Lamid Vovnik: Letting go of being a helper
Bowing to Fate
One of the most powerful rituals of constellation work is the deep bowing to other people’s fates. In this context, we are mostly referring to fate in terms of what has already happened to someone. The past events and facts cannot be changed. So bowing to fate is a ritual that allows us to profoundly accept what has happened without qualifications and therefore to receive the learning it makes available to us without prejudice.
We also need to bow deeply to our own fate. This is of course not easy to do when our life has been harsh or when our fate included the inability to act to change things for the better. This deep bow, and therefore agreement to fate is very helpful. Skillful action emerges from this position.
The Impotence of Working in a Jail
I had to confront this need to surrender and bow in the early 1990’s when I worked in an old bluestone jail called Pentridge. This was an incredibly alienating environment, not only for prisoners but also for staff who worked there. The prisoners mostly had terrible childhood stories of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. However, when they told me these stories they seemed emotionally disconnected from them. They were simply telling me the stories to try to convince me to prescribe drugs, which could make them high.
At the same time, some of the prisoners were genuinely depressed. My capacity to provide useful psychotherapy in that environment was extremely limited, as was my freedom to prescribe medication. If I prescribed the anti-depressants available at that time, the prisoners would have to endure a humiliating full body search including a finger swipe between their buttocks. This was to make sure the prisoners were not saving up the tablets so they could take an overdose later on. So I could do very little to improve their situation.
The Lamed Vovnik
I survived this horrible situation by remembering an ancient Jewish legend. In this legend, there are thirty-six wise and compassionate people (The Lamed Vovnik) on whose merits the world depends. This legend is based on a Talmudic statement that there are not less than thirty-six people who stand in the presence of the Shekhina, every day. Shekhina in this tradition is the feminine compassionate aspect of God.
The Lamed Vovnik have deep compassion and feel everybody’s pain. These people may be from any station in life, poor or mighty, men or women, hermits or public figures. They are often unaware of their station. They are not able to do anything about anyone’s pain. However, the people of the world are able to continue to exist because of these people wandering the face of the planet. It is said that if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of humanity would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry.
Shekhina, The Holy Spirit, The Feminine Aspect of God
In the Jewish tradition, Shekhina represents compassion in its purest form, She is the female side of God. Unlike Yahweh, she is visible and audible. She is a feminine entity, a beautiful being of light. In Hebrew, Shekhina means “Divine Manifestation,” “Divine Presence,” “Divine Power,” “Glory,” and “Grace.”
During Biblical times, people assumed God dwelled in the clouds. When the Israelites built the desert Tabernacle, Yahweh (God) descended in a cloud and dwelt there. Shekhina, in Hebrew, is derived from the Biblical verb shakhan, meaning “the act of dwelling”. Therefore, Shekhina meant the aspect of God that we can somehow sense in our daily earthly experience.
Shekhina comforted the sick, the poor, the suffering, and had a particular concern for repentant sinners. Shekhina walks with whose heart is broken and whose spirit is low, and whose mouth rarely utters a word. Shekhina embraces those who commit good deeds, even idolators. She also dwells with the wise and with husband and wife in a loving marriage.
Shekhina is amongst us everywhere. In some Jewish literature, she is referred to as “The Holy Spirit” So many believe her to be the Old Testament version of the Christian Holy Spirit. In this sense, she is also very similar to the Tao or Buddha Nature.
Back to Jail with Shekhina
I attempted to enter Pentridge jail with the spirit of compassion of the Lamed Vovnik – those 36 compassionate souls who stood in the presence of Shekhina – but nonetheless were unable to take practical action to relieve people’s suffering.
I connected with these men, who included murderers, shysters, rapists and pedophiles. At times I felt afraid or nauseated in their presence. However, these men were also fathers, sons and brothers. In their darkened hearts were terrified little children who had tragically lost their ability to make a tender connection with another human being. Sitting with this was much more difficult than making clever therapeutic interventions. It was exhausting. Nonetheless, this turned out to be one of the most profound learning experiences in my professional training and in my life.
Shekhina and Being a Constellation Facilitator
The following biblical references indicate a skilful relationship with Shekhina (The Holy Spirit, Buddha Nature, The Dreamtime, The Tao etc.)
“When a person wishes to unify the Blessed Holy One and His Divine Presence (the male and female aspects of the Divine), he must banish all other thoughts… “(Proverbs 19:21 ). One must then bring the Divine Presence into his mind, as the verse continues, ‘But the counsel of God will abide.’
This attitude to Shekhina that is recommended in the Jewish spiritual texts is also applicable to the constellation practitioner. So we need to bracket out any preconceptions. Indeed, most practitioners would agree that when working as a constellation facilitator, the work should come “through” us rather than “from” us. The paradox is that our learning still informs us and that we still make decisions when facilitating a constellation. Some decisions turn out to be more skillful than others. However, we still need to surrender to the wisdom presented to us by the knowing field that operates in a constellation.
This is similar to a doctor having to listen to what a patient’s body tells him about how good or bad the medicine is. If he becomes arrogant and says his medical books know more than the patient’s body then he becomes a bad doctor. However, sometimes our egos protest against the degree of surrender and humility required to do this. That is why is it was difficult for me to reach a point of equilibrium when working in the jail. My ego did not want to surrender my identity as someone who could take action to make things better.
When a person learns that they are capable of facilitating constellations, their ego will inevitably become inflated for a while. We become like the toddler who has discovered the controls on the television. We become internally excited and feel as if we are somehow responsible for the pictures that emerge.
But we are not toddlers. We are adults. So most practitioners try to maintain a semblance of continued humility. However, at this stage, the humility is only a superficial idea. It is not yet a genuine humility from the heart. It is more the sort of humility that any intelligent person can fake if they want to. Nonetheless, it can open the way to the real thing.
In contrast to inflation, we can experience a deep sense of satisfaction when a constellation goes well. We then may feel as if a gift has been given, both to the client and to ourselves. Then we feel we are in touch with something great, that lifts our spirits.
For most practitioners, inflation shows up as grandiose fantasies about the work, which are often kept very private. Most people still continue to do their work reasonably well without allowing the inflation of the ego to show up as arrogance. It is obviously a very bad sign if the ego inflation gets so out of control that it shows up as arrogance while facilitating constellations. In that case, the facilitator may not respect participants’ experiences or the information emerging from the field. It is more likely, however, that this ego inflation shows up in their relations with other practitioners. The inflated practitioner can be overly territorial, overly competitive or show
It is more likely, however, that this ego inflation shows up in their relations with other practitioners. The inflated practitioner can be overly territorial, overly competitive or show lack of respect for other practitioners’ experience and expertise. This is not a criticism of practitioners, but rather a description of a natural response to harnessing powerful forces in the way we do with family constellations.
Despite that period of ego inflation seeming to be inevitable, it usually resolves. This resolution is painful as it obviously involves some deflation. As we come back to earth and become genuinely more humble again, we go through a period of time where we feel disappointed or humiliated. Circumstances seem to conspire to force the practitioner to learn from the situation. Despite resistance, it is possible to surrender to this hint from fate and become humbler again. Usually, the process of learning demands that we go through this cycle many times, with the intensity of the inflation and consequent deflation diminishing each time.
The necessary deflation is also reflected in the story of Shekhina, who can have a wrathful energy like the Hindu deity, Kali. For example, Shekhina descended to Earth to punish Adam, Eve, and the Serpent when they sinned at the Garden of Eden. She confused the builders of the Tower of Babel. She drowned the Egyptians at the Red Sea crossing during Exodus. When needed, she even killed righteous people. Since the beginning of time, six people — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam — could not be taken by the Angel of Death because of their perfect purity. Someone had to bring their souls to Heaven, and only Shekhina could do that. By kissing them, she released their souls from bondage to this world.
As practitioners emerge from this period of inflation followed by deflation, they then start talking about the work in a humbler way. This humbler way still recognizes the value of constellation work with respect and even excitement. However, it is more open to recognizing the limitations of constellations. It is more open to evaluation and research. It sees constellations as one of many helpful strategies rather than as a universal panacea. Paradoxically this humility is also more open to the spontaneously emerging wisdom that can appear in the field of a constellation. So the genuinely humble practitioner is also more skillful.
Footnote- Shekhina and the Vulcan Salute
The story is now legend within the Trek community of the source of the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute. The original Star Trek episode “Amok Time” introduced the Vulcan home world, and was, in fact, the first time viewers would see Vulcans interacting with one another. During the shooting of the episode, Nimoy felt that something was missing, that Vulcans should be seen as having a deep and complex culture. So, rather than shaking hands like Westerners, or bowing like Asians, Nimoy suggested to director Joseph Pevney that Vulcans should have their own distinctive greeting. “What do you have in mind?” asked Pevney. After some thought, Nimoy held his hand up in an unusual but now familiar gesture. Pevney liked the idea, and the rest is history.
What Nimoy didn’t say at the time was that this gesture came from a deeply moving childhood experience. During a ritual blessing in synagogue, the all-male congregation was required to either cover their heads with their shawls or cover their eyes with their hands. Young Leonard’s father cautioned him not to look – but naturally, this was too great a temptation for the eight-year-old…so he looked. What he saw impressed him greatly. The men blessing the congregation had also covered their heads, with arms outstretched, each hand splayed in a bizarre three-pointed symbol. Leonard kept this stolen glimpse to himself but practiced the intriguing hand-gesture over and over.
Decades later (when he was 62, in fact), Nimoy shared this story with a rabbi friend, who in turn revealed to him why he was told not to look. According to Kabala (Jewish mysticism), during the blessing, the shekhina – the feminine essence of God – appears, and would be too much for mere mortals to look upon. The split-fingered salute approximates the Hebrew letter Shin, which is the first letter in Shaddai, a name for the Almighty.