Karan Bajaj took a sabbatical for a stay at an ashram in India for six months. Image Credit: Courtesy of Karan Bajaj

I’d read that working 10,000 hours at my writing would make me exceptional.

So I put in more than that. For five years, I wrote my novel for a couple of hours after work each day and most of the weekend.

Then, I heard that every great writer is a great reader.

So I read every classic, every successful contemporary novel and every book on writing I could lay my hands on.

Yet the hint of transcendence I was seeking in my fiction eluded me. The novel I was working on felt flat and workmanlike. I had to accept that I wasn’t meant to be a successful writer, so I abandoned two full versions of the manuscript I’d written over five years and redoubled my focus on my corporate job in New York.

Later that year, my mother died of cancer. Growing up in India, I had always been pulled to Eastern mystical traditions, but seeing her rapid physical decline forced me to confront in a more urgent, personal way questions about why suffering occurs. I decided to shed the comfort of external identities my apartment in New York, my career as a director of a consumer products company, my preferences of liking this food and disliking that movie, everything so I could come closer to a more permanent reality within. I asked my job for a sabbatical and set forth as a monk with a metaphorical begging bowl, going from Europe to India by road with no possessions, then learning yoga and meditation in a remote ashram in the Himalayas.

Up in the mountains, six hours away from the nearest town, we had intermittent water supply and almost no power. My laptop and Kindle died. For months, I didn’t read any advice on how to become a better person. No one shared any hacks with me on improving my effectiveness. They couldn’t have if they tried. Ashram life was the antithesis of the modern cult of productivity. We woke up at 5am and spent two hours in silent meditation. The rest of the day was spent in the same vein, either in a slow, meditative yoga practice or in contemplating arcane questions with limited practical value about why the world was created, what was the nature of the creating energy, is enlightenment an accessible state, etc.

The only real work I did was my assigned duty of sweeping the floors of the ashram for an hour each day. In the beginning, my mind would rebel against this waste of precious time; slowly though, time lost its usual significance as the days blended into each other.

Halfway during my six-month stint in the ashram, I had a sudden urge to write once again. My laptop didn’t work any more so I transcribed notes in a ledger I borrowed from the ashram cook who used it to record food supplies. The urge deepened in the months to come, though I followed no schedule. I wrote an hour here, an hour there, whenever I felt like it.

En route back to the US, I stopped in a village in Central Portugal and wrote for two months. Once again, I didn’t read anything because there were no bookstores or internet cafés in the village. The only books I saw were old classics bartered for knick-knacks in a Saturday farmers market, and they were little good to me since I didn’t know how to read Portuguese.

I completed my novel. This time, I didn’t throw away the draft. The mystical leap I was working hard for in my writing over five years occurred when I stopped working for it.

What if you replaced the noise of becoming with the silence of being? For years, I had operated from a feeling of lack. I thought I had to read more to become deeper. I changed my morning routine to become more productive. I followed every successful writer’s advice to improve my writing. What I didn’t understand was that everything I needed to create already existed within me.

The “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”, the original yogic text written in 4BC, defines life’s purpose as “chitta vritti nirodah”, literally translated as stopping the fluctuations of the incessant thought waves of the mind. Ancient yogis constructed their life around that principle. Once they reached a basic level of material comfort where their families had enough to eat and a roof over their head, they spent their time in learning how to silence the mind and get a mystic understanding into the nature of reality. Our culture tells us the opposite. We have to grow more, learn more, experience more, and be more in order to be exceptional. In my year off, I had unconsciously surrendered that urge and ended up tapping into a deep reservoir of creativity within me.

Now I’m back in New York. I have access to internet, my Kindle and a smorgasbord of opinions once again. Even as I try to keep centred with my daily meditation practice, every so often I find myself slipping down the deep abyss of feeling dissatisfied with myself again. I remind myself then of my six months spent sleeping on the floor of an ashram when I had nothing, yet lacked nothing at all.

–Washington Post

Karan Bajaj is a novelist and striving yogi. He was born and raised in India and has trained as a Hatha Yoga teacher in the Sivananda ashram in South India, and learnt meditation in the Himalayas. He is the author of the novels “Johnny Gone Down” and “Keep off the Grass”, both of which were No 1 bestsellers in India. His new novel, “The Yoga of Max’s Discontent”, released on May 3.