If you’ve never considered taking a sabbatical, you should. Especially if you want to build something big.
If your first reaction was one of ‘this will never work’, that’s perfectly normal. Sabbaticals are very counter-intuitive. They seem like a waste of time. It feels like you will fall behind the rest of the world -- perhaps the market is white hot right now and the FOMO is unreal. But we’ve seen white hot markets before. The world has always been moving. People are always cashing in, whether we FOMO about it or not. Ask yourself - this fear, where does it come from? This white heat. Whence does it arise? How would you prefer to live your life? Being yanked back and forth by inscrutable forces beyond your control, or calmly riding those waves to the best version of yourself?
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will rule your life and you will call it Fate.”
- Carl Jung
Do you want to be a warrior? Or a weapon in the hands of your conditioning, which is to say, in the hands of randomness?
Life is about leverage, not strength
Just at the point when one achieves leverage in life — resources, time, networks, reputation — it is the most important thing to understand what a lever is, how it is to be placed and manipulated and most importantly - where will you place it? What will you move with it? Your reputation? Your bank balance? Or the whole of your being? And where will you move it to?
In all of these questions - what should I do next? Where should I live next? etc there is a lot of emphasis placed on the "what" and "where" and next to none placed on the "I". And my thesis is that all of these questions miss their point without an understanding of the I. And the I cannot be understood by analytical means.
Traumas, copings and cravings
It was Einstein who said that
“a problem cannot be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it”
In other words, the same “I” that got you here is not going to be able to answer your questions. For these questions can only be answered by an I that has integrated the lessons of your lifetime to a point where it is no longer driven by the same impulses. An impulse can only have a motive force if it is something external, something unintegrated.
Only an external force can provide an impulse
Integration of the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual content of your life so far (I call these your “traumas”) necessarily leads to a different set of impulses. And since your impulses represent unintegrated experience (Saṃskāras), building the next sequence in your life based on them means you will get pulled further and further out of alignment. It is critically important that you integrate these samskaras before laying the foundation of your cathedral, lest you end up worshipping a God that can do nothing for you any more.
If the next step on your journey feels like a logical extension of the previous steps, you can also surmise that there is a lot of residual trauma. All our lives are a playing out of trauma - you don’t have to believe in reincarnation, there is plenty of source trauma in our childhoods to account for it all — and trauma leads to copings and cravings.
Some of our cravings are valuable, like the urge to build, the urge to be useful, the urge to bring order or justice or equality. Many of our copings are acceptable — drinking, smoking, chess... But they are copings and cravings all the same. And copings and cravings take energy. And before you place your lever and give it a mighty heave (more about strength later), you’ll want your energy back. And you’ll want to deal with your traumas, your copings and cravings. Which doesn’t mean to give them up and retreat into ascetic detachment. Rather it is to strip them off their attachment to you and vice versa.
And the best way to bring these into perspective, to turn them into the object of experience, not the subject who experiences, is to give them time and distance. Stop feeding them by removing yourself from the stimuli that excite them. Let them dissolve. As mud settles at the bottom of a vessel of water, the traumas themselves subside when left undisturbed. All of this is best dealt with through quietude, inactivity, solitude, contemplation and relaxation.
Your traumas cannot be approached analytically. They are prior to your self-recognition as an analytical being, and probably even the root cause of it. They lie outside of analysis. They can only be understood through insight. And insight only comes through an allowing. A relaxation of one’s grip on concepts like fairness, identity, success.
The Road to Yourself
The next thing you build will be your Cathedral. Give it a firm foundation. Give it a more wholly realised version of yourself. That is what the sabbatical is for. And you can measure your progress along this axis in a myriad of ways.
Copings and cravings take up energy. On top of that you are probably already baseline exhausted from the demands of your previous role. Even if it was spent seeing off a golden handcuff period, chilling at the BigCo that acquired you, you burnt some (or a lot) of your spirit doing that. The first milestone to get to is to get your energy back. And for that the most difficult thing to do is to rest.
The old impulses are still there. Every day you rest, some competitor is stealing the march on you, the market is getting over-extended and might turn south any day, opportunities are passing you by. If this is true then remind yourself that either it has always been true, or it will be true again some time later, spirals of history and what not. What’s important is not that the world should stay the same. It will. It always has. What’s important is that you change.
But it’s important for now that you rest. Don’t work out. Don’t learn to play a musical instrument. Just rest. Do whatever you want to and if that is nothing then do nothing. If something feels like work, stop doing it immediately. Your half dozen rails new s will wait. During this stage of the sabbatical, only do what brings pleasure. Drink if you want. Sleep off the hangover properly. Turn down social invitations if you don’t feel like going.
Slowly by slowly your psyche starts to adjust to the new pace. The old fear of ‘I’m missing out’ is replaced by a new fear - I’ll never do anything useful again. Fear is not a good form of energy. It’s coal. It’ll provide motive force but it burns dirty. Avoid it. You’re looking for grade A uranium type energy - overflowing love and gratitude. Stay the course until the fear weakens. In all my observations of sabbaticals, a descent into alcoholism and drug addiction has never been the outcome. Even I managed to avoid it. It’s not gonna happen. Continue to relax.
As you rest and heal you will find that many of your coping behaviours have changed. You will feel better and will want to preserve and enhance this feeling of well being. The desire to exercise will arise naturally. Something normal like riding a bike. Then perhaps some weight lifting. Yoga. Etc. You will start to feel grateful for this body. That’s an amazing milestone. Gratitude is a sign of energy returning. When it starts to bring pleasure to exercise, exercise. Listen to your body. It is your faithful companion and tireless servant. And in your gut you have the most steadfast and wise guide. Take care of these friends.
Until your energy returns you are not to take any meetings. When you feel healed and whole and overflowing with joy, you may start to take some of these meetings. But wait - something has changed. The world is full of opportunities still but they are all garbage. In fact, they have always been garbage (or to put it more correctly - misaligned with you) and how did you not see this?
The old self, lying dormant within you, takes this opportunity to fill you with another fear - the world is empty. Nothing has meaning. Well, no one said sabbaticals are easy. Luckily by this point you have enough energy to pay heed to that other voice in your head — the one that says ‘have faith. all is well’.
Your reaction to these people and these opportunities is a sign of your insight - that wise guide in your gut - finally getting through to you, now that your energy is not clouded by copings and cravings. It’s a tiny voice, but it grows in confidence and tenor with correct attention.
The right opportunity not presenting itself to you is the right opportunity for you to expand and explore. Travel, experience new things, start to develop aspects of yourself you consider under-developed - the chef, the musician, the poet, the player - whatever. Here we follow the Assasin’s Creed
And when you’re ready, there it is. The answer. It shines bright with the light of truth - it burns so bright that there is no doubt any more about the next stage of your life. Anything that appears before this
How to go about it
If you have the resources for it, avoid setting a time limit for the sabbatical. If you must, a year is usually more than enough. For the first few months you are to only follow your joy. Joy is the light that the Creator has placed inside us to guide us on our path. As Carlos Castaneda said -
all paths lead nowhere, so follow the path with the heart.
Whatever lessons we have to learn are best learned along the ‘path with the heart’. For too long we have ignored the call of joy, sacrificing it always to the exigent demands of the day, to the point where the voice of joy has become weak. The flame has died but it always persists as embers. Your first task is to coax this flame back to life. How? By listening to it and doing as it says.
The rising of joy should see you immersed in joyful activity. Enjoying flow states. Coming face to face with the wonder of creation again as you learn new things or appreciate one of the many elaborate constructions that the human mind has wrought. Immerse yourself in whatever brings you energy. Sleeping also counts. You are never to do anything you don’t feel like.
That’s actually all there is to it. Things will unfold along this path. It’s different for everyone and also having expectations is a sure way to kill the magic and mystery of what comes next. Remember, if you’re doing it right you will recharge with energy and start doing things. When you do start doing things, never ask whether they are useful or not, at least for a year. After a year you can start finding your way back to the real world. But for now, just do whatever brings you joy.
If you are in the middle of a sabbatical and want to talk about what you’re going through, reach out.
What to watch out for?
Extreme sloth beyond a few months is a sign that something else is amiss. Alcoholism or drug addiction is another. If you’re getting wasted every day, if your copings and cravings are destroying you, if this is all you do to the esclusion of everything else - you need to take active action and fix this.
The secret hack?
Want to accelerate everything? Meditate.
Through the ages the wise have all agreed on one thing - there is a treasure hidden behind meditation. The author can attest to this truth. The mind is a brilliant servant but a fickle master. Knowing it, becoming aware of it, being able to direct it - these are basic requirements for a happy life. And this rabbit hole goes deep. What you can achieve with the mind....it is limitless.
In fact your sabbatical can be deemed to be over when you can carry your meditative states into life, every day life and work life. Then the rest of your life is a sabbatical.