One day I was talking to a friend of mine, Martin, and when the conversation started, I had my intention clearly in mind — I wanted to cultivate closeness with him. But somehow we got on the subject of evolution and Martin said, "Evolution is just a theory. There are a lot of holes in it." Martin is a devout Catholic.
Evolution happens to be one of my favorite topics of study. I know about the Creationists arguments against Darwinism and why their arguments are wrong. I know about the eye evolving seventeen separate times with many fundamentally different designs. I know about the 200 species observed to evolve in laboratory experiments and in the wild. And so on. So I made a passionate and detailed argument that would prove to the most ignorant buffoon that evolution is one of the most well-established facts in the whole field of science!
In other words, my intention to be closer went out the window and trying to be right became my dominant concern.
Later I was thinking about it and recognized the obvious: our conversation hadn't brought us any closer. I'd gotten off track. My strong feelings about evolution derailed my intention to cultivate closeness. I lost my focus.
I came back to him and said, "One of the things I most dislike about religious people is when they become self-righteous, as if they know the only truth and everyone else is wrong, but in our conversation, I was the one being self-righteous and you weren't. I'm sorry."
That brought us closer.
This is not to say that some subjects are off limits — in fact, talking about something you feel strongly about can bring you closer. It depends on your intention.
Relationships can evoke emotions. If a relationship didn't evoke much emotion, it wouldn't be much of a relationship, would it? The problem is, when a negative emotion is evoked, other purposes sneak in besides closeness. Wanting to be right, for example.
There are other things besides strong emotion that can get you sidetracked from your intention to cultivate closeness. You have a natural desire to be liked by others, for example. We all do. But that's not the same as the intention to be close. The desire to be liked encourages you to hide things about yourself, creating distance rather than closeness.
Wanting to be liked by others generates anxiety when interacting with people. The intention to be closer usually makes you feel calmer. Feeling connected is relaxing.
Other intentions that interfere with cultivating closeness are trying to manipulate someone's emotions, trying to convince them of something, or trying to persuade them to do something.
When you notice one of these other intentions coming up, you only need to notice it and get back on track.
Let's recap. There are four intentions that will naturally arise that will displace your intention to cultivate closeness. You need to watch out for them and keep bringing yourself back to cultivating closeness. The four intentions are the desire to:
Manipulate others' emotions
Convince or persuade
These intentions will take you away from closeness. And they will generate tension. Closeness is relaxing. Pay attention to how relaxed you are. When you notice tension, find out if your intention has changed and if it has, renew your intention to cultivate closeness. This is The Way.
You'll make mistakes. You'll drift into other intentions. Just notice when it happens and bring yourself back to your intention to be closer. Consider this process a sort of "spiritual discipline." Like the process of meditation. Make up your mind you will try to keep this intention uppermost in your mind. Notice when it has been replaced by a lesser intention, and bring your heart back to cultivating closeness. Over and over again. Without being frustrated by your lack of consistency — simply recognizing this as the human condition — and without ever expecting yourself to master it and move on to something else. Think of this as a lifelong discipline. Always and forever overcome the natural impulses that pull you away from connecting with others and reestablish your intention to be closer.
You don't have to be perfect at this. Anything you do is better than it would have been. Just keep trying and you'll get better at it. Over time, your intention to get closer to people will become more natural and less easily taken off track.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.