Everything you need to know about the art of hitbodedut, aka the practise of talking to God.
I had a request to write a bit more about hitbodedut, or the practice of talking to God in your own words every single day.
Rebbe Nachman writes in Likutey Moharan 2:25 that:
“Hitbodedut is the most exalted and paramount spiritual practice of all. It involves setting a time for oneself of at least an hour to meditate in seclusion in some room or in the field, expressing oneself before one’s Maker with well-tailored arguments in an expedient, but graceful and appeasing way, begging God to truly bring us closer to His service.”
Rabbenu continues a little further down:
“Even when one’s words are blocked, and one is unable to open one’s mouth and speak before God, this itself is very great, i.e. preparing ourselves to stand before God, and desiring to speak, even when we can’t….
“We should beg God for mercy and compassion, so that He opens our hearts to be able to express ourselves before Him.”
So far, so good.
The person who emailed me told me they keep falling asleep when they try to do hitbodedut, so they wanted some advice / chizzuk on how to handle this, so in their merit, I decided to write this post.
So many things have been written about hitbodedut by so many people, many of whom are far ‘higher’, spiritually, than I am. (Like, by about a billion spiritual miles…) At the same time, I’ve been doing regular hitbodedut now for something like 12 years, and I do an hour every day, minimum, as Rabbenu recommends us to do.
And I have a lot of firsthand experience of how I’ve seen hitbodedut, the practice of talking to God in our words, has truly changed my life, not always in such simple ways. So let’s begin with a brief history of how I got started, and why.
I started doing hitbodedut back in 2006, during our first year in Israel, when we’d moved to Modiin from London, and our life was lurching from one crisis to another, and I really didn’t know how to cope with it all anymore. As I look back on it now, I see we’ve had the same sort of tests for 12 of the last 13 years, and it’s only in 5777 /8 that we started to make the real, deep teshuva required to finally get things to improve a little.
So, here’s a little of what was going on back in 2006, in Modiin:
- We were fighting with family members:
- My PR business was going down the tubes and starting to accumulate a bunch of big debt
- My husband got made redundant by his London law firm who had agreed to him working remotely from Israel before we made Aliyah – but then changed their minds without telling him, and started looking for his replacement.
- My kids were climbing the walls, as I was always ‘absent’ emotionally, either working like a dog or worrying about work.
- Our house got burgled.
- Our social situation started to get precarious, because all the other olim we were friendly with didn’t really want to hear about all the difficulties we were going through.
- The depression I’d been dealing with for decades bubbled up again, and I could spend days crying, immobilized on a sofa, or in bed.
- Our shalom bayit was going down the toilet because of all the pressure.
What’s the answer a Western-educated person would give about how to handle all this?
Clearly “Go to a shrink!!” That’s what everyone was telling me.
So I went – to about 3 different shrinks because most of them were just so bad, sometimes for 3 times a week – and honestly, it was making it all worse.
They’d want me to keep track of my dreams, and then we’d have to talk about it, or they’d ask me leading questions about my parents, and I’d have to veer away from that conversation at a million miles an hour. To put it another way, they’d be picking at very deep emotional scabs for 50 minutes, then just when I was feeling my most raw, they’d pack up for the day and send me home to deal with the fallout.
After three months of this, I could see it really wasn’t working, but I didn’t know what else to do. So then, I heard a CD from Rav Arush where he basically said that talking to God was the single address, the single practice, that would solve the problem – whatever the problem.
And that nothing else would really do the job.
I came back to my latest shrink, I told her that I had to try and figure things out directly with God, and she was nice enough to give me her blessing, even though as a devoutly secular women, she was sure this was just another manifestation of mental illness.
I was still feeling really depressed at this stage, so all I could manage was 10 minutes. For 10 minutes a day, for three days, I just kept asking God to lift the depression off me, and let me start functioning again without all the terrible heaviness and crying.
You know what?
God answered that prayer.
I won’t say I never got depressed again, as it’s a process that requires a lot of self-awareness, teshuva and prayer, but that was the last time I had a depression that lasted more than a few days – and I was convinced that hitbodedut really worked, because for decades already, nothing else had managed to tame the depressions.
So from that point on, I asked God to help me talk to Him every single day, come what may.
Again, I started small.
10 minutes every day, while I was washing the dishes.
Then, I went up to 15 minutes, then 20, then half an hour, then 40 minutes, then 45.
And that’s where I got stuck for about 2 years. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t break the 45 minute barrier and make it through to the magical one hour. I literally would get a sensation as though I was jumping out of my skin and couldn’t sit still for a second more.
But I didn’t give up.
God helped me to carry on at that 45 minute level, and then one day, for the first time ever, I managed to reach the hour, and I knew that some big spiritual test had been passed.
In the meantime, life had only continued to get more and more complicated and difficult externally, so talking to God really became my lifeline. Talking to God led to some fundamentally huge changes at that point, like:
- Moving out of Modiin
- Quitting my business, to try and be more of a full-time mother (which is enough to give any F/T career woman a serious attack of the heebee jeebees.)
- Getting more ‘frum’, covering my hair, encouraging my husband to learn in yeshiva in the morning
- Getting to work on my huge anger issues, and other bad middot, which had been mostly under the radar up until then.
- Going cold-turkey on the internet, and going back to a ‘normal’, non-internet phone (this still predated the time of i-Phones).
When I was 35, I had a health scare that shook me up enough, I was motivated to do my first ever six hours, by the Kotel.
It was complete mental torture. One of the most difficult things I’ve done, in a lot of ways, because the urge to just stop, to break, to run away from talking to God, was at times completely overwhelming.
But I was scared about my health, and that’s what kept me going. At the end of it, I was so pleased to have got that ‘six hour’ thing under my belt – and I felt even happier a couple of weeks’ later when I got the ‘all clear’ from the doctor, and the scary symptoms literally disappeared by themselves, overnight.
So from that point on, I started regularly doing a six hours, as much as once a month, and I’d often do it while I was digging through the wasteland that was my garden in the Gush. That felt so appropriate, somehow, as I’d be digging up the root of an ancient weed that was embedded a metre down, and spread and knotted in a million directions, while also asking God to help me uproot internal ‘weeds’ like anger and jealousy, that seemed to be equally entrenched.
Gush Etzion is when all the demons I’d been trying to avoid and run away from for years finally started gushing out of the system, and if I hadn’t been talking to God every single day for an hour or more, I literally would have gone crazy.
As it was, I only went half-crazy, but a lot more stuff started to move and change as a result, like:
- I went to Uman, to Rebbe Nachman’s grave, for the first time.
- We moved house and location in order to send our kids to what we hoped would be a much better school, religiously.
- My husband started learning at the Chut Shel Chesed Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
- My husband decided to open up his own law practice.
So now, I’m in a new community, and the first two years were pretty good, by any standard.
We had friends, we had other English-speaking people around who were ‘Breslov friendly’, my husband’s parnassa was doing well, I was busy ghostwriting books for Dr Zev Ballen, blogging for Breslev.co.il and writing my first book, called The Happy Workshop.
And in the meantime, I was still talking to God about a lot of things, because the kids were still experiencing a lot of difficulties, and I’d learned from Rav Arush’s ‘Education with Love’ book that their problems were really just mine and my husband’s.
Like, one kid had awful, debilitating stomachaches that nothing could cure or get to go away.
I decided to do a six hours devoted to her health issues, and by the end of that, I got some massive insight that her emotional stomachache was really just my emotional stomachache, that had been transposed.
The next three days after that hitbodedut, I was laid up in bed with an awful, killer stomachache – but the kid got better from that point on, and never had that type of stomachache again.
So for two years, I felt we were making slow but steady progress on our bad middot, and that we were slowly, slowly starting to fix a lot of the flaws and mistakes and problems with our parenting.
But then, clearly, we reached the next stage of the ‘teshuva’ process, when God whipped the rug right out from under our feet and sent our life into major free-fall.
It started when my husband’s father died very unexpectedly, the day after Succot.
From that point on, all the monsters that had been lumped under the family rug for decades started to crawl out, and long story short, we got to a place where we were once again:
- Fighting with family members
- Socially isolated
- Financially in trouble, and forced to sell the house
- Having awful shalom bayit issues
- Experiencing serious illnesses because of all the stress
- Having massive difficulties with our kids
And clearly, I’m leaving a bunch of stuff out here.
Once again, hitbodedut and Uman is what got us through in one piece.
As each day’s new troubles and difficulties hit, I’d run to God for comfort, for clarity, for reassurance, for emuna. Some days I was so distraught, so lost, all I could do was sit there mouthing Ein Od Milvado over and over again.
Other times, I’d sometimes fall asleep while I was talking to God, but I didn’t mind when that happened, as it wasn’t all the time, and it’s often a sign that the ‘light’ that’s coming down is just too big to get hold of consciously, so God knocks you out to operate.
(Having said that, if you fall asleep every single time you do hitbodedut that’s not so helpful, and you may want to change how you do it, like going to a public place, or doing it while you take a walk, or sweep the house.)
There were a lot of six hours going on at that stage, too, because we’d run out of money and had been advised to just go and ‘work for God’, i.e. do long hitbodeduts every day, and in the merit of that, God would do miracles for us.
I will cover this topic in a future post, because it’s part of how I came to a crucial understanding about what talking to God regularly is all about, and I don’t want to lump it all to this post as it’s pretty crucial.
But suffice to say, that you can’t view hitbodedut, or doing 6 hours, through the prism of trying to force God to give you what you want.
It’s much, much more about figuring out what God really wants from you.
Talking to God regularly has given me so much clarity about things, so much insight into my own nature and yetzer, and by extension other people’s, too. It’s not always been easy to ‘hold’ that knowledge. There were times when I honestly think I went a bit crazy from it, in the way that’s commonly referred to in Israel as ‘too much light’.
For example, when new BTs kind of lose the plot and go overboard in a million different ways, that’s because it’s ‘too much spiritual light’ to really handle. Their souls want more connection to God, but their minds and their middot can’t really process things so fast, which is often when you end up with a machmir external yiddishkeit that’s paired with immature character traits and a narrow, very judgmental mind-set.
But at that point, talking to God helped me figure out a whole bunch of things (eventually…) like:
- How our bad character traits literally make us physically ill
- How personality disorders and Erev Rav traits were totally describing the same phenomenon
- How we can’t stand up in the tests we need to go through, in order to really fix our neshamas, without a very strong connection to the true tzaddikim
- How most people are simply lying to themselves about the true, negative, impact their bad character traits are having on others, especially their spouse and children.
- How so much of the difficulties we go through in our life are really ‘inherited’ from our forebears, or from previous lifetimes. So for sure, we still ‘deserve’ them 100%, but it’s not always true that our actions in this lifetime is what’s causing us the problem.
- And, most importantly of all, how following Rebbe Nachman’s advice of talking to God regularly for an hour a day (and regularly going to Uman) is THE ONLY WAY to fix the problem, at its root.
I know that last point is quite a statement, but after everything I’ve witnessed going on around me the last few years, and also within me, I stand by it 100%.
Unless a person is regularly talking to God for an hour a day, they simply won’t have the spiritual ‘muscle’ required to be able to distinguish the yetzer hara from the yetzer tov on a regular basis, and especially when it comes to really figuring out what they need to work on and change.
I’m not talking about before we lose our temper, or say or do something we badly regret. Even the biggest tzaddik can fall prey to a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction brought about by their bad middot, and it’s the work of 120 to be able to uproot these impulses entirely.
I’m talking about after we’ve said or done something bad, or negative, and we’re still just justifying ourselves and coming up with tons of excuses to paint ourselves, and our behavior, or misjudgment, or mistake as whiter than white.
Truth requires hitbodedut, it’s as simple as that.
And without truth, people don’t realise or accept just how much teshuva they really still need to make, especially when it comes to how they treat their spouse and kids.
At the same time, hitbodedut also overcomes the inbuilt tendency to be too hard on ourselves, and to beat ourselves up over every little thing. That’s also a big part of not being able to distinguish the yetzer hara from the yetzer tov, because when God is bringing something that needs fixing to your attention in hitbodedut, He always does it gently.
But the yetzer just starts screaming in your face that you’re baddddd!!! And you did something wrongggg!!! And you’re worthlessssss!! And now, you’re going to get in so much trouble!!!
And who is going to make teshuva when that’s what they feel they have to go through every time they want to even take a peek at what they might need to fix? Answer: no-one.
But when you’re regularly doing hitbodedut, you’ll start to get some insight into why you’re acting the way you are, and you’ll start to be able to develop some real compassion for yourself, even while taking a much firmer stand on the negative actions and behaviors that really do need looking at and fixing.
(I talk a lot more about all this ‘snake brain’ vs ‘human brain’ stuff in THIS post.)
SO, HOW BEST TO DO IT?
Here’s some tips to get you started:
It can even be just a minute a day, if you’re pushed. It’s not so much about how long, but how consistent when you first start trying to talk to God, so pick a time frame that you know you will have the willpower to stick to, long term.
Do it every single day.
Even if you don’t feel like it. Even if you feel rotten. Even if you’re in a bad mood. Even if you’re in the best mood. Think of it like a meeting with the boss, a date with the man of your dreams, a lunch with a brilliant book agent (if you’re also a struggling writer J ) It’s not something you’re going to miss, come hell or high water. And I warn you now, that when your yetzer realizes that you’re trying to talk to God, it will throw everything at you, to try to prevent it.
Turn off your phone.
I think one of the reasons I’m so not ‘into’ the whole smartphone thing is because I know I can live without it for a whole hour every day. Do you know how liberating it is to not have to keep checking Whatsapp? (I’m guessing, as I don’t have it….) Phones are the #1 enemy of people trying to make some time to talk to God, so switch it off.
Do hitbodedut somewhere you feel comfortable.
At the beginning, a lot of people tend to feel ridiculous talking ‘to the wall’. What, I’m just going to sit here talking ‘to the wall’?!
But there are worse things.
I walk around my neighborhood doing hitbodedut, and I can tell you for sure that many people now have me pegged as one of the higher functioning mentally-disabled adults that go to the day centre just up the road from me.
If you’re worrying about your cred, or if you live in a small town where looking like a mad person isn’t actually an advantage for keeping the real crazies away, or if you’re worried you might bump into your boss or school principal, then it’s probably better to start off in your own home.
If you have a garden to sit in (and it’s not blizzarding or pouring) that’s often a good option, but be 100% guided by where you’ll feel comfortable actually talking. Out loud. Which brings me to the next point.
Yes, your lips have to move.
Not all the time, as talking to God is just as much about listening as it is talking, but if your lips aren’t moving and you’re just thinking it in your head, it’s not going to change the world in the same way.
God spoke the world into creation, and speech is still vested with a tremendous power to change reality. So if you really want to impact your reality, you have to speak. Not just think or write. Yes, thinking and writing can also be part of the hitbodedut process, just as they could be part of a relationship or conversation with a flesh-or-blood person. But the real communication occurs via talking.
I think of it like this: talking is my half of the conversation. The thoughts that come into my head in response to what I’m saying, or the things that I sometimes write down in my journal when I’m doing hitbodedut is how God is responding to me.
Build up slowly to an hour.
But don’t get demoralized if it takes ages to get there, or if you get stuck. Just keep going, talking every single day, and you’ll see how things start to get easier all by themselves. Talking to God is a privilege, so just hang in there, show your willing, and sooner or later, Hashem will help you to achieve it.
Don’t overdo it.
I know one man who decided doing a six hours wasn’t enough – he was going to do a 12 hours!!! He did the 12 hours – and that was the first and last time he ever did hitbodedut.
That’s an extreme example, most people’s yetzers are far more subtle. They’ll just keep persuading you if one hour is good, two hours is better – and if you have the time and inclination to do that, great!
The problem comes when you don’t have the time or inclination, but your yetzer has you convinced that doing less than 3 hours a day just isn’t worth it. Once you reach the hour a day, that is all you really need. There is no obligation to do more. If you really like talking to God, and you really want to talk longer, that’s great, go right ahead.
But if the idea of having to do more than a hour makes you feel a little resentful or burdened, or if you feel bad that you’re only doing an hour….that’s a yetzer, and you should call it out.
(There’s another very common yetzer trick too, where it tries to persuade people that if they can’t do an hour straight off the bat every single day, they shouldn’t do anything at all. Again, this is baloney. Start small, keep it regular and build it up over time, and if you do that, you’ll end up acquiring hitbodedut as an enduring practice, not just a flash in the pan.)
Don’t try to control the process.
Yes, I know that there are shitot or methods for starting with thanking, then going into self-accounting and ending up, briefly, with requests. If that works for you, great, keep doing it. There’s also a shita that says go through the last 24 hours, and try to think about every thought, word or deed to see if it was OK. Again, if that works for you, great, keep doing it.
I’ve never done my hitbodedut either of those ways. The one thing I do is to start off by making a declaration that I am binding myself to the tzaddikim, and binding myself to the mitzvah of loving my fellow Jew as myself, as found in the back of Rav Arush’s book In Forest Fields.
Then, I’ll say some thank yous about whatever comes to mind – some days that lasts less than half a minute, others, it can go for much longer. And then, whatever God puts into my head is what I talk to Him about.
Sometimes, I’ll have the intention to discuss subject A, and subject B is what I end up doing the whole hour on. I’ve learnt that whatever God wants me to look at, that’s what is going to come into my hitbodedut.
I get some of my best article ideas walking around on a Shabbat morning, for example. I used to feel a bit bad about this, until I realized that for whatever reason, this is how God is making things play out.
So, if apparently random, weird, unrelated or ‘secular’ things start coming into your hitbodedut – let them, and don’t try to force the issue. God knows what He’s doing.
But do feel free to look for some inspiration.
When I have some thorny issue, or dilemma, or big question, I sometimes go and look for some ‘clues’ in holy works about what is really going on, here.
For example, this morning I was talking to God about a certain issue that one of my kids has, and I decided to go to my ‘Tehillim cards’, and to just take one randomly, as a starting point. I got one that said “Let go, then you will know I am Hashem” that had a picture of a man on a horse jumping over the Grand Canyon.
It sparked off a whole flood of thoughts and emotions – not least, that the last time I tried to ‘let go’ I just ended up crumpling at the bottom of the cliff, because it didn’t seem like God had caught me at all.
That opened up a whole line of enquiry that shone a spotlight on some unhelpful attitudes that have been hiding out and tripping me up for quite a while, which today I finally started to get a grip on.
I did quite a long hitbodedut on it today (4 hours), and by the end, I came to realise a lot of things about my failed house purchase, for example, and why it really was a hidden blessing. Very hidden! So hidden, it’s taken me 6 months to even start figuring it out, but thanks to hitbodedut, the answers are starting to come as to why that had to happen.
So if you’re stuck, feel free to look for some external inspiration to kick-start the conversation, and then see where God will take you.
Don’t do hitbodedut like a self-righteous jerk.
How I wish someone had told me this when my kids were younger, but if your kids need you – and it’s important – then your hitbodedut really has to wait, or get split up and disturbed. It took me years to realise that not talking to my kids because I was talking to God was actually not the smartest thing to do, for a lot of reasons.
When the penny finally dropped, I started doing my hitbodedut much earlier in the day, before they woke up, so I wouldn’t have to choose between talking to them or talking to God.
These days, I will also interrupt hitbodedut for my husband too, if necessary, and very rarely for others who have a serious need to speak to me right then. I used to have pronounced OTD tendencies that made me feel like I’d have to start the whole hour over again if I got interrupted, or that it wouldn’t ‘count’ if someone else interrupted it. I’ve since realized that I was just being crazy J. Nowadays, if I get unexpectedly interrupted, I’ll just add an extra 5-10 minutes on to the end, and I know God understands and it still counts as a full hour.
If your hitbodedut isn’t working for you, change it up
If you keep falling asleep, that’s probably because you need to do something active while talking to God, like taking a walk or hanging the laundry, or going for a drive. If you can’t concentrate, maybe you need to just go somewhere quiet and sit. If you can’t find time to do it in the evening before you get too tired, do it first thing when you wake up. If you can’t even think before lunchtime, do it later.
Do it with a coffee in your hand, or a fruitjuice, or even a piece of cake – whatever it is that’s going to get you looking forward and willing to talk to God.
If your hitbodedut isn’t working for you, then try to figure out why. Many mums feel guilty taking the time for themselves, for example, which is when ‘housewife hitbodedut’ can really come into its own. You’re doing the chores you need to do, while also taking care of your inner dimension.
If you just can’t find an hour any way you slice it, split it up into two half an hours a day, or three 20 minutes. The point is to just keep coming back and trying again and changing things, until you find the way that works for you.
8 years ago, I used to get up at 5.30 every morning, and walk around my village for an hour talking to God, before my kids woke up. Then we moved to Jerusalem, and walking around early felt less ‘safe’, and my kids started staying out so late that I just couldn’t wake up at 5.30 anymore either, so it switched to 6.15 in bed.
Starting last year, after we moved to Baka, I’ve gone back to trying to do it walking around when I wake up, most days. But some days I also do it in the car, if I have a long drive somewhere, or I’ll do it painting, or (rarely….) tidying my house, or even at Kever Rochel of the Kotel.
There is really no one way of doing hitbodedut.
If you enjoy talking to God, if you are starting to get some insights into your life, relationships and behavior, then keep doing it the way you are! And if not, then consider what tweaks are required to help you get more out of it.
But don’t give up!
Because regular hitbodedut is the only way anyone can really make the leap from fake, pretend-perfect person to real, I-know-I’m-crazy, happy Jew.
And to give Seal the last word: we’re never gonna survive, unless, we get a little crazy.
- If you have questions or comments about the practical aspects of doing hitbodedut, ask away, or email me, and I’ll do my best to respond.
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