T.Cody Swift just turned thirty. He's young, tall, healthy, handsome, and he thinks a lot about dying-not just his own death, but how our entire society deals with the end of life. "Death denial in our culture is detrimental in so many ways. It causes so much anxiety and contributes to us not dying well." he says. "We're fighting inevitable cases of terminal illness, spending half of our Medicare dollars on the last two months of people's lives.Three hundred billion dollars a year to try to medically intervene in something that is natural. We're not approaching death with enough openness. We're dragging our medical system down and people are having very poor experiences"
When he really cares about something, Cody can do more than put his heart, soul and time into trying to make a difference. Thanks to the business success of his great-grandfather, George D. Smith, who helped build the United Parcel Service into a corporate powerhouse, Cody has some money to give away. His wing of the family philanthropic network, Riverstyx Foundation likes unpopular causes-like funding yoga classes for prison inmates or supplying
inmates or supplying psychedelic-assisted therapy to people psychologicallydevastated by a life-threatening illness. His foundation fortune was passed down through his grandmother when he was in his early twenties. Cody was already volunteering at a hospice and tudying psychology, wondering what he wanted to do with his life. The answer came when he took some magic mushrooms with a group of friends. They knew how much Cody loved to play the piano, so they encouraged him to sit down on the piano bench in the middle of his trip.
"I looked down at the keys, and what I saw was one of the most shocking, terrifying things I've ever seen," he recalled." It seemed like someone had taken a washcloth and wiped away all the meaning from the keys. I could see the black and white keys, but they were completely devoid of meaning. Normally when I sit down at the piano and visualize the keys I see a kind of mental map of the songs. But these are utterly blank keys. My friends are saying, "Just play! Just play! But I'm looking into the abyss. Finally, I just put my fingers down and told my fingers to play. The song emerged out of something in me, with no conscious control of what I was doing. I felt like I was on the edge of falling, making a mistake, but the music kept coming out."
What made the experience a revelation for Cody was how he connected this to the rest of what goes on around him. "So much of what we think of as being under our conscious control of the world is an overlay. So many of our actions in the world are automatic. We are constantly making these conscious compositions of the world. We are constantly remaking meaning in the world-just like the meaning that was overlaid on the blank keys.”
It's one of those magic mushroom insights that might not make much sense unless you've personally explored the territory revealed by psilocybin or similar meaning-making medicines. Cody and I have been sitting in the garden behind my house for an hour or two, swapping psychedelic war stories that may seem silly to some, profound to others. Earlier that day, Cody had been across the bay at the University of California medical school in San Francisco giving students an update on the psilocybin-assisted therapy at Johns Hopkins and NYU research he has both funded and worked on as a therapy guide.
After his mushroom revelations, Cody stumbled across a 2004 article about a research study that Charlie Grob conducted at UCLA. It described the early clinical trial that led to the later Phase 2 research with psilocybin and cancer patients at Johns Hopkins. The story quoted the Rev. Mike Young, who we met back in Chapter Four. "Human beings define their identities by this illusory thing called ego," Young said, "which is constructed of memory and experience and determines who we think we are." In a controlled setting under the influence of psilocybin, Young said, "You transcend the ego. And to the person who no longer identifies with that who am I, the loss of that self is no longer as threatening as it was before.”
"His quote was so poignant to me Cody recalled. "This ego, with all our memories and associations, is what we cling to in the face of death. In the psilocybin experience, there is a loosening of all those connections. The person who goes through the psilocybin journey is less attached and less afraid of death."
Cody decided he wanted to be a psychedelic therapist. He earned a master's degree in existential phenomenological counseling psychology from Seattle University, a small Jesuit college, and waited for an opportunity. In late 2013, there was a job opening at Johns Hopkins for an assistant guide. He started working with two of the best, Mary Cosimano and Bill Richards.
"It was one of the best times of my life," he said. "I absolutely loved the guiding work. As a psychologist, there's no other venue where you can see the nature of true psychological healing unfold over this short period of time. You feel transcendent love leading to changes in perspective. The sessions are incredible. You are with them for up to eight hours. You are in the field with them. You want to be present. It's almost like meditation, but it is a meditation on this person. I leave the sessions feeling so much aliveness."
Over the last decade, Cody estimated that his River Styx Foundation has donated between $1.5 million and $2 million to support the research and advocacy sponsored by Heffter and MAPS. "It's not very often that a funder can come across something so cutting edge as this," he said. "I feel blessed that I was able to be involved at all. I've told Heffter and MAPS that I would be funding this research even if I knew there was no chance of rescheduling. The fact that it is happening in itself, and these instances of healing are taking place are remarkable in their own right."