MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Mormonism and Buddhism - beyond the isms (ph), not many similarities come to mind. But a growing community in Salt Lake City is showing that the Mormon culture, known for its evangelism and rules, isn't incompatible with Buddhist-inspired mindfulness. From member station KUER, Lee Hale has the story.
LEE HALE, BYLINE: 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: To get started, I'll invite you to just take a couple big breaths.
HALE: Thomas McConkie guides the group through some traditional mindfulness exercises.
MCCONKIE: Breathe in. Breathe out.
HALE: There are also some introspective questions, journaling. And, as he does with most groups, McConkie shares a little about himself.
MCCONKIE: I'll tell you just a little story about what brought me into this work. I was actually a human rights consultant in China.
HALE: 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 study Buddhist mindfulness in each of those places. Eventually, he let go of the angst he felt towards his religious upbringing. And in his early 30s, while visiting Salt Lake City for his sister's wedding, he realized he should move back.
MCCONKIE: And I had just this moment of simplicity, where it was like, oh, no, I have to go back to Utah (laughter). Sounds funny when I say it like that.
HALE: 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.
SAM NIELSEN: I don't find anything that's in contradiction to what my own spiritual beliefs are.
HALE: Sam Nielsen's been coming to these meditation groups for over a year. She's 25, Mormon and very active in her young adult congregation. She says this practice has enhanced her spirituality.
NIELSEN: I think I may be open to something that's spiritual because of my religious upbringing.
MCCONKIE: Mormons are primed for it. Mormons want it. It just takes a gentle breeze to blow them in that direction.
HALE: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This conference Sunday, KSL would like to introduce you to an important program called "Mindfulness Plus."
HALE: McConkie hosts a podcast called "Mindfulness Plus." And it was recently featured between general conference sessions on the church-owned radio station KSL. This is a huge audience for McConkie. Every church member is expected to listen to these sessions.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MINDFULNESS PLUS")
MCCONKIE: Hello and welcome to "Mindfulness Plus," a special conference edition.
HALE: But McConkie's story and approach also appeal to those who have left the church, even those who feel they're recovering from it.
DOUG SMITH: Religion is very much drilled into you from the time you're small.
HALE: Doug Smith is in his 60s and hasn't been back to 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.
SMITH: I finally realized that if I was going to have any meaning in my life that I had to come to terms with my personal spirituality.
HALE: 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 creating a unique brand of Mormon mindfulness. For NPR News, I'm Lee Hale in Salt Lake City.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREAS VOLLENWEIDER'S "VERGELETTO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.