Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In the face of a sunset

I've just started studying psychology, and one of my first assignments, for a module on perception, was to observe a sunset and then write 2,000 words about it. Here is the result (a warning: I went over the word limit, and it's about three times as long as my usual blog posts - but it's pure tango philosophy). All the photos are from a sunset I watched at Long Forest Flora Reserve, near Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia.

“Imagine saying, ‘That sunset is interesting.’” (Sontag 2002: 26)

To sit and watch a sunset with the precise intention of observing how visual perception changes as the light changes is to attempt to find a sunset interesting. Rather than getting caught up in, or attempting to capture, the beauty of the sunset, we try to maintain the distance of a scientist. Is it possible? Can one remain scientific in the face of a sunset?

“In the face of a sunset…” A sunset confronts the watcher not as an object that can be quantified and precisely defined, but more like a person, or a face, that calls up, with its shifting expressions, emotions that are hard to explain. Why should changing light, some streaks of colour and luminosity in the sky, the softening of the landscape into velvety darkness, cause such a welling up of feeling?

A Zen master demands, “Without thinking good or evil, in this very moment, what is your Original Face?”

Neuropsychologists have found that a particular part of the brain, the fusiform gyrus (sometimes called the fusiform face area), is especially important to the task of recognizing faces. When it is damaged, the result can be prosopagnosia: ‘face blindness’ or literally ‘face not-knowing.’

‘Face not-knowing’: an expression worthy of a Zen master. And not a bad way to describe the experience of watching a sunset. We do not know the face of the sunset the way we know the faces of our friends, but there is an intimacy in the experience nevertheless, a recognition that is not-knowing. This not-knowing is not a privation, but an opening onto the world – the world of perception.

Natural perception is not a science, it does not posit the things with which science deals, it does not hold them at arm’s length in order to observe them, but lives with them; it is the ‘opinion’ or the ‘primary faith’ which binds us to a world as to our native land, and the being of what is perceived is the antepredicative being toward which our whole existence is polarized.
(Merleau-Ponty 1962: 321-322)

What is antepredicative being? A commentator on the work of Husserl (the German philosopher who founded the 20th century philosophical movement of phenomenology), describes it in terms of “experience that has a certain original meaning in a pregnant sense; it is external sensitive perception.” (Raggiunti 1981: 256)

Phenomenologists argue that all perception takes place within the hermeneutic horizon of the world, and that the fundamental experience of being-in-the-world precedes any ability to objectify and analyse components of our experience using language. We do not arrive in the world as subjects confronted by a multitude of external objects with which we must subsequently build relations of knowledge. Rather we can only perceive and come to know an object (and assign true or false predicates to it) on the basis of always already being within a world from which knower and object emerge together.

In advanced Western culture, dominated by the scientific paradigm of knowledge, we tend to ignore our immediate experience of the process of perception and assume that we live in a pre-made world of objects. We see a particular hammer, for instance, as an object of a certain mass and weight, certain dimensions, made of wood and metal, which we can, as a logical result of all these qualities, use for hammering. Heidegger argues, against this presumption, that a hammer is most naturally experienced in the mode of the “ready-at-hand,” as something for hammering, an extension of the body engaged in a particular task. Only if something goes wrong, such as hitting a finger rather than the intended nail, will the person using it shift to perceiving the hammer as an object, separate from the subject, alien to him or her: “present-at-hand.” In the more fundamental mode, the hammer is not separate from the person who hammers; its identity is inseparable from the activity in which this person is engaged, and a world in which there is some call for hammering.

[The] less we stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment … If we look at Things just 'theoretically', we can get along without understanding readiness-to-hand. But when we deal with them by using them and manipulating them, this activity is not a blind one; it has its own kind of sight… (Heidegger 1962: 65)

Although motor activity that binds us with the world in meaningful activities does indeed have its “own kind of sight,” something we will come to later, vision is the sense most closely associated with the prejudice that maintains that reality consists of objects or bodies, and we stand before them passively as subjects or minds, somehow receiving impressions, sensations, sense data that allow us (mysteriously) to know these objects. 

Taking the theoretical position that we are less subjects than merely very complex objects among the other objects (brains rather than minds) doesn’t make the ability to know any less mysterious, since objects are almost as foreign to one another as they are to subjects. They can hurtle towards one another through space and collide in complicated ways, but how that creates meaning or “external sensitive perception,” or the sense of a world, remains extremely difficult to explain. Phenomenologists would say that it doesn’t just make it extremely difficult – it makes it impossible. Why? Because it puts the horse before the cart. It assumes that there is an object before it is perceived as such. It refuses to see that the formation of objects depends on the process of perception.

As Berkeley says, even an unexplored desert has at least one person to observe it, namely myself when I think of it, that is, when I perceive it in purely mental experience. The thing is inseparable from a person perceiving it, and can never be actually in itself because its articulations are those of our very existence, and because it stands at the other end of our gaze or at the terminus of a sensory exploration which invests it with humanity. To this extent, every perception is a communication or a communion, the taking up or completion by us of some extraneous intention or, on the other hand, the complete expression outside ourselves of our perceptual powers and a coition, so to speak, of our body with things. (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 320)

Merleau-Ponty’s description of the process of perception may be more poetic than those found in contemporary neuroscience texts, but the story they tell is substantially the same, at least if we focus on the first side of the philosopher’s definition. The neurological process underlying our experience of vision can be defined quite accurately as “the taking up or completion by us of some extraneous intention,” so long as intention is understood here not as a psychological state involving deliberation, but rather as phenomenologists use the word, as implying simply a sense of direction or focus. For the phenomenologist, all mental states are “intentional” in the sense that they point to something; they are “about” something. When we think, we think of something (however vague, or abstract it may be, there is always some content to our thought). This principle is even easier to grasp in the case of sight: when we see, we always see something (even if it’s just a streak of colour). There is no seeing without the thing seen.

But analysis of the neurological process of visual perception reveals that the “thing seen” is not immediately given as a visible image. Between the contact of light waves with the cones and rods of the retina, and the formation of a visual image in our “mind’s eye,” lies a complex and as yet only partially understood process of “taking up” and “completion” of the external stimuli by neural activity. Our brains do not receive ready-made images of the world; they construct them. The “thing seen” is not “out there” in the external world; it is a product of contact between something “out there”– the stimulus, or in Merleau-Ponty’s language, the “extraneous intention” – and the complex internal processes we bring to the act of visual perception.

Interestingly, both the scientific term “stimulus” and Merleau-Ponty’s evocation of an “extraneous intention” suggest that the content of vision is not primarily “intended” by us. Although we have some control over our eyes, and can choose to look in a particular direction – we can set ourselves up to watch a sunset, for instance - when we see, it is because a part of the world has directed itself toward us. Some light rays have sped in our direction and arrived on the retina, sparking the processes by which we then go on to make sense of this contact. In this sense, it seems as true to say that in the act of vision, a part of the world focuses on our eye, as to say that our eye focuses on a part of the world.

Explanations of visual perception often compare the eye to a camera, suggesting that the major role for our neurons is to make sure we invert the image on our retina so that we see it “the right way up.” Among neuroscientists, however, this common understanding has long been superceded. The image of the eye as a camera has given way to an understanding of not only vision, but the whole human perceptual system as something closer to a statistical inference engine, whose function is to infer the probable causes of sensory input.

On this understanding, there simply is no image at the level of the retina. The processing of signals that are triggered when photons (tiny “packets” of electromagnetic radiation) contact some of the millions of photoreceptors in a retina takes place in multiple locations in the brain, (notably in the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) in the thalamus, which passes signals to the primary visual cortex, and in the superior colliculus in the mid-brain which assists in controlling motor responses such as eye movements). This processing involves complex statistical “calculations” which compare the inputs from cones or rods (which one will depend on the amount of light involved) both with each other and with “statistics” that have been retained from previous visual experience and are used to predict the likely sense of the incoming data. Neuroscientists such as Geoffrey Hinton and Karl Friston suggest that the early stages of processing are used to form predictive hypotheses about meaningful content at higher levels, predictions which are then revised in the light of, as well as used to guide, more complex analyses of the data (see e.g., Dayan et al 1995; Friston 2010). It is from this process of analysis that the brain produces a visual image which is consciously experienced. This image is a highly developed interpretation, rather than a simple copy, of what takes place on the retina.


To describe vision as a process of statistical analysis is to create a new metaphor for vision to displace the earlier one of the camera. This new metaphor has the advantage of helping us recognise something we can discover directly from perceptual experience: that the recognition of visual images involves an unconscious form of interpretation. This is why optical illusions like the Müller-Lyer illusion work. It is also in evidence in the fact that colours appear remarkably different depending on which other colours they border. Such cases suggest that the process of perception corresponds more closely to the probabilistic mode of inductive reasoning than to strictly deductive logic.

This idea is also dramatically supported by the phenomenon of binocular rivalry, which refers to the fact that when a person’s eyes are presented with different stimuli, subjective perception alternates between them, rather seeing them superimposed. For example, if a person is presented with an image of a house in their left eye and a face in their right eye, they will alternate between seeing the entire house and the entire face. Shifts between these percepts are not always clear-cut: “Dominance breaks through in small patches of the visual field and gradually spreads before completely or partially suppressing the competing image (Lee et al., 2004; Meenes, 1930; Wheatstone, 1838).” (Hohwy et al. 2008: 694) This observation is nicely explained by the notion that the brain interprets data from the visual organs by processing it according to principles of statistical probability, seeking meaningful interpretations of sensory data by repeatedly making likely hypotheses based on rapid analysis of the available data and revising them under pressure from anomalous stimuli.

The limitation of seeing the brain as a statistical inference engine, however, is that this metaphor still remains within the dominant conceptual framework which assumes that prior to our perception of it, the world is exists in the form of objects which we can come (at least probabilistically) to know. Because it remains within this paradigm, the statistical model of perception cannot begin to explain the mystery of consciousness or the question of how it is that we manage to get beyond the limitations of the subjective to connect with the objective world. It stops short of embracing the possibility that subject and object might emerge simultaneously in the processes of perception, and that these categories are not prior to, but rather depend upon perception as their ground. On this (phenomenological) view, our perception of the object is not merely probabilistic or approximate, it is creative. This is not to say that there is nothing beyond our perception, no world that exceeds and stimulates our experience of it. But it is to say that this “beyond” does not take the form of objects.

There are certain perceptual experiences in which the phenomenological perspective breaks through in small patches, as it were, and “gradually spreads before completely or partially suppressing” the competing scientific paradigm. The experience of watching a sunset might be considered a prime example.

A sunset is, self-evidently, not an object, even if we often try to turn it into one by photographing it, so we can carry it away with us as a beautiful image, captured on our smart phone. Or if we are psychology students, we may take notes in an attempt to analyse the changing experience, and its effect on our visual perception: the intensification and then gradual fading of colours, the introduction of a grainy quality in the colours as if fine black soot were being mixed into them as the rods in our retina become active and the stimulation of the cones diminishes, and finally the emergence of a world in almost black and white, where we seem to feel as much as see movements and contrasts, perhaps evidence that the neurons which feed straight from the optic nerve to the superior colliculus become more dominant as the light dims and rods take over from cones. These neurons are the ones believed to facilitate “blindsight.” This is the ability to register visual input in carrying out motor functions without any conscious awareness of this data. It is commonly demonstrated by people who have lost part of their conscious visual field due to damage to the primary visual cortex. (I would suggest that it is also the “kind of sight” that Heidegger speaks of in relation to the habitual use of tools.) For example, a person may not be able to see an obstacle on one side of their body, but can quite accurately avoid it, just as I was able to walk very competently along a bush track by the light of a crescent moon after the sunset had faded from the sky, even though my conscious ability to see the bumps and potholes of the track seemed somewhat less than adequate to the task.

Such observations and speculations may be genuinely (and not merely fashionably) interesting, and the photographs very desirable, even by standards not dictated by commodity culture, but the experience of watching a sunset is clearly so much more than, and so different in quality from, either the analysis or the artefacts we take away from it. It is antepredicative, before and beyond all the statements we can make about it, although we might say that its beauty “has a certain original meaning in a pregnant sense.” If all perception is a communication or a communion with things that always takes place with the meaningful horizon of a world, this seems particularly evident in the experience of a sunset, as we watch the literal horizon of our world grow darker and simpler as the sky above it comes alive with shifting colours which seem to move simultaneously into our bodies in the form of emotion.

Reflection on what we know and what we still do not understand about the way in which our neurons creatively and vitally contribute to such an experience raises the question of whether the sunset really takes place in the sky or in the elaborate architecture of our neurons. Merleau-Ponty’s answer to this question is perceptive – the sunset I experience exists not in the sky or in my head, but rather in an intimate meeting and intertwining of the two. A sunset, like any perception but perhaps more movingly than most, is “the complete expression outside ourselves of our perceptual powers and a coition, so to speak, of our body with things.”

My Original Face, in a certain slowly unfolding moment, completely expresses itself in a sunset.


Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. M. E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

Dayan, P., Hinton, G. E., & Neal, R. M. (1995). The Helmholtz machine. Neural Computation 7, 889–904.

Friston, K. (2010) The free-energy principle: A unified brain theory? Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11:127-38.

Hohwy, J., Roeppstorff, A., & Friston, K. (2008). Predictive coding explains binocular rivalry. Cognition, 108, 687-701.

Kenji D., Shin I., Alexandre P., & Rajesh P. N. R. (Eds) (2007), Bayesian Brain: Probabilistic Approaches to Neural Coding, The MIT Press.

Knill D., & Pouget A. (2004). The Bayesian brain: the role of uncertainty in neural coding and computation, TRENDS in Neurosciences 27(12).

Lee, S., & Blake, R. (2004). A fresh look at interocular grouping during
binocular rivalry. Vision Research 44, 983.

Meenes, M. (1930). A phenomenological description of retinal rivalry.
American Journal of Psychology, 42, 260–269.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception (C. Smith, Trans.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Raggiunti, R. (1981). The language problem in Husserl's phenomenology. Analecta Husserliana, 11, 225-278.

Sacks, O. W. (1986). The man who mistook his wife for a hat. London: Pan Books: Picador.

Sontag, S. (2002). An argument about beauty. Dædalus, Fall, 21-26.

Strand, C. (2010) Green Koans Case 12: The Original Face. tricycle. Retrieved from http://www.tricycle.com/web-exclusive/green-koans-case-12-original-face. Accessed 20 January 2013.

Westheimer, G. (2008). Was Helmholtz a Bayesian? Perception 39, 642-50.

Wheatstone, C. (1838). Contributions to the physiology of vision. Part I.
On some remarkable, and hitherto unobserved, phenomena of
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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Hobbit, The Door, and the quality of mercy

The last couple of films I’ve seen are in some ways very different from one another: a Hollywood blockbuster and an arty German film. But they both have strong messages about the value of mercy. I’ll start with the one you’re more likely to have seen.

On boxing day, I joined the masses (most immediately in the form of my brother, brother-in-law, niece and nephew) and went to see The Hobbit. The core moral message of the film comes when Galdalf the wizard tells the young hobbit Bilbo Baggins that “true courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.”

I am told by my Tolkien expert friend Neal that this speech is not in the book. There it is demonstrated simply by the behaviour of Bilbo when he finds himself in a position to kill the miserable creature Golem (a memorable scene in the film). At this moment Bilbo is wearing a ring which, like the ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic, at once makes him invisible and tests his moral mettle. Tolkien’s ring exercises an actively corrupting influence over its wearer, so the fact that Bilbo shows mercy to Golem at this moment is a significant turning point in the story, and a proof of his moral strength.

Perhaps the film-makers felt it necessary to make the message about the value of mercy explicit because so much of the rest of the film contradicts it. The many violent action sequences are hard to interpret as anything but a celebration of killing - one that is both graphically disturbing and repetitive to the point of boredom, or at least considerable frustration that these scenes are allowed to slow the progress of the plot to the pace of a troll’s thought processes. (The evident reason for this is commercial – the makers intend to milk the slender novel for not one but three blockbuster films.) For me, this inconsistency was a major flaw of the film.

But I did like the Gandalf’s message to Bilbo. And as it happened, the idea that true courage is about knowing when to spare a life was also expressed in the next film I saw, which was a clever German film called The Door (Die Tür, 2009, directed by Anno Saul, based on a novel by Akif Pirinçci, starring Mads Mikkelsen).

The Door tells the story of an artist, David, whose young daughter drowns while he is cheating on his wife with a neighbor. Five years after her death, he is a broken man. On the verge of killing himself, he discovers a door into the past: he has the opportunity to go back in time and do things differently. He takes it, of course. (If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to have the plot spoiled, skip the next two paragraphs.)

Like a guardian angel, David arrives just in time to save his daughter. But to relive his life differently – and more lovingly - from this point, he finds he must kill his earlier self (literally). Having done the deed, he buries his younger self in a shallow grave in the backyard. He soon discovers that he is not alone in this radical form of self-rejection. As the plot begins to twist, he finds himself in a bizarre culture of murder/suicide, led by a bullying criminal – he discovers that his neighbourhood is full of people who have found the time-tunnel and taken the lives of their former selves. Only the children are really themselves, in the usual sense.

Just as he has fully taken in the horror of this situation, David’s wife, Maja, arrives from the future. Unlike the others (and more like Bilbo in his encounter with Golem), Maja refrains from killing her earlier self when she has the chance. Instead, she allows this younger self to travel through the door into the future with her child, just before David deliberately destroys the passageway leading to it. 

This means that at the end of the film, David is more or less returned to his situation at the beginning. He and Maja share a difficult past they cannot erase, and must live on without their daughter. But now they have consciously chosen to accept these facts rather than fighting or fleeing them. The film ends with a poignant shot of David tenderly taking hold of Maja’s hand as they sit together by the empty pool where their daughter drowned.

The moral message of The Door is left implicit. It takes a while for it to emerge from the mind-bending time-travel and black humour of the plot. But if it were put in the mouth of a wise old wizard, it might go something like this: “true courage is about knowing not when to judge or end a life, but when to accept life just as it is, and go on living – and loving - as well as you can.”

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A trip to Thailand

In December I traveled to Thailand to do ten day meditation retreat at a monastery and meditation centre called Suan Mokkh. Readers of this blog might recall that the last time I did a meditation retreat in Thailand, I spent a lot of it contemplating anger – directly. This time was quite different. At the retreat itself, everything felt right, from the lush green gardens dotted with tropical flowers, to the delicious Thai cooking and the hot chocolate drinks in the evenings, to the natural hot springs we could soak in to relax any knots in our muscles after a long day of meditation. I felt I was exactly where I wanted and needed to be, and the world was treating me very well.

My description so far makes the meditation centre sound like a luxury resort, but of course it wasn’t all lazing about in the pool. The day began with a wake-up bell at 4am, and more bells punctuated each change of activity: sitting and walking meditation sessions, work periods, a daily yoga class, some very entertaining dhamma talks, meals and rest periods. The last meditation session of the day finished at 9pm, and we were required to be back in our dorms by 9.30pm.

There is a distinctly ascetic dimension to the place as well, reflecting the fact that this meditation centre is attached to a monastery founded by a famous Thai monk, Ajahn Buddhadasa, known for his very scholarly and pure approach to the Buddhist teachings. When he was still alive, his supporters built an attractive, but still very modest (by Thai temple standards) two-storey house for him to live in within the monastery. After a few years, he moved into the toilet room, saying he didn’t need the rest of the house.

As retreatants, we didn’t have to sleep in the toilets, but our accommodation was not fancy. Each person was assigned a little concrete cell, and we were encouraged to follow Ajahn Buddhadasa’s ascetic example by sleeping on a thin straw mat (over concrete) and a wooden pillow – a block of wood with a depression carved into it. The cells were located in large dormitory blocks, segregated by gender. The dorms were locked at night, and at certain times during the day. None of this came as a shock to me, though, as I had done this retreat once before, three years ago. (I had come prepared with a camping mat to supplement the straw sleeping mat.)

One day we came back from evening drinks to find the women’s dorm still locked. As we had all undertaken to maintain silence for the duration of the retreat, we just stood in a slowly growing crowd of women in front of the high metal gates, waiting. Soon enough they were opened, and as we filed in one by one, I imagined us as inmates entering a prison camp. It wasn’t just the lock on the gate of the dormitory that made the comparison seem apt. Meditation retreats, especially large ones (there were about a hundred people on this retreat) have an institutional quality, a sense that you are being cared for and protected, and at the same time disciplined into a manageable group, with individual expression and variation kept to a minimum.

Entrance to the women's dorm
Once you get used to it, there is a sense of comfort in blending into the group, and the shared discipline is helpful for creating a concentrated, motivated atmosphere for meditation practice. But it also raises some challenges. To me, it feels a bit like reverting to childhood (boarding-school, perhaps). For the duration of the retreat, one is treated like a very well cared-for child, relieved of adult responsibilities and choices, and provided with a special form of education. This is a valuable gift, but a somewhat disturbing one. It can be a challenge to remain adult under these conditions, and not revert to childish behavior, whether submissive, needy or rebellious.

To look at it another way, this kind of retreat can be good for exposing the child that lives on in the adult, unearthing habits and ways of responding that perhaps haven't truly changed since we really were children, coping with a world that wasn’t as orderly or carefully designed as a meditation retreat. Hopefully, the meditative mind is strong enough to let us recognise these old, ordinarily masked habits and emotions and to let them go, or take better care of them. It can be a salutary shock just to face the fact that one is still capable of behaving like a child (and not in a good way).

You may be wondering what kind of mid-retreat tantrums I threw to provoke these reflections. Actually, I was perfectly well-behaved; this retreat passed very peacefully for me. Thoughts and feelings came and went mildly by; I didn’t get stuck in any whirlpools of emotion. There were no internal fireworks of any kind, really – no extraordinary insights, or colouredåå lights either. By the end, I felt well rested, if slightly disappointed that nothing particularly transformative seemed to have happened.

But then… after the retreat, I had planned a short holiday with a friend who was going to join me in Thailand. I’d booked a short kayaking tour for us, and a nice hotel. When I emerged from the retreat, I got an apologetic text message from my friend letting me know that she had had a crisis and decided not to come. Initially I took this news calmly, and sent a sympathetic and reassuring response in reply. But trouble was brewing. Possibly the first sign that my inner child was preparing to make an appearance was that although my friend asked me to fly to Singapore straight away to meet her, I felt reluctant to abandon the planned holiday in Thailand. I thought I might continue with the kayaking trip alone, and go to Singapore to see her a bit later, taking the flight that was already booked.

From that point on, I entered the shadowy counterpart of my contented retreat: nothing felt right. That night, I was the solitary guest in a fairly remote guest-house in the middle of Thailand. The family who ran the place seemed to tolerate my presence rather than welcome it. The bungalow I was given was pretty, but damp and cold at night. There was a slug on the bed sheets and a tap in the bathroom ran incessantly. Barking dogs kept me awake late into the night; a crying baby woke me early. Oh the special misery of not having a good time when you’re on holidays and everything is supposed to be designed wholly and solely to please you…

At some point during that long night, my inner child started wailing. I felt like I’d stepped into what should rationally have been merely a shallow puddle of disappointment and abruptly found myself sliding into a deep, murky hole of despair, with no way to save myself, as the muddy walls of negative emotions threatened to close in over my head. I felt rejected, resentful, unloved and toward the very bottom of the hole, unlovable.

I had descended into what Nietzsche calls slave mentality, an attitude dominated by resentment, that sees others as dominant, powerful, carelessly cruel, and views the self as weak, persecuted and righteously pathetic. He contrasts this mentality with that of the noble type, who focuses on the self as happy, proud, superior, and barely pays any attention to the unhappy (but sometimes useful) other. The noble attitude seems more attractive, of course, but regarded as a moral position, it is naïve and potentially barbaric. And as psychological states, I suspect that master and slave attitudes are liable to flip into each other.

Perhaps the energies of my inner slave, now raging, had been building up in the form of a certain barbaric carelessness and complacent sense of entitlement as I strolled around the retreat centre, admiring the grounds and thinking about my next soak in the hot springs, or the delicious Thai curry I would be served for lunch. Part of my inner child’s problem seemed to be outrage that this level of care had not continued beyond the walls of the retreat centre. Behind this outrage was the fear that perhaps I wasn’t really a noble type after all, just a miserable slave.

Eventually it dawned on me that the only thing that was stopping me from giving up my plans and going straight to Singapore was a lurking fear that the real reason my friend hadn’t come to Thailand was simply that she didn’t care about me or want to spend any time with me. This wasn’t reasonable. There was plenty of evidence to the contrary - she had offered to book a new flight to bring me to Singapore and pay the deposit we would lose on the tour. Why wasn’t I paying more attention to that, or to her heartfelt request for me to come and visit her?

At this point, I remembered the Buddha’s teaching about the importance of friendship. Ananda, his close attendant, suggests that friendship makes up half of the holy life, with the other half relating to the discipline of monastic rules. The Buddha replies, “Do not say so, Ananda, do not say so. Friendship is the whole of the holy life.”

I realized that responding to my friend was the real test and crucible of my spiritual practice on this trip to Thailand. Waking to the sound of bells ringing in the dark, sleeping on wooden pillows, eating only in the morning and watching your breath (or trying to) for hours on end is all pretty pointless if it doesn’t help you to recognize and appreciate the kindness of a friend when it is shown to you, or to give it when it is asked of you. I finally saw that it was entirely open to me to walk lightly around the muddy hole that had unexpectedly opened up on the walking track of my trip through Thailand, and show some faith both in my friend and in my own capacity for friendship. In the morning, I cancelled the kayaking tour and hopped on an early bus to Phuket on my way to catch a plane to Singapore.