Wednesday, 13 January 2016

“You are nothing but FEAR” – UG.

A veteran pilot and an experienced crew trainer recently recounted a traumatic experience on one of his flights. 

Sometime ago, while in cruise, someone on board raised a bomb scare! The mid-air crisis hit him hard, he explained the whole trauma that he underwent, how he fought his nerves to stay calm and in control as he finally managed to divert and safely land the plane. 

It is extraordinary how fear can wreak havoc even on a professional, experienced and trained mind.

The pilot recounted another bizarre  episode! This time he overheard the news of hospitalisation of a dear friend on the cockpit radio while he was at the controls. He had a strange premonition of his friend's death and the news left him completely shattered. His hunch proved right as he learnt soon after landing.

During the unusual landing, the Captain recalled how his co-pilot and another crew-member in the cockpit went almost hysterical, shouting over the top, asking him to stop the plane, as the plane catapulted on the runway at a terrifying clip. They were afraid that they would hit the end of the runway soon and would all perish!

The hurtling speed of a landing airplane can easily exceed 250 km an hour and this requires both ‘reverse throttles’ (a technique of applying reverse thrust on engines) and ‘pedal braking’ on wheels to stop the plane!

As the pilot in command (PIC) that day, the 'loss' of his friend had so completely shattered his nerves, he felt a total numbness in both his legs - the famous FREEZE response of the nervous system! Unable to lift his feet off the floor to apply brakes using pedals, he managed to finally stop the plane by pulling the ‘reverse-throttle levers' only using his hand!

The plane pulled to a stop just a few feet short of the runway-end!

It is a well-known and well-studied phenomenon that fears and distressing thoughts can paralyse and incapacitate people!

The built-in biological mechanisms and hard-wired neural circuitry in handling fear could respond in any one of three ways –‘FREEZE, FIGHT or FLIGHT!’


Generally speaking, there are two kinds of fears. UG spoke of both forms of fear during many of his talks and made a few remarkable observations.

Once UG described his experience in Jnanashram near Bannerghatta National Park in Bangalore. He was invited to stay at the huge estate next to the jungle by his friend, Shivarama Sharma, popularly known as Brahmachari. UG, the guest, was offered a bed in the main hall while Brahmachari himself preferred to sleep in the veranda.

Early hours of next morning, UG was awakened by rude knocks on the door facing the backyard accompanied by loud hissing noises. He got out of the bed and opened the door to be greeted by a king cobra that had coiled up right in front of the door! Typical of UG, he says, “The cobra invited me for a walk sir!”, and thus began his famous walks with the king cobra every morning during his stay at the ashram!

For UG, the biological freak, fear ‘was thrown off’ his system during his calamity or ‘death process’ in 1967! His oft repeated advice to all was that the cobras, left to themselves, are actually peaceful creatures and they do not harm people. But when they sense odour, born of fear, they detect trouble instantly and will be the first ones to take action!

And UG observed that thought just deserts you when you are in real, physical danger! He explained: “When you are in real danger, there is no thinking, thought is not there! Thought just elopes!”

Biological fears are born of real threats in nature and hence are handled by neural mechanisms or neural pathways hardwired in the brain and body. These built-in safety devices have evolved over millions of years.

The famous neuroscientist Joseph E. LeDoux and his colleagues at New York University conducted the research about the neural circuitry involved in fear processing. See the pic below.

The Fear Response Circuit

LeDoux concluded that ‘amygdala’, the almond-shaped structure in the brain, is the centre that processes both the ‘fear’ and ‘conditioned fear’. It then generates the FREEZE, FIGHT OR FLIGHT response by stimulating autonomic responses such as increased heart rate and blood pressure and involuntary muscle control.

Having studied fear circuits in the brain for 30 long years, in his remarkable and humble submission about the 'amygdala' research, LeDoux adds:

“The idea that the amygdala is the home of fear in the brain is just that—an idea.  It is not a scientific finding but instead a conclusion based on an interpretation of a finding.”


According to LeDoux, once the snake is seen by the eye and the signal is decoded by the visual thalamus, the signal takes two distinct routes to reach the amygdala, the 'fear processor' that initiates the response.

The first route is a short one, direct pathway that takes only 12 milliseconds to reach and alert the amygdala (Box 1 in pic). Please note that the signal in the direct pathway is 'noisy', not clear or distinct! The figure depicts the shape as ‘somewhat’ like a snake, it is blurred, vague and not ‘crisp’! Nevertheless the amygdala responds instantly by kicking up the heart rate and blood pressure for the well-known FLIGHT response!

This is what the neuroscientists call the Direct Pathway or Low-Road!

Here the processing of fear is unconscious, there is no conscious thinking involved as UG pointed out and people simply take to heels! 

“People have fear they don’t understand or can’t control because it is processed by the low road,” LeDoux says.

Now about the second route.

The very same threat signal from the thalamus now continues its onward journey through to the visual cortex, the thinking mechanism, before finally reaching the amygdala giving rise to some delay.

At the visual cortex, the ‘threat’ is ‘processed’, ‘recognized’ and ‘analysed’, all part of the conscious ‘thinking’ process. Here the ‘signal’ is filtered out from the ‘noise’, as it were and the threat is clearly identified. That is, the cortex recognises the threat as cobra and a crisp and clear picture of the threat is then relayed over to the amygdala. 

This is the longer route, also  called the Indirect Pathway or High-Road (Box 2 in pic). 

This results in a 'thoughtful response' but only after the instantaneous FREEZE, FLIGHT or FLIGHT response due to the first signal!

This conscious but ‘exact processing’ of threat in the visual cortex where 'memory mapping' takes place delays the alert signal and hence it takes a longer time, about 30 to 40 milliseconds, to finally reach the amygdala well behind the first alert.

Nature has worked hard over millions of years and brilliantly put in place all the safety mechanisms and devices needed for our survival in the natural environment. It is truly an extraordinary piece of bio-engineering!

Survival is fully automatic!


Moving away from the threats in the real jungle now to threats in the human jungle!

Whereas biological fears are associated with real threats in the natural environment, the psychological fears are associated with ‘perceived’ threats or imaginary threats in the social environment! 

By the way, social environment is only a few thousands of years old compared to the human evolution that dates back to a few million years.

Social environment is a superimposition on our natural environment, an ‘imposed reality’ – ‘the only reality is the one that is imposed on us by society’ explained UG!

As humans, we have no choice but to inherit the superimposed social environment right at the time of birth. The conditioning required for the entity to survive in the human jungle perhaps occurs partly through genetics and partly through socio-cultural influences. This happens through the agency of parents, teachers and friends over the formative years.

Being social entities, humans suffer far more than animals from fears that are imaginary, psychological, fears born of thought or thinking!

Insurance is a great testimony to our fears! Fear runs this billion-dollar industry! Pivoted on fear & uncertainty, the insurance companies make phenomenal amounts of money selling fear to people –the fear of losing health, of losing property, fear of theft, of death and so on!

Many of our fears are ‘actually and factually’  unfounded, baseless but nevertheless impact, paralyse our minds and bodies!

Pointing to our psychological predicament and fear-infested minds, UG elucidated, “You are nothing but FEAR”

Thinking and fear go hand in hand. Thought is infested with fear. Fear takes its birth in thinking.

All thinking is either about the past or the future. It is the fear about the past losses, failures, guilt that might surface or recur again or about the unknown fears regarding the future. By the way, UG emphasised that there is no such thing as the future – future is only the continuity of the past, a mere projection!

Our day to day lives are filled with anxiety, uncertainty and fear. We live in a complex, complicated, distorted, corrupt social environment. There is a tremendous demand to be prepared and be ready to handle umpteen social, psychological threats of each and every kind out there in the human jungle.

The fear of survival in this complex, treacherous world propagates thought and thinking, promotes constant chattering. We relentlessly contemplate defenses and strategies of each and every kind against the perceived threats from every nook and corner.

Let us hear what UG says about our human tragedy:

The demand to be prepared for all future actions and all situations is the cause of our problems. Every situation is so different; and our attempt to be prepared for all those situations is the one that is responsible for our not being able to deal with situations as they arise.

·         From the book, “Thought Is Your Enemy”

UG in his extraordinary observation highlights the real source of our problem, and spotlights the real issue!

Our constant thinking, continuous struggle to be always ready and ever prepared for the future is the crux of the problem. This continuous and constant preparation breeds needless, relentless thinking. This is placing a huge demand on our biological resources and is consuming phenomenal amounts of life energy.

The more we want to achieve, the more we seek, more is the need or demand for us to be prepared against competition, the anticipated threats and situations. This is the crux of many psychological problems. It guzzles up all our energy thus zapping us and leaving us helpless and weak.

By being simple (focusing more on needs than wants) and being ordinary (not trying to become someone else) we open up huge reservoirs of life energy! 

With tons of energy at our disposal, UG reiterates that we could handle any life problem or situation, even as it arises!



  1. Well written and explained. UG classifies all our fears into two categories. Fear of loosing what we have and the fear of not getting what we want. He may sound as though we can do something to free ourselves from fear. That's the danger. Actually he is just focusing and spotlighting the problem but not advocating any effort to equip ourselves with any technique.
    Well done Suresh. Nice talking to you this night.

    1. Thank you sir! Affectionate regards, Suresh

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  3. My takeaways from your article are :

    1) The demand to be prepared for all future actions and all situations is the cause of our problems. Every situation is so different; and our attempt to be prepared for all those situations is the one that is responsible for our not being able to deal with situations as they arise."

    2) By being simple (focusing more on needs than wants) and being ordinary (not trying to become someone else) we open up huge reservoirs of life energy!

    1. Life time takeaways from UG, Madhu! Thanks for your kind words. You have spent your time with UG and have heard from the horse's mouth. It will be great to hear about your takeaways too...looking forward to it, Affly, Suresh

  4. Great blogs all of them. Read all at one go.
    where r u suresh ji? Havent seen u for several years.
    if in Mumbai, we shud catch up.

  5. Hello Tarun! Thanks. How r u? Will catch up next time in Mumbai.


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