11. YOU ARE THE CONDUCTOR OF YOUR EMOTIONS
Updated: Feb 4
Emotions are fascinating. Many people only experience them reactively. Some feel them deeply. Some repress them. Some protest various emotional experiences. What about you? How do you experience emotions?
What would happen if you became highly attuned to emotions? What if you learned to more fully understand them? What if you were to conduct them, like the conductor of a symphony? What if you learned how you could activate, release, and increase or reduce various emotional experiences?
In previous chapters in this series on emotions we have learned that emotions are spiritual. God is an emotional being. God’s emotions are holy, unique, and in a category separate from human emotions, due to the corruption of sin into our emotional processes.
We have learned that emotions can be studied. Emotions are what our “experiences” are made up of. “Emotionalism” is to be understood as separate from that which is “emotional”. While all emotional processing is technically a positive gift from God, many people use the categories of “positive” emotions in contrast to “negative” emotions, as a form of easy communication.
We learned that both of these categories of “positive” and “negative” emotions are God’s necessary gifts to us. And we have learned that the devil’s primary strategy is to leverage, exploit, and gain access into our emotional processes.
Today, in this chapter, I want to help you consider that you are not a victim to your emotions, but you are the “conductor” of your emotional experiences. You can be a manager that activates, releases, increases, and reduces various emotional experiences.
Do you want to feel more love, empathy, and compassion? Do you want anxiety, panic, and fearful imaginations to lose their power over you? Maybe you want more experiences of joy, laughter, and fun. Or maybe you want to not be the victim of depression, sadness, and hopelessness. Let’s frame our emotional management, responsibility, and possibilities in a different way.
Think of the experience of a “conductor” on a symphony stage. One of the most famous is Gustav Mahler. He was an Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer and a leading conductor of his generation. Google him and you will see caricatures of him with extreme gestures, arms waving, jumping in the air – all to master a symphony of amazing music.
Another historical conductor is Richard Strauss, a German composer in the Romantic era. Richard conducted music in a very subdued projection, with bare movements. Though these two symphonic giants are on the opposite ends of expression, they are equally powerful in the results.
The role of a conductor is to organize the music, prepare the orchestra, guide the symphony choir, direct the soloists, and lead the individual musicians to embody the conductor’s interpretation of the music. The conductor has an end in mind and moves the symphony forward in an orderly manner.
The conductor chooses the complex musical works to be performed and studies their scores. They can then make desired adjustments to the tempo, articulation, phrasing, repetitions of sections, and so on. They capture and relay the vision to all the performers. Then, the end result...is an extraordinary, moving, musical experience.
A role of a conductor is an art form. It is an anticipatory art. What they do takes place before the music happens. The hand gestures and baton movements right and left are in advance of what is desired for that sound.
The baton is simply an extension of the full arm and wrist. Small movements in the wrist area can make expressive movements, the baton being an extension of the wrist. The conductor’s right hand is mainly for managing the rhythm and beat patterns. The left hand has a much more complex role. It manages things out of the ordinary such as phrasing, or the speed of a string player’s bow.
When the conductor makes soft, elegant movements, the orchestra will play soft, elegant sounds. When the conductor makes direct, edgy, pivotal movements, the orchestra will play that way.
Percussion needs clarity from a conductor. They need to know where to hit something. The bass player may play as little as one note in an entire symphony, but that note is very important. Some horns bring delicate sounds forward, to compliment the overall sound. The conductor has to be very aware of each individual’s role, and then conduct the music to bring out the highest and best of them.
Some conductors are dancing extroverts, and their music demonstrates the joy. These conductors are contagious, making the audience want to dance too, experiencing the fun that is so at the forefront of the moment.
Other conductors believe in beautiful, upholstered, and luxurious sounds. These conductors may have their eyes closed, holding this moment in his chest and arms. He moves the audience to pull up their deepest emotions of love, grace, and mercy. At times the audience may even feel a deep sacredness.
BECOMING THE CONDUCTOR OF EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCES
Now that we all have an “expertise” (sarcasm) with symphonies and how they happen, I want to transpose these ideas onto our brains and emotions. Just as a symphony, conducted well, is a powerful experience, so it is with those who understand the “rhythms, beat patterns, purposes, and sounds” that our emotions are capable of presenting. If we are making clanging emotional experiences, it is because we are not yet skilled as a conductor of those emotions.
Many people assume that what they feel in a “negative” emotional moment is something they are fully a victim to, powerless to change, and have no responsibility in the experience. Yet even the Apostle James guides us this way:
PHILIPPIANS 4:6-9 AMPC 6 Do not fret or have any anxiety about anything, BUT in every circumstance and in everything, by prayer and petition (definite requests), with thanksgiving, continue to make your wants known to God. 7 And God’s peace [shall be yours, that tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God and being content with its earthly lot of whatever sort that is, that peace] which transcends all understanding shall garrison and mount guard over your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 8 For the rest, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of reverence and is honorable and seemly, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely and lovable, whatever is kind and winsome and gracious, if there is any virtue and excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, THINK ON AND WEIGH AND TAKE ACCOUNT OF THESE THINGS [FIX YOUR MINDS ON THEM]. 9 Practice what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and model your way of living on it, and the God of peace (of untroubled, undisturbed well-being) will be with you.
James’ admonition is that when you begin noticing anxiety (an example of a “negative” emotion), turn affections to God, connect, make thanksgivings, then fix your mind on new “positive” things and model it. Sounds straight forward doesn’t it? Unfortunately, many have taken this to be simply mystical fantasy, or kind of a religious ritual that may or may not really work. I want you to see that this admonition is actually much more a scientific than a religious platitude; it is fundamental truth for our human experiencing.
In today’s scientific community we now know that this admonition is deeply effective from a neuro-biological perspective. Studies around the brain have given us insights as to why this is so effective.
First, let’s ask, “What is a thought?” Seriously. What is it made up of? How do thoughts happen?
Secondly, “What is an emotion?” What is it made up of? How do emotions happen?
In general, thoughts can be reduced to neurons firing with other neurons. These neurons that fire together end up wiring together. The brain has about 86 billion neurons that are interconnected in about one hundred trillion synapses. A synapse is a small space between two neuron cells where they pass messages in communication. When brain networks process and synchronize, the process itself is actually a thought. A thought is how the brain cells interact.
When we have thoughts, they will then release neurochemicals (brain transmitters and hormones). These neurochemicals are what cause emotional experiences. You cannot have an emotional experience without activating a neurochemical. Feelings of love, empathy, compassion, joy, laughter, peace, contentment, faith, and other “positive” emotions all are from a neurochemical source. The same with “negative” emotions like anxiety, rage, depression, stress, unbelief, insecurity, hopelessness, and frustration. All emotions have brain function processing that is predictable and repeatable, primarily based in what is being focused on with the thoughts.
These brain circuits actually encompass the body’s experiencing too. In fact, the body is a faster gauge for knowing you are having emotional experiences than your cognitive awareness. When you feel your heart beating faster, your stomach feeling nauseous, your neck and shoulders tightening up, or a rush of heat in your cheeks–all of these bodily signals are making you aware of neurochemicals that are releasing in your brain due to your thoughts.
The brain is structured to hold emotional memories and prepare for future survival around them. This process gives impetus and motivation to act in various situations. Emotional memories go all the way back to childhood. Every experience of pain, sorrow, loss, grief, negligence, and trauma build memory files in the brain. The brain then creates maps for survival using any similarities to the pains of yesterday. The brain activates these maps on a subconscious and automatic level, long before you are even aware it is happening.
As an example, when you were 5 years old, a dog you desired to pet jumped onto you and bit you, leaving teeth marks and pain. At that moment, your brain’s survival networks cataloged the events and filed the memory in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Here the entire scene is mapped out–from sounds, sights, scents, temperatures, tastes, persons, by-stander emotions, moments that led up to the event, and more. Then when you are 6, if a similar scene begins to form, maybe a small puppy that is 50 feet away, your hippocampus retrieves the mapping, activating the amygdala’s emotional fear circuits and shutting down your cognitive brain’s ability to rationalize. In that moment you are irrationally panicking about a sweet, innocent, playful puppy.
The puppy experience happens in other topical scenes too. As a child, if you were betrayed, accosted, verbally demeaned…repeatedly, your brain creates a catalog of mappings for various scenarios. Then as an adult your spouse asks a simple, sweet, innocent, playful question and you are triggered with “negative” emotional reactions. Sometimes all it takes is a simple facial expression or voice inflection and you are agitated beyond what makes sense.
These memory-map scenes could be from natural traumas like hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, or even car accidents. They could be from parents never being available to nurture, encourage, and “see” you in your pains. They could have formed from sibling abuses like verbal assaults, sexual violations, or physical beatings. The brain takes pictures of the smallest griefs, sorrows, and losses, all to protect you for survival and belonging in the future.
When our brains have these memory-maps in them, they constantly scan for similar scenarios in sights, sounds, feels, tastes, and scents. They will assess subconscious things like the expression on another person’s face, or hand movements, or voice inflections. All of these serve as automatic survival processing in our brains.
These memory-maps create for us underlying and subconscious narratives that generally are sped up too fast to be aware of. They are so subtle that we aren’t even conscious they are happening in our thoughts. These thoughts can have high intensity energy behind them, all from our hippocampus’s memory-mapping; though some research shows these circuits are rooted in epigenetic inheritance–what we received from our parent’s gene line.
The good news is that our brains have plasticity, meaning they can grow, adapt, and change. We can take responsibility for our own brains by exploring, analyzing, and guiding our thoughts.
Consider this model of how our thoughts turn into active and reactive behaviors:
Thoughts form into emotions.
Emotions form into beliefs.
Beliefs form into attitudes.
Attitudes form our active and reactive behaviors, or our manner of life.
If we become curious about our thoughts, we can investigate what they actually are, and where they are coming from.
A healthy process for discovery is to ask what emotions we are feeling in the moment. Once a list of descriptors around feelings is identified, we ask what the inner narratives are behind or associated with those feelings. By digging down on those inner narratives–these looping thoughts–we ask, “When was the first time I remember having these emotional feelings, or the first time I can remember having such inner narratives form?”
The goal of such exercises is to get down to the roots of the emotional experiencing, and the lowest level of narrative that is associated with it. When we do this, we are privileged to address the emotional scenes of our past with clarifying truth. At the point we associate truth with these deep-seated and subconscious thoughts, we are building and strengthening brain circuits between our pre-frontal cortex (the rational brain) and our hippocampus and amygdala (the emotional brain).
Our pre-frontal cortex–the rational part of our brain–isn't fully developed until we are around 25 years old. The hippocampus–where episodic clarity is associated with a memory–isn't fully developed until we are around 15 years old. However, the amygdala–where our emotional activations and reactions are formed–is mostly developed at birth. This is why you can feel emotionally upside down and off, but not have any reasoning to know why.
Building or strengthening brain networks from our rational brain (prefrontal cortex) and our emotional brain (the limbic system, or the hippocampus and amygdala) is critical for managing our emotional experiences.
Like a conductor of a symphony, we can know what the different parts of our brains do, then activate them to fire up the neuron-to-neuron activity which forms thoughts. Once our thoughts are moving in the direction that we desire they will activate the brain chemicals that give us desired emotional experiences. This exercise of focusing our thoughts will reach far beyond our brains and even provide our entire bodies with experiences.
Another illustration for emotional conducting or managing would be an audio console, used in churches and recording studios. These audio consoles have sliders that move up and down to mix the desired sounds for an organized and beautiful experience. If one instrument is too loud, the audio technician will move that slider down, balancing the overall experience. If a vocalist is too quiet, the technician will move that slider up, to give the vocals the appropriate power in a song.