When Zakaria Kronemer strolls down campus walk at the University of Mary Washington, he isn’t thinking about his upcoming exam or the conversation he just had. Instead, he focuses on his feet as each step pounds the brick walkway. He feels the air touching his hand as the wind blows and concentrates on his muscles as they work to move his legs.
Kronemer lives in the moment. It’s a lesson that he learned this summer as one of 40 students from around the world studying the Buddhist practices of meditation and T’ai Chi in the mountains of eastern China at the Shengshou Temple.
After returning to UMW this semester, the junior philosophy major’s outlook on life has changed. Most significantly, he’s adjusted his outlook on the everyday mundane tasks.
“Everything in the monastic life is a contemplative process,” said Kronemer, who traveled to China after receiving a scholarship from the Woodenfish Project aimed at educating emerging scholars on Chinese Buddhism. “That’s something that I’ve been trying to incorporate into my life – taking a step into the moment and appreciating the value and significance and experiencing beauty in everyday life.”
Still his life now starkly differs from his six weeks spent at the monastery where he slept on a wood bunk with only a bamboo mat for comfort. For meals, he ate the same vegan dish of steamed rice and vegetables for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. He drank water from a stream that he boiled before drinking.
In the hot and humid Chinese summer, Kronemer awoke at 4:45 a.m. He and fellow students would line up and walk down the mountain to a reflecting pool to practice T’ai Chi, a form of meditation in motion, and meditate for an hour and a half before eating breakfast.
Kronemer was introduced to meditation and the principles associated with mindfulness through a contemplative practice course that he took last spring at UMW.
“During Zakaria’s trip to China, he experienced firsthand and really lived according to Buddhist concepts, principles and practices,” said Angela Pitts, associate professor of classics, who co-teaches contemplative practice. “He also had the opportunity to understand more deeply other spiritual traditions in the world and to learn and grow from them. Such understanding, derived from personal experience, is the best foundation I know of for the promotion of inter-cultural dialogue and mutual respect.”
Among his firsthand experiences, Kronemer’s spent one week in intensive silent meditation where he and the other students could not make eye contact, talk or read. But, perhaps, one of the most interesting and time-consuming practices Kronemer experienced was tea meditation where he contemplated the value of the nourishment the tea provided.
“Think about the tree that grew the tea leaf, the sunlight and water needed to nourish the tree, the person that picked the leaf and the people that support that person until eventually you get to the point that everything in the world is part of the tea in that cup,” he said.
During that contemplative process, drinking a cup of tea took hours.
“Aristotle asserted that the highest form of life is the contemplative life. Most of us, though, live the active life, fully engaged in and occupied with school, society, work, family, and the many demands that these responsibilities place on us, not the life of the remote and isolated hermit absorbed in thought,” said David Ambuel, professor of philosophy and Leidecker chair of Asian studies, who co-teaches contemplative practice. “Training with some mindfulness techniques…can help us maintain awareness of where and who we are, and maintain a balance in our lives.”
Kronemer is continuing the mindfulness lessons he learned this summer by maintaining balance in his own life. He begins his day with T’ai Chi and he goes to the outdoor amphitheater every chance he gets to meditate.
“I’ve found a steadiness within me. My mind isn’t fully drawn into the mass of stimulation that we experience each day. Instead, I’m more able to remain within the present moment appreciating all of the vitality and incomprehensible beauty it has to offer,” said Kronemer.