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My Personal Story

Dr. Larry Berkelhammer

Dr. Larry Berkelhammer

I was fifty-three in 2000 when I first went to UCSF Medical Center and finally received correct diagnoses for the multiple chronic conditions I had been living with for many years, some of them since childhood. At last, after decades of wrong turns, bewilderment, and feelings of shame, I learned through conclusive testing that none of my varied symptoms were in my head—I could actually see the specific lab values that were way out of the normal range. No doctor had previously ordered any of these very specialized tests.

This was the “good news” concerning these diagnoses. There were names for the illnesses I had, other people had them too, and I was now able to comprehend the physiological processes that underlay my health problems and seek treatments for them.

But right on the heels of these diagnoses came the bad news about my chronic conditions: there were no known cures for any of them.

Not only that, there were few effective treatments. In fact, I learned that some of the recommended treatments, should I choose them, would cause me further harm. For example, the treatment for my three autoimmune diseases (ankylosing spondylitis, subclinical inflammatory bowel disease, and immune thrombocytopenic purpura) would worsen a forth disease I had, which was a primary combined immunodeficiency disease. I also learned that the treatment I’d been using to alleviate my debilitating headaches interfered with calcium absorption and would exacerbate my fifth disease, a severe malabsorption syndrome, making my sixth disease, a dangerously severe case of osteoporosis (T-score of -4.6) even worse. The malabsorption could also cause electrolyte imbalances, exacerbating my cardiac dysrhythmia problems.

It seemed I had few options left.

Yet every moment of life offers opportunities and decisions. At the moment of my diagnoses, I had a couple of things in my favor:

I was quite interested in solving mysteries and finding solutions for problems where there appeared to be none, and when I realized that no cures for any of my conditions were likely to appear during my lifetime, I decided that I wanted to explore whether mind training could play a role. I already ate a nutrient-dense diet, got more than an hour of daily exercise, slept six to eight hours each night, and had practiced some form of meditation for almost thirty years; I had all the lifestyle choices I knew about covered. Since I liked science, I decided to become better educated and search for the most evidence-based options related to mind training and also to see if there were any other lifestyle behaviors that I had not previously considered.

The second thing I had going for me was that nine years before receiving these diagnoses, I’d had a life-altering experience that taught me about the power of the mind to heal disease.

I was watching a karate tournament on television around 8 p.m. one January night in 1991 when I suddenly experienced extreme fatigue, full-body muscle aches, chills—all the classic symptoms of influenza. I felt angry about it because I couldn’t afford to be laid up in bed for a week. For the next two hours I became quite emotionally involved in the tournament, so much so that I felt my whole being become increasingly energized and exhilarated. I felt as if I was in the tournament fighting that night. In fact, I was fighting! I was leading my immune system into battle, and I knew we would win. During this time, I remember defiantly saying, “I am not going to get sick. I refuse! It’s not going to happen!” These were not just empty words; in my mind, I was convinced that I would fight off the viral invasion.

By 10 p.m. I felt fine.

I had made a complete recovery! And my understanding of the power of the mind to effect profound physiological changes had undergone a transformation. I suddenly knew that many of the anecdotal and bizarre stories I had read about phenomena such as voodoo death and faith healing were probably true. They made more sense to me now because I’d had this surprising and unsought personal experience of the mind’s healing power.

I have tried unsuccessfully to use this same method to overcome illness several times since 1991. I have tried it for spondyloarthropic inflammatory flare-ups, pneumonia, and colds, and I have never been able to repeat the success I had that night. I think it’s because of the trying. The night I vanquished influenza, I didn’t have to try; I knew it was going to happen.

Though I hadn’t been able replicate it, in 2000 the memory of that single experience of spontaneous and complete recovery added to my curiosity and impelled me to learn more about the power of the mind to improve health where no other treatments can be brought to bear.

I decided to review all the respected research on the mind’s ability to effect positive physiological changes. I started with Michael Murphy’s encyclopedic Future of the Body. Then I devoured hundreds of papers in refereed journals and dozens of books in the medical and behavioral sciences, and took two years’ worth of science courses at local colleges. After that I trained with several world leaders in psychoneuroimmunology, psychophysiology, and psychooncology. I was a psychotherapist at this time with a practice focused exclusively on people who had serious medical conditions. Learning about the mind from all these disparate quarters, I began to put together the evidence that would eventually form the foundation for what you will find on this website and the blog discussions.

As I gathered hard data, the patterns that emerged were both remarkable and undeniable. The conclusions this wide array of scientists and researchers had come to—that the mind influences health in intriguing, astonishing, and demonstrable ways—were solidly evidence based and had far-reaching implications that seemed tailor made for people such as myself: people living with chronic medical challenges who are willing to take on various mind training practices. I knew from what I had observed in clinical training and in my psychotherapy practice that this knowledge would prove useful to others. I also knew that my personal experiences dovetailed perfectly with the psychoneuroimmunology research data I was uncovering.


Mind Journeys

My explorations of the mind date back forty years. I learned the techniques of Transcendental Meditation in 1972, Zen in 1978, and Samatha Vipassana in 1980, but there were many periods where I had trouble sticking with daily practice. In 1994, I became infatuated with biofeedback—especially electroencephalography (EEG)—and the published studies proving its efficacy as a form of mind training. I began training in tai chi chuan with T.T. Liang in 1979 and with William C.C. Chen in 1981. I continue to occasionally train with Master Chen. My interest is now in the health-enhancing aspects of tai chi. I practice the tai chi form every day as a mindfulness practice.

Then, in 2008, I began to study and train in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), one of the newer mindfulness-based psychotherapies.

In the mid-nineties, even as I experimented with biofeedback, I had trained for several years with one of the founders of the American existential-humanistic psychotherapy movement, James F.T. Bugental. After that I trained in hypnosis at the Milton H. Erickson Foundation and the Academy for Guided Imagery. Suddenly, in 2008, here was a system of psychotherapy, ACT, that had the solid evidence-based science foundation I so highly valued yet was in perfect harmony with my existential training. This radically altered not only my psychotherapy practice, but even my personal mindfulness practice. The philosophy and science of functional contextualism, upon which ACT is based, gave me a way of offering mindfulness to clients who would not otherwise be interested. The emphasis on identifying personal values and taking action in harmony with those values resonated with many more of my clients than did the Buddhist approach to mindfulness. I watched it make a difference for the chronically ill people I worked with in my practice, and although my teaching is not about ACT, it is greatly informed by it.

Over the last several years I have continued my studies of the mind and health, reviewing fascinating data on new discoveries in cognitive neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, and other scientific disciplines. At the same time, I have dedicated myself to daily, moment-to-moment mindfulness practice, building and strengthening my awareness that virtually all my behavior, including the smallest act, impacts my health and happiness—for good or ill. Like parallel tracks running through my life, brain science, behavioral science, and applied mindfulness have moved me ever forward toward greater understanding and helped me learn to live with greater intention and mastery.

The overarching theme of my teaching is how to live with intention and mindfulness. It is about learning how to take back control of your life by recognizing the opportunities we have in every moment of the day to make choices that are aligned with our most precious personal life values. Living every day with intention and mindfulness has enabled me to live a much happier, more satisfying life than I had ever thought possible.  The skills I developed and continue to practice throughout the day, every day has improved my state of health and well-being. It is with the hope that you may find the information and practices contained in this website, my book, and the class I teach at College of Marin equally transformative that I offer them to you.