Groupthink: Yoga, Fear and Evolution

by Jeff Martens

Have you ever seen a Tiger’s extended claws up close and truly admired the lethal sharpness of them?  How about a Wolf’s canines?  Not a dog, or a huskie breed but a full-blown wolf’s fangs that have no resemblance whatsoever to a domestic dog’s incisors ground down by regular meals of kibble?  Have you ever seen firsthand the Cheetah’s explosive burst of power as it accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in less than three seconds?  How about a Chameleon, Snake or Butterfly blending so perfectly into its surroundings that it’s all but invisible?  Have you ever looked deep into the eye of an Eagle or a Red Tailed Hawk and discovered a pupil that can pinpoint a hare on the desert floor more than a mile below?  Or maybe you’ve encountered the nose of a Polar Bear, a huge black snout able to pick out the scent of a fresh kill over Arctic icecaps more than 45 miles away?

Faced with these impressive natural abilities and in light of the constant fear of becoming prey, it would appear at first glance that humankind was really given the short end of the stick in the survival game.  The earliest men and women didn’t really seem to have the super senses or exceptional abilities of other animals. Lacking extraordinary speed or eyesight, our strength was just average.  We were without lethal fangs, claws, intimidating size or exceptional hiding ability.  As a species, we ended up trading all of these gifts for two things: opposable thumbs and a proportionately bigger frontal lobe than any other species on the planet.  Much more advanced than the lower ‘reptilian’ or mid-brain, our frontal lobe held the key to changing not only the world we lived in, but even more importantly, our very concept of who we truly are.

As humankind has evolved, those thumbs have helped to fashion tools, defenses and weapons that ultimately turned us from the hunted into predator.  But today the question as to whether we are we using the frontal lobe to its full potential can be a topic of serious debate.  What exactly is the frontal lobe and how does it relate to yoga, survival, and the absence of fear?  The answer, in part, lies with exploring how humans as a species protected themselves from threats in the distant past and how we have repurposed our ancient instinct for survival/self-preservation into something else quite different in modern life.

Thumbs and the largely untapped frontal lobe helped make up for our sensory deficits in relation to other species.  Along the way we also developed a herding or group mentality where we stuck together to ensure our own survival.  Much more effective as hunters in a group, we began to improve our diets with metabolically expensive-to-develop proteins, fats and amino acids from the flesh of those creatures we could not have possibly overcome alone.  Though this allowed us to thrive and develop larger brains, being part of a group can be a practice based on instinct limiting us to very few choices in modern life.  Ironically enough those big brains we developed by working together in groups to ensure our survival now offer us the opportunity to actually LIVE and step off of the merry-go-round of survival.


Buddha said that comparison causes great suffering, especially in relation to tradition, trends or habits… And that to go beyond such suffering we have to leave the known behind (Kalama Sutta, verse 9).  The known is what is familiar and therefore somewhat predictable.  But since standing out from the herd can draw unwanted attention from predators, the familiar is something that the mind also equates with safety.  In a modern world of super-clustered communities we cultivate enormous gatherings or ‘herds’ both real and virtual defined by religious beliefs, geographical proximity or ideology.  Many of these groups’ identities depend upon the alienation of other groups and reinforce the herd-mentality by  condemning whatever is different than their own understanding.  As a result we get the paradox of being in agreement with our group and yet also feeling very isolated or alone.

To compensate for this the herding instinct may then asserts itself on a mental level where we constantly compare and then redefine ourselves in relation to the characteristics of our chosen group.  Fitting in with the herd means safety and survival.  Excelling at belonging means the accumulation and display of all that is valued by our herd.  With a survival mentality, even those who try to stand out from the group are ultimately doing so to be adored and perpetually welcomed into the herd – or displaying a rejection of the herd in order to fit in with another group.  This misguided attempt to fit in and be accepted or even admired by the majority pits us in an ever-expanding competition to see how much we can “belong”.

The self-preservation reaction is rooted deep in the reptilian brain, the most primordial part of the brain, with strong ties to the limbic system, the most emotionally volatile part of the brain.  The instinct to perpetuate our own existence has helped us survive a world of predators and super predators, but somewhere along the way what exactly is surviving becomes unclear.   When we identify with the body, or with our bank accounts or relationship status as compared to the rest of the ‘herd’, we have effectively redefined what is essential to our own survival.  Since there is obviously so much more to who we really are than these outer conditions in life, to use them to define ourselves is to create a false self.  Our possibilities and limitations are then defined by the values of those around us, disallowing any expansion into new ideas or alternative points-of-view that might propel us beyond the herd.  If we identify with some temporary aspect of ourselves as something that defines and animates our entire existence, then every time this temporary condition is ‘threatened’ (as all temporary conditions constantly are) we kick into survival-mode to protect the false self.  Instead of using the frontal lobe, that center of consciousness and integration and awareness which took 7 million years to develop, we revert back to our reptilian fight-or-flight survival reflex.  In this state of (false) self preservation using the most primitive aspects of our brains, there is only reaction based on fear.  We are reversing the entire course of evolution in a misguided attempt to just ‘fit-in’

Abhinivesha is the instinct for self preservation.  It is the last of Patanjali’s five klesha or afflictions that cause all suffering in life.  Abhinivesha is said by Patanjali to impact even the most dedicated yogi.  When this survival response is hijacked by our false self, we condemn ourselves to a life of struggle or avoidance until the strain gets to be too much and we finally start checking-out.  These are the primitive mind’s only three strategies for dealing with the circumstances of life – fight, run or numb.  So the car honking at us, the letter we don’t want to get, the casual insult… all of these life situations are treated as monumental threats to our basic survival placing us in a  loop of reaction that is devoid of conscious awareness.

Yoga is the practice of union which brings us back into our true and conscious self. It starts with knowing the one who sees and not what is seen as the self, the one who hears and not what is heard as the self, the one who thinks with that big fat brain and not the thoughts as the self.  Of course we are not what we perceive, for there must be a consciousness to truly perceive in the first place.  In such a light it almost seems silly to state that you are not the object of your senses.  You are not your fleeting actions, though these actions can tell you what you believe and hold as true.  You are not your ephemeral thoughts, though your thoughts can reveal what you worship with your attention.

With even the slightest self-reflection so wonderfully facilitated by your frontal lobe, it is discovered that the Self that experiences and perceives is obviously the true Self.  It is this true self that is already free to perceive a different world than the one of fear and threat which may be perceived by our brothers and sisters,  It is this true self that is already free to use your fully evolved mind to choose a different action that is consecrated and affirming of the liberated state in which we all already reside.

Jeff Martens has been teaching Fear To Clear workshops since 2010. Please contact us to receive more information or call 480.632.7899.