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Medicine and the Mysteries of the Mind

Authors: Dr. Olga Kharitidi delves into the Siberian shaman rituals of healing and discovers new paths to the human psyche.

September 20, 1996|LOUISE STEINMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a profound distance from the grim mental hospital in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where Dr. Olga Kharitidi was a staff psychiatrist, to the elegant Santa Monica hotel lobby where she now faces her first author interview. Settling down at a window table, Kharitidi pulls her book out of a satchel. She received the publication copy just this morning and examines it with discernible amazement.

Advance reviews suggest that "Entering the Circle: Ancient Secrets of Siberian Shamanism Discovered by a Russian Psychiatrist" (Harper San Francisco), may prove as revelatory to readers at the end of the millennium as anthropologist Carlos Castaneda's "The Teachings of Don Juan" was to readers in the late '60s. Kharitidi's book launched a bidding war for foreign rights, and film rights have already been optioned by producer Robert Watts' North Tower Films ("Meetings with Remarkable Men"). And all this before U.S. publication, at the end of this month, and from a medical doctor who never dreamed she would write a book.

For all her accomplishments, Kharitidi, 33, is quite young, with luminous blue-green eyes and a ready smile. This morning, wearing a fitted black leather jack and jeans, she looks both svelte and comfortable. "When people meet me they are surprised, because they expect to see some old Siberian woman wearing a fur hat," she says almost apologetically.

Kharitidi was born in Novosibirsk, where both her parents were doctors and medicine was "the family business." Her great-grandfather, a physician, served in the Czar's army in World War I, but had the audacity to write a report on the appalling medical conditions the soldiers endured. For that, he was sent to Siberia. His son, Kharitidi's grandfather, was also a physician. He wrote a report about the inhumane conditions suffered by workers at the factory where he worked. For that, he was dispatched to the Gulag for 20 years.

She grew up a member of the Soviet elite, with access to a fine education. At an early age, however, she became aware of the existence of what she terms a "spiritual underground."

Two businessmen shouting into their cellular phones at the adjacent table momentarily capture Kharitidi's attention. She turns back, speaking thoughtfully: "In Russia life was so difficult. Some people emigrated to another country and some people did what we called 'inner emigration.' You were forced to live in your inner life, to create some kind of community with close friends, to have some kind of reality that was beautiful because the rest of what was around was disgusting in many ways.

"You were forced to go inside, to study books, to look for knowledge from other people, from other times. In America, it's so easy just to fall into living life and to be consumed by all these external pleasures. When I meet people here who are making the effort to live a spiritual life, I know what it costs them to stay with their inner truths and not to be hypnotized by all these attractions."

Kharitidi's commitment to her profession sustained her as she struggled with abysmal conditions at the Siberian hospital. Drunken orderlies abused the inmates, sustenance was thin gruel and, possibly the most egregious offense, psychiatry was abused.

"Sluggish schizophrenia" was used to justify incarceration of political dissidents, "metaphysical intoxication" for anyone indiscreet enough to be caught reading a Bible or a book about Sufism. "It was a very big challenge," she says, "to see all these young lives ruined in front of you and not be able to do much of anything."

Kharitidi's autobiography / adventure begins in 1989 when, on an impulse, she decided to accompany one of her psychotic patients to his home village in the isolated Altai Mountains. In Altai, she meets Umai, an old healer, or shaman, who initiates her into a miraculous and terrifying world where only a small fraction of events can be explained by reason. After her encounters with Umai, Kharitidi's views of science, medicine and time, her entire life, were changed forever. The tone of the book is calm, intimate and straightforward. "It was like I was telling this story to some of my patients, who were very dear to me," she says.

In traditional Siberian shamanism, a world view thought to date back to our Upper Paleolithic ancestors, the shaman is the guardian of the psychic and physical equilibrium of his (or her) tribe. By means of rituals, which use dance, chanting and sometimes potent drugs, the shaman enters a trance state during which his soul is thought to travel to the spirit world. There the shaman finds the powers necessary to heal an ailing individual or a troubled community. The shamans used to drink tea from hallucinogenic mushrooms to facilitate their ecstatic visions, then drink their even more toxic urine.

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