Seeking Substance


Whether planted by a human being or disbursed by an animal or bird, a seed first gravitates downward toward life-giving substances—water and elemental nutrients. The root of this dried Queen Anne’s Lace plant shows how the seed that began it reached into the soil in a variety of directions, and we can estimate by the size of the roots which of the “fingers” were more successful.

Rather than have one descending root, the evolutionary strategy of a plant or tree is to fan out many fingers, each of which develops a unique profile depending upon the “riches” that it finds. In this way each finger makes its own contribution to the growth and development of the plant, enabling it to rise up where there’s even more life-enhancing substances—air and sunlight. So nutrients from below combine with light and air above to promote growth, vitality and the ability to reproduce—actions that continue the species and provide higher species—birds and mammals—the nutrients they need to survive, grow and reproduce.

Of course there’s much more science involved. But from the point of view of this general reflection on the seed-to-plant process evoked by this little root, some key dynamics stand out in relation to my own process of seeking life-giving substances. And they evoke some self-assessment questions.

For instance, to whom, what and where am I reaching out to find and secure the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual substances that contribute to my growth and development? Am I choosing real substance? Or am I substituting artificial or imitation goods and experiences that, while satisfying or entertaining, do not really contribute to growth—like drinking soda or alcohol rather than water, eating processed rather than organic foods, engaging in mundane absorptions like mindless television viewing or spending an inordinate amount of time with electronic devices rather than reading, studying, working, exploring nature or engaging with others?

And in that regard, am I regularly associating with people who bring me down or lift me up? And what of the content of my conversations? Do I spend much time with gossip or trivialities, as opposed to meaningful exchanges of information, ideas and experiences? While it’s easy and can be enjoyable to indulge our base human necessities and tendencies, we also have a built-in hunger for substance.

Our “fingers” yearn for the energies and elements that nourish body, mind and spirit. But are we engaging them? What are they actually contributing to our lives? And what is taking shape—in me and in the world—as a result? It seems to me that, while the soul reaches for enrichment, inspiration and fulfillment, the many mental and physical stimuli in today’s world—some of them necessary—distract us so we only occasionally dip our proverbial “toes” into the ground of substance.

Aside from the satisfaction gained by reaching for substance rather than fluff, the best way I know to assess the growth of the whole system—person—is to ask how much joy there is in what we do. Not excitement or happiness, but the experience of feeling attuned to and fulfilling our reason for being alive on Earth.

And that provokes another assessment. Am I doing something every day, no matter how seemingly small or  unproductive, that contributes to my purpose? And do I at least once in a while feel in the flow, engaged in an activity where I loose track of time and well up with feelings of gratitude or appreciation for Being—and being able to perform or engage? Considering the analogy of a plant’s growth pattern, joy is the equivalent of basking in sunlight. By seeking out and taking in genuine substance, the stuff that enriches life, my reach expands to the light.

Upon being asked who he was, Itzmat Ul responded, “I am the substance of heaven, the substance of the clouds.” Itzamat Ul was a deified Maya king of Izamal, Yucatan

Human beings are biological creatures who require meaning in their lives as much as the oxygen they breathe and the nutrients they put in their bodies.

James O’Dea

The root of a Queen Anne’s Lace plant was suspended in front of the camera and photographed against a black velvet background. The “key” light came from behind to outline and accentuate the textures, and I lit the front with a diffuse source to provide some detail in the shadows.


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