Constellation Work in Central Australia
(This article was written by Alemka and first published in the International Constellations Journal The Knowing Field,
issue 10, June 2007)
Come with me to the point and we’ll look at the country. We’ll look across at the rocks. Look, rain is coming! It falls on my sweetheart.
(Song from the Oenpelli Region, Australia)
For a couple of years now I have had the opportunity to facilitate Constellation workshops in Alice Springs, the desert town of central Australia. Alice Springs is an unusual and challenging place, full of paradox, extremes and a strange beauty.
Almost in the exact centre of the continent, Alice Springs (known as ‘Mparntwe’ to its traditional inhabitants – the Arrente) is very isolated - some 1200 km from the nearest ocean and 1500 km from the nearest major cities. Temperatures are extreme, and can vary by up to 30 degrees C within a day. In summer, it typically reaches more than 40 C, and can soar as high as 48 C!
The population of Alice Springs is largely itinerant, made up of tourists, Aborigines visiting from nearby communities, residents of Pine Gap (a US satellite tracking station) and temporary workers on short term contracts (referred to as ‘blow-ins’). While Aboriginal people make up approximately 17% of the population of Alice Springs, 70% of the prison population is Aboriginal. The majority of crimes committed by Aborigines in Alice Springs are against other Aboriginal people, often alcohol-related or petty crime.
One could hardly say that the indigenous and non-indigenous population live together in Alice. Rather, they live side by side, each in the world of their own, each going on with their own business, as if the other were invisible. The main street is shared: non-aboriginals frequent cafes, restaurants and Aboriginal art galleries, while indigenous people sit outside, on the ground, often drinking. There is not much contact on the invisible boundary. A Police van patrols the street and every now and then a drunken Aboriginal youth is driven away in the cage-like back of the van. While the rest of the country can almost forget about it, this uneasy relationship between white and Aboriginal Australia is all too obvious in Alice.
Despite all this, and despite the harshness which comes from its remoteness and its dry, dry heat, many of those who live there will tell you of their love for the place, the special affinity they have with it, and the sense of having been drawn towards it. This is not hard to understand once you have experienced a few of the sunrises and sunsets, which set the surrounding MacDonnell Ranges ablaze against the purple skies; or plunged into the cool, cool waters of one of the gorges near by, which remain cold even in the scorching heat of the Central Australian summer; or ventured just a bit further out and listened to the ancient palms - found nowhere else in the world – as they talk to you in the wind; or got lost among one of the majestic rock formations, with Aboriginal creation stories reverberating within your soul.
It is a special place, deeply embedded in the Australian landscape and the Australian psyche. It is no wonder that Constellation Work finds itself so at home here. I facilitate workshops for non-indigenous people, of diverse backgrounds, who may have migrated to Australia themselves or may have parents or grandparents who have come from all over the world. Even so, it is clear that this place is alive with the energy of the ‘Indigenous Field’, with the presence of the spirit of the Aboriginal ancestors, with the long, long-lasting tradition of ‘Dadirri’ - deep listening to one another with the heart; and the knowledge and respect of ‘Tjukurpa’ – the all-encompassing, intricate system of rules (or orders) which regulates all social, emotional, ethical and spiritual aspects of human life. The Work is greatly aided by the power of such tradition, and by the background of the magnificent landscape, which comes alive in the glorious light of the desert skies.
The Aboriginal World View
One needs to venture further into the past - beyond the present day image of Aboriginal people, which is often dominated by fragmentation, marginalisation, sickness and loss of identity - to appreciate the ancient beauty, strength and wisdom coming from the Aboriginal culture. As I learn more about it, I am not surprised when I find resonance with the basic principles of Constellation Work. The Aboriginal people have been using them, or rather living and breathing them, for a very long time indeed.
For Aboriginal people, religious beliefs are derived from a sense of belonging to the land, to the sea, to other people, to one’s culture. Being human is defined by where we have come from, who we are, and where we are going in relation to country and kin. For these people who have lived and loved here since the creation times, the land is more than a physical place; it is a moral sphere, the seat of life and emotions and place of the heart.
This is encapsulated by the ‘Dreaming’ - a complex network of knowledge, faith and practices derived from stories of creation, which dominates all spiritual and physical aspects of Aboriginal life. The ‘Dreaming’ sets out the structures of society, the rules of social behaviour and the ceremonies that need to be performed in order to maintain the life of the land. It governs the way people live and how they should behave.
A central concept of Aboriginal life is the notion of the spiritual continuity of present and future with the ancestral past. The ancestral beings create a continuing and interconnecting relationship between past, present and future. As part of the ritual ceremonies, the human mediators are reminded of their responsibilities, of the need to mend and preserve relationships between people and country, to care for country and care for kin.
“In this, there is recognition of those who have gone before and their contribution to the whole of who we are, of the connections and communications between people down the generations, between people and country, and between the corporeal and non-corporeal world. These are the interrelationships, interdependencies, interconnections and continuities that form the whole.”
(Judy Atkinson, 2002)
Ceremony is a time of communicating with the ancestral beings and the creation powers as well as other people.
“When we are able to sit on our land in contemplation and hear, feel or see the spirits of our old people, then we have been to a place within ourselves of great depth and connectedness. It is this place that we need to go to in order to truly heal ourselves; and once we have learnt how to do that, then we can move forward.” (Clarke and Fewquandie, 1988)
This is done through the practice of ‘Dadirri’. ‘Dadirri’ is a special quality, a unique gift of the Aboriginal people. It is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that dwells inside us.
“It is something like what you call contemplation.” (Miriam Rose Ungunmerr, 1993)
“The result of Dadirri’s profound, non-judgemental watching and listening is insight and recognition of the responsibility to act with fidelity in relationship to what has been heard, observed and learnt.” (Judy Atkinson, 2002)
The Constellation ‘Australia’
I have often wondered what it would be like to explore the current relationship between White and Black, non-indigenous and indigenous Australia using Constellation Work. I knew that it would not be right to do so without a specific need or request. The opportunity presented itself at the last workshop I facilitated in ‘The Alice’ and I would like to convey the experience of that constellation:
I was working with a young woman whose issue was depression and a sense of not knowing where she belonged. She was unmarried, with no children and had brought herself to exhaustion working in remote Aboriginal communities. It was her grandparents who had migrated to Australia. She had English, Hungarian and Greek ancestry. Her paternal grandfather had died on board the ship on his way to Australia, while her paternal grandmother was still pregnant with her father.
I started the constellation by inviting the young woman to set up representatives for herself, for Greece, Hungary, England and Australia. She positioned all the representatives quite far apart, on the outskirts of a circle. There was no connection anywhere and she felt heavy and disconnected. There was no movement. After a wait, I suddenly had a thought that Aboriginal people were missing in this picture. So, I chose someone for Aboriginal Australia and placed the representative right at the centre, with all the other representatives surrounding it. Then the energy in the constellation picked up and things started unfolding. Australia became focused on Aboriginal Australia and everyone else ‘disappeared’. In changing her focus to Aboriginal Australia, Australia moved slightly. This allowed the young woman to see Greece across the room for the first time. She came alive with longing. She bowed to Hungarian and English ancestry and then walked right across and embraced Greece. She felt happy, at peace, overjoyed and almost overwhelmed by the beauty of the country she had never seen. That was the solution for her. The Greek grandfather had married a woman who was not from his country. When he died on the ship there was no one to maintain the connection with his culture in the new country. This was the excluded element that had ruled this young woman’s existence.
I was just about to thank everyone and finish the constellation when it became obvious that there was a lot of energy between Aboriginal Australia, Australia (the country, the land, or continent) and England. We focused on that for a while and what follows are reports of the experiences from that part of the constellation as observed by me and reported shortly after by the representatives:
Firstly, there was a very strong connection between The Land and Aboriginal Australia. All the other people and countries became insignificant. It was a very intense relationship. At some point Aboriginal Australia started to feel sad. It seemed that something was not quite right for The Land in the relationship. Aboriginal Australia started to feel guilty, as if they had let the Land down. The Land conveyed that there was no need to feel like this and wanted to embrace Aboriginal Australia as a child. When The Land embraced Aboriginal Australia, they both felt good and looked at England. England wanted to come closer; she liked the connection she saw between these two and wanted some of it for herself, but was reluctant to come closer. Aboriginal Australia felt disappointed, wanted to help her, embraced her and guided her towards The Land with care, almost tenderness, wanting her to look at The Land. England found it hard.
Aboriginal Australia: Why don’t you want to look at it?
England: I can’t.
Facilitator suggests a sentence: ‘It’s far too big for me. I’ve got a lot more to learn yet’.
That felt right for England. It felt like a bit of a stand-off point and Aboriginal Australia looked really disappointed; he then looked at The Land and said almost apologetically:
Well, this is how it is.
To the facilitator: I want England to show respect for The Land.
Facilitator: You show her how.
Aboriginal Australia let go of England and stood by The Land and embraced him, leaning his head on The Land’s shoulder. Then England walked over and stood on the other side. She did it too quickly, as if wanting forgiveness but not really wanting to face her shame. Before the facilitator could react and say anything The Land embraced them both, slowly, powerfully. That was a beautiful image. Looking at it I had the thought: The Land can take it all. It is so much bigger than anything that is currently happening within its bounds, it is not anyone’s to own, no one can call it ‘theirs’ and yet it is willing to embrace all its current inhabitants. This was a beautiful, peaceful, powerful image and the people in the holding circle – people from many different countries of the world who share in the beauty of this Land watched this image with awe. We left it at that.
Here is what the representatives wrote about their experience in the roles of Aboriginal Australia, The Land and England:
The other people and countries were not important. I suddenly began to see The Land. I felt joy and a sense of ‘rightness’ in watching The Land watching me. I felt a deep appreciation for the importance of this intimate co-existence for aboriginal people and made a personal resolution after the constellation to incorporate honouring this relationship into my work projects. I was aware that something was not quite right for The Land in the relationship –I was not sure what this was. When I stood with The Land I was able to see the rest of the world and the people. Aboriginal people need to be with their Land; otherwise they cannot orientate themselves to the rest of world. It felt OK to embrace England but it was a problem for me that England could not be encouraged to look at The Land. This was sacrilege to me. I had a feeling of humility in relation to The Land.
I had a feeling of humility, a feeling that the importance of the superior mother country got a bit lost. I felt sadness that I could have caused pain to Aboriginal Australia and The Land; almost a feeling of shame, I think that was why I could not look up (at The Land). I felt drawn towards both Aboriginal Australia and The Land, wanting to make things right, wanting to have a connection to both, wanting to feel togetherness, wanting to stand strong; wanting forgiveness.
When we faced each other (The Land and Aboriginal Australia) our eyes locked, the energy was huge and the rest of the constellation became insignificant. There was a large gap between us – like a vast gorge. Aboriginal Australia seemed heavy, dark; I did not know what to do with this energy. I felt the longing to connect. I felt like a father whose child had cut himself off and taken a self-destructive path. I wanted to take Aboriginal Australia in as a child and have him sit on my right side and place my hand on his head, giving support and love. Yet, there was a need to accept him as a man, not a child. We stood side by side with our arms round each other. He had to be on my right side. It felt good. I felt strong and proud.
When England came to join us I felt uncomfortable. England had wounded me and placed a gap between Aboriginal Australia and me. The gap was like darkness or a wound between us. My right arm embracing Aboriginal Australia started hurting. It was difficult for me to accept England. Aboriginal Australia turned England around to face me. England did not want to look at me. I think Aboriginal Australia said to England: ‘Now you can look at him’. It was not easy for England to look, but she eventually did. I could see the shame, regret and pain in her eyes. It was as if she knew that she had done wrong. I felt huge and supportive with unconditional love and compassion pouring out of my heart. I looked into England’s eyes and said, ‘See me, Feel me’. This was a powerful statement that probably should have been said more powerfully or repeated. I put my left arm round England and stood between the two. This was the final healing, balanced, harmonising image. The three of us were united, standing together strong and whole with great love, pride and strength. It felt great. I was proud, strong, satisfied, fulfilled. Love was pouring out from me. We were united as a complete unit - strong.
During the constellation I remember being surprised at the lack of anger, anguish and conflict between the colonised and the colonisers, between the colonisers and the land – I realised these were only my pre-conceived ideas, which I had to abandon as I watched the constellation unfold. The solution that showed itself felt so much bigger than anything I had previously thought or felt about the issue, or any solution suggested by activists for reconciliation. My first impression after the constellation was that things had already been reconciled, that there wasn’t anything else that needed to be done; except, maybe to just watch and love The Land.
“When I think of that word reconciliation, I know it’s a falseness. I know it’s a lie to the people that call themselves Australians, that word has been put to the ears of these people…. So how can this word reconciliation come about and bring people together; that is the sad part. So I take this word reconciliation and I use it to reconcile people back to Mother Earth, so that they can walk this land together and heal one another because she’s the one that gives birth to everything we see around us, everything we need to survive….If we can reconcile with the Mother, then we can breathe the air and walk together in harmony. Every part of this land is sacred: this teaching is the most important part of our survival. It’s our home, we live here together. This is reconciliation, to look each other in the eye and know this equally.”
(Djarla Dulumunmun, Aboriginal Elder, Yuin Nation, 2003)
Atkinson, J. (2002) Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The Trans-generational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia. Spinifex Press, Melbourne, Australia.
Clarke, C., and Fewquandie, D. (1988) Indigenous Therapies: Old ways of Healing, New Ways of Being. Paper presented at Rural Mental Health Conference, Ballina, NSW, Australia.
Dulumunmun, D. (2003) in McConchie, P. Elders: Wisdom from Australia’s Indigenous Leaders. Cambridge University Press, UK.
Ungunmerr, M. R. (1993) Dadirri: Listening to One Another in Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The Trans-generational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia. Spinifex Press, Melbourne, Australia.