Life-Changing Power of Gratitude: From Federal Prison to Enlightenment
by Craig Stanland — 6 min read
On September 30th, 2013, I had what many would say was, "It all." A successful career, multiple homes, nice cars, nice watches, I ate at the finest restaurants in Greenwich, CT, and Manhattan. I was married to an amazing woman.
On October 1st, 2013, I lost it all.
Even though I had "it all," I never thought I did, and what I did have, I didn't feel worthy of it. I didn't feel worthy of my success; I didn't feel worthy of my amazing wife.
I was chasing anything and everything outside of myself to feel whole. I was desperately trying to become someone I would respect, like, and love - so that I could be someone people would respect, like, and love. Chasing, chasing, chasing.
I was on a treadmill, trying to catch the horizon. The next purchase, the next high, the next extravagant dinner, falling further into the trap of, "When I obtain "x," then I'll be someone."
It worked until it didn't. The rush would inevitably fade, and I'd be off to the races again, chasing the next thing, the next high, desperately trying to feel whole. Desperately wanting to be enough.
I never stopped to look at all I had, and I don't just mean materialistically; I mean an amazing wife, family, and friends who love and support me and a successful career.
"In a world of perceived abundance, I was living in a state of inner poverty." – Craig Stanland
I was constantly in a state of scarcity; it was exhausting. My self-worth and my identity were inextricably tied to the things I owned , the things I purchased, and my ability to purchase those things.I was my BMW's, my Panerai watches, my $300 bottle of Rioja, my Platinum Amex Card.
I had no idea what I was doing at the time. I had no idea of the absurdity of the task I was taking on. I was trying to fill a broken glass and utterly blind to the fact that I never could.
I was in technology sales, working with some of the largest financial firms in the world. The equipment I was selling was becoming more commoditized, the profit margins were shrinking, and so were my paychecks.
My job performance was also dwindling; I was too consumed with chasing. The lifestyle grew more important than my job, even though the job supported the lifestyle. My dwindling checks and performance were a direct threat to my very identity and sense of worth.
I had to do something. I could have been honest with myself and my wife. I could have told the truth that I couldn't maintain our lifestyle. That I was exhausted, and I wanted to scale down. I didn't. I was too afraid; I was too scared to be seen as "less than." I couldn't find the courage to shed the facade I created.
I had to do something else to maintain this house of cards. From this state of being, I discovered an opportunity to exploit our partner company's warranty policy for my financial gain. This would solve the problem; this would make everything ok.
For just under a year, I committed fraud against one of the largest technology companies in the world.
I committed this fraud in the face of my heart, begging me not to. With each click of the mouse, each click of the enter button, my heart spoke,
"Don't do this."
"This is not the way."
"You know this isn't right."
Thousands of clicks, thousands of opportunities to stop, and I ignored every single one of them.
It came to a screeching halt on October 1st, 2013, when the FBI left me the following voicemail: "Mr. Stanland, this is Special Agent McTiernan with the FBI. We are at your residence and have a warrant for your arrest. You will need to call us and come home immediately, or we will issue an APB with the federal marshals for your arrest." I was arrested and charged with one count of mail fraud.
This was the day my life changed.
This was the first day of my long descent to rock bottom. I pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years of federal prison
Everything I was desperately trying to maintain was gone, the homes, the cars, the watches, and sadly, my marriage. I lost who I thought I was.
I entered prison believing that I destroyed my life and I ruined my wife's life. Shame quickly became a shadow I could not shake. I hated the man I had become; I hated the choices I made.
I hated the crystal clear clarity that I did this. That I was wrong. That I was responsible. That I could have avoided all this suffering if only I had been honest.
I had to make the pain stop; I begged the hand of death to kill me in my sleep, suicide became a viable option. This was my lowest point; this was my rock-bottom.
I thought I was destined to live the remainder of my life in this place. I was lucky; my best friend of over thirty years visited me in prison. It was from here that my life turned around.
It was his visit that showed me I had worth outside of what I believed made me worthy.
"I wasn't my things; I was a friend and nothing more. This was the day I started to rebuild and reinvent my life." – Craig Stanland
Rebuilding was hard; ok, that was an understatement. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. It's also been one of the most rewarding, cathartic, and powerful journeys of my life.
There were three foundational practices I started in prison that I still do to this day. These practices laid the groundwork for creating my new life.
My gratitude practice started with one simple sentence, inside the Otisville Federal Prison library, "I am grateful for this morning's sunrise and that I was able to experience it."
I wrote from the heart; I wrote without knowing that a gratitude practice was a real thing and all the benefits that come from expressing gratitude.I just wrote what was true for me in that moment.
And it flipped a switch, it opened my eyes, it created a new way of thinking–a new way of thinking that caught me off guard. Here I am, in federal prison, with less than I've ever had, and I'm grateful. What an incredible and empowering shift of perspective.
I have to admit, my gratitude practice wasn't always easy. There were days it was a downright struggle to find something to be grateful for–but I always found something. That blew me away.
When I was released from prison, I knew that maintaining my gratitude practice would be critical in rebuilding and reinventing my life. I knew I wanted to go deeper; I knew I needed help.
A quick Google search led me to Tim Ferris, and Tim Ferris led me to the Five Minute Journal. I remember the day my Five Minute Journal arrived; I carefully opened the envelope, pulled it out, and felt it for the first time. The texture of the cover, the weight of it, opening to the first page and seeing,
"If found, please contact:
As a reward: $"
I smiled. I knew I found the help I was looking for.
My gratitude practice was still a little shaky; I had only just been released from prison, I was still finding the ground beneath my feet.
"The Five Minute Journal challenged me, and through that challenge, I felt solid ground beneath my feet for the first time in a long time." – Craig Stanland
My practice evolved exponentially thanks to this beautiful little book.
The quotes set the tone and made me think.
The morning routine set the foundation for the remainder of my day.
"What would make today great?" These became the bricks that went on the foundation.
And the affirmations were the mortar that kept it all together.
I'll be honest, I stumbled, in the beginning, to consistently practice the Night Routine. I found a beautiful and straightforward solution online.
After completing the Morning Routine, I'd carefully place the journal on my pillow as a gentle reminder. I discovered that facing it towards my bedroom door would make me smile just walking by it.
As my gratitude practice grew, so too did the rebuilding of my life. I was no longer chasing; I was no longer living in scarcity–I was creating a world of abundance, and within that abundance flowed self-trust and self-worth.
I began my gratitude practice seven years ago, and I've only missed a few days since–it's that important to me. I loved how the practice has evolved, and I love how the Five Minute Journal was an integral part of the journey.
I'd like to share some of the key elements to my current gratitude practice:
I love asking myself, "why?" I'm grateful for something.
It allows me to go deeper and go beyond the surface; I discover a myriad of new things to be grateful for. For me, this is where the real magic of the practice begins.
This takes place before the Morning Routine. As I'm waking up in the morning, still fuzzy, still not quite awake, I think about something I'm grateful for.
I allow the feeling of gratitude and joy to flow through me–I allow myself to experience it fully before the "to-do's" of the day have a chance to enter my thoughts. Sometimes, I transfer what I'm grateful for to paper; sometimes, I keep it only as a thought.
When something happens during the day that makes me smile and brings me joy, I do my best to stop for a moment and express gratitude for it in real-time. I'll whisper to myself, "Thank you. I am grateful for this moment."
This brings me directly into the present, to experience the moment fully and deeply–to slow time down and just be.
It's amazing for me to think of where I was not that long ago. Feeling lost, alone, consumed by shame in the darkest place I've ever been. I stop every so often and pull my first Five Minute Journal off of the bookshelf and reread one of the lines from my very first entry:
"I'm grateful for being alive and being free."
So simple, so pure, so beautiful.
This, to me, is the way to live.
Craig Stanland is a reinvention architect. After being sentenced to 2 years of Federal Prison and hitting his absolute rock bottom, he’s spent the past several years rebuilding himself through gratitude practice, journaling, and meditation.
In his memoir Blank Canvas, Craig shares his journey of overcoming adversities, searching for meaning, and eventually finding fulfilment, purpose and passion.
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