Aatish Taseer is a gifted travel writer. My encounter with his work came in the form of a May 15, 2019 article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “In Search of Ancient Morocco”. The article is an evocative description of his travels to remote and nearly forgotten corners of Morocco and makes a great read: definitely google that thing and enjoy it.
As I look back on his article now, I’m inclined to view his whole journey in Morocco as a pilgrimage toward the boundarylands between this world and a symbolic Otherworld. In his case, the Otherworld was the vast stretch of the Sahara Desert, uncharted and foreign, extending toward infinity, beyond our orthodox Western world. At many points in his journey, he comes up close to this boundary and is touched by the strangeness and the sense (to him) of danger it might contain, yet he manages at every turn to remain somewhat sheltered in the familiarity of the relationship with his guide, or within the structure of his vehicle.
Toward the end of his trip, however, he reaches the farthest boundary of all when he arrives in M’Hamid, “the last town in Morocco before the Algerian border,” he says, where “the road doesn’t so much take you there as simply runs into sand.” He truly senses himself to be at the edge of the known world. Paru, the German proprietor of the hotel there, asks him, “Have you seen our door to the Sahara?” with what seems to Taseer to be a “strange smile”. She directs him, he reports, to “a door at the far end of a walled garden. I opened it and there, in the crude door frame, was the boundless expanse of crescent dunes edged with sharp black lunettes. It was arresting, unspeakably beautiful, and yet I felt an odd sense of trepidation at finding myself in this empty hotel on the edge of a desolation almost the size of the United States.” [It’s important to note: when we are near a boundary of any reality that is “other,” –i.e., beyond our habitual comfort zone of what we call “real”—part of our rudimentary brain begins to feel unrest and threat. We begin to reach for words like “strange,” and “desolation”, and to register feelings that we label “trepidation.” More on this later.]
Let’s go on with Taseer’s story…
“That night,” he says, “I would know fear of my own. We say we travel to experience, and yet when real experiences come our way, especially those not easily explained, the traveler hesitates to record them.”
Taseer commands my deepest respect here, with that statement. He recognizes how tempting it is to deny the strange things that happen to us, and he owns that temptation as a writer! Yet he forges on:
“Darkness fell. I ate a tagine of meatballs alone in a firelit room. Paru joined me for dessert, then I retired into a small high-ceilinged room, narrow as a coffin, with a bed draped in a white mosquito net.
“At about 1:30 am, I awoke in terror. My body was frozen, as if pinned down by an invisible force. Cold spasms ran up my spine. I had trouble breathing and the darkest visions engulfed my mind. I was neither asleep nor awake but in some kind of half-state. I tried as best I could to turn my mind to all the positive things in my life, my husband, my dog. Yet all that was good went bad, returning to me in the image of my fear, which was physical and prehensile, like a swarming of nerves… Paru herself appeared to me as a witch doctor, a sorceress…” He recalls Paru telling him earlier in the day of a time when she had felt panic on a desert trip, and the prayers which helped to ground her, and he begins to pray.
“It was the first time in my adult life that I had prayed…”
As he concludes his article, Taseer reflects on his remarkable encounter: “It was disturbing to think of oneself as rational and irreligious but to have an experience that felt supernatural. Nothing remotely close to this had ever happened to me before. I had laughed at those who claimed to see ghosts or be unnerved by the energy of a place. I had no means to understand what happened at Dar Paru, nor did I want to make a place in my life for magic. It was unassimilable, my night in the Sahara, and it left me disquieted and full of doubt. I could not believe, but I would never mock again with so much conviction.”
Aatish Taseer’s experience, so honestly reported in his article, provides a great opportunity for reflection on encounters with the Imaginal Realm. Here are my own thoughts:
The Option of Fear
With admirable candor, Taseer acknowledges his fear during the encounter he experienced in a hypnogogic state between wakefulness and sleep. The sense of trepidation that was encroaching on his mood was already evident in his description of the “coffin-sized” room. In my experience working with people and their dreams, I’ve begun to sense that it’s our lack of experience with the Imaginal that moves us in the direction of fear. FEAR is one of the descriptors in the definition of AWE, along with REVERENCE– an overwhelming feeling in the presence of that which is grand, sublime, powerful, transcendant. To experience and report that fear, which is generated by the amygdala in our brain whenever our sense of reality is challenged by the Other, is admirable. We might see ourselves in the experience of Aatish Taseer.
Yet if we think back over the other encounters with Imaginal Presences that I’ve recounted so far, little or no fear is reported! William Blake reports in later diaries that he was captivated and inspired by seeing the angels. The man in New Mexico was able to stand calmly and simply take in the presence of the pink mist that appeared on the path. The woman in Madrid was awestruck, but not afraid, as she beheld the police horse turn to gold. The men in Toronto were able to sit calmly, even if feeling an inner amazement, and simply marvel at the presence of that green orb. Maybe these people had a view of reality that could allow for the possibility of surprises like these, without feeling terror. Maybe they had a little more practice in being greeted by the Imaginal, resulting in the inner knowledge that they would be just fine.
What if we had the inner confidence and groundedness that would allow us simply to be PRESENT when the Imaginal chooses to appear? What if we could maintain that calm while it is present, and simply “take in” the experience?
What if we had an expanded view of reality that included the Imaginal realm?
A View of Reality that Includes the Imaginal
Taseer says it clearly: “It was disturbing to think of oneself as rational and irreligious but to have an experience that felt supernatural.” He acknowledges: “I had no means to understand what happened at Dar Paru…it was unassimilable…” Those of us who “think of ourselves as rational” need to take a long, deep look at our definition of reality. What is often meant by being “rational” is believing that reality is completely defined and encompassed by what is material and literal. This view of reality did not exist until about four hundred years ago, and it is a mistaken view that is costing us dearly. [Needless to say, we will be exploring this a lot in future blog entries!]
For now, it is worth noting that for Taseer, as for many of us, the only descriptors in his vocabulary for an experience such as his were “religion,” “ghosts,” “sorcery”, and “magic.” All these terms carry heavy baggage and stigma. We are desperately in need of language to speak about what happened to Taseer, and to Blake, and to us in our dreaming or waking lives. We hope, on this website, to support the development of such language. We hope to expand an appreciation of how we KNOW things—one that includes experiences that, while they lie outside the boundaries of material existence, are nonetheless powerfully, even beautifully, REAL.
I’ve covered a lot of ground today in this writing. As I close, I want to emphasize several things about being met by the Imaginal that, I hope, will balance the sense of fear that Taseer expressed in his article:
ONE: for many people, an encounter with an Imaginal presence is profoundly enlivening and inspiring, leading them to feel that
TWO: they hope they get to experience something like that again sometime! And
THREE: the REALITY of what they experienced has dramatically enlarged their definition of what is real, in a way that they will never forget…and in a way that they love.
Patrick Harpur says it well:
“A single mystical experience, maybe lasting only a minute—whether of Nature, of another person, or of God—will be one of the defining moments of our lives, a touchstone of knowledge against which we measure all other kinds of knowledge for their portion of truth…all mystical experiences are not only more important to the beneficiaries than their normal state, but infinitely more meaningful. They are revelations of reality.”
The Secret Tradition of the Soul, p. 115-116.
I close with a deep bow to Aatish Taseer. I hope that he, as he muses about his remarkable experience in Morocco, becomes able to inhabit his newly-enlarged world in ways that add the liveliness of the Imaginal Realm to his already rich and sensitive life.