Ira Progoff: Learning to Listen to One’s Inner Rhythms

Maritha Pottenger

There are moments in my life when I feel as though another person and I are saying the same thing, only in different words. There are times when I sense a large, inclusive pattern of wisdom and meaning that incorporates all our limited, human attempts at understanding. Sometimes, that sense of unity, of connectedness is overwhelming.

Ira Progoff is a psychologist who looks for meaning. He seeks the connecting ties among people, the threads of continuity in lives. He strives for synthesis of divergent views into a wider perspective and understanding. His ideas parallel many of Assagioli’s, although each worked independently of the other.

Almost twenty-five years ago, Ira Progoff wrote: The Death and Rebirth of Psychology, his attempt to synthesize the views of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Carl Gustav Jung and Otto Rank. Progoff concentrated on each man’s later years of writing, presumably the best-worked and most solidly based concepts. He looked for what seemed to be implied, as well as directly said.

Ira Progoff works within a historical context. He suggests psychology and psychiatry in the late 19th century arose partially as a security blanket for people in transition. Industrialization and scientific discoveries were altering the patterns of home life, work, sexual mores, and religion. Many people had lost the security of old belief systems and structures for living. Psychology offered a new structure by which to live, a new approach to understanding one’s existence. In a very real way, Progoff felt, people were searching for meaning in psychology, having lost faith in former beliefs and traditions.

Progoff offers a paradox (like a Zen koan) that the function of psychology is to take people beyond psychology. Psychology has enlarged our view of the human. Freud’s major contribution (in Progoff’s eyes) was the concept of the unconscious, which opened up vast new depths in the human mind and experience. Freud’s formulations were reductive, analytical and rational. He was stuck in a mechanistic cause and effect loop. Towards the end of his life, he began to question some of his basic postulates. Progoff (p.21) quotes Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

“We must be patient and await fresh methods and occasions of research. We must be ready, too, to abandon a path that we have followed for a time, if it seems to be leading to no good end. Only believers, who demand that science shall be a substitute for the catechism they have given up, will blame an investigator for developing or even transforming his views.”

According to Progoff (p.255), “Freud came reluctantly to the conclusion that the depths of the psyche transcend rationality and that, therefore, an understanding of the unconscious is ultimately beyond the reach of analytical concepts.”

Alfred Adler opened humanity’s vistas even further. He emphasized “meaning” as a central issue in one’s life. One’s interpretation and experience of events is much more significant than the events per se. Adler felt our psychological existence carried germs of spiritual yearning. Progoff notes: “Wholeness came to mean to Adler not only the fulfillment of the organism as a physical and psychological being, but also man’s ‘perfectibility’ as a spiritual being.” (pp.257-258)

Jung often sounded more religious than Freud, Adler or Rank, but the connecting thread was a deepened sense of possibilities for mankind. Progoff (p. v) quotes Jung: “The ever deeper descent into the unconscious suddenly becomes an illumination from above.”

Jung expanded the unconscious to the collective level. He felt personality had “metaphysical” overtones. On page 256, Progoff develops this theme:

“Man’s psychological nature suggests something transcendent of which the psyche is but a pale reflection. Across the centuries, man has been driven by an insatiable yearning to find the transcendent meaning of his life and to participate in it. Jung regarded this unconscious striving as a fundamental fact of the human spirit, so fundamental that he claimed that modern psychology is not entitled to call itself ‘empirical’ unless it takes it into account.”

Otto Rank was very concerned with artistic yearnings and creative acts. He, too, came to attack Freud’s materialism and reducing-to-origins tendencies. Rank emphasized the will: purposiveness and creativity. Progoff quotes (p.252): “...individual life is irreducible, and that there is no rational substitute for each man’s experience of his own soul in the light of immortality.” Rank wanted to go beyond the limits of rational analysis. He felt parts of the human psyche and experience cannot be understood on a purely cognitive level. As Progoff puts it (p.258): “Rank showed that all analytical types of psychology require a step beyond themselves; otherwise they remain on the treadmill of self-conscious analysis.” Or, as Rank himself said, (p. v, Progoff): “The new type of humanity will only be possible when we have passed beyond this psychotherapeutic transitional stage.”

Thus, Progoff saw from Freud through Adler, Jung and Rank, an enlargement of the view of mankind’s potentials. Progoff saw a task ahead for psychology:

“The ultimate task of the new psychology is to re-establish man’s CONNECTION TO LIFE, not superficially in terms of slogans or therapeutic stratagems, but fundamentally and actually as an evident fact of modern existence. Its task is to bring the modern person into touch with the sustaining and creative forces of life beyond all intellectual doctrines that may be preached or professed, to make these forces available to man, and to make man psychologically available to them in terms of experiences that he can learn to verify by himself, within himself.” (p.265)

Progoff sees psychology’s purpose as leading people to a faith beyond dogma.

Progoff’s next step was to further explore the inner realms of richness. In The Symbolic and the Real, written in 1973, Progoff declares (p. xv):

“There are levels of reality within us that are much greater than our analytical minds can know. Nonetheless, we can make them accessible to our awareness so that they become channels by which we reconnect ourselves to the great sources of life. Evoking the depth of ourselves is a way to the renewal of our humanity.”

And he sees a special kind of person as needed, to handle this challenge:

“...capable of perceiving reality fluidly in the multiplicity of its dimensions. Reality is not limited to the outward form of things, and therefore we require a capacity of vision that can penetrate the opaqueness of tangible experience. This is not merely a mental ability, however. It involves the whole personality in a fullness of sensitivity that perceives more productivity in special fields of work because it has a larger relationship to reality as a whole.” (p.4, The Symbolic and the Real)

Progoff emphasizes again the search for meaning. “A major part of the meaning of life is contained in the very process of discovering it. It is an ongoing experience of growth that involves a deepening of contact with reality.” (p.13) And, “The meaning of life cannot be told; it has to HAPPEN to a person.” (p.14) Progoff echoes the spirit of Adler’s statement (in Death and Rebirth of Psychology): “We are concerned not with the possession of truth, but with the struggle for it.” (p. v.)

Progoff offers the analogy of a seed: human beings have vast inner potentials which cannot be guessed until in bloom. Such growth requires the nurturance of a supportive social environment (where inward searching is valued) and personal practice in encountering one’s depths and validating the experience of inner truth.

Progoff offers the further analogy of Socrates who saw himself as a gadfly to Athenians: helping them discover how uncertain their doctrines and dogmas were, and then helping them find inner wisdom. Socrates felt that “...teaching is not a matter of something being placed in one person by another, but is a question of eliciting something that is already present, although only implicitly and latently, at hidden depths of the individual’s mind.” (p. 48, Symbolic and Real) Socrates saw learning as “recollecting”—remembering knowledge from past lives.

Progoff makes his analogy (p. 52):

“We can see at this point a striking similarity between the calling of Socrates and the trend of work emerging in modern depth psychology. Both proceed on the hypothesis that the resources of wisdom are hidden in the depths of the human being, and that they are best able to unfold in meaning when they are stirred to full expression.”

Progoff likens the attitude of a depth psychologist to love: “...for it involves an affirmation of the seed of potentiality in that other person EVEN WHILE THAT SEED HAS NOT DISCLOSED ITS SPECIFIC FORM.” (p.62) And, again, on page 165:

“But this is one of the things that love is called upon to do: to affirm and sustain the seed in a fellow human being even though no tangible evidence has been given of the nature and quality of the seed that is growing there. Love is needed while the seed is still a potentiality. After it has come forth, the support of love is not nearly so necessary; praise and encouragement are sufficient then.”

“In this sense, the capacity to love depends upon the capacity to feel the reality of the future before it has tipped its hand, before the seed has disclosed itself...”

Like Assagioli, Progoff notes that therapy can be for emotional illness, or for the aid of emergent potentials of the individual.

Ira Progoff suggests that growth begins with an image, which is often not clearly formulated, but a nonconscious knowing. We then draw the appropriate experience to us. He cites the example of Herman Melville going to sea on a whaling ship:

“He did not decide it, and yet something within him forced it to be. He wrote of this in his letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the tone of their correspondence implies that they both recognized such a factor in their lives.” (p.77)

People then experience a sense of meaning in their lives. It is often a healing sense of wholeness. Everything fits into place; even pain makes sense now—from a new perspective. There is a feeling of rhythm and pattern to one’s life. This can lead to a sense of larger meaning, of the infinite.

“A major quality of the psyche is its sensitivity to the large patterns of meaning in the universe. It REFLECTS these in man. The psyche is a mirror of the patterns of meaning that give form to the infinite. Naturally the reflection is not the reality, but it does indicate that the reality is actually there.” (p.81)

In The Symbolic and the Real, Progoff evolves more concrete suggestions for human growth than achieved in Death and Rebirth of Psychology. These are:

“1) Regular face-to-face consultations in a dialogue relationship to explore and evoke the individuality of the psyche.”

“2) A psychological workbook which keeps a continuing record of one’s contents and encounters on the depth level of experience.”

“3) Group workshops to share experiences with others on the path of growth.” (p.179)

Progoff envisioned the workbook as including dreams with the circumstances around them as well. He felt the workbook would connect workshops ad individual consultations. It would show deepening awareness through insight, frustration, etc. A sense of continuity would emerge. The wholeness of life would become apparent. Progoff saw this process of growth as a joyous, energetic one:

“Working with the disciplines of the psyche, the modern person gains access to a dimension of awareness that transcends the dogmas of the past. The capacity to participate in reality through symbols can remake his existence because it liberates tremendous amounts of spiritual energy at the depths of the person.” (p.216)

Ira Progoff’s next book, At a Journal Workshop (1975) carried his ideas even further. In it, he presents the structure and concepts of a notebook for growth which he has been offering through workshops across the country. The notebook he calls the Intensive Journal. The act of writing itself, he feels is often therapeutic.

Through their journals, Progoff believes, people can reconnect with their life, experiencing its meaning and sense of continuity. He emphasizes the meaning of events to us, not what actually happened. Our relationship and interpretation are what matter.

Regular use of a journal, according to Progoff, helps us break out of old, stale patterns of being and thinking, and find new creativity. He emphasizes the subjective: each person works his/her own life. He suggests minimizing analysis, judgments and interpretation as they stop the process of life moving on. He sees the journal as a key to finding the wisdom within us. It is a way of gaining connection with our depths, with untapped potentials.

The structure of the Journal is as follows:

I. Period and Daily Log

II. Dialogue Dimension (Special Personal Sections):

1. Dialogue with Persons

2. Dialogue with Works

3. Dialogue with Society

4. Dialogue with Events

5. Dialogue with the Body

III. Depth Dimension (Ways of Symbolic Content):

1. Dream Log

2. Dream Enlargements

3. Twilight Imagery Log

4. Imagery Extensions

5. Inner Wisdom Dialogue

IV. Life/Time Dimension (Inner Perspectives):

1. Life History Log

2. Stepping Stones

3. Intersections

4. NOW: The Open Moment

Most of the sections are what one would expect from the titles. Logs are assumed to be composed of factual data, recorded without judgment or analysis. They are “neutral” observations. With the Period Log, we begin at the period we are now in, feeling different stages in our life. Some will divide by years; some by schooling; some by vocations; some by relationships, etc. We simply jot down memories, events, etc. that come to mind for each period. (As an example, when I first wrote a Period Log, my periods were: Before School; Elementary School; Junior High; High School’s First Three Years; California; Berkeley through Glenn; Michael; CSPP; TIPC and Therapy; and Daniel. I could now add another period: J. Marc.)

We may then work on a deeper level with our Period Log through Twilight Imagery (which occurs between waking and sleeping states). We extend our inward perception, enlarge our awareness of each period.

The Daily Log is close to a diary. We gather experiences of each day and night in one area. This is the source of material for feedback exercises. Entries may be brief. We record without premeditation. At times, Progoff suggests transferring or cross-referencing what we record in the Daily Log to other sections, where applicable. Current recording (as things happen) as well as recapitulation (looking backward) is used in the Daily Log. As the title suggests, Progoff advises daily recording, but knows that it is not always feasible.

The Life/Time Dimensions aid us in “time-stretching” which the journal encourages: moving back and forth in chronological and subjective time. Stepping Stones are the markers (“positive” and “negative”) in one’s life to inner connectedness and continuity. They are “...indicators that enable a person to recognize the deeper-than-conscious goals toward which the movement of his life is trying to take him.” (p.102) The Life History Log is a place for storing all memories. These grow over time, as one works with the Journal. Some may be “blocked” for a time, and then surface. We may extend and enlarge our experience of these recollections with other feedback processes. For the moment, we are asked to report “as objectively as we can.” (p.133)

Intersections: Roads Taken and Not Taken is much as it sounds. WE may have consciously chosen some roads and felt others were pushed upon us. We look back to the forks in our paths.

The Dialogue Dimension is also much as it sounds. It is a bit like what most people recognize from Gestalt, only on paper. As indicated, one can dialogue in relationship to a variety of objects, events, experiences, etc.

In the Dream Log, we gather the basic factual data of dreams—all the dreams we recall—without interpretation or judgment. Background data can be included. This gives a moving picture of our dreams, and it is easy to feel the continuity in the process.

With Dream Enlargements, we re-experience the atmosphere of our dreams, and let that carry us where it may. We board the train without a destination in mind. Often, according to Progoff, we deal with polarities (e.g. inner and outer) in this process. Non-analytic integration arises if we let be. The process is similar with Twilight Imagery and Imagery Extensions.

At a Journal Workshop contains full descriptions for leading one through a journal workshop and for using all the sections of the Journal, although Progoff recommends the workshop experience as well. The over-all thrust is a concretization of techniques to reach one’s own inner wisdom. The thread of continuity in Progoff’s work is the search for meaning. He wants to share the journey and rewards with many.


Progoff’s emphasis on meaning fits nicely with my world-view. Philosophically, we are in near agreement. Both of us emphasize the potential within humans that is vast and practically untapped. The reality of inner wisdom is an assumption we both operate under. Progoff’s emphasis on rhythms and cycles naturally supports and blends well with astrology. The Journal and a horoscope are simply different approaches to getting in touch with one’s own inner rhythms. I believe the horoscope, like the Journal, can lead one to increasingly deeper levels. Because of the rich symbolism in astrology, a chart can be lived on many levels. Once we master one stage, we move to the next. The message is always there in the chart. Progoff too recognizes the power and value of symbols in people’s lives.

In short, Progoff is one of the people whom I read with a feeling of deja vu. The wholeness is there; the connection is there. We share a vision of reality and truth that overlaps to a very large degree, although our approaches may differ somewhat.


Progoff, Ira, At a Journal Workshop, New York, Dialogue House Library, 1975.

Progoff, Ira, The Death and Rebirth of Psychology, New York, Julian Press, Inc, 1956.

Progoff, Ira, The Symbolic and the Real, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1973.

Copyright © 1980 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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