Sand Therapy – Dreams made Visible

by  June Atherton

One of the prime benefits of sand therapy is that we see the invisible. It is made visible for us by what the client, who is the designer, has done in the sand tray. Everything is spontaneous three dimensional conscious responses to an inner unconscious voice. Unlike dreams which are often only fleetingly recalled we have a graphic and, if we wish, a photographic record of the inner unconscious material of the client. The arrangements we make in the tray are themselves healing. It is very important to remember this because they do not need your interpretation or mine to be absorbed into the consciousness. Nor do they need interpretation to reorder and balance the psyche. Dreams heal whether we recall them or not and they have their own messages absorbed in our waking life. They are speaking to us in a different language but they are a response to what is going on in our unconscious. Sand therapy heals in the same and even more graphic way.

In dreams the dream is restating, in a different way, what we are not saying in our conscious life. Symbols with exaggerations, archetypes and metaphors recur over and over if we do not pay attention to them in dreams. For example, we have all had recurring dreams and recurring dreams are simply our unconscious saying “pay attention” “listen” “try to understand what I am saying”. And very often, sometimes after many years, the psychic penny drops and we do change something in our life and discover to our amazement that we are not having the recurring dream again. The sand tray, like a dream, does not tell you what you already know but it brings to life and illuminates what has remained hidden, what has been only a fleeting thought perhaps. George Santayana an early 20th century Spanish philosopher, said in his book Person and Places (1981) “those who cannot recall and trace an emotion are doomed to repeat it without understanding”.

Dreams, when understood, help you to become comfortable with the person you are – tomorrow, next week, next year because that will always be the person you were. Part of that person will always be with you. Part of being grown up psychologically, is knowing that we own all of our parts. It is so very easy when somebody has done, or we have done something terrible or that we are not proud of, to say to ourselves or to other people “well if you really knew me you’d know that that’s not really me”. It is. It is us because the sand tray and dreams help show us that we own all of our parts. They point to blind spots, very important, very necessary for us to see.

It might be useful to look at a brief history of sand therapy at this point. Dora Kalff is considered the mother of sand therapy as we know it, but she was preceded and influenced by psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld. However, the beginnings of sand therapy actually go back to H. G. Wells (2004) with a book call ‘Floor Games’. This came about in an interesting fashion. Being as creative as H G Wells was, he was inordinately annoyed at what he thought were the only kind of toys available for children to play with when his boys were young. He set about being the accumulator of what we use today and what we call today archetypal figures – lots of animals – domestic and wild, lots of different kinds of people – people that looked like postmen, sailors etc. and in some instances, had to have them made. In the book he describes how his children flourished under this and what exciting journeys they undertook with this material. This book was read by a psychologist called Margaret Lowenfeld and she thought it would be great to do this in a pit of sand and she literally organised in her little laboratory where she had children come and be observed what we would call sand boxes and the children would climb in. And when she would ask them what sort of things they had done and what they meant they would invariably come up with “well this is my world” or something like that and so she named this World Technique (Lowenfeld, 1979). She presented a paper on it to a Jungian conference which was held in Zurich quite a long time after. What Dora Kalff (1980) learnt from Margaret Lowenfeld was enormous. Margaret Lowenfeld presented her findings at the psychological conference of analytical psychology in Zurich while Dora Kalff was a young Jungian analyst. Dora became quite fascinated in the possibilities in the World Technique and, I might add, Jung himself was also fascinated and encouraged her to develop her take on it, which she did with great success and began lecturing around the world.

I first came across Dora Kalff at University of Southern California in the late 1960’s where somebody had suggested that I go and hear one of her lectures and explained that she had some fascinating theories. I did and never looked back. What she adheres to in all of her work is some basic Jungian criteria. For instance there are three layers of conscious and unconsciousness. There was a personal conscious and that is what we each are aware of now in our present and in the past. There is a personal unconscious what we are not aware of but what is unique to each of us now and in the past. And then there is the collective unconscious, which is the shared unconscious of mankind and is an important layer of the psyche containing the collective contents. This is where the archetypes spring from, for example man’s universal need for religion, the good mother and the wise old man. All of these things are necessary in almost every culture, every place and every time. So we have to assume this theory, which was posited by Jung, and has more or less been taken on board now because there is so much material that archaeologists and anthropologists have unearthed, that there is a double validation of it. These things are shown in dreams but certainly not as graphically as they are shown in the sand tray.

In the sand tray you can almost see, if you know a little bit about the client’s background, what they are operating from and the fact that the sand tray is also graphically divided into areas that represent the past, present and future and also the conscious and unconsciousness. It helps us to really get a view into the person who comes to us for some sort of help and the ability to help them on a very deep level. I want to reiterate again that the trays themselves are healing. If you never said a word to the client they would be experiencing great healing by what they were doing because they would see very graphically, in a different language, just as dreams are a different language, what was going on and what could go on for them.

The sand tray also has a lot of shadow material in it. There will be figures in the tray that represent shadow aspects of the client. The shadow is an un-adapted unconscious. Most Western civilisations overdevelop the conscious side of the person and Jungian therapy is based on loosening the contents of the unconscious. We owe a great debt here to Jung’s interest in Eastern and African civilisations where the unconscious is much more apparent to those civilisations. This loosening is principally applicable to those persons who have over developed consciousness functioning. The persona is the well adapted conscious. In other words, if you are here you are doing something right. If you are functioning you are doing something right. It is not the whole person but it means something is doing well and it is important for the client to see this in a variety of ways. Jungian study is the study of the psychic life of man and our prime interest is really in the development of the whole person. That means the integration of the conscious with the unconscious.

The archetype of the shadow is extremely interesting. In Jungian terms the shadow is the part of ourselves we don’t want to know and usually its parts that are not compatible with our self image with our awareness of who and what we think we are. We usually repress those bits into our unconscious. Intense dislikes are often shadow material and shadow projections are when we see in our own negative qualities that we particularly dislike in others. Countries often will project shadows onto other countries and say while mentioning any nationality by saying “I don’t like … because….” and invariably there is a core of that in the country themselves. It is an opposite of what they like to think they are. It is only because the psyche is so close to us that psychology has been discovered so late. We only have, by and large, psychological facts to explain psychological facts. It is again worth repeating that the only way you can become aware of shadow is to become more aware of yourself. As far back as 400BC Sun Tzu in The Art of War (1944) said “if you know yourself and you know your enemy you need not fear the results of a thousand battles. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself you will succumb in every battle” That is particularly applicable to the battle that we all live with virtually every day with the shadow side of ourselves. The shadow is not confined to adults. Children themselves can very much be victims of shadow materials. The shy “shrinking violet” child talks of hate of the more aggressive or streetwise outgoing child, while the outgoing child makes fun of and bullies the quieter child. It is the fear of what we are not, the fear of what we don’t know that is so important.

Dreams as custodians of sleep was Freud’s first working hypothesis. In his second hypothesis that all dreams are wish fulfilments, he was led to the idea of a censor that he claimed everyone possesses, and Freudian psychology gets past that censor. Jung did not believe in a censor but assumed the dream meant what it said, but in a very different and uninhibited way. We now know, thanks to encephalograms, that we dream several times a night even if we wake up convinced that we have not had a dream. I have to wonder if this is not the censor factor at work. The wonderful thing about the sand tray is that there are no censors. Creating the sand tray is basically an introverted act. The exposition in explaining the narrative is an extroverted act. If the child or adult is capable of a lot of exposition that does not mean we back them into a corner and ask them intrusive questions but rather encourage them to talk about the tray as a story and then to, occasionally, ask what a particular figure/animal might mean?  If I ask a child, “what does this animal mean to you?” he/she is apt to reply “that animal understands me” or “I can talk to them better than to humans”. The symbolism is powerful here in giving another road into the innermost world or feeling of that child/adult.

I have talked a bit about the making of the tray being healing. Deeply introverted and particularly tense people tend to relax. Hyperactive almost hysterical clients tend to quieten down. Three dimensional reality is a calming effect in itself. It is particularly effective in reaching clients who over verbalise, rationalise or intellectualise and, of course, the opposite clients, those who have trouble verbalising at all or who are afraid of their own voice or been denied their own voice.  Intuitives can benefit from the concreteness of the process as it tends to slow them down and ground then and again the therapist listens with as little of their verbalisation as possible. After the sand tray is finished the therapist may ask the client to tell the story of it or may ask relevant questions to illicit the client’s comments and associations. The therapist can begin to speak of something suggested by the tray, though that’s often better done in a subsequent session so as not to inhibit the client in future sessions. The therapist is able to evaluate the picture in the light of what they know of the client and of Jungian symbolism and any archetypal amplification they suggest themselves. Again, the therapist does not offer this information at this time and does not press for association or confront the client in any way. Interpretations can imply value judgements. The aim of sand therapy is to offer really free protected space, devoid of rules and in safe circumstances. The only criteria for sand therapy is that everything must be put in the tray or on the tray, in other words it can be put on the edges and held up with blue tack or in the tray. Also, the client is reassured that they can take as many objects as they want and they can take as few as they want and until they tell you the tray is finished they can go back and get more. It is also often significant what the client leaves in the basket that they use to collect their figures. Sometimes they leave two or three items and then it becomes an interesting puzzle for the therapist to test his/her knowledge to figure out what is going on by what is being left.

When we can connect on a collective level or with many archetypal and mythological motifs we also must recognise that those arising out of our own culture are easier to recognise. The Orang Asli, which is the name given to all the aboriginal tribes in Malaysia and which means original man, and one of the tribes which I worked with called Mah Meri say that ”you cannot understand the myths of Malaysia unless you spend two years as a baby strapped to your mother’s back”. It is something important to take on board now that we, here in Ireland, have become much more multicultural country and we have many more people here for a variety of reasons both because of the EU and because of asylum. I have worked with clients who were husband and wife where the wife is from a South American country and the husband is from a very literate and creative country and the only way they communicate is through English: he does not speak her language and she, likewise does not speak his language. But English is not their first language and I have found the psychic misunderstandings which go on with them are tremendous. By them both doing a few sand trays it is amazing how the communication has improved. Because they are both extremely sophisticated and because they did not come to me to do sand trays but rather to have it as a peripheral tool in their own problems as a couple, I could explain a little bit more to them about what certain things in the tray might mean, which I would not do under normal circumstances. It really has been quite magical and an extremely interesting experience for me because I have never had that particular situation.

I’d like to talk about a motif that has often appeared in the trays. Because it has often appeared I began to write down various things that clients from teenagers to adults have had to say about it to give an example of why the personal interpretation must always take precedence over the archetypal. Trains often appear in sand therapy and here are some of the things I have heard spoken about them. “It gets me from where I am”. “It makes strange noises in my head”.  “tunnels, safety, womb”. “They remind me of snakes.” “Speedy lurching, shaking, losing my footing,” and again, “haunting, whistle, olden times.” Then more, “death, being cocooned and no escape,” and “ the world looks flat from trains”. While others say “ I feel I am in a semi sealed box as I walk from one carriage to another” and still more “I feel as though I am walking through my life” and, one of the more interesting ones, “I see the engine going around a curve and think it is the furies of hell pulling my life along”. These are all good examples of why the personal interpretation must always take precedence over the archetypal. And the same is true with dreams. We have a situation in dreams where someone will “excuse” the content and I use the word advisably, on the grounds of the fact that “I was watching a television programme and a man was chasing another man down a lane with a knife” Well, that’s true, but it is also true that the conscious mind, not to even mention the unconscious, sees thousands of symbols every day: walking down the street, in the shop, driving in the car, all situations with different objects and people. The unconscious in the dream and the unconscious in the sand tray chooses the symbols it needs to express its unconscious, unspoken thought and that’s why it is critically important to take the person’s interpretations. It’s why dream books are useless. It’s why “off the peg” interpretation is useless. Let’s take the man who dreams of the knife or puts the knife in the tray. What is the knife in his life? Is he a butcher? Does he work as a chef? Did his brother accidently stab him with a knife when he was a child? The personal interpretation is vital to him to experience and therefore give voice to and ultimately release the held emotion surrounding this symbol secreted deep in the unconscious. It does not mean that the knowledge of the archetypal and the knowledge of the symbolic are not important, it is another string to the therapist’s bow and it is crucially important. But the therapist must remember with both dreams and the sand tray that the personal, that is how something is for the client and their life, takes precedence before you can even begin to help them.

I would like to finish this article with one of my favourite quotes by Marie Louise von Franz, who was an eminent Psychoanalyst and the youngest of the circle around Jung, and who wrote extensively on dreams and on symbolism.

“Dreams never tell you what you already know, they always point to a blind spot, it’s like being able to look at your own back” (2008)

I think that is a wonderful thing to remember both in dreams and in sand therapy.

Dr June Atherton, B,Sc., M.A. Psych. PhD., MIACP, is President of the International Jungian Sandtherapy Association and Visiting Professor in Jungian Studies at the State University of St. Petersburg, Russia.


Kalff, D. (1980) Sandplay, A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche, Boston: Sligo Press

Lowenfeld, M. (1979) The World Technique, London, Boston: Allen and Unwin (published posthumously)

Santayana, G. (1981) Person and Places, New York: Scribner

Sun Tzu. (1944) The Art of War, Harrisburg Pa: Military Service Publication Co.

von Franz, M.L. (2008) The Way of the Dream – Dr Marie Louise von Franz in conversation with Fraser Boa, Santa Cruz: Marion Woodman Foundation

Wells, H.G. (2004) Floor Games, Kansas: Temenos Publishing Co.