The Hands in Sand: A Reconnection with Spirit

6 March 2016

By Dr Celia van Wyk


To work with any raw unprocessed material, is to experience a totally different dimension, feeling and intensity than that of the finished product. What happens during any single seemingly simple process can be visualised as a lively interactive network of sending, receiving and processing with numerous connections and correlations, almost like a psychic manufacturing mill. This is certainly true when we observe the modality of sandplay therapy. In the case of sand work there are multiple connections, interactions and pressures between the client, his or her hands and body, the brain, thought processes, feelings, emotions, consciousness, the unconscious and the sand. The natural effects of these intense interdependent operations promote movement, energy and transformation of the psyche during the process.

Add to this the transference and counter-transference aspect between the client and the therapist, and the motivation towards change is phenomenal. In her dissertation entitled, “An Investigation of the Impact of Sandplay Therapy on Mental Health Status and Resiliency Attitudes in Mexican Farmworker Women, ”Mejia(2004), referred
specifically to the client-therapist-sand part of the dynamic as follows: “Like the alchemical vessel, the tray within the relationship between the person and the therapist contains and intensifies the heat and pressure so that change can occur.”(p. 18).

What particularly actives these processes are the natural boundaries of the sand tray, and the presence of the well-trained therapist. Both serve to protect what is transpiring within the tray. Within this containment there is free flow, freedom, the “let go” aspect, referred to as “free to do what one wants. “The aspect of protection extends to include the room where therapy takes place.

The main elements in sandplay are the client, the therapist and the sand. When a client only makes use of sand as matter in the therapy process, the psychic confrontation is
direct and intense.

 This can be seen in the sandplay process of Nic * (pseudonym), a 57 year old male, who entered therapy saying he “hated women.” Nic was married twice and divorced twice. He said with his first marriage it was as if he married his mother. That was the reason why he divorced this wife. Sadly, he repeated the same pattern with the
second woman he took as his wife. However, this time he said his wife was a “more intense version of my mother.” Nic divorced her, too.

When Nic entered my room in early February, I was the first woman he had a conversation with in a very long time. It took him a couple of months to finally gather the nerves to book an appointment with me (a woman) after his medical care provider referred him for depression and emotional imbalance issues. He was so desperate at this point,
that he finally gathered the courage to book the appointment.

One of the first things Nic told me during the clinical background interview was that since he can remember, from the moment he opened his eyes, his mother “trampled on him until nothing was left” (of him). He said she yelled at him constantly. The underlying sadness in his voice hovered in the room.

It was fascinating that the moment Nic put his hands in the sand a visible change went through his whole being. With both hands he made slow, flowing movements through the sand, back and forth, from side to side. In a soft, riveting voice, he said: “This is a very pleasant experience.” It was as if he was talking to himself. These movements and motions carried on for more than 10 minutes, when Nic looked up from the tray and told me that he was done. I could only then trust my own breathing again and exhaled slowly.

The instant, visible connection between sand, psyche, emotions and hands was remarkable.

This is evident in the prominent handprint he left in his tray. Picture 1: Session 1

 Picture 1

According to Eliade (1991) symbols act like masks, and one must look behind them to find the true meaning. At the same time symbols remain in touch with the reality of the psyche. The function of the symbol remains the same, even though the aspect of it may change. This is also true about images in sand without miniatures. Ammann (1991) reasoned that adults and children need empty spaces to give shape to what is going on in their inner worlds. 

When I asked Nic about any associations he might have had, he said: “This creates calmness and peace, the experience of the sand, the feeling of it.” He then referred to the slow, flowing, thoughtful movements he made, and said: “The patterns (that formed in the sand) are actually very nice, interesting, and extremely symmetrical. Please forgive me, but this is what I am longing for now. This is a connection with eternity, beyond anything we know; beyond anything written up in books.” He then continued by talking about the experience of the grains of sand: “I am feeling more intensely on my skin. I experience a feeling of nurturing, quietness with my “self,” confrontation with my “self”.” Was this what Nic longed for from his mother all his years as her child? Just by touching the sand some clients are reminded of the gentle or tender touch of a nurturing figure, or lack of. When touching the sand clients are reminded of their great desire to be touched (Ammann 1991). 

It is interesting that this was only our second therapy session together and I had not mentioned the words “nurture” and “self” with him at all. Nic continued his associations saying: “But I almost have a feeling that I want to run away from this. And I think this may have to do with the fact that I may not experience pleasurable things. How do I get myself to experience nice and pleasurable things and to enjoy it?” The tone in his voice at this point sounded almost desperate.

What we gather from Nic’s explanation, is a mixture of feeling, emotion and thought. Clearly Nic had experienced the safety and freedom that allowed this new awareness to emerge. Because Nic had the freedom of choice to do what he wanted in the sand within the boundaries of the free and protected space, he felt in control of his process on a conscious level. On an unconscious level the psyche was free to direct the process and led him to a profound reconnection with the nurturing of the mother archetype.

In sandplay the client uses his hands and body to mould, form, manipulate and structure the sand, facilitating an intense and direct confrontation with the Self. We can discern different levels of psychic work by looking at how the surface of the sand was structured and by the amount of time the client spent actively working or sculpting the sand. In Nic’s subsequent three trays we can see this change in levels of psychic work.

Picture 2

Picture 2 indicates work on a not-so-deep, more conscious level. This can be seen in the light formation patterns in the sand, the “feeling” thereof and the atmosphere experienced in the room felt by the therapist. Although the patterns seem strong and more penetrated, it is of a more symmetric quality that just breaks the surface of the sand. The feeling experienced by me was a combination of flowing movement and intense joy, an analogy of a farmland prepared. He was preparing the soil for something better to come. The atmosphere in the room seemed filled with moving energy, and it was lovely to be part of it.

Picture 3

Picture 3 shows psychic work that reaches a deeper level than observed in Session 2. This prepares him for the much deeper work that follows. In this tray Nic worked more intensely in the dry sand. Here the hands penetrated to a deeper layer well below the surface. The sand looks more heavily ploughed and rough.  The medieval queen in the tray also indicates work on this deeper level. This queen is from the Middle Ages. She is royal, a higher figure that is not on his level; she is distant. Nic was overcome by emotion after his work in this tray and sobbed uncontrollably for a while. He grieved the loss of his mother and the lack of nurturing he experienced as a child.  I asked him if he would like to spend some alone-time with his tray, and he nodded. I left the room quietly. Nic exit the sand room after about 5 minutes, saying nothing. I sensed that something had change in there; was it the start of an inner acceptance of what never was or could be? I recall sitting with the tray, experiencing a powerful intensity and strong emotion in it, indicating psychic work on a deeper level.

Picture 4

In Session 4 Nic’s psychic work plunges to a deep unconscious level that is more intense and possibly more frightening than the levels in Sessions 2 and 3. Nic worked deeply and powerfully in this tray. His hands moved with intensity. The sand surface is rough, with a strong feeling of movement taking place underneath the surface, as if something buried needs to rise. The tray is filled with pain, as if he had touched something very deep. I felt so honoured to witness this. At first glance such a tray may appear empty, where in fact there is so much going on.

In raw sandwork there is a direct confrontation with the issues that creates the groundwork upon which the new ego-Self structure will come to form. This groundwork is followed by the phases of healing and transformation. This includes various combinations of confronting obstacles, opening new pathways and unfolding patterns of potential and possibility. Each sandplay tells the story of the psyche’s movement toward wholeness. In Nic’s work this appears as elements of a landscape, or a farmland being prepared for sowing and reaping where he allows himself to be free, to authentically align the ego to the Self.

The sand surface may also indicate strong emotional reactions, or energies moving powerfully in a certain direction. Turner (2005) describes the active and deep engagement of clients’ formations and patterns in their sand work as carrying significant psychic energy, which may emerge in the form of recognisable figures and farmlands.

Picture 5

In session 5 Nic’s process shows an upward curve towards consciousness. This can be seen by the figurines he placed on the surface of the sand, as well as by the structure and level of activity of the sand. The female veterinarian is now on the same human level as him. Here she helps him to form a healing connection with his inner feminine aspect, the anima. She is capable of nurturing and healing. Now they join together in a cooperative, life supporting manner that had previously been blocked by a negative mother complex. They are surrounded with trees symbolising the promise of growth, as well as by a “field of hearts” he shaped with his hands in the sand. Together they can now go into the world in a loving, healthy way.

With proper containment by the therapist, the client may do profound psychic work through the manipulation and shaping the sand, using no figures at all. Steinhardt (2013) says it well in her book “On becoming a Jungian Sandplay Therapist”: “Finally, we feel comfortable with the connection of matter and spirit, and are less afraid of difficult issues that arise, which the Self makes us aware of, because we are stronger” (p. 137). As we have seen in Nic’s work, this serves as a powerful reminder of the depth of the psychic work that occurs when the client works the sand. The spirit enters the sand, the fundamental matter of sandplay. Through the guidance of the Self, the psyche is moved and shaped through the operation of the hands. Embodied being is thereby re-shaped and transformed, enabling a qualitatively re-formed way of living in the world.


Ammann, R. (1991). Healing and Transformation in Sandplay. Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company

Eliade, M. (1991). Images and Symbols. New Yersey: Princeton University Press

Steinhardt, L. F. (2013). On becoming a Jungian Sandplay Therapist. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Turner, B. A. (2005). The Handbook of Sandplay Therapy.  California: Temenos Press

Mejia, X. E. (2004).Sandplay procedures.

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