Me in my studio in New Mexico

Generative Social Distancing

Me in my studio in New Mexico

#SocialDistancing—when I heard this term recently and read the many articles around it, I felt-Huh, why are they talking about something that is so normal for me.

I have practiced it for two decades now. I didn’t know it was called social distancing.

When I first experienced it, it was not by choice. It was like many of you — thrust upon me by circumstances.

Winter of 2003

I return in my mind’s eye to the winter of 2003. I had quietly fled my marriage and my life in India some 5 months back. I was a brand-new doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque in USA. The first semester was a lot of fun—many new friends, lots of readings and assignments to complete, new teaching loads, new places to visit and things to do.

I was super busy and driven.

Then the semester ended and winter break began. Soon Christmas holidays started and the University was locked down. Friends who I had spent most of the semester with were away—either back with their families or on vacation.  I had a small studio in a seedy-looking complex.

I was apprehensive of the Indian community because of my complicated marital status and stayed away from them. I was afraid of my neighbours. I wasn’t sure who to trust. And I had very little money.

It was the first intense North American winter I was to experience. I was still not very smart with layering clothes, not comfortable enough with gloves and hats. I felt clumsy and alien.

Most importantly, I had for the first time, no family to call or friends in India to talk.

I was completely alone.

I felt terribly restless and anxious. But I didn’t have the wisdom I have now to help myself or even to understand what was happening to my internal state.

Today I would call it simply as being lonely.

I was scared to walk around alone much when the University neighbourhoods looked deserted. I was apprehensive of strangers. And the walk to coffee shop made me feel more lonely.

Generative Change

There was a terrible consequence of this first winter, a consequence that haunted me for years together and affected my health.

However, there was also a fierce spirit in me that emerged through. I skilled in something very powerful– How to make new connections quickly.

Through the imposed social distancing, over time, I learnt the value of connecting deeply.

Three years later, I had friends in multiple circles—Chicana, Native American, Queer, Political and even Indian circles. From folks who were homeless to those who worked with homeless and the drug addicts, to those who lobbied politicians and those who worked with environment, I had diverse networks.

And over the years, I finetuned into deciding what region or field interested me, zooming in and making connections superfast. My brother once laughed and told me that I know the city that he lives in better than he does.

(You can read another article I had written on The Art of Living Alone.)

I didn’t know I would gain this wonderful ability. I wasted years and my mental health by resisting and struggling with my experience, making it more painful because I wanted to avoid the experience of being alone.

Lessons of Life

I notice that many videos and posts on #Socialdistancing talk about managing it or coping with it.

May I suggest something different – Open yourself up to it. Step into the experience and notice what emerges. Without struggling, without resisting, without avoiding. Approach it with curiosity. The Vipassana moment.

And notice how that will generatively change you in ways you didn’t imagine.

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