Our Declarations of “Zen-dependence”

What would Gen. John Stark think of guru Baba Ram Dass?

There’s something peculiar about New Hampshire — something hard to put your finger on. The French speakers among us (of whom there are plenty here in the Granite State) might call it je ne sais quoi, loosely translated as something that cannot be adequately expressed, but I’m still going to try.

Wish me luck.

When I was just a newcomer to the state, I heard people say that I’d be considered one for at least 30 years. I’ve passed that milestone now but still feel a little fresh when in the same room with a “true” native like Steve Taylor (the self-described “farmer, writer and independent scholar” responsible for his famous “100 Things You Should Do to Know the Real New Hampshire”) or Rebecca Rule (humorist and author of “Live Free and Eat Pie” and a bunch of other books). Both those local characters appear in this special issue of New Hampshire Magazine that you are holding, so I can take some comfort in having backup, should I overreach a bit in my efforts at explaining things.

Typically, when people want to define the uniqueness of our state, they go to the most public evidence of it, the one that appears on our license plates and on the signs that greet all visitors: our state motto, “Live Free or Die.”

Of course, not everyone “gets” Gen. John Stark’s pithy bumper sticker’s worth of wisdom and not everyone appreciates the sentiment. For those still scratching their heads whenever they read it, here’s my take. The message is not that life would not be worth living without freedom. It’s just that there are worse things than being dead. This in turn suggests that there is more to our lives than just living; that we are larger beings than is suggested by our contentious featherless-biped existence on this rough mortal coil. In other words, Gen. Stark’s philosophy goes a bit deeper, perhaps, than some people think. That’s probably why it is still repeated 200 years after the event at which it was originally read as a toast to fellow veterans of the Battle of Bennington, Stark’s last hurrah.

Stark stopped living free and died in 1822. Late last year, just as this issue of Lifelong New Hampshire was getting arranged on pages, a very different figure with a less-well-known New Hampshire profile went on to his own heavenly reward — a man named Baba Ram Dass.

Our remoteness and diversity of landscape made us a sandbox for entrepreneurs, philosophers, artists, writers and political activists. Even for wild-haired gurus.

Ram Dass was pretty famous back in the day, though a quick survey I conducted of the Gen Xers and Millennials in the office seems to place a discussion of him well into the “OK Boomer” category of contemporary relevance, so I’ll provide a little biography.

When Ram Dass first gained fame, he was still known as Dr. Richard Alpert. He and fellow ’60s troublemaker Timothy Leary were both Harvard professors who became pioneers of the psychedelic revolution that made experimenting with mind-altering substances into a rite of passage for many of my generation. Leary carried on with his Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out mantra while Dr. Alpert studied Eastern mysticism, eventually finding his own guru in India. He returned with a philosophy best summed up in the title of his best-selling 1971 book that merged Hinduism and Zen Buddhist thought into a three-word manifesto: “Be Here Now.”

Alpert took on the Hindu name Baba Ram Dass, which means “servant of God,” and went on to introduce many in the West (including George Harrison of The Beatles) to such odd-at-the-time practices as yoga and meditation, but he got his start in the guru trade right here in the Granite State.

A New York Times story from 1971 described his return to the US from India thusly: His hair and beard had grown long and frizzled, his eyes milkily Messianic. “Quick, get in the car before someone sees you,” said his father, a rich lawyer from Boston, when he picked up his 39-year-old son at Logan Airport. Ram Dass had disembarked barefoot, wearing a long white robe and carrying a tamboura for chanting.

In 1969, Ram Dass settled in at his father’s New Hampshire estate in Franklin and set up his own ashram, sharing what he had learned with all comers. Many seekers arrived with tents, others simply desiring a spot on the floor to sleep or sit in lotus position and learn at the feet of their guru. He returned to our state over the years and, after rendered silent by a stroke, continued to write here. His last book, released a year before his death, was “Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying.”

So, one man was a military leader who fought the British in the American Revolution, the other was a holy man who guided the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. What, besides a genius for brevity, did these two have in common?

One answer, of course, is New Hampshire. Another is that both men left us with some simple instructions that have inspired many over many years. One set looks out boldly, declaring: “Live free or die, death is not the greatest of evils.” The other faces inward calmly, saying no matter where you might find yourself in time or space to remember, “Be here now.” One is a cry for human liberty at all cost, the other a call to human mindfulness and peace in all situations.

What’s peculiar about New Hampshire is its ability to embrace both these men and both of their philosophies. Our hardscrabble, independent ancestors’ calls to liberty were music to the ears of young seekers in the last century, and their creative quests back to the land fueled much of the culture we value today, from the weavers of the League of NH Craftsmen to the callers of the contra-dance movement to the off-the-grid, net-zero, solar-powered settlers of the 21st century. Our remoteness and diversity of landscape made us a sandbox for entrepreneurs, philosophers, artists, writers and political activists. Even for wild-haired gurus.

The cast of characters who helped us create this special issue of New Hampshire Magazine is similarly diverse. Some have lived here nearly a century, some just arrived in the last few years. Some, like me, are still recovering from their “newcomer” status, but most, I think, would love to be known as lifelong New Hampshire residents.

The fact that our woods and mountains, towns and cities are home to tree-huggers and Free Staters, vegan peaceniks and moose hunters, communitarians and hermits means that whoever you are and whatever philosophy you choose to stick to your bumper, you belong here too. Even in this era of red/blue division, our politics drift local and we adhere to principle over party.

Our state is similar to the orbits that astronomers chart while seeking out inhabitable worlds in deep space. They call it “the Goldilocks zone,” where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist. It’s the sweet spot where interesting things can happen.

While I’m not suggesting that we add “Be Here Now” to our welcome signs at the border, I’m pretty sure the phrase would be a better marketing slogan for tourism and it might serve as a reminder to residents, both lifelong and brand new, that there’s really no better place to be.

Categories: Editor’s Note

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