From banking to Buddhism

Held hostage in a hotel room, Emma Slade found her life’s turning point. Here, she tells Kintsugi what happened next

What makes a person turn from a successful career in banking to embrace Buddhism and start a charity helping children with special needs in Bhutan? For financial analyst Emma Slade, the turning point came at gunpoint, held hostage in a hotel room in Jakarta. It caused her to look deep into her life and find it wanting. ‘The hostage situation was pivotal,’ she declares. ‘I thought it was the end, and I felt that I had fundamentally wasted my life.’

Back in the UK, Slade left her financial career and began exploring yoga, meditation and wellbeing. Her aim was to turn a traumatic episode into wisdom and a life in which she could thrive.

She qualified as a yoga teacher in 2003, founded the charity Opening Your Heart to Bhutan in 2015 and, in recognition of her exceptional volunteering, was given the Point of Light award by the Prime Minister in 2017. That year, she published Set Free, which detailed her extraordinary story, and gave an inspirational TED talk that has been watched more than 500,000 times. She is now a life coach, running workshops and retreats, and telling her incredible story.

Slade believes change can bring us space and clarity, if we embrace the freedom that comes from uncertainty. ‘You need to have the courage to leap into the unknown,’ she notes. ‘Change makes you feel as if things are outside of your control. But I discovered that I found that okay. I was happy with uncertainty. And now my life is enormous: a massive tapestry that expands and shifts.’

How did lockdown change your life?

It hasn’t changed an awful lot. Everyone else is now living a sort of monastic existence! For many, it has given greater clarity, and people are surprised by what they’ve learned and what they’ve noticed.

My life has been fairly solitary for years – but, from a Buddhist point of view, we’re never in isolation. Everything is interconnected, so I have been enjoying the peace, the nature, the birdsong and the plants in my garden, and renewing my understanding of that Buddhist idea of connection.

Even though I’m away from Bhutan, I am connected to it through nature. I have strong visual pictures and feelings about being in the Himalayas, so I can imagine the sky, the clouds, the temples, the car horns, the sound of prayers floating out of windows. When you can’t go to a place, those evocative pictures and senses become quite strong.

COVID has been a turning point for many. Can you pinpoint those moments in your own life?

The hostage situation was pretty pivotal, although I didn’t realise it. At the time, it was just deeply terrifying. It came out of nowhere and did end up changing everything for me. I thought I was going to die. I had a gun to my head. And I just thought, ‘I have done nothing of any value with my life.’ That was a really powerful moment. It exploded my narrow sense of what I was and what I was capable of. Even though I’ve had a big career and done outwardly impressive things, I felt as if I hadn’t really loved anyone. I hadn’t truly cared about anyone. I’d shown little kindness in the world. And what followed was this overwhelming feeling of kindness and compassion, which was unexpected.

Having had my vision expanded in such a huge way, to contract back to looking at screens and getting excited about interest rates was like trying to go back into a box I’d jumped out of. And I don’t think I’ve ever been good at being contained. I was seriously contained in that hotel room: held between the bed and the wall. So some part of me didn’t want to be put back in a box. That gave me a feeling of restlessness, and a wish to explore.

What was the process of change like?

It took time to think it through. My head was saying, ‘This life isn’t really it for you.’ Another part of me said, ‘Don’t be daft. You’ve got this position. You’re doing really well. You can buy whatever you need.’ So there was an internal conflict. It took time to have the courage to leap into the unknown. It was about trusting in uncertainty.

For the first time in my life, I felt at ease with spaciousness. I couldn’t completely see the next step, and I was happy. I had to be able to look at the unknown as positive, not scary. I remember feeling a kind of freedom – that anything might arise. And that feeling is really good.

Why do you think we are resistant to change? 

It requires courage not to lose insights that you gain. You never know the things that, ultimately, are going to be of the greatest significance. Even the worst things can open up huge possibilities. I could have carried on with my career, and I would have been successful but dissatisfied. And that is how I could have left the world.

When humans have pivotal moments, where things are radically different, it can be unsettling. But it can lead to great clarity and rethinking things. You’ve expanded, because you’ve been in different circumstances. You’ve seen yourself differently. And what part of that you choose to keep – whether you grow into that expansion or go back to your comfort zone – will differ for everybody. After that, it’s a question of, okay, what do you do with it? Do you change, or just go on as normal?

What has change brought to your life?

My life is enormous now. It’s a tapestry of interconnecting things: I’ve written a book, I’ve got the charity, I teach people, I study Buddhism. I’ve got so many friends. So many people know me. It’s this huge landscape compared to the narrowness of the existence I had.

One of the many benefits of all the prayers and meditations is that you get easier with the flow of life. You get less grasping in terms of trying to control things. We live in a culture where control is a huge issue, but we need to learn to let go. In Buddhism we talk about having a soft mind – and, from a resilience point of view, you need that softness. Otherwise your mind is brittle, because it needs things to be a certain way. But if you have the capacity to let go into the circumstances as they evolve, if you can soften your mind to allow that to happen, it will go easier, and you will be far more  resilient.

openingyourhearttobhutan.com . emmaslade.com

Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey from Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan (Summersdale, £9.99)