BOULDER, Colo. –
A sage — or was it a wag? — once noted that any spiritual path that can be summed up in a few words probably isn’t worthy of the adjective.
Even creeds and traditions that can reduce their beliefs to a sentence or two — “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet”; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that everyone who believes in him shall not perish …” — have centuries of texts and tradition to flesh out the basic message.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that students of the mystical Ridhwan School, founded by A.H. Almaas and started in Boulder, struggle — albeit with a smile — to reduce their “path” and the “work” down to a few simple phrases.
“Let me see … It’s basically a journey of self discovery, it’s more than somebody saying ‘This is what is true, believe it.’ That’s not how this path works,” says Ridhwan teacher Anne Laney, 55, who first encountered Almaas’ work in 1989. “In this approach, you are investigating your experience, your consciousness, finding out what’s true. It’s a very open-ended process.”
Boulder has long been known as a nexus of nontraditional spiritual paths offered by teachers such as Naropa University founder Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. But the Ridhwan School â which teaches Almaas’ Diamond Approach â is an unusual success story. Having sprouted in Boulder living rooms with just a few students in 1976, today the teaching has more than 10,000 followers from Berkeley to Germany to New Zealand. Almaas’ approach synthesizes aspects of the mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism (he’s a native of Kuwait), Buddhism, Hinduism, the “Fourth Way” of G.I. Gurdjieff and modern “depth psychology.”
Pressed to sum up his spiritual path in a few words, Almaas wryly points out that he’s written a dozen books on the subject.
“This teaching is about becoming a more complete human being, more fulfilled, actualized,” Almaas says by phone from Berkeley. “There is a lot more to it than meets the eye when you openly explore your spiritual side.”
Is it about God? Yes, Almaas says, though because of the sort of students he tends to attract â intelligent and even skeptical â he stays away from theistic language.
“We talk about the expression of a larger will, call it the universal will, that makes everything in the world happen,” he says. “In some other traditions that will be called god’s will.”
Students begin working with teachers and progressing in the foundations of the teaching. When a group â dubbed Diamond Heart 1, 2 etc. â reaches a certain level of maturity, membership is closed until a new group is born, often years later.
The focus of the Diamond Approach is what Laney calls “inquiry.” Essentially, it’s a Socratic approach to examining self and the world without any expectation of a conclusion. Students meet every other month or so to meditate and practice inquiry â an instructor presents a teaching, then introduces a topic for inquiry; students explain their experience of that topic. Then students typically will break into smaller groups to do more inquiry, then come back together.
“You inquire into something, guided by a teacher,” says Boulder’s Peter Bakwin, who first discovered the work in 2004. “It might be looking at why you reacted a certain way. But unlike therapy, it’s a true investigation, and there is no objective. … (But) if you follow any experience deep enough, it has to lead back to the truth. It’s pulling back the veils on the deeper truth.”
Students do much the same thing in “small groups” every couple of weeks, and regular individual sessions with teachers.
Almaas, the founder, used to visit the Boulder group as many as 20 times a year, but now comes just once annually, in the spring.
His teaching does not come easily â or cheaply.
“It takes lots of time and money,” says Bakwin.
Duncan Scribner has been involved with the Diamond Approach since the beginning, when Almaas â the pen name of Hameed Ali â first came to Colorado.
“Hameed learned many different modalities from a variety of different teachers,” says Scribner, 61. “But it’s a about waking people up to what the hell we’re doing, all the games we play, the lies we tell ourselves. It’s like being hit by a 2-by-4 â but in a loving way.”
Almaas, 65, lives in Berkeley, the other North American hub of the Ridhwan School. He came to the United States in the 1960s to study physics and math at the University of California.
“I wanted to find out myself what is true about the world and about reality,” he says by phone from Berkeley. “Science was not the best thing to satisfy that curiosity. I was looking for an inner sense of what it is to be a human being, what is life.”
He shifted his academic focus to psychology and began to study with various teachers, including Claudio Naranjo of the Â¤’60s Human Potential movement, “Tibetan lamas, Sufi masters and Hindu thinkers.”
But while Almaas owns up to those and other influences, he emphasizes that his particular teaching grew out of his own experiences. Both he and his students say one difference between the Diamond Approach and other traditions is its emphasis on walking a demanding spiritual path while living fully in the world.
“Buddhism developed within monastic orders; my approach has developed in everyday life,” he says. “We are ‘in the world, but not of it.'”
Bakwin, 47, grew up in Boulder, earned Ph.D. from Harvard and worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before retiring several years ago. He was a skeptic who stumbled on the Ridhwan School when he ran out of reading material on a trip to South America and his wife brought him a book by Almaas.
Known for his ultra-running exploits â he once ran a 200-mile course with 66,000 feet of climbing in 96 hours â and logical, systematic approach to the world, Bakwin says the Diamond work has shifted his focus from “external” to “internal” experiences.
“I spent a lot of time pursuing extreme external adventures, and now it’s much more about internal adventure,” he says. “I feel much more of a sense of excitement about things, but now I’m focusing on inner worlds rather than running or climbing. “
And that comes close to a stripped-down definition of the Diamond Approach: Delving into inner worlds, being excited about what reality tosses your way and walking through a normal life while doing it.
“Now when something happens, my first instinct is to get curious rather than try to do something about it or categorize it or react to it,” Laney says. “I get to see what is more true than my conditioning.”