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Banking to Buddhism: Five lessons from a woman who left the City for Bhutan

Emma Slade has not looked back since swapping her high-flying life for one of ultimate simpleness and peace, she talks to The Independent about the moment that changed everything

Olivia Blair
Monday 16 October 2017 11:08 BST
(Emma Slade)

In September 1997, Emma Slade completely overhauled her life.

A Cambridge graduate and chartered financial accountant at a fund management company working in Hong Kong – and previously New York and London – a business trip to Jakarta provided the context for her life-change.

Taking a break from the back-to-back meetings to unwind in her four star hotel, Slade opened her room door and came face-to-face with a gunman. After prodding the gun to her chest and leading her back into the room, where he raided through her belongings and jewellery, she ended up in the room with him for three hours believing these were her final hours alive. Armed police eventually swooped into save her thus triggering a complete reversal of her life.

“The biggest impact for me was post-traumatic stress disorder,” she tells The Independent. “I’ve tried to make people understand what having this feels like including the confusion of the past and the present, there is no separation.

“But, mainly, I felt a great deal of compassion and sorrow for the man who had held me captive because he came out of the situation worse than I did, to be honest… the biggest impact was this feeling of concern and compassion for him.”

Following the burglary, Indonesian police showed Slade a picture of the partially-nude hostage taker surrounded by a pool of blood, an image firmly etched on her brain for years later.

“I didn’t feel any anger or hatred towards him. I just felt a huge sorrow for the suffering of this situation,” she says.

She describes this realisation as an important moment in her spiritual journey, one that led her to abandoning her trouser-suits and high heels to become a Buddhist nun in Bhutan.

“I do think that incident propelled me to a different part, otherwise I would have carried on as a hugely successfully, articulate, well-dressed banker… once you think you are going to die you do start to live your life in a different way.”

Slade says she increasingly began to feel that making money and having a career – two things she had equated with success and happiness – were a very small part of who she actually was.

Emma in her banking days (Emma Slade)

“I wanted to explore more what it is to be a human being and what is this strange feeling of kindness we can have to each other even in these situations.”

Slade had therapy and visited a rehabilitation centre for hostages in order to tackle her PTSD before completely abandoning her financial career.

“I just felt I was worth more than that because I had not died,” she says. “I had survived this experience and I wanted to explore more of what I could potentially do with my life.”

She travelled the world for a few years, discovering yoga – which was not the popular health regime it is now. She returned to the UK basing herself in Somerset where she meditated intensively on her own for three months describing this stint as the point where she had "completely healed".

Chequebook Buddhism offers Thais stairway to heaven

Slade visited Bhutan for the first time in 2011 where the seeds of meditation and yoga which had been planted across her travels really came to fruition. She now splits her time between her hometown of Whistable, Kent and Bhutan, where her Buddhist instructor is. She learns Tibetan, has founded a charity for disabled children in Bhutan (of which the royalties from her new book will go to) and hopes to reside there permanently on a long-term retreat. She is currently the only western woman to have been ordained as a nun in Bhutan.

Despite the stark difference between her two career paths, Slade says she thinks she was born for a desire for meditation and Buddhism – even meditating before her financial career took off.

So what has she learned from leaving it all, uprooting and completely re-focusing her life?

No matter how drastic a career change you make, the tools you have learned can be transferred

While many would assume any skills learned in the capitalist banking world would be useless in the Tibetan mountains, Slade has proved this isn’t the case. For instance, she was always good at being in solitary situations – which can be many in the well-travelled world of banking – which set her up nicely for meditation abilities. Additionally, she now runs a registered charity so her financial, analytical and presentation skills certainly have not gone amiss.

Our focus is all too often outward and not inward

“When you’re working in the city the focus is often on how much money you are earning, what you can buy, how successful you are etc… there is no real inner understanding… There is a void inside, there is no development apart from a hap-hazard feeling that you want to be a nice person, there is nothing properly trained there," she explains.

Success is not a measure of happiness

Slade looks back on her eight-year banking career and acknowledges she was successful but that did equate to happiness: “I wanted to be successful and do well, I wanted to get high marks and good bonuses and I thought when that happened I would be happy. I thought one would lead to the other and obviously I didn’t find it to be the case."

Romantic relationships are not a guaranteed route to happiness

Undertaking a vow of celibacy, which is Buddhist monk and nun custom, Slade was also vowing to accept that finding a partner will not be the basis of her future or happiness, something she says is much of what happiness and fulfilment is modelled on int he Western world. While admitting relationships were not her "forte”, she has abandoned her previous wish to eventually get married.

“Most people’s idea of happiness is inextricably linked with the idea of finding someone they love and they spend the rest of their life with. That is what the idea is in the West, by saying no I’m saying my happiness is not about finding that person. That’s quite a big statement, let alone no sex… to say I do not believe that is the way for me in this life is a big decision.”

A traumatic situation does not mean your life is over

The experience in Jakarta actually kick-started Slade’s life as she knows it, she managed to turn the traumatic experience of kidnapping and violence into a life devoted to peace and helping others. As Slade puts it: “Difficulty isn’t the end of your life, it could be the start of something.”

Slade has been a practising nun for five years after her Llama in Bhutan instructed her to. During her studies she has completed 440,000 Buddhist practices – equating to eight hours per day. She is currently working towards a three-year long retreat in the Himalayas, which she will do when her 11-year-old son is old enough and ready.

Emma in Bhutan (Emma Slade)

“Ironically enough, I am deeply grateful the [hostage situation] happened otherwise I would just have carried on in that way acquiring more suits and staying in fancier hotels on business trips. That was never going to bring me to the person I have become now. It was like being a confused child, wanting lots of toys,” she reflects.

Emma Slade is the author of Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey From Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan (published by Summersdale, £9.99).

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