‘The Tree of Your Life’ exercise is an inspiring tool that TINT uses in workshops and coaching sessions to help students explore their future dreams. In this exercise you add words to an image of a tree, to depict your past, present, and future, and to explore ideas to make your future dreams become a reality. This exercise is being used to get to know yourself better and orientate yourself to the future. An important advantage of this exercise is that you work your way from your past (the roots), via the present (the soil and the stem) to the future (the branches). You can also elevate this exercise by meditating on a specific (life) theme or question. Anyway, in no time an image of who you are arises, out of your past into the future. This way of working holds many possibilities!
In January 2023, I went to Freetown in Sierra Leone to teach at a secondary school. I was curious to see what ‘The Tree of Your Life’ exercise could mean to the 14 to 17-year-old pupils of this school. The challenges these children face in their lives are enormous: bad housing and sewers, lack of clean water, and lack of healthy food. Many children live with their uncles and aunts in order to go to school. Some have lost family members to Ebola. Many parents need to work all day to sustain their family, and even teenagers need to have side jobs and/or take care of their family members. “What are actually their chances and their dreams?” I was wondering. Could this image of a tree also give them more orientation on their past, present, and future? Could it give them a sense of who they are, of the connection between their roots, their wishes, and their dreams? How can I shape and adapt the exercise of the tree of life in a way that fits in their context and can contribute to their development?
In books and seminars on mindfulness and narrative therapy, I collected aspects and questions to add to the tree. My working list contained the following questions, following the tree bottom up:
1. The roots | your past
Big memories, customs, places you have lived, favorite things, important people.
2. The stem | your current life
Your personality, character, skills, favorite activities, things you are good at.
3. The branches | your future
Dreams for the future, goals, hopes, wishes, important people for your dreams and wishes
And then there is always – when wanted – the possibility of cross-bracing and connecting the different topics. What happens off-track in your life (so it seems), can be very decisive and inspiring. I decided to not be too critical but first observe where the pupils would react most to.
I have chosen a mango tree for my drawing preview (I used my own version that differs a bit from the one from TINT). I already knew that the mango tree is common in Sierra Leone and is a remarkable tree, with a broad treetop and wonderful fruits. When I was there in the dry season (January-April), I learned a lot about this tree: the flowers blossom with yellow plumes and the fruits are ripe in march. Many people from the countryside are used to picking fruits in March right from the trees when passing by: they have memories and feelings of its bounty.
When the teenagers started the exercise, it became clear to me that this is an unusual way of working for them: depicting your inner and outer life to create some overview. They didn’t think of drawing as something helpful, but after a while the drawing helped them to tell about themselves and their dreams, connecting their past, present, and future.
The teenagers also dealt with their perfectionism: the end result should be good and nice. But this perfectionism can be a burden with such an exercise. So I encouraged them to let go of their inner critical voices. “This is your process, it is about you, it is your party!” I tell them, “so just draw a tree and be proud of the result!”. Guiding them through the exercise really was a party as I learned so much about the things and people they cherish. At last, 15 wonderful trees appeared at the final presentation, which delivered enough content to talk about. And even better, it delivered 15 shining teenagers, talking with a little more confidence about themselves, their dreams, and their resources. I was impressed by their joy and perseverance and by the wisdom of the tree!
Teacher Religion & Philosophy at Huygens Lyceum Eindhoven and chaplain in De Kapel (one of the organizations that supports TINT)
Are you also interested in becoming aware of who you are and exploring your own future? Feel free to fill out the exercise yourself or join the TINT workshop ‘Plan(t) your future’ to see what this exercise can bring you, exchange your experiences with others, and gain even more insights.