Dream-Sharing Groups, Spirituality, and Community

The sharing of dreams in group settings has played a prominent role in communi ties throughout history. An thropologists and historians have provided detailed reports of dream-shar ing practices found in a wide vari ety of cultures and religious traditions.[i] However, modern Western psycholo gist have generally focused on the intrapsychic aspects of dreams and have applied dreams to strictly individual needs and concerns. The practice of dream-sharing in modern Western society has been confined to the clinician’s office, with the primary goal of assisting in the psychotherapy of individuals.

But in the last 30 years or so a remarkably large number of dream-sharing groups have arisen in the United States[ii]. Because these groups take so many dif­ferent forms and appear in so many different contexts, there is virtu ally no academic research on the subject. However, the phe nomenon of dream-shar ing groups should be of interest to scholars of religion for a number of reasons. First, these groups often look to dreams specifically for spiri tu al insights; the groups thus represent a distinc tive means of religious expression in contemporary Ameri can society. Second, the complex interplay of religious, psychologi cal, and cultural elements in these groups can tell us something about where the pro cess of secu lariza tion stands as we approach the close of the twentieth century. And third, dream-sharing groups fre quently gener ate a powerful sense of community, a sense of deep, intimate bonding among the members of the group. Schol ars who are concerned about how to create a sense of mutual understanding across differences of race, gender, ethnicity, and class should take note of the communi ty-revitalizing poten tial of these groups.


Dream-sharing groups began appearing in this country in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The first groups arose in response to the writings and public workshops of Ann Faraday (Dream Power (1972) and The Dream Game (1974)), Patricia Gar field (Creative Dreaming (1974)), Montague Ullman (Work ing with Dreams (1979)), and Jeremy Taylor (Dream Work (1983)). Each of these people ar gued that the practice of exploring dreams should be expanded beyond the confines of pro fessional psy chothera py and made acces sible to the general population. Another important early stimulus was Kilton Stewart’s essay on “Dream Theory in Malaya,” reprinted in Charles Tart’s best-selling anthol ogy Al tered States of Con sciousness (1969). Stewart’s descrip tion of the Senoi, a native people whose practice of publically sharing and discuss ing dreams helped them create an idyllic, nearly con flict-free community life, inspired countless Ameri cans to explore their own dreams and to begin sharing their dreams in group settings.[iii]

Contemporary dream-sharing groups take many different forms. But they also share many basic elements of struc ture and process. Let me offer the following “ideal-type” of a dream-sharing group:

— Six to twelve people gather in a quiet, comfort able place.

— One of the people serves as leader or facilitator for the group.

— Each person in the group describes one of his or her dreams.

— The group choses one person’s dream to discuss in detail, and proceeds to offer comments, ask questions, and suggest mean ings regarding that dream.

— This discussion can take from 15 minutes to two hours; usually, an effort is made to discuss more than one dream at a given meeting.

— Over the course of a few meetings, everyone in the group participates: everyone gets to share their own dreams, everyone gets to comment on other people’s dreams, and everyone gets to have one of their dreams discussed by the group.

There are many variations on this ideal-typical pat tern. The group’s size can vary tremendously; I have seen dream-sharing groups function with as few as three, and as many as 100 people. The group’s leader or facili tator can play a very active role in steering the group pro cess, or can do nothing more than keep an eye on the clock and remind people when it’s time to stop. Many dream-sharing groups function effectively with no formal leaders or facilitators at all.

The greatest variations among different groups occur during the discussion process. The dreamer may actively participate in this process, or may sit quietly and “observe” the group’s discussion of his or her dream. The group may use a relatively structured series of questions to ask of each dream, or may engage in an interpretive “free-for-all.” Some groups, in addition to verbal discussion of the dreams, will draw pictures of them, act them out in “dream theater,” and/or engage in guided imagery exercises. The group’s activities may be oriented by par ticu lar psy cho logi cal theories (e.g., looking for Jungian arche types), by particu lar theologi cal per spectives (e.g., looking for the presence of the Holy Spirit), or by particular per sonal concerns (e.g., look ing for help with troubled marriages or rela­tion ships). But no matter what their specific theoretical or ideological cast, the discussions of almost all dream-sharing groups are grounded in a core set of assump tions: 1) that dreams are relevant our important waking life con cerns, 2) that dreams can be understood without spe cial ized knowledge, and 3) that dreams have the poten tial to reveal spiritu al or religious truths.

The basic dream-sharing process described above has been used in a nearly limitless variety of settings and contexts:

— In churches and religious education programs (e.g., among Catholics, Unitarian Uni versalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Method ists);

— In schools, from grammar schools to high schools to colleges to seminaries to business schools to adult education programs;

— In psychological workshops, seminars, and retreats (e.g., conducted by members of Jungian, Gestalt, Humanis tic, and Transpersonal schools of psychology);

— In twelve-step counseling programs of various sorts;

— In social service settings (e.g., in prisons, drug rehabilitation centers, and hospitals; for pregnant women and their partners, people with AIDS, and victims of physical and sexual abuse);

— In community centers, libraries, and neighbors’ homes.[iv]

There are no precise demographic data on the partici pants in dream-sharing groups. Based on my initial research efforts, I have found that participants tend to be female, tend to be white, tend to be relatively edu cated and financially secure, and tend to live on either the East or the West coast. However, these are only the most general of observa tions: I have also found dream-sharing groups made up of all males, groups made up of all blacks, and groups organized in the South, the Mid west, and the Plains states. Over all, I would estimate that in the last 30 years there have been more than 50,000 dream-sharing groups in the U.S., mean ing that approxi mately a half million people have partic ipated in such groups.[v]


From the beginnings of Western history dreams have traditionally been the province of reli gion. Dreams have been viewed as either revelations from the divine or as temptations from the Devil, and priests and church lead ers have been the authorities on interpreting what a given dream means. In the twentieth century, however, the discipline of psychology has risen to claim authority over dreams. Psycholo gists are now the ones to whom we turn for interpretations, and we have come to believe that the meanings of dreams reflect the individual’s unconscious personali ty dynamics.

This transition from a religious to a psychological view of dreams perfectly exemplifies the process of secular ization, the process by which modern scientific, economic, and cultural forces have combined to vanquish the authority of reli gion in Western society. Dream-sharing groups, in which a reliance on psy cho logi cal dream theo ries is combined with an interest in the spiri tual dimen sions of dreams, would seem to mark an inter esting new twist on this process.[vi]

From one perspective, dream-sharing groups can be seen as resist ing and even overcoming the spiritually destruc tive effects of secularization. Dreams have always been regarded as a means of relat ing to the sa cred, to those powers and realities that tran scend ordi nary human exis tence. Dream-sharing groups draw upon this universal source of religious experience and adapt it to the cir cumstances of people living in contem porary American society. The result is a form of spirituality that may not be “for mal ly” religious and may not always take place within con ventional religious con texts, but that genuine ly satis fies people’s spiritual needs. If secu lar ization produc es a spiritual “dis en chant ment”, as Max Weber argues, then dream-sharing groups offer the means to a “reenchantment” of the world, to a renewal and revival of authentic spiritual experience in contem porary society.

But from a different perspective, dream-sharing groups can be seen as intensifying the destructive effects of secularization, making modern social life more fragment ed, more alienated, and more spiritually confused. Paying so much attention to dreams can easily appear as socially irrele vant navel-gazing; by focusing so intently on one’s personal psycho logical dynamics, people run the danger of losing touch with the public realm of community involve ment. The outer world is so cold and impersonal, and the inner world is so warm and alluring, that modern Western ers feel a strong temptation to abandon the former and immerse themselves in the latter. By surrendering to this tempta tion, people become ever more detached, iso lated, and alienated from society.[vii]

The process of exploring one’s dreams in a group set ting would seem to minimize these potentially alienating effects. But as Robert Wuthnow argues in his recent work Sharing the Journey (1994), participation in various kinds of small support groups (like dream-sharing groups) is often nothing more than a further defense against broader public engagement. Such groups are usually very homoge neous, making it easier for par ticipants to rein force their established views and to avoid contact with differ ent types of people. Wuthnow’s concern is that small support groups provide a covert means of self-protec tion against the complications of a multicultural world, and thus a further erosion in people’s broad er sense of commu nity.

So it seems that dream-sharing groups promote a kind of spirituality that is authentic, powerful, and person ally fulfilling–but that is also helping to corrode the communal integrity of contemporary American society.


That harsh conclusion is not warranted, however, by a careful examination of the actual practices of various dream-sharing groups. Such an examination reveals that many dream-sharing groups enable participants to gain valuable insights into the relations between their per sonal lives and the broader social world in which they live. Furthermore, many dream-sharing groups give people a means of understanding others, of recognizing their connections with people who are differ ent. In such cases, dream-sharing groups genuinely help to revitalize a sense of communi ty and to renew people’s active engage ment with the world.

The following are two brief descriptions of dream-sharing groups that have this community-revitalizing effect (for fuller accounts of these cases, and for other perspectives on the social and cultural relevance of dream studies, see the anthology I’ve edited, Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming, Modern Society, and the Future of Dream Studies (in press (a))):

1) Jane White Lewis, a Jungian analyst, has for the past three years been teaching classes on dreams at a public high school in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven is an all-too typical American city, plagued by drugs, crime, poverty, and urban decay. Many of the teenagers in Lewis’s classes are struggling simply to survive in this deeply troubled community. But Lewis has found that when the students begin exploring and discussing their dreams, they discover new resources of energy, creativi ty, and hope. In her class the students share their dreams, draw pictures of them, act them out in little dramatic productions, and write essays and stories based on them. Many of the students who hate writing or think they just don’t have the talent to write sudden ly find their “voice” when writing about their dreams and about the memo ries, feelings, and thoughts that arise in con nection with their dreams. For example, the students in one class often dreamed of the police, of fighting them, arguing with them, trying to hide from them; class dis cussions of these “police dreams” led the students to reflect on conflicts with authority, both in society and in their own personal lives. Similarly, the dreams of many of the girls about having babies raised the very immediate issue of teen pregnancy: the students dis cussed the social and psycho logical pressures girls feel in romantic relation ships, and their dreams opened up new vistas of reflection on how to resist those pressures. In this case, encourag ing the students to turn “inwards” to their dreams became a valu able means of guiding them “outwards” to the realm of public society.

2) Bette Ehlert is a New Mexico lawyer who for a number of years has been leading dream-sharing groups in jails, prisons, and other correctional facilities. As public opinion polls tell us, crime is widely regarded as the number one threat to the American commu nity; politi cians argue bitterly over what causes crime and what to do with criminals. In her groups Ehlert has found that dream-sharing can be an effective means of discovering links between the particular crimes committed by an offender and certain events, experiences, and conflicts in the offender’s past. For example, a young African-American convicted of dealing crack had a dream of struggling to get away from a dark entity pushing down on him. In the group discussion the dreamer discovered the relations between his being sexually abused as a child and his crime of being a “pusher.” Ehlert has also found that in a more general sense dream-sharing groups help criminal offenders cultivate the cognitive abilities in which they are so notoriously deficient: the abilities to reason critically, to empatheti cally take the perspective of others, and to envi sion alter na tives, possi bili ties, and poten tials. All of this strengthens their capacity to avoid becoming trapped in a lifelong cycle of crime and incarceration.

These two cases show that dream-sharing groups can actually give their partici pants valu able, focused in sights into prob lems that involve an intersec tion of personal and social forces. Rather than promoting navel-gazing escapism, rather than further isolat ing people in homoge neous little social units, these groups enable participants to per ceive, to understand, and to respect the lives of other people, of different people. Dream-sharing groups are not only a powerful means of spiritual discovery and expression; they are also a powerful means of renewing a vivid, dynamic sense of community in con temporary Ameri can soci ety.


My discussion of the phenomenon of dream-sharing groups is not intended to suggest that these groups can cure all of society’s ills. Any attempt to offer “new thinking on community” must acknowledge that in this post-modern, post-Cold War world there are no simple remedies, no magic wands that can make poverty and racism and crime and all our other social problems disappear. What I would like to suggest is that dream-sharing groups offer a resource that can, in many situa­tions, prove effective in revitalizing a sense of commu nity. Among their many practical virtues, these groups are widely accessible (since everybody dreams), cost-free (all you need is a space for people to sit in a circle), and capable of adapting to an endless variety of settings and circum stances. Dream-sharing groups have an especially great potential, I believe, to enrich educa tional pro grams. Lewis’s work in a public high school is one good example of this. In my own current research, I’m working with preschool children in various socio-economic set tings, trying to develop programs that inte grate dreams, play, and story-telling.

When shared in a group setting, dreams can stimulate a deep and powerful sense of relat ed ness to others, en abling people to recog nize a shared humanity in the midst of social and cultur al differences. I would like to close with one of the more poetic statements of this point, by Synesius of Cyrene, an early fifth-century Neo-Platonist who convert ed to Christianity and became famous as the bishop of Ptolemais. In a treatise he wrote on dreams, Synesius says this:

“[T]he dream is visible to the man who is worth five hundred medimni, and equally to the possessor of three hundred, to the teamster no less than to the peasant who tills the boundary land for a livelihood, to the galley slave and the common labourer alike… [To this oracle] then we must go, woman and man of us, young and old, poor and rich alike, the private citizen and the ruler, the town dweller and the rustic, the artisan and the orator. She repudiates neither race, nor age, nor condition, nor calling. She is present to everyone, everywhere, this zealous prophetess, this wise counsellor, who holdeth her peace.”[viii]


Bellah, Robert, et.al.1985. Habits of the Heart.
University of California Press.

Berger, Peter. 1967. The Sacred Canopy. Doubleday.

Bulkeley, Kelly. 1994. The Wilderness of Dreams.
SUNY Press.

________ (editor). In press (a). Among All These

Dream ers. SUNY Press.

________. In press (b). Spiritual Dreaming.
Paulist Press.

Domhoff, G. William. 1985. The Mystique of Dreams.

University of California Press.

Faraday, Ann. 1972. Dream Power. Berkeley Books.

________. 1974. The Dream Game. Harper & Row.

Garfield, Patricia. 1974. Creative Dreaming.

Jedrej, M.C. and Shaw, Rosalind (editors). 1993.

Dream ing, Religion and Society in Africa.
E.J. Brill.

Kelsey, Morton. 1974. God, Dreams, and Revelation.
Augsburg Publishing House.

Rieff, Philip. 1966. The Triumph of the Therapeutic.

Harper & Row.

Stewart, Kilton. 1969. “Dream Theory in Malaya.” In

Charles Tart (ed.), Altered States of
Consciousness. Harper Collins.

Taylor, Jeremy. 1982. Dream Work. Paulist Press.

Tedlock, Barbara (editor). 1987. Dreaming:

Anthropolog ical and Psychological
Interpretations. Cambridge University Press.

Von Grunebaum, G.E. and Callois, Roger (editors).
1966. The Dream and Human Societies.
University of California Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1994. Sharing the Journey. Vantage.


[i]. See Von Grunebaum and Callois 1966, Tedlock 1987, Jedrej and Shaw 1993, and Bulkeley in press (a).

[ii]. Although my focus in this presentation is on the United States, there are also many dream-sharing groups active in Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe.

[iii]. For a highly skeptical evaluation of Stewart’s re search and its popular reception, see Domhoff 1985.

[iv]. In keeping with a notion of “groups” as consisting of people meeting in face-to-face contexts, I’m not discuss ing the phenomenon of dream-sharing via television, radio, and cyberspace–although these technological arenas have brought countless more people into the pro cess of sharing and discussing dreams with others.

[v]. I’m basing these estimates on 1) my experiences in leading and participating in these groups, 2) my reviews of the many books and periodicals devoted to the subject of dreams, and 3) numerous conver sations and extensive correspon dence with people who have been active in the dream-sharing group “movement” for many years, including Montague Ullman, Jeremy Taylor, Roberta Ossana, Anthony Shafton, Jill Gregory, and Rita Dwyer.

[vi]. For a more detailed discussion of the relevance of modern dream studies to the process of secularization, see Bulkeley 1994, chapter 19.

[vii]. This is a general critique of modern psychology made by Philip Rieff 1966, Peter Berger 1967, and Robert Bellah, et. al. 1985.

[viii]. Kelsey 1974, pp. 247-248.

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