Six-year-old Randy walks into my office for the first time and declares, “This place smells like piss.” I can’t disagree with him. I have done my best to set up shop as an intern, the new and only counselor in a crowded elementary school. I occupy a musty, windowless room that used to be a supply closet. Randy is one of my first sandplay clients. Arrogant, loud, a study in ambivalence, Randy pulls no punches. He is a bad guy and wants to be known as a bad guy. In fact, Randy is a bully. He beats up his fellow first-graders and curses at his teachers. He seems to relish the attention he gets when school authorities attempt to impose “consequences” by forcing him to sit by himself in the principal’s office, suspending him for days at a time, or sending him to a counselor. Nobody at the school expects sandplay therapy to help Randy much, and admittedly I have my doubts. But if therapy doesn’t work, Randy will be expelled from school permanently.
Randy eyes my sandplay figures, curious in spite of himself. I tell him he can do whatever he wants with the tray (which in those first days was a plastic bin). As happens even with the most resistant children, Randy can’t keep himself away from the intriguing possibility. What will he create? What story will arise? With a sidelong glance to see if he is irritating me, Randy slowly pours a large bowlful of glass jewels into the tray. Then he dumps in a bowlful of stones. He calls them “bombs.” I widen my eyes and say, “that’s a lot of bombs.” Thus I give him tacit permission to continue. He really can do whatever he wants. Immediately he is waging a full-fledged battle. He drops people, animals, and buildings into the tray. They are bombs too. He imagines each creature exploding in a bloody eruption of sizzling fire. He embellishes the agonizing dismemberments with spit and roaring gurgles, sighs, screams, and the ooh’s and ah’s of someone truly impressed with the gore he is witnessing. He dubs this battle “World War I.” His second session, very similar to the first, he conducts “World War II.” His third battle he calls “The war of the ancient dragon.” Next, he wants to light a fire.
Week after week, over the course of 24 sessions, Randy conducts battle after profoundly destructive battle. He burns fires (after much negotiation), tortures people, kills off parents, and melts entire soldiers, dooming them to harrowing deaths. As I begin to wonder if the torment and gore will ever end, he discovers something in his melted wax that is “entirely and completely new,” even though it comes “from ancient times.” After weeks of bullying figures in the sandtray, Randy’s new-yet-ancient wax indicates that he has discovered a nascent possibility in himself—something that is ancient, but that he experiences as brand new. By then Randy has stopped his physical violence and has become engaged with school. He has gone through the better part of a miraculous transformation, ironically, through war and fire.
At the time that Randy fought the war with the ancient dragon, I had just a glimmer of an idea about what such a battle could mean psychologically. It would take more than ten years to come to a reasonably full symbolic understanding of Randy’s ancient dragon and how so much war, gore, fire, agony, and dismemberment, could possibly accompany his profound healing process. As I worked over the years to amplify what he said about his trays, I began to understand that his process and his language were remarkably alchemical, sometimes calling to mind the very words of the “ancient philosopher,” Zosimos.1 Working with Randy’s process, I came to understand too how sandplay actually is alchemy.
Sandplay and Alchemy
C.G. Jung’s journey into the unconscious began through a kind of sandplay. In 1912, feeling disoriented after his break from Freud, Jung found himself occupied with childhood memories and engrossed in a “rite” of building imaginary villages on the bank of Lake Zürich using rocks, sand, mud, and water. For months he felt compelled to play this way in order to engage his memories and creative impulses in a completely spontaneous way. He reports in his autobiography:
“Naturally, I thought about the significance of what I was doing, and asked myself, “Now really, what are you about? You are building a small town, and doing it as if it were a rite!” I had no answer to my question, only the inner certainty that I was on the way to discovering my own myth. For the building game was only a beginning. It released a stream of fantasies which I later carefully wrote down.
This sort of thing has been consistent with me, and at any time in my later life when I came up against a blank wall, I painted a picture or hewed stone. Each such experience proved to be a rite d’entrée for the ideas and works that followed hard upon it.” (C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pp 174-5.
Jung came to describe his imaginal work as a form of active imagination, a meditative and creative participation of the conscious mind with images and energies that arise of their own accord from the unconscious. Imaginal activity in the form of play, artwork, writing, or meditation can take an adult back to the playlike world of childhood via a lowering of the mental functioning level, to a state in which the imagination is released from the usual conscious restraints, and the ego is free to roam in unconscious images. An adult enters the imaginal realm with the goal of engaging the unconscious. A child just enters, following his natural impulse. Although the child is not conscious of a goal, the psyche is.