Body By Play – Physical Culture 2.0 in Practice

 “I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.
Physical Culture 2.0 — The Autobiography

Somewhere in the early 1970s Mike Spino, a formidable challenger for national honors in the 10 kilometer race, did an all out training session. Years of training had forged considerable self-mastery of the subtleties of mind and body that occur when going for broke. This was to be a record breaking run. He was totally unprepared for what was to overtake all of him. Running at full speed aimed at getting to the finish in record time, strange sensations overtook him. Within his consciousness, his skin began falling off, dissolving into thin air; his bone soon followed course. Mike’s sense of himself became energy moving effortlessly through space-time, a sense of perfect flow that nothing could stop. Reaching the finish line, he collapsed in uncontrollable crying and weeping — tears of ecstatic bliss never before experienced combined with an immense sadness due to knowing he could not tell anyone of this since no one would understand. He ran the event within scant seconds of a world record!

Spino wasn’t alone. The annals of sports, fine and performing arts, martial arts and contemplative traditions abound with such incidences. Incidences in their clean form corresponding to what shamans the world over report when describing their journey from this world to the next — and both are right here! Always marking these experiences are unprecedented personal experience of joy, ecstasy, bliss and the sense of entering a new life, a new body: self-mastery in the art of play.

Physical Culture 2.0 has been my lifelong adventure; a journey like Spino’s taking me to unexpected places, coaches, and learnings. It’s fair to say Physical Culture 2.0 is autobiographical in that it’s my story, one at least 52 of my 67 years in the making. As Jung once noted of his psychology, there can be only one Jungian since his entire psychology embodies his journey of self-disclosure. Physical Culture 2.0 is first and foremost my autobiography, one akin to the Grateful Dead’s line “what a long strange trip it’s been” – noting its resonance with others, hopefully a movement called PC 2.0 will emerge. Don’t hold me responsible for that — I can only feign responsibility for my originating it as autobiography in search of the art of being a human player.

It originates when as a bookish high school science student I joined the swim team in my sophomore year. Coach Dick Threllfel was a maverick for those days, having purchased barbells to strengthen his swimmers. I was bit by the iron bug enough that I bought my first set within weeks. Coach Threllfel left at the end of that year, our new ‘coach’ bringing a wealth of retrogressive training ideas. I left the team, got an after school job, passionately weight training at home.

Since Physical Culture is an art, it can’t be successfully learned from books. Coaches and mentors are necessary to guide your journey’s beginning. Instead of one coach, Saturday mornings at the San Jose YMCA provided a community of mentors — athletes, fitness buffs, Olympic lifters, power lifters,  body builders, and professional wrestlers — most agreeable to passing on their wisdom to a kid passionately hungry to learn. They were good fun. Several of the wrestlers compassionately yet strongly suggested some coaching in self-defense was in order for a book worm: Saturdays took on the extra measure of an hour on the mat, no punches pulled although the knives and guns I went up against were rubber imitations. There came a point, here in 1960, when they strongly urged I get over to the nearby very large Buddhist temple to learn judo and meditation — stressing that meditation is key to strength and fitness as a high art of play.

In time I did more than that by becoming a full scholarship student earning a graduate degree from a Japanese Buddhist institute and then, in Kyoto, Japan, gaining advanced training, testing of the substance of my spirit, resulting in being awarded title of Kyoshi (‘teachings master’, same as  Zen master).

I never had a sense of going East or taking up Eastern philosophy. For me, I was taking part in a naturalistic humanism.

The Cultural Zoo

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area enforced the value of cultural divergence. My home county doesn’t have an ethnic or racial majority. Public schools offer many more languages than just English, Spanish and French. The Bay Area has been a robust artistic, intellectual, and athletic renaissance for far more than a century. Such a culture forges perspectives often different than what is normal most everywhere else: cultures other than one’s own open a sense of fascination in difference and choices we can make about how we live and value.

As an undergraduate I majored in philosophy and psychology in quest of understanding the nature of humans. As graduation approached it became clear for me that Western philosophy and psychology were far too limited. Something greater was calling from a gut level intuition. Exposure to sports, Buddhism and martial arts all evidenced the nature of life being far greater than imagined and accounted for in my major subjects. What’s more, all three knew of deep reserves of energy and power remaining mysterious and hidden to orthodox Western thought. So with that call to adventure, I plunged right in.

As a life long athlete I train for fun, for play, for joy. It’s natural for me. With that I’ve had a very difficult time understanding people who need motivation to train: my conclusion is the joy of play is foreign to them. The fitness industry’s number one concerns are recruitment and retention of members: again, the joy of play is absent among those for whom there’s no art of living. Considering the huge annual consumption of physician prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals along with self-medication with alcohol and recreational drugs, one can reasonably conclude for much of the population life is a mechanical drudgery devoid of the natural grace of joy and play.

Something unusual happened in Western European culture starting in 1534 with the advent of Calvinism — that portion of the Protestant Reformation known as Puritanism. Max Weber’s classic study of Protestantism and the rise of the middle class emphasize that movement’s success in formulating our dearly loved work ethic. In particular, Calvinism emphasized a tacit necessity for hard work resulting in worldly success as visible evidence of predestined personal salvation. The Protestant work ethic is also known as the Puritan work ethic.

During the short reign of Oliver Cromwell (1653-1658), who overthrew the British monarchy, appointing himself Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, the English language took a decided swing toward suppression of sensual pleasure. Cromwell’s reign resulted in an enduring censoring of the English language and values, condemning sensual pleasure and emphasizing the hard work ethic. Even Christmas was banned as too overly sensually pleasurable! A long standard verb for sexual intercourse as banned, known today as the “F” word. Resurgence of Puritanism as Victorian Morality surfaced with the 19th century reign of Queen Victoria, greatly influencing Americans.

Puritanical regimes never lasted long in Europe as sanity returned pleasure and play to rightful balance. Many Puritans sought escape from libertine Europe, becoming founding citizens of new colonies in North America. Their adherence to a strong work ethic and disregard for play and sensual pleasure became deeply engrained in the American spirit. You need look no further than the rhetoric of political candidates to find those buzz words alive and well.

Ironically, we pollute the play of training by infecting it with the hard work concept: we say we’re working out, not enjoying play.

Fortunately my college education awoken me to the origins and persistence of Puritanical hard work and anhedonia (the inability to enjoy; the word means “not hedonic, not a hedonist).   Reading Nietzsche, William Blake, and Alan Watts convinced me play, dance, music, joy are basic. Are there cultures based on those hedonic life values?

My brief introduction to Buddhism years earlier caught up with me through Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell. Both stressed words such as the Sanskrit terms ananda and sukhu and the Japanese yorokobi. Watts pointed out that in Puritanically based English we insult someone by telling them to go enjoy sex, while in Japanese the same expression is complimentary. Martial artists added those states of peak performance and flow, and not only is there a subtly pervasive joy but along with it comes a powerful energy.

We have several hundred years of interpretative accounts of the ‘religions’ of India and China. Because Western European culture has a long, rich tradition of religion based on dogmatic creeds of belief, we expect the rest of the world to be just the same. Until you learn how to get out of your cultural orientation, you remain an unknowing prisoner of it. We don’t know how to know we’re inmates of a human zoo, one that keeps us in order, makes us predictable, while preventing us the grace of being naturally wild. Once gaining a modicum of freedom, learning to question authority initiates learning who you are and what choices life offers. For me, my task became understanding the traditions of China and India had to be taken in on their own terms in a raw and unfiltered manner  — along with avoiding the trap of symptom substitution by jumping from one zoo to another.

How do you distinguish a zoo from a play area? Zoos are filled with orthodox authorities including politicians, lawyers, clergy, etc. All will colonize you with laws, rules, and regulations as the price of membership. Coaches and mentors point you on the way, encouraging experimentation so you get it just right for yourself. They have general principles instead of laws. Zookeepers emphasize faith in a dogmatic system; coaches encourage doubt so you can know yourself and master playing.

Early in my explorations I was fortunate to hear a story from history bearing orienting wisdom. Alexander the Great conquered much of India, and had been tutored as a young man in philosophy by Aristotle. Once he’d conquered India, he sought intellectual entertainment by sending one of his Generals out to locate some philosophers with whom to debate. The General returned announcing he’d found philosophers, however they refused his offer. After several attempts at ordering them to his court, Alexander finally went out to demand their compliance. There they were, seated on a high boulder stark naked in the searing Indic heat. He demanded they come down to speak with him about philosophy. They replied that persons with so little self-mastery preventing stripping down and joining them in the heat bore no development worthy of serious conversation.

Note the important cultural difference. Our Western tradition separates mind from body: for India, there’s no separation. Mental dexterity and physical dexterity are one and the same. Today neuroscientists call us humans embodied minds. Indian philosophy integrates and coordinates our embodied mind, holding that nature of life is play and joy. I was headed on the right track!

Threefold Embodied Mind Training

Of tremendous importance to Trans-Evolutionary Fitness’ Physical Culture 2.0 is a training method called the Threefold Embodied Mind. Each option or stage points to the beliefs and knowledge embodying our living.

The Convention Driven Embodied Mind gets shaped and informed growing up in a family, with peers, schooling all making us card carrying members of a culture. Einstein described it noting that common sense is that layer of prejudices acquired prior to the 18th birthday. Such living subjects you to the stresses and melodramas shaping ordinary life. Politicians and salesmen take strong advantage of manipulating conditioned fear. At best we can say of this condition that we are civilized yet barely human abiding within the zoo.

 Embodied Mind training practices are employed to wear through the veneer encapsulating you in the momentum of mediocrity of being a convention driven embodiment. You gain strength and power in emotional intelligence and self-regulation. Neuroscience today recognizes so-called contemplative practices take advantage of neuroplasticity to remodel the structure and operation of your brain. Gaining self-mastery and volitional choice in maintaining inner calm and peace allows for observation of how your attention easily distracts, thereby taking a first step in gaining control of what you attend to.

The Joyful Embodied Mind emerges as strengthening of emotion  and insightful attention grows. I’m using Joyful due to an immense translation challenge. Sanskrit, the classical language of India, distinguishes between many kinds of experiences of joy, fulfillment, ecstasy, and bliss: in comparison, European languages are relatively impoverished. The word I translate as joy means orgasmic in general Sanskrit. I refrain from using orgasmic so you won’t get the wrong idea. Orgasmic is used to call attention to the grace of naturally fulfilling blissful ecstasy related to this very world. A crucial point is reached in experience bringing lasting change: gone is the sense of confinement, stress, and being burdened and alienated. A subtle, pervasive bliss awakens in you — one’s that’s inborn and genomic but unexpressed in the human zoo. In the human zoo, pleasure and pain are opposites we feel, while we seek transcendence from pain in pleasure. On that basis, both are fleeting and temporary. Orgasmic also points to the relational basis of becoming Joyful Embodied Mindfulness: you’re no longer stuck in a mandated role, having nothing to prove or fear, hence are authentic and free in life with others. Your values shift to Being-values.

Our natural Joyful Embodied Mind is said to be a transcendent state. It does get us out of the mutually dependent dynamism of pleasure versus pain, transcending those psychologically conditioned states. Yet it does not transcend them in terms of leaving this world, or creating special immunizing conditions of living. In that sense, Immanence is a better choice of words. With cultivation of your Joyful Embodied Mind you become more deeply and joyfully immersed in life than ever before. As Joseph Campbell put it: life calls to you and you answer with “YES.” Your brain structure and function measurably change as does your physiology — and most of your entire attitude. Symptoms of being a Joyfully Embodied Mind include laughter, seeing the humor of conventional life, and being irrevocably happy.

The Play Embodied Mind counts as the higher achievement, the one of becoming fully human. Your self-identity shifts for protecting the integrity of a conventionally informed self (ego) to identification as a human being being human. You’ve mastered the art of play. Developing your Play Embodied Mind is the basis of Physical Culture 2.0 as the operating transformational methodology of Trans-Evolutionary Fitness. In that sense, I’ll let the cat out of the bag — whole person fitness is playfulness, the art of living joy. In that regard, PC 2.0 isn’t a commercial exercise theory or training routine: it aims at waking up joy and play as the base camp for exploration of the next step in volitional, voluntary evolution.

In1938 book of Dutch historian and cultural theorist, Professor Johan Huizing’s Homo Ludens or “Man the Player”. For Huizinga, play is an important element of culture and society — so much so that Huizinga held our next step in human evolution was to become Homo Ludens. A culture without play is barely living. A culture without play becomes a passive spectator culture made up of couch potatoes! With spectator activities, we well pay others to play before us, living vicariously through them. But even many of our athletic heroes have lost that sense of play, becoming ersatz superheroes in performance enhancement pharmaceutical driven ‘sports’.

Please take a minute for a reality check, including scanning your entire body’s feelings. How does the foregoing fit? It’s an age old map and method for becoming fully, freely, playfully human. Yet it may be strange to your cultural conditioning. It’s roots go back more than 3,000 years — likely much further to the first shamans and human hunters.

From Physical Culture 1.0 to Physical Culture 2.0

In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution belief arose that the middle and upper classes suffered from various diseases of affluence. Inspired by classical Greek and Roman athletic training and borrowing exercise systems from folk games, sport and dance, military training and medical calisthenics, more-or-less new ‘scientific’ systems of exercise developed. Many were new businesses. New levels of literacy, an emerging publication industry, and ability to mass produce and distribute exercise equipment all contributed to a rapidly developed Physical Culture 1.0 movement. The first wave of the enduring battle of exercise systems grew as well.

Physical Culture 2.0’s most important attribute lies within its context of development: its foundation is Trans-Evolutionary Fitness, hence PC 2.0 aims at the next step in evolution being consciously volitional, incorporating our embodied minds as our personal director. In fuller version, PC 2.0 incorporates emotional intelligence, stress management and development of brain/mind responses overcoming detrimental aspects of contemporary living. PC 2.0 is an evolutionary transformationalist orientation.  In that context, fitness is vividly whole system oriented.

Physical Culture 2.0 mission is to contribute its understanding participating in a grassroots revolution in health education empowering volitional, preventative self-care stimulating fullest development of genomic potential for health and fitness. Awakening the innate joy of playful participation in life is a major evolutionary step for most.

Watch for announcements of forthcoming educational publications, workshops, and private coaching from my Smart FIT (fully integrative training). And stay tuned as I reveal more installments of Physical Culture 2.0, my personal evolutionary journey.


In formulating Physical Culture 2.0 I must acknowledge my sources and influences otherwise the deepest significance of it being rooted in play will be missed.

A big part of my daily life is Rusty (13), Mandhi (10), Oso (9), Copper (5) and Cisco Bob (7): Rusty, Copper, and Cisco Bob are Australian Shepherds, Oso a strapping 100 pound Aussie-Retriever mix, and Mandhi a Queensland Healer. Supposedly working dogs, they are masters of play.

Each morning my first task is caring for them, in between sips of fresh coffee. Each greats me with new day exuberance. While it’s breakfast time, each prefers starting the day with some earnest play.

Each has a unique personality. Copper’s incredibly smart, runs after a ball with the intensity of a predator. I call Mandhi by the nickname ‘bullet’ for her running speed and agility. Rusty’s not the best fetching ball player, more a clown by nature: if he sees me folding laundry, he’ll dash in, snatch something, and then take off with it. Oso’s the big guy for whom there’s never an end to a retrieving game of tennis ball fetching. Cisco Bob, Mr. Imperturbable, excels at mid-air flying ball catching: cats, squirrels and deer don’t run from this mellow fellow. Play rules!

Copyrighted © 2011 by Ken O’Neill. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited:  all rights reserved by copyright holder.

About Trans-Evolutionary Fitness

At age 14 I was a science geek whose life was irreversibly changed upon lifting a barbell: I became a Physical Culturist whose science roots rendered me a walking question mark, a Free Thinker. Fascinated by rumor of a mind-muscle or mind-body connection I sought in vane for answers, all but laughed out of the Western academy. Graduate work in a Japanese Buddhist university bestowed beginner's understanding of how consciousness results in mental, emotional and physical embodiment along with voluntary control of our lives. I became a Kyoshi of the Jodo Shin heritage of Japanese Buddhism in 1972, then went on earning further competencies in Western psychological and gnostic traditions. Human wisdom heritages offer a heartfelt understanding of how consciousness creatively embodies us so greatly needed for both facing the anthropocene crisis and gaining self-mastery by a quantum leap to a meta-biological orientation to life. Trans-Evolutonary Fitness, my other blogs, and podcast all stand as contributions supporting a grassroots Renaissance of well being.
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4 Responses to Body By Play – Physical Culture 2.0 in Practice

  1. Dave Keene says:

    Nice article!

  2. Chris G says:

    This is incredible. As someone who studied philosophy and religion in college and now trains using principles borrowed from CrossFit, MovNat, Exuberant Animal, and Floreio, I feel at home reading this. I would love to read more about how your contemplative practice relates to your physical practice! Thanks so much.

    • Hi Chris:
      I don’t really separate physical and contemplate – that’s the point of embodying as a non-dual term. Normal training focuses on counting reps, so I start people counting out breathes, a standard, simple contemplative exercise – along with awareness of proper movement. In time, one enters a flow state NOT having to think about what has become a new modality of consciousness.
      A point of irony with Buddhist groups here in the States is their use of the term “sitting Buddhists” implying only if sitting is one the real deal, or those who don’t sit aren’t the real deal. And that amounts to construction a fictional perspective by contemporaries blatanly unfamiliar with 26 centuries of traditional accounts said to originate with the Buddha himself: non-dual mindfulness is cultivated when standing, sitting, laying down, and moving. In Japanese, the expression pertaining to such latter day intrusions is “Oshaku ni seppo” – that person would preach Buddhism to the Buddha! Or Gaigin no bukkyo, interpreted as “the Buddhism of those who don’t understand that they don’t understand.”
      Real flow state is where the abstract noun ’emptiness’ becomes the active verb ’emptied’ in the sense there’s no thinking about it, just doing it, no separation between actor, acted upon, and action. That’s the seat of incredible power. Marty Gallagher’s wonderful book The Purposefully Primitive sheds more light on the Zen of it applied to lifting.
      Have fun!

  3. Pingback: Wednesday 121010 | CrossFit NYC

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