Clients reveal their inner worlds through scenes in the sandtray and humanistic therapists try to enhance this experience of clients through the verbal part of sandtray therapy. Humanistic approaches emphasize the importance of the relationship and believe in the importance of the core conditions. There is tremendous value in creating a climate for clients where they can take their time, tell their story, feel their feelings, and explore the fascinating and mysterious interior world of self. Good therapy is about the relationship. The relationship is the most important factor in any approach to therapy: far more important than any technique, knowledge, or expertise. Meta-analyses of counseling outcome studies have shown that the therapeutic relationship is highly correlated with positive treatment outcomes regardless of theoretical orientation or techniques (Frank & Frank, 1991; Hansen, 2002).
However, in people’s everyday lives meaningful relationships are not in abundant supply. Many clients who come to therapy do not have relationships in which they can grieve losses, struggle with ambivalence, and question assumptions and self-limiting concepts. Others come to therapy with questions about the meaning of their lives. They may feel empty, disillusioned, or doubtful because of recent awareness that they have centered their lives around something meaningless. Hope eludes many clients as they struggle with discouraging circumstances or self-defeating habits. Therapists who address big questions such as, “What should I do with the rest of my life?” help clients to rediscover meaning and hope.
Myers and Williard (2003) contended that spirituality is about meaning, growth and relationships. They defined spirituality as “the capacity and tendency present in all human beings to find and construct meaning about life and existence and to move toward personal growth, responsibility, and relationships with others” (p. 149). Myers and Williard noted that spiritual experience is “any experience or process in the life of an individual that creates new meaning and fosters personal growth as exhibited by the capacity to move beyond former frames of reference and risk change” (p. 149). Myers and Williard noted that their definition of spirituality is broad enough to include religious beliefs and secular ideologies.
Sandtray therapy allows clients to focus on the heart of things. When clients create scenes in the sand that focus on the way their lives are now they take the time to stop living in the periphery and center their attention on the core. Clients are good at distracting themselves with work, entertainment and activity but distractions only help clients cope; they do not help clients find meaning in life. Obviously, work can be meaningful and having fun is important but for many people, work is not meaningful and leisure time may be dissatisfying.
Humanistic sandtray therapy promotes healing and spirituality by helping clients to reconnect to their true selves. Fear is the primary factor that keeps us from reconnecting to who we really are and from being real. In fact, according to Kagan and Kagan (1997), people learn to fear one another in childhood and this fear tends to persist into adulthood. Kagan and Kagan noted that people have a fear of being hurt or hurting others and fear of being engulfed or engulfing others. Most of our fears are vague and seem irrational.
Even though we fear people, we also need people. According to Kagan and Kagan (1997), this approach-avoidance conflict characterizes most human interaction. “People appear both to approach and retreat from direct, simple intimacy with others. This approach-avoidance syndrome appears to be a cyclical process: Intimacy is followed by relative isolation, which is followed by new bids for intimacy” (p. 298). Given this approach-avoidance conflict, people establish a psychologically “safe” distance that is unique to each person. People tend to find a distance where they are somewhat intimate and safe (Kagan & Kagan).
If humanistic sandtray therapists build a therapeutic relationship in which clients feel safe, they can help clients overcome fears that hinder their ability to be who they really are and to develop meaningful relationships. This process of finding meaning can restore a sense of balance and peace and reawaken the spiritual nature of clients who have struggled to experience it.