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How Ben Kingsley Changed My Life

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I saw Gandhi and was inspired to don a loincloth and join the Peace Corps.

Or that I watched Sexy Beast and slipped into an obsession with the underworld and criminal capers.

Or that I saw Mr. Kingsley on a talk show and immediately shaved my head and started cultivating an intense stare and a British accent.

Close. But not quite.

When I say that Ben Kingsley changed my life, I’m talking about an actual encounter with the real guy. The flesh-and-bones, living-and-breathing person who was born with the name Krishna Bhanji but changed it to Ben Kingsley because he was afraid a foreign name would hamper his career.

That’s who I met. That’s who changed me.

So what happened?

Well, I was lucky enough to grow up in Oberlin, Ohio. Oberlin is a small town of eight thousand people that happens to have a liberal arts college of the same name planted right in the center of town.

Oberlin attracts all kinds of artists and musicians and creative folks – including actors – to its modest borders. And on an auspicious day in the fall of 1978, Mr. Ben Kingsley came to town.

I had never heard of him at that point. Most people hadn’t. He was an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he and few other members of his troupe were in town to do some performances and workshops at the college.

photo: erin & camera on flikr

I was in my senior year of high school at the time, and my English teacher thought it would be a good idea to invite Mr. Kingsley and his actor buddies to our classroom to discuss Hamlet. That’s right, Hamlet.

In my high school, we had to read a different Shakespeare play every year. For some reason, they thought it would be a good idea for the seniors to read a play about a perpetually-tortured, quasi-suicidal, chronically-ambivalent guy named Hamlet.

photo: Phil Kalina on flikr

For the record, I love Shakespeare. When Ben Kingsley came to visit our classroom, we’d recently memorized Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. You know the one.

To be or not to be. That is the question. 

What you may or may not know is that this particular soliloquy is a contemplation of suicide. Again, for whatever reason, they thought it would be a good idea for the seniors to commit this to memory and recite it in front of their peers. I’m sure they had a solid rationale for this.

But the language is exquisite. It’s Shakespeare. When I say, it doesn’t get any better than that, it really doesn’t.

When Mr. Kingsley arrived in our class, one of my classmates asked if he would recite Hamlet’s soliloquy for us.

He laughed.

It was eight o’clock in the morning. First period of the day. He explained that it was a little too early for Hamlet’s soliloquy. He hadn’t had his coffee yet. 

photo: Tim Boyd on flikr

Mr. Kingsley and his fellow actors from the Royal Academy proceeded to talk to us about their work. I remember them as jovial and friendly, with peppy British accents. They answered all our questions and provided us with a nice break from a typical school day.

And then it happened.

The class was almost over when Mr. Kingsley opened his mouth. Right then and there – with no prompting, no warning – he started reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy.

It is absolutely impossible to describe what happened next, but I will try.

Shakespeare is a genius. That goes without saying. His words have a power that transcends the written word. Ben Kingsley is also a genius. His ability to inhabit a character, to allow the personality of another soul occupy his own, is compelling and rare.

When these two things became one – Shakespeare and an actor trained to perform him, Hamlet and Mr. Ben Kingsley – it was as though a curtain in the room was parted, and I was allowed to slip through.

photo: guudmorning! on flikr

On the other side was a place of absolute awe and wonder. As Ben Kingsley let Shakespeare’s language flow through him, everything was imbued with lightness and expansion. I was both full of emotion and entirely clear-headed.

As each word was spoken, I was turned inside out. I was there, in an ordinary classroom in a small town in Ohio, and yet I was somewhere else. Somewhere that existed just below the surface of everyday reality. A place that had always been there, I just hadn’t known about it.

photo: SF Brit on flikr

When it was over, I couldn’t speak.

As a senior, I was allowed to leave the school campus whenever I wanted. So I did. I went home, just to be somewhere else for a while. It was as though I wanted to repeat in physical form what had just happened to me emotionally.

My father was home and I remember telling him that I’d just decided I wasn’t going to be a scientist. It was the only thing I could think to say.

photo: UC Davis on flikr

All I knew was that I’d just experienced something extraordinary, something I’d never felt before. And I knew that I wanted to devote my life to something that made me feel like that. Only I had no idea what it was.

Looking back on it now, I can see that my moment with Ben Kingsley was a turning point.

I was about to leave home. I was about to go out in the world and find my way. And that moment gave me hope.

It allowed me to see that there was a lot more going on in this world than I realized. That there was life and power and energy and emotion that I couldn’t see with my eyes. But it was there. I’d felt it.

In many ways, it was the beginning of my spiritual path. A moment of transport to another reality. A moment of magic and meaning and inspiration.

So when I say that Ben Kingsley changed my life, I mean it. And all I did was show up for school one day.

photo: naosuke ii on flikr

Who have you been inspired by? How were you changed by their presence?

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21 Responses to How Ben Kingsley Changed My Life

  1. Sandi October 18, 2011 at 7:33 am #

    Absolutely exquisite. Thank you for sharing.

    • Z Egloff October 18, 2011 at 9:16 am #

      You’re welcome. :)

  2. Jennifer October 18, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    Ah Hah! you had a hierophany! an experience of the numinosum! can you tell I’m getting ready for my midterm in A New Myth of God?

    • Z Egloff October 18, 2011 at 9:18 am #

      I can! And you gave me an idea of what I can write about on my final. . . XOZ

  3. Jeff B October 18, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    What an amazing experience, Z. I’ve had experiences like this a few times in my life – all treasured and recognized in the moment as a visit to that special place that I always long to return to.

    Recently I’ve found an easy way to visit that place is to simply relax, and get into my prayer groove. It’s a place where I don’t have to think about what I am saying – It just flows. It’s a place where I don’t have to judge or worry – those things don’t exist there. It’s a place where I can just simply “be.” It’s truly my special place – when the veil lifts just a bit, and I see the other side for just a moment or two.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Xoxo!

    • Z Egloff October 18, 2011 at 11:09 am #

      Hi Jeff, That’s awesome that you’ve found a way to touch into that place whenever you want. I love it! XOZ

  4. Lynnee October 18, 2011 at 11:29 am #

    Wow. I was THERE in your telling of this story. Wow. I envy the presence you had as that teenage senior – to be able to be there, in your chair, to receive that incredible gift. What Great Good Fortune! (i’m afraid i would’ve been cutting class across the street with maybe a beer. that’s what i was doing when the Smothers Bros came to perform) There’s a moral in here somewhere…

    • Z Egloff October 18, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

      Yeah, in this case, being a nerd paid off. Is that the moral? Personally, I think we’re always right where we need to be. Thanks for reading! XOZ

  5. Jo Lauer October 18, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    I love giving homage to those who’ve inspired us. For me, it was my Grandma Godlove, who at the age of 99, was still out weeding her garden. When I face minor challenges that throw me off balance, I just think–girl, your Grandma Godlove would laugh you right off the planet if you cave in over this puny challenge. That’s usually enough perspective to move me along my way.

    • Melissa October 18, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

      Jo – what a great image! I also love that her name was Grandma Godlove! Seriously? How cool is that!?

      I can see her, gardening away as she listens to you, laughing away and reminding you to do the same. Fabulous.

      Thank you!

    • Z Egloff October 18, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

      Hi Jo, I love that your grandmother is still inspiring you to move along your way. What a beautiful image and presence to have in your life! I especially love seeing elders who are dynamic and active. Thanks for telling me about her. XOZ

  6. Melissa October 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    Ok – now I’ve read this twice. The first time I wept. This time, knowing what was coming, I still teared up.

    What a powerful moment to have captured so beautifully. One of these moments when life changed.

    I didn’t used to know when I was having them. I think this might be what has changed most of all for me with age, or maybe as I’ve become more aware. Now I seem to be more conscious of these moments, aware that I will never be the same, just following a moment like this.

    There is nothing like this kind of opening. Dr. Goswami may call it a resonance with the vital energy body or correlating with the morphogenetic field. I just call it Holy. Sacred. Divine.

    Thank you for sharing this moment – this window for us to view your connecting with the Holy and sacred divine….and for your doing it so well that it reminds me of my own holy experience.

    You rock.
    YOU are one of those people who inspire me in this very way. And for this, I am grateful to The One, to your parents, to Ben Kingsley, and to Life Itself.

    Grateful.

    • Z Egloff October 18, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

      And I am grateful to you! For your all-around awesomeness. Including, now, your awesomeness as my editor! The Divine continues to work in fabulous and always-mysterious ways. Just sayin. XOZ

  7. Squirrel October 18, 2011 at 10:24 pm #

    my 11th grade english teacher, mr. de soto, the “grammar guru”. he was hard core and a million years old and a grumpy WWII vet but i learned more from him than i did any of my other teachers in my 12 years of public schooling. he turned me on to a type of music that i had never heard before. super esoteric old-timey something or other that i’m not remembering at the moment but loved. i respected him more than any teacher i had before or since. he had an intense way about him and so much wisdom. and i got him to laugh. i grieved a lot when he transitioned. and i always smile when i think of him.

    oh, and you. YOU have been a constant inspiration to me, z. i’ve loved witnessing you over the past few years and i’m always amazed by what you do. music and school and seva and writing omg you are amazing. i am truly in awe. you have so much wisdom and strength. i absolutely adore you. you rock.

    xos

  8. Z Egloff October 19, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    Mr. De Soto sounds like a rockin’ dude. Grumpy is not always a bad thing! And I am truly pleased and amazed that I am now a source of inspiration. Dude! I’m just doing my thang. Thank you for sharing. XOZ

  9. Alicia October 26, 2011 at 8:41 am #

    We just got finished Hamlet in my English class. The kids only respond to my insane reenactment of the scenes. I can onlyhope that an ounce of my excitement for the play can transfer to at least one of my students, as you were so touched forever by the actor’s presence and words written by such an influential man. I enjoy reading your posts. Thanks!

    • Z Egloff October 26, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

      Insane reenactments of Hamlet sounds great! Especially for high school students. They’re lucky to have you as a teacher!

  10. David A. Egloff February 29, 2016 at 10:03 am #

    It’s never too late. Science rules.

    • Z Egloff February 29, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

      Well, now that I’ve discovered some of the mystery and magic of quantum physics, I would have to agree. 😉

  11. David A. Egloff February 29, 2016 at 10:05 am #

    You’ve said it better but I can’t resist throwing in Elaine Scarry’s take on similar experiences: “…[B]eauty interrupts and gives us sudden relief from our own minds. Iris Murdoch says we undergo “an unselfing” in the presence of a beautiful thing; “self-preoccupation” and worries on one’s own behalf abruptly fall away. Simone Weil refers to this phenomenon as a “radical decentering.” I call it an “opiated adjacency,” an awkward term but one which reminds us that there are many things in life that make us feel acute pleasure (opiated) and many things in life that make us feel sidelined, but there is almost nothing—except beauty—that does the two simultaneously. Feeling acute pleasure at finding oneself on the margins is a first step in working toward fairness.”

    • Z Egloff February 29, 2016 at 4:47 pm #

      This is a beautiful description. I always wondered what, exactly, happened to me that day. Now I know. It was “opiated adjacency.” Of course!

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