The Philosophical Foundations of Group Dream Work

published in Adlerian Yearbook[1] as

Hermeneutics and Group Dream Work

Torrey Byles

copyright (c) Torrey Byles, All Rights Reserved



In this paper, my purpose is to introduce dream interpretation to the contemporary philosophical framework of hermeneutics. Each needs the other. Dreams contain individual and social themes, and therefore are best understood by groups. Hermeneutics is the group practice of finding meaning, that humans conduct whether they know it or not. A hermeneutic approach to dream interpretation not only brings interpretive power to specific dreams, but it helps people become more conscious of the way in which humans collectively establish, explore, and evolve cultural meanings. Creating meaning is a process of melding the personal, subjective experience with the group’s, intersubjective experience. It is a good skill to develop. Group dreamwork, I propose, is a convenient vehicle for cultivating this important human skill. Group dreamwork can serve as an examplar and prototype for developing authentic community, organizational coherence, and conscious interdependence among people.

Table of Contents

Background: Thinking Outside the Box.

The Interpretation of Dreams in Groups.

Hermeneutics: The Art and Science of Interpretation.

Six Aspects of Hermeneutics.

1. Circularity.

2. Wholes, Gestalts, and Structural Phenomena.

3. Community, Discussion Based.

4. Truthfulness rather than Truth.

5. Multiple Perspectives.

6. The “Aha” Insight as Criterion of Validity.

Hermeneutics Compared to Empirical Science.

Group Dreamwork as Social Practice.

Disclosing and Co-Creating New Worlds.

Group Dreamwork and Cultural Evolution.


Appendix A: Seven Positive Effects of Group Dreamwork.

Appendix B: Guidelines for Group Dreamwork.



Background: Thinking Outside the Box

Albert Einstein famously stated that to find solutions to our problems requires a different consciousness than the one that created the problem in the first place. When we sleep, dreams form a bridge between the consciousness that created our problems and the new consciousness that contains their solutions. Group dreamwork–sharing our dreams with others–is the practice of bringing us into that new, solution-disclosing consciousness.

Innumerable examples are recorded of dreams acting as carriers of solutions. Elias Howe’s invention of the sewing machine, Einstein’s thought experiment of “riding a beam of light into space” allowing him to conceive the theory of relativity, people detecting early signs of serious and deadly diseases–all these, the result of powerful dreams. Evolutionary psychologist, Sandor Ferenczi (cited in Taylor [1992]), has speculated that the capacity to use language by humans originated in the dream state. We dreamed language into existence.

Dreams are our way of consistently “thinking outside of the box,” because dreams are products of our combined psyche and soma, body and mind, consciousness and unconsciousness. They reflect and express all that our being is experiencing. They contain clues to things that we may, in our normal waking consciousness overlook. Like radar signals to our existence, dreams often contain much wisdom.

Group dreamwork is a process by which we bring forth the creative insights in our dreams with the help of other people. It fosters a kind of thinking different from our normal, Western, rational, goal oriented thinking. It is intuitive, right-brain, holistic, and requires listening internally and externally. It is a collaborative process, not a solitary, “figuring-out” process. In this non-ordinary awareness, we often discover connections that later become solutions.

Group processes, such as the World Café process (Anonymous, World Café Process, website 2006), bring forth collective and collaborative thinking among members of groups. Sharing dreams is different from other processes in one very important respect. Many of these other group processes require a topic or question that the group discusses and explores. A topic or question is the product of higher order cognitive function. It is intellectual and mental, and based on ego-framed qualifications of appropriateness. While certainly appropriate for certain kinds of deliberative processes, it still keeps us thinking inside the box because it is tainted by conditioned thinking.

Conversely, in dreamwork, the initiating source is the dream. A dream comes from an entirely different place than the ego-filtered mind. It is a product of a person’s whole consciousness and sentient being. It is not a rationally produced or ego-produced process. It does not contain with it a hidden agenda or a narrow expectation of outcome.

As Carl Jung says of dreams, “Dreams [are] involuntary, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche and are therefore pure products of nature not falsified by a conscious purpose” (Campbell, 1971, page 67). As a pure product of nature, the dream sets the agenda for a discussion that contains the broadest, most extensive possibilities for creative insight. It brings in a much broader spectrum of elements to consider. Dreams feature a natural attunement to the cultural milieu, even to the cosmos, that a person could not otherwise state consciously.

Even though dreams as topics for discussion avoid the distortions of an ego’s agenda, they are nonetheless relevant to current affairs. As contemporary dream pioneer, Jeremy Taylor (1992), puts it,

The picture that the dream reflects of your life is as much collective as it is personal. The dream always reflects the realities of our social and cultural circumstances with the same clarity and metaphoric candor that it depicts our individual psychological and emotional responses. All dreams reflect society as whole, as well as the individual dreamer’s relationship to it. Some of the most potentially productive, yet generally neglected, aspects of dream work lie in this area of symbolic reflection of the deep social, cultural, and archetypal patterns below the surface appearances of our shared, collective view of reality” (1992, p. 10).

Group dreamwork, then, offers the promise of getting people to think outside the box, especially on social issues. Dreams and group dreamwork offer the possibility of discovering solutions to human problems that go beyond current thinking. Certainly, the individual gets a lot more from a group interpretation of his or her dream than doing it alone or one-on-one with a friend or therapist. More perspectives bring a richer articulation of the symbols of the dream. When the dreamer hears many different views of the dream, he or she has a greater chance of finding an understanding of the dream.

Group interpretation of a dream has another more important effect, and it is that members of the group participate in a cultural construction of meaning. Interpreting a particular person’s dream simultaneously brings a new understanding of the collective circumstances shared by the members of the immediate dream group. Members of the group will usually be surprised to discover common themes of contemporary life experience when they share and reflect on dreams in a session.

So, two effects are present in a group process of interpreting dreams. (1) A given dream, and its meaning to the dreamer, is interpreted; and (2) the members of the group experience a melding of individual perspectives into a new, singular perspective that was otherwise unattainable except through group effort. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, it is not just what the group can do for an individual dream, but what an individual dream can do to move a group of individuals toward a sense of shared circumstance and collective outlook.

Group dreamwork produces a profound sense of community and of shared collective wisdom. It fosters in the individual an awareness larger than that of a single person, but is uniquely shaped by each person of the group. The human being is social by nature. Knowledge and wisdom can exist only socially. Group dreamwork powerfully brings forth shared accomplishment and knowingness. Co-creation, collaboration, and interdependence are palpable qualities of the group process.

The Interpretation of Dreams in Groups

Group dream interpretation has been a practice of indigenous cultures from before recorded history. Group interpretation is more powerful than that in a dyadic therapist-client process. This power is understandable through a philosophical framework that has recently emerged in modern, Western culture within the last 100 years.  I want to turn my attention to this now. And, note, I adhere to the general protocol for group dreamwork as outlined by Taylor (1992, and in appendix B).

Dreams are problematical to the modern, Western mindset. We are not talking about the phenomenon of dreaming–which can be studied empirically–but about the content of dreams. The content of a dream is highly subjective. Yet, the dream itself is a real experience: it is indisputably an empirical event. Empirical but subjective: this odd combination of phenomenological qualities challenges the traditional scientific method. Classical science is caught in a dilemma; it should study dreams, because they are empirical, yet, its method is ineffective, because they are subjective. Classical science does not know what to do with dreams.

Many people today typically ignore dreams because they want to understand the dream in an objective, rational way, our accustomed way of understanding anything. However, another method for investigating dreams discloses solutions to human predicaments and has a rigor of process. This method does not violate, but, in fact, complements empirical, rational science.

Hermeneutics: The Art and Science of Interpretation

Hermeneutics, or the art and science of interpretation, has, over the past 100 years, been taken from obscure theological domains and made into a major philosophical framework for the post modern era. Its origins lie in law and theology, where making legal judgments and interpreting scripture required an explicit way to map current events to general principles. In these domains, precise deductions from hard data were not possibilities. Human judgment was required. The hermeneutical method concerns itself with the continuity of cultural beliefs and the discernment of new interpretations from earlier interpretations.

Philosophers and linguists in the past century have reconstituted hermeneutics as a major complement to classical, rational-empirical science. Whereas classical science is a method for dealing with objective entities and the laws governing them (i.e., the “physical sciences”), hermeneutics is a method for dealing with subjective and intersubjective phenomena (i.e., the “human,” “cultural,” and “social sciences”). Subjective and intersubjective phenomena are things like beliefs, emotions, psychological states, cultural worldviews, and linguistic frames of characterizing the world–entities that have to do with meaning. If classical science deals with external, surface observations in the three-dimensional world, hermeneutics deals with internal, depth observations within the person, and within the worldview of the culture that conditions the person.

Accordingly, hermeneutics is an ideal framework for interpreting dreams. It is inherently a group process. Hermeneutics implies a group of people who, through conversation, construct interpretations of events that are satisfactory to the group at some level. They seek to calibrate a specific event, in this case a dream, to the larger cultural inventory of symbols and meanings.

Six Aspects of Hermeneutics

1. Circularity

Hermeneutics starts with the recognition that as inquirers we do not start with a blank slate. The tool by which we make inquiries and observations–our minds–is subject to influences, biases, prejudices, life histories. When we “observe” things in the world, our cognitive-sensory-linguistic apparatus gives a particular construction of that world. What we see is critically determined by the apparatus that governs how we see. Our cognitive apparatus gives rise to a unique characterization of what it observes. There is no such thing as objectivity.

In the West, Immanual Kant made the seminal observations of this mode of thinking, calling it a great scandal of philosophy that the circularity of the observing process went unrecognized for 2000 years of European philosophizing.2 We are always within our minds.

Circularity, therefore, is the touchstone of hermeneutics. We are inescapably bound within a circle of our mental apparatus: what we see “out there” is shaped by our workings “in here.” Observer and observed mutually determine the other: in fact, the two are really a single unit of consciousness.

Likewise, in the instance of dreams, the same life experiences that produce a specific dream are also active in how the person interprets the dream. Despite this seemingly inescapable solipsism, we can find a common, shared ground of understanding with others. This finding of a common ground–whether deliberately or unconsciously conducted–is the practice of hermeneutics.

Furthermore, the inherent circularity of hermeneutics manifests in the incremental manner by which we come to understand something. We follow a back and forth movement between a partial understanding of the phenomenon and a sense of the whole. In the words of philosopher H. G. Gadamer, “We attempt to comprehend the whole on the basis of what we already understand, and partial understandings are successively transformed in response to discrepancies arising from [the original narrative material, for example, a dream] and the subject matter itself” (Gadamer cited in Baynes, Bohman, & McCarthy, 1991, page 320).

The practice of hermeneutics in the group dreamwork process begins with a person sharing a dream. Other people respond to the images and “storyline” of the dream as if it were their dream. By taking another’s dream as their own, the participants of the process “own” their biases and influences. They demonstrate their own subjectivity.

In dreamwork, when we speak of a dream, we are offering our own projection on what it means to us. There is no “objective” or “absolute” correct meaning. It is all projection of our consciousness. Therefore, in the group process, it is good to preface one’s remarks with, “If it were my dream, it would mean such and such to me.” In this way, one explicitly owns his or her projection (Taylor, 1992).

2. Wholes, Gestalts, and Structural Phenomena

In the reductionist paradigm of objective science, the inquirer differentiates the phenomenal field into discrete objects, and seeks to identify causal relationships between them. In the hermeneutic paradigm, the exact opposite is the case. The inquirer realizes that his or her perception is enmeshed in what is observed. He or she realizes that the observation arising within him or her is the product of a larger field of influences: for example, the bias of a cultural mindset, a belief-feeling complex of a psychological archetype/pattern, an orientation created through the specific language the person speaks, a relational situation with another person, and so forth. The inquirer seeks to understand this larger field from the inside out. Within the circle of the observing consciousness, our attention and that upon which we are focusing our attention is, necessarily, a whole.

Consider fish contemplating the essence of water. Fish will never successfully complete an objective experiment where they remove all their ambient water in order to examine it objectively. They will always contemplate it while simultaneously dwelling within it. Their understanding of it occurs while living in it and will be conditioned by it.

In dreamwork, the structures that give rise to my dream (viz., daily experience, life history, including, some would say, the conditioning of my soul) are also operating when I try to understand my dream. I cannot step outside of these influences. Ideally, I work with a group of people and, build up from scratch a larger context by which to understand the dream. We refer to this process as ‘pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps’ or ‘bootstrap’ a larger context. In a back-and-forth dialogue with people, we incrementally assemble a picture of a whole. In this group process, a tremendous, unexpected uncovering can take place.

Little by little, a single dream can produce a comprehensive snapshot of our cultural predicament. By taking a little part of a larger pattern in which we are enmeshed, we bring forth into consciousness this larger pattern. In this sense, dreams have the property of fractals: the microcosmic scale of a single dream of an individual corresponds proportionately to the macrocosmic scale of the cultural predicament of that individual.

A woman in her twenties shared a dream with a group of eight people. While she was too young to have lived during the Depression, in her dream she wandered through a city environment that resembled New York in the 1930s. Superman appeared in the dream and saved a family in a tumble-down tenement apartment building.

The dreamgroup included two men who had been born in the late thirties and early forties, and a man born in the fifties–birthdates closer to the era than that of the dreamer. These men’s projections on the woman’s dream filled out historical and cultural details of the 1930s period: a low, dreary time of Western culture that appeared headed for the end of its economic life, the rise of totalitarian governments in response, and the coming of a great conflict.

The multiple perspectives nevertheless created a common tableau for understanding the dream. In the course of the discussion, the dreamer related how she was the child who acted as protector to her family. Thus, the Superman figure in the dream became a symbol of her role in her family. That she dreamed this, remembered it, and came to tell it to others, we felt was a sign that she had become conscious of her role in her family. She came away with a new sense of self-understanding. Not only did the woman get insight into herself, but the others in the group had a sense of satisfaction.

Finding meaning in dreams takes time. It involves jumping from partial understanding to an understanding of the whole. Dreamwork involves simultaneously holding the part up to the whole. Part-whole interrelationships occur on many levels: an element of the dream to the overall dream; the dream to the dreamer’s life; the dreamer and his or her dream to the collective interpretation of the dream during the session; the member of the dreamgroup to the entire group; the dreamgroup session to life events of each member before and after the session. On all these levels, amazing synchronicities occur between the one component and the larger field in which it exists and which it reflects.

3. Community, Discussion Based

Understanding of structural phenomena can  proceed only through a collective, or group fashion. It is the effect of several blind persons describing an elephant. The person holding the trunk thinks all elephants are long and tubular. The person touching the leg thinks of them in terms of massive pillars. The person touching the ears thinks of them as floppy. Only through sharing each individual experience does a more complete and accurate picture of the phenomenon emerge to all.

Hermeneutics is inherently a group process. Its objective is to discern the structure of which the individual subject consciousness is a part. Its practice consists of a group of people discovering larger patterns of meaning than each could individually. A dream shared with and discussed by several people brings forth a composite description of a cultural theme and a behavioral complex that often was not originally apparent to the dreamer (or any other one person). This complex reveals itself slowly and incrementally in a group discussion as a product of multiple perspectives.

As dream pioneer Montagu Ulman says (cited in Taylor, 1992, page 129), “Although the dream is a very private communication, it requires a social context for its fullest realization. That is not to say that helpful work cannot be done by an individual working alone, but, rather, that a social context is a more powerful instrument for the type of healing that can take place through dream work.”

The hermeneutical process is inherently a dialogue, not a monologue. It requires a group of observers. The process is a sharing of projections, experiences, and personal meanings for creating a larger sense of the phenomena under discussion. No single person can fully elaborate a cultural theme, a dream symbol, or a situation. The more people giving a personal response to a dream, the more extensive can be the elaboration of that dream content.

The group aspect of hermeneutics is also due to the fact that, as Taylor (1998) says, “The dreamer is uniquely blind to the meaning of his/her dream” (p. 265). The blind spots are reduced when a group, rather than an individual, works on a dream. The perspectives of others help bring forth a larger context and extension of associations that give that context depth.

4. Truthfulness rather than Truth

Hermeneutics is a kind of group confessional experience. People tell what certain symbols and situations mean to them. This may entail providing details about personal histories, experiences, beliefs, and values. Because the material is inherently subjective and intersubjective (i.e., cultural worldviews and themes), truthfulness in reporting the subjective state, starting with truthfully reporting the dream content itself, is critical to the outcome of the process.

Ken Wilbur (1997) gives an example useful in distinguishing between truthfulness (of the inquirer) versus the truth (of the inquiry). When I say, “It is raining outside,” the key issue for hermeneutics is not whether my statement matches the facts. The issue is whether I am sincerely telling the truth of what I believe to be happening. It is not so much “does the map match the territory” but “can the mapmaker be trusted.”

Truth and truthfulness go hand in hand. We are not favoring one over the other. We are making the distinction that one (truthfulness) is about the process, while the other (truth) is about the outcome. Here, I am focusing on the process.

The hermeneutic process involves the interior dimensions, the meaningfulness that things have to a person. It does not provide a description of things outside of us. It is a confession of what things mean to us inside us. Thus, it is about being honest, to the best of one’s ability, of reporting on interiors–emotions, values, beliefs. In modern culture, with its materialist bias, interiors are denigrated, marginalized, not considered “real” or worthy of attention.

Neurosis is a state of being out of touch with one’s true feelings, or one’s actual desires, or one’s authentic inner state. As one denies or represses these things, one lies to oneself. It is a form of misinterpreting one’s subjective condition.

We can understand dreams as unconscious thoughts and memories becoming conscious, albeit in symbolic and sometimes cryptic form. The recall of a dream is a sign that the person wants to know something in this area. Thus, to remember the dream and to speak about it (whether your own or that of someone else), is to start the process of getting truthful and real with yourself.

This is not to diminish the value of finding the “truth” of a dream, or of any interpreted context. It is to emphasize that another component of human inquiry is equal to, if not greater than, finding the truth. This component is personal integrity and authenticity as performance, not some final assessment made by an observer. Furthermore, for the domains in which hermeneutics plays a role in human understanding, no single absolute truth is available. Indeed, the holding of multiple perspectives is another key aspect of the hermeneutical process.

5. Multiple Perspectives

Freud observed that dreams and symbols in dreams are overdetermined. This means that one can find no single, “right” interpretation of a dream. A dream can mean many things, often contradictory.

In general, the hermeneutic process develops the characteristic that no interpretation is privileged as the correct one. To put this in context, remember that over a hundred year period, the US Supreme Court (an institution dedicated to hermeneutical understanding) ranged from supporting slavery (the Dred Scott Decision), to partially supporting it (upholding Jim Crow laws), to completely upholding universal civil rights (the civil rights decisions of the 1950s and 1960s). In a sense, the old saw, “All is true,” really is true! Truth depends on the circumstances.

All perspectives are true, or to put it more attractively, “have some truth.” Different circumstances will dictate which interpretation is most appropriate. This is hard to handle from the strictly rational approach. Rationality leaves no room for ambiguity.

6. The “Aha” Insight as Criterion of Validity

Because hermeneutics is interpretation in the realm of subjective and intersubjective experience, one has no recourse to objective verification as one might in rational empirical science. Choosing the acceptable or appropriate interpretation of something is a matter of intuitive feeling. The person gets an “aha” experience.

A person can find many interpretations–even contradictory ones–of a dream. Multiple views and perspectives is part of the hermeneutical process. Nonetheless, some are better than others, and knowing which may be better is a function of how the given interpretation feels or sits with the person. With dreams, only the dreamer can say whether someone’s interpretation feels right or not.

One woman says proudly, belligerently, “Jesus Christ came to me in my dream.” To her, this visitation is as objectively real as paying bills. A man says, “Oh, I see what your dream is about: it is about your issues with your mother .” In other words, he makes his projection the absolute truth and offers no other perspective. He does not see that it is his perspective; indeed, his issues that he is bringing out, and projecting onto others.

In some sense, nothing is gained in arguing with people about their hard held interpretations. The proof is in how well the interpretation allows them to behave in the world. It may take time for the person to come around and to get to a place to accept another perspective.

The truth validity claim–the epistemological issue–with hermeneutics is what leaves this form of knowing vulnerable to attack by the hard scientists. Certainly, some justification for this attack remains. We would like to have a more definite way to justify our beliefs. We want certainty in our thinking. However, we cannot have these things. For the domains of the interior and depth, the domains for hermeneutics, this indeterminacy and “lightness of being” is all that is possible.

When all of the other aspects of hermeneutics are present, this epistemological issue is less of a shortcoming. In other words, when people form community, speak truthfully, and about interior and structural issues, this makes up for the soft truth criterion of “oh, that feels right to me” in finding the right interpretation. Taken as a whole package, the hermeneutical process delivers a fulfillment and a satisfaction of understanding that transcends mere rationalization.

Hermeneutics Compared to Empirical Science

The important aspect of hermeneutics is that it acknowledges the reality of the interiority of human consciousness–emotions, beliefs, intentions, motivations–and provides a methodology for dealing with it. Empirical science is mute with interior meaning and attempts to deal with it by focusing on behavior “downstream” to meaning.

As the contents of dreams are subjective, the only way fruitfully to investigate them is through a hermeneutic process. In general, the utility of the hermeneutic process is that it is a method for investigating the non-objective dimension of human life. The non-objective includes the values, morals, aesthetic sensibilities and preferences, the emotions, beliefs, the inter-personal relationship issues, the religious experiences, and so on: all those interior phenomena that one cannot speak of objectively, but which impinge on our lives and must be dealt with in some fashion.

Table 1 shows a comparison of hermeneutics with objective science.

Interpretive (Hermeneutical) Science Objective Science

Internal states – depth

External things – surface

Subjective and intersubjective


Gestalt, holistic, structural

Linear, rational, reductionist

Paradox, multi-perspective

Logically consistent, single thesis

Right brain

Left brain







Insight, realization

Conclusion, fact

Table 1: A Comparison of Objective with Interpretive Knowing

Hard science (the empirical, rational mode of knowing) deals with objective reality. Hermeneutics (group interpretation) deals with subjective and intersubjective reality. Science deals with the surface, three-dimensional world, whereas hermeneutics deals with depth, the interiors of the human being, individually and collectively.

Interpretation has and always will be an important manner by which humans cope with the world. In our scientific age, rational empirical approaches to coping are overdominant and hegemonic in resolving our affairs. Interpretation has suffered a second-class status. Nonetheless, interpretation – making meaningfulness to life – is and will always be an essential focus of being-in-the-world.

The inevitability of interpretation is underscored in a backhanded way by some of the theorems of the physical sciences, such as, for example, Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, Herbert Simon’s principle of bounded rationality, and Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy. All these point out that rational explanation is limited and is grounded within larger fields and contexts of personal and cultural meaning. That is, objectivity exists within larger fields of subjectivity and intersubjectivity.

As we recognize the legitimacy of hermeneutics as a valid manner of dealing with the world, we can avoid the dysfunctions and distortions that occur by applying rationality to certain domains, such as self realization, relationship, and emotional issues. We are given a new avenue for dealing with certain classes of human problems. Hermeneutics offers a valid alternative to exploring inner states and cultural issues without trying to cram these domains into objective scientific frameworks where they don’t belong, or invoking unexamined religio-metaphysical dogmas. As its domains and methods are overtly recognized, we get a sense of validation of truths that come from it, instead of feeling illegitimate.

Group Dreamwork as Social Practice

Hermeneutics practiced well is how people build cultural coherence and solidarity. While it originated in and continues to be used in the fields of jurisprudence and theology, it can serve a greater range of social discourse. Here is the great promise of group dreamwork. It can serve to popularize hermeneutics and make it a community- and culture-building practice.

In the hermeneutical process, the individual and society come together and reciprocally transform each other. Add the focus on dreams and the hermeneutical process becomes the prototype of all group transformative processes.

Jeremy Taylor provides one of the best cases for this in his early work with group dreamwork. As a social worker in the 1960s in Oakland, California, Jeremy was working with white volunteers to assist urban poor blacks. Yet, despite the good intentions of the white people, a negative response to their efforts prevailed. In an act of desperation, Jeremy changed the format of engaging the white volunteers. He instituted a forum for sharing and discussing their dreams. The focus was on dreams of persons of other races. Over several weeks, the attitudes of the white people changed from self-righteously knowing the roots of racism in a theoretical and intellectual way, to realizing how emotionally and unconsciously embedded racism was in them.

As Jeremy explains it, the process of opening up to other people helped the individual person own his or her own prejudices and repressed fears. More importantly, from sharing these with others in a public space and recognizing that others had similar repressed fear came a self acceptance that, in turn, diminished the power of the repressed images.

As Jeremy explained it, “I now see these two seemingly separate actions–of increased self acceptance, and increased interest in and respect for each other–as reflections of a single act of moral courage and creative imagination, invited into consciousness through the sharing of dreams” (Taylor, 1992, p. 110).

Moral courage and creative imagination are the hallmarks of a hermeneutic process. They lead to simultaneous change at the personal and collective levels. Jeremy’s example is in the realm of racial issues. The same kind of transformative effect can happen across the spectrum of interior issues: our ability to relate to the opposite gender, our sense of self, our relationship to money and livelihood, or our public selves. The power of group interpretation is that the individual person and public collective are changed in a reciprocating dance of mutual recognition and reflexive understanding.

“Politics and psychology are married,” says Arnold Mindell (1995, p. 38). “Most chronic self-criticism stems from the internalization of mainstream views. Every political move by the majority has consequences for how we each deal with ourselves. Every time you work to free yourself from a sense of internal oppression, you begin to transform the cultures you live in.”

People are emotionally, spiritually, and behaviorally rewarded when they participate in support groups, men’s groups, book clubs, discussion groups, church fellowship groups, 12-step programs, and so on. This reward is also at the basis for the reconciliation and war crimes courts that have occurred since the end of WWII. The truth and the reconciliation of victims and perpetrators needs to be brought forth in order for social healing to take place and go forward. This is restorative justice. It is through interacting with other people, sharing interpretations, working through dialogue to understand one’s life and times that people gain a better hold of their lives and change their habitual practices and behaviors. Hermeneutics produces shifts and helps people resolve things.

What these support groups and courts of justice have in common is the allowance for an individual person to share interior truths and stories, no matter how unattractive they may be, in a public circle of other people. This has a powerful transformative effect on both the speaker and the listeners. Dream groups, however, go a couple of steps further. Dreams are purely natural, as noted above, and they capture in miniature, the greater life pattern that the dreamer, group of dreamers, and even culture is experiencing in general. As a group has no other agenda than to look at dreams, the dreamgroup is the alpha support group, the prototype of all other support groups.

The emotional reward from a hermeneutic process does not come from a person’s adopting preordained principles or precepts. It comes from sharing life experiences and outlooks, relating it and dialoguing with others, and finding a common ground of meaningfulness–even if that shared meaningfulness has uncertainties, hopes, and fears. One can find personal comfort through discovered group solidarity.

As philosopher Richard Rorty (1979, p. 389) says, “hermeneutics is not so much an alternative knowledge, but an alternative way to cope. If we see knowing not as having an essence . . . but rather as a right, by current standards, to believe, then we are well on the way to seeing conversation as the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood. Our focus shifts from the relation between human beings and the objects of their inquiry to the relation between alternative standards of justification, and from there to the actual changes in those standards.”

We need to recognize the essence of this interpretive practice as valid; and we need to pursue it regularly, consciously, and diligently. Doing this will change our collective world. It will change it by changing our individual worlds from the inside out.

Disclosing and Co-Creating New Worlds

While hermeneutical processes for whatever topic of discussion are valuable for their collaborative and co-creative effects, when dreams are the subject matter for discussion, the effect can be extraordinary. Dreams encapsulate cultural gestalts reflected in the symbolic imagery of an individual’s life history. Interpreting dreams in a group brings forth these individualistic expressions of the ego-in-culture. They are natural guideposts to what is possible in the moment of our consciousness concerning these cultural issues. Thus, to interpret them in a group context is an orienting process to immediate cultural and social issues.

As dreams are continually bringing these core issues to our consciousness, through the group interpretive process we collectively explore and create mutual understandings around these core issues. Out of conversation of an image such as a dream, our group attention comes to “the leading edge of our awareness” of what we are as a species. Our conversations and sharing itself pushes further the arrow of our evolution.

As our self-identities and definitions change, we will change our behavior. As we discuss a paradigm of human behavior, in the process of talking about a dream, for example, we may see something about ourselves inherent in that behavior. In the moment of becoming conscious of that aspect of ourselves, we may then be more conscious of it in future similar situations. This will modify our future behavior.

For example, if someone sees the opposite sex as threatening, or empowered in a way that they are not, then they will take preemptive action the next time they are in situations where that differential of power may adversely affect them.

A man and a woman of different nationalities were contemplating a pretend marriage, in order for each to obtain citizenship in the other’s country. The man also became attracted to the woman. In the midst of their negotiations, the man dreamed of a college girlfriend he had 20 years earlier who was significant to him, among other things, for being sexually unfulfilling. According to him, this college girlfriend was voluptuous, but frigid, and he was, well, a young college male. He had experienced frustration in this relationship and, in the dream 20 years after he last saw her, she performed a strip tease, removing hoops from herself and placing them on him. She contemptuously called him “honey.” In the last part of the dream, he became lucid (he realized he was dreaming) and decided that he would fly. He flew up the face of Notre Dame Cathedral and bounded up the massive masonry front of the building by pulling on its protruding gargoyles.

With the help of his dreamgroup, the man saw how his general view of women and getting into intimate relationships was a matter of jumping through hoops and was ultimately frustrating. He sought sacred union with the female, but essentially found a stone face with ugly gargoyles to be as far as he could get. He ended up backing away from the pretend marriage.

With an understanding of humanity made conscious, a person may alter his or her behavior. When the understandings are made explicit, as they are in the dialogue of the group, one’s habitual behaviors become conscious and amenable to change.

Group Dreamwork and Cultural Evolution

Philosopher Charles Taylor (1985) makes the point that theorizing about social, cultural, and psychological phenomena is categorically different than is theorizing about physical phenomena. Making a theory about culture, changes culture; but making physical theories do not have an impact on the phenomena (except, perhaps, at the quantum level3). The circularity of hermeneutical understanding makes any self-definition, on a personal or social level, dynamic and unstable. A self-amplifying feedback loop effect occurs. Once we create an intellectual model or ideal for humans, that model affects our behavior and thinking. We tend consciously to embrace or resist the model we have in our minds.

For example, if we think of ourselves as rational, self-gratifying agents, then we act opportunistically. If we see that any understanding is an ego-created illusion, then we can become more mystical in life, seeing it as unreal. If we see life as theatre (as being “on stage”), then we become an insufferable show off. If we see life as dangerous and scary, then we are careful and defensive. Whatever self-understanding we arrive at will subsequently inform how we behave. In turn, this behavior will reinforce our understanding.

Unlike the physical sciences, in the hermeneutical sciences, theory and practice are intermingled. The actual discussion of what it means to be human is a cultural building process. Social change and construction takes place within the conversation among people.

Thus, the circularity of hermeneutical understanding can seem unstable, distorting, relativistic and nihilistic. Nevertheless, it underscores the social dimension of meaning in our lives and the necessity of actively participating in that social constructive process. The group will always produce a self-definition larger than that of any single individual. Of course, the integrity or therapeutic satisfaction of the self-definition will depend on how good the group is. Moreover, the group interaction itself transforms the members of the group. This is probably the ultimate use of hermeneutics.

Spinosa, Flores and Dreyfus (1997) demonstrate in their book, Disclosing New Worlds, how Martin Luther King, Jr. changed social behavior and cultural practices by reconfiguring Americans’ self definition of what it means to be human. King transformed race relations in the United States by taking the Christian concept that all people are brothers and sisters and marrying it to the cause of inter-racial acceptance. He used Christian fellowship to amend the racism and the split between races. This re-interpretation of race, by transposing a Christian interpretation of human relationship, allowed white people to reorient themselves relative to other races. Certainly, this reinterpretation operated on the psychological level, but, importantly, its genesis was in the interpersonal, linguistic, and intersubjective level. That is, what King did was essentially an interpretive, hermeneutical action.

The act of discussing self-definitions and one’s internal conversations about various topics and issues is itself a transformative process. Dreamwork is a way to bring forth these kinds of self-defining discussions among people. As, hopefully, it is now obvious, these are not discussions at an abstract, intellectual, or theoretical level only, but at a very personal-experiential level. As the discussion pertains to a person’s night time dream, it brings up a specific life history, interior landscape, emotions, and fears. The discussion of human nature takes place in the concrete terms of the person’s emotional and existential situation.

In discussing dreams, people share their inner senses of self, and a surprising relief and solidarity results. In this, change at the personal and group level occurs.

Hermeneutics as a methodology of knowing is different, again, from the empirical science in this transformative way. Through discussion and a group attempt at defining and understanding human nature, we may actually change our behavior and practices. Rorty’s injunction is key here: conversation is the ultimate context within which any particular knowledge (especially self knowledge) is to be understood; and that our real focus should be consciously recognizing the particular standard(s) we use to understand ourselves. With this focus, we will see that our self-understanding is provisional; it is the best attempt, the most plausible hypothesis, given all the experiences of those people in the group. This is an important, valuable aspect of hermeneutics that should be appreciated more widely than it is. Knowledge evolves over time.

As the people of the planet get more densely interconnected with each other, we become aware of differences in cultures, values, and belief systems. This upwelling of conflicting values is an enlightenment process. Like all enlightenment, the more the illumination, the more dark things get exposed. Things get uncomfortable. Dealing with cultural clashes is challenging. It is especially challenging if our only tools for coping are hard science, on the one hand, and revealed religion on the other. This prepares the way for holy wars abetted by extremely powerful technology.

What is needed is not only dialogue among people holding differing views, but a trust and conviction that the dialogue process is a legitimate path of resolution and reconciliation. To trust the dialogue process, people have to see it for what it is: its parameters, its limitations, its differences from science and religious doctrine. This is where awareness that a methodology of interpretation, that is, hermeneutics, will help the dialogue process. It helps because the speakers will be more comfortable that dialogue actually shifts conflicts. Dialogue is a co-creation of the world where participants create the world and validate that what comes from inside the individual, no matter how good or bad it may sound, is an invaluable contribution to this newly disclosed world, itself a work in process.

As we start venturing into collective consciousness, we can start evolving our social arrangement. Hermeneutics allows the co creation of social meaning. This is not to say any meaning can be made, simply as a matter of agreement. It is more of a way of coming to terms with the issues that come up naturally, from dreams and from the other interior realms of our hearts, minds, and souls.


Modern culture is hitting a wall with the way it solves problems. Modern culture over relies on rational, objective science to solve problems. This kind of knowing and knowledge is good for instrumental and technical control over things, but it is limited. Whole orders of problems that humanity faces are wholly outside of these instrumental-technical domains. Our most intractable problems deal with relationship: interpersonal relationships, relationships between person and environment, social justice, governance, political, institutional, moral issues, aesthetic issues, who we are, where we are going. These problems are not solvable through objective science. We do not need more data, surveys, or studies to solve these problems. We need an approach to problem solving that works with structural phenomena.

Another approach is required for understanding and development in these areas. This approach involves hermeneutics, interpretation within a group of people. Group dreamwork is the perfect exercise of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the skill and practice that humanity needs so desperately at this time.

Group dreamwork is a vehicle for grassroots practice of hermeneutics. Since it deals with a “pure product of nature,” it brings forth in natural proportions and in bold immediacy that which is begging to be conscious now. It requires no metaphysical assumptions and yet avoids the rigidities of rational, empirical science. Dreamwork, as a practice of hermeneutics, is a “third force” in the human capacity to deal with the world, lying between faith and hard science, where through discussion, marked by attentive-listening, people discern the larger structural phenomena that interconnects them. It offers a way by which through individual contributions, people can collectively think outside of the box.

Appendix A: Seven Positive Effects of Group Dreamwork

We have identified seven potential perceptual shifts that may occur as a result of group dreamwork.

(1) “Seven-blind-persons-describing-an-elephant effect.” Group dreamwork allows a group of people to discover a larger pattern of meaning than that discovered individually. A dream shared with and discussed by several people brings forth a composite description of a cultural theme and behavioral complex that often was not readily apparent to the dreamer (or any other person). This complex reveals itself as a product of multiple perspectives offered by people on the dream.

(2) Simultaneous, multiple perspectives. When many people put forth their sense of a dream, many details and associations may become meaningful or lead to new insights. They may be contradictory, but all are true, to some extent. This is different from the usual, left-brain analytical, single-conclusion, right-or-wrong mode of thought that dominates our culture.

(3) Gestalt, pattern thinking. In group dreamwork, members are forced to use intuition first and the verbal mind second. One looks for the biggest pattern and speaks to that. Right brain before left brain. One finds a pattern not only in the content of the dream, but within the entire group dreamwork session (even beyond). As members hear things said about a dream, they can hold them all as true, and then ask, What does this mean for me? Dreams elicit pattern sensing, a seeking to capture the full sense of whatever is going on inside in the moment. The permission to share it all with the group is powerful.

(4) Part-whole correspondences. Dreamwork involves simultaneously holding the part up to the whole for comparison. Part-whole balancing occurs on many levels: an element of the dream to the overall dream; the dream to the dreamer’s life; the dreamer and his or her dream to the collective interpretation of the dream during the session; the member of the dreamgroup to the entire group; the dreamgroup session to life events of each member before and after the session. On all these levels, amazing synchronicities will appear between the one component and the larger field that it reflects and in which it exists.

(5) Metaphorical and symbolic understanding. Dying in a dream may mean letting go of an old psychological pattern. Homosexual behavior may mean acceptance of and loving oneself. Sexual behavior may mean zest for life and spiritual yearning. We do not take the images of dreams literally; we take them metaphorically. Metaphorical thinking is the path of experiencing life mystically.

(6) Transpersonal being. We can understand another’s dreams (at least partially) because a dream reflects a reality larger than that of any one person. When we dream, our cellular bodies take in energy from a larger ambient field that we share with all beings. We channel this energy, and it expresses itself uniquely as our bodies have experienced physical life uniquely. Others can understand the dream because of the shared, transpersonal source from which the original energy comes.

(7) Collective awareness, synergy, interdependence. Group dreamwork fosters awareness larger than that of any single person, but which is uniquely shaped by each person of the group. Co-creation, collaboration, and interdependence are palpable qualities of the group process. Group dreamwork fosters shared accomplishment and knowingness. The human being is social by nature. No one exists in isolation, by himself or herself. Knowledge and wisdom can exist only socially. It takes a village to raise a child (i.e., to create a human). Dreamwork produces a profound sense of community.

Appendix B: Guidelines for Group Dreamwork

Jeremy Taylor (1992) provides six main guidelines to conducting groups in dreamwork.

(1) All dreams speak a universal language and come in the service of health and wholeness. There is no such thing as a “bad dream,” only dreams that sometimes take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention.

(2) Only the dreamer can say with any certainty what meanings his or her dream may have. This certainty usually comes in the form of a wordless “aha!” of recognition. This “aha” is a function of memory, and is the only reliable touchstone of dreamwork.

(3) No dream has only one meaning. All dreams and dream images are “overdetermined” and have multiple meanings and layers of significance.

(4) No dreams come to tell you what you already know. All dreams break new ground and invite you to new understandings and insights.

(5) When talking to others about their dreams, it is both wise and polite to preface your remarks with words to the effect that, “if it were my dream. . . .” and to keep this commentary in the first person as much as possible. This means that even relatively challenging and confrontational comments can be made in such a way that the dreamer may hear and internalize them. It also can become a profound psycho-spiritual discipline–“walking a mile in your neighbor’s moccasins.”

(6) All dream group participants should agree at the outset to maintain anonymity in all discussions of dreamwork. In the absence of any specific request for confidentiality, group members should be free to discuss their experiences openly outside the group, provided no other dreamer is identifiable in their stories. However, whenever any group member requests confidentiality, all members should agree automatically to honor such a request.


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[1] An expanded version of this paper (with extra material added by Daniel Eckstein for Adlerian psychologists) was published in 2007 by the Adlerian Society (UK) and the Institute for Individual Psychology. Bibliographic reference: Byles, Torrey and Daniel Eckstein. Hermeneutics and Group Dream Work. Adlerian Year Book 2007. pp. 109-137. Adlerian Society of the United Kingdom and the Institute for Individual Psychology. ISSN 1366-7904. ISBN 978-0-905860-13-8

2 Kant, I. Critique of Pure Reason. 2nd Edition. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. (London, Macmillan, 1963). “it still remains a scandal to philosophy and to human reason in general that the existence of things outside us … must be accepted merely on faith, and that if anyone thinks good to doubt their existence, we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof.”

3 For example, theorize that matter is made of particles, and the observer will see particles; that it is composed of waves, and the observer will see waves.


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