Purpose Driven? Pleasure Driven!

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Alison Fornés (purple shirt, front row) with Ben Roberts and Michael Pergola and a community of other joy-driven change makers! August 22, 2017

I have been actively working for social change since 1991, when I started facilitating intergroup dialogue as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. My work has evolved today with the powerful practice of systemic constellations. After all this time, I certainly understand how easy it is to feel disturbed at the state of our society and of the planet.

But I have such a deep knowing not only of our collective capacity, but also of the tremendous earth and spiritual resources available to us. With this knowing, I cannot despair.

I also know that I can best be of service when I am present and open, when I allow my spirit and emotions to respond authentically to what arises, and when I work from my intuition as well as my intellect.

Taking all of this into account, I find that when an individual or group presents a challenge their heart aches to resolve – I feel JOY! Yes, joy! Because I KNOW that we will enter that challenge and come through the journey with treasure.

It is for this reason that I have stopped orienting my life towards such serious things as being “purpose driven”. Instead, my greatest joy is inviting a community into the creative PLEASURE of collective sensing, revelation and transformation.

MY WANT: Is for you to know your true capacity to transmute systemic trauma and activate thriving new systems for all of life.

-Alison Fornés (apfornes@gmail.com)

Teaching as a Sacred Practice

Knoll Farm Refuge, Fayston VT

September 29 – October 1, 2017

A retreat for educators and facilitators to experience how presence, empathy and body-wisdom can empower learning communities, generate original insight, and creative solutions to complex problems – and create greater joy, connection and flow!

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Your capacity to be present, to empathize, and to understand and interpret your body’s wisdom are the very foundation of deep, authentic knowing.

What would happen if we centered these practices in our learning communities, rather than viewing them as accessory or marginal?

At the Teaching as a Sacred Practice Retreat, we will create a learning community of engaged presence. You will experience the joy that arises from awareness and connection, and its power to generate piercing, original insight and creative solutions to complex challenges.

CLICK HERE for registration and more info

New Ways of Knowing

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July 16-19, 2017 at Knoll Farm Refuge in Fayston Vermont

Bring your open heart – and your cautious one. Bring your curiosity – and your challenges. Bring your joy – and your grief. Come with the questions that are alive for you. 

There is only one requirement: the willingness to enter the doorway of presence and meet what arises.

~What to expect~

  • Expand how you know through presence, empathy and body-awareness. 
  • Engage in collective practices that generate illuminating discoveries about personal and collective challenges, and reveal new paths forward.
  • Return home with powerful new tools and a new community of practice. 

At the New Ways of Knowing retreat, we will focus on dismantling what we consider to be the core illusion that maintains dominant systems: the belief that we are separate. Through practices that engage presence, empathy and body-awareness, you will discover how to go beyond the individual into the collective, generating what we playfully call the “group oracle”. You will have a profound experience of our interconnection, one that will enrich and expand your worldview.

When we can see the world through the lens of interconnection and relationship, everything changes. We move from isolation to community, from power-over to co-creation, from difference and separation to uniqueness and belonging.

Facilitated by Nadia Khan Kimmie and Alison Fornés, two skilled and intuitive guides, and supported by the land and the ancestors, we invite you to join the circle!

Join this 4 day/ 3 night retreat for as little as $475.

Find out MORE HERE!

Rage, Grief and Activism

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Photo:  Peter Forbes

The Constellation

I was one of a small group of facilitators invited to do a systemic constellation around racism. The facilitator, Judy Wallace, asked us to generate a list of what should be represented. With the group size we had, we decided on White Power, Black Bodies, Child, Earth, Poor White Person.

I was the one who named “black bodies”. It came out of a recognition that had been stirring for months – that the painful legacy of slavery and racism from its origins through today is defined by the dehumanizing practice of simultaneously valuing and fearing black bodies, but which in my experience was rarely spoken of.

Representing black bodies, I found myself circling the center of the room, while white power stood just outside my circle. White power had a calm but piercing attention on the other white people in the room. Both white child and poor white person were not eager to align with white power, though white power was happy to include them in his power. 

As I circled the room, I felt numb, moving forward on a momentum that was not my own. White child tried a few times to connect with me. Their energy was curious and open, though white power tried to keep them away from me. In my representation, I could see the child, but couldn’t mirror their energy.

A shift occurred when a representative for LOVE came in the field. When love arrived, the numbness of black bodies transformed into rage. I felt it rise from my belly, and into my throat like a fire. It was at this point that white child became fearful of black bodies, and ran behind white power, who offered its protection.

When the child ran to white power, I didn’t want this, but the trauma and grief in this body simply could not communicate in a way that the white child would understand. It wasn’t that the desire to make a connection wasn’t there – it simply wasn’t available as a possibility under those conditions.


We most often see the systemic trauma expressed as rage. I had a palpable experience of rage in this constellation, but really, we can see it everywhere.

On Facebook, and came across this argument about Van Jones:

“The time has passed for Van’s “Love Army” idea. How effective, exactly, do you think such an idea would have been in the American Revolution? There is a time to fight. And sometimes, the fighting isn’t pretty. When there is a preponderance of evidence that the biggest root of the Trump Base voting choice boils down to “Fear of Diversity” HOW reasonable is that? HOW can you rationalize something irrational? Or address such a person with any fact based, reasonable argument?” – FB comment in response to an article about Van Jones.

This was part of a long stream of comments this same person was making. Her frustration and anger were palpable, and FB was a useful outlet. The comment was written by a white woman, but I have seen similar expressions across the media by people of color. They express frustration at the idea that “love” and “empathy” should be considered tools for change. I understand these cries, and could easily argue on their side.

But when I step back, I recognize deep in my heart that love and empathy are not burdens for me – unless I am carrying another burden that is asking to receive the flow of love and empathy first. That burden, I believe, is unexpressed grief.

Rage and grief live together – two sides of the coin. Both need safe places for expression. In this constellation, the presence of love was able to soften my representation enough to access rage, but in that moment, I could feel it still wasn’t safe enough for the deep release that the body needed.

Any reader of this article will likely recognize their own grief at the collective and systemic trauma that runs through American society. It affects us all uniquely, and I believe this is a combination of the way in which this trauma literally lives in our bodies, and how sensitive we are to the larger collective field.

I also see that if we find ourselves unable to extend empathy and love to someone, or a group of someones, it is because we are carrying a grief that still wants attention. Grief can also be a form of loyalty. We hold onto it, not letting ourselves become soothed, for it is the way we show our connection to what has been lost.

While I have been able to find some safe spaces for grieving, it is still far too rare. The grief of systemic trauma is a unique form of pain. It is subtle, it lives in the shadows, and it seems to hide when you turn to face it. This is why each new event can activate a new round of grieving – and it needs to find expression.

My prayer is that we add “grief rituals” to our self-care practices. I believe there is an alchemy in communal grieving, and, my friends, alchemy is required for the kind of transformation our hearts desire.

About Alison: Alison Fornés, MEd, is a systemic constellations facilitator who works with parents, educators and changemakers. Her mission is to introduce people to the power of their empathic intelligence: that you have within you the capacity to change complex systems when you unlock your ability to perceive hidden dynamics. You can find more about her work at alisonfornes.com

A Truth and a Lie

“Help! I need an emergency consultation!”

The person calling is a wise and thoughtful leader in her organization. She explained that she was amidst end of year fundraising, and scheduling meetings to review her organization’s performance and direction.

But the reason for her call was that she was angry, and she couldn’t get over it.

She had been meditating daily and taking long walks in the woods. She was reflecting on her own mistakes and how to improve, she was empathizing with her colleagues and how they experienced the year. Yet every morning, she would wake with a rising anger at two of her closest colleagues.

Several months earlier, disagreements and misunderstandings had created a painful rift that continued to deepen. She called me wanting help, because she knew that she would not be able to address the larger needs and mission of her organization if this conflict continued.

Hidden dynamics. People come to me because the work I do as a systemic constellations facilitator reveals the unseen dynamics driving our conflicts. These dynamics are usually found in older, unresolved conflicts that are being activated by the current one.

As we sit together, I am reminded of something I wrote down when I was being trained. “There’s a truth and a lie. Our work is to figure out what they are, and put them in their right place.”

img_4794The client described the nature of the conflict and I started to sketch the system: The client. Her partner. Her colleagues. The project they were working on. The money to fund the project.

But as I listened, I heard other words, some she spoke, some hidden underneath: Betrayal. Shameful mistake. Forgiveness. Magic.

As we felt into each element, a complex and beautiful picture emerged. The conflict was triggering a return to a “Shameful Mistake” in the client’s past. We didn’t discuss what this was, we simply felt how, when faced with her colleagues accusation, it drew her back into the “Shameful Mistake”. At the same time, the power of the client’s “Magic”, that is, her capacity and visionary leadership, was misunderstood by her colleagues and perceived as threatening. These insights were the truth.

The healing movement came as a surprise: the “Betrayal” wasn’t betrayal at all. There was, in fact, no betrayal in this system. This was the lie. Instead, “betrayal” felt itself as spacious, generous and accepting. It was Grace. A large tree, Grace offered it’s comfort to the Shameful Mistake, transforming it into a life-supporting resource.

With the truth and the lie in their right place, we could feel that the client and her colleagues could face each other. The misunderstandings were gone, replaced by openness and forward movement.

The First Time: Awe

My work in empathic intelligence and sharing it with educators and changemakers is rooted firmly in a healing / therapeutic modality called Family Constellations. Below you will find the story of my first FC workshop. And if you would like to learn a version of this process designed specifically for teachers and facilitators, check out my course: Introduction to the Empathic Seminar.


February 18, 2012 – Hampden, CT

I showed up at the workshop with a combination of butterflies in my stomach and a heaviness in my chest. The butterflies were excitement, but the heaviness in my chest was less clear to me.

I had done a little research, so I had a general idea of what to expect: we would be chosen to represent members of a person’s family system. However, this basic description information of the process revealed nothing of what I was about to experience.

A man took the chair next to the facilitator. He described his issue: He had a confusing relationship with his mentor, a man he had great admiration for. Their visits would begin well, but they often found themselves in conflict, and he would leave feeling confused. He wanted to understand what was happening because he was supposed to be writing a book with his mentor, but they weren’t making progress.

The facilitator asked him to set up a representative for himself and his mentor. The man looked around the circle of workshop participants. He chose one man to represent his mentor, another to represent himself. He walked each of them to the center of the circle and placed them facing each other, about six feet apart. The two representatives stood silently in the center of the room, looking down. They both described themselves feeling “wobbly” and unstable.

The facilitator asked the client to set up a second representative for himself and his mentor. He placed the “second mentor” to the right of the first. He chose me as the second representative for himself. I stood across from the “second mentor”.

Having never done this before, I was nervous and uncertain. What was I supposed to do? What if I did it wrong? I don’t remember the facilitators specific instructions. There might not have been any instructions at all. I was simply asked, “what do you notice?”

What I noticed was that I my limbs felt weak. I even felt like I should probably lay down, and the facilitator instructed me to follow my movement. As I lay face down on the ground, I started to feel cold, and then I was shivering. I felt an unusual pressure where my body touched the floor, as if a magnet were pulling me into the ground.

“Who is that?” the facilitator asked. The client looked at me on the floor and said, “I think that’s my sister.”

“My sister died as a child. I was 6 and she was 9. My parents, in their grief, just packed up the house and we moved to another city. We almost never spoke of her again.”

As he said these things, I felt myself lighten. The warmth came back to my body, and I looked up at him with a sense of playfulness and happiness that “I” was being spoken of.

Later, the facilitator asked me to stand. As I stood, I made eye contact with the man who had been chosen as “the second mentor.” As I looked at him, I was overcome with emotion – so much love! I have described it since then as sunlight –  not the sunlight we often see coming through the window, with little flecks of dust floating in it. I felt it as clear, radiant love. The facilitator said, “This is your father.”

The facilitator invited us to follow our movements, and “my father” and I embraced. A powerful, joyous embrace, it felt like a true homecoming.

Debriefing the Field Test

In the last post I described an Empathic Seminar about the “N-Word”. In this post, I’ll debrief the experience and address some common questions.

What happened in the “N-Word” exercise?

We created a constellation of the system by identifying three points in the system: “Black Person,” “White Person,” and “N-word”. Three people stood in the center of the room and represented each of those nodes. Then, they just reported what they noticed. That’s it!

Where did the information come from? Were the participants role playing?

What we discover when we step into the system in this way is that the system creates a field of information that we perceive as physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts.

It’s not role-playing. I guide the participants to attend to their felt-sense (Key #2), and if we start talking too much, I cue folks to drop back into their bodies.

To help participants build confidence in the work, I often work blind – that is, I do not tell the representatives what they are representing until  after we experience into the system. This way, they can have their experience without trying to make up what they think should be happening.

Is the information accurate? How do you know?

The number one challenge participants have is being able to trust themselves and their experience. For some, this trust comes easily. For others, perhaps because they are more analytically oriented, working in this way is more challenging. Because we are so used to relying on language and thought to convey information, it can take some practice to feel comfortable listening to one’s somatic (body) response as a source of information.

The most common question I get, the one that I still ask myself, is: Can I trust this information? 

My answer, having been engaged in this process for the past 6 years: Absolutely. I trust the information from this process more than analytical approaches. That’s not to say that I always trust how the information has been interpreted! But I do trust how my felt-sense responds in the system.

The undefended body is the reason I have such trust in this process. Unlike our ego, which naturally takes a position and defends it, our somatic response is authentic and innocent. Though we may need practice listening and interpreting it, it does not deceive.

However, this process does not preclude thinking and research! So many lines of inquiry open up after this brief process, with each experience stimulating more possibilities. On the other hand, we have all had the experience of inquiry being shut down through argument or debate, especially when we are discussing emotional and triggering topics.

With this N-word example, we could follow up the process by conducting interviews or other research to see if there was any evidence to support what we learned.

But for folks who remain skeptical, I offer a simple question: do you trust your thoughts? Where do your thoughts come from? If you haven’t given this any serious consideration, Google the question and read through the results. Very stimulating research.

What’s the takeaway? 

You have a superpower: one that reveals hidden dynamics, and can make sense of complex systems. It is hidden in this little thing we call empathy, but when you learn to engage it fully, you will perceive the world with a new capacity.