“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.” ~John Muir
The sign comes into view.
I make the left-hand turn, driving slowly through the rusty gated entrance. The sound of gravel beneath the tires makes me smile. I flashback to driving my go-kart on our gravel driveway.
I park my rental Mini and walk to the kiosk.
The Mianus River Gorge trail map is laid out in front of me. Where is the trail I’m looking for? Which one will bring me to the waterfall? This is why I came here today—to find the waterfall. I see the path I came in search of, and my hike begins.
Tributaries flow down the hillside, carving their way to the river in the valley. The elevation is no higher than 500 feet. It would be a stretch to call it a hike, more like a nice walk in the woods.
Alone on the trail, the sound and pace of life in the city is a distant memory. Instead, I hear the orchestra of Mother Nature—water flowing over rocks, the birds emerging from their winter solstice. The treetops sway in the gentle breeze.
I ignore the “Trail Closed” sign and walk around the barrier. I hear the waterfall before I see it, my heart skipping a beat in anticipation. Walking up and around the bend, I find myself directly at the top of the falls—a sense of satisfaction in reaching my destination.
I enjoy this perspective for a moment before looking to the bottom. I see where I want to go. Nature has generously provided a seat to take in her glory, a branch, the height of a short stool running parallel to the ground. I watch as the once-raging water transforms into a mirror of calm.
I look at my cell phone, no signal. I smile, a moment of solitude. I feel gratitude for being here and for enjoying a part of nature. I’m grateful I have the money to rent a car, the freedom to experience this adventure, an impossibility not that long ago.
It was just under a year ago that I was in federal prison, my freedom but a memory.
The sensation of gratitude fades.
As it wanes, I feel a sadness filling the void. Then, like a dam bursting, it washes over me. I’m drowning in it. I know it was always there, running in the background. It was patiently waiting for a moment of silence to be heard. A fist closed around my heart the day I was arrested, and now its grip is tightening.
The experience is too powerful. Fighting it would be pointless. I hand myself over to it. Closing my eyes, I invite the sadness in, allowing it to course through my body.
It’s the sadness of the past.
I’m consumed by regrets and judgments of things that cannot be changed. I never fully processed any of it. Memories run silently in the background of my mind, dictating my life without my conscious knowledge.
Intuition takes over, telling me what I need to do.
I forgive myself silently, a gentle whisper in my mind. I forgave the seven-year-old me for being scared of the dark. I forgave the twelve-year-old me for not punching the bullies who tormented me that hot summer afternoon.
I forgave myself for the lies I’ve told when the truth would have set me free. I forgave myself for the dreams not pursued and the projects not finished. I forgave myself for believing that I’m not enough.
I forgave myself for not having courage.
I forgave myself for choosing to defraud one of the largest tech companies in the world and for the thousands of choices I made to keep the fraud going for just under a year.
The same choices, in their roundabout way, that led me to the waterfall today.
I forgave myself for not loving myself. I forgave myself for not listening to my heart. I forgave myself for the pain I caused my ex-wife and my family.
Forgiveness flowed like the waterfall in front of me. As it flowed, it transformed.
Forgiveness for myself morphed into forgiving others. I forgave those bullies. I forgave the girl who called me a loser in front of the seventh-grade class. I forgave people who rejected me. I forgave the prosecutor, the lead investigator, the judge.
Eventually, the forgiveness peters out.
I sit quietly for a moment, taking in what just happened. Trying to reconcile how memories I haven’t thought of in over thirty years bubbled to the surface with ease.
Experiences I would have sworn I had let go.
Once again, intuition took over. I breathed in six deep belly breaths. With every inhale, the smell of nature, a radiant light, the water from the falls. With every exhale, whatever was trapped inside me.
Let go of…
Exhaling the sixth and final breath, I open my eyes slowly. The forest is transformed: colors are brighter; sounds are sharper; the smells are cleaner.
In this magical moment, a dull yet powerful pain emanates from the center of my chest. It scares the hell out of me. I wonder if my moment of enlightenment is being cut short by a heart attack.
I think about the miles between me and my car. I remember that I have no cell reception. The irony doesn’t escape me that only moments ago, I was celebrating the peace of being alone. My fear grows with the mounting pain.
I close my eyes, I let the pain in. I don’t know what else to do other than embrace it. This pain is nothing to fear. Finger by finger, knuckle by knuckle, the fist clenched around my heart is slowly releasing its grip.
My heart has room to breathe, for the first time in a long time. It’s adapting to its newfound freedom; my heart is stretching its legs.
Opening my eyes, I stare at the waterfall, taking it all in. My body comes alive. Energy is flowing through my veins. The shame running silently in the background has been replaced with a sense of peace and comfort in my skin.
I decide it’s time to explore the rest of this beautiful place. I stand up, practically launching myself from my seat. I’m as light as a feather. I’ve been carrying the seven-year-old me, the twelve-year-old me, all the past versions of myself for all these years.
I’ve been carrying the pain that exists only as a memory. Nothing is ever forgotten. All of it was stored in my subconscious mind, running silently in the background. Haunting the present moment with the ghosts of the past.
Just because I don’t think about the past doesn’t mean it’s not there. I don’t think about the air I breathe.
This doesn’t make it any less real.
Forgiveness is a journey—one of acceptance, of loving myself, of knowing I am enough and worthy. When the memories of the past arise, and they do, the memory of this day reminds me of what I can do.
It’s a forgiveness practice that I’m ever so grateful for.
I sit at my desk peacefully, inhaling and exhaling six deep breaths (a connection to that beautiful day). I think of any burden I’ve been carrying.
I think of anything that brings a sensation of shame, and I write it down. Oftentimes it stings to write it, and I’ve learned this is a good sign––the more it stings, the more of a burden it is.
Once I get it all on paper (which is its own form of release), I’ll repeat the following out loud,
“I forgive myself, fully and deeply, for…”
I’ll repeat the statement over and over until I feel something inside me shift, and it always shifts. It’s a letting go of what cannot be changed.
I then mindfully tear that piece of paper up into the smallest pieces I can and throw it away.
Every single time I’ve done this practice, I feel the weight I’ve been carrying dissolve. I feel myself become lighter.
Forgiving ourselves is perhaps one of the most extraordinary acts of love and compassion we can extend to ourselves.
About Craig Stanland
Forgiveness is freedom, and freedom to me is everything.
Craig Stanland is a Reinvention Architect, TEDx & Keynote Speaker, and Author of “Blank Canvas, How I Reinvented My Life After Prison.” He specializes in working with clients who’ve chased success, money, and status in their 1st half, only to find a success-sized hole in their lives. He helps them tap into their full potential and connect with their calling to create their extraordinary 2nd half with purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. Connect with him here.