This essay is excerpted from Death at the Movies by Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli, published by Quest Books.
The life of one day is enough to rejoice. Even though you live for just one day, if you can be awakened, that one day is vastly superior to one endless life of sleep. . . . If this day in the lifetime of a hundred years is lost, will you ever touch it with your hands again?
—Zen Master Dogen
If a totem animal were to be designated for the phenomenon of transit, surely it would be the groundhog. As popular folk and weather lore goes, if the immortal groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, emerges from its barrow in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on February 2 and sees its shadow, it will return to its barrow and winter will continue for six more weeks. Such a prediction of endless winter and avoidance of the shadow side of one’s own nature is the basic premise of the 1993 romantic comedy fantasy Groundhog Day. Not immediately a box office hit, the film had what the industry refers to as legs, and its title has become a cultural synonym for being caught up in an unsatisfactory, pointless situation that occurs day after day after day. Most of us have had our Groundhog Days—not even an endlessly painful time, but an unendingly boring and banal situation that keeps happening again and again and again. The feeling of being trapped becomes unbearable; awakening to the prospect of another day just like yesterday yields nothing but despair.
Groundhog Day is a movie about a bad-enough man—selfish, vain, and insecure—who becomes wise and good through timeless recurrence. Like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, it is about a man whose experience of a break in the time-space continuum allows him to harvest the wisdom of a thousand well-lived lifetimes within a single day. True reality is revealed to contain a perfect present; each instant unfolds a fresh Buddha field of opportunity to awaken us to our true nature, which turns out to be inherently loving and turned toward the light.
Phil Conners (Bill Murray) is the weatherman at a Pittsburgh television station. He is both preeningly vain and fundamentally insecure. We first see him gesturing in front of a blank blue screen, seemingly conjuring up weather fronts. He speaks as though he knows the upcoming weather with godlike certainty—as if his gestures can literally call up the weather. Phil is a walking ego. Like any ego he wants two things: first, to be universally appreciated without having to give anything in return, and, second, to control his life so that he gets exactly what he wants and avoids everything he doesn’t. He imagines that if he had those two assets he could run his world (and its weather). Snide and witty, he barely veils his contempt for his audience, or for himself for being no more than a weatherman in Pittsburgh, not even a major market, for God’s sake! His shame about his career is revealed when he confesses to his fellow anchor, in reply to her humiliating question, that his upcoming assignment will be the fourth time he has anchored the Groundhog Day festivities. Basically, what Phil wants is to be recognized—all the time and by the right people. His self-esteem is so fragile that he needs constant admiration to have any good feelings about himself, and without that he collapses into whining and self-loathing, projected outward as contempt and hatred for others. He needs to have his sense of being special reinforced by everyone, yet he treats everyone with disdain. For him, people are “morons” and “hicks,” exemplified by the citizens of Punxsutawney. To have anything to do with such people, much less with the whole ritual of rodent weather forecasting, is utterly humiliating.
As he contemplates the prospects of anchoring yet another unbearable Groundhog Day celebration, it becomes clear that he wants nothing so much as to escape from this place where he can find nothing to feed his narcissistic sense of being special. Phil’s companions on his journey to Groundhog Day are Rita (Andie MacDowell), his new producer, and Larry (Chris Elliott), the cameraman. We first see Rita playfully gesturing in front of the blue screen, and we watch her emerge on the monitors as a kind of goddess arising from a whole continent of clouds. Rita and Phil’s mutual attraction is evident, but Phil fends her off with sarcasm. Nevertheless, her appearance in his life is like a sun rising, shedding rays of pure goodness into the darkness of his narcissism and insecurity. She is the Good Goddess, whose inspiration brings the hero through to wisdom and fulfillment. She is perfectly incarnated in Andie MacDowell with her cloud of long dark curls and glowing skin—angelic innocence and divine good sense. Rita is repelled by Phil’s narcissism and pettiness, but she continues to remain engaged with him. She even forestalls his objections to staying in a Punxsutawney hotel by reserving a room for him at a charming bed-and-breakfast. As we will see, Rita comes to embody the spirit of love that inspires Phil on his transit journey. In each transit film, the hero, like Dante, has a Beatrice—a benign spirit whose love carries him forward. In Jacob’s Ladder, it is Jake’s friend, the angel-like Louie. For Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, it is the good witch, Glinda. And of course, who can forget Clarence, angel second class, in It’s a Wonderful Life?
In spite of the promise contained in Phil’s meeting with Rita, most of his Groundhog Day is vaguely awful. He wakes up to a clock radio playing Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” followed by two inane disc jockeys bantering on about the weather. It is cold and gray outside, and an oompah band is playing “The Pennsylvania Polka.” Phil is met on the stairs by a hearty gentleman offering a banal comment about the weather. The breakfast room doesn’t have cappuccino or “even a latte.” When he goes out into the street, he is accosted by the unbearable Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky) trying to sell him insurance. He steps off the curb into a puddle. By the time he gets to Gobbler’s Knob for the groundhog ceremony he is seething with resentment. Nothing is going his way. After delivering a sarcastic sound bite on the Groundhog Day ceremony, he refuses Rita’s request for another take, “this time without sarcasm,” and storms off. Like It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey, all he wants is to “shake the dust [or in this case, the slush] of this crummy town off my feet.” He rushes to the van, determined to get away from this ghastly place. But fate intervenes. Despite his own weather predictions, it turns out that a storm closes the highway. Phil is incredulous; after all, as he says, “I make the weather!” He confronts the highway patrolman at the roadblock, making his TV gestures of calling up weather fronts, but to no avail. He has no choice but to return to Punxsutawney and spend yet another night in the same small-town bed-and breakfast. After dumping his frustration on Rita and Larry, he sulks off to his room. He wants to take a shower, but is shocked with cold water. Finally this frustrating Groundhog Day comes to an end. And, in a sense, Phil himself has come to a dead end; his wishes for high-quality affirmation and control of events have been frustrated, his narcissistic rage has no satisfying outlet, and now he can’t even escape Punxsutawney. His only source of hope is that somehow tomorrow will be better, will offer a new chance at fulfillment.
Imagine Phil’s horror when he wakes up the next morning and discovers that Groundhog Day is happening all over again. The clock turns six a.m., the radio starts playing Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe” (surely the nadir of mindless pop hits), the two annoying radio announcers have the same idiotic conversation all over again, and he encounters the same man on the stairs that he met yesterday. He reenters the same dining room, where he is met by the same sweet little lady inquiring again whether he slept well. Ned Ryerson pounces on him once more. When he steps off the same curb, he steps into the same puddle. As he approaches Gobbler’s Knob, “The Pennsylvania Polka” is blaring all over again. Phil is appalled. On its quest for security and positive self-reflection, the ego constantly seeks novelty, seeks to move out of the unsatisfactory present, with its quality of emptiness and insecurity, into a possible future filled with real and lasting gratification. Hell, for the ego, is the endless quotidian reality, a living death (if death is assumed to be the condition of having no more possibilities, no more attractive future to aspire to, no more glamorous and knowledgeable audience to be applauded by, no set of maneuvers by which to escape a state verging on panic). Phil is consumed by his own need for admiration; other people are at best instruments to get the recognition he craves, potential sources of high quality validation (nobody in Punxsutawney qualifies) or “morons” who have nothing he wants and so are worthless to him or even obstacles to his grandiosity. Profoundly cynical, lost in bitterness and the innate ignorance of pride, he is alienated both from his own spirit and from humanity itself. In Phil we see graphically the unpleasant underbelly of ego—its utter selfishness and need for constant support, while it is all the while promoting its unearned grandiosity. And who better to play Phil Conners than Bill Murray, who can embody that combination of bitter anger, self-pity, and wounded esteem better than anybody? Murray’s persona is that of a rueful everyman. Indeed, if we’re really honest about ourselves, we are much more like Phil than we would like to think. We too are insecure and narcissistic—that’s the nature of the ego. Because it is based on nothing but pictures from the past, the ego can never be truly secure in the present. Because our egos are entirely self-preoccupied, other people are nothing but mirrors, whose only purpose is to reflect ourselves in a way that makes us feel either better or worse. It is hard to admit how much like Phil we are. Truth is, most of us are just a bit better at concealing our narcissism, selfishness, and insecurity than he is. We have learned to behave better, if only because we’ve been trained to think that the pretense of niceness, good manners, and sympathy will actually enhance our self-image and get us more of that admiring reflection from others. It is just another strategy for achieving security and positive esteem in that better future that always lies just ahead. For the egoic self, the daily dailiness is hell—but there’s no set of maneuvers that will get us out of here, no hope for a better future. This is it!
So we can all relate to Phil’s growing horror and despair as he realizes that every morning he wakes up in Punxsutawney to the sound of Sonny and Cher’s “I’ve Got You, Babe” and the same chatter from the radio guys. It gets even worse when he has to deal with the same hearty fellow on the stairs, the same little old hostess inquiring about his sleep, and the same ghastly encounter with the garrulous Ned Ryerson trying to sell him insurance. Every day is just the same. It is Groundhog Day, over and over again. Every day Rita and the cameraman are there to film the emergence of the groundhog Phil and his weather prediction. Every day an oompah band is playing “The Pennsylvania Polka.” Charming it’s not. Phil understandably muses about a wonderful day he once had on vacation in the Virgin Islands, eating lobster and drinking piña coladas with a girl he just met, and wonders why, if he had to get one day over and over, it couldn’t have been that one. Instead, he’s stuck in Punxsutawney with a bunch of hicks and a rodent whose weather predictions are more popular than his. This must be hell.
Well, not exactly. Actually, he is in the transit state. Remember that transit represents a state of uncertainty, a gap in what passes as the ordinary appearance of events in our usual waking consciousness. In transit, experience presents itself as discontinuous and slippery. The march of time has ceased moving with relentless logic from the past to the future. This gap can be incredibly frustrating for any ego, much less one as fixated as Phil’s: to have no future, to be powerless, never to escape the suffering of your present. And yet, gaps have been described as places where ”we may receive a glimpse of the light of reality.” The experience of this gap is generally preceded by a sense of absolute contraction and conflict in which contradictions reach their maximum intensity. One is in a state of complete exhaustion. Phil complains to Rita about being stuck and expects her to do something to help him. After all, she’s a producer and he’s “the talent.” She is unimpressed by his dilemma and instead points out his self involvement, quoting a poem by Sir Walter Scott (hardly the fashionable poet of the intelligentsia!), predicting that he will go down to death “unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung.”She’s right. Phil has accomplished nothing that will benefit anyone, not even himself. His grandiosity and demanding selfishness alienate him from everyone. No one respects him, not even Phil himself. As Phil realizes he can’t escape from Groundhog Day, he casts about for a way to cope with his situation. His sense of himself has been dealt a major blow—he can’t get unstuck. He is so outraged that he should have to stay in Punxsutawney; he is so special, so much better than that. One night, drinking at the bowling alley with two local guys, he attempts to convey the immensity of his problem to them, saying, “What if the same thing kept happening over and over, and nothing you did mattered?” One of the guys, staring into his drink, responds, “That sums it up for me.” Phil soon realizes that he is free to engage in all possible self-destructive behaviors, since there are no consequences in time; the next morning he’ll wake up to Sonny and Cher, and the events of the last “today” will be as if they never happened. He uses this freedom to indulge himself in cholesterol, sugar, and tobacco. He gets sadistic pleasure out of shocking Rita with his unrestrained gluttony and abandons all traces of self-restraint.
At first, this behavior provides Phil with a certain bitter satisfaction, but the novelty of this spurious freedom soon wears off. Still, cynic that he is, he continues to play life as a nasty game of humiliation. He collects information about people as he meets them again and again, and later uses it to manipulate them, realizing they have no memory of ever meeting him before. His basic game is to collect information to sucker people in, to make them believe he is somehow deeply and magically in tune with them because he seems to know them so well. While having sex with a woman he has seduced using these tactics, Phil momentarily recognizes that he actually loves Rita, but quickly turns that realization into another one of his ploys for seduction. He finds out Rita’s taste in cocktails, her love of French poetry and the mountains, her toasts to world peace, and uses these facts to present himself as the man of her dreams, pretending a soul attunement he can’t really feel. However, his ploys never work with Rita, who is just too sensible and good to fall for his line. Day after day ends with her slapping him in anger and disgust. Even his game of seduction is a failure, and every morning begins again with Sonny and Cher. He will never get Rita into bed, and it is always Groundhog Day. Phil’s despair deepens, and he becomes suicidal. He thinks the only choice left for him is to die and put a stop to this endless day once and for all. He also decides he needs to kill Phil the groundhog as well, sensing their fates are connected. After stealing a truck, he drives himself and the other Phil off a cliff, but to no avail. Day after Groundhog Day he attempts to kill himself—electrocuting himself with a toaster in the bathtub, diving off the town’s highest building, standing in front of a truck—and day after day he wakes up to “I’ve Got You, Babe” and the two inane announcers. He is unable to make anything happen, not even his death. Nothing will ever change.
If we can admit it, most of us have had moments (or even years) like Phil’s, feeling trapped in the endless routine of a long marriage, diaper changing and three a.m. feedings, a boring job, another holiday with the tedious relatives, the same commute every day. Our spouse’s love has long since lost its marvelous quality, and the appreciations we get from our colleagues no longer count toward making us feel special. We realize how little control we have over the seemingly endless series of boring and frustrating events. Of course, our tendency is to blame our circumstances for how trapped we feel and to long for a different life with more beautiful and satisfying relationships, one in which all these tedious and painful events wouldn’t keep happening. “Somewhere over the rainbow,” we think, lies another, truer life. But right now, it is always Groundhog Day. Our ego’s dream of every-flowing delight has turned into a nightmare. Nothing works. And when we really face the lack of choice, the way that reality just is, utterly uncaring of our egos’ preferences, most of us either go Phil’s way, delighting in petty meanness as a way of releasing our tensions, desperately trying to escape, defending against despair with cynicism and fantasy—or, just maybe, the gap opens wider, even despair falls away, and we have a glimpse of spaciousness as the thinking, scheming mind stops. In that state there is nothing to do but to accept our life just as it is, not because that’s a good thing to do, but because we deeply realize we have, in fact, no choice. It takes a lot of Groundhog Days, but Phil begins to get the point. He knows he wants to be free, and he knows he can’t change the fact that it is always Groundhog Day. Here is his core dilemma.
Indeed, it is everyone’s core dilemma. All of us are stuck in our own personal Groundhog Days, endlessly repeating the same patterns, always asking ourselves, “Is this all there is?” It seems that it takes a lot of repetitions to begin to wear down our egos, to convince us finally that our dream of endless novelty and permanent gratification is never, ever going to come true. We cling to that dream with such tenacity because, like Phil, we believe that we are that ego and that without those dreams life would be unbearable. Lacking any real connection to Being, ego provides the only ground and the only hope we have. We don’t give up easily. Round and round we go on the wheel of life and death. In this situation, where is there any freedom, any real selfhood? We are desperate to get out of here. We look to affairs, sports cars, gurus, trips, or medications to escape our predicament. But as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Nevertheless, as days and years go on, the alternations of gratifications and frustrations begin to grind the ego down, and just giving up is very tempting. Our dream of freedom seems lost.Eventually, Phil hits bottom. All his strategies have failed, and he is still here in Punxsutawney. Nothing he does makes a difference. Finally, he just tells Rita what’s happening to him not as a ploy to get anything from her, but simply out of a need to communicate his experience to another human being. Sensible girl that she is, Rita is initially skeptical, but Phil’s accumulated knowledge about their situation eventually convinces her. She resolves to spend the day with Phil so she can observe for herself, be a witness for him. She offers to meet him in his world, as an act of compassion.
Phil and Rita spend a magical day together, culminating by sitting on Phil’s bed while he teaches her to toss playing cards into a hat. She asks him, “Is this what you do with eternity?” In the growing openness, which is the gift of his helplessness, he acknowledges the truth of what she says and adds, “That’s not the worst part. The worst part is in knowing that tomorrow you won’t remember me, and you’ll treat me like a jerk again. I am a jerk. And it doesn’t matter.” Eventually Rita falls asleep, while Phil reads her poetry. His desire for her is palpable, and so is his growing love for her as a being. And the next morning he wakes up to Sonny and Cher. But now Phil is beginning to change. He takes to heart Rita’s suggestion that an eternally recurring day isn’t necessarily an awful thing. “It’s all in how you look at it.” Recognizing there is no escape from his situation, Phil begins to use his life as an opportunity to work on himself. Rather than just expecting admiration for his ego’s features, he decides to invest real effort into learning to play the piano. Every day seems like the first lesson, but, in fact, day-by-day Phil is progressing into a competent musician. He also takes up ice sculpture, an art form perfectly suited to small-town Pennsylvania in February. Working with the situation at hand, he begins to find that situation workable. He starts to make what might be called “experiments in compassion.” He tries to see what underlying needs other people are trying, in their distorted ways, to express, and attempts to fulfill those needs. He manifests an honest curiosity, not based on manipulation, and begins to emerge from his narcissistic self-preoccupation. Recognizing that he can do nothing for himself, he becomes interested in whether he can do something for others. He meets and befriends an old beggar and tries, night after night, to save his life. Time and again he fails. Again his sense of being in charge is exposed as fallacious. The old man’s destiny seems unchangeable, no matter what Phil does. So the remnants of his wish for control are thwarted; the only choice left is simply to surrender to what is, to a state beyond hope or despair.
If we are lucky, we can follow Phil’s path. We can give ourselves to some inner discipline, whether it is tai chi, sitting meditation, painting, or even ice sculpture. What matters is the acceptance of repetition. One traditional example compares the practice of meditation to a bird that drags a silk scarf across the top of a mountain; the mountain of ego wears away so slowly, and yet the only thing to do is to keep drawing the scarf over it day after day. In meditation (or any discipline), it is the willingness to face the moment and the self just as they are and to confront the boredom, discomfort, and dissatisfaction the mind produces. Little by little, the scarf wears away the mountain, and so with Phil. We can only imagine how many repetitions of Groundhog Day it must take for him to become so proficient on the piano or to achieve such beautiful ice sculptures.It is just that there’s nothing else to do, really. He’s found what the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön calls “the wisdom of no escape.”
Phil begins to find satisfaction and even happiness in simply doing his dharma, the naturally unfolding work he is given to do in order to become who he essentially is. Each day he catches the same kid falling from a tree; every day he saves a local politician from choking. He rescues the same women from a flat tire and learns to have a spare tire and jack at hand. He takes a piano lesson. Phil has found a sense of freedom in simply doing what is his to do, over and over, for the first time. Like Sam Wheat in Ghost, he knows from within what he has to do and is willing and able to do it. He is giving up on how he wants it and is falling in love with how it is—always different, always the same. He has reached a state even beyond acceptance, a state of gratitude for his life, just as it is and, most importantly, has broken his helpless identification with his ego. As Tibetan Lama Dzigar Kongtrül explains it, Egolessness is the true state of both self and phenomena. Egolessness of self is the realization that there is not a solid, singular, permanent self found within or aside from form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness; this ‘self ’ is nothing more than a concept that we impute upon these various aggregates that constitute our experience. In this way, ego lacks even a relative existence. Egolessness of phenomena is the realization that all phenomena are interdependently originated, which means that they do not possess an independent, objective existence. They only exist in a relative way. When we realize their true mode of existence—emptiness—we realize the egolessness or selflessness of phenomena.
And it is another Groundhog Day. This time, when he steps in front of the camera, Phil opens his heart in gratitude for the warmth of the hearts and hearths of the people of Punxsutawney and wishes for nothing more than “a long and lustrous winter.” Phil’s personal will is now united with the will of reality itself. He begins to realize the wisdom quoted by Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher: “Want what you have and don’t want what you don’t have. Here you will find true fulfillment.”And fulfillment is what Phil does find. He saves people, plays keyboards in a band, and sculpts ice. And at the end of one of those Groundhog Days, he finally opens his heart fully to his love for Rita, a love based not in trying to get support and admiration for his ego, but in his profound awe at meeting another being, one who embodies goodness itself. Phil is becoming a bodhisattva, a being whose whole purpose is to embody love and realization for the benefit of all. And not a grandiose bodhisattva—he does small things in a small town, yet every act, repeated time after time, becomes a meditation on love and the unity of all. Phil learns to act without attachment, because he knows that tomorrow Groundhog Day will happen all over again and that none of his actions will matter. Yet in the face of that realization, he saves people and plays keyboards in a band. And day after day he loves Rita, without hope and without agenda. He knows he can never succeed in seducing her, but still he is willing to love her, without hope of return. More and more, he senses her nature as goodness, and it is that goodness and purity he’s drawn to.
At the end of one Groundhog Day, Rita and Larry come into the annual Groundhog Day party. Rita hears from several townspeople about their heartfelt appreciation for Phil’s good deeds. She sees him playing keyboards in the band and is touched by his music. (There is a moment when Phil sees her watching him and lifts his Blues Brothers shades to show his vulnerable self to her.) Phil is no longer that guy who is bound to die “unwept, unhonor’d and unsung.” He has become someone necessary to the life of the town. Rita is increasingly moved by his genuine goodness, and when he is being “auctioned off ” for charity, she bids $338.84, everything she has, to buy him. Smart woman! A good man is hard to find. Phil is overwhelmed by Rita’s gesture, and yet the transit state has taught him not to cling. He simply gives his love to her and demonstrates his deepest feeling by creating an ice sculpture of her. His love enables him to capture the essence of who she is. He knows that the sculpture’s beauty will dissolve, but he no longer even cares that tomorrow everything will be gone. His moment of complete freedom comes when he looks into Rita’s eyes and declares, “No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now. And I love you.” Phil has come into the present and finds it complete. He falls asleep with a sense of fulfillment. And wakes again to Sonny and Cher, but this time it’s different. The announcers go on to a different topic, and when Phil turns his head he sees Rita sleeping beside him. He is incredulous. Something truly different is occurring, and, as Phil says, “Anything different is good.” As Rita awakens, he asks why she’s there with him. She responds with perfect simplicity: “You asked me to stay, so I stayed.” Growing more excited and even hopeful, Phil goes to the window and looks outside on a different street scene. A soft cover of fresh snow envelopes the town in silence. He is convinced that something new might really be happening. Returning to Rita, he makes real, openhearted contact that reveals his fragile hope. She responds with her own generosity, and they make love. Afterward, they walk out into the beautiful, snow-blanketed town of Punxsutawney. The love-filled Phil impulsively says, “Let’s live here.” And then wisely adds, like the transit veteran that he is, “We’ll rent to start.”