An Introduction to Ira Progoff's
Intensive Journal method

By Ron Wright

Ira Progoff was a not trained as a therapist, but a philosopher. His Ph.D. dissertation was written about the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, specifically, the social significance of Jung's work. Jung was impressed and invited Progoff to study with him in Switzerland. When Progoff returned, he became the Director of the Institute for Research in Depth Psychology at Drew University from 1959 to 1971. "Dr. Progoff conducted research on the dynamic process by which individuals develop more fulfilling lives. ... Through this research, he then developed and refined the Intensive Journal method in the mid-1960's and 1970's to provide a way to mirror the processes by which people become dynamic and develop themselves." (from Progoff bio on The Intensive Journal method is best learned by doing, and journal workshops (described by Kaiser in The Way of the Journal or a more compact local version ) are offered around the country, and indeed around the world (click here for a schedule). The techniques for using the journal are also described in Progoff's book At a Journal Workshop for reference and for those who cannot attend workshops. This book is available from Dialog House in New York (800-221-5844), and I have a copy if you want to borrow it. More information about intensive journal method can be found online at

The Intensive Journal is based on the notion that the wisdom which is contained in the writings of all of the different religions comes from human beings, and that each of us contains some of this wisdom within ourselves, although we're often not able to access it. The journal provides a way to recreate meaning in our lives. Progoff describes anything that goes beyond one's own individual life as the true essence of what is interpersonal and transpersonal in going through life.

The Intensive Journal method has a number of approaches to help access this wisdom that lies within us. Only a few of these tools are mentioned here. For more information see the At a Journal Workshop book or the intensive journal website. You can learn more about Ira Progoff and his ideas from an interview by Tom Ferguson for Self-Care Magazine : A Psychological Journal as Self-Care

Stepping Stones

One technique that is useful in understanding our lives is the stepping stones exercise. In doing the stepping stones exercise we are trying to understand the full context of our lives, to create an impressionistic vision of the various stages of our lives. This can help us understand how it is that we got to be the person that we are today and in the situation that we find ourselves in. Much as we might think of a painter's life as consisting of the blue period or the Paris years, we can identify times in our lives that fall naturally together and seem different somehow from other times. To do the stepping stones exercise you first allow yourself to become calm, perhaps reading through or listening to one of the entrance meditations that Progoff offers as part of his journal method. These entrance meditations are intended to help us enter into a meditative state where we can more easily access the deeper layers of our own wisdom.

From this relaxed state, we think back through our lives and try to identify those periods that were different from other periods in terms of the things that were most important to us, the accomplishments we were trying to make, the people that we knew, the themes in our lives,...: All the things that were important to us. We then try to list something on the order of 10 to 12 different steps that brought us to this stage in our life, being careful to identify the present stage as one of those steps and to identify what is important in this stage. The type of questions we might want to ask ourselves in thinking about each one of these periods are:

Or you might try completing the sentence stem "It was a time when...."

After listing the stepping stones it is often productive to go back and examined one or more of them in some detail. This is especially true of the current period. For guidance in writing in more detail about the present period, have a look at Working in the Period Log. The stepping stones exercise is described in detail in Chapter 7 of At a Journal Workshop.

Dialog with Persons (including example)

Another approach that the intensive journal offers is through the concept of dialog. By dialog Progoff means the true heart-to-heart conversation that ideally can occur between people when each person is opening themselves fully to the other person, both to be known by the other and to know the other. In this moment, the other person's perceptions, goals and values are equally valid and important as one's own. You are truly opening yourself to the experience of influencing and being influenced by this person, as you speak to him or her from your heart. It is this concept of dialog that Progoff hopes to bring forth in the journal writing. Numerous ways to use the Journal include dialogs.

One of the most important types of dialog, and one of the most simple, is the dialog we're most familiar with: a dialog with another person. In a Dialog with Persons we are having a conversation with a real person, but this conversation is written by us on both sides. While at first this may seem odd, it turns out that one way to access the wisdom that we have within us is to very formally put ourselves in the other person shoes and try to respond, not as they would as a real person, but as they would if they were truly speaking from their heart. We, too, speak fully from our hearts when we have this dialog. The idea is to tell, as best you can at a given time, the "whole truth" about what we're feeling and thinking relevant to the conversation. Note, of course, that speaking from your heart requires you to know your heart, but this need not be known ahead of time; indeed, one of the things you can get from journal writing is a better understanding of what your heart has to say as you attempt to express it to the other person.

To begin a Dialog with Persons take a few moments to list those persons with whom you might want to have a dialog. A person is a good candidate for a dialog if you have a relationship with that person that is meaningful to you in some way, and you feel like there's a possibility for movement in that relationship. A relationship that is entirely stuck, or a relationship that is trivial to you, is not a good choice of a person to dialog with. Dialoging with someone with whom you have a conflict is also a viable choice, but again it should be someone that you have a meaningful relationship with and that you feel that the conflict situation has a chance for some kind of movement and change.

Once you have listed people to possibly dialog with, settle on one of them to dialog with now. Then write a Focusing Statement that says in perhaps two or three sentences what is the situation with this person now. This statement should be in neutral language, describing your feelings and, as best you understand them, the other persons feelings, but expressing things as clearly and as simply as you can. It is probably useful to start a dialog on a blank page and actually writing the words "Focusing statement" and a colon, followed by the focusing statement itself. After that skip a line, and then you are ready to begin the dialog.

If you have left the meditative state that you were in, gently return to that meditative state before you begin your dialog. From the meditative state, think about this person, think about their life, think about yourself, think about your life, think about how your life is intertwined with this person's life. With this sense in mind of who each of you is as a person, approach this person and "speak" the first part of dialog. It is generally helpful to begin the dialog with a greeting, often a wish for the movement that you believe is possible in this situation or relationship or conflict, but sometimes an expression of feelings may need to occur first. Note that while expressing your feelings in a real conflict situation might have unwanted consequences, it is safer here and may give you the clarity to express them in reality in a more constructive way.

Writing a dialog should be done slowly and meditatively. After you have said your opening line, give the other person a chance to respond. See if they seem to have something to say, putting yourself, as fully as you can, in their position in their life and try to express what they might feel inside, again not as they would in real life, but as they would say it if they were speaking from the heart. If they have nothing to say, let that sit for a little while and if nothing comes then perhaps you will want to go on and say something on your own. Again the dialog will proceed slowly, but many people find it gets to a point where the dialog almost writes itself, and this is something that you should allow to happen.

Here is an example of a possible dialog between a mother and her 14-year-old daughter Lynette, written by the mother.

[Entering a meditative state as by reading on entrance meditation or simply relaxing.]

Focusing Statement: My youngest child, my daughter Lynette, turned 14 this summer. We spent lots of time together as a family -- and just her and me -- as she was growing up. Now we spend little time together because she is often with her friends. I know that part of this is normal for a teenager, and I want to encourage her independence. I also miss spending time with her and I feel like she doesn't want to spend time with me or with her father and me.

[Taking some time to think about where Lynette's life has been and what her life is like now; thinking about my life and our lives weave together.]

Me: I'm worried about what is happening between us. It seems like in the last six months or a year, we have drifted apart. I care very much about you, and I care very much about our relationship. I guess I want to figure out a way for us to feel closer. [There's no response here so I go on] Do you feel like we have drifted further apart?

Lynette: I feel like I've been spending more time with my friends and you don't like when I spend time with my friends.

Me: I want you to spend time with your friends. Spending time with your friends is important. I don't want to interfere with that.

Lynette: Then why do you encourage me to spend time with you instead of spending time with my friends?

Me: It's not because I don't want you to spend time with your friends. That's not true. But it is true that I miss spending time with you.

Lynette: You spend lots of time with me.

Me: Well, maybe. But not as much time as we used to spend.

Lynette: But now I'm growing up. We have less time. I have other things to do.

Me: That's true and I don't want to interfere with your growing up. I know when I was growing up that my parents sometimes wanted me to do things and I wanted to go out and be with my friends. I didn't like when they put pressure on me.

Lynette: Well, that's what I feel like sometime. I feel like you're always pressuring me to spend time with you and not spend time with my friends.

Me: I really don't want you to feel that way. [Some silence.] So how could I let you know how much I enjoy spending time with you and how important that is to me, and to find some time so that we really can spend time together, and not put so much pressure on you?

Lynette: [this is a time when a good deal of time went by before I had an answer to put in here. During this time I was thinking about what would be a way to solve this problem.] I would like for you to arrange one day a week that you could get off work early and come and be one of the volunteer assistant coaches for our soccer team.

Me: Oh, shit! That's something I could really do, and that will be hard, because I'm trying to maintain this image at work of being a serious worker and not letting family things get my way, but the truth is you're really important to me.

Lynette: So will you do it?

Me: I have to think about it, but I think it's a really good idea and I really think it's wonderful that you would suggest that.

Lynette: It would be nice having you as one of our coaches.

Dialog with Inner Wisdom

Another form of dialog developed for the Intensive Journal is the Dialog with Inner Wisdom. In this exercise you choose a person or a character that for you embodies wisdom, perhaps wisdom on a particular topic. This person does not need to be someone you know personally, and indeed does not need to be someone who ever lived. A character in a novel might represent wisdom for you, or a historical figure. Begin the inner wisdom dialog session by, as always, calming yourself down and bringing yourself into a meditative state as by reading one of the entrance meditation. Once you're in this reflective state make a brief list of people that for you embody wisdom. If this is not your first time at this exercise, you might look back at the list that you made on a previous occasion. If you have a particular conflict in mind as you begin this exercise, you may choose a wisdom figure or make a list of wisdom figures that would seem to have wisdom relevant to the conflict that you are considering. After you have made this list again reflect silently for a few moments and then choose one of these people to do your dialog with for now.

Having chosen your wisdom figure, take a moment to think over the conflict situation that you would like to work with. As you would in writing of Dialog with Persons write a focusing statement that indicates where you are with his conflict now. Instead of focusing on the interpersonal aspects between you and your conflict partner, focus here on the wisdom that you feel you need in order to move further with his conflict. The best conflict to choose is one in which you feel there is the possibility for some movement. A conflict that is too trivial or too entrenched will not be an easy to work with.

After you have completed the focusing statement, again place yourself in the meditative state, thinking over the various aspects of this difficult conflict situation and the ways that you have approached solving it in the past. From this reflective state, begin your dialog by addressing your wisdom figure. I often find it easiest to begin these dialogues by greeting this person and by expressing my feelings about being in the presence of or having the opportunity to dialog with this person. It is, in fact, a good indication that you have chosen a useful wisdom figure, if when you imagine yourself in their presence you feel calm and in touch with some greater wisdom about life. After you make the opening statement, again staying in the reflective state, let the wisdom figure respond in whatever way they choose to respond. Don't try to put words in their mouth, but rather try to imagine what they would say if they were speaking from the depth of there being to the depth of your being. As with Dialog with Persons this particular exercise may require some practice before you make it work for you.

Learning More

There is a lot more to the Intensive Journal than the three exercises explained here. My best advice, if you felt what you did here was helpful to you, is to go to a journal workshop. If you can't do that for now, check out Progoff's book or the web resources linked above. Feel free to come to office hours with any questions you have, including if you get stuck on something and want some tips about how to get moving again.