Notes for Facilitators, Systems Thinking

Entangled with the Future?


In a classic Family Constellation, stuck, unproductive patterns are investigated as entanglements with past, often ancestral, trauma. In the typical constellation that I facilitate, for example, there’s a movement through time that begins in the present, moves back into the past, and with the healing movement, returns to the present with a new orientation towards the future.

In the midst of this global pandemic, when even the most ordinary routines have been upended, I find myself considering a new question: how might our stuck, unproductive patterns be the result of how we are relating to the future? And, as a facilitator, can I develop as robust an understanding of how the future impacts us, as I have of the past?

The Planned Future and the Emergent Future

Most of us use one term, “the future” to encompass both our future goals and the mystery the future holds. Jan Jacob Stam, Systemic Constellations facilitator, trainer, and author, uses two terms: the Emergent Future and the Planned Future. In this 2014 article, Stam describes the emergent future as an open, unknown space that “is a movement from the future rolling like a wave into our lives and societies.” By contrast, the planned future, moves from us into the future, and represents our wishes and goals.

From a systems view, there’s an additional understanding of emergence that also contributes to the term “emergent future.” Emergence refers to new, complex behaviors or properties that arise from the interaction of the system. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts is an expression of emergence.

A Third Future: The Projected Future

My witnessing reveals a third aspect to the future, the Projected Future. The Projected Future arises from the operation of unconscious systems. These systems were created in the past, continue to be re-created in the present, and like a bullet that has left the gun, or a bell that has been struck, will continue to impact us in the future – until we consciously stop participating in them and respond to their impact.

As unconscious systems, we are blind to our participation in them. When we look back at humanity’s history of slavery and colonialism, for example, we can see that those systems of harm were acceptable to the cultures that practiced them. They are apparent to us because our culture has largely evolved past those particular systems.

But are we able to see the systems of harm that we are operating from today? As constellations facilitators, how can we illuminate these dynamics, so that we can become free of them and create a future that is liberated from those patterns? Until we stop re-creating them, these dynamics form the Projected Future.

Witnessing the influence of the projected future has become clear to me only recently. The clue came in a constellation, when one of the representatives used this language: “you’ve got to understand, that’s just the way it is. Get used to it!”

Naming this voice allows us to identify it. I suspect you, personally, know this voice. Someone has said it to you – and perhaps you have said it to another. It is the voice of the projected future, and it is expressed as often through people who are oppressed by systems of harm as those who benefit.

It is imperative that we recognize and learn how to work with the projected future. The best advice I have received so far came from a representative in my friend Rick Feltington’s immersive storytelling process. The participant, Helen Roberts, was called to represent a figure she called the beggar. When she asked the beggar what he wants, the beggar said: “I don’t want your empathy. I want your imagination!

It is our imagination that will allow us to become free of the projected future.

When Futures Collide

In the Summer of 2016, I helped organize a large systemic constellations event called “Social Alchemy.” We set an intention to support collective healing. I expected to end the weekend feeling light and positive and empowered. Instead, it turned out to be one of the most challenging events I have ever participated in. I carried the burden of responsibility for my role in creating that event for some time.

In the Fall of 2016, the US elected President Trump. No one I knew had predicted or planned for that outcome. I see now that the campaign’s slogan, “make America great again,” was the very expression of the projected future. What I recognize today is that our chaotic experience that summer was an expression of the upcoming collision between the emergent future, the planned future and the projected future.

In a similar way, I wonder how those of you who have been constellating over this past year, especially if you work with collective fields, might have been experiencing the collision of futures created by the pandemic we are in today.

Step into the Future

I recently facilitated a structured constellation in which participants worked with the three aspects of the future. Rather than describe our experiences, however, I will leave the exercise with you and invite you to work with it and share your experience.

The process is simple: create a space where you can center and listen within. Then, starting at the position labelled “self,” take time to step through each position, noting what you feel.

Perhaps when you are done, you will have new insights about how to create a future that is not based on the past, or on plans that leave you stuck and stranded, but from a new place altogether. Maybe you’ll be able to give the beggar what he wants – your imagination.

Alison Fornés

2 thoughts on “Entangled with the Future?”

  1. Perhaps a catalyst ( the virus ) will intensify already-existing trends to produce pathways to meaningful change at a systemic level. Almost any systemic change happens as a result of interactions among trends many of which are not new, but had previously produced an equilibrium . There are second and third order trends that would not appear but for the catalyst. Those effects can upset the equilibrium . There are second and third order trends which would not appear but for the catalyst. Those effects can upset the equilibrium or produce a new one.
    The etymology of ‘ emergence ‘ is from the Latin ‘ verb ‘ emergere’ mean to ‘ bring to light ‘
    The etymology of ‘ trump ‘ is from ‘ triumph ‘ and ‘ drumf ‘ is from ‘ drum ‘ and ‘ Donald ‘ means ‘ ruler of the world ‘ .
    Trump himself is acting the part cast for him by the system. If there was a real President in that office now he would make every attempt to paper over the cracks in the system. Trump can make no such attempt . He doesn’t know how to and even if he did he wouldn’t want to.

  2. I agree, and certainly see this happening. For me, this calls me to pay attention to the attachments to the “projected future” and the accompanying grief and presence required to align with the creative / emergent futures.

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