Unlike the lean yogi with the long, frizzy beard, the Ram Dass of the '90s appears altogether conventional, an elder who might be mistaken for Grandpa Walton. He's got a little paunch and favors crew-neck sweaters, oxford-cloth shirts and top-quality, nondescript cotton pants. On this day, his beads were discreetly tucked away in a pants pocket. And what was left of his glistening white hair was relatively short and combed straight back.
He drives an old, rusted Mercedes he inherited from his late stepmother. Asked if he's attached to material objects, he shot back: "As long as you don't get near my MG." Then he volunteered that he lives rather comfortably on about $50,000 a year and donates the rest of his income to his foundations. As for his current spiritual identification, he laughed and categorized himself as "Hinju," half Hindu, half Jew. Then he got serious about how he's struggling with the same, spiritually based issues he's asking those enrolled in "Reaching Out" to examine.
As he said on opening night, "This course is both for people who are feeling the pain in their hearts that they don't know how to express their compassion in a way that makes them comfortable in the society . . . and it's also for those of us who have been doing service forever. . . . For us to examine and become more conscious of how we do it, why we do it, how to do it without getting burned out, how to find joy in service."
The man who has written several books on selfless service is still pondering how to find joy in giving?
"When I see people who are homeless, I feel sadness and I feel anger," he said between bites of lightly spiced noodles. "I feel anger at a system that is so affluent that it allows people to be left in that situation. I feel uncomfortable because I'm part of the problem, part of the structure, part of the affluence.
"Sometimes I can expiate my discomfort by giving money, but I think the more important thing I do is to look at these people and acknowledge their existence and be with them as fellow human beings. Sometimes I give them a number to call, sometimes money and sometimes I just say hello."
Likewise, he's wrestling with burnout, another of the issues being explored in the "Reaching Out" sessions.
One way to reduce burnout, he counseled, is to avoid attachment to a goal and just do your work as best you can.
To further reduce frustration, he advised recasting tasks as potential teaching devices.
"Then, whether the act succeeds or fails, it's still useful in helping you to awaken. I'm sort of on the road to being able to do that. I find that at times, I'm able to transmute my actions into that higher form and at other times I can't. I get too trapped in attachment to the outcome. Then I start to feel like I'm burning out."
As an example, Ram Dass cited a familiar pitfall in the work he does with the dying.
"To be with somebody who's going through the extreme fear or pain that often attends dying and to not close your heart to protect yourself is an incredible challenge," he said. "It's like climbing Mt. Everest. But if I'm working with somebody who's dying and I become attached to removing their suffering, as opposed to just being present and in the space of love with the person, then . . . I lose my perspective. . . . I have to pull back, rest and start again."
(At the end of the end of the first "Reaching Out" session, Ram Dass experienced a tearful moment backstage when he was informed that a Bay Area woman he'd been visiting for several months had died during the course of the show.)
With "Reaching Out," Ram Dass explained, he now has a vehicle to help himself and others over such rough spots. He sees the course as way to empower the servers and, potentially, narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
As he told his opening night audience at the Scottish Rite Temple: "Recently, I was in a community in Southern California where all the houses have huge gates with electronic watchdogs. And the signs on the front lawns put up by the security companies say 'Armed Response.' They won, but did they? I see them, imagine them, behind those fences, cowering, waiting for the people who aren't enjoying luxuries to come and climb over the fences.
"There is fear in the disequilibrium of wealth in this society. It interests me to drive on the freeways and see how few people are in those (car-pool) lanes. And in India, where I spend much time, you never think of having a car without at least eight or nine people in it.
"Some of us win, but we lose because we become alienated from our fellow human beings."