Be On The Watch

A reflection on a poem by Charles Bukowski; on what it means to be paying genuine attention to our lives; and on how to risk having the lords of life take delight in us.

your life is your life

don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.


be on the watch.


there are ways out.


there is a light somewhere.


it may not be much light but

it beats the darkness.


be on the watch.


the gods will offer you chances.


know them.


take them.


you can’t beat death but


you can beat death in life, sometimes.


and the more often you learn to do it,


the more light there will be.


your life is your life.


know it while you have it.


you are marvelous


the gods wait to delight


in you.

– Charles Bukowski

 

I have been sitting for over an hour now contemplating this poem today. In fact, I have been doing this very thing, day after day, for a number of days. Taking in the simple, straightforward, pared sentences that Bukowski delivers like stiff drinks, one after the other. At first I dismiss his words as self-evident and folkish – no kidding, Charles. But as I sit, sink deeper and grow silent, his words somehow turn sideways. They unexpectedly open something up in the quiet space in me, a gateway to the deep parts of myself waiting to be explored.

your life is your life

Slowly, this simple phrasing of self-evident truth moves me past an endless rumination that often stalks me: that I am still anxiously in a preparation phase for my actual life.

It is a feeling that I have a lot to do that is yet to be prepared for, piles upon piles in my mind of things still unsorted and undone. I tell myself had better damn well get back to this endless undone-ness, finally complete a good number of these things, so I will find peace in checking off the final task on the list, at last. This fuels a constant, ever-lurking feeling in the background of my life of not having yet lived my actual life – when the irony is, this is far from the reality.

How often are we pulled out of the now, seduced by a kind of psychological racheting to what the mind thinks it needs to be doing about some endless and impossible task, one that is ultimately a defense as well as an illusion? Can we just come back to the beginning of the fundamental right to human existence, one that many of us fail to grasp, regardless of how much we have accomplished, or achieved. This simple message starts the first line of the poem:

your life is your life

My life is mine, alone. For me to be living, as only I can. As an adult man, I must do the work that makes my life belong to no one else’s agenda. My loves and my work must become my own, as it is happening right now. Unfolding, minute by minute.

I can once more come back to that realization by “losing my mind, and coming to my senses” as Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, would say. Drop the ego-driven thinking. Come behind my eyes. Listen with my ears. Pay attention to my breathing. Feel my body with my kinesthetic sensing. By engaging my senses, I engage with my life, within me and around me.

The first line of the poem finally reads differently to me when I am not lulled into a dismissive attitude. ‘No shit’ becomes ‘Oh, shit!’  My life IS my life. My life is MY life. Not just a cliché, nor a child-like ‘it’s mine’ declaration. A renewed recognition of a vital awareness, sovereign and empowering, like a two-dimensional image coming alive through the added dimension of human awareness. The quality of my life hinges on this simple, engaged awareness. A privilege. A responsibility. A possibility to be encountered, each day anew. 

don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.


Easier said than done. I sometimes feel assaulted and clubbed by life’s ordeals. In adult living, it seems like the clubbing happens almost daily. Defeated by something large and looming, by the many things beyond our ability to control.   Desired outcomes often do not take place. Other people don’t think and behave in ways we wish for. We take failures, misunderstandings and disappointments personally.   It gets to us, weighs on us, and we want to submit.

be on the watch.
 

At first, I read this line as being on the lookout, a suspicious watching out for the bad guy. Watch out to keep bad things from happening. Be careful. Be on guard. Because that is how many of us are already set in our deeper interior approaches to living, regardless of how we present our personas to the world. Many of us carry an underlying hostile projection onto life. We think that it somehow really wants to do us in, that life is set against us.

It is a whole new perspective to realize watchfulness as a positive mindfulness practice.

Bukowski invites us to be awake, be aware, watch for opportunities. Having an attentive eye, one that conveys a healthy, pro-active waiting, a forward-looking stance.

there are ways out.
 

Again, a simple message, straightforward. I interpret his expression ‘way out’ as ‘way through’.   Not an escape from life, but a journey into it, navigating through it more skillfully, more gracefully.

But the way through is often not obvious, nor readily available, whenever we find ourselves in the most worthy challenges. The way through: a positive, affirmative aim for when we are in the midst of something we’d like to be out of – trapped, lost, distressed, confused – like the dark. This usually has something to do with our current mental state related our life as it is, when a circumstance or an outcome we didn’t ask for is suddenly upon us.

The same befuddled character struggle shows up: Not feeling good enough; feeling that something is wrong with me, fueling a familiar and chronic anxiety. Or feeling a new loss, another betrayal. Wishing we could be more or different from who we are, not facing where we are.

This is the hero’s journey for a worthy life: going into the forest, seeing no way through. Somehow it seems that we must be fated to the experience of losing our way, not knowing the way out. These conditions hold the possibility of bringing forth a destiny, and the most unrealized potential in us.

there is a light somewhere.
 

This process requires some faith from us, and another positive thought. Making the effort to hold a positive frame of mind in our trying or painful circumstances. Believing in the existence of the light when we can’t see it. Especially when we can’t see it. Not giving in to a certain kind of darkness,into the negation of ‘life as it is’. Heading towards what we can’t see, but believing it must be there somewhere.

it may not be much light but

it beats the darkness.


There often in is not much light at first, especially when we’ve gone dark. If we’ve gone dark for a while, we couldn’t bear much light, anyway. But just a flicker of light is a significant thing, once we’ve been clubbed into dank submission – by our woundedness, by our disappointments, by our inability to accept life’s happenings as they occur. Once the ordeal arrives, it is human nature for the self to have an attitude of negativity, of hostility, of resignation. Being lost in the forest, not knowing the way, losing sight of what really matters. Who doesn’t end up there at some point in their lives?

be on the watch.


the gods will offer you chances.


Back to work. Back to making the effort to pay attention to what is happening beyond my own suffering and pre-occupation. Being on the watch. Being ready for the darkness to be disrupted, most likely by something unexpected. The hard work of steady mindfulness in the face of challenge, riding it through until the shift come, the tide changes.

Then the line that opens up the whole poem: The gods will offer you chances. This one takes a whole lot of ‘being on the watch’ to recognize. We need to have the strength of heart to stay open to possibilities beyond our mind’s capacity to imagine.

What if we all are offered chances that take place within the limits of our fate? What if there is a destiny for each of us, and the soul always sees to it that we get our chances?

When we are used to making ourselves victims or making ourselves small, or we are saying ‘no’ to life, these chances are beyond what our conscious minds can dare to fathom.

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What if we get chances, small ones, sometimes every day, to step into our largeness? What if we get chances, big ones, from time to time – when synchronicity takes over, and everything seems to line up for us on its own?   What if the practice of recognizing and responding to the small chances that fate or synchronicity bring about all the time, prepares us to say ‘yes’ to the bigger ones that come our way at just the right moment?

What if the gods are sending my way the next opportunity right now, embedded in the happenings of this particular day? Then I had better be on the watch for it.

know them.


The Japanese word for crisis is interpreted as both danger and opportunity. How do we know an opportunity when it presents itself to us?   Often, it reveals itself to us in the feeling of threat, in the appearance of a foreign and unfamiliar form, a sort of ‘not me’ or ‘not for me’ – where we initially have a reflexive turning away from the opportunity. Where we at first sense it is too risky, pointless, unappealing to move ahead. It just doesn’t make sense to our familiar ways of thinking or being.

Yet this is often the first sign of an opportunity. Our first internal response to it is often “NO”, simply because it feels so foreign, so unexpected, so not what we wish for.   That is exactly the time to practice being on the watch.   Become curious while in the threat, wonder about why we resist so much, look at what exactly we are being stopped by on this unfamiliar path, the one we have not taken before.

take them.


Here is the heroic deed: taking the road not yet traveled.   Going where we have not gone before.   Saying yes to that, to which we have in the past said no. Changing. But before we can act in new ways, we first have to think in new ways. Changing our minds, taking a new perspective.   Saying yes to what has been too frightening to move towards before.   Facing the dragon, as Joseph Campbell would say.

I once had a teacher tell me that there would be times in my life when it would be more important to fail in a new way, than to succeed in the same old way. That I would learn and gain more by screwing up in a new direction, by taking on a new learning curve, rather than over-relying on the mastery of something that had become too familiar to me, one that now kept me small. He told me to start by failing in the right direction.

Then I would at least have better problems, ones that would be more likely to bring forth new potentialities in me. To keep facing my fear of failure again and again, to look right into it, and wonder why it held such a curious spell over my venturing in new directions for so long.

you can’t beat death but


you can beat death in life, sometimes.


Here, I understand Bukowski to have meant death to be both literal (in the end) and metaphorical (along the way). Death represents failures, endings, losses, mis-steps – everything that sets us up to grow, to mature, to become more complex, to be reborn, to develop into a new and larger sense of self. That is how we beat the death in the day-to-day-ness in our lives. To keep ourselves from going stale, becoming stagnant. To take what is no longer life-giving, let it go, let it die. And trust that new life comes afterwards, as it does in every natural cycle of life.

and the more often you learn to do it,


the more light there will be.


It is said that adversity does not define character, but instead reveals it. We can learn to withstand our small ego deaths, and tolerate whatever tends to make us feel clubbed into dank submission. Then finally we can become more resilient, more adaptable, more respond-able.   No longer being defined by failures, defeats, losses, endings. We learn to look for the opportunity in every darkness, lostness, and pain, and not just look to escape them. We do this before the light has arrived.

Tolerating ambiguity, the ‘not-yet-ness’ of so many transition spaces in our lives. Our life is our life. Our inner life is ours alone. How we navigate that dark terrain in the face of adversity contributes directly to what comes next. To our ability to petition, look for, recognize and then open to the light, when it comes.

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The image of the trapeze bar comes to me. For many of us, the greatest awakenings and deepest insights often emerge from these in-between spaces, the ones where we have managed to let go of the trapeze bar in mid-air, and have not yet been able to grasp the one arriving. We have to stay aware, and be present to our lives as we tolerate the space between letting go, and taking hold of what comes next.

your life is your life.


know it while you have it.


My inner life, and the ways I express it from my external world, is mine alone.

A unique and perhaps peculiar embodiment of the zeal of eternity for incarnation, in a particular set of space and time circumstances, called my life as it is, right now. Each one of us have to find our own way, making meaning from whatever happens throughout our lives, and keep going.

Know it, while you have it.

In my work, I have repeatedly been privileged to witness people who have taken the chances to live their lives honestly and fully, and be true to themselves. They come to know and accept their limits, and as well are willing to risk going beyond them. People who have an easier time accepting the limits of their place and time on earth, tend to die well when their time to do so comes.

We all know someone who has come to the end of their life filled with regret, knowing well after their time has passed that they missed their chances. James Hollis writes “it is clear that those who fail to risk being who they are, who shun diving into the journey, are the most fear-ridden, regretful, and recriminating…This is a bad way to go.”

So take heed of this truth, wherever you are in the arc of your lifespan, and take the risk to know yourself, the real you, and not the one others expect you to be. This just may be the very thing that makes you become marvelous.

you are marvelous


the gods wait to delight


in you.

We are each indeed marvelous acts of creation. Some are splendid in their particular way of living in beauty. Others of us display extraordinary compassion and courage. Some of us are quirky in behaviors and distinctly unique in appearance; others are more reserved, and we must be patient in the revelation of their true colors. And of course, there are those who are ornery or embittered, who prove to be burdensome. They are ones who are slow to release their suffering, who must learn to soften into their true nature.

But all of us are unmistakably unique, with our particular mosaic of talents, gifts, flaws, potentialities, fates and circumstances. Even if we work hard to shape ourselves to the cultural and familial expectations place upon us by the acceptable roles of consensus reality, the day comes when the gods give us chances – to step out from behind such roles and personas, and let the mystery of who we really be revealed.

In order to truly become a marvel of creation, we each must go through our inevitable trials and tribulations, and face the particular fates and ordeals we conjure. We do this in order to define ourselves, so to bring forth the golden potential within us. I believe that this is how we become marvels, and become heroes.

When we refuse the heroic passages we must take in order to individuate, grow or shine, we refuse the opportunity to become as vulnerable and as magnificent as we actually are, as marvelous human beings. We don’t take up the chances that the gods give us, and take the adventure that brings forth our destiny, and become what gives the gods great delight.

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So today I am embracing Bukowski’s poem. I am on the watch. Believing the gods are giving me chances. I want to know them, at least. Whether or not I will take them, is yet to be seen. But I want the gods to delight in me, so I imagine when my opportunities come, I will be taking chances.

I also know that the gods will be giving you, the one who is reading this, more chances too. They are very likely coming your way now, very soon. Be on the watch. Know them when you see them. Take one of them, when you have the chance. It will further your life. You are marvelous. You just may be the hero of your own life.

I will wait for the chance to delight in you.

– Michael Mervosh

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What if the God of your understanding wants to give you new chances at living?

How will you practice “staying on the watch” for opportunities that come your way?