Ben. I met Ben at the Museum of Design and Architecture in downtown L.A. after a Sci-Arc exhibition on Detroit city revitalization. He was standing outside of the museum chatting with a group of guys when I approached to bum a cigarette from his friend. In his late 20s, Ben had piercing brown eyes, loosely styled light brown hair, and a thunderous laugh that went hand-in-hand with his charismatic personality. He wore white linen pants, a white t-shirt, and a gray and black striped scarf. He bounced around from person to person on the patio, easily flowing in and out of conversation with all those surrounding us. After finding out that I’d studied anthropology in Japan, that I had a cat, that I’d recently written a book, and that I was really into throwing dinner parties, he invited me out to a bar with him and his friends.
There at the bar, we drank whiskey and talked poetry appreciation, sexual orientation, and philosophical investigation. I imagined that this was a night straight out of Good Will Hunting. Like I was Minnie Driver as Skylar. And Ben and his friends were Will and the South Boston boys. Except this was L.A. And Ben and his friends were exceptionally educated. And we didn’t get into an intellectual showdown at the bar. And Ben seemed really emotionally balanced. So not really Good Will Hunting at all. How do you like them apples?
Arriving home that night, I did what any sane person in Los Angeles does when they’re excited about someone they’ve just met in the city.
I googled him.
“Monthly ‘Conscious Family Dinners’ Aim to Nourish Body and Soul” an L.A. Times headline read.
“Conscious Family Dinner is a monthly event that is the brainchild of Benjamin Rolnik, 26, a Los Angeles talent manager and tech entrepreneur who says he began meditating at age 10 and is now ‘obsessed with the art and science of personal transformation,’” the article went on.
Conscious Family Dinner, I pieced together from endless online coverage of Ben and the event, was like a big dinner party held at different spots in L.A. combined with personal growth workshops and yoga, kind of like a mini-festival around a dinner.
“You’re having a dinner party soon?” a previous conversation with Ben that night flashed into my mind.
“I am,” I nodded. “Would you like to come?”
“Absolutely. I love dinner parties,” Ben smiled.
It suddenly occurred to me as I stared into my computer screen that I’d just invited the reigning king of dinner parties in Los Angeles to my modest little Long Beach dinner party without him saying a word about his work. That was incredibly rare in L.A., self-promotion capital of the world.
Ben was already an enigma.
A couple of months later, I find myself ready to attend my first Conscious Family Dinner. I head to La Maida Institute in North Hollywood with an email RSVP and an open mind. I wait in a line of about 20 people outside of a broad-faced mission style two-story manor, unsure of what to expect.
“I heard we might have a personal guide to lead us around tonight,” a 20-something partygoer in front of me speculates.
“I heard this place used to be a psychiatric institute,” another insists.
“I heard there’s a pirate booty yoga class tonight,” another laughs.
Wondering if I was really headed to a mental institute to potentially be led around by a guide into a pirate booty yoga class, I take a deep breath and surrender myself to the night.
A few minutes later, I’m greeted at the door by a man holding a stack of stickers. On each sticker is a phrase related to love or mindfulness.
“Accepting consciousness!” the man exclaims as he tears off a sticker from his stack, directing me into the front lawn of the home.
There, an angelic faced blond woman wearing purple Thai pants and a tie-dyed t-shirt stops to ask me, “Do you want to give love to your light side or your dark side tonight?”
“To my dark side,” I reply.
“Then come with me,” she says, guiding me by the hand to the shorter of the two lines of people making their way into the manor.
Kneeling me down onto the ground, she asks, “Did you set your intention for tonight?”
“I didn’t yet.”
“Try coming up with an intention.”
“To be open and to meet new friends,” I say.
“Wonderful,” she replies, placing a lei of fake purple flowers around my neck.
“Please come in,” she points to the manor’s front entrance.
A California-style home inside, I notice empty rooms with hardwood floors on either side of me, a stairway leading up to a mysterious second floor, and a walkway shooting straight to the backyard, where a crowd of diverse individuals mixed and mingled, eating Indian vegetarian food around a green lawn.
Consciousness ice breaker games are introduced and before I know it, I’m eating palak paneer while telling a group of four complete strangers the things that make me feel loved. “Receiving an actual phone call in life from people,” I say.
The group unanimously nods in agreement.
“What’s something you’ve been working on in the last year that you feel you need help with?” another question circulates.
“I really feel I need help navigating through life, figuring out how to keep bad people out of it,” a sheepish 20-something says.
“Maybe there’s a way to see it like there are no bad people or good people in life,” a bleach blond 20-something adds. “Like people are neither good nor bad.”
“Yeah, but sometimes I really want to keep people who are doing harm away,” the girl now insists.
“Right, just like knowing how to draw boundaries,” I agree.
“Yeah! Like that!” she says back.
“Just keep practicing,” a 30-something black woman emphatically chimes in. “It comes with time.”
Conscious Family Dinner, created in 2016 by Ben, has its roots in Jewish traditions. Being of Jewish heritage, as a young man Ben often took part in shabbat dinner which felt like dead ritual to him. As a result, he started hosting shabbat dinners that were rooted in the idea of transparency and sharing. “We would all sit around a table and play rosebud-and-thorn, a game where you would take turns sharing your greatest triumphs and defeats with the table. They were juicy, yes, but they were also powerful experiences. People would cry or laugh. And I began to sense that that feeling is the essence of spirituality and joy,” Ben explains on a phone call with me three nights after Conscious Family Dinner.
A man with a didgeridoo walks out of the manor and announces to the backyard guests that the first session of workshops would soon be starting. I walk back into the house and see that indeed, a pirate-themed yoga class is actually happening, as well as a workshop on some form of personal transformation and a kabbalistic palm-reading circle for personal growth. All interesting options. But I’m feeling a pull to go back outside and circulate more among other guests. By the cacao and chai-tasting table, I meet a young man named Marcus. Working for the U.S. Department of Defense and living in Port Hueneme, he had driven into North Hollywood specifically for CFD. “I’m making a job and life transition into yoga instruction and meditation facilitation right now. It’s a bit scary,” he spills to me.
“I can imagine it is,” I tell him. What brought you here tonight?”
“I came with a group of fellow yoga instructors to see what the community is all about.”
“I came for curiosity’s sake too,” I tell him.
We sit down by a flowing feng shui fountain and share almost in full, our origin stories as well as our coming-to-L.A. stories.
“I had been a professional athlete, and a bad injury took me out of the game forever. I got depressed, was feeling sorry for myself, and realized I needed to make a change. That’s when I took a road trip and wound up in California with nothing but my car and a bag. I lived with my brother until his marriage fell apart and his wife kicked me out, realized I was homeless, and started to call homeless shelters. That’s when by sheer luck, I met an older woman who asked me to be her apartment building manager, got recruited to work for the Department of Defense, and started to build my life.”
“It sounds like there were a lot of ups and downs,” I tell him.
“It’s so great you’re in a good place.”
“It is. Yoga gives me life,” he nods.
“Me too, kid. Me too.”
This moment of shared solidarity with a stranger was not super unusual to me, a regular participant in the yogic/meditative/ayurvedic scene in L.A. But it was unusual to me that it was happening right in the middle of Hollywood, a place not exactly known for abundant facilitation of sincere interaction. Perhaps there really was something to all of this New Age activity in the millennial generation. Sure, drinking green juice and unsuccessfully trying to go vegan seem pretty superficial in the grand scheme of life but maybe in the midst of those activities, we actually reached a tipping point and managed to meaningfully shift mainstream culture. Could it be?
Ben tells me over the phone that around the time he was hosting conscious shabbat dinners, he started facilitating transformation circles and workshops containing elements of peer counseling, peer therapy, mysticism, and improv. These events were so influential and effective that the idea to do “conscious family dinners” eventually spun off of them. Hoping to learn about new tools that would benefit his life, share transformation technologies, and be around like-minded people, Ben came up with the idea. He explains to me, “I was at home one night, but I didn’t want to hang out at home. I didn’t want to go see a movie. I didn’t want to go to a workshop, and I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to have a conscious family dinner. It would be an intimate dinner. We’d play games and get to connect on a deep soul level.” This theme of self-discovery leading to sharing resonates through much of Ben’s ideas and work. “I’ve always been on a mission to end suffering for myself. I wanna share what I discover. Everywhere I’ve been, I’m like a beaver. I wanna be around people like me, who want to have deep conversations about the meaning of life.”
The second set of workshops at La Maida Institute commence, and I wander into a square room with windows facing the front lawn. It’s past 10 p.m. now, and the night seems to have moved into another dimension, the witching hour, a time when anything seems possible. Spaces could shrink and expand; time could could contract or grow; people and objects could fly through the air, and as it turns out, that would be the exact mission of the workshop I’d just stepped into.
“Tonight… is all about proving that the impossible is possible!” our host calls out, a 40-something gentleman, dressed in gray slacks and a button-up shirt. “Your generation inspires me endlessly… your generation… the millennial generation… a great generation. See my generation, we really messed things up, but your generation is already doing so much to right our wrongs. Tell me, sir…” the host points at an inconspicuous young man sitting in our circle on the floor. “What is it that you want to do?”
“What do I want to do?” the young man looks up at the host with wide eyes.
“Yes, what do you want to do? Is there anything you’re working on? Something you want to achieve?”
“Actually, I’m working on an app that would be an information sharing service for actively resisting the police.”
“That’s beautiful,” the host replies, getting choked up, “So beautiful! I love it. So tonight is about you proving to yourselves that you can accomplish anything you set your mind on if you believe in it with every cell in your body. Are we into that?” he asks the 20 of us in the room.
“Yes,” we mutter back.
“I said are we into that?” he screams.
“Yes!” we respond in unison.
“Now what we’re here to do tonight is to create an energetic container. Essentially we’ll build such a strong energy in this room that we’ll be able to accomplish a seemingly impossible feat. Now I need five volunteers.”
The young man who aims to create the police app is called to sit on a wooden chair. Four young women of small stature are called to stand by each chair leg.
“You ladies are going to lift this man out of this chair, each of you only using your index and middle fingers on either hand,” the leader tells the girls.
The girls look around the room with stunned expressions. Then we spend the next 30 minutes rooting them on as they train to synchronize their movements, work on their positioning, enhance their strength, improve their communication flow, and boost morale. When one of the girls shows visible signs of apathy, the leader stops her for a pep talk. “What’s wrong?” he asks.
“Nothing. It’s just that normally I’d be in bed at this time. I’m tired,” she moans.
“I need you to do something for me and everybody else here. Will you put your all into the practice? You’re gonna remember this moment for the rest of your life. The rest of your life.”
She lifts her eyes up from the floor and locks them on his, nodding.
“Ok,” he announces. “We’re back in business. Group: Let’s cheer them on!”
“1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10!” our spectator group screams in unison as the girls go through the motions to perform the lift.
First attempt. Fail. No lift-off. Not even a butt cheek off the chair.
Second attempt. Fail. Same story.
Third attempt. Fail.
Stopping to correct the girls’ technique on a few occasions, we continue screaming, hyping up the energetic container, and giving as much support as we can to the effort.
But still nothing.
Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail.
The leader stops us, “My friends, the road to success can be long and hard, but that’s why we must never give up. Never. Give. Up.”
“Never give up!” we rally as we amp up for another round of trials.
But then fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail.
Hearing music coming from the house’s living room now, we realize that the night is almost over and our energetic container experiment nearly is, too.
“Three more attempts!” the leader screams.
“Yes!” we scream back.
And then finally, a fail. Another fail. And the final fail.
The container is now at a loss for words, filled with confusion and disappointment.
“Friends,” the leader asserts. “I want to tell you that I’ve done this exercise previously only at day-long conferences where we had many more hours to succeed at the task. This was my first time doing this exercise condensed into such a short amount of time. I don’t view tonight’s events as a failure, rather as another notch of experience on the ol’ belt. I thank you for your participation.”
And with that, the energetic container scatters. Just like that. Exercise over.
I leave with the feeling that indeed, life is like this. There’s no guaranteed success. Only experiment. Trial and error. Tweaking. Regrouping. But always always giving it all you got.
Ben says over the phone to me that the first conscious family dinner was a complete and utter failure.
“How did you gauge that?” I ask him.
“For the people who came, they didn’t like it,” he adds. “I realized the essence of our event was developed and produced by my parents’ generation: Landmark Forum, Tony Robbins, that kind of stuff. We were trying to make our events all about content, but people weren’t interested in our content.”
“What were they wanting then?”
“Well, instead of the people coming for the content, the content ended up becoming the people.”
“So it’s like an organic experience?”
“Yeah, the less I do for the event, the more people enjoy it. As soon as I shifted my mentality around that, the event just happened to fucking work.”
Coming out of the container, I step into La Maida Institute’s living room, where over 100 people are gathered around a man with a guitar singing “Rainbow Connection.” We’re encouraged to hug each other and to go around and say one word that summarizes the evening. Someone calls out “fun,” “union,” “love,” “joy,” “enlightenment,” “sharing,” and I throw out a “Los Angeles.” As closing statements and thank yous are said, I walk over to Ben, surrounded by a swarm of lovers, huggers, and singers, and I tell him thank you, a genuinely felt thank you. “I’ve gotta write about this experience. It’s just too rich.”
“I know. It’s weird, isn’t it?” he looks at me.
“A good weird,” I affirm.
“So where is this all going, you think?” I ask Ben on our phone call.
“I’m climbing my personal Mount Everest right now,” Ben tells me. He’s in pre-medical school at UCLA after years of studying philosophy and I get the sense that the world is his oyster. “The more I let go of the future, the more free I feel to create everything right now.”
Without knowing it, he’s reminding me of the Buddhist call to detach, to let go, and the Taoist call to just be.
“Disappointment requires adequate planning,” he says.
I respect that there’s a deliberate effort to not over-strategize, to not be over-corporatized or over-commercialized in his movement. But at the same time, I know Ben’s got vision.
“An idea is to create a conscious dinner network,” he tells me.
“Oh! Like AirBNB or WeWork or something like that?”
“Exactly. We’ve had 11 CFDs in L.A. We’ve had six In New York. And maybe it could spread.”
“Maybe it could spread indeed.”
See, for all of my hesitation to ice break among strangers, to have my palm read, and to sing “Rainbow Connection” with a bunch of strangers in the middle of Los Angeles, there was something magical about the event.
Something that made me feel just a little bit closer to the fabric of the city and how she breathes.
Something that made me feel just a little less isolated in the city as a freelance artist, a transplant from afar, and a single woman.
For every time I’ve struggled to connect the dots on my career in L.A., I heard a story of someone else’s struggle to connect the dots.
For every time I had moved myself across the city, whether to Ktown, downtown, or anywhere else, I heard a stranger’s story of packing and moving themselves across the urban landscape.
And for every unsuccessful relationship I’d experienced, another person at CFD was right there talking about a break-up or a divorce.
I wasn’t broken. I was human.
I wasn’t alone. I was infinitely connected to the whole of humanity.
I wasn’t going anywhere. I was in Los Angeles. And I would soldier on with the help of myself and the 100 + strangers I’d just randomly (or not so randomly) come in contact with at Conscious Family Dinner.
Ben wasn’t so much of an enigma to me anymore. Nor was the event. It’d all been humanized. We were all just part of the beautiful serendipity tapestry that the universe was weaving us into.