Skillful Effort: The Five Higher Fetters

Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness (pp. 155-158)

The Five Higher Fetters are much more subtle than the Five Lower Fetters:

  1. Subtle desire to exist in fine material form
  2. Subtle desire to exist in immaterial form
  3. Conceit, or the underlying perception of self-identity
  4. Restlessness and worry
  5. Ignorance

Subtle desire to exist in fine material (or immaterial) form

“The subtle desire for existence in fine material or immaterial forms refers to the general will to live, to exist in some form, any form.” P. 156.  There is a strong will in all of us to exist.  Although we may realize that we are not our body (material form), the mind is willing to accept existence in immaterial form as a backup plan!

The key word is “desire.”  Desires are energetic states and arise from feelings (body sensations and thoughts) and are a problem when we get too attached to them.  In these two fetters, we get attached to the outcome in the future rather than living in the now.  As noted in the Tao Te Ching: “free from desire, you realize the mystery.  Caught in the desire, you see only the manifestations.”

Why are these unskillful states?   We have no control how we exist.    As with the first lower fetter, Belief in a Permanent Self, any state that we desire is setting boundaries.  We are the indefinable.

Conceit, or the underlying perception of self-identity

This fetter is related to the first fetter, Belief in a Permanent Self.  We forget that there is no permanent self and cling to the concept of self-identity.  The constant use of “I” in everyday language can lead to the delusion that the “I” really exists.  With the belief in the “I”, we assume all sorts of identities, which again, are just concepts.  Then we can develop conceit which is only possible if we believe in the “I”.  Conceit cones in three varieties – thinking that we are better, equal or inferior to others.

Why is this an unskillful state?  Since there is no permanent self, thinking in terms of being better, equal, or inferior to others is a false assumption.  How can you compare what does not exist?

Restlessness and worry

Why are we restless and why do we worry?  Bhante G. noted “The fetter of restlessness and worry keeps the mind fluttering like a banner in the wind, so that it cannot stop and understand the truth of its own impermanence.  (p. 156).

Why is this an unskillful state?  We are attached to an outcome and are restless and worrisome that it won’t come to be.


This is a state when we suffer but don’t realize why we suffer.  We are ignorant of the nature of suffering.  The first step of the Eightfold Path, Right Understanding, teaches us that the nature of suffering through the Four Noble Truths.

Why is this an unskillful state?  Our lack of understanding bonds us to suffering. 


  • Re-read and reflect on this each day.
  • When suffering (usually accompanied by a body sensation) arises, reflect to see if one of the fetters (lower and higher) is at play.
  • Without judgment, be mindful (pay attention from moment to moment to what is).

Next: Skillful Effort: The Five Hindrances
Previous: Skillful Effort: The Five Lower Fetters II