This world is a serious place. Everyone leaves here in a box. And before we make it into the box, we tread a precarious path trying to avoid catastrophe, whilst living in constant fear of it. This is the unpalatable truth that lurks at the back of our minds, casting a shadow over our lives. We're like long-term hostages who are telling jokes around a campfire with our captors, in a spirit of camaraderie. Even whilst we're having fun, we know that at any moment one of us could be taken away and shot.
For those of us on a spiritual path, we tend to believe that there is a better way of living in the world than being in a constant state of fear. Instead of being weighed down with the threat of disease and disaster, we know that there is a way of traveling lightly through this world; a way in which we have far fewer cares, and a future of hope, not despair. As Course students, we believe that as we progress along the path to God, ultimate reality will become gradually more real to us. We will have more holy instants. We will experience miracles. We will live increasingly in the light of Heaven rather than the darkness and heaviness of the world. Even though we are treading the same earth as everyone else, we will feel safe and loved, whole and at peace, unburdened and happy. We will be living in the real world.
How do we travel lightly?
Picture going through life unburdened by problems, fears, worries, and grievances. Can you imagine the release and freedom you would feel, and the lightness of heart? Wouldn't going through life be an utterly different experience? So how do we learn to travel lightly?
Release the burden of events and situations
A good place to start is by not collecting unnecessary burdens in the first place, and letting go of as many "small" upsets as we can. Workbook Lesson 5 reminds us that "There are no small upsets. They are all equally disturbing to my peace of mind" (W-pI.5.4:3-4). However, they certainly feel easier to deal with, and so we can do much on behalf of peace by simply being vigilant about not collecting these apparently small upsets, or being quick to let go of them.
Our daily lives are filled with minutiae to get upset about, and if we allow ourselves to fall thoughtlessly into that trap we can end each day ground down by the stress of it all, even when nothing all that dreadful has actually happened. I had a wonderful lesson in this recently when I went to the dentist, knowing I was to have an injection for the treatment I would be having. I was in a fearful state of mind, and prayed for help as I sat in the dentist's chair. Immediately I got a brief impression of Jesus laughing at me. He apparently wasn't taking this as seriously as I was! It was a great help, and I got the message: Is a moment's twinge of pain something worthy of weighing my mind down? I hardly think so.
Assuming that we do collect these small and senseless burdens regularly through the day, the Workbook teaches us to stop each hour and release from our minds that which has been weighing us down in the past hour (see for example W-pI.193.12). In this way, we aren't carrying around an increasingly heavy load of irritations and upsets.
But what about "big" upsets? What do we do when we're faced with some of the worst this world has to offer? It can be tempting to throw truth out the window when a crisis comes along, but ultimately, it's only by shining the light of truth onto the darkness of our suffering that we will get through it. Somehow, in the midst of our pain, we need to find a way to meaningfully connect with the truth. We need to find a way of internalizing the fact that "There is another way of looking at this" (W-pI.33.3:4), something which will help bring our difficulties into perspective with the truth, and which will ultimately lead us beyond the darkness and into the light once more. Of course, the main way that the Course trains us to do this is to respond by repeating our Workbook lesson for the day.
Traveling lightly doesn't mean that nothing bad ever happens to us—it means that whatever happens, we let the light of truth into our minds. This light guides us into another way of perceiving, melting away the pain of the experience, and teaching a deep lesson to our minds: all problems are equally meaningless; they have no substance and no real power to hurt us. "Big" problems are just as illusory as "small" ones. Learning this lesson (a lesson we will need to learn over and over in many different situations) marks the dawning of a deeper wisdom and a greater capacity to live life less fearfully.
Release the burden of grievances through forgiveness
Of course, a major way that we can unburden ourselves, according to the Course, is by letting go of our grievances. We deeply underestimate the impact that forgiveness will have on us. Apparently, holding grievances is like trying to stagger along under a massive burden that all but wipes us out:
You are not really capable of being tired, but you are very capable of wearying yourself. The strain of constant judgment is virtually intolerable. It is curious that an ability so debilitating would be so deeply cherished. (T-3.VI.5:5-7)
Don't we just cherish our judgments? Don't we assume we will feel bereft without them? The Course, though, uses some of its most motivational language on the topic of forgiveness. When we're feeling unwilling to forgive, it's worth spending some time with those passages. It's difficult to read Lesson 122, "Forgiveness offers everything I want," for example, and remain fully committed to our hatred.
What we seem to forget is that when we're angry, we're grim. Resentment and light-heartedness simply don't mix. Considering the amount of time and energy we give to our grievances, and our unwillingness to truly let go of them, it's no wonder that Jesus tells us point-blank that we are "steadfastly devoted to misery" (T-14.II.1:2). In contrast, he tells us that seeing our grievances as the illusions that they are will be a deep relief to our minds, and that we will experience happy laughter, not regret, as we let them go:
It is sin's unreality that makes forgiveness natural and wholly sane, a deep relief to those who offer it; a quiet blessing where it is received. It does not countenance illusions, but collects them lightly, with a little laugh, and gently lays them at the feet of truth. And there they disappear entirely. (W-pI.134.6:1-3)
Release the burden of planning
Another major burden is planning for our future. We plan to defend ourselves against imagined threats, such as poverty. We plan to achieve the things we have decided are important to us. We plan to ensure that certain things or people or situations that we are attached to stay within our grasp, or come within it if they aren't already. To us, planning is essential, natural, and a sign of intelligence. To Jesus, planning keeps us firmly rooted in the world of illusions, and is a sign of our profound ignorance of God and His laws. In Workbook Lesson 135, in which this topic is addressed at length, Jesus tells us that our obsessive planning, which is centered on our body and its perceived needs, is actually what makes us ill. Whilst we are engaged in plans for its defense, we are so misperceiving our body and its purpose that this amounts to an attack on it, and consequently it becomes sick. Yet if we understand that it is an illusion, and focus instead on playing our part in God's plan for salvation, then it will remain healthy for as long as it is needed:
Enslavement of the body to the plans the unhealed mind sets up to save itself must make the body sick. It is not free to be the means of helping in a plan which far exceeds its own protection, and which needs its service for a little while. In this capacity is health assured. (W-pI.135.13:1-3)
The opposite of planning is trusting in the Holy Spirit. Instead of carrying out our own plans for the defense of our body, we ask Him what He would have us do on behalf of the plan for salvation. We listen for His guidance, and then we carry it out. This does not mean, however, that we should throw away our schedules. The Holy Spirit can use these forms just as well as we can. Giving up planning does not mean that we stay in bed until a Voice tells us what to do with our day. Jesus did not ask Helen and Bill to give up their jobs and stay at home all day so that they could live "spontaneously." Instead, he very often gave them guidance about how their many responsibilities and interactions with others could be used on behalf of healing.
Giving up planning does mean, though, that we give up our own ideas about what our life, our schedule, our daily appointments, are all for. Once we are living for another purpose, we may well then be given plans to carry out that we wouldn't have thought of by ourselves. Giving up our own plans, in simple terms, means that the larger goal of the salvation of the world is more important to us than the life and times of ________ (fill in your name!). Our life then becomes "a meaningful encounter with the truth" (W-pI.135.19:2), filled with joy. Our mind is relieved of the burden of our fears, our body is relieved of the burden of sickness, and our life becomes increasingly joyous:
Your present trust in Him is the defense that promises a future undisturbed, without a trace of sorrow, and with joy that constantly increases, as this life becomes a holy instant, set in time, but heeding only immortality. (W-pI.135.19:1)
What a wonderful picture! What an inspiring vision of what our life could be! And what a beautiful lesson: living as the instrument of a larger plan, and therefore in a way which transcends our separate interests, is how we get our deepest needs—our needs for peace and safety and happiness—met.
Release the burden of attachment to material things
Another aspect of traveling lightly is releasing our attachment to material things. When our possessions—either objects we currently possess or would like to possess—mean so much to us, it keeps our focus firmly fixed in this material world. This faulty perception—that we need certain objects because of the meaning we think they have—wreaks havoc in our minds.
Cherishing certain possessions, and letting their presence in our lives dictate the way we feel about ourselves, is an attack on our own peace of mind. We can see this in the extreme example of an autistic person who has a temper tantrum because one of his favorite objects is not where he expected it to be, and his sense of safety in the world has been shattered. Yet we don't see that our "milder" version—of feeling a sense of anxiety should anything happen to our most prized possessions—is exactly the same mental sickness. Our sense of wholeness and safety in the world, for the moment, depends on an object. When reduced to this, doesn't it seem ridiculous? Yet who of us can honestly say we have never fallen prey to that kind of thinking?
Of course, material things also burden us when an attachment to having them dictates an entire way of living. We may choose to spend huge chunks of our life doing senseless things in order to get a good supply of paper strips and metal discs so that we can buy all the things that we think will make us happier. We don't ask the Holy Spirit what He would have us do with our life, since we have already decided.
We cannot travel lightly through a world where the material things around us mean so much to us. We have given those objects all the meaning that they have, and having made them into gods, they rule us accordingly. The alternative, Jesus tells us, is to leave our needs to the Holy Spirit. He will supply us with all that we need when we release our attachment to our worldly agendas:
What comes to you of Him comes safely, for He will ensure it never can become a dark spot, hidden in your mind and kept to hurt you. Under His guidance you will travel light and journey lightly, for His sight is ever on the journey's end, which is His goal. (T-13.VII.13:3-4)
A deeper understanding of reality
Are you getting a picture of what traveling lightly actually looks like? We don't collect small burdens, because we see their senselessness. When we hit a crisis, we reach out to the truth to help us through it. We let go of our grievances because we understand how futile they are. Our body becomes healthy and our life more and more joyous as we learn to let go of our selfish concerns and instead take our appointed place in God's plan. We release our attachment to material possessions, instead trusting the Holy Spirit to supply us with all that we truly need to live in the world.
To travel lightly, we need illumination—the illumination that lights up the dark corners of our minds, replacing ignorance and fear with wisdom and understanding. But what is this illumination? What is this spark of understanding which has the power to instantly melt our grievances and fears as if they were nothing? Quite simply, it is the deeply internalized understanding of the unreality of this world, and an acceptance of Heaven as the only reality—a perfect reality where we are totally loved and cared for by God. If we truly understood that we need no defenses—no anger, no judgment, no planning for our future—because we are living in a world of illusions, wouldn't we feel released from our burdens in a way that all our defending and judging and attacking has never achieved? If we deeply accepted that this heavy world is just an illusion, and Heaven is the only reality, would we have any reason to feel afraid?
Traveling lightly is about a deeper and more profound ability to treat illusions as illusions, and a refusal to be weighed down by them accordingly. This does require flexing some big spiritual muscles, however. It's not enough to try to deal with our anger by denying it on the basis that we intellectually grasp the fact that the world is an illusion. The illusion has ways of getting more and more upsetting until we finally snap out of our illusory peace and start doing some real forgiving! Again and again in the Course, we're told that our only way out of the hell we've made is by bringing the darkness to the light, which means we must look our ego squarely in the face before it will disappear into the nothingness it really is. Jesus cautions us about being too quick to dismiss the ego as something which doesn't affect us. In reality, of course, it doesn't, but in time it does, until we have truly learned to walk without it, something that not many of us have yet achieved:
I have spoken of the ego as if it were a separate thing, acting on its own. This was necessary to persuade you that you cannot dismiss it lightly, and must realize how much of your thinking is ego-directed. (T-4.VI.I.3-4)
Traveling lightly isn't about living in denial of the darkness that drives us, slapping on a happy smile, and working like crazy behind the scenes to make sure that life goes the way we want it to. It's about facing that darkness with an unflinching eye because we know that the truth will help us to see this differently. It's about letting the light of wisdom dawn within us, rather than intellectualizing our fears away. It's about letting a profound truth illuminate our thinking, and be our guide in responding to the difficulties we encounter, beautifully summarized by Jesus as: "Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God" (T-In.2:2-4).