Looking for a Sabbatical from Work? Read This First.
It was the summer of my 9th year of worklife, when I decidedly asked my then manager “Can I take a sabbatical from office?”. He, an african-american, was a tall man with long braided hair. If I stopped by his office on a slow (though rare) day, we discussed womens issues and minorities at the workplace. He would tell me about his wife’s book on women and I would share my little stories, which, at that time, felt like important and hurtful stories that needed closure. When he heard my request to ‘take a break after 9 years of working non-stop away from family’, he immediately approved my leave. “You do what you need to do, Nupur”, he said “I will support you in whatever you choose”.
The comfort of my managers backing, the only surety I had, was eclipsed by the discomfort of the unknown. Should I take 3 months off and travel and soak in the goodness of villages in India? Should I spend that time in contemplation and meditation in a Himalayan ashram? Or should I trek in the alps till a sun-tan or go to Spain or some wallpaper worthy city? “I am not sure what I want to do” was a thread working its way into the deep cresses of my mind. It was a feeling of helplessness and exploration combined— I knew I had to try something to find or feel something— but what the hell am I even looking for? Uh, so confusing.
Actually, I confess— with the generous permission of my supportive director, I had a sort-of-break the previous year. How? I had enrolled in a leadership program, to India, for 3 weeks. It was semi-paid for, there were 15 office coworkers with me, and the goal was to design technical solutions for an NGO. I loved my office work, but I wanted to settle up the nagging feeling of giving back to society, making this the perfect opportunity for me. The trip checked a few items off my list: Help the poor, check. Spend time in India, check. Try something new, check.
Yet, the feeling of “I’m satisfied” didn’t sink in— it lingered on the surface and got washed off in a few weeks. Was this a fruitless trip away from work? Will this year help me in my search and exploration?
To answer the question of what I should do if I took a break; I switched on my table lamp, opened my notepad and scribbled a vision. The vision of "What should I do?”. Scratch that.
“What do I want to discover?”. Scratch that too. “How do I want to feel at the end of a long break?”. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, pen loosely held between my fingers— I had no answers. I went back to “What should I do”.
1. Spend time with parents?— nahhhh, I go home every year anyway. 2. Ashram? — Sure… but… but… which? How will I find a good one? What about the costs? Too much effort! (Wish I had heard of Bihar School of Yoga in Munger or Ananda in the Himalayas, back then!). 3. Vipassana? — 10 day courses were better set for December holidays. 4. Travel the World and India? — What about the costs and the rental monies for 3 months! ram ram (shaking my head).
I jotted more with my pen: What is the optimal combination of variables and constants —paid & unpaid vacation days, work or no-work, hometown, see India, see the world, meditation, meet people, help people— that can maximise my experience? This was getting too technical! “ffhhhooooo” I let out a long breath, dropped my pen and decided a conservative solution. Let’s keep as much constant— how about continuing to work, but from India? Done.
I found the maximum days I could work from India, without triggering any alarms— tax, legal or social. The equation emerged clear: A couple of staggered work weeks, plus, maxed-out personal vacations, plus, a few naturally occurring national holidays— equaled 1 month, 2 weeks. The wheels are turning forward! Progress!
The decision was communicated, family was informed and the flights were booked—then I came to a fearful, inevitable monitory roadblock— what about my rent! I was paying $2,200 a month to retain my room, parking space and monthly bills. I attempted to find a sub-lease but the effort was fruitless. Fine, I thought. I’ll pay this through.
I judge the value of an experience, by what I remember of it after a year. Do I remember the trip? Pieces of it, yes. Did it refresh me, yes. More time with family and new friends, yes. But something didn’t feel right.
I hadn’t set myself completely free— It was as if I was trying to enjoy a luxury dinner in a 5 star hotel, while a gun was pointed at me. My furniture-filled home back in America, my rental payment, my job, my files of work to complete, and a booked return flight were heavy anchors that prevented me from being a free bird and experiencing life as I wanted to, without the pressures of a deadline. The ‘letting go’ during a sabbatical, pulled back like a fast elastic, with the thoughts that I had a flight to catch in a few days: “20 days left… 7 days left… 2 days left…”.
Perhaps a better process, I thought to myself, would be to leave everything— job, possessions, and expectations— and then explore activities. It would help you go-with-the-flow, watch what you actually do vs what you just say and for those who believe in the divine powers of Bhramha—watch what activities choose YOU. Leaving everything is difficult for countless aspirants— “Don’t you have family, kids, responsibilities?”, they say. I say, “Well, do what you can”.
Should I have take that 1.5 month break in retrospect? Hmmm probably in a different way— I, now seated in my parents home in India, am retrospecting. The experiences that have changed my uplifted me, are those with a magnitude change in intensity— a 10x change from normal. What would I advice, the me, of that year? “Choose the 10x options— Forget the costs. Travel the world, travel India and visit an ashram. Those are experiences you would remember for a lifetime”.