Wisdom from Within – Healing through Sand

Wisdom from Within – Healing through Sand

by Ursula Somerville

By the time a client finds her way into therapy she has already done the most amazing thing by forming herself in the womb of the mother. She has put herself together with organs, ears, eyes, nose etc. So, in her environment things begin to happen that don’t quite fit for her, when her unique set of needs are not being met, at some level, she looks for help and attends therapy.

In the non-directive model of therapy the more space the therapist takes up the less space there is for the client. This not only means the physical space but it also means the verbal/non-verbal space (the silence). For me non directive is the most comfortable way of working. I understand it to be the most respectful holding of the client. It allows the client to be who they are and when the therapist is comfortable in this space it somehow facilitates the client to be them-selves. This theory fits very well with the model of Sandplay therapy.

A therapist should never attempt to do sandplay therapy with a client unless they have been fully invested in that experience themselves. The difficulty around that is if a therapist tries to work outside their realm there is a great risk of sabotaging the work for the client because the therapist will be unable to hold the depth of the story of the client, it will somehow trigger work within them that needs attention. It was Jung who said that a therapist can only take the client as far as they themselves have gone.

The Practice of Sandplay

In Sandplay therapy the therapist has two trays in their room one dry and one wet/damp. The client can choose to use either one or both. Separate to the tray is a space for symbols/miniatures which the client can choose from to place in the tray. Once chosen they are placed in a basket to take to the tray. The therapist and the client sit at the tray while the client creates their world in silence. The symbols that belong in the therapist’s collection usually range from, in my terms: above the earth; – on the earth; – below the earth; – above the sea; – on the sea and under the sea, together with past, present, future and perceived future elements. So, essentially, anything that the client might meet in their daily life can be held on the therapist’s shelves for the client to use to release their “story”. When the client has completed their tray the therapist will invite the client to give a name to the “picture” they see in the tray and the therapist will also have sought permission to photograph the client’s tray. The therapist is a witness to the story hidden deep within the unconscious of the client. Dora Kalff (2003) says that healing takes place in the “free and protected space”. This space is provided by the therapist and, in my view it is the entire space which also includes “the Silence” around the relationship.

As I prepare to welcome the client into the room I silently prepare the room and the space for the client. Setting up the tray in silence just being mindful, connecting with the tray and connecting with the sand and being mindful of who is coming into my room today and who is going to use the sand tray. Always respecting the clients’ option to take to the sand or not to take to the sand and as we prepare to go to the sand I am mindful of the client’s affect as they choose or do not choose to select symbols that might release some of their inner stories. Either way, in choosing or not choosing, healing is facilitated through the touch of the sand together with the relationship the therapist brings to the space. It is in this touching that the client can reconnect with previous

experiences of the sand, either good or not good for them but the touching releases the facility or the capacity to just be in the moment and in this time I am just sitting in readiness holding the “free and protected space”. With the countertransference that is going on I am paying keen attention to my own body in this space and in this silence – always attentive and in this attention this is perhaps a new experience for my client – to have that undivided attention – not to need to fill the space with words but just to be, just to be in that moment. I don’t interpret what I see, I don’t make any comment, I allow the client to lead and to decide how much or little to say. At times they just move the sand around sometimes saying that they are feeling emotional. They can stay on the surface of the sand if that is where they feel safest or they can dig deep – either way it’s acceptable there is nobody asking them to do anything other than what they want to do and in that moment they are met. One of the things I really like about working in the sand is that the only rule is that there is no rule!

As we sit and watch the client’s story unfold in the sand I realise the importance of the relationship I have with them in the moment. Usually this is done in silence which promotes the movement in the unconscious. Karen Signell speaks of three different types of silence:

…an Ego Silence/Conscious Silence – the kind you experience stepping into a library. Natural Silence – the kind you experience when you walk into a forest and Deep Silence – a profound state of silence when you enter into the deeper layers of the unconscious where you find a more profound and ineffable place within you (Signell 1996 cited in Bradway et al 2005 p.48).

So it is in that Deep Silence that we experience sandplay and this is where both (myself and client) experience a transformation.

Having knowledge of the symbols that are used is important for me to understand at an archetypal level what is going on, though this is never spoken about with the client. However, it is part of the holding, in the silence, a different knowledge and a different experience. June Atherton (2009) states “…client’s personal interpretation must always take precedence over the archetypal”. A boat in the sand does not necessarily mean a journey any more than a circle would mean the aspect of the Self”. In these circumstances, if I interpret these with meanings I will have moved from meeting the client in the relational field of the unconscious. I will have been seduced by the unconscious of one or both i.e. the client and/or my own unconscious.

Much of the time as the tray is evolving the process is conducted in silence while the client places the symbol where the symbol knows it needs to go. I really like that part of Sandplay and I often say to my clients when they don’t know where to go or where to put the symbol – it will always know where to go in the sand. It knows its place; it knows its position in the tray. It is interesting to watch the client as they choose their symbols and use their symbols in the tray and of particular interest might be what they choose but do not use. I never invite the client to say anything about that but I sometimes might wonder if they use everything from the basket and that can, in a safe environment, provoke them to say why they chose but did not use. I always remember that we are working at an unconscious level and am always mindful that this is a story that has been placed there for safety and we must treasure it as just that – it is our buried treasure (skills which may no longer serve us well) within ourselves that we are taking out to look at. We

can choose to do something about it, we can choose to just know it and somehow that transforms it.

I watch very carefully how the client first acts at the tray as we sit together and how they move the sand around. Are they moving it to the unconscious or out of the unconscious, are they building up on the unconscious, can they go below the surface or do they cover it up very quickly just showing enough, just a little bit – a little bit at a time? – The power of the sand to heal is in the touching of it and in the relationship with the therapist. If the client feels safe the work will go to new depths and I, in my knowledge, will be able to hold that.

I stay out of the way of the client while using the non-directive approach and this allows me to hold a presence but not an intrusion and the client feels important and respected. This can only improve their self esteem.

As the session comes to a close and the client chooses to close it their way and when the client has left the room I will usually sit with the story. I sit with the finished tray seeking to pick up some of the energy that has been in the space and that’s still left there. I then silently dismantle the tray after I have taken a photograph of it. I am silent and mindful as I remove each of the symbols of the tray, each one holding a precious part of the client and their story. I never ask the client to dismantle their tray unless they want to do that. At some point before they use the tray I ask for their permission to take a photograph of their unique story just to complete a part of the series of their journey. Even as I am writing about sandplay and sand work I find myself moving into a much slower pace. So, I believe that the sand is a friend to all of us – it can slow us all down.

Working with sand feeds my desire to work in a non directive way. I believe that from a very deep level everybody has the capacity to heal themselves. While working in a non directive way I worked with a child client and in sessions before she first used the tray I was using reflective listening and paying careful attention to responding to what I saw rather than entering into conversation with remarks or questions. I did this for a number of sessions before the child went near the sand, I was learning sandplay at that stage and I was keen to put into practice what I was learning i.e. sketch out the tray, write what the client is putting in the tray and the direction etc when suddenly my client invited me to “put your hand in the tray”. I did just that and she “buried” my hand so that I had to pay closer attention to her. She knew exactly what she needed

– and how to get it. This was a defining moment for me as I was working in a directive way that  I was taught to do, this is the theory of what sandplay is all about, you make your record and this young client just taught me the relationship and the paying close attention was really the key to the work. And that allowed me to free myself up from directive work, so that I could leave the theory at the outside door and really enter the relationship with the client with just me.

I am very grateful to my young client for that lesson and am mindful of Casement when he wrote his book “on learning from the patient.” (Casement 2001). She lives within me as I bring her into this space – a young client that taught me so much. And this lesson I have never forgotten and always smile when I think about it which I am doing now as I record it. So, my dear young client, thank you for showing me the way.

The Theory Behind Sandplay

We must not forget the role of the therapist and how much the therapist is holding within this relationship. According to Chiaia (2005 cited in Bradway et al, 2005) “The therapists‟ relationship to the client, the sand, different aspects of her own unconscious, both personal and archetypal and particularly the relationship between matter and spirit are attended to in sandplay”. In sandplay it is my task to provide the container for the client, to be more than a witness and according to Chiaia therapists are participating observers. I think I had a difficulty describing myself as witness when actually I am actively partaking in the work with the client. So, witness certainly to the story but as the story is being created I see my role as more than witness but actually as participant and facilitator to the nuances that take place within the free and protected space. As I sit with the created tray then I am a witness to a unique occurrence – a story that has been made visible through the sand facilitated through the relationship of the client and myself.

Chiaia describes the “magical act” (cited in Bradway et al 2005 p.19) of playing with sand, water and miniatures. In this place of non-verbal and non interpretative, healing is taking place and in a way it reminds me of the “client” in the first paragraph of this paper who “forms itself in the womb of the mother” – silently – non verbally – without instruction or interference from another and gets it right for them.

Perhaps we could look at the neuroscience of Sandplay and so I reluctantly adopt a “left hemisphere” stance for a brief moment. Seigal (2010) talks about “… the focusing skills that are part of Mindsight make it possible to see what is inside, to accept it, and in accepting to let it go and finally to transform it”. (p. xii)

That theory ties in very well with making visible in the sand the story that is held within the client. So while I am paying close attention to the client and their story the client’s brain is firing new neurons, because of this attention (Seigal 2010 p42). He also says the limbic (emotions) region of the brain evaluates our current situation “is it good or is it bad”? (p.17) this attention also connects with our emotional states which help us form relationships and attachments. While Badenoch (2008) in her insightful book Being a Brain-Wise Therapist describes the sensory information reaching the limbic region and questioning, as the client touches the sand, “does this sand feel safe or unsafe?” And depending on the body’s previous experience with sand the brain will be activated through the Hippocampus which holds memories of previous relationships. Badenoch (2008) further explains that the experience of arranging the sand encourages vertical integration linking body, limbic region and cortex in the right hemisphere. The client will remain in the right hemisphere as long as they are not asked to explain or discuss, at a cognitive level, the content of the tray. I have seen at firsthand how a well defended and insecurely attached client embodies the emotion of the tray. I believe that as I hold the client’s story this can only help to increase the “window of tolerance” of the client (Seigal 1999 cited in Seigal 2010A p.137). “When the patient senses that it is safe to sit together with whatever feelings or images arise, that dyadic sanctuary widens the window internally for her”. (Seigal 2010A p. 200) This is a “window” which has been created when a “trauma” has happened to the client and for every time an event involving a similar situation occurs the client will operate from a restricted place. Panksepp (1998, cited in Badenoch 2008) explains the neuroscience of the play in therapy. He states that the open environment the therapist provides facilitates activation of the “seeking

circuit” (p.301), one of seven genetically based motivational circuits, residing in our limbic regions. He further explains that fear, rage and separation distress become activated when children are “out of contact” with adults The other four circuits are caring, social bonding; playfulness and seeking and these arise under conditions of “warm connection”. Together with this, new research into brain plasticity is showing that the brain can restructure itself.

„Sand therapy promotes the development of new neural pathways that aren‟t blocked by the trauma, and gives the client a physiological experience which helps new neurological pathways to be formed‟ (Crowley cited in Somerville, 2009).

Building on and believing in the unique skill the client possesses to form themselves before even coming into the world, we sit in the therapy room to honour this seemingly lost capacity in the client as they present with disorganised coping mechanisms. I hold the space and I believe that this client can, through the medium of sandplay, re-form themselves into what they can be. I invite the client to evolve and unfold through the means of Sandplay therapy.

Sandplay is steeped in theory from such greats as CG Jung and Dora Kalff. So, understanding what is happening at a neuroscience level supports the therapist to believe in the power of Sand to heal. It is important information to learn that the close attention the therapist can give to the client creates new neurons which fire in the brain making it possible for the client to learn the capacity to self regulate and take in new skills which will serve her better.

In an environment of a free and protected space and in the much needed Deep Silence there the client will be given the opportunity to live to their full potential.

Ursula Somerville is a Psychotherapist, Child Psychotherapist, Sand Therapist and Creative Supervisor working in Private Practice in Dublin email: urshome@gmail.com


Atherton J (2009) Dreams made Visible Inside Out The Journal of the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy No 59 Autumn 2009 p. 8 – 14.

Badenoch B (2008) Being a Brain-Wise Therapist a Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology WW Norton and Company New York

Bradway K, Chambers L, Chiaia ME (2005) Sandplay in Three Voices Routledge East Sussex UK

Casement P (2001) On Learning from the Patient Brunner-Routledge New York

Kalff, D. (2003) Sandplay – A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche, Temenos Press, CA Siegal D J (2010) Mindsight – The New Science of Personal Transformation Random House New York

Siegal D. (2010A) The Mindful Therapist – a Clinician‟s Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration W W Norton and Company Inc., New York

Somerville, U (Sept. 1st, 2009), Drawing Lines in the Sand, HEALTHplus, The Irish Times http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/health/2009/0901/1224253581049.html

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