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Sandplay therapy
Creating symbolic images from the unconscious

Payam Ghassemlou
December 8, 2004

As a kid I played freely on the beaches of the Caspian Sea, which offered me sand, water, and lots of opportunities for imaginative play. There was something magical about digging into the sand and creating all sorts of things. Sometimes, I would make a mountain with wet sand and cover it with dry white sand. This way I made myself believe that I made a snow mountain.

I was too young to know about the psychological process of playing in the sand, but I do recall the liberating effect of playing with sand and water. Whether I was happy or sad, I always felt more centered after playing with sand. As I grew older, I assumed that playing in sand is for children, and adults must act more seriously.

Many years later I was introduced to a process called sandplay therapy, which enabled me to play with sand again. Sandplay therapy was originated by Dora Kalff, a Swiss Jungian analyst, in the 1950s and is a method of psychotherapy and personal development to help a patient's individuation process.

As the name suggests, it consists of playing with sand and small figures. My first encounter with sandplay took place in the presence of my own sandplay analyst who silently witnessed my playing in the sand. By means of figures and the arrangement of the sand in the area bounded by the sandbox, I set up a world corresponding to my inner state.

Often, I used water to mold the sand and create images. I tried not to think too much and let my imagination express itself freely. Each tray that I created contained symbolic images from my unconscious. As Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung stated, our unconscious speaks to us in the language of symbols. Creating symbolic images that pertain to my own psyche and having them witnessed in a protected space is a powerful experience that I have not experienced in other forms of psychotherapy.

As a psychotherapist, I decided to study sandplay therapy in more depth and utilize it as an additional dimension to my clinical practice. My sandplay equipment consists of two wooden boxes (approximately 19.5 x 28.5 x 2.75 inches), dry and moist sand, and number of small figures to facilitate the process of creating whatever my clients' imaginations desire.

My training and my own sandplay process has helped me to realize that playing is a healing psychological process which can access a pre verbal place in our unconscious, a place that may not become accessible through talk therapy.

Going through my own sandplay process has given me a better understanding of my client's work in the tray. Silently witnessing my client's sandplay process without judgment or interpretations, along with providing a "free and protected" space, are two important components of sandplay therapy.

Often my clients portray opposite aspects of themselves in the sand tray and create images that correspond to their inner conflicts. This three dimensional portrayal of their inner worlds helps to create a bridge between the inner and outer world or bridge between their inner opposites.

In fact, many clients have used an actual bridge in their trays which among other things indicates a possibility and hope about uniting inner opposites. I learn a great deal about my clients' inner world by looking at the images they create in the sand tray. Knowledge about their inner dynamics helps me to tailor a more individualized and unique plan toward their psychological growth >>> Photos

© This article is copyrighted by Dr. Payam Ghassemlou, a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California.

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