I did a silent meditation retreat. This is what I learned

I did a silent meditation retreat. This is what I learned

Silence is golden. It’s a phrase we hear so often but many of us find it challenging to do in practice.

A Vipassana is exactly that – silence.

According to dhamma.org.au, the official body for the practice throughout the world, Vipassana means “to see things as they really are” and the non-sectarian technique of Vipassana meditation is “a practical way to achieve peace of mind and live a happy, productive life”.

During Vipassana students have to remove all distractions to focus on the practice in its entirety – there’s no reading, writing or listening to music between meditations, simple and modest clothing has to be worn, and you have to abstain from intoxicants, exercise, sexual activity, stealing and lying.

I meditated in silence for 10 days back in 2012 as part of a Vipassana residential course.

But why would anyone do a silent meditation, including me?

I speak, write, communicate and connect with people daily to run my business Lovelly Communications. So why would I spend time in silence?

I asked that of the woman who first told me about Vipassana. She has a similar personality to me: outgoing, vivacious and confident. She also communicated a lot in her work.

“I can never imagine being silent. I could never do that. I speak for a living.  A person like me can’t do a silent meditation,” I told her.

She replied: “Because of the type of people we are, we must do it.”

Returning to silence

After completing my first Vipassana course more than six years ago, I vowed to one day do it again and to continue my practice regularly.

Despite such a long hiatus from the technique, I still remember many of the valuable principles and I use them regularly in my day-to-day life.

At the start of this year, when Vipassana seemed to be coming up in conversation and into my consciousness quite frequently, I knew it was time to go back to it.

I found a place in Brisbane and signed up for a one-day refresher course. Once you’ve completed the 10-day Vipassana, you’re able to do short courses of one or three days at any other time.

When I completed the 10-day course, I found that silence was the easy part. What goes on in your mind and what comes out of that process was the challenge.

On returning for a second stint of silent meditation, I was surprised how quickly all the fears and trepidation came back.

As my partner was driving me to the course, I was thinking of every excuse under the sun as to why I should pull out: I’m hungover, I didn’t get enough sleep, I’ve got too much to do today, my back is sore and I can’t sit for that long, I feel sick, I’m not going to continue meditating afterwards, so what’s the point?

Really, I was scared. I’m not sure why. But I’m glad I went through with it because again, I came out of it with some valuable lessons.

Here are five things I’ve learned from doing a silent meditation:

1. Have compassion

In my first meditation I had a lot of judgement and compared myself to other course participants.

Unfortunately, I think judging comes easily to many of us and not only can it be harmful to the other person if you share your judgemental views, it can also be very toxic and hurtful to ourselves and our mindset.

This time, I was aware that I may look at other people and compare our lives and experiences.

I knew how hard it was to sign up for a course like this, and there was no need to point the finger at others.

I decided to leave my judgement at the door and have compassion for my fellow participants.

2. Your mind will never be completely empty

You can’t stop the thoughts from coming but you can be aware of them and acknowledge that they’re there.

If you go into a Vipassana thinking you’re in for a blissfully quiet experience, with nothing whatsoever crossing your mind, then you’re in for a rude shock.

I have learned, through my time meditating, that I’m able to de-clutter my mind. I can reduce the chatter in my head (also known as the monkey mind), and I can narrow it down to maybe one or two thoughts coming in at a time. I accept that.

As someone who experiences anxiety and depression regularly, calming my mind to this point is a huge achievement.

It’s not worth putting the pressure on yourself to have a “clear head” or “mind free of thoughts”. If you can slow down and focus on one thing at a time, then that’s a great result from the practice.

3. Sitting for long periods is challenging

It is always going to be uncomfortable to sit in the same position for a long period of time.

You have to physically sit on the ground, possibly on a mat or cushion, and in case of injury, on a small chair.

I thought after 10 days I would get used to it. Nope! And doing it again for a full day, six years later, was even more challenging because I knew what I was in for.

You can only prepare yourself mentally that you may experience pain and discomfort. But going through the pain and working out what is in your mind and what is in your body is part of the process.

It can be liberating when you are able to push through that barrier and focus on your practice.

4. Accept the reality as it is

We spend so much time hanging on to the past and so much time worrying about the future that we are so rarely in the present.

During Vipassana the phrase “accept the reality as it is” will be repeated on the recording of (the Guru) while you’re taken through the practice.

It’s a phrase that often comes into my mind now during times of distress or tension.

This part of the practice forces you to live in the moment.

5. Appreciate your surroundings

When you do not have a phone to look at, a book to read or a person to speak to during Vipassana, you really are able to connect with what is around you.

I was fortunate to do both of my Vipassana courses in beautiful, natural settings.

I spent my breaks from meditation sessions looking at the movement of the sun in the sky, the rain falling down, a spider in its web, a squirrel in a tree, and a bird on a branch.

These are the simple things that are around us every day that we often don’t take the time to stop and look at, but the benefits are boundless.

Emma Lovell, She Defined author

Emma Lovell


Emma Lovell is a writer with a passion for travel, social media and adventure.

When she’s not travelling, she’s documenting her stories and planning the itinerary for her next journey.

Based on the Gold Coast, she loves getting to the beach and soaking up the best her local area has to offer.