Traveling Lightly & Being Grounded in the Middle of Chaos

By Leo Babauta

Today Eva and I decided at the last minute to move our round-the-world trip up two days early, to avoid running into a strong typhoon that was headed our way.

Luckily, we travel lightly and are flexible enough that the switch in plans wasn’t too difficult.

We put up some typhoon shutters, bought our kids some food to eat as they weather out the storm with their grandma, and packed our bags.

Through all of this, we felt tremendous groundlessness, leaving our kids as the storm approached (though we know they’ll be safe), going into Africa armed with typhoid and yellow fever vaccinations and a handful of malaria pills, a bunch of work left undone as we headed to the airport.

What is helping us in this time of chaos and uncertainty, in this time of groundlessness … is two things:

  1. Having the flexibility of traveling lightly; and
  2. Grounding ourselves in the center of the storm of our lives.

I’d like to share a little about these, because I believe they have larger lessons for our everyday lives and the groundlessness we feel all the time.

If we can practice in the middle of a 3-week trip that starts on Guam and goes through Asia and Europe, centers on a safari in Kenya, then goes back across Europe and North America to California, and finally back through Asia (Tokyo) and landing back on Guam … if we can practice through a deliciously crazy and tiring trip like that … we can practice through just about anything.

Let’s start with flexibility and traveling lightly.

Flexibility & Traveling Lightly

If you’ve read this blog for awhile, you know I’m a huge proponent of traveling lightly (see my Ultralight book). Eva and I each travel for weeks at a time with a small (20L) backpack on our backs.

That might sound like bragging, but it’s an important approach that lets us be more flexible on a trip like this. And it speaks to an approach to life in general.

Flexibility and lightness allows us to:

  • Switch plans easily if needed, packing quickly, traveling through airports and train stations quickly
  • Not get tired by dragging luggage around, which allows us to be more open to the experiences
  • Not have to worry about spending an extra day somewhere, because we don’t have luggage to drag around — we could walk all day with our backpacks
  • Take an unexpected route (walking, bus, taxi, train, plane) if we feel like it
  • Be open to changes, and not be hardened into inflexibility, or as worried about things going wrong

That said, traveling with less stuff means we have fewer things to deal with what we might encounter. People who pack for every contingency might feel more prepared than we do, even if they pay for it with the burden of weight. I’ve learned to be OK with having fewer options, trusting that I can handle pretty much any situation I’m likely to face, because I’ve done it many times before.

Think about this idea as it might apply to our daily lives — being light and flexible might mean we’re less stuck in our ways, not only have less to carry on our backs but less to carry in our minds.

With a flexible mind, we can be OK when plans shift (as they do every day), we can be open to the opportunities that arise and the experiences that come up unexpectedly. We can flow with change, and love the change instead of complaining about it.

How do we develop lightness and flexibility of mind? By being less rigid in how we want things to go, and practicing loving what actually happens. Seeing that our minds get stuck on certain beliefs, and experimenting with letting go of those beliefs so we can be free, be at peace.

Grounding in the Center of Chaos

As we arrived at the airport, Eva and I both felt a huge sense of groundlessness, as if we were falling through the air with nothing to hold on to.

This can feel like being in the middle of a storm without shelter. It can feel very scary, very stressful. And our normal reaction is to get some kind of ground under our feet: to get control of things, to find comfort or distraction, to run away from the uncertain situation, to complain or lash out at others, to curl into a ball to protect ourselves.

This comes from a belief that we need to protect ourselves from groundlessness or do something to get rid of the groundlessness.

This is simply not true. We can stay in the middle of chaos and groundlessness, in the middle of the storm, and be perfectly OK. We can breathe, and feel the groundlessness. We can smile, and feel the joy and freedom in it. We can be completely in love with the storm.

The way to start, as I did at the airport, is to come to stillness in the center of chaos. Just stand still for a moment, and feel the sensations in your body. Notice the swirling of emotions, the stress, the tightness in your head or chest.

Just notice, for now. Stay with it, instead of running to a story about the situation. Be with it, with gentleness and curiosity. Develop a friendly attitude towards it.

The tightness might be in your chest, and in fact you can let go of this and relax into the chaos. Breathe and let go of the tightness, which is simply you bracing yourself against the storm. By letting go of the bracing and the tightening, we can just be at peace in the middle of the storm.

Smile, and let the storm pelt you. Savor the feeling of having no ground under your feet, feeling the freedom of that. Let your mind become wide open like a vast blue sky.

And this is the feeling of being grounded — it’s being at peace with not needing ground.

It’s actually loving the moment of complete chaos and uncertainty, which is the ground of life.

It’s beautiful, and I’m in the middle of it right now.

I hope to stay centered in the middle of the chaos of this trip, which will be filled with change, stress, complexity and the unexpected. I hope to maintain my flexibility, but in the end, to not need anything but openness to the heartbreaking gorgeousness of the storm.

Chaos is a
friend of
mine
~Bob Dylan