By many measures, my life in New York City was a good life. I was a senior executive at a major consumer products company, I lived in a comfortable apartment facing Central Park, and I spent the weekends in museums, theatres and nightclubs. Except for the restlessness that simmered underneath, all the time.
My discontent erupted one night, after a friend’s birthday celebrations at a typically pretentious Manhattan restaurant. As always, I had eaten too much, drunk too much, spent too much — and talked too little about things that truly mattered to me. I couldn’t do it any more. My mother had passed away six months earlier and although I’d told myself that I was mature enough to deal with the grief, I began to realise that her death had made me fundamentally question the predictable rhythms of life — birth, marriage, kids, career, ageing and death. I’d been reading the Upanishads and Buddhist scriptures from a lifelong interest in Eastern mysticism, but in my everyday life, I knew I was living the exact opposite of its centuries-old philosophy of detachment.
My then-girlfriend, now-wife, Kerry, was struggling with the same dilemma, so that evening, outside the restaurant, we decided we would leave everything we knew behind for a year, and strike out on a creative and spiritual sabbatical in order to find the answers we were looking for.
Within a few months of making the decision, we went from Europe to India by road. Along the way, we lived as Buddhist monks in a Scottish monastery, spent weeks in silent meditation in Italy, wrote our books in an artist retreat in Portugal, learned yoga at an ashram in India and hiked through the Himalayas. Everything we know about living well today, we learned on that journey. The ‘meaning of life’ that we sought so much, came to us in bits and bobs.
Here are some:
Plan to be surprised
Both Kerry and I felt that our life in New York had become too privileged for our liking, so on our journey from Europe to India, we made a commitment to travel by the cheapest available mode of transport and stay exclusively in hostels. As a result, there were many uncomfortable experiences from sleeping outside a train station in Bulgaria to walking 50 kilometres when the buses went on strike in rural Italy and sleeping in a six-by-ten room with nine snoring men at an ashram in South India for a month. All painful and inconvenient then, but in retrospect, the ones we remember most fondly. The journey became a metaphor: We strive for comfort and predictability but it’s the times we consciously disrupt stasis and push ourselves into the unknown that truly make for enduring memories.
Comrades make the journey less lonely
For years, I’d been feeling a rising sense of alienation from my friends and family back home. I couldn’t relate to people’s well-meaning discussions about favourite restaurants, their kids’ schooling, cruise vacations and such. But within a few days of meeting fellow backpackers — a motley bunch, from a Spanish couple who were cycling from Portugal to India, to a bus driver from Alaska who was learning yoga in Madurai, to a Romanian Krishna-bhakt in Greece — I felt more understood than I had by people I had known all my life. It sunk in then how much the company of like-minded people, and the strength of their convictions, help anchor your own.
Packing light makes leaping easier
The things we own start owning us. Not just the material stuff like houses and cars; even noble desires like giving our kids the best education can become baggage that weighs us down to our unsatisfying environments. On the road, we literally packed light — a backpack each, with just one pair of clothes for each season. We left behind our smartphones, so that we wouldn’t be pulled into the whirlpool of news, email or social media. A big change for me especially was letting go of the need to plan meticulously and set a concrete agenda for each day. We followed the road, and the right thing to do emerged spontaneously from within us. After finishing a 10-day Vipassana course in Italy, for example, we were brimming with book ideas, so instead of travelling more, we just took a cheap hotel room and started writing there for a few weeks. It was incredibly liberating: I’d never felt lighter and more creative and did my best writing in this period.
Settle for less
Both Kerry and I returned from the sabbatical 20 pounds lighter, with straighter spines and more core strength than before. Living in yoga ashrams and meditation retreats for months had exposed our bodies to a simple plant-based diet. We weren’t constantly stooping to check our phones or do array formulas on Excel. And our bodies responded.
Back in Manhattan, we’re surrounded by stimulation again, and despite our best efforts, we’re sucked into more of it than we want. But what has shifted is our awareness of the cost of our consumption - and that makes us just a tad more deliberate about our choices. I make sure now that my phone stays outside the bedroom when I’m sleeping. I meditate before bed and first thing when I wake up. My diet is still predominantly plant-based and I drink much less than before. None of these match the austerity of our sabbatical, but I feel calmer and more centred through the chaos.
Find what you love; let it consume you
During our year ‘off’, I found myself mostly ‘on’, immersed in whatever I would do to the point where I’d become a mere medium for the work. In giving all of myself to learning meditation, doing a yoga teacher’s training course or writing a novel, I was infinitely more satisfied than lounging at a beach or seeing a storied castle as a passive observer. Since coming back, I’ve started to see my corporate job as a tool to express my full potential as a person rather than an activity to get material rewards from and that has made it a fulfilling, almost spiritual endeavour.
Evolution, then involution
After our sabbatical, I’ve become more and more of a believer of the Yoga Sutras’ [the founding principles of Ashtanga yoga] ethos that man’s purpose is first evolution, then involution. We must push ourselves to stretch, grow and experience the world; then detach from it. Our journey followed this pattern. In the beginning, we were incredibly excited to be on the road — meeting strangers, swapping travel stories, discovering new places and hiking tough trails. As the months progressed, we went more and more inward. Sitting in silence became more rewarding than seeing cathedrals and historic villages. Meditation replaced conversation.
Back home, we aren’t fully out of the rat race but a new, almost imperceptible internal radar steers us back to silence whenever we go particularly off-track. The results have been magical. In the course of a year, we got married, had a baby, I got my first worldwide book deal, then my first C-level job, and Kerry also made rapid strides in her career — none of which we could have planned for before because we would have been too distracted running around in banal circles we’d drawn for ourselves. If you’ve got a half-packed bag at the back of your closet, I’d suggest you take it out now.
Karan Bajaj’s novel The Seeker (Penguin Random House India), is out now
You may also want to read: Is sleep deprivation getting to you?