Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon


Born in Kuwait in 1944, A. H. Almaas is the pen name of A. Hameed Ali, a deeply respected author who cofounded the Ridhwan School in Berkeley in 1976. An integral theorist and mystic, he teaches a unique wisdom of self-realization, informed by modern psychology and therapy, known as the Diamond Approach. Drawn to scientific inquiry as a youth, he left Kuwait at 18 to study advanced physics at Berkeley but became disenchanted with science’s inability to quench his thirst for inner truth. In the late ’60s his focus shifted from science to meditation and spiritual philosophy while he earned a PhD in psychology. Almaas has a large following among dedicated seekers in the Bay Area and throughout the world. The name of the school, Ridhwan, derives from the Arabic word for contentment—that which arises when you’re liberated and free of suffering and conflict.

Can you tell me a little bit about your youth?

I grew up in Kuwait until I was 18 before I came to Berkeley to study physics. At that time Kuwait had discovered oil, but the money from oil hadn’t yet come into the country. It was an old family culture of communal living with human, friendly, neighborly, and peaceful values and a lot of heart. As such, it was an important part of my formation, one that informs my teaching. I didn’t see my first car until I was 11 or 12. The Kuwait I knew doesn’t exist anymore, since the oil money brought modern change.

Were you poor, middle class, upper class?

Middle class. My father had a shop and was secular. My mother was religious; her parents and grandparents were heads of mosques and sects—the descendants from 200 years of ayatollahs. When I was growing up my mother used to pray, but she did not force it on us because my father wasn’t religious. So I was free to adopt whatever.

You had polio. How did that influence you?

I had polio when I was 2 years old. As a result, I use a crutch to walk and I had to deal with it throughout my life. When I was a teenager, it was difficult emotionally. Having to deal with the emotions around it and the physical difficulty is part of what helped me recognize deeper aspects of myself. Although it has been difficult, it also has been a great deal of help.

Did you show yearnings to know God at an early age?

I didn’t really get interested in spirituality until I was in college here. Though looking back, I can see that I was having all kinds of spiritual experiences in my childhood, but I didn’t even know then what they were. I thought it was just normal. What I wanted to know was the truth of reality. What is really happening? What is the truth of us and everything in the world? This inquiry took me to Berkeley to study physics, which I did all the way up to PhD level until I realized that this was not the truth I was looking for.

What was the turning point?

I remember studying at Lawrence Berkeley Lab with all the researchers when I had this impression of seeing all these big heads and nothing else. I said, “Oh, no way. I don’t want to be like that.” This graphic perception was a waking up of sorts, realizing that is not what my heart wants. I wanted a much fuller life that included all of my being and not just my intellect. Science was giving me answers about my external existence, but I wanted answers about my internal truth.

This was during the height of the ’60s revolution?

I was in the middle of it here in Berkeley in 1964 and was a hippie for a while, involved a little bit in the psychedelics, mushrooms, things like that. I had long hair in graduate school, going to rock concerts. It was the Vietnam Era, with the free speech movement going on.

By the late ’60s you traded your physics books for psychology texts?

The late ’60s is when I was starting to change, turning away from the hippie and psychedelic thing and going toward serious spiritual practice and meditation and psychotherapy, and eventually, I got a PhD in psychology.

And discovered mentors such as Claudio Naranjo?

I had gotten interested in the beginnings of the human potential movement, going to Esalen workshops, both in meditation and in Gestalt. I met Claudio at Esalen. He was one of the first people who studied meditation along with psychological processing. He was steeped in the Sufi and Eastern traditions. He made the Enneagram known, which is now popular.

What about Gurdjieff ?

I studied with a Gurdjieffian teacher right after Claudio. And with Tibetan teachers and Hindu teachers, Sufi teachers. I tried Zen. I had teachers of various kinds, and I had all kinds of experiences, but none of them really expressed what I teach now.

So you eventually started the Ridhwan school and the Diamond Approach with your childhood friend Faisal Muqaddam.

With Faisal and my friend Karen Johnson.

She was there in the beginning?

Before Faisal even. Faisal was in Kuwait at the time. When I started working he came, and I included him.

The Diamond Approach developed a large following. Can you describe the basis of this modality?

The basis of this modality has a lot to do with how things happened with me. For example, do you know how people go to Tibetan empowerments and transmission? I went to some of those things, like what is called Black Hat ceremonies. The 16th Karmapa used to do these in the ’70s. You would get transmission and enlightenment experiences.

So I had all those experiences, amongst others related to other teachings, but this is not what started my work. What truly started my work was the arising in my experience of a new element not related to mind or body. This is what I refer to as “presence,” which I used to call “essence,” borrowing Gurdjieff’s expression. This was the personal discovery of the being of my consciousness, or the being and truth of my awareness. It is not the faculty of awareness, but the nature of its being.

I discovered that this sense of presence and “is-ness” had a life of its own, a consciousness that felt connected with all human beings. When I felt that way, I felt yet that I could just die the next day, and I will be totally fulfilled. It stayed liked that. I was a fulfilled human being, manifesting qualities that I ended up calling the “essential aspects” such as love and compassion and clarity and truth and joy and strength. At the same time, these qualities of presence (which is originally quality-less), as they manifested, each challenged a certain corresponding part of my personality, which led me to explore it with my psychological understanding. The arising of these qualities of presence that resolved these psychological constellations became a basis of my work—to teach people to recognize themselves as a presence, beyond mind and body. I saw that a teaching was manifesting; I was not just waking up to what I truly am. Do you know what I mean?

I think what you’re saying is that you weren’t just exploring the psychological recognition of enlightenment but that you were also receiving a teaching platform.

Yes. As I was waking up myself, I was also learning a teaching. The teaching wasn’t just for me. Many people, they experience an awakening and they teach from there. That was not what was happening for me. What was happening was a whole process of a manifestation of a teaching. At some point as I was learning about myself and reality, I realized I had a responsibility—that I had been given a teaching, and it was my responsibility to get it out to others. That is actually what started my writing. I didn’t write because I was a writer, I wrote because I felt I had a debt or I had a responsibility that I had to fulfill. I was given something precious to give out to others who might benefit from it.

The words presence and essence are at the core of the teaching.

They are the same. When I use the word essence, I mean the essence of consciousness or the essence of awareness. What is my essence? The experience of it is presence. We recognize it as a presence.

The teaching began with presence and its manifesting qualities, but continued to reveal itself further as the nature of everything—not just my nature but the nature of all of reality. Not unlike many of the classic teachings that talk about oneness, or consciousness, or love, this boundless manifestation of presence was also revealing a particular psychological constellation that makes it difficult to know that this presence is also the nature of all and everything. In others words, whenever this presence manifests a new way of its expression, it also reveals which part of the ego self functions as an obstacle to such realization. That is a very important part of what I call the Diamond Approach teaching, that there are many ways of experiencing consciousness, but that each challenges the ego in a particular way.

Are essence and presence distinguished from the absolute?

Absolute is a deeper way of experiencing presence. Presence first reveals itself as recognizable qualities like love that is sweet and soft, with a rosy smell. With compassion you feel a sense of warmth and sensitivity. When I feel myself as clarity, I feel transparent, crystalclear—everything is obvious. The nature of reality first shows itself as these qualities of awareness, then at some point of this continuing and ongoing unfoldment it shows itself as the absolute, which is more an inseparability of awareness and emptiness.

Do you consider yourself to be enlightened?

According to my teaching I am. Do you know why I say that?

Not really.

Because each teaching has a different definition of what enlightenment means. What a Buddhist calls enlightenment is not what Advaita Vedanta calls enlightenment; it’s not what the Sufis call enlightenment. They are all really different. People don’t know what they are talking about when they ask that question. You can’t go and ask a Sufi, “Are you enlightened?” if you are a Buddhist. They will say, “What are you talking about?” They don’t even use the word enlightenment. They use the words “complete human being.” That is something your readers might want to know. The word enlightenment is not used universally throughout all spiritual traditions.

Do you consider yourself a guru vis-àvis your students?

I’m just a teacher. I don’t use the word guru. I don’t take the role of a guru in the way that Indians use it. I am more of a teacher, guide, friend with my students, not a guru to be put up on a pedestal and worshipped. It does not work for my teaching.

I hear people evoke the book title If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him and can’t help but scratch my head.

The point is that if you follow any teaching, at some point you should drop the teaching and just be yourself. “Killing the Buddha” means to drop the teaching you are following and just be what you have become.

I get that, but also the impression that people think they are beyond the discipline and guidance that a living teacher provides. It leaves a lot of room to float and do whatever.

That’s not true liberation. Those people are still ensnared by their egos. You have to follow a particular teaching all the way and only then you can drop it.

When it comes to attaining the ultimate goal of realization, there is a theory that guru’s grace is really going to be the gatekeeper. Do you have an opinion about that?

Actually, one of the things that I discuss in my latest book, Runaway Realization, is the role of grace and how it contrasts with one’s own efforts. I discuss how the two are inseparable, are both needed. We have to exert ourselves, we have to practice, we have to study, we have to contemplate, meditate, inquire, but at the same time, without the grace, it is not possible for it to happen.

However, the grace does not necessarily mean the grace of a guru. The grace is the grace of the presence itself, of true nature. It can come from a teacher, who is one of the main conduits of grace, but it is the fact that there is spiritual influence, a spiritual energy that comes from outside or within that opens us up and liberates us. The liberation happens by us doing what we do to prepare ourselves so that when we are prepared, the grace dissolves the ego.

What are some of the other takeaways from the book?

Basically, I ask the question, Is there an ultimate truth? And I go through the various traditions to show that each teaching has its distinct and different ultimate truth. So first, Is there an ultimate truth? Because I grew up in the Bay Area with all the teachings that are present, I am aware of and studied many of them and know each one can be experienced as a kind of enlightenment or liberation, although they are all different. In my teaching, we are open to all these. We don’t have problems with any of them. We embrace them, even though we teach our own version.

Does this new view negate the requirement of the psychological work?

No. The psychological work is important because people can meditate for years, but if they don’t work on their psychological problems, meditation simply doesn’t work very well. Or it works partially. I haven’t abandoned the psychological part of the teaching; however, the new development recognizes other ways—that enlightenment has many meanings and the different paths take you to different places but that each path actually brings freedom.

What does that expression spiritual bypassing mean to you?

You can do a certain meditation practice, concentration, visualization, and can experience yourself as boundless consciousness. However, it bypasses the deep conviction and belief that you are a separate entity, a psychological construct. This deep belief is hardwired in your nervous system. So you might experience yourself as endless consciousness, but this does not mean you are free from the sense of being a separate entity. Your ego is going to come back because that is at the core of the ego.

So our transcendent experiences are collared by egoic reality and psychology?

Most human beings believe they are separate entities. In a basic way, we identify as either man or woman, which cannot be pure consciousness. Our true identity doesn’t even reside in being human. So we bypass to be free.

Despite these bonds, how do you define psychological health?

Psychology is a complex thing, but our minds and our hearts are very influenced by it. Psychological health is what you feel as a direct response to what is happening right now, not an overlay from past experience, nor an association. Psychological health is when your response is wholesome and effective and to the point and truly a response to the situation. So if I’m talking to a person and can consider the person for who they are (their level of understanding, their physical situation) and what I am experiencing in myself, and can take all that into consideration without having to think about it—that is psychological health. It means my sense of self-esteem doesn’t depend on my accomplishments or on what other people think of me but on the fact that I am authentically myself. We can talk about this in many ways, but these are some examples.

On average, how flawed are we?

It changes. What was average 50 years ago is different from average now. The average in the time of Freud is different than it was 50 years ago. In general, I agree with Gurdjieff, who says, “Man is asleep.” The other expression he said is, “The human being is a machine”—a living, instinctual machine and not a living being. On average, humans don’t know where their motivation comes from. They don’t know what is their truth or their essential true nature. So most people are in the dark. Not 100% in the dark because they have awareness and can be kind and friendly—reflections of their true spiritual qualities, which are true love and true compassion. These qualities are selfless. We see some light, but it is a very small measure. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have survived as a race.

But don’t we live in spiritually exciting times? You’re invited to speak at conferences about science and nonduality. Wisdom teachings are entering the workforce. Eckhart Tolle’s books are bestsellers. There’s a yoga boom.

We are living in interesting spiritual times, but we have to take into perspective that there is a polarization happening. Just like there is a polarization politically in the country, there’s a polarization in the religions. More people are becoming mystical but more are also becoming fundamentalist—the other side.

This is the law of physics, no?

Yes, the reality of physics. We should not be carried away with believing these are spiritual golden times. A dark side of it is also developing.

And the Bay Area is a bubble.

Because there is more tolerance for different religions and different ethnicities, there is more light here, but in other parts of the world, people are killing each other. Fundamentalism is also in this country. Let’s say there is an intensification on both sides. The side that takes things literally and becomes fundamentalist and the side that wants to get into the meat of things and wants to know direct spiritual truth.

To my knowledge, traditional religions, or even their mystical offshoots, don’t bore into the psychological nuances to your extent.

Unfortunately. But many of them are finding out they need to do more. Don’t you know that many teachers actually have therapists? I teach that psychology is not just therapy. Psychology is part of the spiritual practice. Psychology is knowing how your mind and emotions work. And all spiritual practices are based on the knowledge of how mind and emotions work. We have a modern psychology for how the mind and emotions work differently from the old psychologies. Buddhism has a psychology; Hinduism has a psychology; Sufism has a psychology.

At one time they didn’t differentiate between psychology and spirituality; they were all one thing. For 100 years or so, these things got separated. Religion and science got separated, hence spirituality and psychology got separated, but it’s an artificial division. I think we are slowly moving to realize that the psychological and the spiritual cannot be separated. They are two sides of the same psyche, the same consciousness.

I know a woman who is an accomplished psychotherapist, a PhD and articulate thinker, who has little to no access to spirituality outside of the high she gets from being in nature or from great art. Like many, she yearns for spiritual connection, or at least the concept of it, but those doors appear shut.

Good for her that she sees that, because most psychotherapists around the country don’t even notice that. Most psychologists are similar to scientists, which means they are materialists. It is not an accident that our psychology moved from psychoanalysis and the Jungians to the behaviorists and the cognitive psychologists, which is connected with neuroscience. That is how psychology is moving because they are trying to make it scientific. This excludes the spirit.


That is how our history developed from the time of Descartes, who separated the person from the world so it became possible to observe an outside objective world and a subjective self. That is where the duality started, which helped science develop, but it created difficulties for spirituality.

What is the soul, in your vernacular?

For me, a soul is when pure consciousness individualizes as a person, an individual, a human being, as a being. It can have a mind, a heart, thoughts and feelings, which is what human beings have but it is just like the waves of the ocean but not separate from the ocean.

The soul has an erotic nature too?

Of course. Without the erotic nature we wouldn’t be alive. Part of being alive is to have an erotic nature. I wrote a book about that with my friend Karen Johnson, and we use the word eros to describe the life force. The Greeks didn’t make erotic separate from living. Eros for the Greek was a property of life. Erotic doesn’t mean just the sexual, though sexual is a concentrated expression of it. Eros is the capacity to love and to be turned on with life. It could be by enjoying your life, your wife, your friendships, running, skiing—that erotic quality courses through the body just like sexuality.

Was Karen a romantic partner of yours?

No, no, no, she wasn’t ever a romantic partner of mine. We have always been friends.

What is your experience with romance?

I’m married for the second time. I was in love several times. And I think romance and love can be one way of enhancing our spiritual practice. But just being in love or being in a romantic relationship doesn’t mean enlightenment. It doesn’t mean one is practicing spirituality. You have to have a spiritual orientation, you have to have a teaching, and then you can include your romance in it.

Why do you think romantic entanglements come and go?

I don’t know. It’s not a simple question. It is different for different people. It’s not just romantic entanglements. Health, for instance, comes and goes. Change is the nature of life.

What is the role of devotion in your teaching?

Devotion to truth. Insofar as your teacher represents truth, there is devotion to the teacher. But not obedience, not submission. The more true the teacher is, the more you are devoted to them. As Don Juan said, without a heart there is no path.

Must we suffer to get enlightenment or advance spiritually?

We suffer anyway, whether we advance or not. Suffering is part of life, as the Buddha discovered. He was wise to discover that when he was young; most people don’t recognize that until they are old. Life has a lot of suffering, and we all have to suffer. Understanding our suffering is part of the path to liberation—understanding it, tolerating it, being patient with it, learning to live with it. We learn that our nature, our true presence, is free from suffering. Suffering is of the body and the mind, not of the essence.

Are you afraid of death?

No, I think death will be very interesting—a continuation of the learning. I won’t really know until it happens.

Like polio in your early life, what else has been a great teacher for you?

All relationships are crucibles of great learning. By learning to be oneself and respecting the other person for who they are and to not just satisfy our selfish desires—that is not easy. You need to be fully liberated, actually, to treat another human being as a real human being.

What make your heart leap?

To see people knowing themselves. To see people discovering the preciousness that is their true presence. That is what most touches me.

Any final message to our receptive Bay Area Common Ground readership?

There is no one truth, and truth is endless and infinite. In my experience, the more I discover about reality, the more I see there is more. So I don’t feel there is an end to the path. The path is not going to a final destination. The truth is so infinite that there is no end to the discoveries. It doesn’t mean we should ignore suffering; we should deal with it and understand it and accept it and recognize it as part of having a body and mind.

I keep discovering more and more, and I want everybody to know that one’s life can become full of delightful discoveries.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

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