Before there were analysts' couches, encounter groups, rolfing and primal-scream therapies, people who wanted to put their lives in perspective often wrote their thoughts, feelings and dreams in a journal.

Particularly among creative people -- from Leonardo da Vinci to Anais Nin -- journal-keeping has been a vehicle historically for releasing tensions, working through crises and connecting with the intuitive, inner self.

"But an unstructured journal," says philosopher/psychologist Ira Progoff "usually just goes around in circles. To become a valuable tool of psychological self-care, a journal needs a design that will help a human being answer the question 'What is my life trying to become?'"

Progoff, 60, has devoted most of his professional life to creating and refining an "intensive journal process." A former student of Carl Jung and author of more than a dozen books, he began by encouraging journal-keeping among his private patients in the '50s to help them "sort out their lives."

Over the years, those rudimentary journals evolved into the sensitively-structured notebooks which now form the basis for his increasingly-popular Intensive Journal Workshops. Last year his New York-based Dialogue House ran about 500 workshops in hundreds of communities across the country and around the world.

Each participant receives a specially-organized looseleaf notebook and is lead through specific writing guidelines for each section by Progoff or one of his 100 trained instructors. The process, he says, is designed to help people "tap into the underground stream of their interior lives to work out their beliefs, find answers to problems and develop an inner philosophy."

While the workshops "are particularly helpful for people in transition, conflict or a decision-making point in their life," says Progoff, "they are also valuable for anyone who wants to work out their belief system and find deeper meaning to their existence."

Participants have included therapists, artists, business people, attorneys, homemakers, writers and members of the clergy. Religious groups have been attracted to the workshops, says Progoff, "because they help you get in touch with spiritual values without espousing a particular dogma."

Although more than 70,000 people have learned "the intensive journal method," and it is well-known in the psychological community, an article in Psychology Today made Progoff an "overnight" psychological sensav tion.

"I've been around for a long time now," notes Progoff, "but people are acting like they've discovered a big secret. On the one hand I'd like this to become a socially-accessible way for people to get involved in their own psychological care, but I don't want to become a fad or be responsible for mindless journal-keeping by Journal Jocks.

"I've been on the edge of that 'coping/encounter' movement for a long time, but the Intensive Journal Workshop is not characteristic of those types of 'me-generation' groups. It's a method that helps people find answers to problems, but it's not a self-concerned approach because the answers usually lie in connection with finding meaning that is larger than oneself."

Unlike "touchy/feely encounter groups," journal workshops permit -- and even encourage -- individual privacy.

"A participant can attend an entire workshop," says Progoff, "without saying a word." Although he periodically invites people to read portions of their journal -- so they can experience the emotions that surround reading their entries aloud -- there are no judgments or analyses.

"I try to help people get over the habit of constantly judging and diagnosing themselves and others," he says, "but to look at things, objectively, as they are.

"There is no way to go from one mountaintop to the next mountaintop without going into a valley. Life is a process, and people have to make room for its low points.

"The workshops provide a place where you can sit quietly, to let the muddy waters of life settle and take shape. Sorting out life requires a kind of creativity that never seems to happen on purpose. It requires letting go, after a time of confusion, to just let things be."

This atmosphere of meditative silence, he says, helps people "push deep enough into themselves to tune into a larger awareness. At deep levels within us we know more than we are aware of. The process helps people open themselves to this non-intellectual perception."

At a recent two-day Intensive Journal workshop in New York, about 300 people gathered for one of the few sessions Progoff now leads himself. Seated on a raised platform at the front of the room, Progoff gave an introduction, then launched the group into their first writing -- "a statement of where you are now" -- in the "Period Log" section.

After about 20 minutes of silence (except for the sound of pens on paper) he moved on to the "Twilight Imagery Log," lulling group members into a meditative state so they could get in touch with -- and write about -- intuitive images. Then came sections on charting life "Steppingstones," creating a "Dialogue with Works" and exploring "Roads Taken and Not Taken."

Those who chose to read portions of their journal often did so through tears. Many who preferred to remain silent also seemed moved by the process, which relies on letting entries inone section spark insights into other sections.

This technique of "journal feedback," says Progoff, "is what makes it all work." Based on "the steps that take place when someone has a creative experience," this interplay between the journal sections helps people reach insights by "breaking through" a repetitious psychological cycle.

"We deal with two perspectives of time," he notes, "the short run of the particular period in which we find ourselves and the long run of the total movement of our life. Journal work serves as a vehicle for self-balancing in the short run, within this larger, process of life-integration."

When he is not writing one of his 11 books-in-progress, Progoff is training leaders and administering his national "intensive journal" program, which he calls "an easily available resource for local groups, such as mental health centers and churches."

Cost of the two-day workshop is $75, but a "seriously-interested person," claims Progoff, could learn the method through his book At a Journal Workshop (Dialogue House, $7.95).

Progoff's dream, he admits, "is to get this into government. Most modern political problems are extremely difficult, and solutions require getting access to the intuitive capacity beyond the intellect. Most of our leaders are not tuned in to their intuitive abilities."

Should the president want to get into journal-keeping, "there's a complimentary invitation," says Progoff, "waiting for him, anytime.