2016-06-30
Augie Turak describes The Self-Knowledge Symposium as "a non-denominational non-profit organization dedicated to turning students on to the wonderful adventure that spiritual exploration is." The SKS has chapters at Duke University, UNC, and NC State. They are holding a 3-day conference for students in October called Inward Bound... Mr. Turak spoke with Beliefnet about why he started the SKS and what drives his own spiritual quest

The SKS is neither "anything goes" New Age spirituality nor religion, but something in between.

It's an attempt at an optimization, I like to say. A couple of years ago Forbes magazine did a special issue for 2000 about what religion was going to look like in the 21st century and one writer said that all of the great world traditions are boiling down to two fundamental principles: the urge to self-transcendence and love your neighbor as yourself. And I would throw in a third: know yourself--every religion has that.

So are you talking about creating something new altogether?

I'm not trying to start a new religion. The basic idea is to turn people on. And if they end up, which a lot of times happens--for example, one of the kids here this weekend is going to be a minister in his own faith when he graduates from Carolina, I think a Methodist minister, and I'm very very pleased with that, that's fine.

On the other hand, the SKS is not necessarily just a referral service. It's not a clearing house to help the doubting Thomases get back on their tradition. So what I always say that what we're doing at the SKS is take it or leave it, you know, there's no pressure if you don't buy it.

Take the analogy of science. There's two ways of looking at science: most people look at science as content. How many elements are there? I don't even know--110 or whatever. What is water? you know, it's hydrogen and oxygen--that's what they think science is.

Science is also -- and I emphasize also -- the scientific method. When you talk about science being dogmatic or open-minded, science is very open-minded about how many elements there are in the table of elements, it could change at any time. It could go to a 115 or a 120 or a hundred million. And they can revise their theory of dinosaurs which I understand they're doing right now and decide that asteroids didn't knock out the dinosaurs. So they're very open-minded that way.

When it comes to the scientific method, they're very very doctrinaire. The experiment must -- and I emphasize must -- be repeatable. If it's not, it's not science.

So what is the method for spirituality?

The method for spirituality is long for transcendence, long for something bigger, long for something more. Feed that longing, don't be afraid of it, don't mislabel it as just "I'm an unhappy person."

Number two: Love your neighbor as yourself. Give it a chance. Live for others rather than yourself. Do whatever you can to diminish your own selfishness, your own ego. I tell students all the time, you're going to have to go through a transformation to really understand it but it takes effort and work.

Most people start out like this one young man, 24 years old, whose wife wants to have a baby and he is terrified. Oh my god, no more sex on the kitchen floor, no more runaway weekends, no more sports car, SUV here I come... So he's fighting and fighting and fighting and of course women always win those battles--and so eventually he has this baby and they hand him his kid and rather than him being kept up all night with his child he finds himself keeping the child awake because he checks on the kid every 5 minutes. Because he's had a transformation in love.

So there's a transformation. It can be an instantaneous transformation when you hand a father his kid. But if he doesn't take the chance if he doesn't stick his neck out and have that child he'll never know. So if you don't take a chance and live -- like Hamlet told his mother to -- to live for other people, until that transformation can click, you'll never know. You can't understand from this side of the mountain.

The third one is to know thyself. There's an incredible gap--it's kind of like what I read in the WSJ that 98% of Americans are now environmentalists. There's a tremendous gap between who we like to think we are and who we really are. And so all of Zen and so much of what goes on at the monastery and what they call formation and all these different traditions is closing that gap. Zen would call it a koan. Our modern psychologists in the West would call it cognitive dissonance.

I can do an exercise with kids for example one of the ones I do I'll say at the beginning of class how important are other people in your life and oh my god they're so important. And then at the end of the class, 90 minutes later I'll say "Before you go, Let's say I had a magic wand and I could guarantee that you would be able to make and keep 5 New Years resolutions write down your 5 new year's resolutions and read them out. None of them have anything to do with other people. I want to lose weight, I want to get my GPA up, I want to get that girl to look at me. But none of them have to do with, I want to write 2 letters a week to my mother--nothing.

And so then I say wait a second we started here 90 minutes ago with you guys telling me that everything was about others. and here's your new year's resolutions and none of you people said anything about anybody else. what do you make of that? 85% go wow, I never thought of it that way. and the other 15% say, You son of bitch! [laughs]

What makes the SKS intense which is what the kids like about it and edgy which is what the kids like about it and it's exactly what the kids hate about it or what people hate about it. Is a very fundamental principle and the fundamental principle is that you don't work your spiritual work into your life, you work your life into your spiritual work. "Seek ye first

the kingdom of heaven" "Seek ye first

the kingdom of heaven" that is your top priority in life.

You explained why you're not interested in New Age philosophy but can you explain the other end of the spectrum. Are you saying that religions can't provide what kids need either?

I would say that religions are not providing what kids need, not that they can't. I think you have to fight your way past what kids experience every Sunday in order to understand what's going in most traditional religions.

Especially in terms of Christianity -- I can't speak for I don't know what it's like to grow up Hindu -- you're asked too much and delivered too little. By asked too much what you're asked to do is believe. And to me there's a big difference between belief and faith but the vast majority of people who are teaching Sunday School don't understand the difference between belief and faith. So they mix the two together and what the kids come away with is this attitude that I have to believe this whole big long list of experimental results and nobody's given me the opportunity to go and redo them if I want to.

It all comes from an external source not from your own experience...

Exactly. Not from your own experience at all. And not only that and a lot of it's kind of hard to swallow because it's supernatural stuff like Mary being a virgin or going to heaven with her body or whatever. There's no room for a metaphorical [understanding].

I was talking to somebody the other day about the Bible and they were asking me if I thought the Bible was true and I said I think it's absolutely true -- and don't take me too literally. But it's true the way dreams are true. I treat the Bible as a dream interpretation -- the highest dream imaginable, not as a way of telling how old the world is. It's a myth. And myths in the highest highest possible-- myths are the most

true things, according to Carl Jung, not the least true things.

So there's no room for that kind of [metaphorical] interpretation so it's mostly a literal interpretation and you're considered to be bad, evil, sinful for doubting. And it's tremendously painful thing to be in your adolescence and suddenly kind of like having secret sexual thoughts about your teacher or something you're having these thoughts and you look around and everyone else seems to be buying it so is there something wrong with me? and I can't speak up. So eventually it gets to the point where you can't take it any more. and then you think it's an easy out to be an atheist. Most of my students go through this atheist stage. At first you think it's an easier way to live but it's a much harder way to live and most people find that out pretty quickly.

The other thing that I was saying--underdelivering--is the sense that they look around and they don't see people living the life. They look down this pew and up that pew or even they look at the minister and they don't see people living like Jesus, for example. They don't see the intensity, the fire, they see what they consider hypocrisy.

Now from the church's point of view I'm very very sympathetic I mean, Jesus said, accept everybody, invite everybody in, sit down with the sinners and the whores. But how do you do that without running into this extremely big problem of mediocrity or even lowest common denominator? Again I don't want to be the pope I don't want to have to face that although I think it's a pretty good theological thing to think about. How do you accept everybody without lowering standards to the point where you're not expecting anything out of anybody and if you don't expect anything out of anybody you end up with the Sunday church syndrome where everybody just kind of trots off to church and then trots home. And then if somebody complains about it then we say well who are we to judge.

But there's a hell of a lot of people in those pews who want something more who are judging and can't help but judge and say listen are these the people who are going to take me to enlightenment or God or whatever? I don't think so these people are not living any kind of intense spiritual life at all. They're living a compartmentalized little spiritual thing, so...

So there's the expectation of all this belief is laid on these kids but the examples that they see living around them -- even accounting for the fact of the compassion and stuff -- they see very few people who seem to be on fire, with exception of -- I think in some of the evangelical churches it may be different. And then finally I think at least the way religion is presented at the day to day level to the ordinary lay person is very weak on the intellectual side. It's heavy on the ritual and music and emotion and very weak on answering questions and giving people the opportunity to ask questions and think about these issues.

And again I'm not criticizing the church. 99% of the people who come on Sunday don't want the intellect, and so you've got to keep the collection baskets filled you've got to keep the churches filled. It's the age-old problem: Should you give them what they want or what's good for them. I've been in marketing all my life and I know that it's somewhere in between. And I don't have a quick solution for how we're going to revolutionize the churches...

What's missing from organized religion in general is this fire--you talk about people looking for God as if their hair is on fire. With the SKS you're trying to ignite that passion?

Exactly. We're reversing all the trends that I just talked about. First of all there's a low barrier of entry in terms of belief. I don't care if you're an atheist or an agnostic. If you can tentatively willingly suspend some disbelief and say listen I can see some sense in finding out who I am and you're not a trouble-maker, you're in. So it's an inquiry. We define ourselves as seekers. So it's a low barrier of entry--start where you are.

Number 2: high expectations, very high expectations. We're going to work your ass off.

Doing what? Helping with the organization?

Helping with the organization. Doing simple exercises like making promises to yourself and seeing if you can keep them. Character-building in a very practical way. My old Zen teacher said one definition of character is being able to make a promise and keep it--that's character. And being able to make a promise to yourself and keeping it is critical. Until you have that you can think about nothing else. You can promise yourself you're going to meditate every day but if you don't do it what's the difference. So you can't even get to step 2 until you can get to step 1. and most people are terrible at making promises to themselves and keeping them.

You do the same thing when you're building character so a lot of it is organizational work it's working in community, volunteer work, going out to the Avila Retreat Center & cutting grass, for example.

I was out there with this Indian guy a couple of years ago. And I noticed that he cuts all the open spaces and leaves me all the bushes. So I called him aside and I said I've known you for a while now but finally everything clicked into place. I said this is your life. Your whole spiritual life is built on the fact that you only want to cut the open spaces you don't want to go under the bushes. And you think you're getting away with it but you're not getting away with it any more than you're getting away with this today. Because I am noticing that you're not cutting under the bushes.

That's a heck of a lot different than getting into an intellectual argument. He can't deny it--there it is. He didn't cut any bushes. But if you're not working with kids like that on a day-to-day basis you're not going to have those opportunities or see those things.

It's an intense encounter for that kid. I was as kind as I could be about it, but it's still pretty intense encounter. I'm sure he went home and thought a lot about that.

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