In 2011, I was deep in the grad-school grind. I was only a semester away from finally earning my masters in speech-language pathology and had been saving every cent from my internship work in an autism diagnostic clinic.
I craved time away to reflect before graduation. I was seeking direction in my professional and personal journey.
Where would I work after graduation? Should we move out of state? Would that be best for my husband’s career path too?
A season of change was on the horizon and no shortage of questions circled my mind.
But being in constant study/test-taking mode allowed little time for introspection.
I’d heard of a hike across northern Spain called the Camino when I taught English in southern Spain four years prior. It was known as a grueling trek to self-discovery. The Camino’s trail, also known as the Way of St. James, ended at the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. The remains of St. James the Apostle lay in the city’s Cathedral, making the trek a spiritual pilgrimage for many.
The hike gained more publicity in the 2010 movie The Way. In the show, an American father traveled to Spain to retrieve the body of his estranged son, who died while attempting the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The father decides to hike the Camino himself, in an effort to understand both himself and his son.
Despite its arduous reputation, I felt like the Camino was calling me. I was seeking answers and this experience promised to deliver.
So, I booked a flight to Madrid for two weeks, committed to hiking over 15 miles a day toting nothing but my backpack.
While my time on the Camino did bring some clarity to my personal questions, the strongest revelation included a complete lifestyle shift.
Amidst the rocky hills and fog-covered valleys of northern Spain, I heard a gentle call to a much simpler way of life.
Here are 5 lessons about minimalism I learned hiking the Camino that will help you simplify your life:
1. Physical boundaries are a powerful tool
Everything I needed on the Camino could only fit into one backpack. The idea of living out of a backpack for a week—with no places to do laundry—seemed incredibly daunting. To be honest, packing was painful. The backpack was my guide when deciding what to welcome on this journey and what to leave behind.
Physical boundaries are a powerful tool for minimalism. Choose a box or two and commit to only keeping as many sentimental items as the chosen container will hold. Use a basket to hold kids’ toys in the corner of a room—tell them they are welcome to have as many toys as the basket holds. Physical boundaries help us make decisions and put limits on our stuff.
What area of your home could you declutter using a physical boundary?
2. We need much less than we think
Setting off on the Camino, I thought I needed roughly double the amount of stuff I’d managed to cram into my backpack. But as I hiked, I realized when I didn’t have something, I could either borrow it or improvise. Soon I realized I had everything I needed—more stuff would have only weighed me down.
Minimalism is about realizing how little we really need. It’s about identifying the feeling of enough. Experiment with what living with less feels like. Box up half of your things in a room and store them away for three months (the kitchen is a good place to start). Observe how the room felt and what possessions—if any—you missed. Understanding we need much less stuff than we think to be happy is freeing and life-giving.
Where could you experiment with less in your life today?
3. Focus on people, not stuff
Being an extrovert, I was quick to see who would join me on the Camino. By the time I exited the train at the Camino’s entry point, I’d compiled a hiking team that included my youngest brother and three Spanish friends. With very few possessions to care for, I felt more free to focus on the people around me. As a result, those relationships were significantly strengthened during the hike.
Minimalism creates more space for cultivating relationships in your life. When you have less stuff to clean, maintain, and organize, you have more space to connect with the people you’re blessed to do life with. Imagine having half the amount of work to do around your home. Imagine how your relationships with others—and yourself—would improve. Use this as motivation to pursue minimalism.
What relationship would you like to strengthen by pursuing minimalism?
4. Experiences outweigh possessions
The Camino opened my eyes to the power experiences hold. Our experiences shape our lives, gift us with memories, and change how we view the world. The Camino’s journey expanded my understanding of other cultures and showed me how freeing it is to live with less. I could have spent my internship savings on new clothes, shoes, or purses. But the value in this experience far outweighed anything I could have purchased.
Minimalism makes more space in your life for adventure. When you’re not focused on accumulating more, you have more time and financial means to engage in experiences. Experiences allow for personal growth, leisure, and connection. Can your stuff promise all that? Doubtful. The next time you’re tempted to buy something, ask yourself if that money could go toward an experience instead. Then save up for something meaningful.
What experience would you choose with the financial freedom and free time minimalism can offer?
5. Looking inward tells you more than looking outward
The Camino, as promised, provided ample time for introspection. I realized how much weight I’d given the approval of others during graduate school (attending a prestigious school, seeking internships that “looked good”). As I journeyed, I began looking inward instead of outward and life began to feel much more authentic.
Minimalism is a lifestyle focused on living in line with what matters most to you instead of keeping up with what everyone else is doing. You don’t buy stuff to impress others. And you don’t wish you had what someone else did—you’re too busy living your own, authentic life. Minimalism gives you space to look inward, identify what truly matters, and build a more meaningful life.
Is your life guided by introspection and authentic action or by gaining the approval of others?
For me, the seeds of minimalism were planted on the Camino’s rocky trail. For you, they may take root from something else you’ve experienced, observed, or read.
You don’t have to travel to northern Spain to make space for introspection. I encourage you to take a few minutes today and reflect on the questions above.
If you’re hearing a call to a simpler way of life, answer it.
We’re all journeying through this life. Why not travel lightly and make our trek an authentic one?
About the Author: Julia Ubbenga is a freelance journalist whose teachings on minimalism, simplicity, and intentional living have reached thousands of people worldwide through her blog richinwhatmatters.com. Julia practices what she preaches in her Kansas City apartment home with her husband, two extremely lively young daughters, and one-year-old son.