neither storytelling nor constellations lead us to know things in the conventional sense of being rationally persuaded of something and that we need a broader and more inclusive idea of what it means to know anything.  Fortunately we are not the first people to be confronted by this problem or to have thought about it.  I find that one of the most helpful ways of thinking about this is provided by John Heron (1992) who has written about four distinct, though conjoined, ways of knowing.

 Experiential knowing comes from direct embodied experience.  It is ‘felt’ knowledge, in the form of physical sensations, symptoms, and emotional affect. Such knowledge is revealed phenomenologically through posture, movement, muscular and skeletal ‘holding’ and ‘release’, skin tone etc. Its realm is that of the body.

Presentational knowing is concerned with our creative and imaginative attempts to represent (rather than to explain) our experience. It may take the form of story, poetry, picture, music, sculpture, acting, mime, dance or any other form of image-making. Its realm is that of intuition and imagination.

Propositional knowing calls upon our logical-rational brain to understand, explain, generalise, theorise or draw conclusions from our experience. It manifests through argument and discussion, academic study and writing etc. Its realm is that of the mind

Practical knowing is manifested in our ‘know how’, our ability to take competent and effective action in the world whether that be driving a car, cooking a stew, sewing a quilt or facilitating a constellation. Its realm is that of the hands… of ‘doing’.

Heron sometimes represents these four conjoined realms as a pyramid with experiential knowing at the base, rising up through presentational knowing and propositional knowing, to practical knowing at the top. It seems to me that ‘soul work’ – of the kind that we do in both storytelling and constellations – is located primarily in the lower half of the pyramid, in the realms of the body and the imagination. Is this, perhaps, how the soul makes meaning? Is this how the soul perceives? Is this how the soul carries knowledge and communicates what it knows? 

I think the model says something useful about the workings of the individual soul but nothing about the workings of the larger collective soul of which we are all a part; the anima mundi or psyche cosmou, that mystery from which we all come and to which we may all one day return. 

What happens between?

In our individualistic western society, it is even more difficult to understand the idea of a collective soul than the idea that we might each have (or be) individual souls.  But perhaps we can wonder a little at this mystery and speculate that both storytelling and constellations are concerned at least as much about ‘what happens between’ as ‘what happens within’.

In constellations, when considering ‘what happens between’ we might speak of the ‘knowing field’ and some, for example: Jean Boulton (2006) suggest parallels with quantum physics to explain how such systemic phenomena as ‘entanglement’ and ‘action at a distance’ might work. The dynamic behind these phenomena is not visible, though its consequences are tangible. I have heard this described like the wind which cannot be seen except through the patterns it creates in swirling dust or leaves, the foam on the water, or the devastation in the wake of a hurricane.

In storytelling we are also likely to offer poetic metaphors for the connective power of story. One of my favourites is the one gives rise to the title of this book; Salman Rushdie’s notion of a great, unending ‘sea of stories’ in which we are all swimming.  Or we might look to Jungian ideas of the ‘collective unconscious’ to explain the enduring and apparently universal power of archetypal stories.  When our personal stories powerfully reflect the archetypal themes in a traditional story we might even speak about ‘mythic resonance’ to express the way that the particularities of story can connect the individual to the universal.

As a storyteller, I have come to believe that stories are entities that have a life beyond the immediacy of their telling.  In many indigenous cultures the storyteller will thank the story when the tale is told and release it to return to its own home.  By respecting the story in this way as older, wiser and ‘bigger’ than the teller, its power is recognised and enhanced and so too is that of the storyteller who is visited in this way.

Through archetypal stories, we learn that our own stories are both unique and universal, we get a wider perspective on our lives from remembering that many have gone before and we can draw comfort from realising that each of us is ‘everyman’ or ‘everywoman’. As a fellow COLPI student, Alison said in a recent email:

“The real insight for me is in the creative, learning and energising potential of a story… to be able to step in and out of the story space and to keep developing our capacity to participate in the full range of the human story.”

I wonder if the most significant connection between story work and constellations is simply that both offer the possibility of finding new meanings in our lives and new stories to live into. Instead of our stories ‘having us’ we can gain a kind of creative detachment so that ‘we have’ our stories.  By letting moments of experience become movements of the soul we can own our history without being its unwitting prisoner.

As Ben Okri (1997) says:

“Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals or nations live by and you change the individuals and nations themselves.” p112


Booker, C. (2004) The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Continuum, London

Boulton, J. (2006) “Towards an Understanding of the ‘Why’ of Constellations”, The Knowing Field, Issue 8, pp8-15

Broughton, V. (2003) “Sarah’s Story: Constellating an Archetypal Myth”, Systemic Solutions Bulletin

Dasent, G.W., (Undated) Tales from the Norse, Blackie and Son Ltd, London

Hellinger, B., Weber, B., Beaumont, H. (1998) Love’s Hidden Symmetry, Zeig, Tucker & Co, Phoenix, USA

Heron, J. (1992). Feeling and Personhood, Sage, London

Hillman, J. (1983). Healing Fictions, Spring Publications, Dallas, USA

Hyde-Grossman, J. (2005) “Ach wie gut, das ich es weiss, The Knowing Field, Issue 6, pp45-46

Okri, B. (1997). A Way of Being Free, Phoenix Books, London

Rushdie, S. (1994) “One thousand days in a balloon”, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991, Random House, London

Schneider, J., Gross, B. (2003) Ach wie gut, ich es weiss, 3rd Edition, Carl-Auer-Systeme Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany


The author gratefully acknowledges the encouragement and inspiration of Sue Hollingsworth and Judith Hemming to inquire into the connections between storytelling and constellations and write this article. Thanks are due, above all, to the participants in the storytelling workshop and to fellow COLPI students for engaging so enthusiastically and deeply in the work and for sharing their experiences and reflections so openly and generously.


1 Adapted from Tales from the Norse,( originally collected by Asbjörnsen and Moe, translated by Sir George Webbe Dasent), published by Blackie and Sons Ltd, Glasgow, undated (late nineteenth century).

2 Where requested, the names of workshop participants have been changed to maintain confidentiality

3 We have to be careful here, for as Hellinger points out, fairy stories are tricky:  “Many of them contain images that limit us and the solutions they suggest are destructive illusions that serve to maintain the status quo.” (1998, p. 273) I find this particularly to be the case with literary fairy stories such as those written by Hans Christian Anderson, which are sometimes misogynistic and degenerative: The Red Shoes, for example, in which passionate feminine self-expression is demonised and fatally punished.