What can be the value of taking a long-term sabbatical, a long-term break? What can be the benefits and what are potential challenges? After having been on a sabbatical multiple times, of which the longest lasted for almost three years, I consider myself eligible to answer these questions.
Note that these are my reflections and that these benefits and challenges don't have to be common nor applicable to all sabbaticals by definitions or all people who're on a sabbatical or have experiences which being on a sabbatical. Nonetheless these are potential benefits and challenges of a long-term sabbatical.
Origins of sabbatical
First, let's have a look at the origins of the word sabbatical.
The word 'sabbatical' is etymologically linked to 'Sabbath', which is defined as:
1a : the seventh day of the week observed from Friday evening to Saturday evening as a day of rest and worship by Jews and some Christiansb : Sunday observed among Christians as a day of rest and worship
2: a time of rest
Interestingly, the weekly day of rest (the Sabbath) changed from Saturday to Sunday during the Reformation, in Christian based societies that is. This change was driven by Christians' celebration of Jesus's resurrection on the first day of the week, which is appointed to Sunday. This implies that during the Reformation the state of activity (symbolically linked to the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus in action opposed to being at rest) became glorified and revered more highly than the state of being at rest (symbolically linked to Jesus being at rest). Being at work became revered. One of the reformers, John Calvin, held work ethic and working with diligence in high esteem and is of significant in Calvinist ethic and thought.
The change of the Sabbath-day from Saturday to Sunday symbolically represents a change of values in which it became higher valued to be active rather than being at rest. The implication is that working is better than relaxing, doing nothing is worse than working, taking a step back is frowned upon, in the prevalent Calvinist thought. A state of activity from then on was regarded superior to a state of rest.
Why is this all relevant? Read on to find out...
A contemplating self-reflecting journey
A sabbatical is not merely a time of rest to me, because it can rather be a turbulent period with a lot of changes, activity or movement. Albeit that these changes and movements are not always externalize-able nor possible to objectify from the outside, which may lead to a false impression that nothing changes. I regard a sabbatical as a journey into the unknown without a predetermined or defined goal to be reached. A sabbatical as a contemplating self-reflecting journey. The goal is to reach a state of being, rather than reaching or aiming for a specific form or expression. A sabbatical as a means to reach a state of readiness. Readiness for the next leap, whatever that may be and form it might take. The form is considered inferior to the state of being, a dissent from Calvinist thought.
When I'm occupied with customary work, I don't have much bandwidth left for contemplation, reflection and deeper exploration of life, let alone for a journey into the unknown. Withdrawing from customary work, routines or other regularly returning and time-consuming activities, create larger bandwidth. This larger bandwidth allows for new and other thoughts and ideas to arise; it allows me to get inspired more deeply. There will be space to contemplate life at large (existential questions), reflection, to find out what are the inner motivations and drives, to explore the relation between the seemingly objective world and the inner world, and, yes, to know myself (or gain a deeper understanding of knowing myself). That is, when this larger bandwidth isn't immediately allocated to distractions or activities which are drawing my attention outwardly instead of the opposite direction. Staying busy instead of taking a step back out of a busy schedule and be at rest.
It is quite common to take a extended period of leave and use this time as a long vacation, enjoying the time off and enjoying leisure activities. Nothing wrong with that, it all depends on my intention. If I just want to press the pause-button, go on a long holiday, and press the resume/play-button when back from holiday, this is a great strategy. When not pursuing activities, pleasures and enjoyments continuously, space arises for other and deeper questions and understanding. When experiencing life as a continuous break or vacation, what would you do?
For me, good questions to ask during a sabbatical especially (but always in general): are the things I'm repeatedly doing and thinking about leading to the bigger picture, dream or vision I've in mind? When my inner voice affirms this, great! If not, I'd better make some positive changes. I mentioned 'inner voice', because my rational mind tends to quickly affirm anyway, regardless of what is the established pattern of thought and action. My rational mind is not a big fan on self-reflection and making changes to the established patter - hence I try listening to my deeper inner voice for an answer to such questions.
What benefits have I gained, or which fruits have I reaped from long-term (6 months - 3 years) sabbaticals? Probably more than I can express in words. But the following at least attempts describing some major aspects.
When withdrawing from customary work, routines or other regularly returning and time-consuming activities there's less external stimulation coming in. Less external stimulation means less external triggers motivating my inner/outer actions. Initially that can result in restlessness - as a state of rest is so unusual nowadays. When not substituting the potential initial restlessness with all sorts of activities, the inner ears tends to develop and becomes attuned to the inner voice, resulting in internal stimulation or triggers which drives my actions.
With a more developed inner ear comes a stronger alignment with my essential being, past personality. And that stronger alignment is very valuable. With stronger alignment all actions become more meaningful. A deeper sense of fulfillment and meaning of life arises from that.
The opportunity arises to wonder, when there's not much external stimulation motivating my thought, speech or actions. A state of wonder allows for an open view regarding the outside world. At times the outside world doesn't seem that much outside, but seems more like a coherent whole with the personal inside world. This leads to the phenomenon of synchronicity, when the apparent boundaries between the inner and outer world are fading.
In a state of wonder, trust develops. Trust in something deeper in life, the presence of a benevolent carrier motivating things which appears in my life. A trust in the inherent goodness of life. For me, this trust develops during a sabbatical. This developing trust leads to the courage to listen and follow my inner drives regardless of seemingly outer forces or fear. Still work in progress though!
A sabbatical is a perfect opportunity to ponder and wonder about the most beautiful world I can imagine to live in, leading to a vision or dream. There's time to contemplate what my role in that world might be and what would be a symbolical and transitional move to make towards realizing that dream.
A sabbatical leads to big thinking, of which there seems no limit. Unhindered of limitations, dogma's and conditions I let my mind wander into the unknown and not yet imagined - letting go of reins.
With enhanced vistas, all actions become more meaningful. They become more meaningful because of the realized vision they might lead up to, the vision or big dream to realize and live in the here and now.
Stronger ability of discernment and deeper levels of mindfulness
My intention and angle of approach regarding a sabbatical makes all the difference with the potential benefits and challenges of a sabbatical, and with all I'm writing in this post. My intention is quite vast, and covers embodying trust in the unknown, reaching ever higher levels of self-expression, gaining deeper levels of understanding of my being and life at large, dream bigger dreams, vivify conceptual ideas and reaching a state of readiness for the next leap.
That being said, one of the major benefits of "going on sabbaticals" I can point out is that my ability to discern has improved significantly. The ability to discern what is beneficial or malign, what is good or bad, what is false or true. And not per se objectively true or false, but subjectively. Discernment is not equal to the ability to rationalize, to divide in parts. Discernment is the quality to distinguish and I consider this highly valuable when plotting my course in life.
Discernment is one of the many qualities in the sphere of mindfulness, of which I'm considering myself a practitioner. With all the benefits and challenges which arise during my sabbaticals, I definitely found that my levels of being mindful have deepened. Among others, knowing and seeing what leads to what, what is happening in the here and now, where is this leading to, etc. I found that practicing mindfulness isn't a separate mode-of-being or practice anymore, but that practicing mindfulness have become more intrinsically interwoven with daily life, thanks to being on sabbaticals.
A sabbatical is great and I enthusiastically recommend taking a sabbatical once or more than once in your lifetime. It can do wonders. Albeit it isn't always easy. From the outside it may seem nothing much is going on, but on the inside a lot might be going on. From the outside it might seem like one continuous vacation, which it just might be but doesn't have to be. A few challenges I've experienced...
At rest - but not really
To illustrate this challenge, I'll describe a situation which might sound familiar to you: you have a day off and intent to just relax, do nothing - to leisurely enjoy reading a book, watching a movie, playing a game. And then there's that voice saying: "shouldn't you be doing something else?", "how is doing this productive?", "what is the benefit of this?", "I'd better do something useful", etc. This is a bit like being on the dark playground as described by Tim Urban, albeit the difference that on this day off you have the intention of not doing anything productive anyway. A funny read/watch, but stay focused on one thing at a time!
I described this - maybe familiair - situation to refer to the potential feeling or state of being at rest, but not really feeling at ease or relaxed.
Sometimes the voice is right and I really should do something else and I know it. This is in the situation that I've been on a holiday-mode for too long in one stretch according to my inner critique (who is sometimes just and right, but who can also be a pain and nuisance), being distracted for too long to my liking. And sometimes those two contradict: doing things which are enjoyable in the moment but which are not leading towards realizing my dream, and doing things which are not that enjoyable in the moment, but which are leading towards realizing my dream. I.e. taking symbolical steps towards it, opposed to taking enjoyable steps or actions which are not symbolically leading towards it. And only I can discern those two, because outwardly viewed there might sometimes not be any difference. This is because of subjective meaning linked to the action, the symbolism of the action opposed to literal interpretation of the action performed. Meaning is subjective and therefore can't be determined from outside, but only from inside.
Inner/outer pressure to be active
This is linked to the aforementioned challenge, but is separate from it. This challenge addresses the awareness of the importance of developing the ability to discern personal/individual thoughts and collective/subconscious thoughts. With personal thoughts I refer to thoughts of which I consciously know the origin to a high degree. With collective/subconscious thoughts I refer to the thoughts (resulting in tendencies of behavior) of which I'm not consciously aware or of which I don't know the origin of. Those subconscious thoughts are related to previously accepted statements/views/dogma's of which I'm not aware consciously. And the latter ones are the tricky ones...
The aforementioned inner critique is sometimes right, but definitely not always. I found that the inner critique is deeply entwined with (cultural) established views of the past and present, i.e. previously accepted statements or more general: information. These consensus views are expressed in how we - as society, affected by these established views - think, talk, act and judge. Previously accepted ethics - even though I or you didn't accept them personally - are still playing out and are influencing us, be it in varying levels of transparency and covertness.
And here is were the previously mentioned Calvinist ethics (e.g. "working is better than relaxing") is of significance. The sociologist Max Weber studied the interaction between various religious ideas and economic behavior:
"Weber showed that certain types of Protestantism—notably Calvinism—were supportive of rational pursuit of economic gain and worldly activities dedicated to it, seeing them as endowed with moral and spiritual significance. Weber argued that there were many reasons to look for the origins of modern capitalism in the religious ideas of the Reformation. In particular, the Protestant ethic (or more specifically, Calvinist ethic) motivated the believers to work hard, be successful in business and reinvest their profits in further development rather than frivolous pleasures. The notion of calling meant that each individual had to take action as an indication of their salvation; just being a member of the Church was not enough." (source, boldness added)
The Calvinist ethic is still quite significant in our society, at least that's what I conclude when observing thoughts arising within me (from the subconscious) and the general attitude towards work in general. There's a certain pressure coming from within or outside (societal environment) to transition from a state of rest to a state of being active. And this tends to spoil the state of really being at rest, as rest is not as auspicious as activity/work.
The phrase being at work refers to a specific location (work - office, school, etc.) and activity - "all is well", no sounding alarms. The phrase being at rest is indicating a lack of activity and is not referring to a specific location - sound the alarm! (something is not right - what's wrong?) A state of being at work is safe and normal, but a state of being at rest sounds the alarms. Being at work is graspable, defined. Being at rest is not graspable and undefined. Our rational processes prefer a state of activity and things to be designated, to be allocated, rationed. The nature of rational processes is one of activity and division (diving the whole into rations, parts, i.e. rationalization). Our rational mind tends to become uncomfortable when things are undefined or at ease - as rationalization can't built upon that. Which leads to the tendency of the rational mind to be uncomfortable when aiming for a state of rest.
This leads to the challenge to:
1) train the rational mind to be comfortable in a state of rest
2) discern mental unrest originating from subconscious and societal patterns, thoughts and ethics - i.e. previously accepted information - with mental unrest originating from a just inner critique (i.e. "I should be doing something else and I know it")
3) integrating personal intention into actions with realizing the big dream in mind, without loosing a state of rest
4) balancing it all
Ideas, ideas, ideas...
When taking time off, when being in a state of rest, a multitude of ideas come to mind. They can be related to another, or be completely unrelated. Ideas can be great and ideas can be an appealing distraction. Ideas can be very appealing and tempting to follow, and can be very short lived. Like a dog running after every interesting toy, which quickly becomes less interesting after having spent some time with it.
Ideas can be like a Siren - luring me with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on rocks. Rocks without fertile ground. Ideas can be uplifting and leading to an enthusiastic state of being - which feels great! Some of those ideas are genuinely worthwhile to invest my time in, as they are aligned with the vision I have in mind. And some of those ideas are appealing but less worthwhile to invest my time in, as they are distractions from the path and maligned with the vision I have in mind. Sometimes the latter will only become obvious after spending some time in the frequency of that specific idea. The ability to be able to discern is very welcome and crucial! Discernment is crucial to prevent from running in circles, like a dog pursuing its tail, and to know which idea is aligned with my being and which idea is a deviation or distraction from the path I know I should be walking but don't deel like doing it.
Following distracting ideas can be tempting as they prevent encountering uncomfortable feelings (e.g. fear, insecurity), which are on the path of doing something personally meaningful.
Great questions to ask myself are: is this idea something which fulfills me, is this idea worthy of my full attention and time? Again, I try listening to the response of my inner voice, instead of my rational mind - which is not the best to listen to for guidance.
Suffice to say, I'm quite a enthousiast when it comes to the matter of going on sabbaticals. Not only can I recommend going on a sabbatical highly, I personally find it invaluable to get a better alignment with my being, the environment and to be able to become truly agile myself.