I became interested in the opportunity to combine Sandplay Therapy with Heart-centered Hypnotherapy (HCT) when my office situation changed and a Sandplay therapist came on-site, bringing her Sandplay materials with her. I had been interested in doing Sandplay for decades, but other things took precedence. As I considered how to integrate this into my practice, it occurred to me that I might find a way to blend these two therapy modalities into one process. They both are influenced by the late psychiatrist Carl Jung, and as a “life-long Jungian” he had always been a hero of mine. So I began to experiment with ways of merging Sandtray and HCT.
Sandplay is a psychotherapeutic technique developed in the late 1950’s by Dora Kalff, a Swiss Jungian analyst. She adapted the “World Technique” modality, created for working with children by a British pediatrician, Margaret Lowenfeld. The intention of Sandplay is to create a bridge from the unconscious to the conscious, making available the deeper psychic material that is so critical to the healing process. Sandplay therapy uses miniature figurines to symbolize aspects of the psyche, creating a 3-dimensional scene that expresses psychological, intrapsychic content. One might conceptualize it as a waking dream, a dynamic representation of one’s interior world. Because the unconscious communicates only through the language of symbols, Sandplay assists in translating the unconscious through a hands-on, non-verbal process.
The regulation Sandplay tray itself is a box, 28.5 inches long, 19.5 inches wide and three inches deep traditionally, a size that allows the person to see the entire tray without head turning. The sides and bottom of the box are painted blue. The blue bottom can be used to create lakes or other water bodies. Traditionally, the sandtray is elevated on legs so one can stand to work. Several inches of white, fine sand are placed in the tray and can be moved and shaped. Just the act of "playing" in sand is a somewhat regressive process and assists in helping to enter a different psychic space.
A wide array of figurines of all types and sizes are displayed on shelves and are chosen by the client. The figurines should include everything that is in the world, has ever been, and will ever be. From animals, monsters, food, and plants, land forms, structures, and furniture, vehicles and people of all kinds past, present, and future, mythological to religious/spiritual, figurines in action from soldiers to bulldozers, and objects like marbles and snowflakes, one can potentially fill walls with miniatures, limited only by one’s imagination (and wall space). The objective is to be spontaneous in choosing the figurines, not attempting to think through why a particular object is being chosen. In fact, thinking would be contraindicated to the process. The figurines are placed in the sandtray wherever the client feels moved to place them. Given time, a scene is created illustrating the issue being addressed, a Sandplay drama.
This process is a wonderful way to work on dreams, conflicts, intractable negative feelings or any issue in which one desires a deeper understanding or requires healing. As a very simple example, if a couple is experiencing discord about who works and how they are managing childcare and this is the issue the person chooses to address, they would not necessarily select two adults, several children, an office and a house. Instead, she/he might choose a throne, a mop, and a bunch of small turtles, using supporting objects to express the struggle of the issue. It is a given that every figurine is symbolic and therefore holds unconscious meaning for the person and that the specific placement in the sand provides the dynamic of the issue. As the Sandplay unfolds, a story is created that illustrates a deeper, broader perspective of the situation. Ultimately, Sandplay provides a visual and non-verbal avenue to help one move towards healing and wholeness.
In HCT we work with stories or personal narratives as well. We generally begin a HCT process with some type of situation or intrapsychic conflict so that we can acquire a deeper understanding of the issue in order to resolve and heal it. Ultimately, the intention is to discover and change the old childhood beliefs that interfere with resolving the problem. We want to change the old template, creating a new template that is reflective of the present, not the past.
The symbology of Sandplay seemed like a natural way to illustrate the issue being addressed in HCT 3-dimensionally, full of visual, non-verbal expression. While there are undoubtedly many creative ways in which this could be executed, there is currently only one process with which I have been experimenting.
There are three legs to this process. The person describes what she/he would like to address. They then close their eyes for a moment, take several deep breaths, and then keeping their eyes just open enough so that they can see, they go to the shelves to choose the figurines they are attracted to that will express the issue they are addressing. They create their Sandplay based on intuitive choices of figurines. Just as in traditional Sandplay, the sandtray is photographed. They are then lead to the mat to begin the HCT session, the second leg of the process.
In the advanced classes at The Wellness Institute in Issaquah, Washington where HCT is taught, we do several processes specifically revolving around symbols. I will describe one of these processes as an example, the "dream drama". Normally a dream drama would be done in a psychodrama group, a small group in which people are assigned roles of people or things that are represented in the dream. The intention of psychodrama is to externalize internal conflicts. In the same way, a dream drama is about externalizing and bringing the dream alive. As a HCT process, our approach to psychodrama or any derivative of psychodrama is to do the work in trance. As the client chooses different people or objects in the dream, the therapist helps the person enter into dialogue with these different symbols, aspects of the self. They are instructed to "give it a voice, let it speak, or describe itself". The house, the cow, the fork suddenly have a voice. Generally the person begins by choosing the dream part that has the greatest "charge" on it. From that point forward, the therapist facilitates different parts of the dream being voiced. Sometimes these voices interact, speaking with each other, generally directed by the therapist. The dreamer might be asked to listen to the words of one of the parts while the words are reread to them by that “actor” and then they are directed to respond to those words. They can then dialogue. It is an incredibly dynamic process. The dream drama, just like with all HCT work, will generally include one or two regressions to help understand the particular patterns and to develop insight about the old conclusions and behavioral decisions. Resolution occurs in many ways, but the message of the dream becomes clear and the information that was acquired facilitates new insights, healing, and the reversing of old conclusions and decisions.
So in much the same way, after the person has completed their sandtray, they lie down on the mat. The therapist conducts a short induction. The person is already somewhat in trance because of the Sandplay work they have been doing. They are asked to go to the figurine that has the most charge on it or that most stands out for them. They give it a voice. There is generally not enough time to voice more than three or four objects, especially because in most situations, at least one regression should be done to get a broader understanding of the issue. Just as in all HCT processes, there are many ways to end the session. For example, if the conflict they wanted to address has to do with a person in their life, they might talk to the person from the new perspective they have gained. The person has already created the conflict AND the resolution in the Sandplay work, so the session often spontaneously resolves through the dialogue of the figurines. The intention is to end the session with new conclusions and decisions about their behavior and of course, some profound healing.
When they return to the sandtray, the third leg of this process, they are asked whether they would like to modify the original sandtray or create a new sandtray. Keeping their eyes barely open, they choose the figurines they are attracted to or they reconstruct the original sandtray. The new scene with the new perspective is created. When they are complete, a photograph is taken. It is important to note that no questions are asked, no interpretation made. Language remains secondary.
In the following case examples, all names have been changed. It is important to note that I am choosing only the most critical voices of figurines to describe in any given sandtray. Also as previously stated, during the HCT, I ask the person to give only a few of the figurines a voice, the ones that have the most significance to the person. Just like in a dream, every symbol is important, but it can be assumed that when the person chooses the symbols with which to work, they will arrive at the essence of the issue being addressed.
Regina wanted to address her fear about being taken advantage of as she entered a new relationship. In one corner of the sandtray was a tiny baby turtle emerging from an egg facing the sandtray and in another corner was a large turtle facing away from the baby and the sandtray. The first object she chose to have speak was the baby turtle. It said, “I’m just entering the world and there’s no one there. I’m alone. I can’t see because there’s a mound, a wall of sand in front of me. I want to go back in my shell, back where I came from. I want my mommy to come back. I’m vulnerable and exposed.” A girl lying down partially buried in the sand was towered over by a Crusaders-type man holding a sword and a mace. They were centered in the middle. Regina gave each a voice, the controller and the controlled. The first regression took her to a childhood molest situation in which she was powerless and unable to fight back. There were many conclusions and decisions about her behavior including a decision to stay away from people and to be alone. The second regression was a past life, adding more information about the feeling of having no power and taking whatever abuse was dealt her. She was able to see that the lesson from this past life had to do with finding her voice, value, and worth but in that life, it remained unlearned. As Regina moved back into this life, she was sad about how little she has seen in herself, how little value she has felt. At that point, I had her speak to the person she was beginning a relationship with and she was crystal clear as she spoke to the person, saying what she would and would not allow and what she wants in a relationship. As she returned to her sandtray, she chose only five figurines. In the middle at the back was a young girl, and in front of her was the symbol of “woman” (a woman standing with arms above her head making a circle). In front of the woman was a large heart. In each corner at the back, lined up with the young girl, were figurines of two of Regina’s long-standing anchors. One was half eagle/half lion and the other was a lotus. I was fascinated that this sandtray did not illustrate anything about a relationship, but instead was about her own sense of self. The young part of her was protected, and therefore she could safely move into the adult Regina. This allowed her to access love, both love of self and other. No longer was she the frightened baby turtle lamenting the absence of her mother.
As a different process example, Rachel began her second sandtray without removing the original figures as opposed to completely changing the scene after the HCT process. The other difference was that in the HCT process, no regressions were used and she did not give voice to any of the figurines. The entire session involved the release of her anger regarding current world affairs in which she felt aggressors were repressing and harming individuals, cultures and the planet. Her sandtray was filled with aggressors from many eras surrounding a vast array of people of all colors. Spiritual and nature symbols were likewise surrounded, their access being blocked by the aggressors. Upon return to the sandtray, Rachel buried the aggressors so that only a small part of their body or weapon was exposed and the tray was then filled with life, rich with symbols of nature, spirituality, and activity. Most of the figurines in the sandtray remained the same with only a few additions. This session demonstrates the importance and power of addressing strong emotions through release rather than simply having a discussion about them. My unspoken interpretation was she now had an awareness that aggressors are and have essentially always been present, but for her, in this life, they were not surrounding her and they were not blocking her from what she believes, desires, and has the potential to create.
Bridges seem to be a common symbol. It consistently illustrates the world the person lives in and what they are yearning for that lies beyond, on the other side of the bridge. It also implies the knowing that something else actually does exist, and either they are uncertain what it is or they know but do not have a sense of how to obtain it. In Reba’s process the figurines had a lengthy dialogue with one another. Because of this, the session did not contain any regressions. She had also done extensive early childhood work and so this was not critical for the efficacy of the process. In one corner of the tray, an angel was hiding behind a tree. It was the part of her that wanted to cross the bridge. Near her was a tiny curled up clay figure, primitive in its formlessness. This particular figure has been chosen multiple times in different sandtrays to represent the undeveloped, hiding inner child. The clay figure advocated for continued hiding to stay safe, acknowledging that this position of hiding “is home”. She was afraid of the witch by the bridge, even though the witch was already “bent” (on its side). It was angry at the angel because the angel wanted her to “see how amazing the fairies are on the other side of the bridge”. The primary “warrior fairy” on the other side spoke to the hiding angel, wondering why she was still hiding after “all this time”. Herein was the internal conflict, the choice to remain in hiding or to come out and be seen. That would require crossing the bridge. The wand the fairy carried was “raw power” that could “dispel the fog of confusion” because the wand’s gift was clarity. The bridge then acknowledged that it was old but it was the only way to “get from the old to the new”. It acknowledged that Reba had walked half way across the bridge before, but because she could not see to the other side, she was afraid to cross. Also the bridge said that Reba believed, “If I (the bridge) fall apart, she won’t be able to get back and she’ll have to go into hiding again”. Reba suddenly and spontaneously saw options. The angel in hiding was indeed an angel and could fly to cross over the bridge. She could put stones across the river the bridge spanned. (Actually there were already stones in place). The fairy not only had wings but had a wand that could make a bridge over the river. The fairy could even knock down trees and walk across them. It became clear to Reba she has believed that “I am only as functional as the youngest part of me and I haven’t seen or believed these other parts are from me”. In her final sandtray, she chose a woman walking with her dog. Behind her the fairy stood with her wand. She had been joined by an angel holding a baby and a woman in a canoe filled with produce. A gold star stood erect in the middle of the sandtray. This sandtray does not require interpretation. It is a fine example however of the solution to the problem, the options, being within.
The post-session reports have been very positive thus far. People have chosen to print the photographs of the sandtrays and place them where they will be seen, a visual to help them anchor and remind them of the new perspective, the new knowing. They have reported that the process of allowing their psyche to speak 3-dimensionally without the use of language is powerful. Combined with the interactive voices and/or regressions used with the HCT trance, the process has been healing and restorative. It helps to sort out the conflicted internal voices of the issue. They can then have clarity about the direction in which they need to move. They also have a visual image of that movement, a compass they can consult as a visual to remember what the direction of true north actually is for them.
I believe there are many possibilities for combining Sandplay Therapy with HCT. Right now I’m in the discovery process and it feels like a new frontier. I am convinced that the only factor limiting this work is my own imagination. Perhaps that will be the subject of MY next Sandplay.