I[ASD] Newsletter -- Dream Review

Kelly Bulkeley Ph.D.



Warning: Two Glowing Book Reviews Ahead!

Books Reviewed in this Essay:

Dream Reader: Contemporary Approaches to the Understanding of Dreams, by Anthony Shafton. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1995. 677 pages. $19.95 (paper).

Families and the Interpretation of Dreams: Awakening the Intimate Web, by Edward Bruce Bynum. New York, New York: Harrington Park Press, 1993. 250 pages. $14.95 (paper).

Anthony Shafton's Dream Reader and Edward Bynum's Families and the Interpretation of Dreams are big, powerful, challenging, and at times utterly overwhelming books. Shafton and Bynum offer sweeping visions of the nature and meaning of human dream experience, and they both ground their visions in richly detailed, densely reasoned arguments. These two books are outstanding, certainly among the very best to have appeared in recent years.

The two books are also, it must be admitted, exhausting. Shafton's work clocks in at 525 pages of text (with another 150 pages for the notes, bibliography, indexes, etc.). Bynum's has "only" 226 pages of text, but in those 226 pages he ranges from ancient Africa to modern sleep laboratories to eternal realities, from psychology to neurology to anthropology to spirituality. Shafton and Bynum demand great endurance from their readers, to be sure. But if readers agree to the challenge, they will be rewarded by a profound expansion of their understanding of the dream studies field.

Anthony Shafton is a writer whose previous publications include a novel, The Apostate Heriger, and a non-fiction work, Conditions of Awareness, which explores the Darwinian evolution of existential awareness. In the introduction to Dream Reader Shafton says that his interest in dreams grew out of meditational practice" almost as soon as I undertook meditation, my dream life began to flourish." (1) Shafton was intrigued by the "vertical channel" (1) which his dreams opened up to him, and he began reading books on dreams, attending lectures and workshops, and participating in dream groups. Taking a cue from Alan Moffitt's comment that "dreams can be studied by anyone with equal legitimacy" (made during Moffitt's Presidential Address at the 1990 ASD conference in Chicago), Shafton went to work analyzing the best of popular, clinical, and scholarly writings on dreams. The results of Shafton's research are breathtaking. Dream Reader is the single most complete and thorough analysis of contemporary dream theories yet written. The book starts with an excellent survey of research into the relationship between dreams and REM sleep. Then it offers detailed examinations of Freudian, Jungian, Existentialist, Culturalist, and Gestalt theories of dream interpretation. The book's final section is organized by special topics of dream research. There are chapters on dream incubation, dreams and symptoms, dream styles, initial and termination dreams, non-interpretive approaches to dreams, and an outstanding chapter on lucidity. If Shafton has neglected to include any contemporary aproach to dreams, it's news to me. But the book is not simply a compendium of information, theories, and research findings. As the title Dream Reader suggests, Shafton has really read the contemporary literature on dreams. He has analyzed the arguments, evaluated the language, traced the lines of historical influence, and discerned the subtle differences and similarities among various approaches. And Shafton writes very well himself, in a clear, enjoyable prose style. I've never read a book that provided such an insightful and engaging perspective on the field of dream studies as a whole. Shafton generously offers his critical praise to clinicians, scholars, and popular dreamworkers alike, but he doesn't hesitate to cast scorn on anyone whose work with dreams is fuzzy-headed or self-inflated. It's refreshing to find a book that throws bouquets and brickbats so accurately, and with such good cheer.

Beyond its masterly critical survey of the field, Dream Reader makes a number of important assertions intended to influence future dream studies. One is a revisionist elevation of Alfred Adler, an early psychoanalyst who broke with Freud in 1911 (three years before Jung). Shafton credits Adler with foreshadowing, and often directly influencing, the dream theories of Medard Boss, Walter Bonime, Fritz Perls, and many others, all of whom share Adler's fundamental rejection of the concept of the unconscious. Another revisionist claim made by Shafton regards the terms "anagogic" and "catagogic," which were first used earlier in the century by Herbert Silberer and Wilhelm Stekel. "Anagogic" dreams are "upward leading" (240), with more positive, health-oriented, even spiritual themes. "Catagogic" dreams are "downward leading" (240), with more negative, illness-oriented, anarchic themes. Shafton devotes a chapter to showing how the anagogic/catagogic polarity helps us sort through various theories about the nature and function of dreams. In the final chapter of Dream Reader Shafton offers his own approach to practical dreamwork, which he calls "the Bo Tree principle." He refers to the Buddhist legend in which Guatama meditates beneath a bo tree, resisting the temptations of various demons sent to torment him, until he attains enlightenment. From this story Shafton draws the principle that to approach one's fears is to transform them. This "approach transform" principle is an excellent guide to dreamwork, Shafton believes, because it encourages true eclecticism, the use of many different dreamwork techniques, methods, and strategies, all oriented towards the creative transformation of negative psychological energies. Dream Reader is a monumental work, in the sense that it should serve as a primary reference work in the dream studies field for many years to come. To insure that Dream Reader would be maximally useful as a reference work, Shafton took it upon himself to compile the two indexes (names and authors, and general subjects). Dream researchers both present and future owe Shafton great appreciation for this undoubtedly difficult task.

Edward Bynum's Families and the Interpretation of Dreams is a monumental work, too, but in a different sense: Bynum is offering nothing less than a grand theory of the human spirit, expressed in and through the experience of dreaming. Bynum draws on research from psychology, history, anthropology, and religious studies to articulate an understanding of dreams as an opening to "the noetic or spiritual dimensions" of existence (198). His book makes an extremely powerful argument that our dreams do much more than reveal individual psychological dynamics-dreams, Bynum says, bring us into deeper spiritual community with our families, with our culture, with the whole of humankind, and with the cosmos itself.

Bynum is a clinical psychologist and Director of the Behavioral Medicine Program at the University of Massachusetts Health Services in Amherst. He has published a number of books, including The Family Unconscious and Transcending Psychoneurotic Disturbances: New Approaches in Psychospirituality and Personality Development. As this background suggests, Bynum is thoroughly familiar with clinical psychological approaches to dreams. He makes highly effective use of his own clinical experience as he lays out his arguments in Families and the Interpretation of Dreams. A primary thesis of Bynum's book is that dreams reveal the existence of "the family unconscious." The family unconscious, Bynum says, is a "system of shared meaning, shared feeling, and shared emotion" (22) that develops among people living closely and intensely together over a long period of time. It manifests itself in dreams that address specific family problems, in images and themes shared in the dreams of many family members, and most strikingly in precognitive or telepathic dreams. Bynum presents dozens of fascinating examples in which family members caught in the midst of a crisis e.g., an accident, an illness, an impending death, communicate with each other through their dreams. While he declines to argue about the "final truth" of such experiences, Bynum nevertheless provides a compelling explanation for them in his notion of the family unconscious. "Embedded in the family process," he says, "with all its powerful emotional factors, is the capacity to touch upon deep imagery that affects the psyche, the soma, and the material world." (110)

Bynum's respect for the spiritual dimensions of dreaming, his appreciation of precognitive and telepathic potentials in dreams, and his clinical investigations into the family unconscious are enough to make Families and the Interpretation of Dreams a highly valuable work. But what makes the book unique in contemporary dream literature is its reliance on an explicitly African frame of cultural reference. Bynum repeatedly refers to the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of Africa, which predates European civilization by many centuries, and he seeks to incorporate this ancient African wisdom into modern psychotherapeutic dream practice. African healing traditions approach illnesses very differently from European traditions: instead of asking what is the matter with the sick person, African healers asked who is the matter, who in the sick person's social world is caught up with him or her in an illness-generating conflict. This concern with the interpersonal context of illness and healing has recently been rediscovered, Bynum says, by family systems therapy; but its true roots reach back to the origins of human civilization in the Nile Valley.

In this regard, Bynum and Shafton share a very strong interest in challenging the limitations of Euro-American dream theories by bringing to the fore the theories and practices of African cultures. Shafton's current research is devoted to exploring the role of dreams in African-American life, while Bynum is working on a series of books expanding his arguments in Families and the Interpretation of Dreams. Having noted that shared interest, it should also be acknowledged that these two books are in a way radically different from each other. Shafton's tone in Dream Reader is strictly secular. His approach to dreams is sober, balanced, cautious, and skeptical; he becomes suspicious at any turn into spiritual or religious reflection. Bynum's prose, by contrast, is lyrical and rapturous, frequently soaring towards the stars in spiritual joy. In his book's epilogue, titled, "From Matter to Dream to Light," Bynum concludes with the words, "and so we dream into the dream of matter and energy beyond our human dreaming until all mind and boundary are completely dissolved and transcended and we dream ourselves into the infinite lifeblood of God." (226) Readers of these two fine books will thus find themselves confronted by yet another challenge, perhaps the greatest one facing those of us who study dreams: is it possible to integrate the secular and the religious dimensions of contemporary dream research?