Retrospective of a Midlife Sabbatical

I took a 4-month sabbatical this summer, Summer of Sunita, and now it’s autumn, and I’m back to working life.

What did I learn?

I took this time off because I was burnt out and tired from working in a way that felt out of integrity with my values. I knew from the past that there was a price to pay if I kept working in a way that compromised my well-being. As I approached fifty, I learned that mental health is the most valuable thing because, without it, there is no health and ability to care for myself and my loved ones.

So I took time off to restore wellness, and it gave me space to reflect on many things, and these questions came to the top of my mind:

  • How do I sustain a feeling of inner peace when conflict and anger are so easy to get swept up in?
  • What do I want to do with my time here on Earth – whether it’s one year or many decades ahead of me?
  • Who am I, and how do I fit into this mysterious and miraculous flow of life?

I wondered about these things, and they fueled me to use this added free time and finish a memoir on surviving a toxic tech career. The inspiration for this book was to share a story of mental health – the loss and recovery of it from a woman’s perspective in the technology sector. I never intended to expose my deepest inner thoughts about this journey in a memoir, but as I navigated tough decisions about going to HR or taking a medical leave, I looked for and didn’t find any stories that had a voice like mine. As Toni Morrison once wrote, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Writing a book was an easy thing to start. But, I discovered that finishing it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It would have been easy to put this project on the back burner with summer approaching, but I went to my desk every day to get it done. Without emails, meetings, and work stress I had focus. With daily meditation, clarity came on how to re-order the contents, what to cut, where to add more detail, and how to end it. It was like I created a writing retreat in a corner of my home and the universe showed up to help me co-author the book. The ending that emerged showed me how the overcoming of traumatic work helped me become more whole. It was satisfying to see it come together.

Wow! What a weight lifted off me as I finished this project and looked forward to having fun and freedom the rest of the summer as the landscape in Ontario came alive, and the temperatures climbed.

And aha! Just like that, crappy stuff started happening. Not terrible. Just crappy. And the inner peace that I had basked in started to have holes punched through it. I got Covid two days after my birthday, canceling a party my family had lovingly planned. We were all disappointed, and it was so weird to be sick with balloons everywhere. This, in turn, canceled the trips I had planned. And then, following the lessons in speaking up and being in my integrity which I had just written about, I found out that I offended some people who got very angry with me. Then a home renovation costed thousands more than expected due to broken promises, which added financial pressure with us just having one income.

It seemed like Life was giving me a test — to say: Have you learned anything about compassion for self and others? Here are some pop quizzes!

Thanks to mindfulness, I could watch myself become unbalanced with stress, resentment, anger, and hurt. Thankfully I remembered the tools I had just literally written about. I meditated. I gave myself compassion. I gave the people angry with me compassion. I returned to inner peace every time I felt an inner storm arise. For the first time in fifty years, I could truly feel strong emotions like anger and displeasure of others without it suffocating compassion and love. There was no numbing out, pushing away, or hiding. It’s like I turned fully into unpleasant feelings and found a very sacred transformation to peace. There is no doubt in my mind I’m more skilled at finding peace now than I’ve ever been.

So going back to my three questions. I had my answers:

How do I sustain a feeling of inner peace when conflict and anger are so easy to get swept up in?
>>> Get still. Suppress nothing. Go back to compassion meditation tools.

What do I want to do with my time here on Earth – whether it’s one year or many decades ahead of me?
>>> Listen to each moment and the right response will come up – to be fierce, to be brave, to be yielding. Life always has a call to action, but you must listen to hear it over the stories the mind likes to make up. To miss these moments because of not being mindful is to miss out on life.

Who am I, and how do I fit into this mysterious and miraculous flow of life?
>>> I am a part of it always. If I can see through the illusion I’ll realize there is no ‘other’. There is only unity. And in that realization, all feelings that are not peaceful are surrendered.

I wanted this time off to be about wellness and rest. I knew I needed to take care of myself. On a spiritual level, I felt I handled the unpleasant events of the summer without going back to the people-pleasing, self-critical ways of the past. On a physical and mental level, I also ‘filled my cup’ with many beautiful experiences that I’m grateful for.

  1. I slept more than ever, an unbroken 7-8 hours many nights.
  2. I made my goal to focus on physical wellness. I walked Harvey the Doodle and exercised daily with Apple Fitness+. I joined a women’s boxing boot camp, which helped me build endurance and strength. The coaches and women at Ajax Boxing Club are the best.
  3. I meditated daily, and one day at an Airbnb, a stray cat joined me. She climbed onto my lap and stayed there until I stopped meditating. I think she came to remind me that we are all one flow of life.
  4. I worked through my fear of flying in a small plane and flew with my pilot husband to Pelee Island, which requires flying over the waters of Lake Erie. It was stunning, and I meditated a lot on this flight to stay calm. This photo shows us leaving — the sun is rising just beyond the northern tip of the island as we circle around for one last view.
  5. I made my goal to eat more vegetarian meals and loved making my own zucchini noodles. I just used my vegetable peeler to make zucchini ribbons which I sauteed with a bit of olive oil and garlic and then topped with pasta sauce and parmesan. Yum!
  6. I had time to connect with people in my community. I had coffee with a stranger who reached out on LinkedIn and wanted to chat, and we had so much in common. After years of being neighbours, I spent time with the women who lived beside me and got to know them more. I even learned to bake a family plum cake recipe. I went to the Danforth, Fairview Mall, and the Shops at Don Mills to meet with friends without rushing back to the office. This summer felt full of friendship and warmth because I had time to extend and deepen my social circle.

Reflecting back, I can see that this time off was a way to teach me how to live the rest of my life with more spiritual, physical, and mental wellness. I loved having this time to finish my book and refresh my learnings on inner wisdom, peace, and compassion.

And after just a few weeks of work, I know I need all those skills because this ‘five days of working /two days off’ routine is harsher than I remembered. It’s easy to drop the ball on exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, finding quality time with people, and keeping stress in check. But I am doing much better at those things because of the good habits I was able to strengthen during the summer.