The ‘Tree of life’ is an exercise from David Denborough, which aims to create an empowered narrative of your life. It involves drawing/ painting a tree and reflecting on different aspects of yourself.
First draw a tree. It can be any kind of tree but best if it has a positive association. Maybe you can think of a favourite tree from memory and draw that. Include in your drawing, roots, ground, trunk, branches, leaves, fruits, and seeds.
Roots: Where do I come from?
The roots are to record where you come from (place, village, town, country); your language and culture; teachers and people who have influenced you; your favourite place; your favourite song or dance; any club or association you belong to or team you support; you can include photographs or images.
Don’t spend too long on the roots. You can return to them if you need to.
The ground: What do I choose to do?
The ground represents the things we choose to do during the course of a week. These don’t have to special, but just normal day-to-day things. Only put in the things you choose to do rather than what you feel forced to do.
The trunk: What do I care about? What are my skills?
The trunk is about what you value. Look back at the ground. Why do you choose to do these things? What is it you care about?
You can also place on the trunk the skills and abilities you have demonstrated in your life. For example, experience, accomplishments, skills like being kind, honest, resilient.
A helpful way to approach this is what would a friend say about me? What do people think I am good at?
The roots and the ground might also give hints as to what we are skilled at.
When you have your trunk complete, try to trace the history of the things you care about, the things you give value to, your skills and abilities. Where or from whom did you learn this value or skill? How long has it been important to you? In answering this you may think of new people to add to your roots. In this way we can begin to see the interconnection between different parts of the tree.
The branches: What are my hopes, dreams, and wishes?
These are not just hopes you have for yourself, but may include hopes you have for others, your community and the world. You can include hopes in the short-term, or more long-term dreams. Try to include both on your branches. Try to trace the history of these desires. How long have you had them? Where did they come from? How have you held onto them? Did anyone help you in building these hopes?
The leaves: Who are the people who matter most to me?
On the leaves of your tree you can include people who are close to you or who have influenced you directly. You can also choose heroes or people who have inspired you; as well as pets and animals. It is particularly important to include those who are no longer alive. This is how their legacy remains – by the good that they left in us.
You can reflect on the following questions:
What was significant to you about this person?
Would they appreciate that you remember them?
Did you have good times with this person? If so, write about these experiences next to the leaves.
Fruits: What legacy was left to me?
The fruits are gifts that have been passed onto you, or contributions others have made to you. They may be moral gifts like kindness and courage. Or they may be material gifts.
Flowers and seeds: What legacy do I wish to leave?
The flowers and seeds represent the legacies that you wish to pass onto others. These might be similar to the gifts you were offered yourself, or alternatively they may be the things you never received, but that you wish you had. Sometimes we realise the value of certain gifts because of the effects of their absence in our lives. Write them next to the flowers and seeds of the tree.
After you have completed your tree see if you can make any connections between different parts of the tree. Are there any linkages you can see?
You can do this exercise with someone else and at the end share what you place on your tree with each other. Then try the following:
Choose one or two of the themes that emerged and ask them to tell you a story about each. For example, ‘Can you tell me about how you value kindness or honesty?
Can you tell me about a time when this was significant to you?
Ask your friend to tell you about the history of a particular value or skill. Whom did you learn it from? Whom did you learn it with? What are the roots of this value or skill?
Making links between what you care about, your skills, hopes, dreams, the people who matter to you, and the gifts you have receive and wish to pass on is the process of creating a ‘storyline’ in your life. This is not a storyline about problems but about what you give value to and what you stand for.
Ivan Illich writes that reading is a ‘remedial’ technique. In the world of monastic readers, the study of a text was an embodied activity, a challenge to the students heart and senses rather than just the brain.