Bert Hellinger’s Biography

by Brigitte Champetier de Ribes (September 2013)


Bert and Sophie Hellinger

Bert and Sophie Hellinger

Bert Hellinger was born on the 16 of December 1925 in Leimen, Baden, Germany. Hi lived in Cologne until he was 17 years old, where he experienced Nazi Germany during his childhood and youth.

He wanted to be a priest since he was 5, and entered a seminary at the age of 10. He was born into a Catholic and intellectual family, which was opposed to the order established by Hitler. Respect for human freedom was important to him from a young age, living against the mainstream in order to follow his own judgment. He was part of a Catholic organisation that was not aligned with National Socialism, for which he was declared a “Suspect of Being An Enemy of the People” in 1942.

When he turned 17, his generation was called to join the army, and he was sent to France where he endured a soldier’s life. In 1945 he was taken prisoner by the Americans and suffered in Belgium the harshness of a prisoner camp for alleged German Nazis (hunger, punishment cells). He managed to escape, and found out that his brother had died fighting in the war. With the war now over, Hellinger became a priest, going on to study Philosophy, Theology and Pedagogy at the University of Würzburg.

A few years later he was sent as a missionary to South Africa, where he managed a big boarding school for Zulu youths. He continued studying during this time. Here he came into contact with Zulu culture, from which he took the vital importance of respect for the elders. He also had the chance of observing the process of adaptation of these youths, from their need to integrate in Western culture, experiencing the relativity of the values and rituals established by each culture.

He continued educating himself, often in opposition to Church authorities. His decision to leave priesthood was developed towards the end of the 1960s, decisively influenced, it seems, by his attendance to an ecumenical course organised by a group of Anglicans who applied a phenomenological approach to the reconciliation of opposed factions, and who left a deep impression in Hellinger. Bert explains that in a work group of religious ministers, a speaker posed a question to the group: “What is more important for you, your ideals or people? If you had to choose, which would you sacrifice?” Bert spent a night without sleeping trying to answer the question, with all the consequences. It is necessary to stress Hellinger’s attitude since childhood of a necessary suspicion towards all unconditional obedience and full adhesion to ideas.

In “Un Largo Camino”, Hellinger states: “I’m very grateful to that minister for asking that. In a sense, the question changed my life. That fundamental orientation toward people has shaped all my work since”.

On his return to Germany one summer, he participated in the first Gestalt workshops and was even the first one to practice the hot seat. That is when he found out that his time as a priest was over. He waited yet another year to leave priesthood in peace, after 25 years.

He returned to Germany when he was 45 years old. He brought with him a deep phenomenological attitude, a profound impression of the contrast between the strong African family cohesion and the European situation, and the desire to continue solving human problems. He became oriented toward psychiatry. He moved to Vienna where he studied psychoanalysis and married Herta, his first wife, also a psychotherapist like him.

He left Germany in 1973 and went to the U.S. to train in California with Arthur Janov (creator of Primal Therapy). From that moment, there would be many important influences in Bert Hellinger’s training. One of the most significant influencers was Eric Berne and Transactional Analysis, with the discovery that our life script reflects the family traumas of several previous generations. Hellinger also developed an interest for Gestalt therapy, a phenomenological therapy of the here and now, through Ruth Cohen and Hilaron Perzold.

Together with his wife Herta, he integrated what he had already learned of group dynamics and Psychotherapy, with Gestalt Therapy, Primal Therapy and Transactional Analysis. During this time, he also started to become aware of the identification dynamics within the family system, which was helped by the Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy’s book of Invisible Loyalties. Another important discovery in Hellinger’s work is constituted by the balance between giving and taking in family relationships. He also trained in Family Therapy with Ruth McClendon and Leslie Kadis, and it was during that training when he got in contact for the first time with Family Constellations. Bert Hellinger explains: “I was very impressed by their work, but could not understand it. A year later I thought about it again, and I was surprised to discover that I was already working in a systemic manner”.

Reading Jay Haley’s article “Perverse Triangle” allowed him to discover the importance of hierarchy and order in families. He continued his work in Family Therapy with Thea Schönfelder, and his work in Hypnotherapy and Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) with Milton Erickson, from whom he took the use of stories in his therapies. Both exerted a great influence in him, together with Frank Farelly and his Provocative Therapy, and also Holding Therapy, developed by Jirina Prekop.

Together with his wife, he had his own therapy service, which would allow him experiment and develop his expertise. He clearly decided for a brief therapy, focused toward the essential, in his search for a therapy that could restore a person’s strength and dignity radically. Through experimentation and the integration of all the therapies he had got in contact with, he commenced to develop in 1980 his own systemic family therapy: Family Constellations.

This therapy is the practical consequence of his philosophical reflection -Hellinger is above all a philosopher-, and above all the result of his phenomenological observation and discipline. His understandings and his freedom of thought allowed him to discover the richness there is in the method of representing the family system by other people, a technique that was already being used when he started to practice it.

Thanks to his phenomenological perception, Hellinger started becoming aware of what lies behind apparent reality, behind the good conscience and the feeling of guilt, behind conflicts and suffering, behind peace and happiness. He would work in, and with, morphogenetic fields, discovering the systemic laws of love, which he names “orders of love”; discovering the role of moral conscience and the deep dynamics of the healing movement.

Bert Hellinger has entered, with rigor, in the field of knowledge, which allows him to create a new philosophy, a new coherent approach to all aspects of life. Among them, a new vision of happiness, success, love. The Renaissance era of the Individual, alone in front of his destiny, his individual decisions, and his “cogito ergo sum”, has died. Since the start of the 20th century, the era of the Field is being born, whether it is called quantic field, morphogenetic field, systemic field, Family Conscience or Spiritual Conscience.

Together with his first wife, he created the hypothesis of the orders of love, which would become more precise with time.

One of his greatest discoveries has been the understanding of the role played by the moral conscience. This was so destabilising that he spent several years observing once and again the presence of the good conscience behind conflicts and aggressions, among individuals as well as among groups and countries, before disclosing his conclusions. He found out that the good conscience is a physiological organ that serves as a social cement, avoiding singularities, separations and autonomy. We develop a bad conscience every time we act independently of someone or a group, and on the contrary, we feel a clear conscience every time we reinforce our belonging through a bond, be it of friendship, love or solidarity.

In fact, Hellinger observed that we use the moral justification of “it’s my right”, “it’s my duty”, “this is good, that is bad” every time we act without love toward someone, that is, every time we hurt someone…

His method is in constant evolution. In the year 1999, thanks to his phenomenological observation, Hellinger became aware of the meaning of representatives’ movements. In the beginning, he referred to them, together with his second wife, Sophie, as movements of the soul, or movements of the Family Unconscious Collective Conscience.

Eventually Family Constellations would not be a psychotherapy directed by the constellator anymore, but would become a service to life directed by a force that comes from outside the family system.

From 2004, Hellinger distinguishes between movement of the soul and movement of the spirit.

Movements of the soul are those movements inherent to the field that produce all the suffering we know, and which are a consequence of transgressions of the orders of love. This movement of the soul is the dynamic of archaic compensation*.

The movement of the spirit is a movement oriented toward healing, toward life. It is adult compensation**; while the movement of the soul is a movement of death.

The movement of the spirit is the connection with a moving energy, an energy of love that comes from outside, from beyond the system, and which makes a healing force flow in the Constellation through a movement of reconciliation.

The morphogenetic field only provides information, while change, creativity and healing come from an external energy field that we access when we accept everything as it is. That last field is the great field of the spirit or creative conscience.

In a constellation, several force fields unfold, as well as the resonance of all existing morphogenetic fields. The first movement of representatives reveals the archaic compensation in which the person is trapped. This is the movement of the soul. Once this movement has shown the existing disorders and imbalances, the movement of the spirit and its healing may come into play. This depends on the degree of conscience of the person: as soon as the person accepts her situation, the movement of the spirit unfolds.

Hellinger then provided a further new understanding: that of the love of the spirit which thinks and loves everything with the same love. To connect with this love is to agree to everything as it is, and it is to enter into the healing force of the movement of the spirit.

Hellinger’s phenomenological observations, such as those pertaining to the therapeutic relationship and counter transference, have provided a lot of light and efficacy to psychotherapy, while destabilising and creating controversy. His capacity to evolve is also criticised…

His last development has moved him to create a new scientific corpus, the “Hellinger Sciencia”. This is the science of the organisation of human life, which is the outcome of complex entanglements, overlappings and loyalties, always moved by love, and a result of the systemic forces of the different fields in which we participate. These are fields to which we all belong equally, the living and the dead, those we know and those we don’t know. As quantum physics explains, we are all interconnected.

The Hellinger Sciencia discovers and describes the systemic principles that allow success to flow in all aspects of life.

In the ‘Hellinger Journal’ [Revista Hellinger] of March 2007, Bert Hellinger writes:

The Hellinger Sciencia adds another dimension, the spiritual dimension, which pushes us beyond the directly comprehensible knowledge about the orders and disorders in our relationships. Only through that other dimension can its universal sense be perceived, as well as the effects that emanate from it in all aspects of existence.

What is this knowledge of the spirit and what are its dimensions? Observation is the tool to discover it and find out its effects: nothing of what exists moves by itself. Everything is moved by something that comes from further afar. Even if something apparently moves by its own initiative, like all that lives, its movement cannot come from within itself. Every movement, in relation to all living beings, starts in a movement from outside, and continues being moved by it continuously for as long as its life lasts.

Something else requires a moment for reflection.

Every movement, above all every living movement, is a conscious movement. This presupposes the presence of a conscience in that force that moves everything. In other words: every movement is an intentional movement. The movement takes place because such is that force’s will, and obeys to the way in which that force wants it.

Then, what is there in the origin of all movement?

A thinking, that thinks everything just as it is.”

The origin of all healing is in that thinking.

Recognising things as they are and agreeing to everything as it is, allows us to tune in with that thinking and its healing force.

Hellinger speaks of the movement of the spirit, without naming it, since 2002: the field is moved by force fields directed by the great Soul; the constellator shall not do anything, nor want anything, but allow those forces to act. He reiterates once and again the need to let do, and the danger it means for the constellator to act too much. He speaks of the New Constellations, or Spiritual Constellations, since 2007 approximately. These are constellations in which the healing force comes from the Movement of the Spirit and not from the constellator.

He wasn’t able to put this fully into practice, however, as in 2009 he suffered a small accident that caused him a cut in his forehead, which he interpreted as “a cut between doing and letting do”.

A few months later the message became more forceful: by the end of 2010, after several serious illnesses that stopped him from constellating for several months, he finally understood with clarity what was being asked from him: to stop ENCROACHING UPON the role of the movement of the spirit during the constellation work.

In 2013 he gave the constellations of the “letting do” a new name: Medial Family Constellations. In these, the centering of the constellator is decisive: the constellator is connected with something greater; she does not ask, she does not need a theme to deal with. When the person sits beside her, she often receives the information; everything is there, there is no need for a development, but only what the present moment shows: some representatives come out, most of them without being identified; they let themselves be moved in silence, and after a while the constellator feels it is enough, she feels that the energy withdraws. The constellation is stopped even if apparently nothing has yet been solved, and the power of the results is in that.



* [Note from the translator: Archaic compensation refers to a balance sought from blind love (archaic love), a love oriented toward death, which encroaches upon our ancestors, and which excludes].

** [Note from the translator: Adult compensation refers to a balance sought from enlightened love, a love with eyes open, which respects those who came earlier and everyone’s equal right to belong].


Translation by María Escribano from the original “Biografía de Bert Hellinger”, published in Spanish by Brigitte Champetier de Ribes in http://www.insconsfa.com/art_biografia_hellinger.shtmlPublished in www.constellations.ie with Brigitte Champetier’s authorisation.