“Welcome Angeline. Welcome Susie. Welcome Keshia. Welcome Yancey.”
There are ten of us in the room. Katy says our names and makes eye contact with each of us through the screen when she does. We smile as she welcomes us.
Though she’s leading us this morning, Katy is not a professional facilitator. She’s an architect in New York. But today she’s leading a Zoom room that includes two writers, a teacher, a product manager, a salesperson, a non-profit executive, a university department chair, an artist, and me. The ten of us are spread across upstate New York, Maine, Singapore, Geneva, London, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Vancouver, and Amsterdam.
Next Katy guides us to journal in response to the question: “how am I doing right now?” “Nobody’s going to see what you write down,” she tells us. “Be as honest as you can.” Though she was nervous before the session started, as Katy watches the group follow her instructions and things fall into their familiar pattern, she relaxes. Everything is going to be fine.
Over the past three months, this group of strangers and five groups of strangers just like them have met every week for one hour. During that hour they’ve gone through individual and collective exercises as part of an experimental experience for people to go deeper into themselves and the community of the Bento Society.
In this particular session we were examining the high and low points in our lives and connecting them to the “master bentos” (a compass for our goals and priorities) and “shadow bentos” (a compass for how we get in our way) we’d built before. There was no outside moderator. Each week a different member of the group took their turn to facilitate a script sent by the Bento Society.
When I surveyed participants afterwards, here’s what they said.
How would you describe the experience in one word?
How would you describe the experience to someone else?
“You will get more out of it than expected. I relate it to as a virtual Breakfast Club (the scene at the end where they are all sitting in a circle), but for adults.”
“I found participation in the Bento Group to be very humanizing and deeply comforting. I feel fortunate to have stumbled across it and would recommend the experience to anyone who is curious about people, society, and creating a better possible future.”
“It’s a safe space for you to connect, reflect and be thoughtful in a way that I have never experienced before. It was magical.”
“If you are looking to connect and exchange perspectives with a community of individuals who are curious, empathetic, and open-minded, then this is the place for you! BUT you have to be willing and able to listen deeply and non-judgmentally, and you also have to be willing to participate and contribute to the conversation without dominating it. If you do not have the patience to listen, and if you are not genuinely interested in learning from and helping others, then this is not the place for you.”
“The Bento Groups have changed my life. A month ago I was in a terrible place - a place that I didn't see much of a way out of without a complete disruption of my life as I know it. Bento Groups helped me to see a clear pathway out, and an opportunity presented itself. I'm now free of a very negative relationship, on my own again, and excited again for what each day may bring. Bento overall has helped me feel more secure in terms of understanding what I want for myself, for others, for the world -- and has helped me find a path forward to realize those things. I feel more confident in who I am as a person, and the support of my Bento Group make some really big changes possible. I honestly do not believe I would have taken any action any time soon if not for them and the activities/explorations we do together. Not only that but I feel a part of a community - a caring community of do-gooders who want to impart a positive impact in the world. It's something I can look forward to each week. Outside of my work life, there's not a lot of that in my world, so it's something I cherish and appreciate very much.”
“Wednesdays [the day Bento Groups happen] are now my favorite day of the week!” (More than one person left this comment.)
“The exercises made me want to be better at life. The group made sure I followed through.”
Would you do this again?
What worked about this experiment?
- Small groups of less than ten creates intimacy and connection. Larger events are good for newcomers. Smaller groups are for people who want more.
- Consistency among participants is critical. People were told ahead of time that they needed to commit to the full 12 weeks. Most people did, but members of a couple groups didn’t take the commitment as seriously, and by far the most negative feedback was from people in those groups saying how disruptive it was.
- Shared ownership makes it more special. Every person facilitating and each group having its own culture and name meant the journey was scripted while also being self-created.
- Clear and simple instructions. Each week’s script and exercises had to be so simple that anyone could deliver them. This lent itself to designing simple and creative exercises.
- Building on what we learned. It’s called a “season” because our twelve sessions unfolded like an HBO series with storylines building on each other and seemingly disappearing before getting called back later. There were many satisfying loops and callbacks in the experience.
- Creating space for friend advice. The space filled a lot of needs, among them being with people who are incentivized to listen to your personal journey in a way your real-life friends have probably gotten tired of doing over the years (major life crises excepted). Having a space to explore yourself with peers was luxurious and useful.
- Designing something I wanted. As the post announcing Bento Groups explained, the idea was inspired by Donella Meadows’ Limits to Growth and her suggestion that a path towards a better world would emerge through “visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving.” That’s what I wanted to be a part of, and this experiment worked to create.
Bento Groups will return in 2021
Overall Bento Groups were a successful experiment, and the most complicated we’ve attempted to date. Bento Groups will be back in 2021 with a new edition of this Season One experience for a new cohort of people, and a Season Two experience reserved for those who completed the first one. Both will be available to all members of the Bento Society next year.
Peace and love my friends,
The Bento Society