Basic Journal Exercises for Ira Progoff’s Intensive Journal Process

Recently one of my readers asked if I could provide clearer instructions for Progoff’s Intensive Journal Process.  Since I was unable to reply directly, I am responding publicly by posting the instructions I distilled for myself more than three decades ago.  Around that time I presented two informal journal workshops for some of my friends. I did not do this professionally nor did I receive monetary compensation. 

Introduction & General Instructions

NOTE:  The following information and instructions are revisions of information from At a Journal Workshop:  The Basic Text and Guide for Using the Intensive Journal Process by Ira Progoff, published by Dialogue House Library, New York, NY, 1975.

            Progoff’s Intensive Journal is a way you can explore your past as it relates to the present.  This exploration involves using both the conscious, rational mind and the nonrational, intuitive mind.  The basic writing for the Intensive Journal involves preparatory work that leads to writing dialogues with persons and events/concepts.  There are many other writing exercises, but these are the basics.  According to Ira Progoff each person has his or her own, unique evolutionary process.  His Intensive Journal is a way to cooperate with this process.

Metaphors may help explain the need to begin with the with the preliminary exercises — Period Log, Period Image, Life Steppingstones and Steppingstone Period/Life History Log.  Gardening is one of them.  One must prepare a garden by breaking up the soil to make it fertile ground for new growth.  The beginning writing exercises are intended to accomplish this.  A computer is another.  A computer can store vast amounts of information, but only a portion of that is available for active use — Random Access Memory or RAM.  When RAM is increased, more information is available and more work can get done more quickly.  Our minds, like computers, contain far more information than is available in consciousness.  The basic journal exercises increase the amount of conscious information.

(Meditations for the Period Log, the Period Image, and Life Steppingstones are included in an addendum at the end of this article. The meditations are taken from Ira Progoff’s work.  I used the meditations when I gave the journal workshops for my friends.  They were able to begin writing almost immediately after the meditations.  It felt as if those words provided sufficient instruction and inner focus to engage in the process with little need for questions.)

Things to remember:

  • Label and date all your journal entries with the month, day, and year.
  • Don’t destroy what you write. It might not seem to make much sense today, but next week or next month or next year it may prove to be very valuable.  Your journal can be a charting of your experiences in the medical sense of the word.  Cumulative entries can show patterns that may help you understand yourself better or provide suggestions for writing in other sections of the journal.
  • Let your writing happen. Let it flow without criticism or censorship.  A disorganized, rambling entry is often more valuable in the insights it makes available than one that resembles a literary masterpiece.
  • File your journal entries. As you accumulate different types of journal entries, file them in the appropriate section of your journal or make notes referencing and cross referencing entries to different sections.  Where you write something is not as important as that it gets written.  Where it’s filed is less important than being able to find it when you need it.

Period Log

The Period Log allows us to discover where we are in our growth process now.  It should cover a period of time that is more than last month.  It usually covers three to six months or longer.  If you haven’t done much interior work, the Period Log may cover several years. (See Addendum for a Period Log Meditation)

To write in the Period Log:

  1. Sit in silence allowing our mind to travel back over this period in your life. Let it take shape within you. If you’re writing in a group, you’ll probably have about 45 minutes to do this entry.
  2. Focus more specifically on the contents of this recent period and write about them. Write the memories and facts of your experiences without judgment and without censorship. Record the specific contents but not the details of this period.  This is an outline picture and an overview of this recent time in your life.  Write simply and briefly.
  3. Questions to help your writing:
  • When did this period start? Is there a particular event associated with this period?
  • What memories do you have of this period?
  • Angers, arguments, physical fights?
  • Friendships: loving, spiritual, and/or physical?
  • Relationship with your family?
  • Your work?
  • Social activities?
  • Physical illness?
  • Inner experiences: spiritual, artistic, extrasensory, dreams?
  • Success or failures?
  • Good luck or misfortune?
  • Strange, uncanny events or coincidences?
  1. Begin your writing with: “This time that I’m living in began when…”
  2. Conclude your entry with: “This time that I’m living in feels like…”
  3. When you’ve finished writing the Period Log, examine your feelings about what you’ve written. Are you comfortable with it? Does it feel complete?  Record your answers to these questions at the end of the Period Log Entry.
  4. Read it aloud to yourself. Does this change your experience of what you’ve written? Record your reaction.

Period Image

The Period Log primarily used your rational mind to focus on the conscious thoughts and memories of the “now” of your life.  The Period Image uses the nonrational mind to do the same thing.

(Progoff records this journal entry in a separate log called the Twilight Imagery Log.  I find it more helpful to record this entry in the Period Log section of the journal immediately after the Period Log entry.)  

Twilight imaging allows access to the nonrational and the intuitive.  The twilight state is that place between waking and sleeping.  It happens just before you drift off to sleep.  It also happens during those times we’ve put ourselves on “automatic pilot.”  We’re performing some routine task, like driving or washing dishes or shaving and our minds are a million miles away.  We finish our task but don’t remember doing it.

While we speak of “twilight imaging,” the experience may not be an image.  It could be sound, a touch, a sensation, a fragrance, or any other type of experience.  Each of us has our own unique inner language of metaphor and symbol.  Whatever comes to you in whatever form is your “twilight imagery.”

For a workshop I would say:

“I’m going to read a guided imagery for you, and after I finish reading, I’ll allow about ten minutes for you to sit in silence.  I’ll watch the time, and I’ll bring you back gently when it’s over.  Just relax.  This is simply a time for you to be with yourself.  Allow the experience to just happen.  Let go of control of your mind, and allow whatever happens to flow without censorship or direction.  Afterward you’ll record your experiences in the Twilight Imagery Log or Period Log.”  (See Addendum for a Period Image Meditation)

For someone working alone:

  1. Reread your Period Log entry. Read it aloud if possible.
  2. Sit in silence. Relax and just be with yourself.
  3. Allow the experience to just happen without censorship, control or direction.
  4. Record your experiences when you are ready.
  5. Reread what you’ve written. Read it aloud if possible.
  6. Answer and record the following questions: How does your twilight imagery experience relate to the Period Log? Does it relate?  Is it parallel?  Opposite?  Seemingly unrelated?

 

Life Steppingstones

The purpose of the Life Steppingstones is to “loosen the soil” of our lives to give us access to life events that we may have been too pressured to truly experience at the time they were happening and to get acquainted or reacquainted with who we are and from where we’ve come.  Progoff uses a mountain climbing metaphor:  Life Steppingstones as like “markings’ that a mountain climber makes.  They outline the route that he’s taken — sometimes up, sometimes down — to get from one place to another.

Life Steppingstones are significant events that mark a period of time in our lives and set the theme for that period.  The Life Steppingstones are like chapter titles.  They are the chapter titles you would use if you were to write your autobiography now.  The next time you record Life Steppingstones will be from a different “now,” and may reflect different themes and patterns.

You should have no fewer than 8 and no more than 16 steppingstones; 10 to 12 are recommended.  The limit on the number is to encourage you to see patterns and cycles in your life rather than a series or list of significant events.  The limit helps us to see the relationships between the various events of our lives.

As you list your Life Steppingstones, specific memories of events associated with a steppingstone may come to mind.  Note them briefly under that steppingstone as if they were subheadings within that chapter.

The steppingstones may not come to mind in chronological order.  Write them down as they present themselves.  When your list of steppingstones is complete, you can number them appropriately.

Begin by sitting in silence.  I’ll get us started with a reading from At a Journal Workshop, page 104.  (This is included in the Addendum of this article as the Life Steppingstone Meditation.)  When I finish, spend some additional time in silence.  Come back to the room when you are ready and write your Life Steppingstones.  You’ll have about 10 minutes in which to complete the whole entry — time in silence and writing.

Outline of instructions for Life Steppingstones:

  1. Sit in silence passively reflecting over the course of your life.
  2. Write the steppingstones as they come to mind including specific memories associated with each as a subheading.
  3. Number the steppingstones in chronological order if they need to be.
  4. Read them to yourself in chronological order — the steppingstones only, without the subheadings. Read them aloud if possible.
  5. Record your reactions to reading the steppingstones.

 

Steppingstone Period

A Steppingstone Period is one of the Life Steppingstones expanded upon.  Writing a Steppingstone Period is like writing a Period Log except that it is about the past rather than the present.  Your opening sentence begins with:  “It was a time when…” And you can conclude the entry with a metaphor or a simile:  “That period of my life was like…”  Refer back to the Period Log section for more complete instructions.

It’s not necessary to write a Steppingstone Period for each Life Steppingstone unless you want to.  It’s enough to write about one or two that seem to be particularly meaningful to you now.  If none seem especially meaningful, write on the first one that comes to mind.  The Steppingstone Section provides leads for other writing.

 

Life History Log

This section contains what it says, life history.  This entry resembles a Steppingstone Period, but it’s longer and more complete.  (In practice, I don’t do Steppingstone Period entries.  I use a Life Steppingstone as a chapter title and write that chapter of my life in the Life History Log.)

 

Dialogue with Persons

In the Intensive Journal you can dialogue with anyone.  You can dialogue with people living or dead, people known to you or historical figures from the distant past.  You can even dialogue with different parts of yourself or with yourself at another age.

To dialogue with a person:

Note:  Steps 1 through 4 are optional.

  1. Sit in silence reflecting on your relationship with this person.
  2. In two or three paragraphs write a brief description of that relationship.
  3. Read the statement back to yourself. Make whatever changes you feel are important, BUT write the as additions.
  4. Record your feelings as you wrote the description and also as you read it to yourself.

You may begin here.

  1. Write the steppingstones for this person’s life. Sit in silence. Allow the steppingstones to come to mind.  Record them in the first person — i.e., “I was born.”  List as many steppingstones as you can or want to.  There is no limit on the number of steppingstones here.  If the person is someone you don’t know very well, the number of steppingstones may be very few.  The purpose of these steppingstones is to place us in the actuality of the person’s life as though we were participating in it from within.
  2. Read the steppingstone list to yourself when it is completed. Then sit in silence focusing on the person and the relationship. Record whatever comes to you in twilight imagery after the person’s steppingstones.
  3. Return to the silence and allow the person to become present to you.
  4. Allow the dialogue to begin. Record it as it unfolds within you. Don’t try to direct it.  Let it happen.  The dialogue writes itself.
  5. After writing the dialogue, return to stillness. Become aware of the emotions you had while writing it and record them.
  6. Read the dialogue to yourself. Record your responses to the reading. Is it different from the writing?  Read it aloud if you wish.
  7. Allow time to pass and read it again. In a few days, when enough time has passed to give you some distance from the dialogue script, read it again. If the dialogue wants to continue allow it to do so.  You can even allow monologues to happen, but if it is complete, let it be.  Record the date and your reactions.

 

Dialogue with Events

Events can be anything that aren’t persons.  They can be actual events like a party, an accident, an achievement, or a failure.  Events can be abstract concepts, too, like emotions or truth or justice.  Circumstances that exert a real influence on us are no longer fixed and opaque.  They become accessible to us as persons with whom we can communicate.

To dialogue with events:

  1. Write a focusing statement. This could be a brief description of an event or situation, or it could be a working definition. (Often I use a dictionary definition as a starting point and add my own parts to it to complete what I mean by the word or event.)
  2. Do steppingstones of its life. If it is a real situation, record the events leading to its occurrence. If it’s an abstract concept, record your experiences of this concept as the event’s steppingstones.
  3. Sit in silence. When the steppingstones are finished, sit in silence drifting to the level of twilight imagery. Let the images come and record them.
  4. Read the steppingstones again allowing them to present the event to you as a person.
  5. In stillness feel the presence of the person and speak to that person.
  6. Sit in silence again. When the dialogue is finished, sit in silence becoming calm again.
  7. Reread the script. Compare feelings while rereading it to feelings while writing. Record both.
  8. Let the dialogue sit. Then come back to it several days later to reread it and extend it if necessary. Record your reactions to this rereading along with the date.

 

Daily Log

Keeping a daily log is recommended, but it’s not essential.  It’s similar to a diary but with the emphasis on feelings and inner experiences rather than external events.

To write in the Daily Log:

  1. Sit in silence first and let your mind gently go back over your day. Spend a minute or two or maybe even five or more in silence.
  2. Record briefly the events of your day to provide a context for your feelings and inner experiences.
  3. Write about your feelings and inner experiences. (It’s encouraged that you write about the experiences as they happen. Some people carry a notebook with them and write in it from time to time during the day.  For most people this is not possible but writing about inner experiences as they occur happens more often than you would expect.  Usually new experiences occur while you’re writing, and because you’re writing, they can be recorded as they happen.)
  4. Record dreams here. This is a brief account to fix it in your memory so that later it can be recorded in full in your Dream Log.
  5. Write whatever and whenever you can. Often daily entries are impossible because our lives are too busy. Summarize the intervening days — the outer events and the inner experiences associated with them.

 

Dreams

Dreams can be recorded in the Daily Log or in the Dream Log or both.  If a dream is recorded in only one log, it should be cross referenced in the other.  Dreams can be worked with in Dream Enlargement and/or Dream Leads.

Dream Enlargement:

  1. Put yourself back into the movement of the dream. Reread it two or three times. Then sit in silence and allow the dream to continue.
  2. Record your experiences. The recording can be done in brief, half-legible scrawls during the process. Sometimes it’s too difficult to break away to do this and much must be held in memory.  You can speak aloud the experiences as they happen to help hold them in memory or use a tape recorder.  (Progoff suggests a separate section of the journal for this entry.  I prefer to place this entry after the dream itself in the Dream Log.)
  3. Reread the Dream Enlargement. Notice the feelings and emotions that arise — those generated by the original experience and those generated by the rereading — and record them.

Dream Leads:

  1. Free associate with the dream and dream enlargement line by line and record the associations. (Progoff says to record each in the appropriate journal section, but I think it’s sufficient to put them all in one place to begin with, and in rereading you can find and record where each belongs or just follow up with the appropriate dialogue. Be sure to cross reference.)
  2. Reread the free-associated material. See what “speaks” to you. Where else in the journal does the dream suggest that you work?  Is there a person or event to dialogue with?
  3. Sit in silence for a while after rereading. Record your experiences and do any follow-up writing that feels appropriate.

 

Correlating your dream to your waking life:

You can do this instead of — as well as in addition to — the Dream Enlargement and the Dream Leads.

  1. Sit in silence. Feel the process of your life as it moves within you. Let it present itself.
  2. Draw yourself back to the dream or series of dreams. Feel the emotional tone and the movement and rhythm of the dream. These are more important than the details.
  3. Add to the dream the twilight dreaming. Draw dream and twilight dreams together and feel them as a single continuity.
  4. When the experience of the single continuity is full within you, hold it. Stop the movement.  Hold it as if you’re holding it in your hand.  Using this inner experience as a base, draw together the equivalent movement that has taken place on the outer level of your life as a whole.  This is sort of like introducing your dream life to the corresponding part of your waking life.

            With eyes closed go back over the sequences of your life.  Reflect on the Life Steppingstones, the rhythms of change, the flow and combination of circumstances that carried you into the recent period of your life.  Mainly try to feel the larger outline of the movement of your life.

  1. Let the movement of your life take on a symbolic image. Whatever form it takes, hold it in your right hand. Symbolically this is as though you are placing your waking life on the right side of your mind.
  2. Take the sleep dreams and twilight dreams into your left hand. These are the unified movement of your inner nonconscious life.
  3. Balance one against the other as though there is a scale within your mind. Let them equalize themselves.
  4. When they come to balance, ask what the two sides have to say to each other. And ask what they say to you when you set them side by side.
  5. As you do this, let yourself be especially open to additional images, feelings, thoughts, insights, recognitions, ideas, perceptions, emotions, new inspirations and plans that take shape in you.
  6. Record all of the above either in the Dream Enlargement section (or after the dream in the Dream Log as I do). Return to them later, after a few hours or a few days, and see what additional material is generated. There may be feedback leads to follow up in another section of the journal.

 

Intersections:  Roads Taken and Not Taken

In additions to exploring crossroads of the past, this section can also be used to explore issues that require us to make decisions now.  It’s a tool for making decisions as well as for opening new/old possibilities.  It helps us to tap into our inner knowing.

Outline of instructions for Intersections:  Roads Taken and Not taken:

  1. Reread your Steppingstone Period (or Life History Log). Steep yourself in the atmosphere of that time. Allow other, more specific memories to surface.  As they come to mind, list them briefly in the Life History Log.  At a later time you may go back and expand on these memories recording them in greater detail.
  2. As memories come to mind, some of them may be intersections where a decision or choice was made or forced by circumstances. List these memories in Intersections as well. Good preparation in the Life History Log is important for doing this.
  3. Of the intersections you’ve listed, choose one that you want to explore more fully.
  4. Examine and write about the course you actually took and its immediate consequences.
  5. List the various other possibilities that were reasonably feasible at the time. Do this briefly.
  6. Project intuitively and imaginatively the other varieties of possibilities — even those beyond our immediate vision of practicality or the apparently impractical. List these briefly.
  7. Through twilight imagery allow yourself to explore whatever possibilities come to you.
  8. Record your experiences.

 

Dialogue with Works

(This section of my notes is not complete.  It needs a definition of works.)

Outline of instructions for Dialogue with Works:

  1. Make a list of works from the life Steppingstones.
  2. Reread the list and amplify it with other works that come to mind.
  3. Make entries in other sections of the journal as appropriate.
  4. Choose a work to dialogue with, one that “speaks” to you or that has further possibility of development.
  5. Make a statement of the situation in which we find ourselves with respect to the work.
  6. Do steppingstones for the work. Sit in stillness. Let them present themselves.
  7. Set the atmosphere for the dialogue. In stillness allow the images to come and record them.
  8. Dialogue. In stillness and feeling the presence of the work, we speak to it. Record the dialogue.
  9. Record your feelings while writing the dialogue and your feelings afterward.
  10. Go back over the dialogue and read it silently. Don’t edit, but add further thought and feelings as an afterward.
  11. If the dialogue wishes to extend itself allow it to do so. This may occur several days later.

 

 

ADDENDUM

 

Period Log Meditation:

Sit in silence.  Eyes closed.  Relaxed.  Quietly, inwardly, feel the movement of your life.  Let yourself feel the implications of the question, “where am I now in my life?”  Don’t thinkFeel.  Thoughts will come to you.  Let them come, and let them go.  They will return to you as images.

There will come to you a generalized awareness of this recent period in your life.  Let the quality of the experience of this recent period express itself to you.  It may take the form of an image, a metaphor, a simile, or some spontaneous adjective that describes it in a word.  Let this happen without censorship — neither rejecting nor affirming.

There may be more than one image, and these “images” may be visual or auditory.  They may be physical sensations or emotions.  Whatever form they take, let them come.  Be aware of them.  Take note of them.  Let them come.

(ALLOW A PAUSE HERE OF 3 TO 5 MINUTES)

          Now focus more specifically on the contents of this recent period of your life.  When did this period start?  Is there a particular event that’s associated with it?

Reconstruct the outlines of this period recalling specific details as they come to you.  Memories.  Family.  Work.  Social activities.  Accidents or physical illnesses.  Arguments, angers, physical fights.  Friendships — loving, spiritual, or physical.  Significant dreams.  Inner experiences that were artistic, spiritual, or extrasensory in nature.  Strange, uncanny events or coincidences.  Good luck or misfortune.

When you are ready, come back to the room and write the outlines of this period simply and briefly.  Your first sentence will be:

“This time that I am living in began when…”

 

Period Image Meditation:

I am sitting in a place of quietness letting the Self become still, letting the breath become slow, letting my thoughts come to rest.

Letting the Self become still, energies that were moving about can go inward now, can come to rest in the stillness of my quiet being.

Breathing becomes quiet now, not breathing by the tempo of outer things, but by an inner tempo, breathing at an inner pace, the breath moving in and out of itself, carried by its own rhythm, adjusting itself to itself.

Breathing at an inner pace my thoughts let go of my breathing.  Breathing at an inner pace the breath is free to come and go in its own timing.  The breath is slow and regular, moving in and out by its inner tempo, carried by its own rhythm, adjusting itself to itself.

Breathing at an inner pace thoughts become quiet.  Restless thoughts that have been moving about, restless thoughts dissipating their energies can come to rest now, can bring their energies together into one place resting on the steady breathing.

Excess thoughts drop away.  I become still.  Thinking becomes quiet, thoughts fitting together and settling into one place by themselves without my thinking them.  Many mixed thoughts become one whole thought contained within itself.  One whole thought in the mind at rest.

Letting the Self become still, letting my thoughts come to rest, letting my breath become slow.  Breathing becomes quiet, breathing becomes slow, and slower; breathing becomes regular, regular.  The unevenness of nonessential thoughts drops out of the breathing.  It becomes the breathing of the Self.

Breathing at an inner pace the breath moves at the center of my Self — at the center of my Self in regular rhythms.  My body is quiet, holding its place.  The breath is moving evenly — inward, outward, evenly in its own rhythm.  The breath moves evenly at the center of my body, at the center of my Self.

The breath is moving at the center of my Self in a regular rhythm.  The breath moves at the center.  The breath moves at the center breathing at an inner pace.  As the breath moves at the center, quietly, evenly, the Self becomes still like quiet water.

The Self becomes still like quiet water.  In the stillness of the Self, in the quiet of the water my inward ear hears, my inward eye sees signs and words and visions reflected in the quiet waters in the stillness of the Self, in the Silence…  In the Silence.

 

Life Steppingstones Meditation:

Close your eyes and sit in silence.  In this stillness, let your breathing become slower, softer, more relaxed.  As you are quieted, you let yourself feel the movement of your life.  You do not think about any specific aspect of your life, but you let yourself feel the movement of your life as a whole.  In your silence you let the changing circumstances and situations of your life pass before the mind’s eye.  Now you may recognize the varied events in their movement, not judging them nor commenting on them, but merely observing them as they pass before you.  You perceive them and feel them in their generalized movement without actually seeing the details of them.

As you do this, it may be that the events of your life will present themselves to you as a flowing and continuous movement, as a river moving through many changes and phases.  Or it may be that your life will present itself to you as a kaleidoscope of disconnected events.  Whatever the form in which the continuity of your life reflects itself to you now, respond to it, observe it, and let the flow continue.

If images present themselves to you on the twilight level, take note of them.  They may come as memories or visual images or inner sensations of various kinds.  Especially they may state themselves as similes or metaphors in addition to expressing the literal facts of past experience.  Let your attitude be receptive enough that the continuity of your life as a whole can present itself.

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