A Gentleman in Moscow or How to Live Life

Photo by Roman Davayposmotrim on Unsplash

Photo by Roman Davayposmotrim on Unsplash

"Adversity presents itself in many forms and if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them."

During the last couple of weeks, I found myself being more fully engaged in the moment. I am noticing the tastes, smells, colors, and the emotions with increased sharpness and am experiencing a deeper appreciation of life’s daily little events. All of a sudden, being mindful has become almost effortless.

Surprisingly, this seems to be related to a book I am reading. (Although the word reading does not do it justice. It would be better described as savouring, relishing, or being immersed in).

Adversity presents itself in many forms and if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.

I have been a student of mindfulness for quite a few years now, studying the books of Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, and others. I do try to combine the formal practice of mindful meditation with the way of living that emphasizes being present in the moment. I practice yoga. We do not have TV (and haven’t had for many years) and our kids don’t have any electronic devices. We hike, play board games, and try to foster a deeper connection to nature. And yet, all of this has been suddenly taken to a new level after reading the first fifty pages of this book.  

"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles is a book in which every page is a lesson in mindfulness, even if the word mindfulness is not mentioned even once. Of course, it is also a book about strength, humility, grace, open-mindedness, and kindness. But, above all, this is a novel about mindfulness and how it allows us to live our lives to the fullest and expand our world, even when the circumstances are such that the world is closing around us.

The book is about an aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to “house arrest” in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow a few years after the revolution. He is confined to the hotel for thirty-two years.

Instead of becoming bitter and allowing his world to shrink, the Count adapts to his new reality by remaining present and inquisitive about his world. And, his world does not shrink. The Count approaches people and events with an open mind. He is genuinely interested in others. Not only is he non-judgemental, but he has a talent to see the best in people and is curious and supportive in his interactions with them, whether it is a seamstress, a handyman, the party chairman, a spy, or a nine-year old spirited girl. He is rewarded with a life full of adventure, a close loyal group of friends, and receives love and kindness in return.  

Imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different [is] the only sure route to madness.

While the Bolsheviks, “who distrust[ed] any form of hesitation or nuance,” were busy trying to eradicate all distinctions between people, stripping the Count of all his titles, and going as far as removing the labels from exquisite wine bottles so that all are equal, Count Rostov sees individuality and subtleness wherever he goes. This is how he experiences a sip of wine: 

In a sip, it would evoke the timing of that winter’s thaw, the extent of that summer’s rain, the prevailing winds, and the frequency of clouds. Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself.

Essentially, this is a book about how to live life well and to its fullest regardless of the circumstances and without ruminating on the past. As Alexander Rostov wisely observes, "…[I]magining what might happen if one's circumstances were different [is] the only sure route to madness."

The elegant writing style certainly contributed to the impact this novel had on me. Eloquent witty prose, metaphors, aphorisms, and even sophisticated alliteration for chapter names capture the reader from the very first page and enchant throughout the book.

I may never know the exact answer as to why, exactly, this book was such a catalyst for transformation, and that is OK. The important part is that there is no single road to mindfulness. This awareness may come to you after practicing daily meditation, taking a trip to another country, listening to an inspiring lecture, or looking your child in the eye. It may come suddenly, or it may gradually develop – after all “...[L]ife does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds.

...Life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds.

All you need to do is not to miss it and not to brush it aside. Do not undermine this fragile, subtle shift. You do that by paying attention to the moment. Being in the moment with intent and curiosity – and without judgment. Approach life like Count Alexander Rostov did in this magical novel.

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Anna Prudovski is a Psychologist and the Clinical Director of Turning Point Psychological Services. She has a special interest in treating anxiety disorders and OCD, as well as working with parents.

Anna lives with her husband and children in Vaughan, Ontario. When she is not treating patients, supervising clinicians, teaching CBT, and attending professional workshops, Anna enjoys practicing yoga, going on hikes with her family, traveling, studying Ayurveda, and spending time with friends. Her favorite pastime is reading.

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