Trees as symbol in art therapy

Trees are a wonderful symbol that we often use in art therapy with clients to explore how they are feeling and what is going on in their lives right now.

But even beyond a formal art therapy session with an art therapist, you might find musing on the tree as a symbol helpful for figuring out where you are right now or even for thinking about where you’d like to be.

Here are some thoughts on what the various parts of the tree can symbolise for us. Of course we are each unique and your own associations are just as or more important than what someone else thinks the symbol might mean, so please take these ideas as prompts not as the end point of your musings.

RootsIn nature trees get water and nutrients from the soil. Our roots as a way to connect with what nourishes us. Our connection with each other, self acceptance, healing. Spirituality. We grow stronger, more deeply connected to source, more aware of our below the surface motivations, hurts, fears and what feeds our soul. We grow deeper roots to hold ourselves solid against the winds that life may send our way but also to feed ourselves from what is deep, what is from the earth, what is made of things no longer needed . We are fed by the decomposition of things that are no longer alive to us. Their nutrients pass through, we integrate them into our cellular structure.

TrunkTrees have a trunk to transport the resources they need and as a solid structure to hold itself up. A solid trunk is all of our systems in place to connect our roots and branches. A trunk needs flow and movement, it needs structural integrity and it needs to grow taller and bigger with time. Our trunk is our core, our centre, our way to bring our ideas into the world. For some people a lean flexible trunk is needed while for some people a huge and solid trunk is needed. The roots need to be connected to our trunk so that the work we do is connected to what lies beneath the surface. The trunk is in service of both our emotional subterranean selves and our dreams for being in the world.

Branches, leaves and flowersLeaves are the place where trees transform sunlight into energy, expel waste gases (the life giving oxygen that we rely on), and take in gases that they need. Leaves are permeable and in constant contact with the air and water and light around them, exchanging gases, letting water out, taking sunshine in. They may look simple but are complex and in a dance with their environment. For ourselves leaves could be considered the parts of us that capture light – what delights us, what feeds us ideas and energy. The branches and leaves extend us into the world. The flowers are our offerings to delight the world, and the way we connect with others. The flowers are the ways we open ourselves up to the world, invite others in, the way we cross pollinate, the way we delight others, the way we feed the world with the fruit we make. This is about vision, our dreams, expansion, our dream projects. It’s also about delight.

Bringing it all together

In this metaphor of the tree, we can be reminded to go inwards for guidance and find what nourishes us, connect with source, develop systems and structures in the world, and name and create our dreams and wishes.

Like a tree we might notice that sometimes our branches are bare, sometimes we feel gnarled and bent over in the wind, sometimes we are growing in thin soil and hanging on tight. Sometimes we are the tender new growth after a fire. Sometimes we might feel lush and sumptuous and old like an oak growing in deep rich soil.

In this symbolic work there is no one off the shelf way you (your tree) ‘should’ look or be. Your current experience might be different to last week’s or last year’s. Your current reality might be different to mine. Your branches may be bigger or smaller, your flowers large or more richly scented than mine. You may value strength and stability, or perhaps growth is what you are focused on now. You may be focused on flexibility and movement and not care too much for flowers right now. You may be thinking about your roots and wondering what they need to be nourished and stable. You may want more leaves or you may be enjoying having shed some and the quiet inward time that brings. You may notice that you flower prolifically each season or save up your energy to create just a few stunning large blooms.

The tree is a simple and powerful metaphor for life and ourselves as growing, ever changing beings that are deeply connected with the natural world. 

If you were a tree this week how would you look?