Spirit, religion, and mysticism are all loaded words in contemporary western science and thinking. After all, they are worlds apart, separate, at a place where the twain shall never meet. Correct? Brought up in the western positivist paradigm in the ’50s and ’60s, I had this mindset. Over my life and career, these worlds have merged but, in the face of my great internal resistance. Over the past 10 years I struggled with the question of how to reconcile the two.
My first conscious brush with spirit came in 1974 when a group of fellow engineering students and I went into the wilderness of Northern Ontario for a ten-day canoe trip down the Missinaibi River. Our ultimate destination was Moosonee, a town on James Bay near the Moose River. The trip ended in disaster when one of the canoes and a fellow student went over the 30-foot portion of Thundering House waterfall. Miraculously he survived.
Following the accident, we were informed by non-indigenous locals that a young male native spirit inhabits the falls. The myth goes that he was the first young man to canoe down the river and was mesmerized by the fast-flowing river above the falls. He became so engrossed in shooting the rapids that ultimately, he went over the falls to his death.
Downstream from the falls the river flows through a gorge created by an earthquake. In the centre of the gorge just below the falls is a large spire of rock known as Conjuring House Rock. This sacred site is like an indigenous medicine man’s conjuring house and is regarded with veneration by the indigenous peoples who do not make any distinction between the sacred and the secular realms of existence. Rather, the entire natural world is permeated with spiritual meaning and in traditional conjuring houses, spiritual beings were thought to communicate with the living (Zawadzka, 2008).
We learned that the spirit of a young brave inhabits Conjuring House Rock, and because he is lonely, he calls other young men to join him. We were also informed that almost every season someone canoeing the river goes over the falls to their death.
No one in our group had canoed the river before, and as engineers we had been careful to buy maps and study the terrain. We had a rule that prior to any fast-flowing water we would get out and inspect the river before proceeding. Unfortunately, in this one instance on the river that rule was not followed. ending in the disaster. Prior to this trip, the fellow who went over the falls experienced what he later recognized as premonitions. First when he was deciding to purchase a life jacket for the trip, he asked his friend if he should buy the cheap one or the expensive one. The reply was if it saves his life once it’s worth it, so he bought the expensive one. Did the life jacket save his life? Possibly, it was designed to protect the neck, probably important in a fall of 30 feet. The second premonition occurred just at departure when the student bought a postcard with the picture of the falls and scrawled on the back of it “we are going to be shooting rapids like these” and sent it to his girlfriend. Basically, he was telling her that he was going to go over the waterfall. Of course, all of this could be coincidence and the native myth just a story, but it started me thinking: what happened here? Is it possible that people have meaningful premonitions? Was such a thing as spirit involved? Indigenous cultures have a different way of seeing things. Is there something to be learned in their ways? These questions while interesting were not pressing matters for me at the time. Nonetheless they sat with me for many years.
Since that time, I developed an interest in eastern philosophies and in 1995 began practicing insight meditation (a secular form of Buddhist meditation) and later shifted to qigong a contemplative practice that draws on the three teachings of China (Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism). These practices provided me with a deeper knowledge of spirituality. Despite all my reading and practice, I still saw science and spirit as irreconcilable. Then in 2012, as a tourist, (I don’t consider myself belonging to a religious tradition) I visited Jiu Hua Shan (Nine Flower Mountain), in Anhui Province, one of the four famous Buddhist mountains in China. I had an experience that seemed to help me understand better the question I had about the separation of spirit and science. The monk there addressed the apparently irreconcilable in that science and spirituality are a unity adding that: when science advances, spirituality advances and when spirituality advances, science advances (Culham, 2013). The indigenous belief there is no distinction between the sacred and the secular realms of existence seems similar. This experience helped me see spirituality as something that could be observed and studied while being at the same time mystical.
I am fond of a saying attributed to Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle” (Gurteen, 2019). I prefer seeing life as a mystery to be discovered as I am sure Einstein did. Unfortunately, western science has avoided the mystery of spirit as a subject of inquiry; however, it has not been completely neglected.
For me, the journey that began many years ago of disaster, recovery, and insight on the Missinaibi River, opened my mind to other possibilities and continues today.
Culham, T., & Lin, J. (2020). Daoist cultivation of qi and virtue for life, wisdom, and learning. Springer International Publishing.
Culham, T., (2013), Ethics education of business leaders: Emotional intelligence, virtues and contemplative learning. In J. Lin, R. Oxford, (Eds.) Book Series: Transforming Education for the Future. Charlotte: Information Age Publishing.
Zawadzka, D. (2008). Canadian Shield rock art and the landscape perspective. Unpublished MA thesis, Department of Anthropology, Trent University, Peterborough.
Tom Culham, engineer and business leader, holds a PhD in Education from Simon Fraser University He lectures in the Beedie School of Business and researches ethics education. Tom has authored or co-edited five books, co-authored Daoist Cultivation of Qi and Virtue for Life, Wisdom, and Learning, and co-edited Honing Self-Awareness of Faculty and Future Business Leaders: Emotions Connected with Teaching and Learning, currently in press.