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Buddhist-Inspired 'Mormon Mindfulness' Springs Up In Salt Lake City

Courtesy of Gloria Pak
Thomas McConkie leads the meditation group Lower Lights in Salt Lake City, a unique blend of Buddhist and Mormon thought.

Here are two faiths you might not normally put together: Mormonism and Buddhism. A growing community called Lower Lights in Salt Lake City is showing that the Mormon culture might also be fertile soil for Buddhist-inspired mindfulness.

On a weekday evening just a few blocks east of Temple Square, the headquarters of the Mormon church, a group of more than 100 people gathers to meditate. 

Thomas McConkie guides the Lower Lights group through some traditional mindfulness exercises. There is some deep breathing, introspective questions and journaling.

As he does with most groups, McConkie also shares a little about himself.

McConkie has been all over the world but he grew up here in Salt Lake City in a very conservative Mormon home. Although, as a young teenager he became disaffected with the church. And at 19 he left Utah and his faith behind.

He lived in New York,  Spain, China and studied Buddhist mindfulness in each of those places. Eventually he let go of the angst he felt toward his religious upbringing. And in his early 30s, while visiting Salt Lake City for his sister's wedding, he realized he should move back.

"I just had this moment of simplicity, where it was like, ‘Oh no, I have to go back to Utah,'" McConkie says to the group as he laughs. "Sounds funny when I say it like that."

To the surprise of his friends and family McConkie became active in the church again. And he began this practice of blending Buddhist and Mormon thought.

"I don’t find anything that’s in contradiction to what my spiritual beliefs are," says Sam Nielsen who has been coming to these meditation groups for over a year.

Nielsen is 25, Mormon, and very active in her young adult congregation. She says this practice has enhanced her spirituality.

"I think I may be open to something that’s spiritual because of my religious upbringing," Nielsen says.

"Mormons are primed for [meditation]," McConkie says. "Mormons want it. It just takes a gentle breeze to blow them in that direction.

McConkie points to the fact that Mormons emphasize answers to prayers and personal spiritual guidance. These meditation groups are all about awareness and following inner intentions. Mormons also believe in the possibility of one day becoming like God, which McConkie says is a very helpful framework.

Beyond this meditation group there’s also a growing interest throughout the larger Mormon community.

McConkie hosts a podcast called "Mindfulness+" and it was recently featured between General Conference sessions on the church-owned radio station KSL. This was a huge audience for McConkie, every church member is expected to listen to these sessions.

McConkie’s story and approach also appeals to those who have left the church. Even those who feel they’re recovering from it.

"Religion is definitely drilled into you from the time you’re small," says Doug Smith, another Lower Lights regular.

Smith is in his 60s and hasn’t been back to the church since he came out as gay 15 years ago. He has no interest in returning. But, following the recent death of his son, he felt he needed something.

"I finally realized that if I was going to have any meaning in my life that I was going to have to come to terms with my personal spirituality," Smith says.

These meditation classes were the right place for that to happen and that’s what you find here. People across the belief spectrum seeking something more and in the process creating a unique brand of Mormon mindfulness. 

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