Meditation and relaxation were absolutely key to calming my nervous system and recovering my health and energy—but only after I learned to do them “right.” Part of learning to do them right, for me, was learning to listen to what my body needed and not pay as much attention to the “rules” of meditation.

For well over a decade, I’d tried to do meditation off and on, occasionally being able to sit for up to 30 min at a time, and occasionally finding benefit from sitting. But most of the time, I either spent the entire time stressing out about my posture as my back hurt more and more while sitting, or I counted my breath and tried to ignore the intense pain spots popping up on my back.

I also tried all manner of mindfulness techniques and yoga to try to be a better, more productive person. Unfortunately, all that did was teach me to hate myself more for failing to be properly mindful. It was just another example of me not being good enough and not able to do what I thought were simple things to make myself better.

Then I got sick. Since I had nothing to do but lie in bed, I decided to use that time to finally learn to meditate. I learned a few things that were critical for me:

1) When I was too sick and tired to leave the bed, meditation and relaxation became one and the same for me. There was a lot of overlap between the meditations that I found helpful and the relaxations that I found helpful. Today I do my best to have a sitting practice, but I also still do relaxation meditations where I’m lying down because they help keep me and my nervous system sane. I’ll often use the terms meditation and relaxation interchangeably in this section, but I’ll clarify if the distinction is important.

2) Guided meditations versus meditating without the guide. For years, I preferred meditation without any guidance. I found that almost all of the people leading guided meditations talked too much and I couldn’t ever just experience silence. So instead I would do breath counting meditations. These were nice and increased my ability to focus, but it was difficult to maintain a consistent practice because usually, if I could get my mind to calm down, my body would scream at me.

When I started doing relaxation meditations during my illness, I found that I needed the person talking as much as possible. With my body in a lying down position, I couldn’t get the voices in my head to stop. With the guided relaxations, the person talking would replace the voice in my head, and I could instead focus on what was happening in my body.

(Something I’ve come to realize is that racing thoughts are just another symptom to distract me from whatever my subconscious is scared to deal with. I’m hoping to write about this more at a later date, but for now, having racing thoughts or feeling pain in the body while meditating are both “mild” version of the bigger illness symptoms that were trying to protect me from the emotions I was scared of.)

3) Somatic meditations are where it’s at for me. I was too much in my head and somatic meditations and relaxations put my focus back into my body. I had to relax my body and nervous system, and anything that put my focus at my head did nothing to help. Meditations that teach focusing on the breath entering and exiting the nose did nothing to calm my mind, and did not help me relax.

Relaxation meditations, yoga nidra, lower dantian meditations (from Taoist and Zen practices), and other somatic meditations helped me learn to feel into and reconnect with my body. I’m a little hesitant to admit this, but I found chakra meditations really helpful as well—I think because they also put the focus on bodily sections along the spine, but that’s just a hypothesis.

I’ve seen some people comment that things like body scans were more stressful for them because it put them into the very symptoms that are so upsetting for them. My best guess is that these people probably need to do some of the retraining, emotional, and acceptance work before somatic meditations will be as helpful.

BUT, I did also find that I had to be very particular with the meditations I chose. For example, I could not do anything that involved tightening and then releasing muscles—if I tightened my muscles, they stayed tightened and did not relax. I also found body scan meditations to be more stressful than helpful, yet yoga nidra, which does a fast scan of the body, was great (as long as it wasn’t a version that had me tighten and relax my muscles).

The majority of guided meditations I tried did not work for me. I had to keep searching to find the right ones. Also, for all of the guided meditations I found that I did like and repeat often, I still spend at least half of the meditation ignoring the guidance of the speaker, and instead focus on whatever body part or symptom seems to need my attention.

4) I was able to check out audiobooks from my local library onto phone apps, and I regularly chose books about various eastern and meditative practices, read by people with soothing voices. Some of these even had meditations included as part of the audio content.

Before I learned the JournalSpeak process, I had no way of quieting the voices in my head, which is a problem if you’re trying to deep relax. But I found that if I played these audiobooks, the reader’s voice could substitute my own, and I could spend the time focusing on breathing into a body part—usually my feet, legs or lower belly, which are physically far from my racing thoughts—without my own head getting in my way.

I could spend hours doing this, and it was deeply, deeply relaxing. (I even had some of those really intense meditation experiences I’d heard of others having!) I have no clue if this would work for anyone else, but as with everything else here, I’m sharing it just in case.

5) There’s lots of advice out there not to meditate lying down because you’ll fall asleep. My own experience was that if I fell asleep while meditating, it’s because I needed sleep. If I’m awake enough, then I stay awake throughout the entire meditation, even if I’m lying down. Especially if you’re sick, I would argue that anytime you can sleep, it’s a good thing.

Moreover, if I fell asleep while doing a guided, relaxing meditation, I always woke up feel better than if I’d just taken a nap. In fact, I had to be careful doing this before bed because if I fell asleep while meditating, I’d usually come out of the meditation too awake to sleep for a while (so no yoga nidra right before bed for me).

I know other people have different experiences with that, but I will continue to maintain that if you fall asleep during meditation, it’s because you needed the sleep more than the meditation.

6) Lying down for deep relaxations and meditations were the only thing that helped once I was in the middle of a flare up of any symptom, and I usually had to stay lying down and relaxing until it started to ease.

7) By the time I was healthy enough to start a sitting practice again, I’d been doing JournalSpeak and somatic meditations long enough that I’d learned to tap into my body more directly. I’d also learned to stop listening to all the rules for meditation, specifically with respect to posture or what it means to quiet the mind.

For me, that meant that I try to sit squarely on my sits bones, but then I listen to what my body is telling me with regard to my mind and my posture. If my mind is already fairly clear, then my posture is fairly good, and I can just focus on breathing into my lower belly. If my posture is bad, then it means there are some things I haven’t tapped into yet, and I spend the time meditating on what my body is trying to tell me with the poor posture. More on this later, but the important point is that I no longer try to use my meditation time to control my mind and body as I used to, and it’s now a time to tap deeper into what’s happening internally. This may or may not be what traditional meditation is, but it’s what I find most effective.

8) There are so many guided meditations and meditation apps out there. I’ll list a couple of meditations I liked in the resources page, but I’ve found meditations are very much a personal preference. I hated many of the most popular meditations, and I’m sure lots of people won’t like the meditations I recommend. It’s worth the time and hassle of experimenting with different guided meditations to find the ones that are the best fit.