“Pour out your heart like water before God…” – Lamentations 2:19
When I was younger, I used to go out to the woods alone and talk to God. Only years later did I learn that I was engaging in a Hasidic prayer practice called hitbodedut.
Hitbodedut literally means “seclusion” and in rabbinic literature refers to meditation. However, it is most closely associated with a practice of the great Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810). Rabbi Nachman urged his followers to set aside time every day to talk openly with God in one’s native language.
I like to think of hitbodedut as date night with God. Date night is a time when my partner and I go out and just focus on each other. It’s a time for us to connect. Rabbi Nachman encouraged this practice daily as a way of building a close relationship with God. Speaking openly and honestly with God every day builds closeness.
Here is the practice described in Rabbi Nachman’s own words:
Hitbodedut is the highest path of all. One must therefore set aside an hour or more each day to talk with God by themselves in a room or in a field.
Hitbodedut consists of conversation with God. One can pour out their words before their Creator. This can include complaints, excuses, or words seeking grace, acceptance and reconciliation. One must beg and plead that God bring them close and allow them to serve God in truth.
One’s conversation with God should be in the everyday language that they normally use. Hebrew may be the preferred language for prayer, but it is difficult for a person to express themselves in Hebrew. Furthermore, if one is not accustomed to speaking Hebrew, their heart is not drawn after the words.
However, in the language that a person normally speaks, it is very easy to express oneself. The heart is closer to such a language, and follows it, since the person is more accustomed to it. Therefore, when one uses their native language, they can express everything that is in their heart and tell it to God.
One’s conversation with God can consist of regret and repentance. It can consist of prayers and pleading to be worthy of approaching God and coming close to God in truth from this day on. Each one should speak to God according to their own level.
One must be very careful to accustom themselves to spend at least one hour a day in such meditation. During the rest of the day, one will then be in a state of joy and ecstasy.
No matter what one feels they are lacking in their relationship to God, they can converse with God and ask for help. This is true even if one is completely removed from any relationship with God.
I like to do my hitbodedut at the same time every day, usually at night, and outside if possible. For Rabbi Nachman, hitbodedut in nature was the ideal, however any private space will do, even a room where you can close the door. In urban Breslov communities in Jerusalem and New York, there are hitbodedut booths built on the roofs of buildings. The main thing about the space is that you will not be interrupted.
I also set a time for the practice. Rabbi Nachman recommended an hour, but I find that even a few minutes will do.
I like to start my hitbodedut by ritually washing my hands and thanking God for this opportunity to talk. Then I talk to God about anything I want — my hopes and desires, or requests for help with big issues or the mundane tasks of daily life. Sometimes I focus on my relationship with God or my efforts at self-improvement. And sometimes I focus on the state of the world. Nothing is too big or too small for hitbodedut.
It may feel awkward to speak out loud when no one is physically there and no one verbally answers back. That’s okay. I’ve found that it is through the talking process that I come to great clarity and, at times, profound inspiration. Maybe that is God’s response. The key is to keep talking out loud and not drift off into thinking silently in your head. There is something about the talking process that clarifies and imprints on the soul.
Sometimes I get bored during a hitbodedut session and check my watch to see how much time is left. That’s also okay. Just like in meditation, where we constantly come back to the breath, in hitbodedut we come back to the conversation. The goal is to speak with God like one speaks with a good friend.
Hitbodedut even works for people who don’t believe in God or who are unsure if God exists. I’ve practiced hitbodedut over the past decade with dedicated agnostics and atheists who direct their words to a “higher power” or “ideal support.” As Rabbi Nachman says, even someone completely removed from any relationship with God can ask for help.
When the time is up, I like to have a ritual for closing the conversation. I thank God again for listening. And since I most often do my hitbodedut outside, I will take a moment to look at the dark night sky and appreciate its beauty. If particularly useful insights came out of the session, I will take a few minutes to write them in my journal.
Just as talking honestly and vulnerably with a friend creates intimacy over time, so I’ve found that hitbodedut can make an abstract and invisible God feel closer to my heart.
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