Ten fetters: the middle four

Following on from the previous post, this is about looking at sense desire, ill will, desire for physical being and desire for non-physical being, the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th fetters.

It might seem that freedom from the first three, from belief in a separate self, getting past where sceptical doubt can hold us back and where we’re attached to the outer forms of practice, should free us from just about everything. But even when we see this much, even when we gain the peace that comes with this, and develop greater presence in the moment, we still have decades of conditioning that have created our patterns of behaviour, tendencies and everything that makes up the personality.

It’s not that these are fixed, they change all of the time and with seeing more clearly how it is i.e. no ‘self’, there can be some deep changes that take place as things that are seen through drop away. But not everything drops away, at least not at first.

This takes us to the middle four fetters. It’s important to note that the fetters, like the khandas, the factors of awakening and other aspects of Buddhism are ways to support looking or reflecting. It’s not about saying, ‘this is how it is’, it’s more like saying, ‘try looking at it this way’, really just to change our perspective and provide a different lens or filter through which we can regard this human experience. So if it’s useful we’re free to make use of it, if not we set it to one side.

Seeing that anger and irritation can still arise, and seeing that sense desires are still present, even though we may not make a problem out of these, we may wish to see these aspects of our experience more clearly, and so take the time to look.


Desire is an interesting one to take first. Did you ever get the feeling that you want something but you don’t know what you want? This gives a clue; a lead to follow. When we look closely we might see that before desire manifests as any one particular thing, there is underneath it a dissatisfaction with the way things are. There is something in the moment which is perceived to be incomplete, not quite right or in need of changing, for desire to arise. This may be more or less driven by such things as habits or by physical appetites: those hardwired aspects of being that include the need for comfort, hunger, thirst or sexual desire – none of which are of themselves personal in nature.

But whether personal or not, at their heart, all desire arises from dissatisfaction with the way it is. When we see this then we have created a little space around this sensation and can look more closely. And there, underneath, right at the heart of all dissatisfaction is the energy of the desire for being.

The desire for being rather than not-being, is in itself a resistance to what is insomuch as it is a gathering together of energy that would otherwise exist in a homogeneous state. It is therefore a sankhara or temporary arising, but temporary in this case does not mean brief. For this energy or desire is at the core of what binds us to physical being and leads through it’s manifold unfolding to rebirth after rebirth.

Behind this vibrant energy of the desire for being lies its less substantial but none the less present shadow, the desire for non-physical being, i.e. the desire for mind to be present.

The fetter of sense desire grows from the root of desire for being and the same can be said for ill will. If we regard the desire for being – being at all –  as fertile soil, within this the desire for physical being can take root. From this root grow desires related to many aspects of being that may be considered together as desire for wanting this present experience to be in accordance with sustaining being.

This brings in the desire to control, the desire to have what we like, avoid what we don’t like, and resistance to that which arises which does not accord with these desires, which may manifest as anything from boredom, to irritation, grumpiness, anger or rage, depending on the level of energy fuelling it.

So then even without self-view, without the desire for becoming, as long as the desire ‘to be’ is in place there is still the potential for sense desire to arise, and conversely for ill will to arise.

The first stage in working with these fetters is about our approach. From an impersonal perspective what we’re dealing with is the arising and moving of energy, energy that’s here, energy that’s part of this present moment experience. If we create aversion around this we add more energy, effectively we add fuel to the flames. If we develop an open and welcoming approach then there is no resistance, we’re simply seeing and letting be what is, and this opens the door to both freeing us from identification with what arises, and also allows us to look more deeply – not to fix, not to change, but simply to see.

This form of engaged looking is not about approving of the content of the thought or feeling that arises, but simply recognising that a process is taking place. It’s a normal and natural process and we don’t need to resist it any more than we need to identify with and enact it.

Going back to root, to the desire for being, the challenge here is to realise freedom from this desire without wishing for it’s opposite. It’s not about relishing non-being. It’s about seeing that this energy is present, that it’s part of this experience, this beingness in the moment. Like a candle flame it presents no harm in itself but can be the cause of great harm if handled unskillfully. Yet like all flames it is destined to burn and then burn out.

The fuel which it burns is clinging or attachment, which is born of identification, and arises through the other previous fetters. Seeing through these, releasing these attachments is to gradually purify and remove the fuel from the flame. As with all such aspects of looking, it isn’t about a quick fix or finding a shortcut. But really this is a natural process: awareness is present, looking happens anyway, and when mindfully directed enables us to see how it is with clarity. How it is, is how it is; it is this way; this is Dhamma.

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