This summer, I spent a lot of time in silence. The deep thrumming quiet of Cole Lake (which took seven short portages and two beaver dam pullovers to get to, ugh) and the stillness of Echo Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park, reached via the flooded Winnipeg River and exited by a gruelling two-kilometre portage (double ugh).  

Out there, with the only electricity supplied by (a few too many) thunderstorms, I felt the return of equilibrium, the calming of my brain chemistry.

Sipping a morning coffee on the rock slope of our campsite six or seven days into an 11-day trip, I watched J. cast a line, our dog keyed up nearby, riding his own random-reward dopamine trip as he waited excitedly for a fish.

Contentment spread through me.

“Abstinence resets the brain’s reward pathway and with it our capacity to take joy in simpler pleasures,” writes Dr. Anna Lembke in Dopamine Nation, in Number Three of her 10-item summary Lessons of the Balance, now pinned up at my desk.

Which is where I’m now sitting.

Summer is over and as I return to my busy schedule – not to mention the need to show my face in the “real” world (even if by “real,” I mean not-real, as in the crowded hallways of the Inter-webs) – I feel agitation nudging at the edge of my hard-won calm.

Sunset on Saddle Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park

I’m trying, though.

Trying to maintain equilibrium.

Because it’s this equilibrium and its associated calm, focus, attention, clarity which enables me to prioritize the most important task of my daily life.

To attend.

At some point this summer, on a podcast or a recorded dharma talk, I heard a meditation teacher talking about paying attention. How this simple (and, yet, of course, not so simple) act shows deep respect, shows love, demonstrates care. To do it, especially these days, we must make conscious effort to grow quiet, to still any agitation, to focus.

That is, after all, what creative work demands.

And it’s also what’s so often under threat with the way we’re living: with constant phone notifications pulling us away, with the internal tethers, the nagging urge, the prickling of the brain’s expectant reward system. This latter intrusion is the one that gets in the way for me, that makes me want to ditch all social media, pull a J. D. Salinger (minus the creepy old man aspect) and move into the quiet woods without Wi-Fi.

(And before you tell me “just shut off your notifications,” they’ve never been my problem. They’re always off! It’s the internal urge which is… I find it not unlike the feeling I used to get in my 20s when I’d wake up unable to refuse the itch for a cigarette for breakfast, despite how terrible it made me feel).

So, yes, it’s hard. It takes a lot of self-control.

Lesson Number Four: “Self-binding creates literal and metacognitive space between desire and consumption, a modern necessity in our dopamine-overloaded world.”

But the fact that we, that I, need to practice self-binding with my relationship with technology at all makes me very sad and, yes, angry.

After all, if social media hadn’t tailored its designs using technologies invented to hook gamblers (as everybody knows by now), maybe we could just use it to, you know, live our lives. Share photographs. Broadcast bits of news.

But they did and so here we are, swimming in water that most of us don’t really understand: how algorithms favour sensationalist and highly negative material because that is what drives “engagement, how our deepest notions of ‘self-esteem’ are under attack (writes Jaron Lanier: “The inability to carve out a space in which to invent oneself without constant judgement; that is what makes me unhappy. How can you have self-esteem when that’s not the kind of esteem that matters most anymore?”), how in order to show people my new book cover (check it out!) or even put up a funny picture of my dog, I need to act in support of megarich corporations who continue to feed on everything I do, say, think online (which could then be used to train AI).

What’s the answer?

Beats me. All I know is how much better I feel when I pay attention to homeostasis, when I act to balance body and brain, the earth under my feet and the Internet. And when I feel better, I think better, and, of course, I write better. My attention is cleaner, clearer, less distracted, more secured into a singular attentive channel.

As it was out there in the woods.

Sometime in the future, we’ll look back in stunned amazement at these times, I think.

For now, though, we muddle through; it’s the system into which we’re braided, for better or for worse.

But I haven’t lost hope that one of these days I’ll feel free enough, established enough, to do it. To commit myself to the wisdom of Jaron Lanier: “What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term even if it is measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everybody with nothing?”

I realize I’m not alone with this conflict. Where are you at? What do you think? I would love to know (but please comment here to share instead of emailing me: too much email is distracting too!)