The other week in the pub I told a friend about my intention to start devoting a good amount of my time to studying dreams. “Isn’t that just self-indulgent?” was the quick response. I had no pre-packaged answer. What’s more, the comment smarted a little. I offered Gordon Lawrence’s “Social Dreaming” concept (which I encountered at a conference in Bath last year), and we got derailed into debates about whether the “corporate workshops” aspect of this sort of thing subverts or fuels The System. But the idea of “self-indulgence” echoed around my head long after, encountering a mixture of bafflement and (considering my life-long tendency to introversion) a weary pang of guilt.

The day before, a card had arrived in the post, letting me know a book I’d ordered from the library—this collection of essays—had arrived. I went to collect it the day after, expecting a general bunch of writings that would help me catch up on recent dream studies. It was a classic piece of serendipity, then, when I realised that the subtitle was the key: this was a group of people endeavoring to push the agenda of outward-facing, socially and even politically engaged dream theory and practice.

The easy defence of the “self-indulgence” criticism is that studying dreams is what you make it. Many narcissistic and blinkered people happily indulge themselves in social work and political activism. Equally, among people engaged with inner realities, you’ll find many healthily socialised, community-focussed folk. There seems to be more, though, in the association of dreams with an over-emphasis on inner reflection—indeed, following this connection to its roots brings us to some revealing insights into modern Western culture.

Sigmund Freud shoulders much blame for many things, often deservedly. But if we’re to hold him up as guilty of hijacking our night-time visions in the service of an inward, intrapsychic enterprise, where an individual’s dream experience is reduced to purely personal concerns, we should pause and remember that in some sense he was merely expressing a dominant current in the Western psyche. In his essay concluding this volume, Kelly Bulkeley tries to historicise the modern discipline of “dream studies” by tracing the intrapsychic emphasis back to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”—the culmination of his thirst for an unshakeable ground to philosophy, thinking, and being. Social, cultural and ecological foundations for our existence were swept aside by a fine beam of intellectual paranoia. Thatcher’s “There’s no such thing as society” is a direct descendent of cogito ergo sum.

Dream studies and dreamwork, in the way they’ve grown out of psychology, therapies, neuroscience, pop science and informal grassroots “dream groups”, seem to aptly reflect the heterogeneity and multi-layered nature of dreams themselves—in almost every aspect apart from their tendency to be dominated by the white middle classes. The first essay in this volume acts as a good symbolic step out of this stereotype, finding Jane White-Lewis, a well-off Jungian analyst from Conneticut, goaded by someone at her college reunion into starting a course on dreams in an alternative inner city public high school in New Haven. Within pages I was staggered by the idea that this was—as far as the author knew—the first course of its kind. It seems so obvious. Discussing, collectively analysing, working and playing with dreams seemed to generate sparks of enthusiasm for so many aspects of education in the kids that White-Lewis taught. Some found their capacity for symbolic thinking coming on in leaps and bounds. One guy got turned on to literature—and his own creative potential—when Lewis-White read him the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy, to show how uncannily a dream of his mirrored this otherwise intimidating great work. Some people first tapped into a personal “voice” in writing through keeping a dream journal. And social and personal issues, from drug-related violence to divorce, found a fruitful, non-judgmental ground for discussion in sharing dream experiences.

Following from this, authors present a fascinating series of accounts demonstrating the social relevance and applications of dreams—albeit with a clear sense of taking “first steps”, culturally speaking, in expanding the scope of our attitude to dreams. Essays on working with dreams with Canadian Cree people, and detailing the status of dreams in Afro-American culture, make it clear that the West’s “intrapsychic”, desocialised approach to dreaming, while having made some important discoveries, is seriously impoverished. From some preliminary research into attitudes to dreams among blacks in America, Anthony Shafton concludes that blacks generally pay much more attention to their dreams than whites.

This interest does not, however, carry them into the settings where most dreamwork takes place. Many of the professionals [African-American writers on black culture and psychology interviewed by Shafton] emphasized that blacks, with their pressing reality concerns, consider dreamwork, as the dream movement conceives of it, a luxury they can’t afford—to the extent, that is, they are even aware of its existence.

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Instead, this apparently greater interest in dreams comes out in informal “ad hoc dream groups” made up of trusted relatives and friends—the supposedly private experience of dreaming is habitually socialised, diffused through the culture. Shafton goes on to detail how Marion Stamps, a community activist in Chicago, unselfconsciously manifested a dream she had of bringing various street gangs together for a feast after a young local boy was shot in 1992.

The “hard” end of dream socialisation is rounded off with Bette Ehlert’s extended meditation on the structural problems of America’s criminal justice system, together with an account of her dream groups with inmates of various penal institutions in New Mexico. Her Jungian approach, and the powerful results it elicited in certain people in her groups, reminded me strongly of Stanislav Grof’s perception while treating holocaust survivors with LSD. At certain levels of the psyche, the victim/perpetrator duality—like other dualities—becomes very fluid and susceptible to a reversal that needs to be fully acknowledged before it can be integrated. This stuff is “intrapsychic”, for sure; but alongside so many persuasive pieces arguing that dream content should also be related to the external world, directly, it takes potent examples of the still meaningful process of “internal” work to remind us that social value isn’t all about surface.

There are some less pragmatic, more theoretical essays, still dealing with the problem of the West’s fixation on personal meaning amidst crumbling social structures. I especially liked Jeremy Taylor’s take on dreaming’s relevance to that old “psychospiritual dilemma of the postmodern world” chestnut, detailing with verve how Christianity, despite (or rather, because of) the Bible’s numerous instances of connecting dreams with contact with God, has inexorably wiped dreams from the realm of the collective search for meaning.

One essay quotes from James Hillman’s We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy, and the World’s Getting Worse, criticising “inner child” work:

[T]he child archetype is by nature apolitical and disempowered. . . . This is a disaster for our political world, for our democracy. Democracy depends on intensely active citizens, not children . . . [w]e’re disempowering ourselves through therapy.

In the neurotic white middle-class world, this call for activism is to be applauded. However, I can’t help but be informed by my personal experience. As much as I’ve seen, and experienced, positive social changes around political activism, I’ve also seen and experienced some incredibly negative unravelling of blatantly personal issues—ones that were far from being magically dissipated by vigorous social concern and direct involvement in community politics. Obviously the political dimension is sorely lacking from Western dream studies, as in much of our “alternative spirituality” and “self-development” currents; but I would offer the caveat that politicisation is no more of a panacea than psychotherapy may have once seemed.

Balance, then, is crucial. But as I’m fond of observing, sometimes a counter-emphasis is necessary to drag neglected aspects into the dialogue. Happily free of any overestimation of the importance of dreamwork and dream studies, but maintaining a passionate faith in their value, Among All These Dreamers seems to point the way to just such a healthy revaluation of our relationship to our dreams, and through them, to each other.