How I initiated my sabbatical

I have been back in Chicago for a week now, experiencing some of the worst reverse culture shock imaginable. It comes after spending the last five months on the road — with roughly a month a piece in Nepal, India, Thailand and China, followed by an epic road trip across the United States that included the West coast and Route 66. It is the type of journey that many dream about, but rarely put into action.

As much as I love fantasy, I am very much a girl of action.

Standing amidst the Himalayas of Nepal

Returning home after this solo journey has been … a challenge. I accept this and was anticipating this. In between catching up on sleep and stitching back together the fabric of my life in Chicago, I can’t help but reflect on this life experience. I do so with immense gratitude. I can’t believe I made it happen. Sifting through the thousands of photos, I have my proof.  But it still seems so unreal.

Meeting the Karen Long Neck tribe of Thailand

It’s hard to dwell on the struggles and challenges of returning to “normal life” when so many amazing memories and lessons continually echo in my mind. It seems that I cannot move forward until I shake off some of this travel dust and transform it into words on paper — hopefully something useful for spiritual seekers who stumble upon this blog.

Visiting a Buddhist monastery in India

The countless blogs that I consulted for advice and cheerleading, prior to setting forth on this journey, certainly lit the spark in me. I scoured websites for proof that something like this could materialize into reality. I devoured the advice and stories shared by those who made it happen. Now that I have joined this special tribe, it’s only fair that I share a small piece of why I did it and what I learned. If my words only touch one person, then it’s worth it. I feel compelled to pay it forward.

Hiking The Great Wall of China

So many people dream about doing something like I just did — taking off and traveling the world. Now that I am back and engaging with people, whenever I sprinkle this solo journey into conversation it gets a resounding, “Wow, I wish I could do that!” Maybe it’s as simple as meeting someone in the flesh who has done it. Perhaps that’s enough to inspire some people to chart a journey of their own. Perhaps it won’t be of the same magnitude, but it will trigger something deep down and motivate them to step out of their everyday into something new and scary and full of possibility. I do hope that my story inspires. After all, it’s not a novel, not a movie, not a fairytale — it really did happen, and I will enjoy motivating people with it for the rest of my life.

Completing a Thai massage course in Thailand

Subconsciously, I think the seed for me was planted when I saw the film “Titanic” with my sister as a teenager in Orland Park, Ill. (Go ahead and roll the eyes, but stick with me on this. It does not involve Leonardo DiCaprio.) At the very end of that movie there is a beautiful scene where the camera pans across many photographs of the heroine Rose. Those photographs showcase the exciting, courageous and wonderful things that she did with her life. Piloting an airplane. Having children. Traveling. That sort of thing. The camera pan ends with Rose, in her bed at the age of 100, with a contented smile across her face as she passes away.

Studying at a Hatha Yoga ashram in Nepal

I, too, want to pass from this life with a contented smile on my face, knowing that I squeezed the juice of life to its last drop, without any major regret hanging heavy over me. I am a yogini of the Tantra tradition: I indulge in life with heightened awareness. So when it came time to decide on whether I was ready to take the leap and leave the conventional for the … not so conventional … I asked myself this question over and over and over during countless meditations: Would I regret doing it? Or would I regret not doing it more?

The answer, now, is obvious.

Allow me to share the steps that got me to say “YES” to a career sabbatical:

  • Consider the life phase: For me, the timing was right. I am single. I have no significant other. I have no children. I have money in the bank. I am in a prime position to do whatever the hell I want. There was no excuse to not consider taking time to explore the world, as the heart was calling me to do. Parents with children might have a very difficult time doing this, as the responsibilities of parenthood tether them to more important things — a beautiful-exciting-rewarding adventure unto itself. And this is not something that I necessarily recommend doing upon just graduating school, as it is best to first attain some “real world” experience. Not mention, start saving money to finance the journey!
  • Vocalize the intention: When I vocalize a desire to achieve something and focus-focus-focus, things tend to happen. Not always. But most of the time. It might take years, it might take days. In this case, my intention to take a sabbatical overseas evolved over a decade (as did the saving of money, see below). However, I only began verbalizing it to close friends and family about nine months before taking the leap, just to put it out there and see what reaction it received. Those nine months were akin to my “pregnancy period,” as I prepared for the “birth” of this journey. Almost everyone with whom I spoke championed it. It was a huge relief to have the most important people in my life so supportive and understanding. Not everyone has that sort of cheerleading section, and I realize that. I am blessed with the people in my life. I took tremendous comfort in their support, and it helped me take the next step.
  • Assess the mental strength: After amassing the emotional support, I honed in on my mental strength. People outside of my close network would question my decision.  Could I handle the whispers and criticism? This took a little more time to ascertain. In the end, my heart took the lead on this — as I am far too rational a person to do something like this without my heart taking charge. This would be a journey of the heart, not the head. She would be my shield when outside criticism would start messing with my head.
  • Assess the finances: Here’s the piece about which I believe most are curious. How did I pay for five months of traveling without a job during this period? Answer: I saved up and planned for this for years, most of that time unknowingly. Somehow I sensed that this was coming, even if I wasn’t completely aware of its possibility throughout my twenties and early thirties. Since the age of 23 or 24, I had been socking away money into an account that I affectionately called “My Unborn Child’s College Savings Fund.” (Yep, you read that right. Full permission to roll the eyes here, but those of you who know me, know that I am a planner with a capital “P.”) I saved this money via auto-withdrawal on a bi-weekly basis, so that I didn’t even have to think about it. Each year I would increase that auto-withdrawal amount. Fast-forward ten years later: With no children to send off to college anytime soon, I decided to put that money to more immediate use. The savings would further my own education — an education that, when/if I am to have children someday, will certainly benefit my offspring in ways that a classroom or school book never could.  (That is my rationale to prevent feeling selfish or guilty, anyhow.) I also picked countries where the cost of living is cheap, i.e. Nepal, India and Thailand. My apartment in India was $11 per night, in Thailand it was $14 per night.  And those prices were posh by those countries’ standards.
  • Have a goal: My time needed to have purpose. Rather than view it as an “escape,” what would I gain from being away? The thread that strung together my travels was this: expand my yoga education. I received invitations to study with master teachers in Nepal and India, and then continued my education in Thailand and China with Thai massage school and an exploration of Chinese medicine and culture, respectively. While each destination had a piece of yoga education attached to it, the mantra for the entire journey was this: Stay present. I spent five months practicing yoga off the mat in places that challenged me in ways that Chicago never could.
  • Let go: Once I knew that I had the emotional, mental and financial fortitude to forge ahead, it was time to cut some chords. First, I had to let go of my home — at least, for the time that I’d be away. I (thankfully) found tenants to pay my mortgage for most of the time that I’d be away. Second, I had to let go of my job. I spent a week practicing how I would let my employer know that I was resigning. Unfortunately, it all went to shit when I was on the phone actually doing it. It morphed into a tear-soaked conversation that proved immensely difficult. But, it was done. No turning back. Here’s the beautiful thing, however: In the moment that I hung up the phone after putting in my resignation, I felt like a balloon lifting up into the sky. That’s when I knew that I had made the right choice. There wasn’t any doubt, just … elation over the possibilities.
  • Positioning it to the public: I decided to call it a “career sabbatical” because it is a more polished and respectable euphemism for “pause” or “break” or “stopping the hamster wheel of life to do something different.” It’s the sort of freedom that I craved in order to pursue a life education beyond my 9-to-5. I left a high-paying, high-prestige job to seize this opportunity and wanted to make sure it “made sense” to those who might raise an eyebrow, as I wasn’t departing because I hated my life.  Far from it. I just wanted to experience something more. And to those who still don’t get it: No worries. Perhaps you will in time.
I’m definitely over-simplifying my process. Consider this a very generic outline of an otherwise pretty turbulent decision-making process that culminated in the happiest time of my life. (Although being eight years old comes a pretty close second.)

Getting “washed” by an elephant in Nepal

I’m still processing and distilling what I learned during this time. It warrants its own blog post, and it cannot be rushed. Stay tuned for that reflection. In the meantime, I’ll end with this final thought: To those of you who dream about doing something similar, I champion you. Start figuring out how you can make it a reality. You stumbled upon this blog for a reason. Someone once told me that dreams are goals without plans. So true. It’s fun to dream, but it’s even more fun to live out those dreams. Even if living them out comes years and years and years from now. So why not start laying that foundation now? I feel like I squeezed a dozen lifetimes into the span of five months. Considering everything that I experienced during that time —  staying present to each moment at hand — I am a much better, much more aware person for it.

Stopping to smell the roses (literally) along the U.S. West coast drive

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