A psychiatrist practicing in a severe, if not unredeemed, hospital in Novosibirsk in Siberia at the time of perestroika is referred a patient by her friend a doctor in general practice. The patient, a young male, Nicolai, is from the Altai, a mountainous region in southern Siberia, and from an indigenous, non-Russian community. He has moved to Novosibirsk in search of employment and is doing well at his factory, has a girlfriend, is moving quickly up the housing ladder, is all set fair for an accomplished, settled, ordinary life but all is not well. His uncle has just died, back in his home village, not a man he was close to, but it has disturbed him. It is has disturbed him sufficiently to warrant psychiatric attention. Why?
His uncle, it turns out, was a shaman, perceived as full of power, necessary to his community as healer and guide, but also an outsider, kept at one remove. Now it is revealed he has imparted his gift to his nephew, who 'condemned' has been completely thrown by this impinging new reality, one that upturns all that he thinks he knows, all that hitherto he has cared for.
Through hypnosis the young woman psychiatrist discovers this, helps Nicolai address it and yet surprisingly for her does not return him to his ordinary normality but 'helps' him find the conviction to follow his uncle's path and leads her down her own, unexpected, paths of discovery.
Olga Kharitidi's 'Entering the Circle; Ancient Secrets of Siberian Wisdom Discovered by a Russian Psychiatrist' is her, first person, account of this encounter and its consequences. It inevitably puts you in mind of Carlos Castaneda's accounts of his encounter with a shaman and raises possibly the same doubts as to its authenticity. How much is fact and how much is imaginative extrapolation?
Yet Kharitidi's account feels more grounded. It is woven into stories of real challenge and care in a mental hospital, is courteous about how much remains unknown and has the sense of a tentative exploration after truth rather than entering a wonderland of revelation.
It is, also, in passing, exceptionally well written - you taste late Soviet Russia, sense the ambiguities of care and bureaucracy in a mental institution; and, feel the fear and delight of revelatory dreams crashing into consciousness and having to be assimilated slowly over time, if at all.
You too come to love her guides, who appear adept, at what in Buddhism would be called 'skilful means', letting you see just what you need to see in the right way and at the right dosage.
At one point, she is given her first rule, the First Rule, which is to make every choice, however small, grounded in five principles - truth, beauty, health, happiness, and light - said in such a way that I was arrested into reflecting on what that might truly mean? What would it look like to test every choice against such standards and how many of my choices would survive as adequate, correctly facing, if that were the standard?
One of the great virtues of the book is to continually remind you that no act, however small, does not resonate through the world, reaping consequence, and that the spiritual task is to ever deepen one's awareness of this and to tread ever more lightly, graciously. As in Jewish mysticism, every particular thing carries within it a divine spark and each time you touch the world with the right intention, aware of these five rules, you release the spark to arrive at its right destination, the world steps into its right flow, transfigured.
Is this the definition of a saint - that they tread lightly mostly touching the right place in the right way reaping the right consequence?