Hi, hello, it’s October 29, 2020, and I’ve cried most days this month. As are many of us, I’m overwhelmed by a lot that’s happening. And maybe unlike many others, I’ve always expressed my emotions — be it frustration, happiness, or anger — through tears. (To all those who also cry at work: I feel you.) Of course, there is the election to worry about. I’ve also been spending a lot of my time writing about antisemitism, and it’s hard not to feel completely defeated. Plus, lest we forget, we’re living through a terrible pandemic. I obsessively check the COVID-19 case numbers climb upwards daily, and there doesn’t really seem to be an end in sight.
After exhausting all sorts of different ways to keep calm — I’ve personally watched Mamma Mia too many times to count, and eagerly look forward to The Great British Baking Show every week — I still don’t know what to do. But I know I don’t want to just keep crying.
Essentially a Jewish meditation practice, hitbodedut (Hebrew: התבודדות) comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to seclude.” The Ashkenazic pronunciation is hisboydedes or hisboydedus or hisbodedus (honestly I have no idea the difference between those three, I’m going with heet-bo-deh-doot) and the Sephardic pronunciation is hitbodedút.
Hitbodedut is closely associated with a guy named Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who lived from 1772-1810 (his wisdom happens to feature prominently in our Voice Notes of Hope series from rabbis).
I, personally, am not great at meditation. I try to listen to guided meditations when I can’t sleep, but I usually just end up focusing on the fact that I am going to need to turn my phone off when it ends, and when I go back on my phone, I will inevitably end up scrolling on TikTok for another hour, which is exactly what’s keeping me up.
But there’s something different about hitbodedut — and I think it all has to do with the scream.
Here’s how Rabbi Nachman describes hitbodedut: “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.”
For Nachman, the practice was done best alone, at night, and in nature. You would pour your heart out to God — and nothing was too mundane to discuss. If you don’t feel like speaking, you can just say one word, he suggested.
But Nachman also advised on something called the “silent scream”: “Just imagine the sound of such a scream in your mind. Depict the shout in your imagination exactly as it would sound. Keep this up until you are literally screaming with this soundless ‘small still voice.’ This is actually a scream and not mere imagination.” (Reader, the first time I tried this, I screamed out loud accidentally. I guess it takes practice.)
Side note: Nachman is not the only person to advise a “silent scream.” Recently, at an amusement park near Tokyo, the park asked attendees to “please scream inside your heart,” not out loud, as a way to prevent more spread of the coronavirus. Just watch:
Simply entranced with their complete calm on a roller coaster.
Anyway, at a time when distress is at an all-time high, what better time to try out hitbodedut right now, just before Election Day?
For Alma contributor (and expert Jewish meme-maker) Shoshana Gottlieb, hitbodedut functions as a “mini Shabbos.” Gottlieb says, “it’s just taking time in a day and trying to disconnect from the physicality around me and focus on God.” She doesn’t do it all the time, but when she does, she finds it helpful.
For rabbinical student Margo Hughes-Robinson, she loves hitbodedut “because it’s a democratized prayer experience.” Yet, she cautions against the decontextualization of hitbodedut, since “it’s an ecstatic practice that is meant to complement and accompany a wider Jewish prayer practice, not just exist on its own all the time.”
Hughes-Robinson suggests if you want to try it for the first time, go for a walk in the park first. She explains, “Find a nature space that feels like it can hold you and you can make space for yourself in (and that feels private enough so you can quietly talk to yourself or the Divine out loud!). But being in motion in prayer can be super (forgive me) moving, and roots prayer back into a physical space. It helps me get back in my kishkes and my heart, instead of leaving prayer only in the space of the intellectual or verbal. I think ideally it’s about talking to God the way you would to a trusted friend, getting to pour your heart out — so it’s going to get emotional!”
And God doesn’t even need to be a part of it, if that’s not your deal. (Hello, fellow secular Jews!) You can think of hitbodedut as talking to a close friend, or nature itself, if you prefer.
Sarah Hurwitz, formerly Michelle Obama’s speechwriter, describes her discovery of hitbodedut in her memoir Here All Along. Hurwitz writes hitbodedut “involves going out into nature alone and talking to God — my first thought was something like ‘Are you @*#$% kidding me?”
The rules, as Hurwitz lays out, are:
“(1) Go somewhere secluded outdoors where no one else can hear you.
(2) Speak out loud to God—not in your head, but in an audible voice—for an allotted period of time… If you don’t believe in God, that’s fine, just do it anyway, along the lines of ‘Hi, God, I don’t believe in you, so I’m basically talking to empty air…’
(3) Speak without pauses. If you run out of things to say, you can say ‘I’ve run out of things to say’ over and over again. But whatever you do, keep talking.”
Rabbi Hayley Goldstein, the rabbi of Base Ithaca, a project of Cornell Hillel, explained hitbodedut to me as such: “To understand hitbodedut, I think it’s important to start with the question: What does it feel like to talk to your best friend? When my best friend Rachel and I talk, time flies. I’ll call her on FaceTime and suddenly my battery is dying and two hours have passed. I can say anything. We have inside jokes. We laugh, we cry. This is the type of relationship that we are reaching for with God.”
Last Yom Kippur, Rabbi Goldstein organized a hitbodedut session for her students called “Screaming in the Woods.” As she recalls, “I never thought I would be standing there in one of the gorges in Ithaca, spread out with a bunch of Cornell students doing our own personal hitbodedut, and then finally culminating in several loud, primal screams into the void. I guess the dumpster fire that is 2020 has opened us all up, and it is kind of amazing.”
Rabbi Goldstein further explained how hitbodedut is suited to our particular moment in time: “In this time of increased anxiety and fear, we need to lean on all of the spiritual and emotional resources that we can. More specifically, we need a buddy that we can cry and scream to, laugh and share our hearts and life dreams with. That buddy is already available and ready to listen.”
Now I’m not sure I’m able to conceptualize God as my best friend — but I did experiment with this the other day. I recorded a video of myself, talking to two actual best friends, stream of consciousness style. I talked about my anxiety, about work, about my new puppy. Maybe Rabbi Nachman never envisioned sharing your thoughts — your conversation with God — but I decided to send the video to my friends, and it felt like a weight was lifted off my chest.
For Alma contributor Sara Beth Berman, her hitbodedut practice looks like taking a stroll through Target. “My friends wanted to go to Target when we were at a conference,” she explained to me. “I needed NOTHING. But there’s something calming about walking aimlessly through such perfect order, in lovely climate control. It was about absentmindedly peering at the colors, while not actively needing to be in a real conversation.”
For Berman, this is also reminiscent of a Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku, “forest bathing.” In essence, this is “simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.” By walking aimlessly, slowly, and taking in your environment, you become calmer and more relaxed. If your environment is a Target, that’s okay too. (I tried to do this while walking my dog, but couldn’t exactly be aimless.)
Earlier this year, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg shared a Twitter thread about hitbodedut, and one particular part caught my eye: hitbodedut, she writes, “basically just involves talking to God until you have found the thing you need to say… I think so many of us are still in crisis mode, adjusting to this new reality, that we haven’t given ourselves space to feel all the stuff that we’re actually experiencing. Hitbodedut can make space for that. And maybe letting out a profound kind of scream can help us, too.”
To put it simply: I am now obsessed with hitbodedut. Who doesn’t need to let out a primal scream?! And to partake in an ancient Jewish ritual while you’re at it? You truly love to see it.
So, scream with me, won’t you?
Header image design by Grace Yagel. Original illustration by GeorgePeters/Getty Images.