The universe is a mystical expanse of land. The area aboveground represents the physical universe, while the underground represents the metaphysical universe.
When you examine this metaphoric landscape, you note that it is possible for you to see many things aboveground, but nothing at all underground. You can guess that the environment below the earth must be as rich and varied as that which you see around you, but you cannot readily observe anything in it.
This describes the general situation in our plane of existence. It is fairly easy for us human beings to observe the physical world. We have our sensory organs to give us perception. We have our instruments to grant us views where the unaided senses are inadequate. It is entirely possible for us to observe many, many things in the material world.
And yet, none of our physical senses and instruments will do us any good when it comes to the metaphysical universe. It is a spiritual world that does not operate according to the laws of nature as we understand them. Physical senses and instruments are useless in such a non-physical framework. To us, it is a realm of mystery.
This gives rise to a basic question: If we cannot perceive the metaphysical universe, why should we believe that it exists at all? Isn't it just as valid to assume that spirits and the spiritual world are just figments of our collective imagination?
Go back to the metaphoric landscape for a moment. How can you tell that the ground beneath is solid, if you cannot see through it? For all you know, based only on the input of your eyes (physical senses), you may be walking on a thin sheet of material that resembles dirt, and on the other side there is absolutely nothing.
The question is easy enough to settle. You kneel down and scoop up a handful of the metaphoric dirt. Then another. You keep doing this until you are satisfied that there is more depth to the world below than you can possibly uncover. Even though what you have scooped up is not a large amount, and your sight still cannot penetrate the earth, you can tell that the environment underground is just as real as its counterpart aboveground.
In the same way, it is easy for us to verify the reality of the metaphysical universe for ourselves. We only have to "dig" into it with the hands of intuition. Whenever we meditate and touch the divine, or experience a moment of deja vu, or have psychic premonitions that come true, we have scooped up a handful of the metaphysical stuff, proving there's more to the universe than meets the eyes.
All of us have the ability to do this as much as we want. Even though the spiritual realm remains as mysterious as ever, and we can never seem to learn enough to figure it out completely, we can at least conclude that its existence is no less real than the physical world. The fact that we cannot look into it doesn't mean it's not there.
Life is a tree in this land. It is a tree that grows tall and strong. Its branches reach into the sky while its roots burrow deep into the earth. It is a magnificent tree.
We can all agree that life is a most powerful force in Creation. It seems to exist everywhere, even in the deepest abyss and the most barren desert. We cannot study life without feeling a sense of wonder at its vast scope and endless variety. The power of life is awe-inspiring and majestic.
Beautiful flowers bloom on the branches of the tree. Such flowers represent the stunning achievements of life. Consider such disparate things as the intricate design of one's knee joint, the nobility of a faithful dog, and the pure joy of a baby's smile. They seem to have absolutely nothing in common, and yet they all possess an inherent beauty that only life can bring.
Just as the tree's root system reaches far and wide into the soil, life extends itself deep within the metaphysical universe. What this implies is that any form of life must possess a spiritual component, however great or small. All are part of the nurturing, creative universal life force.
The water that feeds the Tree of Life is the soul. Each drop of water is an individual soul. The totality of all the water in the soil and the tree is the oversoul.
Up until now you have imagined yourself as someone walking around in our metaphoric landscape. We are going to change mental gears and integrate you into the scene. Since you are a part of life, and the tree represents life itself, the most appropriate role for you is... a leaf in this tree. We zoom in on one of the many branches and find you literally hanging there, swaying a little in the breeze.
The material of the leaf represents the physical manifestations of your being. This is not your true self, however. Your true self is the droplet of water contained within the leaf.
Just looking at a leaf, we cannot see the water inside of it. In the same way, the soul within us is not something we can perceive with the eyes or detect with scientific instruments. However, we know there must be at least a little bit of water within the leaf, because a leaf with absolutely no trace of moisture becomes dust - it is blown away by the wind and can no longer be part of the tree. In the same way, we know it cannot be possible for a human being to exist without a soul. Just as the greenness of a leaf guarantees the presence of water in it, your very life guarantees the existence of a soul in you.
You can trace the source of your water through the branches to the trunk of the tree, down to the root system and ultimately to all the water in the soil. And even though no two leaves are the same, every leaf in the tree can trace its water through the same connection to the same source.
Now you see how it can be that you possess a special and unique soul that is ultimately connected to the universal consciousness. You are still an individual, just as each leaf is its own microcosm, but you are also an indivisible part of the whole, just as every leaf can be traced to every other leaf. If you have ever spoken with someone and felt deeply connected in a way that seems to transcend the physical, then you have firsthand experience with this mystical link. You know exactly what we're trying to describe.
As leaves, our perspective tends to be pretty limited. Most of us can see the little branch we're on, but not much beyond it. This limited perspective represents prejudice, xenophobia, tribal mentality and that perennially popular us-versus-them, we're-better-than-you attitude.
What will happen if it is possible for us to expand our perspective and see more of the tree?
We may begin to grasp that, while fun, sports team rivalries are really kind of silly. Players get traded all the time, so who or what exactly are we rooting for? Are the fans of other teams really less intelligent, as we may have thought at one time or another? If our home team wins, does it really mean our city is "better" than some other city in a practical and meaningful way?
We may begin to perceive the pettiness of forming cliques at the workplace. We may come upon the realization that all of our coworkers are in the same boat with us, and divisiveness is ultimately bad for everyone. What are cliques after all, but little branches with a few leaves? As our perspective expands, we see that all the little branches are part of a big branch called "company."
We may begin to think of proselytization as religious hubris. How likely is it for any sect of any religion to be the exclusive proprietor of the truth? Doesn't it seem more plausible that different beliefs are but different attempts to approach the divine? Every sect of every religion is but a smaller branch within a larger one, and every religion is in turn a smaller branch within the overall branch called "spirituality."
We may begin to realize that partisanship never contributes to the greater good. Despite different political ideologies, people can come together to make real progress in advancing the country's best interests. A political party is a pretty big branch, but we're all part of an even bigger branch called "nation."
We may begin to understand the evil of racism. Despite somewhat different coloring, the leaves on another branch grow from the same source as we do. The water that feeds them is the same water that feeds us. The motives that propel them are the same ones that move us. We are, in a very real sense, members of the same family. A race or ethnicity is a fairly sizable branch, but all the big racial branches are but part of a major branch of life called "humanity."
If water represents the soul, then what role does the Tao play?
The Tao is the driving force that keeps the tree growing. A living tree draws water from the ground and passes it through the entire tree; a dead tree does not. Whatever the power is that drives life and continues the process of nourishment, that is the Tao.
You know the Tao is there because the tree is living and growing, but there is nothing you can point to and label "Tao." It is a transcendental force. Its abstract nature is why we say the Tao is beyond seeing, beyond hearing, and beyond words.
It is precisely through the actions of the transcendental Tao that you progress through your spiritual growth in the universe. The Tao is the impulse that pushes your individual soul (water) from the metaphysical realm (the soil) through the conduit of life (the tree trunk) into manifestation as a physical being (the leaf).
The sun represents the source of wisdom. As you bask in its rays, photosynthesis takes place and the water in you becomes rich with nutrients. This, you realize, is the reason why you need to spend time in the material world. This is the meaning and purpose in your physical existence.
The weather isn't always pleasant though. Sometimes you are lashed by the elements - rain, wind, unbearable heat or freezing cold. These represent the adversities and challenges in life. They can be extremely harsh - perhaps even test you to the very core of your being - and they cannot be avoided. You do not know when the storm will come; you only know that it will come. Mild weather never lasts forever.
As difficult as they can be, the elements aren't something to be feared. Just as a tree grows stronger against the wind, we grow tougher by weathering challenges and adversities through life. They are part of the lesson we must learn in the material plane, and the sooner we absorb what we must from them, the sooner we can put them behind us and move on. Yes, mild weather never lasts forever, but then neither do storms.
Sometimes the challenges come from others. Every now and then, you find your sunlight blocked by other leaves. You are left in the dark and your photosynthesis grinds to a halt.
We all have experience with such a situation. There are always negative people around who will cast their shadows over us. By their words or actions they can put us in a state of darkness where it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to progress spiritually.
In such moments, the most important phrase to keep in mind is "this, too, shall pass." No one has the power to block you forever. The sun does not stand still, after all. Sooner or later, it moves enough to shine its rays down upon you again.
In the same way, your life is not static. As you move through it, life presents you with opportunities to distance yourself from negativity. If you have the will, sooner or later you will find yourself out in the light again, where you can continue your growth.
Your tenure as a particular leaf will come to an end at some point. When that time comes, you will separate from the Tree of Life and drift gently downward. In the short time it takes for you to fall to the ground, you have a far vaster perspective than ever before. You can see the entire tree, not just a small part of it. You attain a degree of enlightenment shortly before your life comes to an end.
On the ground, the material that used to be your body gradually breaks down into decomposed matter. The drop of water that is your true self is absorbed into the soil. You have returned home to the metaphysical universe. You are again one with the oversoul.
In this spiritual realm, you recognize loved ones who welcome you with open arms. These are the leaves that have fallen ahead of you. The material that used to be their bodies have long decayed beyond recognition, but their true selves - drops of water - continue on as part of the water in the soil, just as you are.
After a period of rest deep in the earth, you feel the action of Tao tugging at you. It's time for another tour. Time for more lessons.
The power of Tao pulls you up into the roots and then through the conduit of life. You flow from the trunk up into a branch. From the branch you move to a smaller branch and then to another even smaller branch. Finally you identify the green spot on the smallest branch where you need to be. You inhabit the budding leaf and begin to grow. You feel the warmth of sunlight upon you as you emerge again into the physical universe.
Perhaps these are the final lessons you must master. Perhaps, upon their completion, you will finally be able to transcend the cycle of birth and death, and progress to a higher level of existence. Perhaps the water that is you will evaporate and become one with the atmosphere - suffused with sunlight, weightless and invisible, to dance in the air and fly like a butterfly around... the land.