The approach to long-term retreat in the last century or so, has emphasized a three year, three month supervised group retreat. This is a format that the highly respected 19th century teacher Jamgon Kongtrul promoted, because it fits with ancient tantric teachings about time, human physiology, and the effect of practice on our energy and nervous system. Retreats can, however, be of any length.
The danger of isolated long term personal retreats, are that one can make mistakes in practice that lead to mental and emotional health issues, or one can become puffed up by personal pride. The group three year treat format protects one against this because one is supervised, hopefully, by an experienced yogi, and also one’s interactions with one’s peers in retreat may undermine the development of arrogance and wear off one’s rough edges.
I recently heard about someone who had done many years in retreat. A friend met this person, and found this practitioner had developed an attitude of superiority towards other practitioners who were engaged in another path. This is an example of pride and dualistic thinking not being eliminated by practice, but increased instead. What a waste! Or maybe that is just my pride talking, saying “what a waste!”
Personal retreat, for some, tends to cultivate more in-depth meditation.
Retreat is suitable for some people, and not for others. Super extroverts may not be comfortable with the lack of social interaction. People with schizophrenia are, unfortunately, not suitable for long term retreat, and folks with some other mental health issues may not be. Really, the advice of a senior wisdom teacher should be sought before doing a three-month or longer retreat… and I have seen some people not do well even in one month of solitude.
So, it is not a panacea. Obviously, there are economic issues for folks as well. There is sponsorship available for participants in respected three-year retreat facilities in the west www.tsadra.org, but getting one is not guaranteed. One may need to do personal fundraising. There are visa, language, and health issues involved in doing retreat in Asia where it is cheaper.
So, I have expressed a lot of downsides in this post. If you are thinking about retreat, I am not trying to discourage you. Next, I’ll write about some upsides.