Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing a man who is making a big impact on the Amazon Rainforest and also changing the way the world thinks about conscious business. His name is Tyler Gage and he’s breaking the mold by bringing sacred shamanic practices into his organization here in the States.
Tyler is the co-founder of Runa Tea, a social enterprise that makes energizing beverages with a rare Amazonian leaf called guayusa. He and his team are true pioneers in the realm of tea craft, but their mission is far more impactful than simply selling delicious herbal drinks. They’re improving the lives of thousands of indigenous families in the jungles of Ecuador, and empowering remote communities to take control of their ancestral lands and let their voices be heard.
If you’ve ever wondered how authentic spirituality can be woven into your professional life, Tyler has some powerful insights to share with you.
In the video interview below, you will learn:
- Practical ways to apply powerful shamanic principles to your everyday life – including the job you do for a living.
- How to navigate challenging personal situations and grow beyond your edge by embracing vulnerability.
- The evolutionary power of doing a regular plant dieta. (If you’ve never heard of the plant dieta, it’s the backbone of shamanism in the Amazon and important to know about!)
- and a ton more…
(A full transcript of our talk is included below this video as well.)
If you enjoyed the video interview above, Tyler just released a new book called Fully Alive that is receiving amazing reviews from thought leaders around the world.
Fully Alive is a raw and deeply transparent story, revealing powerful lessons, from both the Amazon and the urban jungle, about how to grow toward and beyond our personal edges, no matter our circumstances. Practical tools and lessons are woven throughout the page turning story of Tyler’s successes and failures, offering guidance on how to relate to obstacles as teachers, dig deeper to bring greater meaning to our lives, and accomplish our personal and professional goals in the often uncertain circumstances we find ourselves in.
I’m reading it now and highly recommend it.
To pick up a copy of Fully Alive, click here.
Nick Polizzi: Hi folks, this is Nick Polizzi from the Sacred Science, and I’m here today with a very special guest and personal friend, Tyler Gage. Tyler is the co-founder of Runa Tea, a social enterprise that makes energizing beverages with a rare Amazonian leaf called guayusa. Tyler and his team are true pioneers in the realm of tea craft, but their mission is far more impactful than simply selling caffeinated drinks. They’re improving the lives of thousands of indigenous families in the jungles of Ecuador, and empowering remote communities to take control of their ancestral lands. Tyler, what’s up man?
Tyler Gage: Hey Nick. Thanks for having me on.
NP: Absolutely. You and I have been talking for what, maybe four or five years now?
TW: Yeah, I think so.
NP: I remember it was back when I first moved to Berkeley. Somehow either you reached out to me, I’m not sure how, but we found each other. We made this film and you had this amazing tea brand and it was like, I don’t know, it was destined to happen.
TW: Yeah. I think the first time we met was at Samovar Tea in San Francisco, wasn’t it?
NP: Yeah, it was.
NP: You introduced me to some pretty … I did not realize how potent tea could be until you … I think it was some serious Pu-Erh we had or something that was …
TW: If I remember right, that’s correct. They have an amazing selection.
NP: Knocked my socks off. And you were in the middle of a dieta at that point, I believe.
TW: Yeah, I was. There was a few years there where I was on and off dieta pretty constantly and attempting to try and work. I have thereafter moved away from trying to do socialized working dietas, it’s sort of complicated to try and navigate but yeah, I was in the throes of trying to grow the business and wanting to keep my roots down deep of where this vision came from and where my energy and vision for it came from.
NP: Cool. So little quick side tangent before we get into this, because we’re going to be talking about conscious capitalism and shamanism where the two intersect, which I believe is a very potent and timely topic that isn’t usually discussed, but we just talked about dietas, and a lot of people might not know what that is. Would you mind kind of giving a quick little rap on what a dieta is?
TW: Yeah. So the dieta is the backbone of the shamanic practice in the Amazon. Specifically, the people that I have worked and trained with are the Shipibo, that live in the Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon, so any of my perspective on even shamanism or Amazonian shamanism, for disclosure, really comes from the Shipibo perspective. And for them, the dieta is a practice of connecting to different sacred plants that they use in their pharmacy and in their spiritual lineage.
So essentially the nuts and bolts of a dieta are traditionally full isolation, so you’re by yourself. But generally it’s this idea of I say moving from digestion to ingestion, so sort of cutting out a pretty long list of different things that we eat, so no salt, no sugar, no pork, no alcohol, no sex, you’re really trying to shift gears from the outward 3D expression of our world and really sort of tune in to the more subtle layers of our own internal world, the more subtle layers of consciousness broadly. And then specifically to the nature and intelligence of a specific plant.
So normally you do a dieta, it’s with a specific plant. Common ones, even more known plants like tobacco in the jungle, bobinsana, ajo sacha, guayusa actually, the plant that we work with can be dieted, I’ve dieted that, and as you know as well, you have experience with that. And the dieta, it’s a really profound way to on the one side accomplish personal healing, so actually in our work now we’ve been supporting a few different indigenous medical clinics in Ecuador and Peru to combine Western medicine and Amazonian medicine to use this dieta practice to treat everything from anxiety and depression, which is how I first got to the Amazon, all the way through chronic autoimmune disorders.
And then it’s also the apprenticeship path, so it’s the way that the shamans from age four, five, six, seven start doing these dietas as a way of gaining knowledge, power and the ability to see and to heal.
NP: I love the idea of the dieta as something that isn’t really, again, spoken about very much. People assume that shamans of the Amazon are working, a lot of people just assume that we’re talking about hallucinogenic plants all the time, and the reality is it’s kind of the opposite. A lot of shamans don’t ever even use the hallucinogenic plants. They diet other herbs. They’re herbs that are powerful, but would be considered to be common herbs or might not be considered at all in the Amazon. But they’re tapped into quite often for their energies, the spirit studies this within them and they also help the shaman to harness healing power that they can use in ceremony.
It’s pretty amazing and it’s something that, again, it’s a part of the conversation that you’re bringing forward and we’re trying to bring forward that I think needs to be had. Before we go down this rabbit hole any further, I want to back up and I want to sort of ask you how the heck … I know your history. You’re sort of like, you grew up in Berkeley, or El Cerrito outside of Berkeley and you went to Brown and afterwards you got a Fulbright scholarship and you had all kinds of opportunities open to you, but you decided instead of following those trails, you decided to travel down to the Amazon and explore these traditions. To me, it feels like there must be a good story there. There must be something that happened that shook you a little bit and made you realize that even though you had these world of options open to you, you decided that, hey, there’s something here that needs to be tapped into. This is not something that I can resist, I have to go. Why did that happen? What happened in college? What happened that made you realize this is where I needed to be?
TW: A lot of it came from feeling lost, and I think in the shamanic world the willingness to go through vulnerable, confusing experiences is often the portal to power, and I know in my journey, I never had any ideas growing up of going to the Amazon or later starting a business. It really came from being willing to feel confused, being willing to be at my edge, and then explore curiosities that came up and trust my intuition to take me to different stages down the journey.
Yeah, grew up in El Cerrito, I was a soccer player. I was not a great soccer player in high school, but used Daoist meditation and lucid dreaming, sort of weird things I stumbled upon, to get really good at soccer and get recruited to play at Brown. But all the while, my sort of existential anxiety and depression was growing and through a couple different connections ended up in the Amazon, and spent a couple years, about two years down in Shipibo territory in college, getting immersed in dieta traditions and studying the Shipibo language.
Then I finally went back to school. My parents were pleased about that decision, and my last semester I wrote a business plan to bring guayusa to the market, and really felt like actually the dietas kind of brought this forward and launched me in this direction of how do we combine not just the spiritual world with the material world, which is something we all struggle with, but also how do we bridge the worlds between the Amazon and these traditions with our modern tradition and culture.
And for whatever reason, guayusa was this strange magical key that could not only work in the sort of up and down dimensions, but across cultures as well. It’s the lifeblood of the Quechua people in Ecuador. It has incredible depth in their tradition. They get up in the morning and the whole community brews guayusa and drinks the tea together. At the same time, it’s a very accessible plant. It has a nice caffeine boost. It has incredible flavor, it doesn’t have tannins. And it sort of felt like this messenger in a way, my own esoteric story on the undercurrents of all this, but it felt like this touch point that could have a breadth of being a consumer product in the U.S., where now we sell our products in 10,000 stores in Safeway and Costco and Whole Foods, that has an accessibility and a way to access it just for nice energy and a nice healthy beverage, but has a tether really deep in the roots of where all these plants and these traditions come from.
So guayusa kind of popped its head out at me and sort of gave us this energy for Runa. And then, yeah, we decided to turn down some other more attractive and definitely more logical professional opportunities post graduation, moved to Ecuador two days after me and my buddy Dan graduated from college, and tried to start a business in the middle of the Amazon with his degree in marine biology and mine in literary arts and shamanic languages.
NP: So many things to talk about, so your willingness to face the unknown, your curiosity about the unknown, your curiosity about discomfort and being willing to feel that way in order to evolve and grow was something that intrigued you about shamanism from the get go. So from college, that was something that was like “oh these guys are obviously doing things, rites of passage and really being honest with themselves.” That was intriguing to you. That was where you were like, “Okay, I’m curious. I want to get down there and see what this is all about.”
And when you got down to the Amazon, who was your main rendezvous point? Who was the person who actually brought you in, who kind of embraced you, who kind of showed you these lineages, teach you the ways?
TW: So the person who brought me there was a healer and psychologist named Jose Stevens, who’s this amazing writer about shamanic practice. And one of the things that I love to relate is that you and I have both gotten ourselves into some weird worlds that most people don’t. I know for me, it came through just being really willing to reach out to people and use the not so esoteric tools of email and phone calls. I read Jose’s book and I emailed him. That’s it. I’m curious. I feel something there. He responded. We talked. And then he invited me to join in Peru. So these things that can often seem really magical and distant for people, I think kind of hold a lot of us back. Oh well, how would I ever do that. It’s like, well, I read a book and I emailed the guy. And then I ended up here. So that was that.
But then he introduced me to the Shipibo family, and Herlinda was the Shipibo healer, and kind of matriarch of her village. She was sort of, I think was generally more interested in trying to get me to marry one of her daughters, which I never did, but was very generous to teach me quite a lot with her husband and her sons and spent the better part of two years on and off with them. So she was an amazing, amazing woman. One of the most incredible voices. The Shipibo have an incredibly rich tradition of sonic healing. They have songs called “Bewe” in Shipibo, and they have incredible sort of haunting up and down melodies, and they’ll sing for hours and hours on end as basically their way of communicating the spiritual healing that they’re doing in ceremonies.
So I was really fascinated by the language, the songs, and Herlinda was very generous to teach me a fair bit about some of the ins and outs of that strange world of things.
NP: So you’re down with Herlinda, and you have this teaching and you and your good friend realize there’s something here at some point, there’s something here the world needs to know about. These people … I’m putting words into your mouth, but I’m assuming that you guys realize there’s something really valuable here and there’s probably an exchange or a bridging that could happen that could be beneficial to both the world at large and these people who, as a lot of us know, are largely exploited and who are facing all kinds of difficulties right now. Was that sort of the impetus behind Runa?
TW: Uh, ish, yeah general genre. I was down there I guess the summer before I finished my last semester at school and after dieting had a really powerful experience with one of Herlinda’s sons where one afternoon he told me this incredible story about how the spirit of his grandfather lived in this huge tree near the village. Then the next day, he had cut down the tree with a handful of the other guys and were going to sell it for pennies on the dollar to make a couple bucks. Me and my righteous Bay Area soapbox went over all infuriated, like what the heck, it’s so hypocritical. You have this story but then you cut down the tree. What’s going on? And his simple answer was if you had the choice between cutting down a tree or having enough money to send your mom to the hospital if she’s sick, Herlinda was getting pretty sick at the time, what would you do? Or if you had to choose between cutting down a tree or having money to send your kid to school, what would your choice be?
And that was a major punch in the gut, but also a reality check that while these people have incredible traditions and knowledge of the rain forest, they’re really struggling to be not only part of their ancestry but part of the modern world, and they want education and they want emergency medicine, which they have every right to, and their options for getting those involve a pretty heavy degree of compromise that they’re not particularly excited about but they’re a bit forced into.
So that started shifting my thinking of okay, I could come back here and study languages and try and become a professor and publish some papers which would be amazing for me, but was not really going to change much of this fundamental fabric of these people’s relationship to the world. In many ways they need the world, and the world needs them, and there’s got to be some more concrete tangible ways outside of the hive mind of thinking about the value of these traditions.
So that thought came forward, and then I went back to school, long story short, that’s in my book, got dragged into a business planning class with a couple of my buddies. The idea for guayusa came forward because I’d been exposed to it, and off to the races from there is the long story short, but much better in its full form in “Fully Alive.”
NP: So let’s talk about “Fully Alive.” You’ve got this awesome new book that I read. Got it right here actually, I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of it, and it really does something that I didn’t think was possible at this point in time, which is sort of weave together these two concepts, shamanism and conscious capitalism, things that seem like, at a glance they seem like they’re polar opposites, but after reading your take on it, it feels like they go together as well as anything else might go together. They’re completely natural.
So can we talk about this concept? I think it’s something that right off the bat, some people are going to be a little bit iffy on, like wait a second, whoa, so my shamanism’s over here, and I make my money over here, and those things don’t touch each other. How does that work?
TW: Yeah. So definitely the synthesis of the two seems very bizarre, but the guiding thread of both building a business, growing an organization and shamanic practice or any personal cultivation practice is really about how do we navigate challenging situations, and how do we grow to and past our edge. The real crux of what either of those disciplines are like, it’s that that human experience of how do you enter a situation where there is unknown, where there’s uncertainty, there’s instability, and how do you navigate it with purpose, with intention and to grow in the personal directions you want or build something concrete, an organization you might want to build.
And for me in the Amazon, the shamanic traditions surprise me for how practical they are. I think they’re often looked at as these altered states of consciousness and very esoteric things, but they were designed for hunting and medicine. You know, the lifeblood of these traditions are purely practical, and they’re about how to live in harmony and in a powerful way with their environment and their communities. So I found that very translatable to my world up north, and when I set out to build a business with no business experience, leaned on the shamanic traditions and essentially used them as a playbook for how to build an organization. I didn’t know anything about normal business, and didn’t really want to. So we leaned into the philosophy of guayusa, the healing tradition of these plants, and even used it as our business model for how we created a collaborative community based organization.
So Runa would not exist as a company if it weren’t for those roots, and I definitely wouldn’t have had the support and insight and ability to navigate the incredible insanity of trying to start a company in the jungle and then compete in the beverage industry without the support of those traditions and those practices.
NP: So can you give me an example of an unknown, some uncertainty that arose along the way that you re-visioned as an opportunity for growth, personal growth and also growth of your organization? Is there a clear check point?
TW: Well probably one of the most traumatic, and it’s actually how I start the book, is a couple years ago I almost got kicked out of the company that I started. We were growing like crazy, we had just raised a few million dollars and was at this breaking point of having to shift from acting like an entrepreneur to really being a CEO and a leader, and everything was just ripping at the seams and it was a really incredible moment of catharsis that it barely stayed over the edge of not completely collapsing, but ultimately I relied on my tools and practices of checking back in more deeply, getting support, using a more heartfelt way to relate to the situation, and ultimately was able to see that a lot of the feedback I was getting that I was taking as challenging me and my position was actually an invitation to grow, and sort of separate the imitation and the real aspects to the communication from my ego getting enmeshed in criticisms and people trying to take my power and all the games that my mind was running pretty successfully at the time.
So ultimately I was able to look at that challenge as a teacher, and embraced it to get incredible support to learn as best I could, I don’t think I ever grew into the best CEO in the world, but how to act as a leader, and I think a great piece of advice I got in a similar way of how we built the business, just talking to lots of people, asking questions and acting like a student, having that humble perspective, was from the CEO of Traditional Medicinals Tea Company, fellow tea friend Blair Kellison, and his advice was that as a leader, you have to do two things. The first is to clear roadblocks, and the second is to lay down track. And his perspective is if you’re going to lead and not be like a scrappy entrepreneur, you need to have your team that’s capable, and your job needs to be to get shit out of the way for them and then lay down track for them to go forward.
And so there was a lot about the practice of sort of checking myself, checking my ego, getting in touch with what the real growth opportunity was, and then being willing to seek and receive support to get through a pretty dicey situation in what ended up being an amazing apex, that we were growing really fast and was able to shift some things up and then things really took off from there. So it was an extremely challenging but beautiful experience of growth there.
NP: Thank you for that. That resonated personally with some things that need to be upgraded probably on our side, or on my side honestly. Somewhere between the heart and the ego space. As you’re saying that I’m trying to think there’s a lot of people out there who are entrepreneurs that could benefit from this, but what about people who are just professionals in the world, who are working for other folks? What can they take from this? Or is it really more intended as a book for entrepreneurs?
TW: No, it’s really not intended as a book for entrepreneurs. I think entrepreneurship, like shamanism, they’re very vivid examples of life, so the extreme romance and sort of vivid portrait of deeper parts of life just come into perspective in those circumstances. But the deeper question, the deeper things that anyone struggles with of, “Hey, I want to grow personally in this part of my life,” or “Hey, there’s part of my business I’m trying to push to the next level” as an employee, as an owner, whatever that is. There’s a couple things that I go back to that I think are key things. One is this idea that we’ve touched on a bit of finding strength in vulnerability. And I think in the business world, vulnerability is something that’s often looked at as like a dark force to be repelled at any cost, but in the shamanic worldview, vulnerability is the portal to gaining insight, support, and power.
In our process building the business, admitting what we didn’t know, admitting that we weren’t business people, that we needed help, looking to build partnerships, that created the fabric of support and transformation and real creativity. Creativity and innovation are obviously the hot buzzwords that people don’t really know what they’re about. The fertile ground of that is a certain curiosity and openness and willingness to be lost and ask for support.
So I think that basic concept of identifying the places in your personal or professional lives where we’re trying to shy away from some fear or resist something that’s coming forward that we don’t want to deal with, that’s often the best place to put your attention and to use as a launchpad for growth.
The second is this idea of using our full capacity to approach situations. So, in the Amazon, when they’re healing people, they don’t just use plants, they use plants and diet and massage and plant baths, and songs and nature immersion. It’s not one thing. They’re using the full breadth of capacity to heal disease. In business, we have many parts of ourselves we can bring, but we often just focus on this rational deductive part of our mind, which is very effective and needs to be the backbone, but we often forget or belittle the intuitive parts of ourselves, which especially for successful business people, if you talk to them are often what they cite as the main tool that they have.
So I put forward and offered everybody a potential to embrace and utilize more proactively some of those intuitive tools. In my life that’s everything from using dreaming to help solve challenging situations, journal about some challenge I’m having before going to bed, go to sleep, wake up, journal some more and just allow my subconscious, my spirit, whatever is in there to offer support in the unseen ways that aren’t as always cut and dry. I like to say that difficult situations, unlike being cut and dried are kind of like the Amazon, they’re serpentine and moist. So we need tools to get into those slippery slithery spaces that aren’t easy, they’re not straightforward, using tools like the I Ching, like coca leaf readings, things where we can get under the surface to look at the subtler elements of what’s going on in a situation.
I’ve survived a lot of a very hairy experiences personally and professionally by not limiting myself to the, oh, well this makes sense for x, y, and z reason, but something else doesn’t feel right, let me look and feel directly into what that is, and use that to gain insight and even make decisions.
NP: So this is like the definition of … no, this is like the new definition of conscious capitalism, actually being conscious, and consciousness sometimes has the connotation of being altruism. But you’re talking about actually opening up your consciousness, tapping into your intuition, and kind of easing up on the rational brain, or at least putting it in its place and letting the intuitive side of yourself guide the way, which I think is really important. It’s something that I don’t think a lot of people do. We both know a lot of people who are entrepreneurs and leaders in the health, wellness, spirituality space, and I would even say that something that I’ve seen is maybe people start off that way, but as brands build, as celebrity is established, a lot of times those things are forgotten and now it turns into much more of an ego game.
I was wondering, this is all leading to some kind of a question. In your space, with the people that you’re constantly rubbing elbows with, other CEOs of major health brands, do you see this as something that is prominent in their approach as well, or do you feel like it’s something that is definitely needed? And I guess the follow up question is do you have a mission or do you have an urge to kind of help spread that approach to conscious business?
TW: Yes, and yes would be the two parts of that question. I think there’s an increasing trend of companies not just looking the the why of what we do, but how we do it. I think that’s really the point that interests me the most. We were inspired, we’re still a relatively new company by great companies from the Dr. Bronners of the world through the Sambazons, and amazing companies that are really pushing next level innovation for how to do business and what business can be. So it’s not just, alright this is business, how can business do better in the world. For me it’s kind of like why I love studying languages. When you look at languages, languages show the incredible variety of possibilities to be human, and to think about what it is to be human and frame our minds in relationship to the world.
In a similar way, our modern current secular capitalist nature of business is very set. Business can be so many different things, and done in so many different ways, so it’s not just, “Let’s do business,” and then try and do some good maybe. How can we have this set of values and a mission and then embed that in the way that we do what we do. So I think that there’s a lot in the book and that was a big inspiration for the book, is trying to show the how as much as the why. For us at Runa, we have lots of examples of that, of ways that we’ve created a hybrid organization. We’re half for-profit, half non-profit. We’ve done some really creative equity deals where Leonardo DiCaprio invested in Runa and then donated his shares to the native communities to then be the owners in the company. Everyone who works with us for a year gets a free trip to Ecuador to then go experience the traditions, drink guayusa at 3 AM with the farmers, build that relationship. We do a midnight whitewater rafting once a year with our team in Ecuador.
So we try to say, alright, these principles of curiosity, of challenge, of being at our edge, of community building, of exchange, collaboration, how can we not just talk about these as ideals which are nice, but then how do we build those into the nuts and bolts of how we can operate as an organization. So that’s what I’m particularly excited about, is the companies and organizations that are throwing some of the structural confines to the wind, in a smart, deliberate, intentional way, and re-crafting what building an organization can be about and the kind of good that can come from that.
NP: That’s incredible. I love the innovation. I love the idea that, like language, there’s always new slang, new pidgin languages that are kind of spawning off of existing languages and then that turns into a whole different language that probably gets a little calcified and overly used, and that has to … I love the idea of the evolution of the structure that we call business.
So this book, not only do I love it, but you have some crazy, crazy reviews from very, heroic natural health folks saying that it’s just a must read, and I agree. Where can our people find Fully Alive? Again, this is the book, Fully Alive. If you resonate with anything we’re talking about, and I think you probably do, you want this book, I promise. You will not regret it. Where do they get it?
TW: Thanks Nick. I very much appreciate that, especially coming from you. They can get it on Amazon, the lovable irony of being able to purchase an Amazonian story on Amazon is probably the easiest way for most people. But, pretty much every bookseller, Barnes and Noble, independent retailers, Indie Reads, etc, all have Fully Alive.
NP: Cool. And you know what we’re going to do? We will post a link underneath this video interview for you, so if you’re watching this right now on our blog you will see a link to go check it out. This is such an awesome book. It’s an honor to be with you man. Its been fun knowing you for the last four or five years, I’m sure there’s a lot more for us to chat about and collaborate on in the future, but this is definitely something to be proud of. It’s a game changer.
TW: Thank you, Nick. I very much appreciate that. Its been an honor to know you and be inspired by your journey and get insights and tips from you along the way that have given me good fuel and inspiration to keep trudging through and keep growing. So thanks for being that inspiration for me and for everybody you are.
NP: Thank you brother.