Rainbow over Troubled Water
Sometimes in sandplay therapy we come very close to the spiritual dimension of our life. A 9 years old girl began her first sandplay with shaping of a river; she put a rainbow in the tray connecting both sides of the river, and asked me: Do you believe in God?
The troubled water stood for the troubles between her parents and their split, the rainbow as an archetypal symbol for reconciliation and hope. The gifted girl used the sandplay as a vessel for her innermost concern and found in a short second an astonishingly precise symbolic expression. I?ll talk about the special and often surprising power of sandplay as a medium for symbolization and transformation. Sometimes the transformative energy seems to emerge from deep within. The question may arise: What is the faith of the therapist?
Regenbogen ?ber unruhigem Wasser
Manchmal kommen wir in der Sandspiel Therapie sehr nahe an die spirituelle Dimension unseres Lebens. Ein 9-j?hriges M?dchen begann ihr erstes Sandbild mit der Gestaltung eines Flusses; dann setzte sie einen Regenbogen wie eine Br?cke dar?ber und fragte mich: Glaubst du an Gott?
Das unruhige Wasser stand f?r den Streit und die Trennung der Eltern, und der Regenbogen als archetypisches Symbol f?r Vers?hnung und Hoffnung. Das begabte M?dchen nutzte das Sandspiel als Gef?? f?r ihr innerstes Anliegen und fand in einer kurzen Sekunde daf?r einen erstaunlich pr?zisen symbolischen Ausdruck. Ich werde ?ber die besondere und oft ?berraschende Kraft des Sandspiels sprechen als einem Medium f?r Symbolisierung und Wandlung. Manchmal scheint die verwandelnde Energie aus einem tiefsten Inneren zu kommen. Dann mag die Frage aufkommen: Was ist der Glaube des Therapeuten?
The faith of the sandplay therapist, what we can trust in, what we are open to witness, what we can share with our patients, this question may be stressed especially in moments of crisis at the climax or turning point of a sandplay process. We all know the moving moments when after a long journey , together with the therapist, an unpredictable center of the psyche emerges, often in the shape of a wonderful mandala, but also sometimes in a transforming pattern, combining the major symbols of this unique psyche in a transcendent image. Dora Kalff spoke here about the constellation of the Self – the Self of the patient, may be for the first time in his symbolic life. May be it is also about the Self of the Therapist who was the companion and midwife of this delivery. The Self is both, as C. G. Jung said: The centre of the individual psyche, and also the image of the collective psyche of mankind and the objective psyche. It is a paradox and a mystery – nobody can explain from where it comes. We may reflect theories about psychological development, about affect attunement and mentalisation, we may study neurobiological documents, we may study mythological and alchemical elaborations –
the mystery itself will not be lifted, because we are in it with our own feelings and innermost experience. What seems to be essential to this experience, is that we can?t predict it. It comes as a surprise. We must be open for that kind of surprise. It can come at any time of the therapy – even in the first 5 seconds like in the case of the 9 years old girl.
I don?t want to repeat sayings and experiences you all know. May be it will be helpful to listen to the words of a modern philosopher who is regarded as a sober and temperate thinker. Hannah Arendt wrote about The New (Das Neue) (I read it first German, than in my translation):
Es liegt in der Natur eines jeden Anfangs, dass er, von dem Gewesenen und Geschehenen her gesehen, schlechterdings unerwartet und unerrechenbar in die Welt bricht. Die Unvorhersehbarkeit des Ereignisses ist allen Anf?ngen und allen Urspr?ngen inh?rent. Die Entstehung der Erde, des organischen Lebens auf ihr, die Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts aus den Evolutionen der Tiergattungen, also der gesamte Rahmen unserer Existenz, beruht auf „unendlichen Unwahrscheinlichkeiten“ (…) Der Neuanfang steht stets im Widerspruch zu statistisch erfassbaren Wahrscheinlichkeiten, er ist immer das unendlich Unwahrscheinliche; er mutet uns daher, wo wir ihm in lebendiger Erfahrung begegnen (…) immer wie ein Wunder an (Arendt 2006, S.178).
“It is in the nature of every beginning, that it breaks into the world, seen from what was and happened before, by all means unforeseen and unpredictable. The unpredictability of the event is inherent all beginnings and origins. The origin of the earth, the emergence of human race out of the evolutions of animal species, this means the entire frame of our existence, consists / is based on “endless improbabilities” (…) The New, the new beginning is always in contradiction to statistically recordable probabilities, it is always the boundless and infinite unlikely; it appears or strikes us therefore, where we encounter it in living experience (…) always like (as) a miracle.”
To be open for a miracle is not necessarily a religious attitude. Religion means that the miracle, the unpredictable emergence of something absolute New, can be related to a system of believe. The 9 years old girl, in putting the rainbow over the river, to connect both sides, began her journey with the question after religion: Do you believe in God? The rainbow over troubled waters in her life shall be the centre of my reflection.
I want to shortly reconstruct what happened. First she made a river from the left back to the right front side, saying: This is Berlin. Do you have a Brandenburg Gate?
I have no Brandenburg gate, so she took the East Berlin Television Tower to the left side, and a light house to the right side, indicating East and West Berlin as it was before the wall came down, 22 years ago. Then she said: This is the Spree (river Spree) – and she put the rainbow over the river asking me: Do you believe in God?
I was surprised, and answered: Yes.
She continued: I am in Religion (having religious lessons at school). I asked her: Are you baptized? She answered: No, my parents say I shall wait. During this she built a kind of wall in the front part of the tray, saying: This will be East and West. It is the Berlin Wall. Then she said: Once I nearly fell into the river (Ich bin einmal fast in die Spree gefallen).
Now she made a small hole in the Berlin Wall and said: The Berlin Wall once had a hole (an opening, a passage, Die Berliner Mauer hatte mal ein Loch). Once there was an opening in the Wall.
Usually I don?t say so much when a child or an adult is or was playing in the sand tray. Here the play was obviously done to come into a quick exchange and conversation. Therefore I said to the girl, giving a kind of interpretation: “You must have been threatened when you were nearly fallen into the river. Your parents were surely scared? (She agrees strongly). This means that your parents were still together when this happened (O yes). Now they are divided as by a Berlin Wall. But in the Wall once there was a hole. May be you hope that one day they can come together, so as east and West-Berlin came together again? (She nods and sighs). Therefore you took the rainbow – you hope that reconciliation will be possible one day.”
Containment in sandplay therapy is closely linked to the non verbal, free and protected space. In the following minutes the girl elaborated her image with a bridge, some other details, and at the end: with a little girl with a machine gun! This miniature is from Warsaw, a memorial of the Warsaw uprising in 1944. I didn?t say anything now, but it became clear that a lot of aggression was also there. And the girl was not only the victim of its parent?s controversies. And that sometimes walls are even helpful or necessary to protect a space within.
The troubled water of the girl?s family sometimes became a flood, strong enough to destroy any hope. In her sandplay it was just a river – You should know that the river Spree in Berlin, as part of the inner city demarcation line, was a deadly barrier for many people who wanted to escape from the totalitarian system, from the east side to West-Berlin. When people tried to swim across the river they were shot by soldiers. On the other side, those who wanted to fly from East Germany to the West had to leave everything behind, their friends, parents, their life and their history. To risk one?s life for a life in the West was an existential and nearly impossible decision. The girl from the sandplay often had to decide which parent she loved more. The system of her inner beliefs and trust became often and deeply troubled. The parents fought against each other, and like Ulysses between Scylla and Charybdis the girl could sink down under the waves and die.
Winnicott wrote in 1969 a paper titled “Berlin Walls”. He argued that sometime a wall is necessary, to prevent open war, and to provide time for an inner development of both sides. He called it the “depressive position”, as a condition for peace between the struggling sides in the paranoid position. May be the separation of the girl?s parents was such an act of avoiding open and destructive fights, and providing space and time for inner growth and balance. The memory “On times I nearly fell into the river” may lead back to the existential danger before the hot war was replaced by a cold war. Of course, the Berlin wall was a myth and symbol itself for the girl, she was born more than 10 years after the wall came down.
But what then about the rainbow?
A flood, destroying everything and everybody, is well known today from catastrophes of our times, and from oldest myths. In our mythology the rainbow was the sign of an end of the great flood, an end of gods revenge, and an end of the old time. The rainbow in Christian tradition, as well as in Judaism, is to remind humans and God of the contract: From now on there will be no flood any more to destroy the earth (Genesis 1, 9). I know that human race is evil from its beginning (“das Dichten
des Menschen ist b?se von Jugend auf” Gen.8, 21). The rainbow is the sign (symbol, proof) of the contract between God and the earth. It is the seal and signature of the Testament.
We know that older children and adolescents are deeply sensitive and aware of atmospheric problems, be it in their family or in the society in general. The ecological crisis is something what threatens many young people. I often hear stories of little Ice-Bears on melting ice, or of dolphins caught in nets where they must die. The rising level of the oceans is an objective warning that humans are destroying the earth which was given in their hands, it is reality and it is a symbol. The 9 years girl didn?t make a conscious connection between rainbow and reconciliation. She knew about the story of Noah and the flood, but the rainbow was not in her conscious memory. She knew that after rain the colorful bow appears on the sky. And maybe she knew fairy tales about treasures one can find at the place where the rainbow touches the earth. Fairy tales often bring deep mythological material in a simple language, accessible for children. The treasures are symbols of the contract between god and humans. The point where the rainbow touches the earth is the point where God touches the world with his blessings.
There is deep meaning in this symbol. For example: The light of the sun is too strong for our eyes. We can?t directly look into the radiant sun light. Therefore God managed that his sun light falls through a kind of prism. The sun light is broken and dispersed in many different colors, the colors of the created world, and the colors of the rainbow. We can know that all these colors are facets of the divine light which would be too strong for us.
This mythology dates back from the Zohar, the Book of Splendor. It is a kabbalist text of the 13th century, translated by Gershom Sholem and passed on to C. G. Jung who loved it very much. Sholem lectured in Eranos in 1947. There is an additional mythology about it, developed by the kabbalist Isaak Luria in the late 15th century, also translated by Sholem. It is about creation, and has something to do with sandplay.
Following Luria, when God decided to create the world, he realized that for his project a space was needed. God himself was everywhere, and there was no free space. So he withdrew himself from himself a bit and created a space within himself. This process is called “Zimzum”. In this space he built a kind of vessel – this was the first “free and protected space”! And God created the world into this vessel. But now came the catastrophe: God was so curious about his creation, and he loved it so much, that he looked onto it so closely, and with all the divine energy in his eyes, that his wonderful creation broke in pieces and fell apart, and also the vessel, and all the fragments were spread over the world like sparks of his light.
So it was. But God didn?t give up. He created a second world, with less energy and very cautious. This is our world we live in. The fragments and sparks of the first creation are still around us, and the task of us humans is to collect them, and by this to contribute to the healing of the world. This engagement is called Tikkun. It is what the kabbalists and especially the Chassidim in East Europe tried to do.
There are many motives in this mythology brought together, as answers to deepest questions: There is the idea of Exile – God?s own exile in himself-, there is the idea of the divine love too strong for us. There is the need for a protected space for any creation, and there is the idea that God needs the
help of humans to collect the sparks of his light and to heal the world. We can also see some parallels to our experience with sandplay. To avoid the breaking of the vessel we should take car for respectful witnessing, for delicate and careful observation. The flashlight of a camera can easily break the container. The constellation of the Self, as Dora Kalff said, is very close to the manifestation of the divine. We should handle this with great respect. When we witness our patients in collecting the fragments of their inner life, of memories, pains, hopes, all the symbolic forms and figures, we can think of the recollection of the sparks of the first creation. It is a contribution to healing the world.
To come back to the rainbow as the seal of the contract: In the rainbow the bright light of the sun is broken in the prism of millions of drops of water, when the clouds go away. It is as if God reminds himself of the possible destructive power of his light and love energy. He finds a kind of depressive position when he states: Well, I know that human race is evil from its beginning. He accepts that his creation is not perfect – that we are not perfect – but with his contract he provides us a free and protected space for our experiments. He is interested in how we do it.
I?ll come to an end: Today the flood seems to come back. The troubled waters of our difficult times are threatening many of my patients. Often the question comes to me: How can I hold them, how can I provide the protected space? For example, many of my patients, children and adults, are from migrant families and have lost their homes and roots, many of the children and adolescents live in self chosen social isolation with their computer games, neurotic fears and unconsciously longing for reconnection to reality and feelings.
I don?t have a recipe. I find helpful what C. G. Jung said. Concerned about the troubled waters of our times he reflected the meaning of Aquarius. His last sculpture he made in his tower in Bollingen was about it. He said:
Das Meer, in dem die unbewussten Fische schwimmen, ist nun zu Ende, nun befindet sich das Wasser im Krug des Wassermannes, das hei?t dem Gef?? des Bewusstseins. Wir sind vom Instinkt, vom Unbewussten abgeschnitten. Deshalb m?ssen wir den Instinkt n?hren, sonst vertrocknen wir. Darum gibt der Wassermann dem Fisch zu trinken.
“The sea, in which the unconscious fish are swimming, has come to an end. Now the water is in the vessel of the Water-Man, Aquarius, this means the vessel of consciousness. We are cut off from instinct, from the unconscious. Therefore we must nourish the instinct, otherwise we will dry up. Therefore the Aquarius gives the fish to drink.”
To nourish the instinct, this is what is necessary also in sandplay therapy. Intellectual interpretation will not help, and also verbalization is often a too poor and reduced means to bridge the consciousness with the instinctual powers of the unconscious. The rainbow with its colors can be a symbol for the mystery of connecting these forces with our life, with our errors, sins, our fate, our hope and belief. Often we therapists can?t calm the troubled waters, we can?t equalize and appease the stormy waves of conflicts in the families of our patients or in themselves, but we can have the image of a rainbow in mind. Then, as Hannah Arendt said, a miracle can happen.