In founding the Urbanmonks Thinktank, I have tried to create a location where ideas can be gathered and shared on the process of adjusting our approach to emotional health. Generally we do not focus on a proactive approach, but rather we react and try and fix problems after they arise. This approach works reasonably well, but when we are facing the situation where millions are dealing with the common emotional maladies of anxiety and depression, when we have twice as many suicides as murders in America, it is time to think proactively: how do we make us more resilient? How do we grow wiser children, teens, adults and elders?
The second aspect that the Urbanmonks Thinktank proposes is a system-based approach. We currently try and fix the individual. Yet, we are all products of our environments. It is my observation that many of those struggling with anxiety and depression are not inherently damaged people, but they are normal humans placed in cultures (systems), both large and small, that foster anxiety and depression.
So my method is born out of this goal: to investigate the relationship between our minds and the settings, both the physical settings and the social systems, we have built. I have come to refer to this study as Emotional Topography. Topography meaning the detailed mapping or charting of an area. In this case, we are building emotional maps.
By culture I am referring to the many layers of culture. There is indeed a culture of our relationships, of our households, of our workplaces, our villages and neighborhoods. Culture means the social setting: the relationships between characters and the rules, official and implied that govern the social system. Culture also includes the physical settings: the general ambiance, the lighting, the colors and the textures of a place.
Too often we think too large when we think about social systems, when we think about culture. American Culture. Modern Culture. These are enormous. Trying to change the trajectory of these levels of culture is an overwhelming task. It is more empowering and more possible to change our local systems, our local cultures.
The key method for my study is anthropological in nature: to spend time in dozens of different settings and to compare the various experiences. I have lived in large cities, small cities, and rural towns. I have worked many short-term jobs, from seasonal positions to year-long teaching gigs. My jobs have paid the bills, as jobs do, but I have sought out jobs where I was going to learn a whole new set of skills and be exposed to a new sub-culture.
Take the past three years in New York City as an example. I taught in a diverse inner-city high school in Brooklyn. Then I honed my design and carpentry skills by building a street cart to sell books in Union Square Park. As I write these words, I am managing a café in Soho part-time. Three very different worlds, three different sets of relationships and responsibilities. Three very different landscapes when we consider them from the lens of emotional topography, yet all three are nestled within the broader American culture and New York City culture.
All of the years since I studied Urban Design in graduate school have been similarly variable. But this is how I have performed my independent research, with new skills and new relationships in different settings. The theory was that if I could know enough workplaces, enough sub-cultures, enough systems, enough relationships, I would have a good sense of how this human mind worked - how it thrived and how it crumbled – in relation to various settings. The theory was that if I worked alongside hundreds of people and was able to interact with thousands of folk in various settings, I would begin to better understand what was unique about individuals, but also, and more importantly for our study, what was common to us all.