BOOK REVIEW: Robin Shohet: Dream Sharing

How to enhance your under­standing of dreams by group sharing and discussion. 1985. Turnstone Press. ISBN 085500 1801.

Although it is not new, Robin Shohet’s book, Dream Sharing, remains one of the most useful handbooks on working with dreams. In the first two chapters he briefly outlines the various approaches, from the “hard-headed rationalist” who denies that dreams could have any meaning to the “psychoanalyst dream expert” who sets out to know it all, and establishes a “third position” which is open and undogmatic. This expresses the general tone of the whole book. Shohet is quite eclectic, freely moving between classical writers on dreams like Jung, Freud and Fromm and accounts from other cultures and historical periods than our own. He acknowledges that he takes quite an ambivalent view of dreams and asks the reader to examine his or her own attitude to them as well, providing an exercise to facilitate this. From this point, the stage is set for the main argument of the book: “Dreaming alone for me is like eating alone … The social aspect is much neglected in dreamwork.”

Shohet points out that our culture prefers to maintain a rigid separation between the “private” and “public”, and sharing dreams “may cross cultural norms” and offend against “another cultural defence, which ignores the common level of humanity we share in our dreams”. A little later, he says, “In dream groups. . . we tune into a universal language which, in Fromm’s words, we have forgotten.”

At the same time, Shohet insists that the aim should be to “re-experience the dream more fully rather than to interpret it” both for the dreamer and for the listener. “I stress there are no wrong or right ways of listening, as long as you do listen.”

In the third chapter, “What does this dream mean?”, Shohet quickly runs through Fromm’s different types of dream symbol (“conventional, accidental and universal”) and shows how it is possible to work at different levels with every dream. Then he seizes the nettle of whether to classify dreams – and even though he advises ‘Set aside your categories, even the useful ones, and look at the dream as a fresh, original experience’, he nonetheless examines many of types of dream which may be found in ordinary dream handbooks; “nightmares .. recurring dreams . . . precognitive dreams . . . ‘big’ dreams . . .” etc. This seems a little like having your cake and eating it, but I think the point that Shohet is making is that all kinds of attention which you give to your dreams can be rewarding. In short, he is not ruling out even the frequently sterile occupation of categorizing.

After this, the entire book is about how to work with dreams and it is full of examples, ideas, challenges, which would stimulate even the most sluggish mind to wonder. After hints about how to remember and record dreams, he leads us in gently with a chapter on “Ways of Working on Your Own”, in which he gives key questions we may ask ourselves, methods of dialoguing with the dream symbols, free associating and continuing the dream. The next chapter, however, brings us to the real heart of the book – “Why Sharing?” The full therapeutic value of making ‘private’ things ‘public’, the support of the group and the satisfaction of working in that ‘universal language’, the advantages to the listener as well as the dreamer, are explored with lots of fascinating examples from Shohet’s own workshops and experience. He goes on to examine the group dynamics and to offer various techniques for working in groups – extremely useful and stimulating ideas, often backed up with concrete instances which make the techniques clear. Shohet also sounds an appropriate warning or two: “Clients often have dreams in the style of their therapist. There is a danger that therapists can ignore this, or fit dreams into their favourite theory.” He warns us about such “premature closure” of dreams, echoing Freud’s idea that there is no end to the interpretation of any dream.

The final chapter is on “Starting Your Own Group” and it is followed by two excellent Appendices, the first giving a summary of the techniques in the book and the second listing resources for people running dream groups. This sums up neatly the intense practicality of this book. It really gives material encouragement to dream work and the generous way in which Shohet shares both ideas and experiences with the reader makes it an exciting read. But perhaps one of its most enjoyable qualities is the constant telling of dreams – not for dry analysis or categorization, but to stimulate the reader: “My last example is Fredrich Kekule who had been trying for years to define the molecular structure of benzine. The answer came as he slept in a chair one afternoon. In his dream he saw a snake with its tail in its mouth. From this he realized benzine was a closed ring of carbon molecules. He was so taken by the nature of his discovery that at a research conference he urged his colleagues, “Gentlemen, learn to dream!”

Mary Montaut