How impoverished our lives would be without our emotions. How deeply unsatisfying our lives are when our emotions are out of control. Our opening reading is from Kay Redfield Jamison, who is a clinical psychologist and a writer. She’s also someone who suffers from a bipolar disorder. “Restlessness and discontent are vital things,” she says, and “intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways that less intense emotions can never do.”
This talk aims to honor the place that our emotions have in giving significance to our lives and to emphasize how important it is that those emotions don’t dictate our actions in a thoughtless way, bringing pain to ourselves and the ones we most care about.
Most of what I’ve learned about emotions, I suppose, has been through a life of experiencing them. I expect that that’s true for the rest of us, as well. We’ve experienced their richness, their variety, their capacity to create moods and memories, pleasures and pains. Our emotions provide a way to understand others and to misunderstand others, to express ourselves and to misrepresent ourselves. With so much at stake, it’s essential that we understand our emotions better than we do.
Daniel Goleman’s book called Emotional Intelligence is the best recommendation that I can make as a place to begin. It’s 21 years old now, old enough to have come into maturity, I guess. Other books have followed and the field of academic research has expanded; more experiments have been done, the truths he has explicated have been expanded upon, but you can’t do better than starting your research with this book.
What are emotions? And, why? “All emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us,” he says (p.6). Does that sound about right?
Before there were people, there were other mammals, and before there were mammals, there were reptiles and amphibians. A long train of evolution runs backward from us to more primitive life forms such as these and backwards further to yet more primitive forms. The part of the brain where emotions live came into being a long time before the part of the brain that is responsible for our thinking, our cognitive capacity.
It took millions of years for the development of the neocortex, that part of the brain that allows us to think. The neocortex “contains the centers that put together and comprehend what the senses perceive. It adds to a feeling what we think about it.” And, here, I’m tempted to pause, as I was tempted so many times while reading this book, to say “Isn’t that wonderful?”
The neocortex increased our likelihood of surviving as individuals and as a species. It provided the “talent for strategizing, long-term planning, and other mental wiles” (p.11). The limbic system, the most primitive part of the brain, is responsible for such basic feelings as pleasure and lust. When the neocortex evolved from the limbic system, so did the “mother-child bond that is the basis of the family unit and the long-term commitment to childrearing that makes human development possible” (p. 11).
I don’t expect to provide a comprehensive education in the workings of the brain in twenty minutes on a Sunday morning– not that I could if I tried. But a short description of some of the basics will help all of us with a basis for understanding the thesis and for using the teachings in a productive way.
Dr. Goleman refers to the section of the brain called the amygdala as the “seat of all passion” (p. 12). “There are two amygdalas, one on each side of the brain, nestled toward the side of the head.” If you don’t have an amygdala, you are not capable of recognizing feelings, and you are not capable of having feelings about your feelings. (We know this from observing people who have had their amygdala removed as a way to surgically address seizures.)
The amygdala stores emotional memories, and emotional memories are what give significance to things. At the same time, passions can take over and run amok. “The amygdala can take control over what we do even as the thinking brain, the neocortex, is still coming to a decision. There’s an interplay between the amygdala and the neocortex that allows for both experiencing emotions and managing them.” This fact is at the heart of what “emotional intelligence” is.
We’re all familiar with the concept of IQ, the “intelligence quotient” that is used to measure intellectual capacity, based on the assessment of the results from a number of tests. One of the central points of Daniel Goleman’s book and one of the points I want to emphasize today is that this kind of assessment is woefully insufficient for predicting success in life as measured by the ability to work well with others, to achieve success in fields other than the academic, and even (perhaps, especially), in achieving happiness.
IQ is an important indicator of some kinds of abilities, but is incomplete in and of itself, which, really, should come as no surprise. We are more than our intellects; our ability to form and maintain relationships is also an important factor in leading a successful life. If we cannot feel emotions, we won’t be able to achieve happiness. If we are unable to manage our emotions, likewise, we will not be able to lead a stable, well-integrated life.
So, it behooves us to put a little time into learning about emotional intelligence. Doing so allows us to make better choices and opens up a range of possibilities for a successful future for individuals–and also for communities such as church communities.
Here are some insights based on the research of the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux: “Sensory signals from eye or ear travel first in the brain to the thalamus, and then–across a single synapse–to the amygdala; a second signal is routed to the neocortex–the thinking brain. This branching allows the amygdala to respond before the neocortex, which mulls information through several levels of brain circuits before it fully initiates its more finely tailored response” (p. 17). Dr. Goleman refers to this as the amygdala “hijacking” the brain. Emotions have the power to overwhelm rationality.[sounding the bell of mindfulness]
“The brain has two memory systems, one for ordinary facts and one for emotionally charged ones” (p. 21). If you are hypersensitive to threats, perhaps because of traumatic experiences as a child, before you learned to discriminate properly, you may perceive “ordinary facts” as threatening your life or sense of yourself. The emotional distance you need to assess situations, to distinguish between the dangerous and the benign, is just not there. You “jump to conclusions,” as they say.
This overreaction can lead to a lot of stress in family relationships or relationships with friends and associates. Emotional reactivity does not need to be a permanent behavior pattern, but you need to recognize the pattern to change your behaviors. It will not happen by itself. “The amygdala can react in a delirium of rage or fear before the cortex knows what’s going on,” Dr. Goleman says, “because such raw emotion is triggered independent of, and prior to, thought” (p. 24).
Fortunately, for most of us, there is a “damper switch,” called the prefrontal lobes, where “planning and organizing actions (including emotional actions) towards a goal,” takes place. (p. 25). This is the process of “discernment.” It allows us to act on information about our emotions rather than acting on impulse. The better we learn to do this, the greater our “emotional intelligence.”
The kind of calm, reasoned thinking that we use in non-threatening, non-emotional situations, the kind of thinking that IQ tests are designed to measure, is not possible in emotionally charged situations. Learning to use those rational skills during emotionally significant times is learning emotional intelligence. The important thing here is that we can learn these skills if we invest energy in doing so. It doesn’t mean giving up defensiveness, it means becoming aware of it and choosing a different, more calculated response. To do this, you have to learn to slow down.[sounding the bell of mindfulness]
Citing the work of Yale psychologist Peter Salovey, these are the five domains that Dr. Goleman identifies (p. 43):
- Knowing one’s emotions
- Managing emotions
- Motivating oneself
- Recognizing emotions in others
- Handling relationships
Knowing your emotions (the first domain) means having self-awareness–recognizing a feeling as it happens. You might think that we all know our emotions as they occur. Not true. The amygdala can override our ability to think clearly. If we don’t recognize our emotions, they dictate our actions. Not good. Not good in forming and maintaining relationships, not good even for our own health.
The second domain here is “managing emotions.” Simply stated, this is handling emotions so that they are appropriate to the situation. If you can’t handle them–handle them as you would a concrete object–you will get worn out from battling them. You’ll be constantly battling depression or anger or irritability. There are ways to handle your emotions.
The third domain is “motivating yourself.” You organize your emotions in service to a goal. You delay gratification; you “stifle impulsiveness.”
The fourth domain is “recognizing emotions in others.” It’s amazing how difficult that is when you are completely caught up in your own emotions, your own disorganized emotions. You can’t have empathy towards someone else if you can’t escape your own emotional flux long enough to pay attention to the signs that others give you of their own emotional state.
The fifth domain, then, is “handling relationships.” In some way, this means handling the emotions of others, either by non-reactivity or empathy. Handling a relationship means helping someone else manage their emotions by not contributing to their emotional reactivity. But, it doesn’t mean that you take responsibility for the other person’s emotions.
Emotional intelligence can’t be measured the way we measure intellectual competence, with a test or a series of tests. Emotional intelligence is measured in a more subjective way, through your success in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships with others.
Dr. Goleman uses the term “self-awareness” in this way: “The sense of an ongoing attention to one’s internal states. In this self-reflexive awareness, (the) mind observes and investigates experience itself, including the emotions” (p. 46).
It’s a kind of neutral state, a state resembling, if not identical to, what the Buddhists call “non-attachment.” You can be self-reflective when you sit in meditation. You can also be self-reflective when you feel surges of emotions. It’s just more difficult and takes more skill, and those skills are developed through practice. The practice of meditation, observing the movement of the mind, can be applied when the emotions are stirred.
In the quiet state, we call this meditation. In the active state, we call it mindfulness. We are observing the flow of your emotions with equanimity, as we might observe the waves in the ocean. We become aware of both our mood and our thoughts about our mood. “The neocortical circuits are actively monitoring the emotions…. Self awareness (is) a non-reactive, nonjudgmental attention to inner states” (p. 47).
The psychologist John Mayer says that people tend to fall into one of three styles “for attending to and dealing with their emotions.” The first style is “self-awareness.” You are aware of your moods as you have them. You don’t focus on a bad mood when it occurs; you don’t obsess about it. Your mindfulness helps you manage it.
The second style is being “engulfed.” You feel swamped by your emotions, you are mercurial, you don’t seem to be aware that your emotions are not identical to yourself. You feel that you have no control over your emotions. You feel “overwhelmed and out of control.”
The third style is “accepting.” You identify your emotions, you are clear about what they are, but you don’t attempt to change anything. People who are chronically depressed choose this style, if only by default.
Is there ever a time you are not thinking? If you are awake, you are thinking, almost always, even if the thoughts are in the background, what Dr. Goleman calls a “murmur of background thoughts.”
Is there ever a time you are not experiencing a feeling? That must be very rare. You are always in some kind of a mood. Your emotional life is ongoing as long as your life, itself, is ongoing.
The important question is, “Are you aware of that feeling?” Emotions are a reality. Pretending that they don’t exist or that they are not important is a distortion of reality. Once you commit yourself to living in a distorted reality, your ability to function well with other people also becomes distorted. Distorted is as distorted does. Ignoring your emotions can be as devastating as ignoring the signs of bodily distress that indicate you should be seeking medical treatment.
Daniel Goleman relates a personal anecdote.
A vague ache in my groin sent me to my doctor. Nothing seemed unusual until he looked at the results of a urine test. I had traces of blood in my urine.
“I want you to go to the hospital and get some tests… kidney function, cytology…,” he said in a businesslike tone.
I don’t know what he said next. My mind seemed to freeze at the word cytology. Cancer.
I have a foggy memory of his explaining to me when and where to go for diagnostic tests. It was the simplest instruction, but I had to ask him to repeat it three or four times. Cytology— my mind would not leave the word. That one word made me feel as though I had just been mugged at my own front door.
Why should I have reacted so strongly? My doctor was just being thorough and competent, checking the limbs in a diagnostic decision tree. There was a tiny likelihood that cancer was the problem. But this rational analysis was irrelevant at that moment.
In the land of the sick, emotions reign supreme; fear is a thought away. We can be so emotionally fragile while we are ailing because our mental well-being is based in part on the illusion of invulnerability. Sickness– especially a severe sickness– bursts that illusion, attacking the premise that our private world is safe and secure. Suddenly we feel weak, helpless, and vulnerable. (EI, p. 164)
It is only natural that we react emotionally when we believe that our life or our health is at risk. But, typically, no allowance is made for that reality in the medical profession, though things, thankfully, have been improving over the last couple of decades.
Goleman says, “This inattention to the emotional reality of illness neglects a growing body of evidence showing that people’s emotional states can play a sometimes significant role in their vulnerability to disease and in the course of their recovery. Modern medical care too often lacks emotional intelligence.”
Goleman suggests that “an emotional intervention should be a standard part of medical care for the range of serious disease.” He makes a distinction between “disease,” the medical disorder, and “illness,” the patient’s experience of disease.
The medical professional typically focuses only on the so-called “objective” description of the disease. True therapeutic treatment also takes into account the patient’s experience of the disease because the fundamental relationship between doctor and patient is a human one, one of healing, not just diagnosis and medical treatment.
Our emotions can poison us. They can literally be toxic to our health. Research indicates that “People who experienced chronic anxiety, long periods of sadness and pessimism, unremitting tension or incessant hostility, relentless cynicism or suspiciousness, were found to have double the risk of disease–including asthma, arthritis, headaches, peptic ulcers, and heart disease.… This order of magnitude makes distressing emotions as toxic a risk factor as, say, smoking or high cholesterol are for heart disease–in other words, a major threat to health” (p. 169).
If you are aware of your emotions as they develop and you learn to regulate those emotions, you can significantly alter your health for the better. Clinical data have proven the deleterious effect of chronic negative emotions on the heart and on immune function, the critical term here being “chronic.” The “big three” negative emotions are anger, anxiety, and depression.
“Anger seems to be the one emotion that does the most harm to the heart” (p. 169). In a study at Stanford Medical School (p. 169), “while… patients recounted incidents that made them mad, the pumping efficiency of their hearts dropped by five percentage points. Some of the patients showed a drop in pumping efficiency of 7 percent or greater–a range that cardiologists regard as a sign of myocardial ischemia, a dangerous drop in blood flow to the heart itself” (p. 169).
Unmonitored anger can be suicidal. A program in anger control training developed at Stanford for patients who had suffered heart attacks resulted in a “second heart attack rate 44 percent lower than for those who had not tried to change their hostility” (p. 171).
Anxiety can be defined as “the stress evoked by life’s pressures.” There’s much scientific evidence connecting it to the onset of sickness and course of recovery. A study at Yale documented this “broad spectrum of effects: compromising immune function to the point that it can speed the metastasis of cancer; increasing vulnerability to viral infections; exacerbating plaque formation leading to atherosclerosis and blood clotting leading to myocardial infarction; accelerating the onset of Type I diabetes and the course of Type II diabetes; and worsening or triggering an asthma attack.” The emotions are out of balance, the body feels compromised, protective functions break down. “The nervous system is subject to ‘wear and tear’ as a result of stressful experiences” (p. 173).
Finally, depression. Depression sufferers have a sharply higher risk of dying within the first six months after a heart attack. “In a study of patients in a Montreal hospital who were discharged after being treated for a first heart attack… Among the one in eight patients who were seriously depressed, the death rate was five times higher than for others with comparable disease–an effect as great as that of major risks for cardiac death, such as left ventricular function, or a previous history of heart attacks” (p. 176).
Chronic emotional distress is toxic. Positive emotional states can improve your health. There is no magic pill to transform a negative emotion, but there are strategies that you can use to improve your mental and physical health. You can strive to be healthy emotionally by practicing mindfulness in all the moments of your day.
Mindfulness is simply being attuned to what is going on inside you as well as around you. It is not suppressing thoughts or emotions that you have aversions to. It is not clinging to pleasurable states. It is adopting an attitude of curious observation, a kind of benign non-attachment, a relinquishing of the desire to control so much, especially the things that are out of your control.
Why am I talking to you about this? Because I care about you, each of you, and I want you to enjoy the peace that comes from emotional stability. But, I also care about all of us as a spiritual community, and I want us to be healthy and to thrive. I want ours to be the kind of spiritual community that nourishes your spirit because you bring to us your own nourishing spirit.
What can we offer you? On Wednesday nights at 6:30, we can offer you a place to meditate and a group to meditate with and, in Frank Snyder, an experienced leader in meditation techniques. On Thursdays, once we get past the holidays, we can offer you a place to practice yoga and a group to practice with and an experienced yoga teacher in Kathie Downs. On Sunday mornings, we can offer you a contemplative service at 9:00 a.m., which will help you be at peace with your breath, engage your mind in healthy interaction with spiritual teachings of the East and an opportunity to be part of an ongoing group that can help strengthen your spiritual practice.
This church is your church, and you make it your church by your presence and your willingness to be present as your emotions unfold.
I’ll close with a quote from Emotional Intelligence:
Whenever people come together to collaborate… there is a very real sense in which they have a group IQ, a sum total of all the talents and skills of those involved…. The single most important element in group intelligence it turns out, is not the average IQ in the academic sense, but rather in terms of emotional intelligence. The key to a high group IQ is social harmony (p. 160).
- Emotional Intelligence. Daniel Goleman. Bantam Books. NY, NY. 1995.
- “Emotional Agility.” Harvard Business Review. Susan David & Christina Congleton. November, 2013.
- Wikipedia: “Emotional Intelligence”; “Daniel Goleman”
Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly
at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY
on November 15, 2015