Learning from the Pandemic: Interconnectedness and Healing

November 08, 2021

By Amanda Maxwell

Dr. Heesoon Bai is a Professor in the Faculty of Education. She has been with the faculty since 1995, and she also teaches in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program. Her research seeks to infuse educational practices with philosophical perspectives and understanding, examining and deconstructing ontological and epistemological assumptions that underlie education as cultural practice. Her current research focuses on ethics of healing and healing Zen aesthetics.

For Simon Fraser University Faculty of Education Professor, Dr. Heesoon Bai, the initial year of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted exploration of the depth and breadth of interconnectedness that binds the entirety of Life on a blue planet, the Earth, for better or worse. In three papers published during early 2021, Dr. Bai examines processual ontology, collective trauma, Zen practices, and environmental education, from which to draw inspiration for new perspectives on and approaches to personal and collective healing, health, and resilience.

Integrating Positive and Negative

North American resilience is often framed around thinking positively. It is no surprise that such cultural ethos would give rise to Positive Psychology: a psychological paradigm that has been holding sway in North America. The latter is currently undergoing its own philosophical revision, embracing the negative as a source of healing and resilience. Yet, very much in keeping with Positive Psychology, dominant cultural practices, including education, continue to prescribe that we practice eliminating the negative, such as negative thoughts, insisting on the positive.

Dr. Bai and co-authors note that there will be no ‘back to normal’ after the pandemic that impacted humanity so massively. They invite us to rethink and re-evaluate cultural norms, such as how we think about what health is, including mental health. Thinking in dualistic binaries, such as positive and negative, pathologizes the frame of reference for mental health issues. They posit that binary thinking and dualism really limit human capacity for responsibility-taking and care for the whole. When positive thinking fails, typically, we’re cast down into self-criticism and self-doubt.

In the original framing of Positive Psychology (PP1.0), there is little interconnection between negative and positive thoughts. Dr. Bai and co-authors suggest a revised philosophical framing of ‘no mud, no lotus’ for PP2.0. If we can go beyond binary thinking and beyond seeing in the dualism of good versus bad, right versus wrong, we might be able to look at the muddy pond anew. Reframing and thus recognizing the muddy pond as fertile ground sets us up to integrate the initially dichotomized negative with the positive. The muddy pond is a great place within which to grow a beautiful lotus.

Integrating the positive with the negative, and even seeing their holism, could help us nourish ourselves and flourish through suffering. The authors invite us to see the pandemic as the muddy pond of suffering out of which the Earth is growing the lotus of healing.

From Ego-Self to Eco-Self, Developing a Sense of Interconnectedness

We also need to connect in order to heal—connection and interconnectedness within the self and with the world around us.

Dr. Bai and co-authors examine human impact and the anthropogenic factors underlying current natural disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Human-induced ecological damage brought about by fossil fuel burning, deforestation, and other industrial and cultural practices is majorly impacting climate change, resulting in increasing floods and extensive wildfires world-wide. The effects of the Anthropocene also include the current wildlife habitat destruction that puts us even closer to zoonoses by invading animal species territory. The current COVID-19 pandemic brought all these interconnected parts into sharper focus.

The authors contend that the impact of Anthropocentrism is quite literally ‘fouling our nest’: human supremacy to dominate and subjugate the planet for human benefit is destroying our world. Materialistic and consumeristic progress is not compatible with planetary survival, although humans seem largely in denial about this. Bai and co-author suggest that an antidote to this would be for us to take a much more holistic view and reframe how we think of ourselves and the world: less as a collection of separate beings but more as an interconnected whole, such as a network.

Ten Thousand Things - This phrase (in Chinese) refers to the multiplicity of the phenomenal world. The phenomenal world is beautiful, and we can feel well and at home in this world. However, problems for humans start with the tendency to focus on the discrete and separate items; we lack holistic perception and senses, and then we don’t see and feel interconnection.

Seeing and experiencing the world as a set of ecological environments that run on connectedness and dynamic relationships may allow us to view life and the world as a flow of events rather than as a collection of discrete objects colliding against each other. Dr. Bai and her co-authors are eager to show how we may shift our self-identity and ensuing ways of thinking from ego-self to eco-self.

Reframing Environmental Education Through Connection: Becoming One with “The Ten Thousand Things”

There is a strong tendency, even now, in Environmental Education (EE) to see, for example, climate change, as an issue that needs fixing, rather than as a symptom of a living system irrevocably impacted by human aggression and domination. However, the pandemic has brought many of us to take a pause just long enough to see and appreciate, albeit painfully, the utter depth and breadth of interconnectedness that governs our lives on this planet. Notably, to hurt what is utterly interconnected with us is to hurt ourselves. We humans have been committing acts of aggressions against the Earth, and we are now seeing, more than ever, that we are hurting. Conversely, when the pandemic brought us to come to a temporary standstill, it forced us to stop ‘fouling the nest,’ even though only briefly. The planet had a small chance to breathe, as it were: air and noise pollution decreased in our ‘absence’.

By challenging the Modern Western capitalistic, individualistic, consumeristic, and exploitative worldview that colonized the entire world, Dr. Bai suggests, we can reframe Environmental Education.  From seeing it as a separate educational field or subject matter that takes the traditional externalized approach of fixing the ills in the environment to seeing it being practiced everywhere all the time, in all contexts of learning. Such seeing could lead us to becoming “one with The Ten Thousand Things.”

Interconnectedness and Healing from the Pandemic

So why prescribe connection?

“Basically, when we experience disconnection intrapsychically and interpsychically, we feel alone and overwhelmed,” Dr. Bai explains. Insecurity, overwhelming vulnerability, and fragility, which are all central symptoms of trauma, arise out of disconnection.

“Psychologically speaking, disconnection is what people experience, and suffer from, at all levels of human integrity (mind, body, heart, spirit/energy, etc.), when overwhelmingly distressed. We come undone!”

As Dr. Bai notes, “Becoming connected is about healing.”


Bai, H. (2020). A Critical Reflection on Environmental Education During the COVID‐19 Pandemic. Journal of Philosophy of Education54(4), 916-926. Available online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9752.12472

Bai, H., Berry, K., Haber, J., & Cohen, A. (2021). Dancing with Non-duality for Healing Through the Shadows of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in Education. Available online: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feduc.2021.647764/full

Bai, H., Bowering, S., Haber, J., Cohen, A., & Chang, D. (2021). From ego to eco: re-orienting for processual ontology in the “Dao-Field”. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 1-15. Available online: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11422-021-10028-w