Why do we feel afraid and how to overcome it

Fear plays a preeminent role in the human experience and manifests itself in diverse forms in our lives.  There is fear of God which is an artifact of organized religion, fear of loss, failure and humiliation in society, fear of disease and death, fear of darkness, alarming creatures and ghosts and lastly, fear of the Unknown.  If you ask anyone who has had a spiritual opening, he or she would instinctively tell you that fear is fundamentally a result of unconsciousness.  Excessive indulgence in fear is counter-productive because that propagates vibrations which may attract the very phenomena that we cringe from, according to the Mother.

Question: Why does one feel afraid?

Mother: I suppose it is because one is egoistic.

There are three reasons. First, an excessive concern about one’s security. Next, what one does not know always gives an uneasy feeling which is translated in the consciousness by fear.  And above all, one doesn’t have the habit of a spontaneous trust in the Divine. If you look into things sufficiently deeply, this is the true reason. There are people who do not even know that That exists, but one could tell them in other words, “You have no faith in your destiny” or “You know nothing about Grace” – anything whatever, you may put it as you like, but the root of the matter is a lack of trust. If one always had the feeling that it is the best that happens in all circumstances, one would not be afraid.

The first movement of fear comes automatically. There was a great scientist who was also a great psychologist (I don’t remember his name now); he had developed his inner consciousness but wanted to test it. So he undertook an experiment. He wanted to know if, by means of consciousness, one could control the reflex actions of the body (probably he didn’t go far enough to be able to do it, for it can be done; but in any case, for him it was still impossible). Well, he went to the zoological garden, to the place where snakes were kept in a glass cage. There was a particularly aggressive cobra there; when it was not asleep, it was almost always in a fury, for through the glass it could see people and that irritated it terribly. Our scientist went and stood in front of the cage. He knew very well that it was made in such a way that the snake could never break the glass and that he ran no risk of being attacked. So from there he began to excite the snake by shouts and gestures. The cobra, furious, hurled itself against the glass, and every time it did so the scientist closed his eyes ! Our psychologist told himself, “But look here, I know that this snake cannot pass through, why do I close my eyes ?” Well, one must recognise that it is difficult to conquer the reaction. It is a sense of protection, and if one feels that one cannot protect oneself, one is afraid. But the movement of fear which is expressed by the eyes fluttering is not a mental or a vital fear: it is a fear in the cells of the body; for it has not been impressed upon them that there is no danger and they do not know how to resist. It is because one has not done yoga, you see. With yoga one can watch with open eyes, one would not close them; but one would not close them because one calls upon something else, and that “something else” is the sense of the divine Presence in oneself which is stronger than everything.

This is the only thing that can cure you of your fear. [1]

In another recorded dialogue, the Mother faintly recalled that the scientist was French and the experiment may have been conducted in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris[2].  I was unable to find any such record but I came across the case of the American psychologist George E. Partridge, who had visited  Central Park in New York and later published a research paper “Experiments upon the Control of the Reflex Wink” in 1900 in the American Journal of Psychology (vol. 11, no. 2).  The research that he conducted has been recounted by Watson (1919):

An interesting example of the breaking up of an instinct by experimental methods is cited by Partridge. On a visit to Central Park in New York he noted that the observers around the snakes’ cage blinked and jumped back (defensive reflex) each time one of the cobras struck the glass. In order partially to duplicate the situation for an experiment on the breaking up of the instinct he set up a piece of heavy plate glass in front of his subjects and devised a mechanism which would release a rubberfaced wooden-headed hammer for striking against the glass.  The hammer struck the glass at the level of the subjects’ eyes. At first, of course, the subject blinked and drew back each time the hammer approached the eye. As the subject became more habituated to the situation, inhibition occurred. The following figures refer to the number of times the wink was inhibited in each of a series of four hundred trials: 6, 14, 38, 65, 268, 352. That is, inhibition occurred only six times in the first four hundred trials, whereas it occurred 352 times in the last four hundred trials [3].

The Mother, while referring to this experiment, explained that when it comes to the snakes or other harmful creatures, the movement of fear is enhanced because the physical movement is accompanied by a considerable vital projection of the nervous force of the snake; it is due to this exchange that we experience a shock in our nervous being [2].

Psychologists have discovered across species that the phenomenon of fear undergoes a “maturation” process.   The infant of a species may be fearless in the first few years but at a later age, all the customary signs of fear begin to be observed.  There are a couple of reasons that have been advanced to explain this progressive maturation of fear.  It could be that the identification of what constitutes danger has been imbibed through other individuals of the species.  The other possibility is that fear was not be exhibited at an early age because the neural mechanisms that mediate the fear response had not yet developed[4].

In 1928, Jones and Jones set a harmless snake free in an enclosure with children of different ages.   There were no signs of fear until the age of two; children between the age of three and four became cautious; children four and above exhibited definite signs of fear.

A similar “maturation” process was observed with chimpanzees by the Canadian psychologist D.O. Hebb in 1946.  Hebb presented a number of objects to each of 30 chimpanzees.  Among the objects was a painted wax replica of a coiled 24-inch snake.  This produced signs of fear in 21 of the chimpanzees, nine of which had been born and bred in captivity.  Since the nine chimpanzees had no communication with other chimpanzees or prior exposure to such creatures, the experiment suggests that fear of snakes is innate in chimpanzees.

According to Hebb, chimpanzees also undergo a maturation process with regards to fear of dead or mutilated bodies as well as fear of strangers.  Chimpanzees develop fear of strangers at four months while human infants develop the same fear at about eight months of age[4].

Fear stimuli can be classified into various categories, according to Gray[4].

  1. fears ascribed to novelty.
  2. fears ascribed to the intensity of stimuli (e.g. loud noise).
  3. fears developed during evolution when the species faced survival threats.
  4. fears learned through social interaction.
  5. fears learned through  classical conditioning.

Our fears arise from an amalgam of “nature” (subconscious inheritance) and “nurture” (environment).  Psychologists have proposed various theories to explain the phenomenon of fear.  Here, we will adhere to the spiritual explanation.

The innate fear – the “fear in the cells of the body” – originates from the plane of consciousness called the Subconscient.   By virtue of our birth in a certain family, a certain culture, and as part of a certain species, we inherit certain automatic responses which had shaped the psyche of past individuals.  In a sense, the past conditioning lies dormant in us and is perpetuated further by our progeny.  Sri Aurobindo indicated that the subconscious is not just individual but also collective – precisely because man is the microcosm of the macrocosm:

The subconscient is universal as well as individual like all the other main parts of the Nature… It contains the potentiality of all the primitive reactions to life which struggle out to the surface from the dull and inert strands of Matter and form by a constant development a slowly evolving and self-formulating consciousness; it contains them not as ideas, perceptions or conscious reactions but as the fluid substance of these things….The subconscient is the main cause why all things repeat themselves and nothing ever gets changed except in appearance. It is the cause why people say character cannot be changed, the cause also of the constant return of things one hoped to have got rid of for ever. All seeds are there and all Sanskaras (impressions) of the mind, vital and body,—it is the main support of death and disease and the last fortress (seemingly impregnable) of the Ignorance[5].

As the Mother said once, if you consciously descended (through Yoga) into this lower plane of consciousness, “you will discover all the sources, all the origins of all your difficulties; then you will begin to understand what your fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers were, and if at a certain moment you are unable to control yourself, you will understand, “I am like that because they were like that.”[6]

Demonstration: In the first video, a ten-month old baby with no self-image continues playing in the proximity of the lion but in the second video, children who are a few years old instinctively shrink from the lion.

Question: When one feels frightened, what should one do?

Mother: That depends upon who you are. There are many ways of curing oneself of fear.

If you have some contact with your psychic being, you must call it immediately and in the psychic light put things back in order. This is the most powerful way.

When one does not have this psychic contact, but is still a reasonable being, that is, when one has a free movement of the reasoning mind, one can use it to reason with, to speak to oneself as one would to a child, explaining that this fear is a bad thing in itself and, even if there is a danger, to face the danger with fear is the greatest stupidity. If there is a real danger, it is only with the power of courage that you have a chance of coming out of it; if you have the least fear, you are done for. So with that kind of reasoning, manage to convince the part that fears that it must stop being afraid.

If you have faith and are consecrated to the Divine, there is a very simple way, it is to say: “Let Your will be done.Nothing can frighten me because it is You who are guiding my life. I belong to You and You are guiding my life.” That acts immediately. Of all the means this is the most effective: indeed, it is. That is, one must be truly consecrated to the Divine. If one has that, it acts immediately; all fear vanishes immediately like a dream. And the being with the bad influence also disappears like a dream along with the fear. You should see it running away at full speed, prrt! Voila.

Now, there are people having a strong vital power in them and they are fighters who immediately lift up their heads and say: “Ah! an enemy is here, we are going to knock him down.” But for that one must have the knowledge and a very great vital power. One must be vitally a giant. That does not happen to everyone.

So there are many different ways. They are all good, if you know how to make use of the one that suits your own nature [7].


  1. The Mother.  Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 4, p. 212.
  2. The Mother.  Collected Works of the Mother, vol.6, p. 44.
  3. John Watson.  Psychology from the standpoint of a behaviorist,  Philadelphia and London: J.B. Lippincott and Company, 1919, p. 265.  (google books)
  4. Jeffrey Gray.  The psychology of fear and stress, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.  pp. 8-9. (google books)
  5. Nirodbaran.  Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, May 28, 1935, p 247.
  6. The Mother.  Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 4, p. 261.
  7. The Mother.  Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 5, pp. 117-118.

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14 thoughts on “Why do we feel afraid and how to overcome it

  1. Sandeep Post author

    Phobia of an object enlarges the perception of that feared object

    The more afraid a person is of a spider, the bigger that individual perceives the spider to be, new research suggests.

    In the context of a fear of spiders, this warped perception doesn’t necessarily interfere with daily living. But for individuals who are afraid of needles, for example, the conviction that needles are larger than they really are could lead people who fear injections to avoid getting the health care they need.

    See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/02/120222204241.htm

  2. Sandeep Post author

    If the amygdala in your brain is damaged, you may feel no fear !

    SM is a woman without fear. She doesn’t feel it. She has been held at knifepoint without a tinge of panic. She’ll happily handle live snakes and spiders, even though she claims not to like them. She can sit through reels of upsetting footage without a single start. And all because a pair of almond-shaped structures in her brain – amygdalae – have been destroyed.

    Ralph Adolphs, Antonio Damasio and Daniel Tranel at the University of Iowa have been working with SM for over a decade. She is a 44-year old mother-of-three, who suffers from a rare genetic condition called Urbach-Wiethe disease, which has caused parts of her brain to harden and waste away. This creeping damage has completely destroyed her amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing emotion (white arrows in the diagram below). She’s one of the few people who shows such a striking pattern of damage.

    Even so, her IQ is normal. Her memory is good, as are her language and perception skills. But she has problems dealing with fear. Way back in 1994, the group showed that SM has trouble recognising fear in other people. She can’t tell what fearful facial expressions mean, even though she’s more than capable of discerning other emotions. Even though she’s a talented artist, she can’t draw a scared face, once claiming that she didn’t know what such a face would look like. Now, in a study led by Justin Feinstein, the team have found that SM cannot feel fear either.

    Read more @

  3. Sandeep Post author

    Great answer…

    Question: During the night I am not afraid of certain things, but during the day I am afraid of them. Why?

    Mother: That means your vital being is older than your physical being.

    (Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 4, p 60)

  4. Sandeep Post author

    Since Man is made of different parts, cowardice is also of different types…

    Mother: There are people who… I have known people who were physically very courageous, and were very, very cowardly morally, because men are made of different parts. Their physical being can be active and courageous and their moral being cowardly. I have known the opposite also: I have known people who were inwardly very courageous and externally they were terrible cowards. But these have at least the advantage of having an inner will, and even when they tremble they compel themselves.

    (Collected Works of the Mother, vol 4, p 26)

  5. Pingback: Relativity of detachment | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

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  7. Pingback: The exchange of vital forces during social interactions | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  8. Pingback: Anything that shocks you is the very thing you carry in yourself – The Mother. | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  9. Ananya

    Mother says, “You can be entirely free from fear only when you have driven out of you all violence”.


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