You have just earned your degree in humanities and graduated out of college. As you contemplate your next move, you recall your professor's admonition, that the graduation does not mark the end of learning. The time you have spent in college is merely a preparation for the never-ending journey of discovery ahead of you. As of this point in time, the professor says, you have learned only how to learn. The real learning is yet to come.
We, as immortal spirits, all started as part of the universal metaphysical energy, which has existed since the beginning of time. We have given the totality of this awesome force many names: God, Tao, Oversoul... the list goes on. These terms are interchangeable, but for obvious reasons, we will call it Tao in our discourse here. Every one of us is an indivisible part of this Tao, and that's how we can say that we are all connected to one another at a fundamental level, and that God is in each one of us.
The entire universe evolves in time, physically as well as metaphysically. As a result of the latter - the metaphysical side of this evolution - the life force that is uniquely you gradually awakens from unconscious oneness with all existence to individual self-awareness, and then, slowly but surely, to human consciousness. This awakening is the degree in the humanities you have earned. It prepares you for the real learning in a much greater arena.
You and your classmates want to do some traveling before entering society and the workplace. As recent graduates, you have a lot of youthful enthusiasm... but not the funds to match.
Fortunately, there is an easy way to see the country for free. Car rental companies often have cars they need to move from one city to another. By letting volunteers drive such cars, they accomplish their objective and the drivers get free transportation. It is a win-win solution. You and your buddies waste no time signing up at the largest car rental company, a national chain known as Rent Car Nation.
As we - newly minted human souls - embark on the great journey of discovery, we often do so with other souls who are most closely attuned to us, with similar goals and complementary levels of advancement. These souls show up as your family members, loved ones, and friends - good friends you've had for years, and good friends you haven't even met yet.
Soul companions enter a lifetime in close proximity for specific reasons, such as the resolution of karmic obligations or the fulfillment of karmic affinities. We also help and support one another in the mutual quest for soul growth. Sometimes we learn from them; sometimes they learn from us.
Rent Car Nation has many types of cars for its customers. A few are sports cars and luxury cars for high-end clients, but most are your basic standard models - the Ford Taurus or Dodge Neon sort of cars. Each time you and your friends visit the Rent Car Nation office, you can choose from all the cars available for driving to a particular city. Sometimes you have many cars to choose from; other times the choices are more limited.
In a long drive, it is not unusual for you to become attached to the car you have chosen. Sometimes you even catch yourself thinking of it as "your" car. But, sooner or later, you arrive at your destination and must turn over the assigned vehicle to the local office. You may feel some reluctance to let it go, especially if it is a nice car, but in the end you don't really have a choice. The car does not belong to you, after all.
Our bodies are the vehicles we use to traverse through life. They come in all shapes and sizes. They vary as much as the circumstances of life and the environment in which we live. Some of us are blessed with great physical beauty, and some of us are born into a life of wealth and leisure. Most of us cannot really claim anything extraordinary in these respects though - we drive the basic, standard models.
One of the great illusions in life is that we tend to associate the physical body with the true self. Even though you have lived in many different bodies throughout the eons, each time around, you form the same false attachment and think of your body as you. Invariably, this false attachment falls away as you reach the end of a lifetime. You come to your senses and realize that your true self is your essence, and not the mortal shell you will never see again.
Next time you think about the rich and famous, consider that these are drivers who happen to pick the few sports cars or the luxury cars for one particular trip. At the end of it, they too must turn over their vehicles. These sleek and richly appointed cars don't belong to them either.
In this current trip where you and I are drivers, we can all agree that someone like Bill Gates has surely picked the most opulent vehicle of all. We may even get rather envious of all the top-flight luxuries at his disposal, forgetting that he, too, has to turn in his car just like the rest of us. Moreover, the trip for him is about the same duration as it is for everyone - he doesn't get to keep his assigned car for a greater length of time than anyone else.
The above represents a different view of karma (car-ma?) than the conventional, superficial ideas we encounter. For instance, every now and then we talk about how someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth must have accumulated really great karma in a past life. We nod and smile in jocular agreement about this, but why? It is a false notion formed by the high but illusory value we attach to material wealth. We forget the larger perspective. We forget what it looks like in the eyes of the soul.
From the soul's vantage point, material wealth in a particular lifetime, however great, is really no more than a trifling distinction. If we put it in perspective, we see that it is but one trip with a nice car in an overall journey of many trips. All of us will get the chance to choose such cars at some point in time. And when we do, it is no great cause for rejoicing either. A nice car makes one particular trip more pleasant, no doubt about it, but pretty soon you get to your destination, and you know that before too long it will be time to choose a different car.
There's always more than one way to go from one city to another, and it is pretty much up to you which way you want to take. You make your choices at freeway intersections. Sometimes the best choice is obvious; other times, it is not so clear. A route that looks good at first can turn out to be backed up for miles.
On a rainy or foggy day the visibility can be severely limited, and even when the weather is fine you can't see that far up ahead. More than a few times you experience that annoying slowdown effect: one moment everything looks fine and everyone's going at a nice clip... and next thing you know, traffic grinds to a halt. The driver to your right throws up his hands in exasperation. The driver to the left rolls her eyes and sighs. Everyone is frustrated.
To avoid situations like this as much as possible, you tune in to the radio station WTAO for the frequently updated traffic reports. WTAO flies news helicopters all over the freeways and can alert you to traffic conditions far up ahead, way beyond your visual range. Oftentimes they can direct you to a better route, thus avoiding congested areas.
Life is an interesting mixture of free will and predestination. There are many junctures where you can choose your destiny, but once you make that choice you are locked in to it for a period of time. You can always change your mind, of course, but it will take you a while to resume your journey on a different path. Life assumes a momentum of its own, and a course change requires significant effort.
This is not unlike what happens when you make a transition at a freeway interchange and then realize you've made a mistake (perhaps a bad marriage or the wrong career). In order to undo the mistake, you must struggle your way to the nearest exit before you can reverse direction and hopefully make the correct choice when the interchange comes up again.
The road ahead is the future, and most of us can only see a small part of it - the most immediate portion coming right up. In times of chaos and turbulence (bad weather), we can see even less. Sometimes we see trouble coming but remain helpless in our tracks. Other times we can run right up against setbacks and obstacles without any warning.
This is why we seek to cultivate the Tao and study the teachings of the spiritual masters. The masters are beyond the confines of mortal existence (the freeway system) and can see much further in all directions. Prior to reaching critical life junctures, we can use their wisdom to help us formulate a better plan. They can show us the path to avoid unnecessary difficulties such as discord, strife and conflict.
The problem is, we don't always listen to the masters, or we decide to listen when it is already too late. You know exactly where I'm going with this... you remember quite well the times you find yourself stuck in traffic. You turn on the radio, tune in to a news station, and then listen to a report about the cause of the very congestion in which you are trapped - for all the good it will do you! Isn't it strange how we can't help but go through these senseless, useless motions?
In the beginning of your journey, you and your friends are overtaken by the novelty of the experience and the exuberance of youth. You blast the stereo system. You push the car to see how fast it can go. You race one another. You cut people off on the road and flip them the bird. You drive impatiently, changing lanes at the drop of a hat, looking for ways to pass every car you see in front of you.
After a while, you begin to see the silliness of your behavior. The car is but a means to an end, you realize. It gets you from one city to another so you can experience the country. It is not a toy. Gradually you learn to respect it, the road, and other drivers.
Experience also teaches you that swerving all over the road doesn't really get you there any faster. All it really does is stress you out. You learn it's better to flow with the traffic, relax, and enjoy the ride. You still get to your destination, and it's a whole lot easier on your nerves.
Sometimes strangers show you courtesy and it makes you feel good, so you begin to reciprocate in kind. When some other car wants to merge, you let it go ahead with a wave and a smile. And when immature drivers cut you off rudely, it doesn't get to you as it may have in the past. You've been there and done that.
A soul takes many lifetimes to refine. In the beginning of our spiritual evolution, we do not yet fully grasp the meaning of being human and tend to let our baser instincts take over. We can be petty, small-hearted, miserly. We can be mean and violent. We can be greedy and slothful. We can be oblivious to the pain of the less fortunate. We can derive pleasure from cruelty.
The working of karma is such that, in time, we experience firsthand both the positive and negative actions we initiate. We begin to understand what it is like to be at the receiving end of our own kindness or brutality, and this motivates us to improve ourselves. This karmic mechanism is inevitable and unavoidable, and it teaches its lessons thoroughly.
Once you have completely mastered a lesson, it is incorporated into your essence. From that point on it becomes an integral part of you - something you will always have from lifetime to lifetime, unlike your material possessions.
For instance, you may start a particular lifetime as an angry person, and your goal is to do something about it. Initially, your quick temper makes it necessary for you to constantly remind yourself to cool down, but as life progresses, you begin to understand what it is like for others to suffer your wrath. The universe sees to it that you take a full dose of your own medicine.
When these lessons sink in and understanding dawns, a profound comprehension happens at the level of the soul. A metamorphosis takes place, and you become quite literally a different person. You have gone from someone who must remember to stay calm to someone who is calm by nature.
You know that in the future, you will have to learn worldly skills (language, etiquette, customs, etc.) all over again for each lifetime, but you will never have to re-learn the lesson of serenity. Being calm and serene will be a permanent attribute of your personality, and that makes this a small but infinitely meaningful victory.
All too soon, the journey comes to an end. After touring all the major cities, learning all about the different regions of the country, and absorbing experiences valuable in ways you can't quite explain, you and your friends decide it is time to go home. City by city you make your way back, until at last you see the familiar skyline of your hometown.
To go home for a Tao practitioner is to return to his original nature. This original nature is also known as the Buddha nature: a state of grace, purity and oneness with all of existence. When you "return home" in the Tao sense you have, in effect, traversed a great circle - lifetime after lifetime, lesson after lesson - until at last you find yourself back to your point of origin. You are still the same, yet immeasurably different. Just walking around, you vibrate an entirely higher range of energy.
You return the car to the Rent Car Nation office in your hometown, perhaps for the last time. It is the same office where you began your quest many months ago, but it looks different somehow... perhaps because your perceptions have changed.
As you exit the office, you look up at the company's large sign:
For a moment, your vision blurs and you think you see a different word... but then the moment passes, and you turn to join your waiting friends for a well-deserved round at the local pub.