With the coronavirus being spread globally and causing a pandemic, people are anxious, frustrated, and scared of contracting this virus. Many are practicing 'social distancing', which is the practice of deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. For example, social events are canceled, people start working from home, classes are either canceled or moved online. Some even closed down cities or services for their dwellers. People start to become apathetic, conflicts start to happen at homes, between colleagues, clients, or friends. Is this what social distancing is all about?
Rather, I would like to use the term physical distancing instead of social distancing. With all that is happening, we need to be more connected, more compassionate, and more empathic towards ourselves and the people around us. This pandemic is breaking down the boundaries between the personal and the professional, causing "social distancing" as a mask for social rejection, apathy, and discrimination. Venerable Master Hsing Yun has also mentioned this in A Prayer to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva for Safety from the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak,
Let us care and help one another and not be struck with a panic, Let us support and encourage one another to strengthen our faith.
This is the moment when unity is most crucial, Let us trust in the government to resolve the crisis, Let us thank the medical professionals for treating the disease.
Hence, more than ever, practicing the Four Means of Embracing—generosity, kind words, altruism, and empathy—with compassion is more crucial than ever. We need to support each other as this is a global issue, not just a city, a state, country, or continent. Our social affinity and connections will help us tide through this uncertain period of time. We have also seen displays of social connectedness and harmony during time. For example, single individuals and corporations have kindly donated supplies to help citizens and the local government tide through critical periods; that is the display of generosity and altruism. Some even volunteered to go to affected areas to treat the ill; that is the display of generosity and altruism as well. Some offered speech of motivation to lift the spirits of the community; that is the display of kind words and empathy. We could also do our part; as long as we can practice the four means of embracing with compassion and wisdom, even if it is within our own small community, it will be like another viral outbreak, an outbreak of compassion and social connectedness in the midst of physical distancing.
Other than physical distancing, there are also habits or mental states we can distance ourselves from. Venerable Master Hsing Yun mentioned this in A Prayer to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva for Safety from the Novel Coronavirus Outbreak,
We will distance ourselves from contrary and delusive ideas to contemplate the ease of the individual;
We will distance ourselves from discrimination and personal conjecture to contemplate the ease of circumstances
We will distance ourselves from attachment and entanglement to contemplate the ease of affairs;
We will distance ourselves from the five desires and the trouble of the world to contemplate the ease of the mind.
Hence in part of practicing the four means of embracing, we can also watch our behaviors, habits, tendencies, and thoughts, for they carry a great deal of weight during this time. It can easily turn into behaviors which we do not wish to occur. Hence this is also a time to self-cultivate wisdom and compassion. Be mindful of how physical distancing is influencing our thoughts and actions!
For a start, we can switch to the right term, "physical distancing", and practice social connectedness.