I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
I just completed a five-day sabbatical, and found it so worthwhile and invaluable that I wanted to share how to pull one off without too much drama. It was the first of two to three such sabbaticals that I have planned to take each year—representing a new precept to myself to nourish my life, work, soul and creativity.
First of all, a confession and disclosure: my husband Wayne, author of the best-selling book Sabbath, is of course, Mr. Sabbatical. He’s full of wisdom regarding the essential importance of taking sabbaticals, and exactly how to live inside one once you take the plunge and do it. So admittedly, I had not only his full support, but also his experienced insights to take with me into my five days. However, even with Sabbath as part of our household lexicon, I still found it challenging to give myself permission to have one. And so, yes, it took me about five years after I first heard of the concept to finally commit to them as a regular feature in my life. Ok, I’m a slow learner.
But now that I’ve had my first, I’m hooked. And wanted to share some ideas on how to make sure they become a regular feature in your life too. Why take a sabbatical? Because it makes you wiser, stronger, more courageous, clearer, smarter, more present, and more in touch with your authentic rhythms, instincts and impulses. This leads to more joy, peace, creativity and productivity. Aren’t those good enough reasons?
First of all, don’t make the mistake I made over the last five years and kid yourself you’re taking a sabbatical, when all that’s really happening is everyone in the household has gone out of town. The trouble is that being at home leaves you vulnerable to all sorts of distractions and responsibilities—watering the plants, cleaning house, tidying up that closet, finally. While this kind of solitude is nourishing, it is not a sabbatical.
Secondly, don’t make the mistake of thinking a sabbatical is some kind of grand institution whereupon you need twelve months off, sanctioned by a grant, a house on the beach, laptop under arm to write your first novel.
Sabbaticals can be all shapes and sizes…from one day to five days to a week or longer. What makes them happen, is you make them easy. And what makes them potent, is you follow a few basic guidelines. Here are a few tips to help you pull off both:
Figure out a realistic time frame— for me, I wanted to be able to do two or three each year to regularly ‘inform’ my life, so I needed to keep my sabbaticals brief enough to fit into my busy schedule and commitments, but long enough to feel like I could go deeply into my process. I settled on four to five days each, two to three times a year. I call these pocket-sabbaticals. This suited me much better than one huge month off, that would have been practically, if not completely, impossible.
Get out of your house, and if you can, get out of your town—it doesn’t have to be far, but it’s better if you are away from your usual haunts. Distraction of familiarity and habit will prevent you from going deep into your process of self-discovery. I found my perfect place a two-hour drive away, into the mountains.
Plan to take a technology diet—as one your sabbatical guidelines. Technology invades your space and your psyche. One minute you’re looking up an interesting website, and the next thing you know, someone’s pinged you on Facebook.
Find a place that gives you solitude—ideally find a place that does not have Internet or cell reception so you will not be tempted. My favorite set up was a very inexpensive cabin in the woods that was a 10-minute drive from any cell reception or Internet.
Figure out a realistic cost—this does not have to be an expensive venture. In fact it can even save you from your usual weekly expenses. Friends may be out of town for a week and want a house-sitter. Camping is awesome for those so inclined. There are very inexpensive accommodations once you take away the need for wireless Internet.
Set it up in advance so that you will not be interrupted—warn colleagues, family members and friends that you will be away and will not be available. Put an auto-responder on your email. Put a message on your cell phone. Set up an ‘in case of emergency’ plan with the support of a helpful ‘front guy or gal’ to field messages. Make sure you define clearly what an ‘emergency’ really is for yourself (think exposed jugular). In my case, I had any urgent matters forwarded to my husband. And he was the only one who could contact me for real emergencies.
Make the structure work for you— sometimes the best-made plans can have a few kinks in them. By the time my sabbatical time rolled around, it was just at the time my oldest was hearing back about college acceptances and needed my company; something I did not anticipate. Rather than cancel my sabbatical, I created a 30 minute window each day from 4:30 – 5 pm, whereby I would drive the 10 minutes for Internet access, download emails and listen to phone messages, and deal with any urgent and important matters. Again, I had to be very clear inside myself about what was ‘urgent’ and what could wait.
Plan a post retreat ‘make up work’ day— this saved me when I was worried about the onslaught of work that might be awaiting me post sabbatical, and prevented me from dealing with work during sabbatical time. I tacked on an extra ‘day off’ to my sabbatical for this purpose, which allowed me to catch up on emails and the like, before hitting the pavement of usual work again. I did not tell people I was ‘back at work’ again until the following day.
Remove the need for errands—Pocket-sabbaticals are great for this because you can easily purchase a week’s worth of food and supplies, and download any books and music you might want or need in advance. Errands are time and energy vampires.
Know what to bring—this is the fun part. Anything goes. I brought journals, art supplies, books, my dog (he’s a great hiking partner, plus, I liked the extra company in a remote cabin in the woods!), music, poetry, hiking boots, delicious food, movies, and a box of old family letters.
Know what not to bring—just as important. Work, catch up work, bills, your productivity, an alarm clock, or any kind of clock for that matter, your ambitions about finally ‘getting healthy’ or ‘losing weight’, making those phone calls to out of town friends, or becoming a vegan.
OK, now you are on sabbatical, now what:
At first it’s hard—Expect the first part of your sabbatical to feel like a bit of a hell realm, or you might just feel really exhausted and want to sleep all day (please do it). Wayne and I call this the ‘hands across the threshold’ phase because its the phenomenon where you wish you weren’t doing this stupid thing or find reasons to sabotage yourself. And it really seems, based on our own experience and in observing others’, that it is usually about 15 to 20% of one’s initial time. If you take three days off, expect about a half-day of drama. If you take a month, expect almost a week. Seems like some kind of sabbatical physics.
You may notice you are more vulnerable and tender, or perhaps a kind of incessant worry and anxiety sets in, or the boredom becomes unbearable, or some drama from the outside world sets you off (for me it was all of those). Whatever it is, know that it is normal, and that it will pass and will reveal a delightful new world that only this kind of solitude can provide.
Follow the thread—this is by far the best advice I’ve received from Wayne about sabbaticals. Because, after all, one wants to know what to do on sabbatical! What does follow the thread mean? Simply allow your heart and your whimsy to take you from moment to moment. Feel like napping? Do it. Diving into a novel? Cool! Taking a walk? Yes. Gazing out the window for an hour. Why not? Dancing? Yes! Trying your hand at a haiku (it’s 5-7-5 by the way)? Of course.
Many take a much more austere view of sabbatical time, forcing themselves into intense yoga poses, hours of meditation, fasting, eating tofu, or—God forbid—doing the Master Cleanse. I believe that if you create such a tight environment, you will dread your sabbatical and will therefore either sabotage it, or never take it. The point being that you want to create a space and time that feels nourishing, safe, and delightful. Yet, you want to protect it from distraction and anything that might sabotage it in any way. This takes a kind of radical personal honesty with yourself about where you draw your lines.
So much wisdom and learning happen in the allowance of delight, wonder, and play. This is different than distraction (such as shopping, web surfing and generally engaging with the world), it is allowing the authentic rhythm of your heart’s knowing take you from place to place. Yes, it will feel indulgent, it will feel rich, and it will nourish you. And without even realizing it, you will descend into your own inner knowing and discovery in all kinds of unexpected ways that you could never have imagined.
Be open to signs, symbols, dreams and synchronicity—when you say ‘yes’ to your inner life, your inner life responds…even externally. Oh yeah.
Keep a journal for sabbatical insights— you may have all sorts of untapped wisdom or discoveries or questions show up that you’ll want to remember and harvest for your daily life. It doesn’t have to be a written journal, collage- or art-journals are wonderful too. For fun ideas about this, see all the images here, or Google ‘art journals’.
And what about when it’s over?
Plan for a gentle re-entry—when you emerge you will feel more, sense more, be more in tuned with yourself than when you went in, and so you need to allow for a re-entry that will support your new found presence and quiet. A ‘post sabbatical catch up day’ can help with that, but resist the temptation to schedule lots of appointments where you might see lots of people right away. Take it slowly. Another good reason to keep it slow for a few days is because many essential post-retreat insights continue to trickle through. Don’t get yourself so busy that you don’t have space and time to notice them.
I’m looking forward to my next sabbatical in about four months. Sabbaticals make great gifts too. You can give one to a friend, spouse, or family member by supporting them to carve out the time, and setting up the location and arrangements. Our families and workplaces can become a place where the pocket-sabbatical becomes part of the culture. More importantly, if we become allies for one another in the quest to build sabbaticals into our modern culture, we allow for more humanity and wisdom to push through the pavement of business as usual.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.