Augie Wants to Turn You On

Is the Self-Knowledge Symposium leading Students to spirituality, or creating the mindset of a cult

The Spectator Online, Feb. 23, 2000
By Bill Sasser

Anyone who spends time on campus at Duke, UNC, or N.C. State has seen the posters: "What is Zen? Philosopher and Entrepreneur August Turak Presented by the Self Knowledge Symposium."

For the past five years, Turak has given one, often two, lectures a semester at each of the Triangle's three largest universities. A life-long spiritual seeker whose company, Raleigh Group International, is making millions marketing Windows-based software to information technology professionals, by his estimate thousands of students have come to his talks since his first at N.C. State in 1989.

Hundreds more have attended meetings of the Self Knowledge Symposium, a spiritual group aimed at college students he founded and heads.

Perceived by most on campus as a kind of a student philosophy club that encourages a non-denominational approach to spiritual issues, the SKS bills itself as an eclectic free space where students can ask the big questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Tapping into what many social observers have called a generational shift toward spiritual seeking, and away from organized religion, the SKS has an increasingly high profile on Triangle campuses. While the group has a relatively small core membership - about 25 students this year at Duke University, fewer at UNC and N.C. State - this semester may be its busiest yet. Earlier this month, the SKS was a local co-host at Duke and UNC for a national conference on spirituality, "God at 2000," which was broadcast via satellite to campuses across the country and included former archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu among its panelists. This semester at Duke, Turak is teaching a three-hour credit house course, with mostly SKS members as students, and the SKS is co-hosting events sponsored by the Kenan Ethics Program's Interfaith Dialogue Project at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy. During spring break the group is taking a busload of students to a Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Moncks Corner, S.C., as an alternative to the typical road trip to a beach. While Turak has won many endorsements for his work - including praise from Duke Chapel Dean William Willimon - he also has his share of critics among former SKS members, some who say he can be belligerent and sexist in his attitudes toward students, prone to kicking out spiritual seekers who disagree with him, and unconcerned about the consequences rejection might have on some students. Turak is also a long-time follower of the teachings and practices of a man named Richard Rose, whose group, the Truth and Transmission Society, has been labeled a cult by cult awareness groups. "There are good cults and there are bad cults," said Turak. "The question is, does it propagate good, does it propagate evil? I admit these things are controversial."

Whatever may be drawn from his relationship with Rose, Turak contends that the Self Knowledge Symposium is doing a world of good for students who need it and want it. Reeling from the affects of divorce, drugs, and promiscuity, this generation needs a group that offers a moral grounding and a chance to find out who they are, he said - "They're coming from all this affluence and you have the combination that they're spoiled on the one hand, and deeply unhappy on the other, and they're looking for something that's bigger. They are really the offspring of wealth, and when you've already had your Nintendo games, what are you living for?" Apparent to anyone who talks to Turak, who often spends vacations and holidays at Mepkin Abbey, is the intense sincerity of his spiritual self-study and work with the SKS.

The grandson of immigrants from Czechoslovakia, Turak, 47, grew up in Pittsburgh and traces his own spiritual search through the counter-culture of the 1970s. In 1973, he was a 19 year-old student at the University of Pittsburgh when he joined a group in Moundsville, W. Va. - about 70 miles southwest of Pittsburgh - who had set up camp on the farm of his spiritual mentor, Richard Rose. Rose named his group the Truth and Transmission Society (TAT) and began calling his farm a rural ashram. Turak became his protege and for five years traveled to college campuses across the country to spread the word about TAT, recruit new members, and make arrangements for Rose's lectures, while working part-time as a carpet installer to support himself. Turak, who now drives a BMW and votes Republican, went on to a fast track sales career in the cable television industry before going into software marketing. Raleigh Group International, which he started in 1993 with several adult members of the SKS, now has 23 employees and is listed by KPMG Peat Marwick as one of the ten fastest growing companies in the Triangle. In a deal that has not been publicly announced, Turak said his business is being acquired by a foreign company, making RGI's principals multi-millionaires.

While making millions, Turak has also continued his own quest for what Rose called "ultimate realization." Duke Chapel Dean William Willimon has called Turak "a modern-day Socrates" and called the Self Knowledge Symposium "the hottest thing happening in higher education."

"Augie is the T force in this and the group has become a kind of a phenomenon," said Willimon. "What excited me about it was the idea of a group of students taking charge of their own spiritual growth and development. I've noted for some time that this generation of students are seekers, though they're not big on organized religion. I think this generation is going for a deeper experience than what's being handed to them and they have an unprejudiced openness on these matters. Most middle aged faculty members on campus aren't that comfortable talking about these things."

Some students said the SKS has been their best experience in college, while many more student briefly pass through. Other students who have given SKS a serious try before quitting said that as they became more involved with the group, they felt its philosophy and discussion were largely steered by Turak and other SKS adults. Some were uncomfortable with the pressure placed on them in SKS encounter groups, with Turak's track record of kicking students out of the group, and the blurring of boundaries between the SKS and his software company.

Rather than a student philosophy club, the Self Knowledge Symposium is in fact a 401-C private non-profit that shares space with RGI at its North Raleigh office. Each campus group is headed by an adult advisor who is either works for the SKS Foundation or Turak's business. About half a dozen RGI employees, including several recent Duke grads, were student members of SKS before Turak hired them to work for his company.

Pointing to businesses run in Mormon communities, and to the Triangle's one percent unemployment rate, Turak said that he sees no conflict in his dual role of spiritual mentor and 9 to 5 boss and that his employees are free to leave as they choose. In fact, he said he looks forward to RGI's acquisition deal relieving him of some of his authority. "I did it for the money and the good of the overall company and its employees," said Turak, who will head marketing under the new ownership. "The nice thing about this is I am no longer the number one guy, and it feels good." While Turak has blazed a trail in business, his own spiritual search has been largely influenced by his mentor Richard Rose, who at age 83 suffers from Alzheimer's disease and is no longer active. But in '70s, Rose attracted hundreds of college students to his eclectic philosophies mixing Eastern religion with Western occultism, delving into such taboo subjects as necromancy (communicating with the dead), ESP, psychic healing, and hypnosis. According to Turak, Rose's unusual powers included the ability to read minds and "read" people - by simply looking at someone walking down a city street, Rose could know someone's habits, conflicts, beliefs, the nature of their soul. Turak, who has called himself Rose's best student, gives detailed accounts of witnessing this phenomenon in his own lectures, as well as his own enlightenment experience under Rose's instruction. Some former Rose followers, however, have reported a different experience with TAT. At least three cult awareness organizations - the national American Family Foundation, the Cult Information Service in Pittsburgh, and Wellspring Center, a cult exiting program in Albany, Ohio - either list TAT as a cult or have been contacted by a former member about their experiences with the group. The Self Knowledge Symposium is not listed with cult awareness groups, and has not been called a cult by former members. One former TAT student who lived on Rose's farm for over a decade was a client of Wellspring's exiting program. At a cult awareness conference hosted at the center several years ago, he participated in a panel discussion titled "Success After a Cult Experience," which is recorded on videotape.

Last fall at Duke, Turak gave two lectures on campus, "Walking the Razor's Edge" and " Five Years with a Zen Master," both attended by over one hundred students and both similarly focused on Turak's own 30-year spiritual search and his experiences with Rose. "The only reason I do this is like The Beatles say 'I want to turn you on,'" mostly undergraduate audience for his "Razor's Edge" lecture. Billed as "a former MTV executive," Turak offered them a prologue filled with pop cultural references, quoting Jim Morrison, Peter Fonda's character in Easy Rider, and the character who enthuses "plastics" to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. He recounted the first time he met Rose and looked into his piercing blue eyes: "It was like someone was looking through my eyes, through the back of my skull, into infinity. Rose was not screwing around. This was his entire life. It was all he cared about, it was all he talked about."

As his talk progressed, half a dozen audience members - mostly adults in their 30s and 40s - stood up and walked out. What they were expecting in the way of spiritual insights was apparently not what Turak was offering: recountings of near-death experiences, visions of ghosts, encounters with mental telepathy.

Turak wasn't fazed by the walk-outs and had most of the undergraduates' rapt attention as he told his stories and used his own life as an illustration of how someone can be successful but avoid the lives of quiet desperation that he told his audience had been the fate of most of their parents.

Though he has never been married and has no children of his own, parents are a recurrent theme for Turak. "How many of you want to have the marriage your parents have had? Let me see a show of hands," he asked, following with a pregnant pause as no one in the audience raised a hand. "You have all these options - what are you going to do with your life? What guidance do you get? You're smart, you're good looking, you're going to Duke. What you're told is 'Do anything you want to do, as long as you're happy - just DON'T screw it up.'" "The attitude of Augie's story is that he is a person who has followed this hard spiritual path for a long time, and he's a successful businessman, who's also interested in deeper things - that really appeals to a lot of Duke students," said senior Sara Jewett, a member of SKS for three semesters.

As at other universities, creating an enriching campus life has long been a concern for faculty and administrators, and it is likely to become a more prominent issue in the wake of several recent incidents involving binge drinking by undergraduates, including the alcohol-related death of a Duke student last semester. At Duke - where the mean freshman SAT score is 1300-1500, a four-year undergraduate education costs $120,000, and 80 percent of seniors plan to go on to graduate school - Jewett said there are few outlets for students interested in having serious conversations about life and sharing unconventional thoughts. "At first, I was compelled by the questions they were asking in SKS," she said. "It seemed like a different sort of group where students could ask questions, like 'What is the purpose of life?' It got to the heart of what a lot of people are interested in, but is never talked about on campus. It gave you a community."

Jewett said her perceptions changed after Turak became angry with students who disagreed with some of his views. "Several people in my group had some direct confrontations with him," she said. "A friend of mine checked it out and ended up having a couple. He was honest and sincere in his criticisms, but Augie was really sort of belligerent and it upset me-it sent up a warning flag for me. When I left the door was still open, but I've seen other people who left who were called scared, unmotivated, that they weren't going to amount to anything in life. There is a spiritual self-righteousness to it, where it's 'We are dealing with the deep questions and the people around us aren't.'"

Senior Rachel Medlock was a member of the SKS for two years and said it has been her best experience at Duke. She got involved with the SKS as a sophomore and was soon devoting as much as 40 hours a week to the group, holding SKS officer positions, managing the SKS web site, and editing Symposium, a SKS magazine with 800 subscribers that is housed in the Bryan Center at Duke. "I faced myself in a lot of difficult ways," said Medlock. "I owe a lot to Aug and the SKS. Through the years I've been at Duke, the friends I've really stuck with are the SKS kids. It's where I've gotten the most important lessons I've learned."

The group's most quoted endorsement comes from Willimon, dean of Duke Chapel and a previous advisor for the SKS chapter at Duke. Willimon, however, said he has not closely examined the content of Turak's lectures. "Augie is kind of manic and in your face, but I went to one of his lectures where there were 200 students and he had their rapt attention," said Willimon. "They ate it up. Students feel he cares about them. He gets in their face and asks what they are doing with their lives. It all sounds very strange to me, but that's how Zen strikes me anyway."

Willimon said he has also not examined any of the books written by Rose, whose methods Duke senior Medlock said are the main inspiration for Turak's work with students, though with an approach less intense than his mentor's. "Rose is where Aug gets his methodology, which is kind of a system of shocks," said Medlock. "Not the Zen way of sitting and meditating on a flower, but a system of jarring you out of the paradigm you're in, with the end result of realizing there is no paradigm, except the ones you create in your own head." In fact, using the term "Zen" to describe Rose's philosophies, as well as Turak's, is a misnomer. David Gold, a fellow student of Rose who now works at RGI and heads the SKS group at N.C. State, readily acknowledged that Rose's beliefs follow virtually none of the tenets of Zen Buddhism, except perhaps the idea that the material world is an illusion. "Rose didn't like Zen," said Gold. "On the one hand he said Zen was as close as anything to what he was doing-a negative approach of moving away from things that weren't true. But at the same time you had a lot of charlatans who were posing as Zen masters. We feel from a marketing or sound byte point of view that Zen is the best word to use - it's a hot term."

A close look at Rose's books (self-published by his own press and available from and other accounts of his life shows a figure of considerable contradictions. A self-styled holy man, he once had a shoot out with members of a rival Hari Krishna group living next door to his farm in West Virginia. His main spiritual text castigates virtually all institutions and social conventions of the modern world, including academia and organized religion, and includes disparaging comments about women. He tried LSD at age 50 to see if the drug would reproduce the "death experience" that accompanied his own enlightenment. Rose said his own ultimate realization occurred during an out-of-body experience in a hotel room in Seattle in 1947, an experience he recounts in his books and which he said left him contemplating suicide. Turak has also told the story in detail in his lectures. Rose spent much of his life trying to pass on the self-knowledge he had gained.

Group hypnosis seems to have played a part in his efforts - the Summer 1978 issue of Rose's TAT Journal describes a retreat at his farm in which 120 participants experimented with hypnotic techniques under his instructions and volunteered for Rose's demonstrations. Rose had taken the flowering of the counter culture ten years earlier as his cue to start a search for students. His efforts to found a group are outlined in part in Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness, and the Hare Krishnas (Harcourt Brace, 1988), recounting the rise and fall of a Hari Krishna guru who Rose brought to town. According to the authors, Rose placed an ad in the San Francisco Oracle, the nation's first psychedelic newspaper, offering the use of a 130 acre farm near his family's for a commune. He sold a 99-year lease for $4,000 to Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada-formerly Kevin Ham, the son of a Baptist minister from Peeksville, New York. Philosophical differences arose quickly between the two and a feud that would last for 20 years started one winter night in 1969, when shots were fired into Rose's house from a car stopped out front. Rose shot back with his own .22 rifle, wounding a 17 year-old boy from the Krishna commune. He was arrested but the charges later dropped.

Turak said that Rose began attracting students in earnest after the two met at a lecture he gave in Pittsburgh in 1972 - just as Rose had started work on his main spiritual text The Albigen Papers. The book, which is dedicated to "the group" and has a foreword written by Turak, offers Rose's "corrosive analysis" of society-the four serpents on its cover represents Law, Religion, Academia, and Government. Within months of meeting, Turak was living on Rose's farm and running what he called "the organizational arm" of TAT. Rose gave hundreds of lectures on college campuses across the country, including the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon University, the University of Ohio, Kent State University, Akron University, and as far afield as Boston College and Brown University. Rose told his young audiences that he focused on students because "by age 40 people's heads have started to harden up" and said that for some of them, being at his lecture was destiny - "I don't believe that this is an accident. Certain people were suppose to come here." While a core group of 15 to 20 students, mostly young men, lived on Rose's farm, TAT groups totaling several hundred members formed at different campuses, mostly in Pittsburgh and Ohio.

A collection of Rose's interviews and lectures are published in his book The Direct-Mind Experience. In his talks, Rose recounted his own enlightenment experience and his metaphysical blending of Eastern mysticism and 19th century Western occultism, which he placed under the single rubric "Zen." Rose said in one interview that he used "Zen" because it was a word people recognized. Turak says much the same about the term's cachet with the counter culture: "Back in those days all you had to do was put up a few posters saying 'Zen: Room 319' and you could get two hundred students in for a lecture." Rose said his only purpose was to offer guidance and reassurance to fellow seekers, frequently pointing out that he charged no fees.

Instead of money, they gave him their hearts, their time, and their minds. in Direct-Mind Experience, Rose explains some of the methods he used to recondition the thoughts of his students, a process he said opened them up to enlightenment. One was an encounter group - he called it a "confrontation" - in which students under considerable peer pressure were encouraged to reveal intimate details about their lives and then listened as the group dissected their vanities and fears. Rose, who said the process was intended to provide self-knowledge and expose false egos, also followed a line of Socratic questioning meant to demonstrate that objective thought was an illusion. Smaller groups engaged in "rapport sessions," which he said developed intuition to the point that participants could read each other's minds. In his own words: "(I)f you sit for awhile in groups until you develop what we call 'rapport,' you can develop an ability to go inside another person's head. Almost anyone can do this with enough practice in sitting." Another practice was a meditational technique in which students held two contradictory thoughts in their minds at once. Rose called it "a system of magic" that resulted not in confusion but transcendence: "thought" and "no-thought" equaled "Absolute Realization." Rose said these practices gave students "peak experiences" that would encourage them to continue on their path toward ultimate realization.

The group sessions laid the foundation for what Rose called "direct mind" communication, a one-on-one process that seems to have involved hypnosis or a similar trance state: "(B)asically it calls for me, if I'm the one who is acting, to lock your head with mine . . . In other words, you fasten yourself to the other person's mind, and move them with your head while you are so fastened."

Turak acknowledges that Rose practiced hypnosis with his students and in Direct-Mind Experience Rose tells of an experiment at the farm in which a young woman under hypnosis was suggested to believe that a broom was a guitar, which she picked and began strumming like an instrument in front of the group. The Albigen Papers makes frequent references to hypnosis and the TAT web site currently sells a book on hypnosis, The Art of Suggestion, by Santanelli.

Rose also employed harsh techniques of verbal abuse and intimidation on his students. In his lectures, Turak has recounted how he was tormented by Rose during his first summer on the farm and his belief that Rose's methods led to his own enlightenment experience. In a Symposium essay, Gold, the former Rose student who now head the SKS group at N.C. State, writes about a similar experience when he was a 21 year-old law student and went to his first Rose lecture. Rose's methods may have had risks. In one interview, he recounted the mental breakdown one of his students suffered during a talk at Brown University: "I was up there giving a lecture, and one of our fellows flipped out. It wasn't from drugs, I don't know what caused it. I think sometimes he was thinking too much, but he went bananas and he fell over on the floor." Turak said he remembered the incident and dismissed any implications against Rose - the student was already suffering from a mental illness, he said. Turak has also said, however, that emotional turmoil is one of the risks of spiritual seeking and calls his own process of leading students to self-knowledge a "great adventure," comparing the dangers to those accepted by adventurers climbing Mount Everest. One of the books on the syllabus for his house course at Duke is Into Thin Air, which recounts a doomed 1996 attempt by mountaineers, many of them amateurs, to climb Everest. Eight climbers died in the attempt. Turak broke with Rose in 1977 and soon introduced himself to Louis Mobley, a former IBM executive and pioneer of the human potential movement. He became Mobley's protege and spent two years studying his techniques of human transformation. "He called it an 'unlearning process' in which you stripped down of all the nonsense that you thought you knew," says Turak. "The only way that you could really change was through transformation, and the only way you could change through transformation was to actually do, to learn through experiential learning. But you have to trust the process - if you think you can control the process, that's brainwashing."

Turak moved on to a sales career in the cable television industry, his first job in New York City as the eastern sales manager for the company starting MTV. His work involved getting the fledgling music channel on cable systems across the Northeast. "He's had a very successful sales management career, first as a vice president of sales-kind-of- guy, then sort of a hired gun sales consultant," says Gold, who stayed in Moundsville after law school and started a personal injury law practice with two other Rose students, from which he retired in 1993. Turak came to Raleigh to work in marketing for a startup software company and decided to stay. Keith Reid, one of RGI's principals, met Turak about ten years ago and joined the once-a-week adult meetings he had started, similar to Rose's encounter groups and the genesis of the SKS. Reid decided to leave the adult group about three years ago. "I said, you know Augie, I don't think the group is for me anymore, and he said fine, no problem," said Reid, adding that less than a third of RGI's 23 employees now have any connection to the SKS. "We have people here who have no idea what the group is and don't care. All Augie cares about is performance."

Turak's ideas on mixing business with spirituality are still evolving. Last year he was profiled in The Wall Street Journal and Entrepreneur Magazine, both pieces similarly focused on his sojourns at Mepkin Abbey, where he dons a habit to chant and meditate and spends five hours a day sorting eggs from the monastery's 40,000 chickens. He compared RGI to the monk's egg business. Turak's PR agency is pitching similar articles to Forbes and Fast Company.

At least one former Rose student who spent over a decade with the group has not had the success of Turak and Gold, and considers his experience with TAT to have been abusive. The former member, who contacted Spectator through Wellspring, asked that his name not be used.

In comments recorded on video several years ago at a cult awareness conference, the former member refers to himself as "a survivor of a cult experience" and recounts his experience with TAT. In particular he remembered Rose's mastery at using intimidation to control his group: "I can remember sitting around a table with my cult leader, and he said 'I work with other people's garbage.' And he looked around the table and said 'You know what I'm talking about? You people are the garbage.' And no one said anything. No one said a word. That was how much control he had over them, even over me." Following Rose's directive that members should be celibate and "work with their hands instead of their minds," he recalled how he gave up a professional career to live on the farm and work as a manual laborer and a TAT campus recruiter, while for over a decade avoiding any personal contact with women.

During a telephone interview, the former member said hypnosis and other trance techniques were central to Rose's practices. Like others in the group, he believed Rose had the supernatural abilities he claimed: "I felt he had the capacity to read minds at a distance, the capacity to 'read' a person at a distance. That was his illusion. It wasn't until I was out of the group that I saw these people for what they were. I saw them as victims."

Michael Langone, executive director of the cult-awareness group American Family Foundation, said it is not unusual for former members of groups such as TAT to be reluctant about speaking publicly. "They may be afraid of legal reprisals, or being called crazy," said Langone. "Or they may still carry the group's belief system and fear supernatural consequences. A cult leader often creates paranoia, because it serves to protect the magical belief system that holds the group together."

Wellspring director Paul Martin, also a counseling psychologist, said about half his clients have been involved in groups that experiment with some combination of trance, meditation or chanting. While pointing out that meditation is a legitimate part of many spiritual traditions, he said the practice can be used manipulatively to affect critical judgements. He added that trance states, or even physical coercion, are less of a factor in persuasion than social control. "The most important elements are control of information and control of the environment," said Martin. "You need a unique ideology that creates a feeling of elitism, and a philosophy with a continuum of shame and guilt. This usually plays into a group process where people are confessing. The ultimate threat is the fear of banishment, of being physically separated or shunned by the group."

Martin said such groups find willing participants because they offer a message people want to hear: "Enlightenment? Love? Friendship? A sense of community and respect? Society as a whole does a very poor job of providing these things for people. When they are given these things, members feel immensely indebted to the group and demands placed on them."

The views of Martin and others in the cult awareness field are not without controversy. Jeffery Hadden, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia who studies modern religious movements, calls Wellspring and similar centers the spin offs of an anti-cult movement that at its most extremes he likens to a hate group. He dismisses the scientific validity of the concept of mind control. "People enter relationships because they wish to and when they cease to be of interest to them, they walk away," said Hadden. "I won't deny that many groups have deleterious consequences, but most people are amazing resilient, and capable of walking away. When they leave with exit counselors, there can be an increase in a sense of anger, that they have been violated by the group they were a part of."

Hadden is developing a "Religious Movements" Web site with over 150 profiles of new religions, partly a response to what he calls the excesses of the anti-cult movement.

Langone acknowledged that "cult" can be pejorative, and noted that high-demand spiritual groups run a continuum: "One may be marginally cultic, but you might run into a person who is predisposed to be susceptible to being hurt. At the same time, you have someone else who walks away from it and is fine. People react differently to leaving a group where dependency has been created."

On a cold Tuesday night last semester at Duke, a circle of 20 students gathered in the Breedlove meeting room at Perkins Library for their weekly SKS meeting. The group was lead by Mary Alice Scott, a 1999 Duke grad who now works full-time for the SKS Foundation. As the room settled down, she handed out Turak's reading assignment for the week, two photocopied chapters from Spiritual Emergency, a collection of essays by psychotherapists on the psychological disturbances that can accompany spiritual seeking. Scott then asked the group to write a personal essay on the theme "going for it."

After ten minutes, a handful of students tentatively took turns reading their essays aloud. A recent Duke grad wrote about her wonderful experience living in Belize, then returning to Durham to find a job. "I see people at Duke, so closed and so cold, and it just makes me angry that's the way it is," she wrote. A Duke sophomore recounted her success with SKS over the past year, how the group had drawn her out socially and given her the confidence to speak up in class. After her reading, she was prodded to the point of tears by fellow SKS members who questioned whether her successes were complete, or enough.

A group newcomer then read a "fairy tale" about a child who is emotionally abused by his parents and tries to hang himself from a tree in his front yard. After reading, he told the group that his story was in fact a true account of his own childhood. He talked about his current emotional turmoil, of not knowing why he's attending college, or what he's doing with his life - "I don't know who I am." The group laughed at his self-deprecating jokes, admitted their own feelings of misdirection, and encouraged him to think constructively. In two hours of soul baring, the group came to know the handful of readers perhaps better their own siblings or parents. The emotional effect was powerful, a palpable ripple of energy running through the room.

One former SKS member who, like a number of students contacted for this article, asked that her name not be used, said that such SKS encounters can last for five hours. "For as long as they need to," she said. "I went to meeting after meeting listening to people tell me about their lives, but we were so worried about offending each other that we really couldn't bounce ideas off each other. I was searching for something different. I left the group because I didn't want to criticize their way of discovering spirituality, but there are kids in the group who are really different than they use to be."

Jewett, who spent three semesters in the group, said similar sessions were a central part of the Duke house course "What is Zen?" she took under Turak in the spring of 1997. "A lot of it was just reading philosophy and we were suppose to meditate and keep a meditation journal," said Jewett, who recalled that at the time Turak and Gold talked about their goal of buying a farm like Rose's and starting their own intentional community. "Then it became what I would call more of a therapy session. We wrote essays and read them and the group would tear it apart.

"It's different for everybody, but for me it was a traumatic experience," she said. "I can understand the benefits of your beliefs and attitudes being challenged, but in hindsight I would compare it to breaking somebody down psychologically. You become pretty emotionally dependent on the group. People were really devoting themselves to it, and seeing Augie's way as the only way to enlightenment. I had one friend who said that all she ever needed to learn, she had learned from Augie. She had really changed in just a semester."

Noting that there are different levels of participation in SKS, Jewett said a core group also practiced meditation and "rapport sessions" at more intimate meetings: "We'd meet a lot outside of regular meetings, and a lot of people in the group were doing it." She recalled that at the end of the semester Turak sponsored a trip for her class to an annual steeplechase in Raleigh. They were accompanied by a group of employees from Raleigh Group International and champagne was served during their ride on two chartered buses.

Jewett said she became uncomfortable with the group because of what she perceived as sexist attitudes on Turak's part, and his practice of kicking out students who disagreed with him philosophically. "There were certain comments that women couldn't expect to reach a certain spiritual level - we were going to end up getting married and having families. The idea was you couldn't reach a high spiritual level if you were in a relationship." According to Jewett, in 1997 a female SKS officer left the group after Turak told her that she would have to quit if she continued her relationship with her boyfriend. Turak acknowledged the incident, but said he only acted because the student in question had already disrupted the group with her romantic liaisons. "I actively discourage people fishing for other people within the group," said Turak, adding that at the time he discussed the matter with Willimon, the Duke dean who has served as the SKS campus advisor. "If you're running a group that's trying to develop some real intimacy and rapport and get down to serious subjects, it's almost impossible if everyone is busy screwing each other, the same way the military can't have people having sex with each other and have any kind of morale."

Jewett said she quit the SKS after Turak kicked out another friend following a philosophical disagreement over another matter. Aaron Knight, a junior at N.C. State, tells a similar story. Knight was serving as the group's secretary when Turak dismissed him, just as the secretary before him had been. He estimates that Turak has dismissed between 15 and 20 students from the N.C. State group in the past two years. Turak said he recalls dismissing only four or five students in the past ten years, and compares SKS to any fraternity that can control its membership. "Anyone who wants to come out on a meeting night and ask questions are welcome to come," he said. "I say look, I'm in charge, but I'm not asking anyone for any money, not asking anyone for sex, I'm not asking anyone for personal favors. It's very personal and very painful if someone leaves with bad feelings."

Medlock, the former Symposium editor, said that the pressure and authority Jewett found disturbing is a central part of the process that encourages SKS members to grow. "Sometimes Aug can be hard to deal with, but I think about it the way you would an athletic team," said Medlock. "Sometimes if you don't listen to the coach, you have to leave the team. There's a lot of levels to it. The more serious you get, it requires a different level of commitment. It's not what all people need or want."

Medlock said while some SKS members engage in meditation and "rapport sessions," their practice is voluntary. "It's something that's engaged in, but only if it works for you. It's not a tenet." She added that Turak does not dismiss students arbitrarily, and as an SKS officer she's kicked students out herself. "It is a common situation that people just don't get it," she said. "It's like, you're not getting anything out of it anyway, and you're creating waves. I've kicked people out before, and I've fired officers before. It's suppose to be demanding. The hard part of facing the truth is finding out answers about yourself that aren't pretty. They may have the expectation of the SKS being a fuzzy New Age group, but it gets tough for them when they find out that there are demands and edges and boundaries. So people when they leave, I think it's because they've found out something about themselves that's not pretty."

In an interview in his office at Raleigh Group International, Turak is the first to broach the term "cult."

"There are good cults and there are bad cults," he said, bringing up the subject shortly after acknowledging that Richard Rose practiced hypnosis on the college students at his rural ashram. "The word 'culture' comes from cult - Christianity was once considered a cult. What it comes down to is the effect. Just being a 'cult,' being a 'cul-ture' - you can have a strong family culture, or be a part of a fundamentalist church - that doesn't have to mean that it has anything to do with evil. The question is, does it propagate evil? Does it propagate good? I admit these things are controversial. There are people who will die for Bill Gates, and a lot of people have a problem with that."

When told that in fact a former member of TAT has called the group a cult and believes Richard Rose abused him, Turak had a firm answer.

"My response to that is he has his own opinion," he said. "The question is irrelevant. I don't have any relationship with Rose today and haven't for many years. To this day I still believe he was a good man, with a good heart, and with good intentions, and nobody goes through life without creating a few enemies."

During a wide-ranging conversation that included quotes from Shakespeare and Nietzche, Turak pointed to what he said were two drawers full of letters from students thanking him for their SKS experiences. One of his great disappointments is that his own spiritual work and interests are often misunderstood or dismissed by adults he encounters, a regret he has written essays on in Symposium. "I was talking to Father Kline down at Mepkin about it and he said, 'Augie, welcome to the NFL - everyone who's ever been interested in the kind of things you're interested in has been burned at the stake.' If I am controversial for what I think are legitimate reasons, then I'll pay that price."

Turak said the SKS focuses on campuses because undergraduates are old enough to understand his philosophy, young enough to make major changes in their lives, and have the time and energy to make a full commitment to the SKS. "Everybody wants to work with kids, because they're receptive, they're full of energy, they can still change," he said.

On SKS encounter groups, Turak said that confrontation and high pressure are a part of many spiritual practices and involve a certain amount of risk. To make his point, he recalled a story told by a friend who had visited a Buddhist monastery and asked a Zen master about their radical approaches to seeking enlightenment. "And the master gets right in his face and yells, "YOU HAVE THE INTELLECTUAL DISEASE!!" Turak bellowed himself without warning as he leaned far across his desk, a boom loud enough to reach the farthest corner of Raleigh Group International.

"I'm actually amazed that in the 30 years that I've been involved in spiritual work, I've never had anyone hang themselves or something like that," Turak said. "And the reason I'm surprised is because in the same way psychology attracts all the people who are mentally disturbed, the people who cannot fit into the psychology paradigm are looking into the spiritual. Some of the students I ask to leave the SKS, quite frankly, are those who I can see are disturbed."

Turak had no answer when asked what he thought the psychological effect of being kicked out of the SKS might be on a student who is already suffering from a mental disorder. "What am I suppose to do?" he asked.

To criticism that the SKS is perhaps too self-involved, that a spiritual group focused on developing morality should also have an interest in social engagement, Turak answered that working for the SKS is itself a form of service, and one that lead's his students to self-knowledge. "If we get Houston Smith to come for a lecture at Duke, keep the price low, and get 200 students to come, I think we've done as much as building 100 houses for the homeless," he said. "I'm more concerned that they learn by doing. Why? Because I want them to have the pressure of having to make a deadline, of having to raise the money, of having to sell subscriptions (to Symposium) and get on the phone and talk to someone and tell them why. That's going to give us a tremendous amount of meat for our next meeting, instead of abstractly talking about, 'Well, how do we know that we know that we know that we know?' We talk about 'What did you learn when you had to talk to a stranger on the telephone for the very first time in your life and ask them for $29.95?' How do you feel more invested in it? How do you feel more determined that it's going to be successful? Now that you sold a hundred subscriptions, how do you feel about that guy who just sold one?'" On talk by students that he has plans to start his own intentional community, Turak said the SKS has a long-term goal of buying its own rural retreat center. "I don't know what a intentional community is and wouldn't want it to be a full time, live-there-all-the-time thing - I'm a republican for Christ's sake," he said, adding that while he and Gold are wealthy enough to buy such a property, he believes it should be done through SKS fundraising efforts. "My philosophy is to make the kids work. I don't make them work, but I say, look, if you want something, you're going to have to work."

Whatever criticisms may come his way, Turak said he has devoted his life to doing what he believes is the right thing. After ten years at the helm of the Self Knowledge Symposium, he said he plans to turn over the reins of SKS leadership sometime soon - "This is not a big ego thing for me. Sometimes I'm like Jesus, 'Let this cup pass from me,'" he said - and hopes to find more time for his own on-going spiritual quest.

"Richard Rose took the drill instructor approach to spiritual searching - Rose was a rough character," said Turak, whose pale blue eyes, like the eyes of Richard Rose, often cast an intense gaze. "My approach has moved much more back toward the Christian traditions of mysticism. What people like about the SKS is that it is intense. What they don't like about the SKS is that it is intense. All I can do is let the chips fall. Rose told me that if I learned anything on my spiritual path, I should pass it on. That's what I tell students. If you get turned on, then turn someone else on."

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