In the 11th-16th centuries during the Golden Age of Pilgrimage, pilgrims on the road to popular pilgrimage destinations such as the Holy Land, Rome, or Santiago de Compostela would only bring with them what they could carry.
A pilgrim’s possessions consisted of a cloak for warmth, a satchel or bindle in which to store a few necessary items, a coin purse for money, a walking stick to offer support, and a vade mecum (a small book with instructions and prayers) to give guidance along the way. Every other necessity, including food and lodging, was provided by the hospitality of strangers along the way. Their emotional load was light as well—before leaving for an arduous journey, all debts had to be settled, disputes resolved, and sins confessed. Free to journey without any burden other than the trials of the path before them, these pilgrims of old traveled uninhibited, fully present to the journey and its invitations each day.
Today, however, advances in the travel industry have allowed us to carry more with us when we travel. Large bags roll on wheels and airplanes can compress a multi-month migration into a single day. If something was left unsaid to a friend or family member before a departure, we needn’t worry; they’re always just an email or phone call away. Traveling light is no longer a requirement in order to reach our destination. Still, whether an ancient pilgrim traveling a well-worn path or a modern pilgrim jet-setting around the globe, one thing remains true: the greater the baggage, the heavier the load.
This load is not only physical; it can also be emotional, mental, and spiritual. Specific commitments, certain relationships, and long-held limiting beliefs can weigh heavily on us. Expectations and attachments can be equally burdensome. The saying “wherever you go, there you are” rings true. Even if you pack light for a trip, you still might be carrying more than you intend. Emotional, mental, and spiritual baggage travels with us on our journeys abroad and accompanies us in everyday life.
The trouble is, when our bags are filled with burdens—whether the baggage is literal or metaphorical—there’s no room for what we really need on the journey. Oftentimes what we think we might need is inaccurate, too. It’s not uncommon for modern-day pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela to refine their possessions soon after the journey has begun, mailing them ahead when they determine what is more burdensome than necessary. Once they truly lighten their load, they find that they can more fully engage in the journey that awaits.
Philip Harnden, the author of Journeys of Simplicity, highlights this shift in his definition of “traveling light.” Traveling light, he says, is “unencumbered journeying.” Equally, once our journeys become unencumbered, Harnden describes, “traveling light” takes on new meaning: “the light by which we journey, the light that shows the way.”
So how do you rid yourself of unnecessary baggage in order to more fully engage your journey? Here are three steps to lighten the load:
1. recognize your capacity
The first step in lightening the load is determining what space is available to you. If you’re packing for a trip, this is likely set by the size of your suitcase and the style of your journey. For pilgrims in everyday life, capacity might be determined by available time or energy. Still, when it comes to the practice of pilgrimage, whether at home or abroad, it’s important to remember that just because you have space, it doesn’t need to be filled. A lighter load allows the pilgrim to live more simply and move more freely—two postures necessary for following the spontaneous movement of the Sacred Guide—and the ability to refine what is needed will help you more closely align to the journey at hand.
2. discern what is essential
When you can only take what you can carry your baggage becomes limited to what is essential. While traveling, essentials might include changes of clothes, a passport, and a toothbrush. However, for the pilgrim on a meaningful journey there are a few other essentials as well. “Essential,” after all, means “of the essence.” What is the essence of your journey, and what tools, practices, or postures will best support you along the way? This is where the packing list begins to go beyond possessions as we seek to carry traits like “courage,” “curiosity,” and an “open mind.”
3. Leave the rest behind
Now that you’ve discerned what is essential for your journey it’s time to leave what remains behind. For physical items, this is pretty straightforward—you simply won’t pack what is impractical or doesn’t fit. Leaving behind unnecessary baggage that is emotional, mental, or spiritual is more than a challenge and will require active “unpacking” with each step along the path. Just as you determined which practices, postures, and traits are essential to your journey you must also decide which habits, distractions, harmful relationships, draining commitments, and limiting beliefs are a hindrance to your journey and intentionally surrender them moment by moment, trusting the Sacred Guide to bring you back to the heart of your quest as your pilgrimage unfolds. Then the practice of “traveling light” truly becomes your “Traveling Light”—the essence of your journey leading the way.