Although we associate prayer with liturgy that our rabbis and sages developed over the centuries, the act of unscripted prayer is equally important and authentic to the Jewish experience.
Hitbodedut (self-isolation), a style of prayer first popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is the act of open, spontaneous, and direct communication with God, and is accessible to all, regardless of how deeply one is engaged in Judaism. By removing the potential pretense and awkwardness of reciting prayers others have written in Hebrew and Aramaic, hitbodedut lets us speak our minds and hearts, embrace our vulnerability, and open ourselves to what the universe has to offer.
For many, the act of unscripted prayer may seem daunting. It can be difficult enough to recite prayers in Hebrew that have already been written; coming up with our own words to connect to the Creator of the Universe is another thing entirely. If you want to try hitbodedut but aren’t sure where to start, it’s as simple as following these steps.
1. Find the right time.
Although Rebbe Nachman recommended we pray at night while the lusts and desires of the world are at rest, the best time of day is ultimately up to you. To quote Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein in his book Gonzo Judaism, “…we can practice hitbodedut spontaneously and independently, anytime, anywhere, and with absolutely no prerequisites.”
Does the morning sun fuel you with energy and gratitude to pray for strength and wisdom to start your day? Do you feel most comfortable expressing your innermost thoughts and desires under the night sky? We all glean energy from the world around us in different ways, so pick the time of day that works best for you.
2. Find the right place.
As Rabbi Goldstein mentioned above, hitbodedut can be practiced anywhere. Having said that, many find that it is best to pray spontaneously v’tevah (within nature). This method has plenty of benefits: separation from the distractions of everyday life, physical connection to the earth, and the soundtrack of the natural world partnering with God in the act of Creation.
Rebbe Nachman has even been quoted as saying, “When one goes out to the meadows to pray, every blade of grass, every plant and flower enter his prayers and help him, putting strength and force into his words.” Still, the areas from which we can draw strength are relative, so the best environment to speak openly with the Divine is up to you.
3. Find the right words.
This is often the hardest part. Many people struggle with prayer because even though they have a clear desire to express themselves, they feel silly talking to Someone who isn’t visible or tangible, or that they struggle to even believe in at all. This is why it’s best to check your ego at the door and just do it anyway. Forget about your hang-ups and how silly you think you look (nobody else is there, anyway!). Just open your mouth and let the words flow. Disburse your needs, frustrations, and desires to the cosmos unencumbered by the judgment of others.
In her book Sacred Therapy, Jewish meditative scholar Estelle Frankel explains that through “expressing all the pain and longing we feel, we begin to develop a deep intimacy with God.” Because hitbodedut is a two-way street, allow yourself to also be open to receiving strength and revelation in return. “Perhaps the universe has been speaking metaphorically to you in some way,” Frankel continues. “God may be whispering in your ear, if only you are quiet enough to hear.”
Praying out loud and spontaneously may feel awkward at first, and that’s perfectly fine. We are often so accustomed to keeping our innermost thoughts and desires to ourselves that unleashing them with no filter seems like a challenge. That’s why, like everything else related to Jewish living, it takes practice and time to figure out how to make it best work for you.