The Wonderful World of Sandplay

sand tray photoOver a decade ago I was introduced to “Sand tray” work (this is a different process than Sandplay that I am studying now), during my practicum at John F. Kennedy University. I took a training on this interpretive process and began to put it into practice at our counseling center.  We had a special sand tray room dedicated for practicing this work with our clients. At that time I was rather fascinated by this modality and what came up in the tray. Then I got a job in social services and went away from therapy for many years.

Recently, I met a trainer here in Columbus, Barbara Brugler who has re-awakened my passion for this work. She teaches Sandplay work (which is not interpretive). As a result, I am now on the path to becoming a certified therapist. This is a very long process which involves a certain number of classes, personal work in the sand and a supervisor to consult with me on the trays I do with my own clients. In the end, I have to write several papers in order to be approved for certification. What I love about this process is that they mandate personal work in the sand and that there are rules to follow. Rules work for me, or I should say knowing my limitations.

What I also love about Sandplay work is the unconscious process that takes place with the client. We don’t analyze the symbols they put into the tray. Not then anyway. Also, a client of any age can do Sandplay and it is especially helpful with trauma. Many people I work with who have been abused, or traumatized by some other type of experience, get to a place where they have said enough and aren’t sure where to go next. The Sandplay experience is a way for them to take a risk of working through these past issues without talking about it. It can be re-traumatizing when we go into our memories and dredge up all those scenes, tastes, unwanted touch and scents.  As a result there will be somatic reactions in the moment that include holding the breath. There can be nightmares, flashbacks, and dissociation as well. Then of course, you have this “a-ha” moment and then what?

How Sandplay works is I show them the sand tray and I show them the objects on my shelves. I tell them to look at these symbols and choose whatever ones seem to want to be picked up. They take them to the tray and make scenes that appear to come out of nowhere. I have heard “I don’t know why I chose that but it seems to need to go here.” This is perfect. I tell them that it is not important why they chose something, just to let the process happen.

My job is to take notes and once the session is over I take photographs of the tray, just like I write notes about the session – for documentation purposes. I then put the objects away.

What draws me in this work, is that I feel like I am in someone’s dream. Since I do dream analysis, this is my first time to watch it come alive. Only it is not their dream, it is happening right this minute. Or maybe it is their dream. The dream that has been happening for many years but they can’t seem to remember it. Or they do but can’t explain it. I suppose I will find out over time.

I also find that this work allows the inner child to emerge. For myself as a therapist and my clients, we are in the sand playing, metaphorically speaking and they are doing mindful work in a non-linear way. Doing these actions in silence (without interpretation) allows room for the client to grow without feeling exposed.

Ordinarily, I do not like silence as a therapist or as a person. Sandplay intrigues me in the sense that the room is actually very loud, again metaphorically speaking. So much is going on! If you can imagine being deaf and going to the circus. This is what it feels like when I watch the client in motion with the objects.

This is all that I have discovered thus far. Stay tuned for more to come! In the meantime, go to Sandplay Therapists of America (STA) and if you are not in the U.S., go to the International Society for Sandplay Therapy. This practice is Jungian based and has been around since the 1950’s. It was founded by Dora Kalff after studying at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zürich, Switzerland. Sandplay is also based on her studies of  Tibetan Buddhism and working with Margaret Lowenfeld in England.

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