Sandplay Therapy – Open-Eyed Trance

Many clients new to hypnotherapy are surprised to discover that going into a hypnotic state is a skill. Some clients find it is a challenge to allow themselves to “let go” into the altered state. Moving into a guided trance requires the clients to trust both themselves and the hypnotherapist; and developing that trust can take time. There is usually also a need for the hypnotherapist to educate the client about the myths and misconceptions of hypnosis so once the client is engaged in the trance experience he will have an educated basis for determining if he has achieved a hypnotic state. This preparation and education phase can take several sessions and some experimentation with hypnotic techniques and approaches before a client experiences success.

Over the twenty-five years I have trained hypnotherapists and worked with individual clients, I have sought out many alternatives to formal hypnotic inductions as a way to assist clients in working with their subconscious resources for transformation and healing. I strive to empower and support clients who find it difficult to trust themselves and their experience (or lack of experience) in the hypnotic state and commonly suggest to them early on in the therapy alternative approaches to working in trance states. One approach which proves to be evocative, playful, highly creative and is completely self-guided by the client is Sandplay Therapy. Originally developed by Margaret Lowenfeld in the 1930’s for use with children in play therapy, sandplay therapy is currently used with adults, families, corporations and communities. Sandplay therapy is empowering, self-directive and gentle–yet deeply propelling as a transformational vehicle.

In the traditional form of sandplay therapy the therapist provides a waterproof tray approximately 18″ wide x 28″ long x 3″ deep painted blue on the bottom and sides. The tray is half- filled with fine high-grade sand and the therapy room is equipped with shelves which hold a myriad of aesthetic, quality miniature figures. Included in a collection are small trees, plants and people from all races, cultures and periods of history; prehistoric, wild and domesticated animals from all over the world; materials from nature such as rocks, moss, shells, crystals, wood, driftwood and pine cones; and marbles, beads and baubles. A collection also includes toy cars, trains, boats, planes, wagons and other vehicles of travel; cross cultural spiritual and archetypal figures, symbols and icons; as well as miniature figures and objects from daily life. Structures and dwellings from all historical periods and cultures, bridges, fences, towers, and caves are represented in the collection as well as cartoon and fantasy figures that are common in our culture. For the most part, the figures are to scale in relation to the size of each other and the tray of sand.

In the traditional sandplay process the client creates a series of scenes or worlds in the sand by sculpting the dry or wet sand and placing the objects chosen from the shelves in the tray. The therapist’s role is to provide, as Dora Kalff emphasizes in her book Sandplay, a “free and protected space” and to support the client in dealing with any content or emotions that the sandplay evokes. In the traditional approach, the therapist has little or no interaction during the session and provides no interpretation of the tray, but rather waits until the full series of the trays has been completed. At a later time the therapist shows he client slides or videos of the trays in sequence as a map of the client’s healing, integration and individuation process.

Sandplay approaches have evolved over the years to be used as an interactive process similar to hypnotherapy. In this more active approach, sandplay can be used for inner child work, parts therapy, dream work, past life therapy, problem solving, anchoring, learning and memory enhancement. A client’s organizing of the figures in the tray is a metaphor for reorganizing one’s consciousness. Clients may move figures around to tell a narrative story or use voice dialogue in psychodrama as figures tell their personal stories. In contrast to the private inner experience of hypnotherapy however, the symbolic work is created outside the client in full view.

When the client is a child, sandplay therapy is especially appropriate. A child relates to the world primarily through his body and sandplay gives the child the opportunity to engage in the therapeutic process in an active kinesthetic way. He can “show” rather than “tell” and allow the subconscious feelings and experiences to spontaneously emerge through play. The “hypnosis” happens in front of the child in the sand, rather than only within the child, giving both the client and therapist access what to before was information or content which was most likely inexpressible by the child. It is the process of engaging in the creative play which is healing. Expressing through symbols, personal maps of experience, metaphors or stories allows the client to become a witness to himself and give him a concrete and direct experience that he is the creator of his own world or experience. Simply observing one’s own process in the box of sand can be tremendously releasing and freeing, giving the client perspective and an experience of not being the problem, but witnessing the problem.

Very much like in hypnosis, sandplay engages the power of suggestion. If a client creates an experience of a potential solution to a problem in the sand, the solution becomes imprinted as a future positive response for the client in his daily life. The memory of the tray or a photo of the creation becomes a post-hypnotic anchor or cue not only for the potential solution to a problem, but also gives the client a way to emotionally have a new and positive relationship to the problem.

Also, sandplay, like hypnotherapy, induces the client into an altered state of consciousness where the subconscious mind becomes a active player and resource in the therapeutic dance. The self-directed ritual of preparing the sand, choosing the objects and focusing on creating the scene in the sand functions very much like a hypnotic induction and deepening process where the subconscious is more accessible. As in non-directive hypnotherapy, when creating the sandtray the client may choose to focus on a specific issue or concern or to allow the subconscious to spontaneously guide the focus of the session and the focus of the tray. Often a client will have no conscious awareness of what he is creating until he sits back to take in his scene in the tray.

Most importantly, sandplay is highly creative, even for people who believe they aren’t creative and it is deliciously fun. Creating sandtrays bring to the forefront issues that need transformation and assist the client in accessing the healing source from within.

Holly Holmes-Meredith is a Doctor of Ministry and a licensed Marriage family Therapist who trains hypnotherapists at HCH Institute in Lafayette CA. Learn more about hypnosis and its many therapeutic uses by reading her other blogs on Past life Therapy, Spirit Releasement Therapy, Manifesting your dreams and more.