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The Four Stages of Desire: From Everything to One Thing

Why we should stop wanting everything and focus on what matters most.

As a culture, we’ve had ambivalent feelings about feelings of desire from the very beginning. The Christian tradition generally takes a dim view of desire, mainly because it tends to focus on the ephemeral satisfactions of this world—variously termed the lust of the flesh or the pride of the eye—rather than the eternal rewards of the next world. Western philosophers, on the other hand, have generally viewed desire as fundamental to human life. To be human is to desire what we do not have.

Desire motivates us in many important ways: physical desire, for example, is called hunger or thirst; intellectual desire is called curiosity; sexual desire is called lust; economic desire is called consumer demand. Remove these expressions of desire, and human life as we know it would cease to exist. Our culture in general and our economy in particular are built on our desire for things and experiences we do not have.

The 15th-century Indian mystic Kabir, a poet and philosopher, who today is revered by both Hindus and Muslims, argued that desire constitutes the true wealth of humanity. One of the leading 20th-century interpreters of Kabir was a spiritual teacher named Eknath Easwaran, who once explained in a videotaped lesson that Kabir views desire as having four stages.

The vast majority of people, Kabir says, are born with countless desires—too many desires to pursue any one of them with conviction or dedication. Most concern the superficial aspects of life, such as personal appearance or personal possessions. People who have many desires are the poorest of people, Kabir says, and they seldom achieve any success in any field. Their lives are also the saddest, because they are the most superficial, dominated by too many desires that matter too little.

There are other people, Kabir goes on to say, who are born with some desires, and these are usually people who lead what are considered successful lives. No matter what field of endeavor they choose, they manage to accomplish at least modest goals, because they are able to focus on only some desires.

A fortunate few individuals, however, have only a few desires. Out of these come the geniuses: great scientists like Madame Curie and Albert Einstein, great musicians and poets, great humanitarians and political leaders. These individuals have very few desires, and thus they will make their mark in whatever fields they commit themselves to.

Finally, a few rare individuals have only one desire. These are the great mystics—spiritual leaders who often practice meditation, which is a demanding discipline designed to reduce one's number of desires. Over time, says Kabir, meditation can reduce a person’s desires from countless to many; then from many to some; from some to a few; and from a few to only one. As the number of desires becomes fewer, the desires themselves become less superficial and more profound.

Kabir also describes a pattern of emotional development that corresponds with the decrease in the number of desires. People who have many desires, he says, often have volatile emotional lives. Their emotions go up; they come down. They get upset easily; they calm down quickly. None of these emotional conditions lasts very long, however; one of the great advantages of being superficial is that you are never upset for very long because the things that upset you aren’t important. But neither are your satisfactions important or enduring. Nothing lasts long, because nothing matters much.

People whose desires are few, in contrast, have passion. Whatever field of life they commit themselves to, they have a tremendous passion to persevere and to succeed. Driven by a longing that is spread among only a few desires, passionate people often achieve great things.

The final step in the emotional progression occurs when all of a person’s passions—personal ambition, the pursuit of pleasure, the need for prestige, the preoccupation with profit—become melded into one flaming passion that sears the heart. Kabir calls this singular passion devotion. In the mystical tradition, devotion leads to the discovery of the self. Simply put, as we move from having countless desires, to having many, to having few, to having one, and as we move from emotion to passion to devotion, we discover who we really are, and what really matters to us.

One way of paring down the list, as Kabir noted, is meditation. Another is adversity, known in the mystical tradition as suffering. When life becomes difficult and uncertain, superficial desires fall away, and what remains is what really matters to us. People who have experienced extreme hardship—soldiers in combat, women living under oppressive regimes, prisoners of conscience, slaves, victims of torture—all report more or less the same thing about the consequences of suffering. When life itself is uncertain, only one thing matters: survival. Life becomes exceedingly simple, its purpose crystal clear. The many desires of life are purified by the fires of adversity; what remains is the one thing that both demands and deserves complete devotion.

Whether through meditation or through adversity, we begin by asking what it is that we want. Then we ask which of these things we can be passionate about. Finally, we ask to what we can wholly devote ourselves, even our lives. In the end, the process of self-discovery begins with a very simple question: what do you want?