Rabbi Nachman of Breslav teaches:
“The best time for Hitbodedut is at night , when everyone is asleep. Ideally you should go to a place outside the city and follow a solitary path where people don’t even go during the day.
Empty your heart and mind of all your mundane preoccupations and then work to nullify all your negative traits, one after the other, until in the end you nullify all sense of self completely. First work on one character trait, then another and another, until you reach the point where you are free of any self-centeredness and any sense of independent existence.
You must be as nothing in your own eyes. Then you will be worthy of attaining true self-nullification and your soul will be merged with its root. The whole universe will be merged with you in your Source. You and everything with you will be merged in the Unity of God.” [1]

To really understand what Breslav teaches about “Hitbodedut” and how to do it, I think you’d have to speak to a Breslaver hasidic teacher.  A lot of these directions were best understood only when working with an experienced teacher from within the Breslav community. Unlike other Hasidic groups, Breslav never had another rebbe after Rebbe Nachman. But there are teachers and leaders who interpret and apply what he taught. A prominent one these days is Rabbi Shalom Arush. Another is Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum.

Prayer, especially hitbodedut, should involve less and less struggle and self-will as you surrender to God in the process. So, even if the directions sound like a lot of effort is being applied, I’m sure it’s much the opposite in actual practice.

One shouldn’t have a headache when they’re finished praying! (If only I could say that in Yiddish).

Did Rebbe Nachman mean that we will be merged in the Unity of God in each specific prayer, or did he mean that we would ultimately reach the permanent state that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi calls “Unity Consciousness”? I would guess that within Breslaver tradition, it could mean both.

In the absence of other rebbes, Breslav has been led by a series of “leaders” or “guides” whose title was “manhig (pl. manhigim).” The first was Rebbe Nachman’s closest disciple, Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov. His role was not to replace Rebbe Nachman or succeed him. Rather, Rabbi Nathan was the primary interpreter of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings in the subsequent generation. And so on after that. Within the Breslav community, there is more than one “manhig” at this time. Also, a person looking for guidance might turn to an older rabbi who is very experienced in Rebbe Nachman’s teachings and in hitbodedut, who might not have been the nominal “manhig.” We might compare the “manhig’s” role to that of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, who didn’t replace Shankara (the founder of the Indian philosophical system of Vedanta), but was instead looked upon as the finest interpreter and model of Shankara’s teachings in his own generation.

I think that if a person tried to do hitbodedut and found themselves getting more and more overwhelmed by their problems or negative thoughts, the manhig or other rabbinic teacher would probably guide the person in increasingly putting all those problems in “God’s Hands” during prayer. The essence of the prayer has to be “letting go and letting God.” Otherwise, it’s just spending an hour each day “kvetching.” Rebbe Nachman couldn’t possibly have meant that.

When Rebbe Nachman talks here about “nullifying character traits,” he’s talking about this in the context of prayer/contemplation.

Long-term behavioral change would be within the field called “mussar.” But here, Rebbe Nachman seems to be talking about something more strictly cognitive: i.e. nullify any concern with your own needs, desires, inclinations, etc. It’s very much “hasidic.”

The one doesn’t preclude the other. But mussar is spoken about by many other teachers; even those who were non-hasidic or even anti-hasidic.

No others, to my knowledge, give such clear discussions of the internal/cognitive aspects and experiences of prayer.

Rebbe Nachman, like Maharishi, was concerned to give the world a practice which even the most unlearned person could do. His is not a complicated technique, although in writing about it and attempting to make it clear, it begins to sound more complicated than Rebbe Nachman might have originally intended.

To “let go and let God” requires first that you acknowledge and experience God’s Presence which, as we know, means “transcending.” To “transcend,” the attention has to shift from any finite thought to the Transcendent itself. In TM, the mantra is what makes this so immediately easy. But Maharishi also wrote that one can transcend through loving God (although he stated it as loving a god during the process of yagya). I think the key to “Hitbodedut” is to place any question or problem you have in the context or matrix or milieu of God Who is always present, always Good and always doing Good. The more you do that during prayer, the less you experience your “self” and the more you experience your “Self” — God.

Also, the practice of “Hitbodedut” is supposed to go along with, and be supported by, learning Rebbe Nachman’s teachings in “Likutei Moharan” and other works. Rebbe Nachman begins “Likutei Moharan” by teaching that one must always be aware of the “seichel” (“intelligence”) that is in all things. In TM, “Consciousness” or “Creative Intelligence” is used more often to talk about the same thing. Rebbe Nachman didn’t mean “intelligence” in the sense that the Deists did: an orderliness in the design of things that suggests a “Designer” who was separate from the things created. He had to have meant a Divine Presence in all things. This was/is also a fundamental Hasidic emphasis. “Hitbodedut,” then, becomes the practical application of that teaching in our own personal lives.

It is also true that as we lovingly turn our attention to the Divine Presence in prayer, we might experience ourselves letting go of negative thoughts spontaneously or even notice those thoughts “evaporating” on their own.

So, despite language that suggests “struggle,” the actual practice of Hitbodedut must include less and less struggle as we progress in any individual prayer.

Maybe playing “jazz” is a good metaphor. It starts with intention and will power, but the improvisation has to gradually become more and more spontaneous and inspired. One has to “surrender the ‘self'” to play real jazz. I remember reading that Duke Ellington said that sometimes when he’s playing, he closes his eyes and sees God.

So, maybe “Hitbodedut” includes an element of letting thoughts come spontaneously, too, as we gradually surrender the ‘self’ to the “Self.” The Baal Shem Tov taught that when he prays, it’s the Shechinah (Divine Presence) praying through him. He was “witnessing” his own prayer! The Besht was referring to liturgical prayer; Rebbe Nachman’s “Hitbodedut” is private, personal prayer. But he means the same thing. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that someone doing “Hitbodedut” consistently would at some point experience him/herself “witnessing” their own prayer.

For all this, I can’t claim to speak knowledgeably about Breslavian “Hitbodedut.” Rebbe Nachman insists that the prayer be spoken, because the words themselves contain God’s blessings to the person. My personal prayer (other than “Visualization”) is almost always a conversation with God in thought. It evolved that way for me because my “model” for prayer was based on TM. But it’s a “conversation” in which God responds, too. My prayer is adjusting myself to the Presence of God.

I’ve never tried “Hitbodedut” for an extended period. Who knows? If I did, maybe I would have found as much from it as others — Rabbi Shalom Arush, for example — do. Rabbi Arush was born in Morocco and emigrated with his family to Israel. When he sought spiritual answers as an adult, he was able to approach a Breslav teacher who guided him. Now, he guides others.


[1] Likutei Moharan 1, 52