If you had read Hesse’s “Journey to the East,” Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Castaneda’s “Teachings of Don Juan,” and an even more esoteric little travel guide called “Overland to India,” it’s highly likely you would have read or at least briefly held a book titled “Be Here Now” in your hands while hanging in your friend’s yurt in the 1970s.
It was written by a gentleman hitherto known as the brilliant Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert, who then laid claim to countercultural hero status by being fired from Harvard, along with colleague Dr. Timothy Leary, for giving LSD to graduate students as part of an experimental research project.
Alpert eventually went to India, where he met a guru named Neem Karoli Baba. When Alpert gave the guru a hit of acid, with no reported response at all, the American academic realized the guru had found a “higher drug.” Alpert took the name Ram Dass, given to him by his new guru.
“Be Here Now,” which had been initially turned down by some 10 publishers, became one of the first so-called counterculture underground classics, selling many millions of copies. It was first published in 1971 by the nonprofit Lama Foundation, and was later acquired by Harmony Books, a Crown/Random House publishing division. The book was a media phenomenon, and not just because of its sales.
Taking Marshall McLuhan’s “medium is the message” rather literally, the book broke almost all publishing rules of linear, logical, sequential thinking and writing. To read it is to go on a psychedelic trip that evolves into a mesmerizing meditation, deconstructing reality as we thought we knew it, and introducing a whole shift in paradigm.
It begins with the cover. Set against a purple backdrop, a white circle with a chair at its center is held together by radial lines. Surrounding the circular mandala is the sentence, in capital letters, BE HERE NOW, repeated five times and close together so that it becomes hard to differentiate one sentence from the other. Hidden within that string, for one who takes the time to look closely and possibly with some mind-altering assistance, emerges what ultimately is the message of the book: NOW BE NOWHERE.
The book clearly resonated with a lot of people at the time. Ram Dass became one of the best interpreters of Eastern philosophy, filling college lecture halls and retreat centers where he entertainingly interweaved his intellectual background, his experiments with hallucinogens, exploration of spirituality, and a self-effacing contemporary humor that made it all connect with the average schlub.
“It changed my life,” said Nancy Slonim Aronie, in possibly the shortest utterance in her life. “Well,” she added, “that and ‘Catcher in the Rye.’”
Ms. Aronie, who is the author of “Writing From the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice” (Hachette Books), has led her Chilmark Writing Workshop since 1982. She’s held them at retreats such as Esalen in California, and Kripalu in Lenox. She does an occasional commentary for NPR, and will be giving a talk about “Be Here Now” on Thursday, June 29, at 5:30 pm at the Aquinnah library. This event is part of the “Islanders Read the Classics” series of book talks.
In 1977 Ms. Aronie was living the suburban Connecticut life, married to Joel Aronie, and raising two boys, Dan (then 8) and Josh (then 6).
She recalled that period of her life: “My focus was vacuuming our wall-to-wall white pile carpeting, but wondering to myself — ‘Is this all there is?’ I thought if I had a station wagon and gorgeous brick house, a loving husband and two kids, I’d be fulfilled, but it wasn’t enough.”
Then she visited the communal home of her new friend Kate Blinder, in Charlemont, and mingled with people 10 years her junior, who had left their own middle-class lives to raise chickens, tap maple trees to make syrup, bake wholesome breads, cook organic, and eat at a long wooden table — surrounded by kids of all ages and from multiple extended and blended families.
Sitting quietly on a shelf was “Be Here Now.” “It practically fell off the shelf into my hands,” recalled Ms. Aronie.
“I sat in Kate’s living room and devoured it,” she went on. “To find out every person was the same as me, just that we were living different stories, but under us all there were these huge connections.”
What grabbed her about the book? Everything. “I loved how he tells his journey, his devotion to his teacher. I love the art form, the block print, the brown pages, the soft-toned photos. But it was the message that had the most profound impact. And of course I adored the way he played with words to make me think about their real or other meaning: The hyphen to Re-member. Like, be a member, again, of what’s happening. Or be reminded of your deeper purpose. You knew this. This is ancient, you had this wisdom, you forgot it.”
From then on, she drove around listening to Ram Dass tapes in her car, even while carpooling her kids. “I knew every story, every word, every comma,” she laughed. “We had the same sensibility.”
She then attended several 10-day meditation retreats, and eventually she met him. She would call him from time to time. “Ramilla, this is Nancilla from the Vineyard,” she would begin, using the Yiddish affectionate ending to names. As she struggled during the years her son Dan fell victim to multiple sclerosis, she asked for his advice. “Just be a mother,” he told her.
It was enough to help her shift that one degree that makes the difference between suffering and living in the moment.
For her talk at “Islanders Read the Classics,” she hinted she’ll share never-before-told personal stories, like the time she was at a fancy Upper East Side party attended by Ram Dass, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Phil Donahue. To hear it, you’ll have to be there then.
“Islanders Read the Classics” is sponsored by The Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association. Nancy Aronie will be discussing “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass on Thursday, June 29, at 5:30 pm at the Aquinnah library.