Anyone ready to look at their dark side? It’s not a place many of us like to go. Let’s be honest. We prefer to think of ourselves as the good side, light-workers, healers, at the vanguard of a shift in consciousness. I’m listening to an online workshop with Carolyn Myss and Andrew Harvey exploring the Shadow. As I listened to this week’s episode (week 2, Shadow in Personal Relationship) Caroline Myss asserted that everything in life is an extension of our shadow and nothing happens without being driven archetypally. We either become conscious and own it, recognise it and use it to help us remain humble or it will reek havoc as we unconsciously act it out or project it on to others. I was reminded of William Shakespeare’s lines from As You Like It (Act II, Scene vii) “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.”
Imagine. Most of us are operating at a level where we think the performance is real. We take on the roles, rejecting some parts, embracing others. Projecting our shadow onto others, judging and condemning the wrong-doers. All the time believing that the character we’ve created – our personality – is the director of the play. I mean, we are in control right? And the show must go on. We remain oblivious to the fact that there are other characters – subpersonalities Assagioli called them – also participating in our show uninvited, rejected, avoided, denied. Archetypal shadows undermining our performance, tripping us up, catching us unaware. It is not until we can embrace our darkness as well as our light that we can truly become all that we can possibly be. All that we were born to be.
It also brought to mind one of my all time favourite Rumi quotes:
My life journey and my work is dedicated to finding this field. There. I’ve said it. Committed it to writing! Until I find it, I cannot rest, for there will always be work to be done.
Not everyone likes to talk about what’s bothering them. Sometimes it’s hard to think your way out of a situation when no obvious solution presents itself. Expressive therapies bring the opportunity to explore the psyche in a creative and playful way.
So many of us seem to lose our ability to engage our imagination and creativity. We decry our situation in life, and wonder why we have lost our sense of passion and purpose. Expressive Therapies provide an alternative way of engaging with the issues. A different way of viewing our life situation. A creative way of exploring the options open to us as we move forward, allowing our imagination, our intuition, and our creativity to flow again.
I offer my clients weekly sessions in which we might engage in activities such as drawing, painting, writing, visualising, meditating, movement, listening to or making music, empathetic role-play, sand-play or symbol work which allow you to explore your inner landscape in ways that traditional talk therapy doesn’t. Each of these expressive activities has its own unique therapeutic benefit and use depending on the client, the setting, the situation and the objectives set as desired outcomes. We talk. I listen with an open-mind and an empathetic stance as we look to find the luminous space beyond right and wrong where fresh ideas emerge.
For a deeper exploration of the history, theory and practice of expressive therapies I recommend reading “Using Expressive Arts to Work With Mind, Body and Emotion” by Mark Pearson and Helen Wilson available to order here or Cathy Malchiodi’s book “Expressive Therapies” Available on Amazon
Sandplay is deceptively simple to the untrained eye. After all, what could be complicated about putting a few miniature figures in a sandtray? Perhaps adding water or moving the sand to form hills and valleys? Maybe moving the figures around and creating a narrative about what’s happening? And yet, so complex in its ability to have a profound effect on people’s wellbeing. Research has shown that it can have a profound healing effect in the lives of both adults and children. In the therapy room there will always be a tray, perhaps even two (one wet and one dry). The tray is always blue on the inside, with proportions constructed precisely to enable the person standing in front of it to observe the whole scene without moving or having to look from side to side. Why blue on the inside? To represent sky or water. Only natural coloured sand is used and preferably fine-grade. Some things are tactile and need to be experienced.
If you have a memory as a child of playing on a sunny day, on a beach with sand and water then you will know that it can transport you into another world. A sensory, three-dimensional representation of the client’s current situation represented by the symbols they’ve chosen. Verbal expression is always optional. The therapist might ask the client: “is there anything you’d like to tell me about what you’ve created here?”. This is a client-centred therapy. And yet, Sandplay therapy is so much more than simply sand and play.
Developed in the 1950s and 1960s by Swiss Jungian psychoanalyst, Dora Kalff (1904 – 1990) Sandplay has its roots in Jungian therapy. Kalff studied with Carl Jung himself, as well as spending a year with London-based child psychiatrist Margaret Lowenfield who had developed a therapy known as the World Technique in her efforts to help children express themselves on difficult topics, which in turn drew inspiration from the observations of author H. G. Wells who wrote about watching his sons play with miniature figures and seeming to resolve their difficulties through what he called Floor Games. Kalff had a fascination with Eastern spirituality which she incorporated into her work. She hosted Tibetan monks at her home in Zurich when they had been exiled from their homeland by the Chinese annexation in the early 1950s. When parents saw the positive outcomes in her work with their children, they requested personal sessions for themselves and her work was extended to include adults. Kalff saw Sandplay as a non-verbal therapeutic means of reaching the central core of being, what Jungians call the Self. Life is journey of “Self” discovery and the path to achieving this is known as the individuation process. Sandplay therapy is a vehicle to support the process of individuation and becoming whole.
Jungian therapists believe that, given the right circumstances, the psyche’s natural tendency is to seek balance and healing. The tools for this healing lie within us, if we are willing to give ourselves the chance to find them. The three-dimensional nature of Sandplay touches and opens parts of the psyche that talking alone cannot. It is hands-on therapeutic work, where the client is given the opportunity to spend time reflecting and engaging with both conscious and subconscious issues. Sometimes a client will chose a symbol but then say: “I have no idea what that is or what it’s doing there!”. Through Sandplay, the client is expressing something non-verbally, that they are unable to access intellectually. And yet there it is, being included and witnessed as part of their creation.
The therapist’s role is to hold a space, as a silent witness to the unfolding creation, what Kalff called a “free and protected” space. The walls of the Sandplay therapist’s office are often filled with miniature figurines and objects from nature, fantasy and daily life. The client choses figures from the shelves and places them in the tray. As soon as an object is chosen it becomes a symbol or as Jung would say “it becomes alive with meaning” for the client. A red rose could hold significance in different ways to different people: perhaps romance? Perhaps a wedding? A funeral? Or a garden? A gift? thorns? petals? A rose garden? In Spring time? In Summer time? Or the last Autumn rose?
All symbols hold the tension of opposites. They represent the multitude of options available to our psyches. This symbolic language, activated by the simple action of picking an object (or many) to place in the tray, triggers different ways of thinking, seeing, touching, believing on multiple levels in the client. These symbols help us to reconcile the opposites within our psyche, the good, the bad, the rejected, the accepted, the things we love, the things we hate. They are a bridge between our conscious and unconscious mind.
The client’s psyche responds to the Sandplay creation. It reconciles and realigns itself in accordance to what it sees, what it touches, what it senses. Neurological changes occur as the client places these symbolic figurines, as they shape and move the sand itself, rearrange and observe their own creative work. This deceptively simple process opens us up to something new and creative. The client has moved from the left-brain of logic, linear, rational thinking, into engagement with the right-brain activities of imagination and intuition. When both come together there is a liminal space, a gateway, where reality and fantasy meet and something new can emerge. Just as the dream-state at night gives us access to our unconscious inner world, so do the various symbols engaged in the Sandplay session.
The therapist’s role is not to interpret on behalf of the client, to interfere with, or direct the client’s Sandplay in any way. It is simply to be empathetic, receptive, accepting and allow the client time and space to meet and work with the material that emerges from their own psyche into the tray. By moving away from expecting the therapist to be the expert, Sandplay empowers the client to bring their own insights, their own revelations and their own reflections on what has emerged in their Sandplay session. The client might wish to speak about their experience of the process, their creation and their observations. The trained Sandplay therapist supports the process with an invitational and open stance, but doesn’t direct the conversation or put any interpretation on what the client has chosen.
In my personal experience, the only way to truly understand this simple yet complex therapeutic work is to participate in your own Sandplay process. A commitment to a series of trays over a period of weeks can bring a significant insights and be truly transformational. But don’t take my word for it – come and play!