When I was a boy growing up in Southern California in the 1960s, the concept of physical fitness, as we know it today, did not yet exist. There had always been sports and athletics, of course, but those pursuits were for a special minority; most of us were not athletes and did not consider exercise to be particularly relevant to our lives except in our capacity as spectators.
And yet, change was in the air. A few visionaries had taken it upon themselves to bring exercise to the people. And it was from these early efforts that the modern concept of physical fitness emerged and began to penetrate the consciousness of everyday folks. One early pioneer was Jack Lalanne, who would eventually come to be seen as the “godfather of fitness.” I remember Jack Lalanne well. He had his own television show, was impressively muscular, charmingly energetic, and always dressed in his trademark black or navy blue jumpsuit. And he always seemed to be doing jumping jacks. The popular image of physical fitness in the 60s was Jack Lalanne doing jumping jacks. At a time when there were only a handful of television stations to choose from, Jack Lalanne was impossible to miss, and he soon became a fixture in every living room in America. Before long, we were all doing jumping jacks in front of the TV.
We can look back now and chuckle at how unsophisticated we were compared to our current understanding of physical fitness. There has been an explosion of sophistication in both the theory and application of exercise science. It is now possible to train with great precision to achieve virtually any kind of physique, always taking into account your own natural strengths and limitations. Whether you want to be a ballet dancer or a power lifter, a tennis player or a marathoner, you can find a fitness trainer who can help you do it. Most importantly, everyday folks who have no intention of ever playing a competitive sport understand the value of physical fitness and often make it a priority in their lives. Physical fitness is real, the concept is well established, and the benefits are well accepted, not just for athletes, but for everyone. And all of this has happened within a single human lifetime.
We are ready for a parallel revolution in contemplative fitness. Years from now, we will look back and chuckle at how unsophisticated we were in our understanding of meditation and its benefits way back in the opening years of the 21st century. Even for those of us who accept that such a thing as spiritual awakening is possible, the field tends to be shrouded in religion, superstition, hero-worship, and unrealistic expectations. We look for inspiration to the Buddha, the Zen Patriarchs, Ramana Maharshi, or some saintly figure from our own time, rarely allowing ourselves to consider that in order for awakening to become real, we must make the transition from spectators to participants. The physical fitness revolution exploded when we stopped watching Jack Lalanne on TV and started doing jumping jacks of our own. The contemplative fitness revolution will begin when we stop looking to our spiritual heroes and start meditating.