On Sandra Maitri, Hameed Ali and the Diamond Approach®

This excerpt appeared in Tony Schwarz's 2005 book, "What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America."
It appeared in "Chapter 10, Personality and Essence."

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[Hameed] Ali named his work the Diamond Approach®, partly to reflect the notion that like a diamond, essence has many facets, and partly because he wanted the approach to have the precision and clarity of a diamond. One of my first direct experiences with Ali’s work came when I attended an introduction to the Diamond Approach® in San Rafael. Held on the campus of a small college, it was taught by a woman named Sandra Maitri, who is one of Ali’s senior teachers. Like Ali, her style is understated, unpretentious, and exceptionally lucid. I felt comfortable with her immediately. The weekend was built around what Ali calls the “theory of holes.”

As Maitri explained it, we experience essence from birth, but in our earliest years, we lack self-awareness or the capacity to see who we are. Infants, in short, are not aware of their own essence. In theory, adults can develop a deeper, richer, more mature and powerful experience of essence that is only a potential in babies. In practice, Maitri told us, our essential development almost invariably gets aborted. In the course of growing up, physical and emotional survival become important, and so does building an individual identity and winning social acceptance. “As consciousness begins to form, we take on a personality, and in the process we lose touch with our essential qualities,” Maitri told us. “Because our parents are usually hopelessly out of touch with their own essential depths and have never experienced these qualities in themselves, they can’t mirror them back to us. When a certain essential quality is not seen in us, or it’s devalued, we tend to lose contact with it.”

In turn, this lost connection is experienced as a hole. “It is an absence, a lack, a sense of something missing, and it literally feels like a hole,” Maitri told us. “What happens is that we end up filled with holes.” As Ali came to see it, we build our lives—mostly unconsciously—around finding ways to compensate for our sense of deficiency. “What you fill the holes with,” he has written, “are the false feelings, ideas, beliefs about yourself, strategies for dealing with the environment. These fillers are collectively called the personality—the false personality or what we call the false pearl….But after a time, we think that is who we are. Everybody thinks that’s who they are, the fillers. The false personality is trying to take the place of the real thing.” Or, as Maitri elegantly summed it up: “After many losses of contact with who we are, we begin to take ourselves to be what we are not.”

Most people, Ali found, go to enormous lengths to avoid feeling their holes at all. “They think the hole, the deficiency, is how they really are at the deepest level and that there is nothing beyond it,” he explained. “They believe that if they get close to the hole, it will swallow them up.” The culture, in turn, conspires to help people avoid their holes by offering endless external ways to fill them: through taking drugs, or drinking excessively, or overeating, or watching endless television. But it is also possible to fill holes, Ali concluded, in subtler ways that aren’t so obviously pathological and may even by relaxing or socially productive: meditating for long hours, working obsessively, or even devoting ourselves to others to the exclusion of focusing on our own deepest needs. “People don’t know,” he wrote, “that the hole, the sense of deficiency, is a symptom of a loss of something deeper, the loss of essence, which can be regained.”

Much of our weekend workshop focused on this issue. “We need to dive into these holes—not fill them, but feel them,” Maitri told us. “When you let yourself experience a hole—stop rejecting it and just let it be—a sense of openness begins to emerge, a relaxation, a spaciousness. Whatever quality of essence this hole developed in response to begins to arise spontaneously.” Or as Ali put it: “If you go all the way into that sense of emptiness, through the fear of feeling it—all the way— you will get to the quality which has been lost to you.”

As an example, Ali pointed to the common feeling of anger—an aspect of personality. Begin looking into why this emotion recurs, Ali told me, and one might discover that at the surface level it is simply a way of asserting strength—of feeling separate and independent from other people. Explore a little more deeply, he elaborated, and it will turn out that the anger covers up an underlying experience of fear and weakness. “If you stay with that sense of weakness,” he explained, “you’ll begin to experience a hole in the belly, an emptiness, the feeling that you can’t stand your ground, that something is missing. And if you feel that emptiness, [and] you don’t fight it or react to it but just stay with it, the hole will begin to fill with a certain quality of essence. It feels literally like liquid fire. And then what you will feel is a real strength. Just by truly being yourself, you are strong. And that essential strength gives you the capacity to be truly independent without feeling angry.”

Qualities of essence can be realized, Ali concluded, by steps and degrees, through work on specific sectors of the personality, just as essence is lost in childhood, aspect by aspect. As essence is recovered, he argues, the need for the personality diminishes. “A person who is this essence,” Ali has written, “does not need to use the linear mind and rack his brain over certain important situations. The direct knowing is just there, available [with] clarity and precision.”

As he studied other schools of Western psychology, Ali found that few of them acknowledge the existence of anything akin to essence. “Psychotherapy is oriented toward making the personality healthier and stronger, making it function better,” he told me. “The empty hole is almost never approached.” Rather, the person learns to find better and more effective ways to fill the hole.” Nonetheless, certain Western therapeutic approaches provide a very sophisticated understanding of specific personality deficiencies that Ali came to correlate with lost qualities of essence. Freud, for example, paid particular attention to issues such as castration anxiety and fears about aggression. By drawing on Freud’s insights in these areas, Ali found that students not only got relief from their pain—the traditional psychotherapeutic goal—but could be led to the recovery of the related essential qualities: will and strength, respectively.

Ali was also influenced by Wilhelm Reich, whose body-oriented therapy was concerned with the loss of the capacity for depth of emotion—and particularly pleasure. Reich recognized the need to break through the physical armor that we build up to protect ourselves from pain. Ali, in turn, discovered that the qualities of essence can be experienced only in the body and not in the mind, abstractly. To illustrate this point, he described for me the process that follows a child’s early loss of intimate connection to the mother. This is inevitable in development and always painful, but it is especially traumatic for the child who is not sufficiently valued by the mother or who is explicitly rejected. “To avoid experiencing this intolerable hurt,” Ali told me, “we deaden a certain part of our body, and in that way we are cut off from that sweet quality of love in ourselves. Where that love should be, we have an emptiness, a hole. What we do then, to get the love we feel lacking, is to try to get it from outside ourselves. Inevitably, we are frustrated, since the true source is within.”

The Diamond Approach® is built around a very straightforward form of inquiry into experience. “We start with whatever is arising in the moment, our lives as they are without trying to change them,” Maitri told us. “The method is to see and experience where we are, opening to the whole realm of our experience instead of narrowing it. We bring a spirit of curiosity and inquiry and openness to the process, and the mind is used only as a tool to help do that more deeply. Patterns don’t change by pushing or prodding but by seeing why we think we need to do what we do; by really feeling the part that holds on and what we’re getting from it; and by understanding why we believe it’s not okay to behave any differently.” What we suffer from, Maitri told us, is finally a case of mistaken identity—and a limited worldview. “The personality is based on a fixed set of beliefs about what reality is,” she said. “It’s a trap, a jail, a confinement in a particular band of reality. When we stay with what is happening moment to moment—without beliefs, images, and conceptualizations about who we are—then we begin to experience a miraculous unfoldment. The heart knows when we’re getting closer to the truth.”

Throughout the weekend, our inquiry took the form of exercises in which we broke up into groups of two or three and attempted to answer a specific question—sometimes in monologue form, sometimes in response to having the question posed to us repeatedly by a partner. Maitri asked that as listeners, we refrain from commenting or reacting in any way to what the speakers were saying. “The idea is to explore the truth about a particular issue,” she said, “and the biggest assistance we can give each other is to be present, open, and allowing. When you’re speaking, don’t worry about how you are perceived or what happens to you. Just be with your own experience.”

The first exercise was framed as a repeating question: “Tell me something that stops you from being here now.” To my surprise, I soon discovered that most of my answers focused on my concern with how what I say is received. I had never thought of myself as highly concerned with the approval of others. Forced by the nature of the exercise to keep digging deeper, however, I began to uncover all of the subtle ways that I adjust what I say to make it more acceptable. I also saw that my underlying motive was less approval than it was assuring that I wouldn’t be rejected or seen as wrong and thus endangered. It became clear that I rarely simply connect to what I feel most deeply and say it straight out.

The second repeating-question exercise was even simpler: “Tell me something you are experiencing now.” This time I saw quickly how many conflicting concerns, preoccupations, and habits stood in the way of my simply getting immersed in the moment. I also saw that the more I exhausted the answers that came immediately and glibly to mind, the more I felt pulled into the frightening territory of the unknown. This was also the domain of a deeper level of truth. Over the course of the two days, we did a series of similar exercises that prompted us to probe more and more searchingly into our fixed beliefs and habitual ways of responding. The questions ranged from “What pattern is repeated over and over again in your life?” to “Who do you take yourself to be right now?” to “How do you fill your holes?” to “Explore your experience of emptiness and deficiency.”

One of the last questions we engaged was “What’s right about avoiding feeling empty?” This was perhaps the most surprising and enlightening of the exercises for me. I could name plenty of reasons for not wanting to feel empty, among them that I associated emptiness with loneliness, sadness, disconnection, hopelessness, and fear. Beyond all that, no one in my life had ever suggested that there is any value in feeling empty. Filling myself up—through work and relationships and being a parent, playing sports and going to movies, worrying and planning—had long been the central mission of my life. It had never occurred to me that feeling empty might actually be a route to something deeper and richer within.

“Emptiness can be experienced in very different ways,” Maitri explained, after we’d done the exercise. “Often you almost literally fear you’ll die if you stay in that emptiness, and in a sense that’s true. A given sector of the personality will die if you don’t keep trying to fill it up. But there is something deeper. Emptiness feels like a black hole when it’s viewed through the prism of the personality. But that same hole is experienced as open and pristine and very peaceful when you are in essence. It may take a leap of faith to let go into this emptiness—whether from courage or desperation. But when you do, it is very spacious, and it’s anything but deficient. It is the beginning of opening up to our true selves—to the empty space in which everything arises, to the ground of our fundamental nature.”

These exercises had a subtle but cumulative impact on me. Each one gave me a slightly clearer sense about where I was still stuck and how my fixed beliefs fed those patterns. As Maitri put it: “When a machine knows itself, it is no longer possible for it to be a machine.” There was also something wonderful about having another person there simply as a presence, listening closely but not interjecting. It made me realize how rarely I felt fully heard—and how rarely I listened to another person carefully, quietly, and without judgment. Deborah and I have incorporated this active listening exercise into our lives, and it’s been remarkably powerful. Having the other person just listen for ten minutes several times a week gives us another level of connection and mutual understanding.

As the weekend came to an end, Maitri made it clear that the work we’d done wasn’t much concerned with cathartic breakthroughs, or instant transformations, or even easing our burden. “This path is not about rising above or transcending,” she told us. “It’s about moving through what is, and a lot of that isn’t real pleasant. It’s very difficult, it’s painful, and there’s a lot we’d rather avoid.” Ali makes the point even more directly: “We could do meditations, certain exercises and everybody could feel wonderful things. However these will not last unless the person actually confronts his deficiencies, his holes and goes through them. It is not a simple process, nor a short or easy one.”

“We’re not interested in making people feel better,” he told me later. “We’re interested in helping them find the truth about themselves. In the process, everything gets deeper.” This made enormous sense to me. I was no longer looking for instant catharsis, which experience told me was sure to fade in a matter of days. This work didn’t leave me feeling my world had transformed. Rather, it had an impact that grew over time and required patience and attentiveness.

For Ali, the complete life must be embodied in everyday experience. Insight is not sufficient. Conduct matters, too. “Indulgence means permitting what is unhealthy in you to control your actions, even though you already recognize it is unhealthy,” he told me. “Spiritual work has to do with actualizing your potential. It needs to be done while we are in the world. Experiencing essence is not that difficult. You can do it through meditation, or by taking psychedelics, or even through an intense experience in life. A lot of the Eastern traditions aren’t that much interested in living in the world. They just want to connect with the divine. But to truly own your essence—to experience it as who you really are and to behave accordingly—requires moving through the barriers of the psyche, integrating the heart and the mind. This is what I call realization. It means learning to make your inner understandings the source of your external actions. Being accomplished, creative, successful and contributing usefully to the world are expressions of a particular aspect of our essential nature. Finally, it’s about loving your life from a certain inner center—with love and integrity, openness and awareness. Ultimately, that becomes the work.”

Even as this work proceeds, Ali says, a distinctive personality persists. What changes is its character. “In my case,” he told me, “I used to be shy and passive, and now I can be quite aggressive. I used to be more afraid of people, and now I enjoy them. I used to be very lazy, and now I’m very active. Even so, it’s not like you work on the personality and then go on to something else. Personality obstacles are infinite, and you keep coming back to them.”

Like Michael Murphy, Ali concluded that no single virtue—or quality of essence—is sufficient by itself. Completeness depends on balanced development. “Love is just one of the aspects of essence,” Ali explained. “We don’t want you just to be loving. If you have love but you have no will, your love will not be real. If you have will but no love, you will be powerful and strong but without any idea of real humanity. If you have love and will but no objective consciousness, then your love and will may be directed toward the wrong things. Only the development of all the qualities will enable us to become full, true human beings.”