Windows Into The Inner Sanctum

So often we think of windows as enabling us to look OUTSIDE. However, I’d like to introduce a window that allows us to look INSIDE, specifically, into the inner workings of the psyche.  As a former psychologist with a specialty in playtherapy, I used sandplay therapy with both children and adults to gain a better understanding of what my clients were struggling with. Sandplay was truly a window of privilege – no other technique revealed as much about what was really going on INSIDE.

“At the beginning in sandplay, we observe images of the daily world, its difficulties. When we continue this work, we get into deeper realms of ourselves. We discover contents which have remained unknown. They have become dark and negative. All of our potentials would like to be developed. If they are not taken care of, they get furious and work against us.
Beyond this darkness is the beauty of the Self. This is a moment when a transformation of energy can take place, because the moment is in tune with the transpersonal qualities within us. This is no longer just personal, but it is universal. From here we build up a new personality, where the ego is in contact with the Self. It is guided by the Self. We can make use of more and greater capacities than before…. When one can live up to his capacities, he will feel good in himself and will not look jealously at the other person. Sandplay develops this path that is indicated by birth” The Teachings of Dora Kalff, pg.2.
The late Dora Kalff is considered the mother of Jungian sandplay therapy.  Her sandplay method, developed in Switzerland, did not reach the US until the 1980s and is still not widely known here.  However, I won’t bore you with the politics of the American mental health system.

Instead, I would like to show you images that convey windows into the psyche.  First, let me introduce you to a sandplay setup. A sandplay therapist has one or more shallow trays that are filled with sand. The wooden or plastic trays are about the size of the old photo developing trays (for those of you who still knew a darkroom, before the digital age). The therapy room has shelves covered with various miniature objects and figurines that will be used to create a world inside the sandtray.

Shelves with sandplay miniatures

Shelves with sandplay miniatures

Here is an example of an initial sandtray world:

I need help

Everything seems dandy and peaceful except for the bench that’s empty and the Nurse’s kit.  This kit was frequently used by children to signal their need for help, even if they verbally resisted coming to therapy claiming they did not need to be there.  Sometimes, an ambulance or firetruck would replace the nurse’s kit, still symbolizing the cry for help.
Symbols of being jailed, tied up, or locked in would appear:

As clients developed trust in me as the therapist and embraced the sandplay process, their worlds began to be populated with monsters and threatening characters representing their inner struggles, fears, and inadequacies. This is a child’s representation of her parents’ messy divorce and custody fight:

the chaos of life

the chaos of life

A very shy little girl who was initially non-verbal in therapy was able to show me how she felt, utterly alone in the world:

utterly alone

utterly alone

This young man was intelligent and sensitive but was constantly in trouble and had great difficulty controlling his angry impulses:

intense energies

intense energies

A young woman with an eating disorder realized she had a great deal of grieving to do:

the need to grieve

the need to grieve

Very often, there were two sides opposing and battling each other, sometimes originating and reflective of the outer world (e.g. family situation) and then inevitably taking over the inner world:

a line in the sand

a line in the sand

two opposing sides

two opposing sides

The inner demons became visible:

the inner demons

the inner demons

Fierce battles ensued often resulting in total destruction of the old ways:

Powerful allies came along:

Hope and creativity started to return:

salmon returning to their breeding grounds

greening of the world

And eventually, clarity and wholeness:

completion

completion

final integration

These final worlds often feel like altars to the self, the healthy self: a feeling of peacefulness, wholeness and holiness enters in a palpable way. That’s when therapy is coming to an end, that’s when both client and therapist are in awe of the window they have been privileged to look through together so that all the disorganized and missing pieces could be retrieved and re-arranged into a healthier whole.

About Beauty Along the Road

My name is Annette. I am passionate about nature, health, simplicity, self-reliance, truth, and life-long learning. Originally from Germany, I now live in Virginia, USA. I am a therapist, health coach, writer, photographer, and organic gardener.
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54 Responses to Windows Into The Inner Sanctum

  1. brucethomasw says:

    Wow – this takes me back. 2 decades ago I did Jungian Sandplay Therapy.

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    • Really? Was that a good experience for you?

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      • brucethomasw says:

        Yes. Though it was intense. Maybe 20 or 25 sessions. I’m still friends with the Therapist who facilitated it. He’s from Ireland and comments occasionally on my blogs. I joked to him recently that I felt like blogging was little like sandplay.🙂 Tongue in cheek though. Wonderful post. Thank you.

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        • So glad to hear that, Bruce. I’m still surprised when people say they are familiar with sandplay. I suppose it is much more known on the West Coast since the Jungian Sandplay Association has their headquarters there, so more people can get trained in it and more people can experience it as clients. Here on the East coast, there are far fewer sandplay aficionados. Sadly…

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  2. mpejovic says:

    Wow, that’s so interesting. I’ve never seen (or heard about) anything like it, but I can see how beneficial it could be to some people. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. What great captures of the inner struggles of your clients.
    Love sand play and art therapy as ways of getting into the symbolism of what’s going on🙂

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    • Do you practice sandplay, Seonaid? It wouldn’t surprise me given your Jungian leanings🙂 and your ability to draw symbolism from anything your camera can capture🙂

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      • I don’t use it myself….but feel quite drawn to it.
        I have a couple of friends who I trained with who are using it in primary schools….it’s a charity and government funded counselling service called place2be. They use art therapy techniques too….and puppets. All very interesting, but I love the idea of using creative mediums like these with adults.

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        • As I said in one of my previous responses, self-reflective adults are the most fascinating people to “play” with… I don’t know what kinds of sandplay trainings are available in the UK, but I do know that Martin Kalff, the son of Dora Kalff, organizes a summer institute in Switzerland for people from all over the world who want to train in Jungian sandplay. The study of sandplay (I must warn you) is life long, there is always a deepening understanding of the archetypes, the dynamics, the process and its phases…it’s truly fascinating.

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  4. such a brilliant interpretation of the Window photo challenge! I can’t even imagine how many kids were helped by your non-threatening approach!
    ps. this post should be Freshly Pressed

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    • If you want to send around a petition for me to get Freshly Pressed, I wouldn’t stop you🙂 All kidding aside, thank you for your comment and you are right, this is a very non-threatening approach to use with children.

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  5. Sue Moran says:

    Great post!

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  6. Barneysday says:

    I also had never heard of sand play, but it certainly is interesting. The images are moving, and the feeling many were struggling with were clear once you explained them. Thanks for sharing a great idea!

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  7. indacampo says:

    What an interesting post, thank you for sharing. I’m amazed at the variety of different objects available with such different symbolism for each. Did you just collect them over time?

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    • Yes, the miniatures were acquired over a long period of time and just kept coming. When I left my practice in DC, I was able to sell half of my collection to another eager sandplay therapist. Now, sadly, everything is in boxes awaiting their next calling…

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  8. Tish Farrell says:

    What a truly wonderful post: windows into the heart of things. Very moving.

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  9. Tish Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Tish Farrell and commented:
    Such a stunning insight into inner turmoil and trauma – from The Beauty Along the Road

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  10. Tish Farrell says:

    I face-booked it and re-blogged.

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  11. MixerUpper says:

    That’s fascinating! I, too, have not heard of sand play before. When you look at the images you’ve captured, though, it is strikingly clear what is going on. Thanks for sharing this interesting, informative post!

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  12. Never seen sandplay so well reflected as window to the interior

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    • Thank you, Laura, are you familiar with Sandplay Therapy?

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      • yes – am/was psychotherapist working with adults though it has a place here especially for the less linguistically, internally able

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        • I enjoyed sandplay the most with highly verbal adults who were curious about the process and wanted to go deeper through the sandplay. Adults who were limited verbally often weren’t able to go very far in the sandtray either (there are always exceptions, of course). However, both verbal and non-verbal kids enjoyed the sandplay immensely. The only exceptions I encountered were kids with severe attachment disorders (somehow they had trouble tolerating the sand but would use the miniatures on a table surface, without the sand). I found that the sandtray always met people wherever they were at….

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  13. 2far2shout says:

    Lovely post Tish. Did you discuss each sand play with its creator? I know a little about Art Therapy but never met a sand tray facilitator. The props are fascinating; they must have different significance depending on the ‘narrative’. Do you still have them all? Really really interesting.

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  14. 2far2shout says:

    I have found the answer to my question in one of your answers….dough!

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    • Hi, 2Far… this is Annette from Beauty Along the Road. Tish re-blogged my sandplay post on her site.
      In sandplay, just like in art therapy (I presume), one does not really interpret for the client but asks questions that allows them to go as deep as they are able. Adults want to understand what they have created; kids often just want to “play” and it’s a real art to interweave comments and questions that help them gain a better resolution of their issues.
      Each of the sandplay miniatures is used in unique ways by each individual, sometimes in a totally surprising way, sometimes in an archetypal function. The more objects are available, the more closely clients can find something that symbolizes what they have in mind. But if they are looking for a Peregrine Falcon and you only have an eagle, then the eagle becomes the falcon… and then there are days when three people in a row use the same identical two or three figures, but maybe for a different purpose. It’s never boring….

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      • 2far2shout says:

        Annette, thanks so much for your reply. I understand how children will generally ‘just’ play and respond to questions but an adult would need some structure, perhaps. I’d love to explore the therapy myself…I reckon we all have something reveal… Thanks again.

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        • Hi Tony: if you really want to follow up on sandplay therapy, you may want to find out whether there are any sandplay therapists in your area. If you want more help with that, let me know and I can send you a more private e-mail address.

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  15. Annette, thank you for sharing, your work. This is amazing and I can see especially for children where there is a success in Analysis and Therapy. All this samples give me lots to think of….since my ex husband is a therapist, I learned quite a lot from him, as I was always interested into looking in my soul and others. Thank you for a great post. Bis dann, Cornelia

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    • So glad it touched you the way it did, Cornelia. sometimes I wonder whether our entire life isn’t all a giant sandtray world: we have brought in all of the figures and possessions and surrounded us with them, created dynamics with them, and are leaving tracks in the sand….hmm….

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      • Our life might be a sandtray world, but we have forgotten how to play ( especially we German’s!!!!) and how to play in a skilled and meaningful way to enlighten ourselves to happiness

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        • I am trying to undo my ferocious early conditioning to work, work, work and looking at Deep Play (Diane Ackerman wrote a book with that title, I highly recommend it). Deep Play is really what we do as adults that absorbs us fully (I suspect your photography is Deep Play): traveling, sports, crafting, writing, painting, etc. But you are right: generally, we don’t remember to play anymore…

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  16. Wow, Annette, this is really fascinating. It’s amazing how much our subconscious influences our outer world. Thanks for sharing this.

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  17. Pingback: WINDOW OF MYSTICAL DAWN VS. FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT | through the luminary lens

  18. This idea is really intriguing, Annette. Wonderful insights into people’s minds. I wonder what my sand play would portray? I think I would need a few music notes to plant in the sand.🙂

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  19. Brilliant and intriguing. Do you take photos of each sand play session? Then, as they progress through therapy do you show them their previous sand play dioramas? This totally fascinates me! I want to know more!

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    • I don’t practice anymore (leaving a backdoor open, though). However, yes, I took photographs of every single sandplay, sometimes even during the session as things were moving quickly from one state to another…. typically, I did not go over old sandtrays but sometimes e-mailed a picture if they had worked on a particularly meaningful one and wanted to keep it as a reminder.
      I did my own process (required if you study Jungian sandplay therapy) and have all of the pictures from that process. I also did seven separate trays for the seven chakras – that was fascinating, and then designed a 9-month long workshop series for others who wanted to explore their chakra energies through the sandtray.
      I am currently designing a rites of passage retreat for women (50+) who want to mark their transition into their aging/sage-ing in a conscious way and I am thinking about giving each woman the opportunity to create a sandworld as part of the retreat. That should be really interesting.

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  20. cindy knoke says:

    So powerful. Immediately picked up on some archetypal themes, the sharks, the nurses kit, the lonely parasol and the mummy, etc. As a therapist and an appreciater of Jung, who had an NDE btb, these remarkable archetypes are something we all resonate with on an unconscious level. Love that people brought the symbolism to the surface in your sand art. I also am really impressed that you connected the symbolism in your sand art with the Puerto Rican miniatures. I would never have made the connection and am super pleased you did. I do immediately see the connections now that you have built the bridge. Amazing and wonderful! Thank you for showing me.
    Blogging is a gift because it connects me to people like you!

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  21. Walking My Path: Mindful Wanderings in Nature says:

    IHi Annette,
    I love sand play! I have been to one training on it, have done it for myself, but never invested in more training or all the figurines. I was the clinical supervisor at an out patient facility and one of my therapists there used it. I loved supervising her because she was a person to really explore the symbology, which I LOVE! I love your photos here, and the interpretations. I love working with metaphors in Nature, which are endless. They always magically show up. Fascinating! Thank you for the link to this post.
    Peace
    Mary

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Walking My Path: Mindful Wanderings in Nature says:

    And I love what you called this – Windows into the inner Sanctum. Also – didn’t mean to put an I before your name in the above comment.🙂

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