Doing Nothing – One more
approach to Sandplay Therapy
Linda Ellis Dean
Linda Ellis Dean, Ph.D., MFT
is a Jungian Analyst who trained at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zurich.
She is teaching member of Sandplay Therapists of America and the
International Society for Sandplay Therapy. Her practice is located
in Eureka, California.
Dora Kalff, the originator of
Sandplay Therapy, once told me she “did nothing” when she worked.
Then she said, “It is harder to do nothing than to do something.”
How can doing “nothing” during the hours of an analysis or therapy
help? What happens in the analytic container, the sacred space
shared by the therapist and client, during a Sandplay process?
I’ve mulled this over in my mind a thousand times. Fifteen years
later I now believe Kalff meant that the healing work she did came
not from an ego state, but from her relationship with the Self and
the collective unconscious. Kalff was right, it is hard to put the
ego on hold and do nothing.
Sandplay Therapy is a method wherein images are created in a tray
partly filled with wet or dry sand as the therapist sits quietly
nearby, apparently doing nothing. Sometimes the client talks about
his/her life issues and then the therapist responds; other times
both remain silent. Over the course of therapy a process of
development and healing can be seen -- and to a certain degree --
understood. In Sandplay reductive interpretation is not used
because the images often come from a deep archetypal level and are
uncensored by the ego. Interpretation actually inhibits the
process. Rather than projecting our limited concepts, theories or
models onto the images, we wait for the wisdom of the
client's psyche to unfold in the series of sand pictures. I imagine
the images as newborn babies--precious, vulnerable, alive with a
will of their own, and wanting to be incarnated into life – into a
body and an ego. The image seems to beg for relationship, to be
received and appreciated by someone. The therapist serves as a
midwife for these images by receiving them just as they are,
allowing them their own pace for emerging into the outer world.
[S]o the birth
of personality in oneself has a therapeutic effect. It is as if a
river that had run to waste in sluggish side-streams and marshes
suddenly found its way back to its proper bed, or as if a stone
lying on a germinating seed were lifted away so that the shoot could
begin its natural growth (Jung, C. W. Vol. 17,
It seems the
silent, respectful acceptance of the images created during the
Sandplay process allows the client to feel increasingly safe and
free. As this happens the images seem to come less from the ego and
personal unconscious, and more from the deeper levels of the human
psyche, or the collective unconscious. If, as Jung believed, the
human psyche has the ability to regulate its own path toward
wholeness, healing comes from this deep level of the psyche rather
than from outside. The Sandplay Therapist must have enough
self-awareness to be able to ‘step aside’ while allowing the psyche
of the patient to begin to heal. For the trained eye, a map for the
healing process can be seen in the Sandplay images.
At the same time the therapist must know enough about the symbolic
material emerging. Why? Archetypal images can overwhelm a weak
ego. A client needs ego strength to work in the sand, or with any
archetypal material from the depths of the psyche. It is preferable
to do some analytic work with the adult client before moving into
Sandplay, and highly attuned observation of the symbolic images
emerging in the sand is critical for monitoring the client's ego
relationship to the unconscious.
The child client is still in an active process of ego development
and is much closer to the unconscious (original self) that directs
the process of play and of healing. The necessity to ‘do nothing’
may be difficult for the therapist who is working with a child. If
the therapist has not enough training he/she might inadvertently
impose upon the child’s self-regulating process of development or
provide enough safety and containment. The issue of ‘I know better
than you know because you-are-a-child-and-I-am-an-adult’ can halt
the process of healing and the development of personality.
(Jung, C. W.
Vol. 17, Chap. 7.)
During a good Sandplay process, as in any other depth therapy, it
seems that something other than the therapist and client -- a third
-- enters the analytic container. It is almost as if an other
-- an inner healer from a deeper level of the unconscious -- has
created the images. Though this sounds ‘mystical’ it is not. Images
of totality that emerge in the sand seem to come from what Jung
described as the Self, the regulating center of the psyche and an
aspect of the collective unconscious, rather than from the ego. In
Sandplay the unconscious ‘other’ is given expression in the images.
At first the ego may make the images, but during play in a free and
safe temenos, or container, the ego is also able to move
aside allowing something new to happen.
Case studies of adults and children from all over the world support
this idea. These deep images seem to be imbued with a life of their
own. The Self enters the process of its own volition and begins to
express itself when invited if there is enough freedom
and safety provided. It is as if the unconscious other,
the Self, wants to have expression! In these images opposites are
united, and a process of healing the splits in the personality
becomes evident. In Sandplay Therapy images of dark, unknown sides
of the client’s psyche are allowed, even welcomed, to appear in the
physical world or light of consciousness. In the act of making
images in the sand there is an integration of unconscious material,
and the relationship between the ego and the Self can undergo
profound changes which move the personality toward wholeness.
A Sandplay process is not finished when numinous Self-images appear
in the sand. As Jung said in so many ways and so many places, when
the images of totality appear the work must be grounded in the daily
life of the analysands (and therapists) for it to be “good for
(Jung, C. W.,
Vol. 16, Par. 539).
In other words, an experience of the Self is not enough. This
experience, this moment of meaning, needs to be acknowledged and
recognized by therapist and client, even without words. As in the
relationship between infant and mother there is a need for mutual
recognition of what is new emerging from the psyche. The baby
may take a new developmental step many times before it is recognized
and validated by both the baby and mother figure. It is with the
shared recognition and validation in the mother-child relationship
that the baby’s emergent development is anchored in the
personality. One of the tasks of the therapist-midwife in the
temenos, or therapeutic container, is to be aware enough to
recognize the underlying process in the Sandplay.
In conclusion, the hard work of ‘doing nothing’ during the process
of Sandplay Therapy requires the therapist’s consciousness of an
expanding process of development that is at first directed by the
ego of the client. If invited, and if a free-enough and safe-enough
space is provided, a third thing -- the Self -- begins to manifest,
directing or at least enhancing the process. When the attitude and
ego of the therapist is able-enough to accept and recognize the
images as coming from something other than the ego, from a new
participant in the work of healing, the client’s unconscious seems
to know . . . and responds. Ultimately, our own relationship
to the Self and our acknowledgment of the healing aspects within the
client’s own psyche affects the Sandplay process.
If we can “do nothing”, as Dora Kalff suggests, we can help
create and enter into a mutual healing temenos. After years
of working with Sandplay, I am continually touched by the mutuality
of this analytic depth work. Client and therapist alike experience
beneficial changes in attitude, in perceptions of personal meaning,
in relationship to society and loved ones -- in their daily lives.