S2 E5: Jeff Reid on Finding Inspiration in Ancient Wisdom

In 2007, Jeff Reid left his hometown in Rhode Island to travel halfway across the world and study martial arts in China’s Wudang Mountains. So what did he discover there? And what do those ancient practices offer for people recovering from addiction and mental health issues today?

Podcast Transcript

Jeff: Hello, my name is Jeff Reid. I’m a Daoist kung-fu teacher from Rhode Island. I spent the past 15 years of my life training Daoist martial arts, Qi Gong, Tai Chi,and other cultivation practices.

David: Absolutely. All right. Oh, man, so good to have you here, Jeff.

Jeff: It’s good to be here.

David: Yes, thank you for being here. So, you gave us a brief intro there, but could you dive in a little bit deeper about how you got interested in eastern culture, eastern practices. Where did this start for you?

Jeff: I was always kind of the black sheep in my family. There was something about eastern culture, specifically, Chinese and Japanese, looking at the martial arts practices, looking at calligraphy, music, religious thought, all these different kinds of things, that to me there was something about how alien and foreign to my experience that they were, that there was a great allure to them. Even though when I was younger, I was quite rebellious, anti-authoritative, but there was something to me about the discipline required in achieving such heights of human potential through the martial arts practice or meditation practice, calligraphy, all of these different things. That there is something really appealing to me about that as opposed to what I was receiving in school and at home and whatnot.

Then when I was about, I think I was 20 or 19 years old, I started looking for martial arts classes again because in high school a teacher have introduced me to Daoist thought. She gave me theDao De Jing. Which is one of the more important scriptural texts in Daoism. I just remembered reading it and I mean, like, this is what I mean.

David: It spoke to you?

Jeff: Yes. Really, truly, on a very deep level. I wanted to learn more, but I didn’t really know how to do that as a 19-year-old dude in Rhode Island. It just seemed like it was so clear yet so far away. So, I started looking into doing different martial arts, trying to see something that would work. I did some did aikido. Then somebody told me that there is a Chinese martial arts school in Providence. As soon as I started the first class, I was like, “This is what I’ve been looking for.” It just immediately spoke to me.

Then strangely one day I was training in the city and someone came to watch our class. She was wearing kung-fu clothes, standard. You know somebody does kung-fu if they’re wearing these specific kind of shoes and these billowing baggy pants. She was talking to us at the end of the class. I asked her. I said, “Where do you train?” She just said Wudang. To me Wudang, that’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. That’s where the main character from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragonsupposedly trained in the movie.

To me, this was always this mystical magical place. I didn’t know if you could just go there. So, I kept in touch with her over two years. Then two weeks after I graduated from university, I was on a plane to China and I stayed there for 7 years.

David: Talk us through kind of that jump. You say you were this black sheep. You got some exposure to these set of traditions and that interested you, but then how do you get from there to boarding that plane to somewhere you’ve never been, going to the Wudang region in China, you tell us about that jump.

Jeff: I was seeking something different which I always have since I was a kid. I thought, “Okay, let me go check this out,” because I was thinking, “Okay, maybe I can go there for a couple of months and then I’ll go to Taiwan and I’ll teach English in Taiwan.” Then when I got to China and I met my master, we immediately just clicked, we immediately had a really strong connection. He could tell, one, that I’ve worked hard, and two, that I really needed guidance. From there that relationship ended up just going fully forward.

David: When you got off the plane how did you meet this master? What did you see?

Jeff: Before I went to Wudang, I went to the Sichuan, Chéngdū Tǐyù Xuéyuàn, that’s Chéngdū sports university with one of my friends from Providence. He really wanted to go and I was like, “Okay, cool. Go check it out.” We got off the plane and I’m there on two years of Chinese in university which is maybe six months of Spanish. I mean, like Chinese is not an easy language. The person who was supposed to meet us wasn’t there and it was midnight.

I somehow got us into a taxi and we somehow made it to the sports university. I did my month there. Then when I got to Wudang, the school that I was training at was at the base of the mountain right next to, basically, the largest temple complex in Wudang. I mean just waking up in the morning, walking there and seeing this place and seeing an entire world dedicated to practice and cultivation, for me, was just like, “Okay, this is what I want.” A lot of people asked me, “What was that like?”

If there’s one word that in the entirety, if you were to like narrow it down to one word, I’d say, “Difficult.” As strange as that is to say, I never once thought of quitting. I quit a lot of stuff in my life. Skateboarding, snowboarding, arts, making music and I was like, “I have to do this. I have to finish this.” My master really made sure that he gave me the necessary guidance in order to do that.

Meeting him and developing the kind of relationship I developed with him has just been something for me that’s been perhaps the greatest honor of my life is having this man in my life as a teacher and guiding me through a time in which I was lost and giving me something that doesn’t necessarily mean that I will not be lost again, but to be like “Here you go, here’s a compass when you’re lost.”

David: You mentioned earlier the idea of Daoism. Can you unpack that a little bit for people who aren’t familiar?

Jeff: Yes. Again, it’s one of those ‘how much time you got.’ The Daoist tradition, it’s a very singular term for very plural tradition. You have this tradition that didn’t really become necessarily self-aware for quite some time and so you have this accumulation of a lot of different practices that come in under this heading of Daoism, but then you have just multiple, multiple traditions. Even within those traditions, the teachers are going to be teaching differently. You’re going to be getting a different kind of transmission, but all of it goes back to this idea of a mystical union with Dao, which comes about through some form of practice.

David: What is Dao?

Jeff: That’s a good question. This is a really, really hard question to answer. For example, the first line in the Dao De Jing,Dao Ke Dao Fei Chang Dao, means that the Dao that we can say is Dao, this is not Dao.

David: You’re not supposed to understand it. It’s not what it is?

Jeff: For example, the name of the podcast, Beyond Theory. The only way to truly be able to understand what Dao is, what this great mystery is that underlies literally all things in from existence to nonexistence is even beyond that, beyond this duality of the human experiences is through practice, is through cultivation, is through harmonizing the self. The idea that we are a microcosm of this greater macrocosm.

If we want to sort of understand this greater mystery, let’s start with the more accessible minor mystery of the self because we are a manifestation of Dao. How do we understand that? The universe has certain laws which means that nature is going to have certain ways that it manifests in following those laws. Simple way of understanding, the seasons. For Daoists, the idea is that we want to harmonize with these things because if you are in disharmony you will be suffering. Very basic principle. You want to understand Daoism? What do you do when it’s cold outside? You put a jacket on. Okay, now you understand Daoism.

Jeff: Yes. That can apply to your choices and your actions and being aware.

David: That’s a key word there is that awareness because there’s a line that’s often very mistranslated from the Dao de Jing where people say the journey of one thousand miles begins with the first step. Wrong translation, which is problematic in general with a lot of translations in English, is the last two lines of that phrase in Chinese are ‘zú xià’. Zú xià means beneath the feet. The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath your feet, which means not just randomly acting from this place of chaos and let me go here, let me do that and let me do this. First, stop, quiet the self, take stock and then from there we can determine, okay, now can I see things clearly? We need to be able to quiet the chaos in here, which is very difficult.

Jeff:I’m starting to pick up some of the parallels between this and the recovery journey. As we’re transitioning to talking about how this applies here at the Meadows outpatient Silicon Valley and to addiction recovery, mental health recovery in general, what does this offer to people who are in that place?

David: Well, there’s a lot of ways. One is that, in Daoism we don’t view the human experience as a disparate grouping of not connected things. We view the human experience as very interconnected. It’s not like if you’re driving a car and you’d take the radio out, the car can keep driving. The human experience is not like that. Everything is interconnected. That’s one way from a theoretical standpoint is to understand that our experience, every experience, every aspect, every single aspect of our life is interconnected in some way and it’s going to be affected and effected by. Another way is the emphasis in Daoism on what’s called jing. Jing is stillness, ‘guo’ is practice. So the practice of stilling the mind. A lot of times I give people this cliched example of a lake. What does the lake look like to you David?

Jeff: Still, peaceful. So was that you’re going for? [crosstalk]

David: Most of the time when you ask people that, they think, Oh, it’s very still, peaceful, quiet, tranquil, maybe some birds flying overhead. Most people’s minds are not like this. Most people’s minds are there’s boats flying through the water. There’s oil and gas in the water. There’s kids running around screaming, shooting off fireworks and it’s just a cacophony of noise and pollution and dirt and muck coming up from the bottom of the Lake. With that lake, you can’t see to the bottom, you also can’t see a clear reflection coming back at you. This is the same thing with the mind.

When we start to do a practice where one, we slow down, and two, we quiet the mind and the body through specifically a practice that focuses on the body connecting the mind to the body, anchoring the mind back in the present experience. Maybe we get the people in the lake to calm down a little bit. Maybe. Yes, it takes time. When that happens, maybe all that muck in the lake starts to settle a little bit and then we can see a bit more clearly down to the bottom to see what’s really at the bottom. Even in Daoism we have a phrase means to return to the roots.

In that way when we slow down– For example, I drove up here on highway 17 from Santa Cruz, which is a very dangerous highway and it’s again, it’s an example I use all the time. If you drive really fast, it’s very, very dangerous. It’s dangerous anyways. You have to really slow down and really pay attention. When you slow down, you can notice danger before it arrives and you can also be able to look around. Wow. Beautiful scenery. One of the big things that I focus on in the work that I do here is slowing down, listening, and noticing, not to do anything with it. The goal isn’t to do anything with it, especially in the beginning. No. Just notice. How do we do that? Okay. First we need to slow down and stop and just have one thing to focus on.

One, posture, literally how we’re holding ourselves, number one. Number two, the breath. Literally that physical pulse of life. It’s literally the pulse of our existence. That’s like an anchoring process for the mind. It’s very, very hard. It’s very hard. A lot of people look at a meditation practice and they say, “Oh, that’s easy. You just sit there.” Yes, try. Meditation’s really difficult because it’s like a mirror and it will show you things. Something I tell students a lot, I say, “Look, whatever comes up in the meditation practice, that is the practice itself and it’s all you.” If it’s-

Jeff: It’s going to be different for every person.

David: Absolutely. Everything that comes up is fine. Even if this great anger rises up or this great sorrow or fear or anxiety or boredom, it doesn’t mean that when you start to do a practice of stillness that you’re immediately going to have peace. The same way, it doesn’t mean when you start to do, for example, therapy sessions. After a life of living in a habituated way of being, you can expect that there is a magic bullet. So there’s the recognition of it requires work. It requires an endurance, which requires a certain amount of faith in what you’re doing. It requires practice all aiming towards you putting the work in and the realization that, Hey, you can do this and only you can. There are people who are going to help you on the way to do what to show you that you can do it.

Jeff:For someone who is interested in this, this is peaking their interest, what’s a resource or book, something you would direct them to?

David: I would say in order to understand some of Daoist thought regarding these practices and whatnot, a really accessible book is a book called Awakening to the Dao,which is by a Ching dynasty Daoist named Lui I-Ming. It’s the translation of this one that I’ve seen is by Thomas Cleary and it’s quite accessible without watering anything down to much.

Jeff: Good place to start. All right. Then to wrap up what would be one piece of advice, piece of wisdom, something that you were told along your journey or something that you keep finding yourself passing on to others?

David: Like Ashley, the office manager here always says that I always have some quote. She’s like, “What’s the quote today?” One of the lessons that my master gave to me when I was going through my own struggles with what I could endure and feeling beaten and destroyed, he said, “móchǔchéngzhēn.” “Mó” means to grind. It means to temper something. “Chǔ” is like a thick iron bar or like a pestle, like a mortar and pestle. “Chéng” means to become. “Zhēn” means a needle. The story is that the patron God of Wudang, Xuanwu, felt that he’d failed his training and so he decided he was done.

He was going to leave his practice and he went down the mountain and he saw this old woman with this big iron bar just grinding it on this rock. He said, “What are you doing?” She said, “I’m making a needle,” and he was like, “Well, that seems like a lot of hard work.” She said, “Yes, but if I continue, I will succeed.” That’s what I would say is to remember that it is a path whether you want to talk about this cultivation as a path or recovery as a path, it is a path and to also rely on other people to lean into other people that you know will support you, but to remember that it’s never going to be perfect. The most important thing is to keep going.

David: Jeff Reid is a teacher of Wudang Daoism and Chinese martial arts based in Santa Cruz, California. He also leads Tai Chi and Chi-gong as part of the Meadows outpatient program in Silicon Valley. Learn more about Jeff in his practice on his website, wudangdaoism.com.