When he was 19, Richard Slavin, a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs of Chicago, went backpacking in Europe for two months.
"Hey," I told him. "I have a son about to do the same thing."
"But," Slavin added with a twinkle, "I never came back!"
With that he gave a hearty laugh. He could laugh now — he was laughing now, in a conference room in Manhattan, in town for a book tour — because at 60-something, he is no longer the wandering hippie of 1970. In fact, he is no longer even Richard Slavin. Today he is Radhanath Swami, leader of the Hare Krishnas.
The swami was dressed in coral-colored robes, and a coral sweatshirt that he took off in the warm office. His assistant jumped up to fold it for him, but the swami nonchalantly did it himself. This is not a guy who lives a Kardashian life. He's a monk. He sleeps on the floor. He rises at 4 every morning for chanting and meditation. (And breakfast isn't until 9 a.m.!)
So how does a suburban American kid end up living in India, leading a congregation that feeds 300,000 impoverished kids a day, along with running a hospital, an orphanage and about a dozen schools? The swami smiled and raised his eyebrows as I asked. He looked as surprised as me.
And by the way, in between all these India duties, the swami lectures everywhere from Google to Harvard on things like spirituality and stress.
"I have to admit to them that swamis have as much stress as them," he chuckled. "It's just a matter of how you deal with it."
The journey from footloose teen to spiritual leader is what his first book, "The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami" was about. A best-seller. His latest book, "The Journey Within: Exploring the Path of Bhakti," is about the spiritual lessons learned along the way.
The lessons did not come easily. After he landed in Europe, Slavin hitchhiked across the continent in search of truth. By the time he got to India to study the religions there, "I became a very serious ascetic. I would never sleep inside any building, because I considered that too luxurious. So I slept under trees, or in caves."
Now, readers, here I must confess something: This man grew up one suburb way from mine. He went to my rival high school and is just about 10 years older. But most of us did not go off and sleep in caves. How on earth did his parents react?
"It was a culture shock for me and a culture shock for them," he says. When he finally returned to America for the first time, "My father and brother came to meet me at the airport. The only luggage I had was a begging bowl. But we adjusted to each other in a very sweet and wonderful way."
That's probably because the swami was not the caricature that many of us had — or have — of the Hare Krishnas: lost souls in loose robes handing out flowers.
"In every religion there's wacky people," the swami said matter-of-factly. Because the Hare Krishna religion was first established in America in 1966, right around the time of the counterculture, the two got entwined in the public mind. Lost souls did join. So what?
Hare Krishna is not an American fad. It's an ancient Indian religion that says we are all one — humans, animals, all of us who seek sustenance here on earth. And when we chant the name of Krisha — God — we get closer and closer to realizing that connectedness.
That doesn't sound any dippier than going to church or temple. And if it makes people ready to build schools, respect nature and provide for the very poor, more power to it — and the former Richard Slavin.
(But if my son is reading this, please note: Do not stay away for 40 years!)
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog, "Free-Range Kids," and a keynote speaker at conferences, companies and schools. Her TV show, "World's Worst Mom" airs on the Discovery Life Channel. To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.