On The Path: Thomas McConkie of Lower Lights Sangha

By Thomas McConkie

Insights from life’s journeys, by members of CATALYST’s Community Resource Directory:

“What has set you on your path? Where and how did your journey begin that has led you to this moment and place?”

This month’s contributor is Thomas McConkie of Lower Lights Sangha:

I experienced a faith healing when I was 12 that opened up my world to Infinity. On a dark and wet December night, I was running a blistering fever. My parents, being people of faith, called my granddad, who came to  give me a blessing.

I felt a kind of subtle electricity course through my body during the blessing; a dancing flame that did not consume. I was amazed. In an instant, I was new.

At about that same time, I grew to hate going to church—that stony institution of rigid ritual and monolithic truth claims. The stale air, the carpeted walls. The subdued emotion. It felt like putting my spirit in a straightjacket every time I walked through those doors. The exile I felt was complete, with times so dark I came to believe I shouldn’t go on living. Looking back, it’s as if some kind of Grace was scraping and hollowing me out to make room for new life. I eventually found that life in Buddhist practice.

At 18 years old, spiritually and emotionally desolate, I took to the sutras and meditation practice with all the fiery zeal of a convert. As my practice took root, I felt called to be anywhere but the place that had caused me so much pain.

I romanced my wanderlust with flecks of samadhi all over the planet for more than a decade: Los Angeles, New York, China, Spain, Quebec. I couldn’t drink in enough of the world. Feeling exiled from my culture in Utah, I was always keen to put on a new identity, pick up a new language, learn a new name for the Divine.

Twelve years from the time I’d left, I got an unexpected call at my flat in downtown Shanghai. My only sister was getting married.

Returning home, I felt everything I didn’t want to feel when I first left. Family relationships still groaned, wounds of abandonment open and tender.

But, I asked myself, “What’s the point of all this stupid spiritual work if I can’t sit down for Sunday dinner with my own family and be happy for them?” I decided to hold that question like a hot iron ball in my belly and stick around Salt Lake for a while.

Something had shifted in me. I was willing to listen in a new way. I genuinely wanted to know why my parents were so devoted to Jesus, in spite of all the pain “Jesus” had caused me. Emptying out in Buddhism for so long offered me an entirely new perspective on Christianity. On all the wisdom traditions. I was hearing with new ears. Religion started to feel like a natural human language to me.

All human languages have a particular feel and flow; a range of expressivity. They open windows to sweeping vistas and cause us to look out and notice what we might not have noticed before. Different languages are uniquely beautiful; you can express truths in one that you cannot express the same way in another.

Languages aren’t true or false; they just are. They help us give shape to meaning in our lives. The word “redemption” has a different feel and flow than “awakening,” but what if they are windows looking out on a single landscape?

I surprised myself by moving back to Salt Lake. The same Infinity I felt as a child is ever present. Only now I know it by many names.

Thomas McConkie is the founder of Lower Lights Sangha.

This article was originally published on January 1, 2019.