Gathering Ideas From Outside the Field:  Lessons from Jackson Pollock 

November 30, 2021
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Note:  nothing in this post should be considered clinically instructive or supervisory.  Rather, I wanted to simply share an inspiration and my thoughts about it with others in our field.

Back in the early 2000’s, the organization where I worked joined the Network for the Improvement of Addiction Treatment (NIATx).  For those that might not know, NIATx is a structured national effort to develop leadership in change management across the field of addiction treatment.  We joined NIATx during Round 2 of the grant-funded portion of NIATx’s history.     

One of the NIATx leadership principles is to borrow ideas from outside the field.  As they summarize: 

Principle 4:  Get Ideas From Outside the Field.  Developing innovative solutions to entrenched problems often requires looking beyond the boundaries of the familiar and shaking things up a bit.  Looking at practices of other industries is a way to push beyond those boundaries.

To me, that encouragement applies to us as individual people, not just the systems within which we work and serve.  And it is in that spirit that I offer this blog post.

I was educated in a strict, hard-science approach to psychology and a strong adherence to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.  In more recent years I’m come to realize that for me that narrowness is a bit of an entrenched problem. 

Just the other day I was listening to the famous painter Jackson Pollock describe his approach to painting.  In the documentary film, he said: 

My painting is direct.  I usually paint on the floor.  I enjoy working on a large canvas.  I feel more at home, more at ease, in a big area.  Having the canvas on the floor I feel nearer, more a part of the painting.  Sometimes I use a brush but often prefer using a stick.  Sometimes I pour the paint straight out of the can.  I like to use a dripping, fluid paint.  My method of painting is a natural growth out of a need.  I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.  Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.

Readers from almost any profession who were taught early to have a strict allegiance to one way of thinking can probably imagine or feel the unusual kind of freedom Jackson Pollock is describing.  And those of us who were educated in a hard-science approach to psychology or taught to show a rather rigid conformity to one specific school of therapy (like cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example) can certainly relate.  

I was greatly inspired by what he said.  And at this stage in my career, I like Pollock’s quote quite a bit.

Here are some thoughts I had about how that quote can apply to the professional part of our field:

Direct.  To me this means his process is at least not made worse by the assumptions and methods that are installed by, or that result from, academic learning.  And to me it means his work is not merely achieved by a careful and deliberate adherence to a pre-packaged form, content, or process.  Rather, his method arises spontaneously from within him. 

  • I wonder if our professional help is creative enough when it needs to be. 

On the floor.  He adjusts the direction of the creative process.  He recognizes that the space itself is an assumption that can be changed.  Adjusting the space itself reveals he had a level of awareness of what would commonly be overlooked as too obvious.

  • Can our counseling be like that?  For example, simply going outdoors for a session has a potentially powerful impact. 

A large canvas.  During the documentary one commentator stated that Pollock wanted to work within a visual field that did not include the edges of the canvas.  And in that way, Pollack made sure the work was not defined and confined by the edges of the physical material upon which the content was placed.  This brings to mind my formulation of the analytic stance and the Change Process that I have shared previously at Recovery Review.  In our work as addiction professionals:

  • Can we suspend time, suspend the pressure to talk, and suspend the pressure to have the right answer – when we need to? 
  • Can we listen, take the time to think, and allow silence – when we need to?    

More at ease in a big area.  Bill White comments fairly extensively in his writings about the Ecology of Recovery.    

  • As addiction professionals, what of the Ecology of Counseling?

Floor…feel nearer…part of the painting.  This makes me wonder if we as addiction professionals can:

  • find and hold our most true and most conscious connection to the process as we help someone, and 
  • not be lost in the story that we hear or lost in our own thinking.

Pour the paint.  To me the can of paint represents the reservoir of the unconscious.  This reminds me of a comment from Howard Levine (an MD psychoanalyst) who said that sometimes it is better to make an enlivening countertransference mistake than to be technically correct, and yet “dead”, with the patient. 

  • I wonder if we as addiction professionals can be helpful, rather than frozen and stuck in our professional armor or initial training? 

Natural growth out of need.  I wonder if we as addiction professionals can:

  • back up enough from our initial training, and
  • exit enough of our own assumptions, to  
  • identify the simple and different need in each person, and respond accordingly and naturally?   

Express vs Illustrate.  Can we, as people, express ourselves authentically rather than present an “accurate” or desirable illustration of some part of ourselves? 

A statement.  What is it we want to convey? 

  • I wonder if we as addiction professionals can allow ourselves the sufficient silence to identify our statement in its finality, and then also construct and permit the spontaneous expression of it before we attempt to say it?

Hopefully someone might consider these inputs from both inside and outside the field beneficial in some way.

Suggested Reading

The Behavioral Health Recovery Management Statement of Principles

NIATx Principle 4

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