Words of Wisdom; Therapists who use the "Intensive Journal" method say it promotes healing from the inside, in language a patient can understand: his or her own.


She's not yet middle age, the lady who finishes writing. Later she will say she is married and has two children. Now, though, she raises her head from her desk.

"I'll read," she says.

It's about the garden she's making. She has been planting flowers, enjoying it, moving along until she comes to a wide open space. It's large. She doesn't know what to do with it.

Writing about this, she realizes she's been here before, when she was 18 and graduating from high school. The whole world lay before her, a large empty canvas. She opted for the convent. "I am a person more comfortable with certainty," she says.

There are 33 people in the room with her, but none speaks.

They work in their journals privately, at comfortable chairs behind polished black desks, each with a smooth black blotter. There will be four three-hour writing sessions this weekend. A wall of glass lets in the natural light and soothing glimpses of trees and sky. Fifteen-minute breaks may be taken in the adjoining living room, but this room is not for chit-chat. This is a sanctuary.

In this way, for a few days or sometimes a week, people hope to transform their lives.

For 30 years people have used the "Intensive Journal" method developed by a New York psychotherapist, Ira Progoff, to see beyond the moment, the year, maybe all of childhood and discover things about themselves they can use to move forward.

What happens here is to be experienced, not talked about, says the man who leads the Baltimore Intensive Journal workshop, John McMurry. "It's like ice cream," he says. "It's for eating, not talking about."

Fashionable now, journal writing takes a variety of forms. Workshops are growing along with sales of diaries and books that prescribe various methods of keeping journals. Sales of diaries exceed 5 million a year.

Historically journal writing has been favored by queens, literati and novelists. Psychotherapists have long recommended it to patients, as have mothers to daughters. One daughter whose mother advised her to keep a journal as a form of therapy, Alice McDermott, won the National Book Award last winter.

Last spring, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, came the first scientific evidence that writing about traumas of the soul may be an effective medical treatment for ills such as asthma. (Four months after patients wrote down their experience over a three-day period, their lung capacity improved on average 19 percent.)

The opportunity for a person to disclose or work through a stressful event without fear of social consequences is unique, explains Joshua M. Smyth, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. Typically, people can't talk out a trauma before friends and family stop wanting to hear about it and begin to avoid them.

"The sort of writing we do is unlike what we do in a 'journaling' workshop or what people do on their own," he adds.

Why or how or when this works remains unexplained, though Smyth and other one-time skeptics are beginning to theorize. He is now studying writing's effect on arthritic patients. Earlier studies -- ones he tried to disprove -- found that college students who wrote about their fears and feelings of isolation visited the campus health clinic less often than those who wrote about inconsequential things.

And physical therapists are urging their patients to write about accidents or illnesses that transformed them, sometimes talking directly to their bodies, because the research shows they heal faster.

It's not simply getting out thoughts that is important -- it is making sense of them.

The method taught in Baltimore and a hundred other locations this summer can be called the source of the movement, and it provides a way into the working of the unconscious, the mind and, ultimately, how tapping it moves the body.

Anonymous approach

Whatever it is, people approach it with apprehension and in anonymity. The only thing quieter than a seminary in August is a seminary in August having a writing workshop. There are no introductions and no name tags at the check-in counter at St. Mary's Seminary and University where participants are issued a binder with 20 colored files and a stack of loose-leaf paper.

In this binder they will learn how to reach into the past, to collect materials that reflect one's life in all its aspects, to see patterns, and take stock.

Now, one should not swap tales from a journal. Nor should he or she use it as a weapon -- hand it to a spouse and say, "See, here's what I wrote about you" -- or make a decision based on a single discovery. It is a tool of discernment.

"You are trying to find out where you are in the course of your life, your position. Then, [you are] getting an overview of your whole life, a feel for its movement and whole experience. Then, dealing with relationships among people and events and projects," McMurry says.

Journal exercises -- making lists, creating dialogues with people, objects, even institutions, remembering the past -- are intended to stimulate that movement, to reveal its peaks and valleys.

The presumption is that everyone has what it takes to lead a creative life, he tells the group. We fall out of touch with it sometimes, for years at a time.

The process can be looked at as a garden tool, says McMurry, whose full-time job is head of St. Mary's Spiritual Center downtown. You can use it to dig into your life, turn over the soil. Sometimes when you do, you see worms, perhaps you are repelled by them. Let them pass. They break up this solid clump to become more fertile and productive.

Painful doesn't mean bad, McMurry says.

"Suspend judgment."

This he says before asking everyone to reconstruct their lives from the perspective of the present. It requires a paragraph about where you are now and a list of 10 to 12 significant life events. The first is a freebie: "I was born."

Next, he says, write about one of these "stepping stones" in detail. Later, long after the weekend, you may go back and unpack each period of your life, looking for stirrings that indicate something meaningful.

Later still are lists of events, people, internal or spiritual stepping stones.

By the time the woman reads about the space in her garden, it is midday Saturday and the group has cataloged significant pieces of work or life projects. They have even begun a dialogue with one of the projects -- in her case, the garden.

It leads to something else, as becomes clear when McMurry breaks the silence.

Maybe you can go back to when you were 18, he suggests. Maybe you want to recall the detail of your life then? Who were people of wisdom for you? Real or imagined, dead or alive? There's a place to have a dialogue with them in the journal.

What about the road not taken? Imagine that.

Yes, yes, she sees it. So do others, judging by the nods.

The journal has a section to explore roads not taken -- what if you had married someone else? Moved to California? This is where you have a chance to mine the road for possibilities that may still be relevant instead of berating oneself for what's missed.

One participant, Marge Holmes, 52, will say afterward that here, listening to others read aloud, she realized that the process becomes richer as it goes along. "It's like making a scrap quilt -- everything fits in there."

In her own journal, she said, the same image arose again and again -- an image of her grandmother's house and visiting there when Holmes was 5 or 6. "It was waving its hand. 'Maybe you should take time and go back to that period,' " she says.

"If I was keeping a regular journal, there'd be no way to pick that up again." Here, she says, the problem comes up and "you can go someplace else to explore it."

She found most useful the ability to talk with another person, to assume both roles. "You find you have the answers inside -- you arrive at answers that were there all along."

Another person at the workshop did that once with an aunt he regarded as a "wicked witch" and to his astonishment felt the lump of anger he held close for years dissipate. The exercise helped him see her as a human being, and the discovery led to conversations with other family members.

Safe haven

Writing about events in such ways transforms them over time. "It's as if by magic, because you don't see the logic," McMurry says.

A thin, aging man, skin wrinkled and pink in spots, McMurry's manner is reassuring.

His job is to maintain a safe haven. He offers Progoff's thoughts, simple meditations on the process of digging deeper to help people focus. At night he won't wish people pleasant dreams, he says, because unpleasant ones, too, have value. Write them down. They are leads.

Twenty years ago, McMurry took the first of what would be 22 journal workshops from Progoff in New York City. He's given more than 100 workshops. A Catholic priest, he belongs to an intellectual group so small that few Catholics have heard of it -- the Society of St. Sulpice, founded in Paris in the 1600s. They run seminaries.

Seminarians are among the participants, but the Intensive Journal workshop is not endorsed or run by the Catholic Church. Among the writers this weekend are also Unitarian Universalists, Jews, Methodists, anyone comfortable working in a quiet, reflective way.

Progoff, a historian of ideas and student of Carl Jung, was Jewish, and he developed his method while at Drew University in Madison, N.J. He believed his method was not a substitute for religion but a tool to find deeper meaning in its stories and symbols, or, for non-religious people, a tool that could enhance the meaning they find in other areas such as art or science.

"He was studying creative people -- what made them different," says his son, John Progoff, head of Dialogue House in New York, which runs the program.

"He also had a therapy practice. The process people go through to be creative and dynamic were mirrored and put into this method."

Human potential

Progoff's essential belief was that what is treated as mental illness in the West is the failure or inability of the human being to explore and develop his potential. A healthy person is one who develops an inner life as well as the external one.

He used the story of the well and the cathedral to describe his process. Over the centuries, priests, rabbis, preachers, great thinkers and theologians went down to the stream that fed their lives to be renewed. On the way up, each laid a stone of remembrance, building a well and eventually a cathedral. People knew something important had happened there, and they returned to it, but the entrance to the well was hidden.

Progoff's goal was to give people a practical method, a process he saw creative people using, to work through their lives, to become dynamic. An alternative to Prozac.

"It is a non-analytical method," John Progoff says. "We don't ask why or how something happens. 'Why did I do this? How did it happen,' and then get down on yourself. That's how you get stuck. This is a different way of thinking."

Key to it all is the atmosphere, the sanctuary where one can let go of perceptions and allow feelings to emerge. At first, it can be disconcerting.

John Doolittle, 58, a professor at American University, wasn't at all sure it was working for him five years ago at his first workshop. In the silence, there was "me sitting there in a room with a pen in my hand and wondering, 'Where's the where here?' " he remembers. "But then, after the first or second experience, I slowly began to hear something happen inside."

Eventually, he says, "through the process of cataloging events in my life and having a dialogue, I began to understand pieces of my life I hadn't looked at before."

"It does have that effect on people," says Sally Scarneccia, a Baltimore counselor who took her first journal workshop while mourning the death of a friend. "It is revealing. Powerful I have been journaling for years, and it is still very different, really unique."

The key, some participants say, is the occasion itself, a chance to put one's life in parentheses to examine it in quietude, the forced nature of the exercise, the leader. The reward is enough for some people to give up a week's vacation every year.

"It is not a simple thing to reach that far into yourself," says a woman who asked to be identified as Beth, a full-time federal employee, mother and wife suffering from depression. "The workshop created space where you could do it."

She says she hasn't been so exhausted since the workshop, when she discovered in her writing "a sense of calm and certainty about myself I don't think I was in touch with before." One person she talked to in her journal, she says, was her grandmother, a homesteader in Colorado.

"What came back to me was [something like] 'look at what we have to struggle with. We didn't have all the things you had.' I had to stop blaming what was outside of me. Obviously, folks had worse circumstances."

In the end, Beth says, "I consolidated what issues I could leave behind me and which ones I would have to deal with. I left saying, 'That's a battle I don't have to fight anymore.' It was a freeing experience."

A photo caption in yesterday's Today section incorrectly identified the Rev. John McMurry, head of St. Mary's Spiritual Center in Baltimore, as Thomas McMurry. The Sun regrets the error.
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