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Emma Slade: From Global Banking to Monasticism to Compassion in Action

Nuggets From Emma Slade's Call

Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Emma Slade.

How does a jet-setting financial analyst from London end up a Buddhist nun in Bhutan? Emma Slade is a yoga and meditation teacher and author who left a successful career in finance in her 30s to find peace and meaning in the mountains of Bhutan. Unusual for a mother of a now 12-year-old boy, she was ordained a Buddhist nun in Bhutan in 2014 after rigorous training – the first (and still the only) Western woman to have achieved this in Bhutan. She currently runs an acclaimed charity to benefit special needs children in rural Bhutan. Slade left a career in global finance in 1997 when, while traveling for business in Indonesia, she was held hostage at gunpoint by armed men in her five-star hotel room. "Once I had recovered enough to see my life clearly, I felt that I'd been treating it very superficially, and that after this experience, I really needed to inquire more deeply into what it is to be a human being."

We'll post the transcript of the call soon, but till then, some of the nuggets that stood out from the call ...

  • Jakarta hostage incident happened right after Hong Kong was turned over to China, and after the Asian financial crisis. It was a kind of poetic external mirroring of what was to become her journey: from West turning East, and from money to other “valuations.”
  • What was going through Emma’s mind immediately before the hostage incident? She felt invincible walking into the hotel, and then incredibly vulnerable at gunpoint. She was frozen with fear, followed by despair due to the thought that she’d die – and die without doing something very meaningful in life. She had several out of body experiences during the episode.
  • Seeing the picture of the perpetrator that the police displayed to her made her aware of feelings of overwhelming compassion for the first time; she never had felt that before and it was not what she would have expected to feel upon seeing a photo of her hostage-taker.
  • She finished her business trip after the incident and then also carried on at work for a while, but found that while the hostage incident had a finite end and she was physically fine, there was no end to the mental prison in which she now found herself. She “was an animal hunted by her own mind.” She later was diagnosed with PTSD. “The strange thing about PTSD is that you live in two timelines at once,” she said. It’s not just a matter of flashbacks – it’s that the past becomes the present and you go back and forth in different timelines.
  • After she left her job in Hong Kong (despite a promotion) and she returned to England several months later, she was diagnosed as having “complex PTSD” -- a form of PTSD often associated with entrapment in which there is no clear escape and which results in a loss of identity and sense of self. It can arise most strongly in those who have experienced other forms of trauma prior to a life-threatening event. It might have been that she still had undigested feelings around the death of her father when she was finishing her university degree, and that may have been an underlying trauma that was compounded by the incident.
  • It was then that she quit her job altogether (even in the UK), and decided to step into the unknown. She discovered yoga while taking a workshop for mosaics in Greece. The body became, for her, a gateway into a deeper search.
  • What awoke in Emma as she started doing yoga? She said “joy,” which she never felt before in that way. After beginning yoga practice while in Greece, she had powerful experience where she felt a voice telling her that “you have to go and sit in all the place where you had sat before and then you can begin.” She felt it as an intuitive sort of calling, and a reaffirmation that she was on the right path.
  • She did a lot of yoga after that – learning from well-known teachers around the world – in Hawaii, Santa Fe, Australia, etc. She soon felt that was trying to “get good” at yoga – and so there was a kind of transferring of worldly ambition into the spiritual realm. She then felt another moment of clarity to go even deeper – and to do a deeper inquiry into the nature of the mind through meditation. She had an intuitive moment where she realized the end of the physical-only aspect of her practice, and felt a deep need to sit quietly with breath for several months.
  • She then did that for about 3 months. The intuitive moment gave her the confidence to be still. She didn’t really know what she was doing at first, but found that just sitting still was powerful.
  • She then began with a kindness or compassion practice, after visiting a Buddhist monastery in Scotland. The evening ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ prayers struck a chord. She recognized that compassion wasn’t wimpy but part of our intrinsic nature. She found meditation in the Himalayan tradition to be a powerful practice for generating compassion.
  • In 2004 she decided – about 7 years after being held hostage in Jakarta -- to get initiated into Buddhism as a follower. Why that decision to take on Buddhism formally? She admitted it was a scary decision, as she didn’t grow up in a religious upbringing and had a lot of skepticism about institutionalized religion. Yet she felt it had so much to offer, so formally becoming a Buddhist honored the tradition.
  • At the same time that she embraced a Buddhist path, she remained actively in search of a loving relationship with a man. She continued to buy into the societal view that finding the “one and only” was important, and the source of true love. So she spent a lot of time looking for the person who was right for her, and entered into a long-term relationship with a man. But the relationship wasn’t very healthy, and ultimately it didn’t last. She said that even though she wanted a relationship, it brought out the worst in her – she became clingy, needing a sense of stability and permanence, etc. She was finding a lot of lack of integrity between the Buddhist practice she aspired to and the everyday life she lived.
  • And so the relationship ultimately ended. She then embarked on a short-term relationship with a banker type (during a period when she re-entered the finance world briefly), and ended it. She soon thereafter discovered she was expecting a child, but stayed firm in her conviction that the relationship wasn’t right for her. And so she and her son’s father have a co-parenting relationship.
  • Now she’s fully ordained and totally celibate – a process that began many years later following some visits to Bhutan and a chance meeting with a lama who eventually became her teacher.
  • How does parenting fit with her spiritual work and the monastic process? What is the role of parenting in spiritual practice? She believes that it has been hugely challenging and helpful for testing selfish habits. “Having a child makes you find out whether your practices are real and in integrity.” She believes that parenting isn’t given its full due as an important pathway to spiritual work because when you have a child, you immediately have to put your own needs second.
  • What about from the perspective of attachment? Does having a child make it more difficult to feel love without attachment? She believes that in Buddhism, you’re encouraged to see all being as your mother in a previous life, and having a child helps you to understand the role of mother. Having a child should allow one to treat more beings with the spirit that you treat a child. Hopefully, one can love one’s child now, but recognize impermanence.
  • Looking at the other side of the equation, how has her spiritual practice affected her parenting? She believes that her son has a sense that people have a spiritual practice as a natural part of what it means to be a human. He realizes they’ll never have fancy things in life. He turns 12 on Friday-- so he is starting to have his own life these days. She recognizes that it’s hard for him to see his mom look so different from other people – they’ve had to put up with stares of other people a bit. But these are also part of his entering into his teenage years. When he was younger, he saw and would say that she’s the happiest mom in school. Her son was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age – a diagnosis that it is believed is made more likely after a parent’s experience with PTSD. Has her own spiritual work and recovery helped his? She said that his knowing about yoga & meditation may ultimately benefit him, but he ultimately will have to walk his own path – though his suffering pains her.
  • Regarding her status of being a woman in a man’s world in both banking and monasticism, she feels she’s been very lucky. She has had to go after things, but ultimately she has been accepted.
Being a western woman ordained in Bhutan has required proactivity.
  • Given her work in banking – and now raising funds for rural monasteries and schools in Bhutan (especially given its Gross National Happiness view of development, which doesn’t view material advances as the main aim), what is her view of the intersection between role of money and role of spirituality? She believes that one needs to have enough externally—a basic sufficiency, because being without electricity, heat, etc. can be real suffering. But then one must also go within.
  • Emma also answered questions regarding whether there is a hierarchy in Buddhism for monks/nuns vs lay people, about the status of nuns v. the status of monks in Bhutan, about the joy of her yoga practice, and the role of action (v. purified thoughts) in relieving suffering of others. Ultimately, she believes that “a stable mind has a very practical purpose in the world” and manifests in more skillful action. Most people will do long periods in retreat but then come back out, and their new inner skills will be put into use in the world.
  • How does her ambitious past stay with her? Or does it? She noted that the basic nature stays, but underlying motive is totally different, and that one must wholeheartedly care for others with full energy. “The diamond mind has a indestructible- keep going quality.”
  • Our moderator cited Shantideva’s quote – which she quoted in her memoir - ‘if you want to know your past, look at your life today, if you want to know your future, look at your mind today’
  • How does her son share her practice? He is pretty much finding his own way, but she has wanted him to understand that harming isn’t OK. He knows a few mantras.
She encourages people to read her memoir (all the proceeds of which support her charity) and to consider donating to her charity, Opening Your Heart to Bhutan, to benefit special needs children in rural Bhutan. She is also happy to accept speaking invitations to help spread the word about her charity.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!

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