Posted by: Jenny Davidow | May 22, 2013

How Dreams Teach Us Compassion

Have you ever dreamed that you found your beloved pet injured or half-starved?

Louise dreamed that she saw her beloved cat walking in her yard. Then suddenly, he grew weak, his tongue hung out of his mouth, and he collapsed. She ran to him, racked by deep sobs as she bent over his limp body.

We tend to take such dreams literally – “Oh, I’m worried about my pet.” But actually, the dream is about you.

I suggested to Louise that she could explore the dream by shifting to her cat’s perspective. First, I asked her to tell me what is special about her cat. Speaking as the cat, she said:

“I am full of life. I am playful and affectionate. I love to go on adventures. I live completely in the moment.
But now I’ve collapsed. I’m dying.”

Then I asked Louise to be herself, as she was in the dream, and speak to the cat:

“I am crying and sobbing over you. You are so important to me.
I love you and can’t cope with the grief of perhaps losing you.
I keep wondering if I neglected you. I took you for granted.”

So, what does this dream have to do with learning compassion?

I asked Louise, “Is there a part of you that feels on the verge of collapse?”

Louise’s eyes widened. Well, yes, she told me. She’d been devoting all her time to taking care of her family’s needs, with no time left for herself. She tended to undervalue the importance of her own needs.

And so she had this dream, in which the cat symbolized the exhausted, neglected part of her. No wonder the cat’s distress was so extreme, and evoked such strong grief in her.

I asked Louise, “What would the cat like to say to you in this dream?”

Louise spoke as the cat: “I need you to give me more time.
I need you be playful and affectionate with me. Stop rushing around and ignoring me!”

Louise’s dream was giving her a lesson in compassion: The message was to take better care of herself and not put herself last. Like many people, she could more easily feel the compassion for her cat than she could for herself. But that was only the starting point. Now she needed to turn that same compassion toward herself.

I asked Louise, “Is there a way that you can put a kind arm around this part of you that feels like the cat,
that is so worn out it is collapsing? This part has been neglected, not given enough to sustain it.
This part has so much natural playfulness and affection, but needs you to help it feel better.”

Louise nodded, while tears streamed down her face.

I asked her, “Can you also put a kind arm around the part of you that is sobbing in the dream?
The part of you that feels such intense shock and loss?
The part of you that doesn’t want to lose its own beloved and playful nature?”

The purpose of this dream was to get Louise to recognize her own suffering, and to turn toward this neglected part of her with compassion. Over many years, I have found that when people work with their dreams as Louise did, they very naturally develop more compassion for themselves and for others.

It seems that, first, we need to recognize the parts of ourselves that are suffering, sick, injured, or sad. Then, later,  it becomes much easier to recognize those parts — which ask for our tenderness — in other people. This is one way in which compassion can become a meaningful response to our own and other people’s suffering.

(c) 2013 by Jenny Davidow, author of Embracing Your Subconscious

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