(I believe that Hitbodedut — informal personal prayer, especially as taught by Rebbe Nachman of Breslav — is the critical practice or element that must be added to life today: Especially, but not exclusively, Jewish life. The more we read about it, the more complicated it might seem. Actually, nothing could be simpler — one of the main reasons why I advocate for it. The following is a good sampling of Rebbe Nachman’s own thoughts on Hitbodedut. It’s not a “how to” manual; it’s simply some short excerpts of what Rebbe Nachman has written and taught about the practice. Nothing more is needed to begin — than to begin.)
MEDITATION AND PERSONAL PRAYER
Set aside time each day to meditate and pray alone in a room or some meadow and express your innermost thoughts and feelings and personal prayers to God. Use every kind of appeal and argument. Use words that will endear you to God and win His favor. Plead with God to draw you closer and let you truly serve Him. This is Hitbodedut.
You should hold these conversations in whatever language you speak best. Our set prayers are said in Hebrew, but if this is not one’s native language, it is difficult to use it to give expression to all one’s innermost thoughts and feelings and the heart is less drawn after the words. It is easier to pour out your heart and say everything you need in your own language.
You should tell God everything you feel, be it contrition and longing to repent over the past or requests and supplications to come truly close to God from now on, each person according to his level.
Be very careful to get into the habit of spending time every day on your personal prayers and meditation. Fix a regular time for this and then be happy for the rest of the day!
Hitbodedut is of the greatest value. It is the way to come closer to God, because it includes everything else. No matter what you lack in your service of God, even if you feel totally remote from His service, tell God everything and ask Him for all that you need.
If at times you find yourself unable to speak to God or even open your mouth, the very fact that you are there before Him wanting and yearning to speak is itself very good. You can even turn your very inability to speak into a prayer. Tell God that you feel so far away that you cannot even speak to Him! Ask Him to have mercy on you and open your mouth to tell Him what you need.
Many great and famous Tzaddikim have said that all their achievements came only through Hitbodedut. Anyone with understanding can recognize the supreme value of this practice, which ascends to the most sublime heights. This advice applies to everyone equally, from the very least to the very greatest. Everyone is capable of practicing it and can attain great levels. Happy are all who persist in it.
It is also good to turn Torah teachings into prayers. When you study or hear a teaching of a true Tzaddik, make a prayer out of it. Ask God when you too will be able to fulfill this teaching. Tell Him how far from it you are and beg Him to help you attain everything contained in the lesson.
A person of understanding who wants the truth will be led by God in the path of truth, and he will learn how to practice Hitbodedut and offer words of grace and sound arguments to persuade God to bring him to true service.
Hitbodedut rises to a very high place. This applies especially to turning Torah teachings into prayers, which creates the greatest delight above.
Hitbodedut is the highest level: it is greater than everything.
Likutey Moharan II, 25
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Like a person talking to his friend
When God helps with Hitbodedut, it is like a person talking to his friend.
Likutey Moharan II, 99
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The origins of prayer
Prayer originally began with each person pouring out his heart before God in his own words and language. This is explained by Rambam (Maimonides) in his Code of Torah Law (Prayer 1:4) , where he states that personal prayer was the main form of prayer prior to the institution of the set prayers by the Men of the Great Assembly.
According to the law, even today the original form of prayer remains primary. Besides following the order of prayers established by the Men of the Great Assembly, it is extremely beneficial to make a regular practice of offer ing your own prayers and requests from the depths of your heart in the language you understand best, asking God to help you serve Him truly. This is the essence of prayer, and this is the way all the Tzaddikim attained their high levels.
Sichot Haran #229
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Bypassing the bandits
There is another advantage in expressing yourself to God in your own words. One can recite existing prayers and supplications, but these are already known to the destroyers and maligning forces that lie in wait along the paths of these prayers. They know these paths only too well.
It is like on a public highway. Murderers and robbers lurk there all the time waiting for the unwary, because they know the road. But when a person goes on a new path that is as yet unknown, they are not there to ambush him.
Similarly, when you talk to God in your own words, this is a new pathway, an original prayer that springs directly from your heart. Accordingly the maligning forces are not lying there in wait. Even so, you should also recite Psalms and other supplications as well as your personal prayers.
Likutey Moharan II, 97
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Hitbodedut is for everyone
From the smallest to the greatest, it is impossible to be a truly good person without Hitbodedut.
Likutey Moharan I, 100
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Pray for everything
You must pray for everything. Even if your garment is torn and you need another, you should pray to God to give you something to wear.
Do this for everything: make it a habit to pray for all your needs, great or small. Your main prayers should be for fundamentals: that God should help you to serve Him and draw closer. Even so, you should also pray for minor things.
God may give you food and clothing and everything else you need in life even without your asking for them. However, you are then like an animal. God provides all living creatures with their food. But if you do not draw your needs through prayer, your livelihood is like that of an animal. A man must draw his vitality and all his needs from God only through prayer.
Is it beneath your dignity to pray even for something minor? You must pray for everything, even the most minor things.
Sichot Haran #233
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Start with thanks
When a person wants to pray to God and ask for what he needs, he should first thank God for all of His past kindnesses and only then ask for what he needs. Because if he starts by asking only for what he needs, God says, “Have you nothing to thank Me for then?”
Siach Sarfey Kodesh 1-2
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Talk to God a lot
Talk to God a lot! Think carefully about your purpose in this world and what you are doing with your life. Take yourself in hand. Plead with God to have mercy on you and help you serve Him. Make up your own pleas and arguments in your own words, using whatever language you speak best.
Anyone who follows this practice for a period of time each day will certainly succeed in finding God. Even if you think you have been doing this for days and years without achieving what you want, keep firm and persist, because in the end you will reach your goal.
This was how King David composed the Book of Psalms. King David’s main time for his private prayers to God was when he lay on his bed at night. He would hide under the covers and pour out his heart to God. King David said: ” Every night I converse from my bed in tears.” (Psalms 6:7) . Happy is the person who makes this a regular practice, because it is supremely exalted.
Sichot Haran #68
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Like a child pleading with his father
It is very good to pour out your heart to God like a child pleading with his father.
Doesn’t God call us His children? “You are children to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1) . Therefore it is good to express your thoughts and feelings and all your troubles to God, like a child nagging and complaining to his father.
Even if you think you have done so much wrong that you are no longer one of God’s children, remember that God still calls you His child. As the Rabbis taught: “For better or worse, you are always called His children” ( Kiddushin 36a) .
Even if you think God has rejected you and told you that you are no longer His child, you must still say: “Let Him do His will – but I must do my part and continue acting as His child.”
How good it is when you can arouse your heart and plead with God until tears stream from your eyes and you stand like a little child crying before his Father.
Confusing thought s may enter your mind, but if you stand firm, God will send you another thought to encourage you. You may think you are no longer one of God’s children. But if you do your part, God will eventually send you thoughts of encouragement.
Sichot Haran #7
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“Sing to the One who rejoices when conquered” ( Pesachim 119a) .
Sometimes you must conquer even God! You may think that God has rejected you because of your sins and that you are still not doing His will. Even so, you must remain very firm and throw yourself before Him. Stretch out your hands and plead with God to have mercy on you and draw you to His service. Cry out: “No matter what, I want to be a Jew!”
This is how you overcome God. God has great joy when you conquer Him in this way.
Sichot Haran #69
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Wanting to cry
It is good to talk to God and pray with so much feeling that you shed tears like a child crying to his father. But if you pray with the constant thought that you want to cry, this can be highly distracting and may prevent you saying the prayers with all your heart.
When you say your prayers, separate yourself from all other thoughts and focus only on the words you are saying to God, just as a person speaks to his friend. Your heart will then be naturally aroused and you will come to genuine tears.
Likutey Moharan II, 95
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Even one word
If you cannot speak at all in your Hitbodedut, even saying a single word is also very beneficial .
If you can only say one word, keep strong and repeat that word over and over again, countless times. Even if you spend day after day meditating with that word, this in itself is very good. If you are persistent and repeat that word countless times, God will have mercy and open your mouth, and you will be able to express yourself.
Likutey Moharan II, 96
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Ribono Shel Olam
Even if the only thing you can say in your Hitbodedut is Ribono Shel Olam! “Master of the World!” this is also very good.
Chayey Moharan #440
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The difference between depression and a broken heart is that when you have a broken heart, you can be standing in a crowd of people and still turn around and say, “Master of the World!”
Sichot Haran #231
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The silent scream
You can shout and scream with a “still, small voice” without anybody hearing you. Everybody can do this. Imagine the sound of such a scream in your mind. Imagine the shout exactly as it would sound. Concentrate on hearing the scream in your mind until you are literally screaming with this soundless “still, small voice” – and nobody else will hear anything.
This is actually a scream and not mere imagination. Just as there are channels that bring the sound from your lungs to your lips, so there are nerves that bring the sound to the brain. You can draw the sound through these nerves, literally bringing it into your head. When you do this, you are actually shouting inside your brain.
When you imagine this scream in your mind, the sound actually rings inside your brain. You can stand in a crowd of people screaming this way and no- one hears you.
It could be that when you do this, a faint sound may escape your mouth. This is because the sound traveling through the nerves to the brain can also activate the vocal organs, and they may then produce some sound. But it will be very faint.
It is much easier to shout in this way without words. When you wish to express yourself in words, it is harder to hold the voice in the mind without letting a sound escape your lips. Without words, it is much easier.
Sichot Haran #16
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Today I am starting
During your Hitbodedut, it is good to say: “Today I am starting to attach myself to You!”
Make a new start each time, because everything that comes later is always in accordance with the beginning.
No matter what happens, it is always good to make a new start each time and say, “Today I am beginning…” If things were already good, now they will be even better! And if they were not good before, then you certainly need to start anew.
Chayey Moharan #437
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Every heartbeat a flame of yearning
A Jewish heart should be so strongly drawn to God that every heartbeat is a flame yearning for God.
Even when you are sitting with other people, you can lift your hands and your heart to God and cry out to Him with soulful longing.
Sichot Haran #230
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The power of desire
When you speak to God, make it a habit to express your longing and yearning to extricate yourself from evil and attain true good. Putting your longing into words is the way to draw your spiritual power from the realm of the potential and possible to the realm of the real and actual.
Longing and yearning alone create potential spiritual power, but the words of your prayers and conversations with God bring this spiritual power into the realm of the actual so that it becomes realized in actual fact. This is the way to accomplish what you yearn for.
Letters of Torah are present throughout the Creation. By expressing and articulating your yearning and desire in words, you invest these letters with new vitality and power for good. This brings you new life and strength and draws goodness and blessing into all the worlds. Numberless souls are stirred to make their own return to God, all through your words of prayer to your Maker.
How precious are the longing and yearning that you express before God. The main thing is actually to articulate the words. Make this your regular practice and devote time to it every day. This will benefit the entire world.
Likutey Moharan I, 31
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A settled mind
It is a great achievement to be able to settle your mind for a period of time each day and regret what you must. Not everyone is able to attain mental calm and tranquility for a time every day. The day flies past and is gone, and a person finds that not once in all his life did he have time to settle his mind.
Make every effort to set aside time to review your life calmly. Think about all your different activities and interests and how you behave. Consider carefully if this is how you should spend your days.
Someone who does not meditate cannot attain wisdom. He may occasionally be able to think clearly, but not for any length of time. His power of concentration remains weak and unsustainable . He will never realize the folly of this world.
But one who has a clear, settled mind can understand that everything is madness and vanity.
Sichot Haran #47
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The spider’s web
You want to speak to God but find it hard? You are like a warrior who girds his loins to overcome a mighty wall but when he comes to the gate, he finds it blocked with a spider’s web. Could anything be more foolish than to run away from the battle because the gate is covered with a spider’s web?
The main thing is speech. With speech you can win every battle. It is possible to meditate in thought, but the most important thing is to express yourself in words.
You may find it difficult to speak to God. You may also find it difficult to speak to a true Tzaddik. This is only because you are shy and lethargic and lack sufficient boldness.
This is silly! Here you are, ready to use your speech to overcome the great battle against the evil urge inside you. You are on the verge of victory: you are ready to break down the walls and open the gates with your words.
Should you hold back because of a minor barrier caused by a lack of confidence? This is nothing but a spider’s web covering the walls you want to break down with your words.
Sichot Haran #232
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Out in the meadows
Hitbodedut is best done outside the town in a place where grass grows, because the grass will awaken your heart.
How good it is to pray to God and meditate in the meadows amidst the grass and the trees. When a man goes out to the meadows to pray, every blade of grass, every plant and flower all enter his prayers and help him, putting power and strength into his words.
Likutey Moharan II, 11; Sichot Haran #227
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Your own place
It is very good to have your own room where you can be alone and engage in Torah study, prayer, meditation and private conversation with God. Even just to sit in such a room is also highly beneficial .
If you do not have your own room, you can still seclude yourself and talk to God. You can make your own room under your Tallit. Just drape your Tallit over your eyes and speak to God as much as you desire.
You can also seclude yourself with God when you lie in bed under the covers. This was King David’s custom, as it is written: “Each night I converse from my bed” (Psalms 6:7) .
You can also sit down with some book and let others imagine you are studying when in fact you are speaking to God. There are many other methods you can use if you truly want to practice Hitbodedut . Nothing is loftier than Hitbodedut, which is the root and foundation of holiness, purity and repentance.
Sichot Haran #274-5
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It is good to choose somewhere to sit day and night engaged in Torah, prayer and devotion. When you need to eat, run to some house and quickly grab a piece of bread or the like to appease your hunger and then go back to serving God.
Sichot Haran #248
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Hitbodedut at night
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.
Likutey Moharan I, 52
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The main time for Hitbodedut is at night. Seclude yourself and express yourself to God. Speak with all your heart and search out the goodness in your soul. Find the good points that are inside you and cleanse them of all evil until you pour out your heart like water before God. This is the way to subdue all lust and desire and attain true happiness. You will develop a good memory, and thus you will constantly remember the world to come, never losing sight of the end goal and purpose of this life. This is the way to repent and return to God.
Likutey Moharan I, 54
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Water wears away stone
Even if many days and years pass and it seems as if you have accomplished nothing with your prayers and conversations with God, don’t give up! Every single word makes an impression.
“Water wears away stone” (Job 14: 19 ) . It may seem that water dripping on hard stone could not make any impression, yet when water drips on stone continuously for many years, it can literally wear a hole in the stone. We actually see this.
Even if your heart is like stone and it seems that your words of prayer are making no impression at all, still, as the days and years pass, your heart of stone will also be softened. For: “Water wears away stone”.
Sichot Haran #234
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When Mashiach comes
There are certainly worthy people who do not practice Hitbodedut. But I call them confused. When Mashiach suddenly comes and calls them, they will be disoriented and confused.
But those who practice Hitbodedut will be like a person who wakes up from a restful sleep with a calm, settled mind. This is how we will be when Mashiach comes: our minds will be calm and settled, without panic or confusion.
Sichot Haran #228