In his book Fully Alive: Using the Lessons of the Amazon to Live Your Mission in Business and Life, entrepreneur and Amazonian explorer Tyler Gage shares how leaning to work with his shadow helped him build Runa (www.runa.org) in to one of the fastest growing beverage companies in the US that supports over 3,000 indigenous families in Ecuador. In this edited excerpt from Chapter 8 titled ‘Know Your Shadow,” Tyler outlines how Amazonian plants like tobacco serve as “shadow masters” and an alternative approach to understanding marijuana from the Shipibo tribe in Peru.
Our constant worrying about how to get meaningful revenue so that we could raise a real round of investment and avoid becoming failures before our friends and families led to some poor decisions.
In the middle of our drive to expand, we arranged to have a booth at the World Tea Expo in, of all places, Las Vegas, a huge yearly gathering of hundreds of tea companies, distributors, and industry experts. We hoped that it would be a great opportunity to showcase Runa and make connections.
Right before going to the show, I drank and enjoyed some tea samples a small company had sent us. I knew they were going to be at the Expo and wanted to meet them, so I went on their Facebook wall and wrote how much I liked that particular blend.
At that point I had an idea: Why not write on the Facebook walls of all the companies that will be at the expo? Wouldn’t that help get Runa’s name out there? Wasn’t that a scrappy, hustling way to do business?
So, with the help of an intern, we looked on the websites of hundreds of companies to find a unique blend they offered, then posted on each company’s Facebook wall about how much I liked one of their unique blends, adding a comment at the end with our booth number at the expo and an invitation to come by. Then, in the hectic days leading up to the trip, I pretty much forgot about it.
The expo was at the Las Vegas Convention Center, in a gargantuan hall lined with row upon row of booths manned by companies selling everything from packaging materials to manufacturing equipment to broker services and, of course, every kind of tea you can possibly imagine.
We were really proud of the booth we built, which was designed like an Amazonian hut, with a bamboo frame and a fresh leaf roof made from palm fronds we’d grabbed outside the convention center. To add to the experience, we had a blowgun from Ecuador that people could use to shoot darts at a board with a Runa logo on it. With our new glass teapots full of freshly brewed guayusa kept warm by candles underneath, we looked sharp in our new Runa shirts and excitedly waited for the first customers to arrive.
Not long after opening, a guy came to our booth and asked, “Who’s Tyler?”
After I introduced myself, he said that he’d seen my post on his company’s Facebook wall. For a moment I thought my plan had worked: here we were already making connections! What a great way to get our name out there!
But when he started asking me specific questions about which blend of his tea I had tried and why I had liked it, I started to feel sick. As I mumbled a few answers, a look of contempt came over his face.
“I was suspicious about your post on our wall, so I looked at your posting history and saw that you wrote on dozens of walls,” he said. “You’re full of shit.” The worst part was, I couldn’t even argue the point.
Orienting to the Underworld
As stupid as I felt at that moment, I was eventually grateful that he’d called me out. As we were struggling to get Runa off the ground, it was really easy to focus on our mission and all the good we intended to do. Left unchecked, this led to a temptation toward an “Ends justify the means”‒type of thinking. After all, what was cutting a few corners if it meant that hundreds of indigenous farmers would lead better lives? Wasn’t saving the Amazon worth a few harmless white lies here and there?
Alas, here comes the shadow, a dear teacher I was all too eager to do without. (Warning: Get ready to go down a shamanic wormhole here.)
Without a doubt, my favorite word in the Shipibo language is caya. It has three meanings: “shadow,” “reflection,” and “soul,” with profound bridges of wisdom connecting the three definitions. The etymology of the word is ca, the Shipibo word for “go,” and ya, meaning “with.” Your soul is that which goes with you everywhere. Makes sense. Your shadow also goes with you wherever you go. To have a soul is to have a shadow, meaning the “shadow self” (not your physical shadow).
The portal to the soul, from this perspective, is the shadow itself, a doorway that is at once familiar and strange. One of my later Shipibo teachers always says, “The very first thing that happens when you use sacred medicines that connect to your soul is that your shadow comes forward.”
The psychologist Carl Jung called our shadows the “subconscious containers” where we hide all the drives, feelings, and emotions that embarrass us or that we view as negative. Modern psychology would discuss repressed fears, forgotten and denied contents of the psyche, and even collective angst about the difficulty of being human as part of the subconscious psychological forces that influence us in every moment. But in the world of shamanism, theory is quite useless, so the language and approach to these same forces is made more vivid and interactive, creating the potential to actively relate to, incorporate, and heal the shadow.
Basic human nature is to relegate uncomfortable aspects of ourselves to the shadow in order to pretend they don’t exist: seek pleasure, avoid pain. However, the glitch in the operating system is that these aspects of ourselves seep in through our dreams, compulsive behaviors, paranoias, anxieties, and limiting beliefs about ourselves. Jung wrote that the less we understand our shadow, the darker it is and the more likely it is to drive our actions. The shamanic approach dovetails with Jung’s, holding that just as there is day and night, and winter and summer, light and dark are inevitably part of our beings. In short, you can’t be a complete human being without acknowledging and incorporating both. And if the shadow actually follows you everywhere you freaking go no matter what, then best to make friends with it.
From the Shipibo point of view, simply accessing the shadow is very easy. Go sit in the jungle all night by yourself. Done. Do literally anything that makes you afraid or uncomfortable. Mission accomplished. So the very sensitive, subtle, tricky, and challenging game is learning how to be present with the shadow without collapsing into, fighting with, running away from, or getting hijacked by it.
A little darkness can be useful, but too much at one time is totally overwhelming and even dangerous. This was apparent in the way I’d seen the Shipibo shamans working with various plant medicines, where they explicitly invoked a connection with the light and healing properties of a plant before working with it. Even though they would use these plants for healing, the Shipibo didn’t see them as being purely filled with light, benevolence, wholesome intentions, and endless rainbows. To the contrary, they recognized the power these plants have to invoke both darkness and light. Rather than being “good” on their own, the Shipibo regard these plants as agnostic, even amoral, in their static state. Through specific prayers, songs, and “conversations” with the plant spirits, they say that each can be properly directed and oriented. The idea isn’t necessarily that the dark side is “bad” and that you should avoid it but that you need be prepared to work with it.
Tobacco, for example, is a “shadow master” sacred plant with both powerful light and dark sides. For indigenous people, it’s a plant with a profound ability to strengthen, straighten, clarify, open, and manifest, and has been the most widely used sacred plant in the history of human civilization. When used in prayer, it is believed to amplify the intentions behind the prayer and communicate them on subtle levels to the power of the great mystery beyond.
Regardless of its stature as a “sacred” plant, tobacco is also seen to be “of the shadows.” Quite literally the plant is known as a nightshade (a member of the Solanaceae family), and, from a shamanic perspective its orientation is said to be toward the subconscious. It is seen to be highly programmable, both a sponge and an amplifier.
People in the modern world use tobacco to tamp down anxiety and escape from stress. The plant itself is degraded, as it is grown with pesticides and then processed into cigarette tobacco with chemicals such as formaldehyde and arsenic. Without any reverence or positive intentionality invoked in its production or usage, the intention and invocation become the underlying fear and anxiety the smoker brings to the experience, making the tobacco a vehicle for addiction and illness.
While shamans have long seen the dual nature of tobacco, it’s interesting that modern scientific studies have found a “dual reinforcement model” in nicotine addiction. In other words, nicotine is not only itself addictive, it also sets off a number of chemical responses that further reinforce the addiction. For example, studies have found that if you smoke to relieve stress, the nicotine actually triggers secondary neurological responses in your brain that really do reduce stress, making you that much more addicted to using nicotine to get the stress relief.
A menacing, shamanically poetic interpretation would say that the tobacco has turned on you and is taking your lack of will to face the underlying anxiety as an offering to it. With that offering in hand, the tobacco uses your anxiety against you, further weakening your ability to find constructive ways to relate to your anxiety in the first place. While this is clearly hypothetical, it does beg the inverse question of whether using tobacco with positive intentions then reinforces those good feelings, which is what the shamans would claim.
You can use an axe to split wood for a fire, or you can use an axe to inflict harm. Intention is the deciding factor. Intention—the more refined and empowered the better—is the “nurture” that intersects with the “nature” of any medicine. With intention, you can be clear about your purpose for entering or exploring a shadow element before you go there. In this way you can access feelings of anger, mistrust, grief and other shadow emotions without giving yourself over to them.
For Shipibo shamans, “dark” plants or “dark” energies are ones that must be programmed because of their receptive natures. Tobacco is addictive—it’s a dangerous game on its own. A simple parallel highlights the basic idea: Would you ever hire an employee or executive you knew was very powerful and just let them loose with no job description, no training, no goals, and no reporting structure?
The Shipibo view of marijuana was of special interest to me, since I had relied on it so much to escape depression and anxiety during my first year of college. One of my later Shipibo teachers would always begin his explanations about a plant, person, or opportunity with: “Cuando lo examinas bien . . .” (“When you examine it closely . . .”). From a shamanic perspective, superficial appearances or effects are never to be trusted, and you must look at the core intentions and origins of anything you consume or relate to: the platitude “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” applies here.
Another one of my favorite sayings, learned from a Native American elder, is: “White man medicine makes you feel good, then makes you feel bad. Red man medicine makes you feel bad, then makes you feel good.” The Shipibo would say this is actually the line between a “drug” and a “medicine” as well. Drugs help you skip over the real problem and provide temporary relief by offering an illusion of goodness. Yet, simultaneously, they create space for the illness, pain, or confusion to root itself in further. Medicines take you right into the pain and, if successful, uproot it from the source.
So while the effects of marijuana can be calming, relieving, sensual, and heartfelt, the plant is, literally, sticky, and that can be mirrored in its effects: it generally envelops you in a hazy fuzz. To shamans, whose entire healing philosophy centers around cleaning, opening, and aligning, a plant that is hazy and sticky goes completely against that intention. The actual psycho-spiritual mechanism of marijuana, they say, is to “cross your mind” and actually plug up your channels, disconnect you, and thereby produce a type of euphoria or transient clarity—the basic mechanism of a “drug.”
While marijuana can unlock some doors of perception and produce insights, opening the doors of perception is not the goal from their point of view. In contrast, for modern people who live in largely repressed societies with little to no opportunities for consciousness expansion, the simple act of deepening connection to sensuality, the heart, laughter, and a sacred feeling of life can be an incredible blessing. Smoking weed in high school gifted me some of my first experiences of feeling the spirit of life, the magic of the universe, and the power of love.
But when the Shipibo shamans have dozens and dozens of plants to accomplish this same goal in what they would say is a more spiritually sound fashion, the appeal just isn’t there. The dangers of getting caught in the plant’s fuzzy grip outweigh any benefits it might have. A critical note is that no part of their perspective has any moral judgment. They’re generally quite libertarian in my experience and avoid saying what someone should or shouldn’t do. Their advice is to just understand the deeper layers of association and look more broadly at the effects of anything you do.
Check out Fully Alive: Using the Lessons of the Amazon to Live Your Mission in Business and Life on Amazon.com or at tylergage.com. Follow Tyler on Instagram @tylergage