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The Sands of Mind : Therapy Developed by Jung Used to Solve Modern Problems

About 90 years ago, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung got into a fight and broke up. Like troubled lovers, the psychiatrists had irreconcilable differences about major issues, such as the nature of the libido.

The split so devastated Jung that he retreated to his home in Switzerland, too crushed to do anything but mope. One day, while walking along the shores of a nearby lake, the famous analyst sat down and started playing in the sand.

He felt immensely better.

The analyst’s unorthodox antidote to depression spawned a serious therapeutic technique that might well make someone from the Midwest scream, “Only in California!”

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So-called “sandplay” has been a boon in helping La Jolla therapist Serena Jerome with clients who are confronting repressed emotions such as anger, hostility and fear.

“Jung said you cannot be whole until you confront every side of yourself . . . and that includes the dark side,” she said.

But the therapist is the first to admit that “anything but traditional therapy may be pretty far out to a lot of people.”

Resolve your neuroses while playing in the sand? Stodgy Freud never would have approved. And, although sandplay therapy sounds simplistic, it is actually a lot more complex than building castles at the beach, say Jungian psychiatrists, therapists and analysts who employ the technique.

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Many of them will gather at a national conference this fall in St. Paul, Minn., sponsored by the Sandplay Therapists of America.

Clients who visit Jerome’s office work in a shallow, 2-by-2 foot sandbox. They begin by selecting toys from nearly a thousand that line the shelves and a cabinet in her small office.

The collection includes a fire-breathing monster, dolls with grimaces as well as smiles and several kinds of angels. There are also computers, clowns, clocks, typewriters, animals, plants, furniture, baseballs, bats and musical instruments. They all symbolize something to psychiatrists, therapists and counselors who use sandplay.

Once the items have been chosen, it’s time to work--or play, as the therapist sees it. Clients can push the sand around, put it in a big pile in one corner, or even pour water on it. Then they toss the toys wherever they feel they should go, using as many or as few as they like during the 50-minute session.

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Different quadrants of the sand “tray,” as it is called, stand for different parts of the conscious and unconscious. The upper left-hand corner symbolizes the inner soul, and the lower right-hand corner signifies daily life. The bottom of the box is colored blue for water, which symbolizes potential to Jungians.

Some people finish their trays in 10 minutes, whereas others take the full hour. Jerome learns a lot about her clients by watching how they create. Some clients enjoy pushing the sand around, others will barely touch it. Most begin by putting lots of toys in the box, and use fewer as they near the end of therapy, she said.

When the playing is over, Jerome analyzes the sand tray using Jungian symbols and archetypes to draw her conclusions, as well as asking her clients for their interpretations. She photographs the tray, then keeps the pictures on hand until the client has had enough sessions to resolve whatever conflict or crisis prompted him or her to seek help.

Most people create 10 to 20 trays before they feel finished, Jerome said. Because sandplay is an expressive form of therapy, it’s up to the client to determine when he or she feels the necessary work is done, although the therapist can offer help and advice.

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Myra Hoffman was a quick study at sandplay.

After completing nine trays with Jerome, Hoffman said she felt relieved and relaxed, but she braved some deep feelings before getting to that level.

At one point, while working on a sand tray, she placed an evil-looking pair of dolls in the box. During subsequent sessions, she chose them over and over again. The couple signified the masculine and feminine sides of her personality, she eventually realized. Hoffman felt the two sides needed to do battle before they could be integrated into her psyche.

“When I first put them in the tray, I felt an incredible wave of emotion. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I felt like I was going to throw up,” she said.

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Two days after finishing her final sandbox, she called the therapist and explained that she felt she had subconsciously resolved the problems she faced when she began sandplay.

“I feel definite shifts in my body,” said Hoffman, a holistic health practitioner who completed her work with Jerome last month. “Something has changed. . . . I feel like some knots have been untied inside me.”

Sandplay is serious stuff to the Jungian analysts, psychologists and counselors who use it to help people resolve internal conflicts in a nonverbal way. Unlike traditional therapy, which Freud called “the talking cure,” sandplay works on the client’s unconscious through other forms of expression. Art, music, dance and psychodrama are all so-called expressive therapies that can trace their roots to Jung’s beliefs.

“Sandplay is a nonverbal, nonrational form of therapy that reaches a profound, pre-verbal level of the psyche,” said Susan MacNofsky, one of about half a dozen therapists in San Diego who are trained in sandplay. The goal, she said, is to integrate the “mind and heart, body and soul” of the patient.

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MacNofsky believes that sandplay can heal emotional trauma that might have occurred before her clients were old enough to talk. Some of her clients, for example, were sexually molested at an early age, even as babies or toddlers. People can express feelings for which they may not have words through the toys they choose and they way they play in the sand, she said.

“Picture a very deep wound. . . . People can work on it, and clean it out and bandage it, and maybe it will heal,” she said. “But still there’s an infection. Sandplay offers a way to get into the very deepest part of the wound and clean that out.”

MacNofsky has studied under Dora Kalff, the analyst who created sandplay based on Jung’s sand experiences. Although MacNofsky has done more traditional types of therapy with her clients, she now devotes her practice almost entirely to sandplay.

Like Jerome, MacNofsky is an artist as well as a therapist. Both women have degrees in marriage, family and child counseling and art therapy.

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Many people who come to MacNofsky for sandplay therapy consider it a last-ditch effort to resolve problems on which other forms of therapy have failed. Jerome prefers to think of sandplay as advanced therapy for those who want to learn more about themselves.

Sandplay was Myra Hoffman’s first experience with formal therapy. She had a basic background in psychology and self-expression based on self-help books she had read and conferences she had attended. Her boyfriend is a psychologist as well. She compared her sand-tray work to going on an archeological dig for repressed parts of her personality.

“In verbal therapy, I probably would have worked myself to death,” she said. “To be able to bring to the conscious mind things you may never be able to do in verbal therapy is tremendous.”

Not only can sandplay help an adult resolve serious issues such as Oedipal conflicts or repressed anger, Jungians say, but the therapy itself is so fun, it helps people uncover their creative potential.

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“It’s helping the adult rediscover the magical child within them,” Jerome said. “I see so many adults being so serious and so stressed out. By freeing that inner child, it also frees creativity, it relieves stress, and they discover that this child is helpful in relieving stress and helping with career decisions.”


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