‘Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.’ Carl Jung
As psychotherapists we journey with people from all walks of life, often coming in through the door with quite a diverse racial, ethnic and cultural background. Some speak English as a second language but regardless, it happens every so often in therapy that clients are unable to verbally express their personal stories and emotional distress.
Sandtray therapy is a non-verbal psychotherapeutic intervention which allows for the expression of deep and personal issues through a symbolic language using miniature figures, placement and sand. It was made popular by Swiss Jungian analyst Dora Kalff, who adapted Margaret Lowenfeld’s World Technique, a form of play therapy. The client is instructed to create a World in the sand, their world as they see it, by choosing miniatures that most speak to them, without thinking too much. It is as though miniatures get to pick you rather than the other way around. Meaningful therapeutic metaphors and symbols emerge in the tray when clients choose to remain intuitive, releasing the need for a logical literal scene. You are then given the opportunity to recreate, change, or reorganise completely the picture you created in the sand thus giving you insight into your unconscious. Barriers now dismantled, as a microcosm of reality, the tray that contains this precious insight can then be implemented in your life.
In my work with Adult clients I have reached for this psychotherapeutic intervention on more than one occasion to provide me with a technique that very often led to insights and resources otherwise too well disguised and inaccessible to the conscious mind. For clients who have experienced a lot of chaos, turmoil and trauma, and who may have suffered developmental damage as a result, this technique is not just helpful but necessary; trauma is sensory based, with painful memories encoded not only in the brain but in the body as well, and these memories can be better accessed and relived via a sensory based intervention. Homeyer & Sweeney in their practical manual on Sandtray Therapy stated that the touch of sand activates and regulates the right-brain limbic processes, promoting vertical integration in the right brain. New neural pathways are created, rewiring dysfunctional painful memories. Once a ‘world’ is created in the sand, verbally discussing the content and being met with a kind empathetic response, results in left and right brain integration. ‘Adding words to the story, which occurs in the left brain, to the imagery and feelings of the right brain, strengthens and grows the corpus callosum (the connecting tissue between the left and right brain hemispheres) resulting in greater regulation of the emotional content of the sandtray experience.’ (Homeyer & Sweeney, p 15)
What child doesn’t like to play with sand? Sandtray therapy has a special kinesthetic quality to it which has the ability to bring us right back to our childhood, to memories of the sea and the beach. The very tactile experience of touching and manipulating the sand is a therapeutic experience which oftentimes effects a loosening of the tongue, resulting in the client’s spontaneous ability to talk about deep issues. The expression of feelings, thoughts, needs and beliefs, that otherwise may be too overwhelming for words, now becomes possible, through the use of the miniature figures that become the words, symbols and metaphors of the clients’ non-verbal communication. Sandplay therapy is a safe therapeutic medium where repressed issues can emerge, and difficult emotions re-experienced and transformed.
Some clients’ development of a self might have been hindered when their caregivers, for whichever reason, inhibited their exploration and play. Sandplay therapy, with its almost magical powers to go back in time, provides a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with your child self and thus to repair and to heal an otherwise weak sense of self.
Sandtray therapy helps to create a necessary therapeutic distance for clients, allowing them to direct the process , speak through one of the miniatures rather than directly verbalising their pain, or even looking and focusing on the tray when they need grounding and wish to avoid eye contact. Created within the safe, enclosed space that the sandtray is, the client’s created world provides safety and boundaries, where clients, in their more regressed self, can grow the way children can only grow in a safe world where there are limits.
Self-consciousness is also tackled through Sandtray Therapy, by taking the focus off negative self-talk and promoting self-awareness.
Transferential issues may also be addressed effectively through sandtray therapy. Lowenfeld believed that the transference occurs between the client and the tray rather than the client and the therapist. The client may take away images of the tray rather than an image of the therapist, and the tray and miniatures may become objects of transference. More than a container for the sand, the tray is also a container for the psyche.
With the consent of the client, pictures can be taken upon completion of the scene, both before and after all the changes necessary have been made, to compare against future trays and to document progress.
Sandtray therapy can be used successfully with children, adolescents, families and couples, as well as adults. However, It is important to remember that technique never healed and that hurting people can only experience healing when they encounter someone compassionate which facilitates the encounter of their true self. To this end, sandplay therapists must remember to utilise this technique in the context of a strong therapeutic relationship with their client.
‘Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside, when you touch the miracle of the living soul’ – Jung