In my blog last week I started describing my experience at a workshop on using sandplay in therapy. A workshop that emphasised the experiential can be powerful on many levels, and last week I hopefully got across how inspired the workshop has left me to use this creative process more often in my therapy and also, how it touched me deeply. It felt like a timely reminder of some of my experiences on retreat, reminding me of what I ‘know’ deep within but needed reminding of.
Day 2 of the workshop was equally profound: we created another 2 trays. We also discussed some of the theory behind the sandplay process, considering as to why it might take clients deeper than conventional talking therapies.
Sandtray 3: Family of origin
When we arrived at the venue Sunday morning, Jill asked if we were ready to go deeper. Having shared at check-in how much the previous day’s work had affected our personal process (and even visited our dream world that night), of course there was a resounding “yes!”. When Jill gave us the working theme for the morning tray, our enthusiasm shifted a little: intuitively, we knew ‘show your family of origin’ was going to unleash some skeletons…that ended up being quite literal for me (as you will note in the shopping trolley in the photo).
During my therapy training, my weekly therapy had been uncovering the dynamic of my childhood years. I consider myself having had a “happy childhood”, and I still feel blessed to have had a loving family environment: one in which my parents did their very best for me and my brother, and one in which I knew my grandparents. Today, when I encounter the stories of my clients and their worlds, I see how much pain comes from not having good starts in life and families in which they are given the environment to find their feet. Yet even in ‘happy families’, relational dynamics can never meet the developing child’s needs perfectly. As Winnicott explained, the best we can hope for is ‘good enough’ attunement.
The focus of the photo from my tray is Little Helen up on the podium. I was the ‘blonde, blue-eyed’ golden child in many respects. Yet the pressure to stay up on the podium encouraged a deeply engrained patterning that has proved hard to shift. The strategy I developed was to become a Little Owl: my love of learning was nourished as a child by my paternal Grandma (see the little owl to the right of the tray?), and this became the way I thrived. My brother found sport, so I couldn’t take that route for attention and praise – it was taken. I did try later though! Mum and Dad were caring parents, they were also caring children to their parents – and when my maternal grandparents died, there was a sense that I lost my parents too. My Mum to her deep grief, my Dad to his care of my Mum. I also lost my brother, as he turned to his sport more and more as a teenager. My books kept me company.
Nothing went wrong here. This simply happened at a time when I was sensitive to needing contact and the confidence in becoming the adult Helen. I felt different to my family of origin: I was the first to go to University, and whilst my family supported, encouraged and were very proud of me, they didn’t quite ‘get’ my life or who I was becoming. As Jill asked me about my tray, the loss I had experienced in my life became figural. There is nothing we can do to ‘defend’ against this loss. The best we can do is share this vulnerability and stay open to the sorrow. This vulnerability is the common denominator of being a human. I still carry feelings of my ‘aloneness’ in the world (as I shared a few weeks ago). My path is watching for when aloneness ‘contracts’ in to loneliness and I begin telling myself a story that this is deserved – that people left me because I was wrong or bad. The tray brought up a lot of sadness, and I sat the rest of that morning with a tender heart.
Sandtray 4: family and support now
Jill was well aware that the ‘family tray’ had impacted the group energy. I was noticing in myself a familiar response – I wanted an afternoon of theory: to go in to my intellect is a safe haven. So when Jill offered another tray, I felt challenged. But it turned out to be the very best thing for me – the task to show ‘the family and support network you have created in the present day’ provided a perfect antidote if you like.
This was a relatively straight forward task for me; as I am currently connected to how much of ‘the good life’ there is for me right now. I am the most content in who I am I have ever been; and added to that, I have external conditions that I have worked hard to create. In fact recently, I have been tuned in to a sense of ‘having arrived’ in my life. This tray illustrates that: I know how to take care of myself (symbolised by the little wood up on the hill); I am deeply connected and grateful for my spiritual path (the Buddha, unicorn and laughing buddha); I have a beautiful set of friends (the brightly coloured marbles, each colour being one of my ‘special people’); a wonderfully rewarding work (the team of wise old owls with whom I work at the University); and then the things I love to do (the owl as the student in me, the drumming Animal, the bike I take out on coffee shop rides, a bottle of wine and tricolour marble representing my love of France). And finally centre stage, the home I have created with my partner. We marry very soon, and I feel blessed to have built a relationship in which we can practice our values and feel supported – we bring out the star in one another.
Looking over this tray, even now as I write, I feel deeply grateful for my life. This is not to say it is doesn’t come without challenge – alongside the gratitude there is an acknowledgement that this is an interesting transition for me. Post-retreat, questions of meaningfulness arise not uncommon to the person in mid-life. And it is with an appropriate use of Jung’s synchronicity that I feel I have met his work at this time in my life.
Since attending this weekend, the relevance of using sandplay and figures has been at the forefront of my attention as I meet with clients. A couple of clients have been intrigued by the appearance of shelving containing play figures (recently released from their storage boxes), and their curiosity has paved the way to some enlightening work together. They, like me, are discovering that we carry ‘a sense’ of our lives that can’t immediately be articulated – but letting go in to play brings things out of awareness in to the light…and with that, ANYTHING becomes workable.