My Life-Changing Experiences in Mindbody Medicine

Getting Diagnosed

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. No doctor had previously ordered any of these very specialized tests.

It was validating to finally get diagnostic names for the illnesses I had. But I very soon found out that there were no known cures for any of them. Although none of my conditions would likely kill me, I began to wonder if I would just have to accept that I would continue to have to live with the symptoms and the various precautions that I had learned to incorporate into my lifestyle. For example, I used to get sick more frequently than most people as a result of a primary immune deficiency disease. Although mild enough to not require infusions of immunoglobulin, I did learn the hard way, after getting pneumonia twice, that it was important for me to minimize eating out, going into packed theaters, and to keep my hands away from my face. I also began to walk with a carbide-tipped hiking stick whenever the pavement was slippery because of my very severe osteoporosis.

The available treatments turned out to be contraindicated for me. For example, the treatment for my three autoimmune diseases (ankylosing spondylitis, subclinical inflammatory bowel disease, and immune thrombocytopenic purpura) would worsen a fourth disease I had, which was a mild version of 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 severe case of osteoporosis (T-score of -4.6) even worse. The malabsorption could also cause electrolyte imbalances, exacerbating my mild cardiac dysrhythmia problems (PVCs and paroxysmal atrial fibrillation for which I had been electrocardioconverted to sinus rhythm).

Larry Berkelhammer, PhD

What I Had in My Favor

First: Nine years before receiving these diagnoses, I’d had a profoundly life-altering and career-altering experience of fighting off the flu virus during a two-hour period. That experience had already taught me about the power of the mind to alter the course of disease. That story is described in the next section.

Second: I had eight years of clinical experience at that point teaching clients with chronic medical conditions to use the mind to improve health. Also, I had been constantly training in mind-body medicine since January of 1991.

Third: Rather than cause me to get discouraged, I welcomed the challenge of learning what I could do with my mind to improve my conditions. Whenever I have been challenged, I have always tended to get energized and motivated to take action. I was not about to just passively accept the fact that doctors had few acceptable treatments for me. At the time of any challenge, it usually feels as if I am being motivated by fear, but the more fear I experience, the more energized I become.

Fourth: I had always had good health habits in terms of nutrition, exercise, sleep, and mindfulness practice. In addition, I had always lived by my values, informed by the philosophy of Ayn Rand Objectivism.

The Night that Changed My Life and Career

Nine Years Earlier: The Night that Changed My Life and Career

I had just settled in to watch an exciting karate tournament on TV at 8 p.m. one January night in 1991 when I noticed an unusually rapid presentation of the typical signs and symptoms of influenza. I immediately knew what it was. I had extreme fatigue, full-body muscle aches, chills—all the classic symptoms of influenza and it was the peak of the flu season. I felt angry about it because I couldn’t afford to be laid up in bed for a week.

Throughout the next two hours I remained extremely emotionally involved while watching the karate tournament, so much so that I felt my whole being become increasingly energized and exhilarated. I felt as if I was on the tournament floor fighting that night. In fact, I was fighting! I was leading my immune system into battle, and I knew with absolute certainty 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 totally convinced that I would fight off the viral invasion.

I Was Fully Recovered Two Hours Later

When the tournament ended at 10:00 pm, I suddenly realized that 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 from personal experience that many of the anecdotal and bizarre stories I had read about faith healing, shamanism, witchcraft, and Voodoo were probably true. They made more sense to me now because I’d had this surprising and unsought personal experience of the mind’s power to heal the body. In fact, it was that experience in January 1991 that motivated me to begin studying mind-body medicine and to change careers. Suddenly, I was obsessed with studying the power of the mind to cure disease. I wondered if the power of the mind was sufficient to enable people to cure themselves of cancer.

I Was Fully Recovered Two Hours Later
Dr. Larry Berkelhammer and his teacher, Grandmaster William C.C. Chen in May 2015

This was from 2014 when I resumed training with my tai chi chuan teacher—Grandmaster William C.C. Chen.

A Radical Career and Life Change

After the night when I was able to alter the course of influenza, I immediately put the business I had been running up for sale and began to read and train full time in how to alter the course of disease with the mind. I discovered that there were no academic programs dealing with how to use the mind to heal the body and cure disease. The very next month I began training near my home at the Institute for Psychostructural Balancing (IPSB) in San Diego, training in a wide variety of classes under Ed Maupin PhD, and a number of other instructors, all of whom had been part of the very exciting early days at Esalen, at the birthplace of the entire Human Potential Movement. I reaped the benefit of all their training and experiences. The IPSB training allowed me to get licensed as a Holistic Health Practitioner (HHP). The HHP license, which had required 1000 hours of training, allowed me to start counseling clients.

I wanted to apply my rapidly increasing knowledge to help people who were suffering with chronic medical conditions, so I started a private practice under my HHP license, treating people in how to use the mind to heal the body. I needed a lot of clients with whom I could practice everything I was learning. I had soon built a large clinical practice by seeing people for a very low fee or even no fee.

There were a handful of very well-known people teaching various forms of mind training that purportedly had a positive influence on bodily healing. Fortunately, most of them were either based here in California or they regularly came here to teach. I began taking weekend workshops and week-long, residential trainings in various forms of mind training with them, which were being offered almost every week throughout California at that time.

My interest in mind training actually began with Transcendental Meditation (TM) in 1972, Zen at Cambridge Zen Center in 1978, tai chi chuan with Master T.T. Liang in 1979, with Master William C.C. Chen in 1981, other internal as well as external martial arts, Vipassana in 1980 at Insight Meditation Society, and neurofeedback in 1993. I was also very interested in the stories of martial arts masters who could heal bodily injuries and illnesses.

I also began to review everything I could find on the history of faith healing, Voodoo, shamanism, energy healing and read all documented accounts of mind training being used to cure a medical condition. Once I came to see documented and verified accounts of people getting cured by these healers, my fascination turned to discovering how that was possible. I soon realized that the actual physical healing was the result of the patient becoming convinced that the healer really did have the power to cure disease. That led me to pursue training in methods that created self-efficacy in my clients. I wanted to empower them by helping them to learn that it was actually their own belief system that led to bodily healing and that the actual source of healing did not come from some mystical power outside themselves.

The Move North

In order to attract more clients, I needed more credibility and the ability to bill insurance. In June 1992, we moved north so I could attend Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, which is the smallest nationally accredited graduate school in the country. In 1992 it was the only graduate school I could find that would allow me to custom design a course of study in mind-body medicine. It included all the courses required by the Board of Behavioral Science Examiners (BBSE) in order to sit for the state boards and get licensed as an MFCC. I got an MA, sat for the written and oral state boards, got licensed as an MFCC (now MFT), and was able to establish a more professional mind-body medicine practice. Later, they allowed me to create a PhD course of study in mind-body medicine.

Of Course, My Interest Was in Mind-Body Medicine, Not Psychotherapy

I kept that a secret during my 3000-hour internship years for fear of being thrown out of each of the three internships I did over a five-year period. Sometimes it leaked out that I was practicing more than traditional psychotherapy whenever I was assigned a client who happened to have a chronic medical condition. At first, I wondered if I had gotten myself into something too far off base from mind-body medicine, but I soon came to realize that psychotherapy is about helping clients develop skills that help them improve their state of mind. Anything that helps catalyze healthier states of mind tends to improve health. Over time, I could actually see health improvements in clients. Although my primary interest was in exotic forms of mind training to specifically heal the body, increasingly, I began to appreciate the power of the healing relationship between therapist and client to improve self-compassion and self-caring, which translated into better self-care. It also became clear that the trusted therapeutic relationship itself seemed to be very healing.

For at least a couple of years, I spent one full day each week at the UCSF medical library, where I could access hundreds of medical and science journals, studying everything even tangentially related to psychoneuroimmunology and the power of the mind to influence disease.

Lacking a science education, I found myself struggling to understand much of what I was reading. In order to comprehend the very technical material in the medical journals, I then spent three years at College of Marin and Sonoma State University, taking all the various biology and chemistry courses that RNs take to get into nursing school. The faculty in all these science courses thought I was wasting my time studying mind training; their view was that only physicians can help the body to heal. But my interest was never in treating patients; it was in empowering them by teaching them that they have the power to heal themselves.

Beginning in 1991 and continuing for the next fifteen years, I trained with the most well-known teachers of various forms of mind training to positively effect bodily healing. These included O. Carl Simonton MD, Jeanne Achterberg PhD, Frank Lawless PhD, Lawrence LeShan PhD, James S. Gordon MD, Ron Kurtz (Hakomi) and many others. One of the advantages of training as a psychotherapist was that I also got to spend six years training with James F.T. Bugental PhD, one of the founders of the American Existential-Humanistic psychotherapy movement.

The following is an example of one of the training programs that helped me deepen my clinical skills in mind-body medicine: Imagery for Health and Healing—a one-year training sponsored by Institute for Health and Healing, California Pacific Medical Center. 1996-1997: Phase I: The Psychophysiological Model; Phase II: Assessment and Treatment for Modern Day Settings; Phase III: Psychoneuroimmunology, Advanced Topics and Protocols; Phase IV: Transpersonal Medicine. That year-long program was taught by Jeanne Achterberg, PhD and G. Frank Lawless, PhD.

Another example: Beginning around 1991 and continuing for almost fifteen years, each year I took workshops at the Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback Annual Conferences. This training used biofeedback with multiple modalities to teach clients how to train their minds to heal the body. Biofeedback proved to be the most efficacious method of teaching clients that the power of bodily healing was self-generated.

From 2000 to 2006, while still seeing clients, I volunteered my time to co-facilitate the Gateway Training, 15-weekends per year, and three weekly chronic illness support groups, at the Center for Attitudinal Healing in Sausalito, California. In 2002 I was chosen as Volunteer of the Year.

While continuing to counsel clients, in 2006, I returned to Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley (WISR) to begin a very unique doctoral program. They allowed me to create my own program in mind-body medicine, something still non-existent at that time. I was awarded my PhD degree in 2011.  My research consisted of doing a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and longitudinal epidemiological studies that showed a statistically significant effect of the mind’s ability to influence the course of disease, as well as my own qualitative and action research.

I was very lucky to have been able to train with many well-known mind-body medicine clinicians. In the three years of training and getting certified at the Simonton Cancer Center, I was very influenced, personally and professionally, by O. Carl Simonton MD, from whom I learned about the vast potential of the mind to change the course of life-threatening illness. I was also very influenced both personally and professionally by Lawrence LeShan PhD, from whom I learned about the potential of finding meaning and purpose to stimulate recovery from major illness.  From Jeanne Achterberg PhD and G. Frank Lawless PhD, I learned about the power of the images in our minds to improve physiological functioning, and how to improve health outcomes by working with self-created healing images. Simonton, LeShan, Achterberg, and Lawless were all courageous mavericks in creating their unique methods of teaching medical patients how to use their minds to catalyze bodily healing

From James F.T. Bugental PhD, with whom I trained for six years, I learned the importance to one’s health of pursuing authenticity. Gerald Jampolsky MD taught me about the healing potential of attitude, gratitude, love, and acceptance. In my training at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine with James S. Gordon MD, I learned to help clients (and now students) how to rely on “skills rather than pills.”  The certification training at the Academy for Guided Imagery and the training at the Erickson Foundation helped me to hone my skills in teaching my clients how to access their own healing mental imagery, practice self-hypnosis, and to create their own personal mind-training practices geared toward physical healing.

Also, the philosophy of Ayn Rand Objectivism, which I had learned through the reading of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged profoundly influenced how I lived my life and provided the foundation for my future clinical work and teaching.

In Your Own Hands: New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions

By the time my first book was published by the Empowered Patient Coalition in 2014, I had retired from clinical practice and suddenly found myself looking for a new challenge. I sent a proposal to the College of Marin and from January 2015 to March 2020, I taught the course I created, which provided students with the skills I had used to teach my mind-body medicine clients. From January 2016 to March 2020, I co-taught the class with retired surgeon and founder of Mindful Biology, Will Meecham MD.

My Second Experience Using Mind Training to Alter the Course of Disease

Because of a primary immunodeficiency condition, while traveling to mind-body medicine trainings of various types, I commonly came down with various bugs that were going around. One night, while at a very remote, rural retreat with Dr. Larry LeShan, nowhere near a pharmacy, I awoke at about two in the morning with a wave of nausea. I got up, sat in a chair, put myself into a trance and convinced myself that I was taking Pepto-Bismol. I could see it, taste it, and feel it going down. I vividly recalled specific memories of it working for me in the past. I did this for almost three hours. By the end of the three hours, I was fine. I had remained fine during the three hours but continued practicing because I knew I was not done yet. This was the second time I was able to use my mind to ramp up my immune system enough to fight off an illness. It required extremely intense concentration to keep it working. It was such hard work that I don’t know if I would want to do it again. Ever since that trip, I have always traveled with real Pepto-Bismol tablets, which are much easier to use than the imagined ones.

The method I used at the retreat to prevent gastritis was very different from the method I had used to fight off influenza back in January of 1991. Back then, I had no idea of what to do to avoid getting sick once the prodromal signs and symptoms made themselves known. I had simply decided and was absolutely convinced that the flu virus, at least on that night, had no chance of surviving the powerful war my immune system launched against it.

What I had actually done in imagining the Pepto-Bismol was to capitalize on a conditioned response and placebo effect. The mental imagery and intense concentration served to ramp up my immune system, which then killed off whatever bug had invaded.

The Mind-Body Empowerment Course at College of Marin

By January of 2015, when I began teaching the course that I created at College of Marin in the Community Education Department, I had come to realize that all the mind training skills I had previously taught to clients could be taught to large classes.

My Motivation

Ever since that night in January 1991, I have been fascinated by the power of the mind to alter the course of disease, and I have found it very rewarding to teach others self-empowerment and self-efficacy, including how to unlock the mysteries of self-healing with the mind.

I would prefer to have perfect health. However, accepting medical conditions as a challenge and adventure gives my life meaning, purpose, opportunities for experiential learning, and teaches me about the world of possibilities. Most importantly, what I have learned and created about the practices of self-empowerment, self-efficacy, and self-compassion gave me something to teach others who had an interest in the power of the mind to improve health and wellbeing, and on rare occasions, to even cure disease. Unfortunately, the number of documented, proven cases of the mind leading to recovery from cancer and other deadly diseases is small. See the case studies in my first book (In Your Own Hands: New Hope for…) and in my SDSU and Book Passage presentations.