[A leading stress researcher describes the discovery that there is a natural and effective way to deal with stress—and that to find it we need to look no further than our own nerve cells or heart muscle.]
Dr. Pelletier holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California at Berkeley. He is Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, and Director of the Psychosomatic Medicine Clinic (2510 Webster Street, Berkeley, California 94705, 415-548-1115). He is co-author (with Charles Garfield) of Consciousness East and West (New York: Harper & Row, 1976) and the author of Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer and Towards a Science of Consciousness (New York: Delta/Delacorte, 1975). He is an Advisory Editor of Medical Self-Care Magazine.
Ken has spent most of the past ten years teaching people to prevent stress disorders. As he answers the front door of his redwood shingled house in the Oakland Hills on a bright June morning, he looks as if he's been following his own advice.
He waves aside my apologies for being late and leads me into a spacious, spotless office overlooking a lower level of the house. There is a wide, deep desk with an answering machine and a long bookcase full of perfectly straightened books arranged by subject. When I compliment him on his impeccable workspace, he smiles and leads me down a short hallway to his "working" office—a cramped, messy little room strewn with books and papers.
As we're settling in, I notice a framed print of St. George killing a dragon, prominently displayed. Ken tells me that he has recently returned from a two month sailing trip to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, the home of the giant Galapagos tortoises. They are strikingly tame and curious, he says, and will come up and rub against you like a cat. They are totally silent except when making love ("imagine two boulders mating"). Then they let out a roar "like somebody starting a diesel engine."
TF: How did you first get interested in the ways the mind and body interact?
KP: I guess it was when I took a meditation course on the Berkeley campus in 1967. We read the Bhagavad Gita and the Autobiography of a Yogi, and did a lot of meditation. It got me interested in what optimum health was and how it could be achieved.
Most of your writings since then have cantered around stress. How did you get from meditation to stress?
The meditation interest led me to some research at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco. This was back in the days when we weren't sure if people really could regulate their autonomic nervous system.
We decided to look at people who seemed to have an unusual degree of control of autonomic functions— yoga adepts and experienced meditators. We hooked them up to our machines and found that they really could control their brain waves, their heart rate, their blood pressure. At that point, it struck me that many of the disorders I was seeing clinically might be problems in which a person's autonomic nervous system is just completely out of control.
You thought the same kind of training might help your patients?
Yes. We asked the yogis and meditators how they'd learned to control their pulse and so on. They said it was just a matter of practice—like learning a new sport or a musical instrument.