- “In the hands of a properly prepared therapist, sandplay is a powerful, invaluable modality. The operative word is ‘powerful.’ To the extent that any method can heal, so can it do harm.”
- — Dora M. Kalff
To my friends John and Sara, it looked like an ordinary tray filled with sand. On the shelves of a bookcase beside the small table supporting the sandbox were hundreds of small figures, or, as John referred to them, toys. The home office belonged to John’s cousin, Laura. “Go ahead,” Laura said to them, gesturing at both the tray of sand and the bookcase lined with figures. “Pick a few items and put them in there. Have fun with it.”
“Why did she have a sandbox?” I asked. “Does she have kids or something?”
“No, she’s a therapist,” John explained. He sat in my living room, sipping a cup of espresso and relaying tales from a week spent out of town. “She specializes in a certain kind of therapy called sandplay.”
I’d never heard of such a thing. With an inquisitive raise of my brows, I gestured for John to continue.
The mood in the room that night had been casual, he said: there’d been a married couple; John and Sara, who were visiting family; Laura, the cousin who was a psychologist; a bottle of wine; and a room filled with eye-catching objects.
John dresses fashionably in torn jeans and has a collection of unique eyeglasses. He rearranges his furniture frequently and redesigns his facial hair as often as it allows.
On a shelf he’d spotted a statuette of the Little Prince — his favorite childhood storybook character. In Saint-Exupéry’s story, the Little Prince is the master of his own planet. John laughed as he told me how he relates to this character — how he loves nothing more than to be the center of attention, with spontaneity and chaos swirling around him. When he and Sara are out together, John’s charisma glows bright, and the gravitational pull of his personality can clearly be felt. In such situations, Sara seems content to engage in bits of small talk along the periphery.
John plucked the figurine off the shelf and placed it on the sand at the center of the tray.
In contrast to John, Sara’s world is one of order, schedules, and control. She dresses in elegant, minimalist black pantsuits and has worked tirelessly to win promotions at her company, where she is a middle-management training executive. There was a time when John had been the breadwinner, but it is now Sara who brings home the dough.
While Sara contemplated her choices, John used his finger to draw a circle in the sand around his prince. By the time Sara had chosen three items — a plastic Cinderella, a miniature oven, and a paper sheet of play money — John had added two rings around the first.
As the three adults chatted casually about dinner plans, Sara set the Cinderella and stove on the sand near an edge of the tray, then, using the dollar bill, she began to smooth the surface, starting near her objects and moving slowly toward the center of the box, exerting order over the randomness of the sand, until she had leveled half of John’s rings.
“That’s when she said it,” John told me. I leaned forward. “Laura looked at what Sara and I had done in the sand and said, ‘You guys have some serious problems.’” John let out a long breath, sat back in his chair, and rubbed his chin.
He explained that although he and Sara had been growing farther apart in recent years, before their encounter with the sand, they had not yet acknowledged the problem, let alone addressed it. As a result of what had transpired in that room, John announced, he and Sara were now considering a trial separation.
I couldn’t get my head around the idea that toys in sand might have a tangible impact on real life. I’ve dabbled with therapy — a psychologist here, a pill dispenser there — but never have I come into contact with anything like what John described. I like toys; sand, not so much. Still, my curiosity was piqued.
Through online research I found that sandplay therapy was developed in Switzerland, in the 1950s, by Jungian therapist Dora Kalff. At the time, Carl Jung’s “analytical psychology” (analysis of both the unconscious and conscious mind) was the hot new method for helping emotionally ill people achieve a sense of well-being.
Beyond that, the words on the screen were a labyrinth of indecipherable psychobabble. I required a translator. I found one in Encinitas — Peggy McCarthy, PhD, and licensed psychologist. On her professional profile, she listed sandplay as one of her specialties, the other being dream therapy, yet another branch of Jungian psychology.
I visited McCarthy at her office one sunny afternoon. She was dressed business casual, in pants and a loose-fitting shirt, and wore her shoulder-length flaxen hair down. Her smile was relaxed and natural.
“Jung and his ideas sort of fell out of favor when the whole behavioral [therapy] thing came along,” she said. “But there’s still a small core of us [Jungians]. What happens in psychology throughout history is that we go from ‘We have a soul’ to ‘We don’t have a soul.’ The zeitgeist swings. ‘We have a soul’ is Freud, Jung, that deep, dark psyche. ‘We don’t have a soul’ is behavioral: we react to things that happen in our world. It would not surprise me in the least if we swung back again.”
Against one wall of her office several bookshelves were populated with figurines. McCarthy pulled a tray out from a white cabinet. The tray itself was a rectangle, about two feet by one foot, and three inches deep. The interior was painted blue, and there was much more sand than I expected. McCarthy explained that the blue was meant to look like water, so that people could move the sand around, creating the shape of an island, or shoreline.