Groundhog Buddhism April 20th, 2009

Every now and then somebody writes an article or gives a talk about Groundhog Day and its relationship with Buddhism.  These are fun for me because I usually learn a lot, and of course get to be amazed (over and over) at the reach of this little movie.  One of these articles came to my attention last week, this one in the Times of India.

The author of this article, Shobhan Saxena, is reporting on a meeting of minds between a group of priests (including the Dalai Lama) and scientists to chew on mind/body connections.   (I would love to have been a cow on the wall in that room!)   How amazing that they would use this extraordinary forum to talk about my movie.

The article is titled “Groundhog Buddhism” and uses Groundhog Day references throughout; however, a careful reading shows that, no, the Dalai Lama and the others never actually talked about Groundhog Day or even mentioned it – that part was all Mr. Saxena’s clever way to suck in the reader.  But wouldn’t it have been cool if they did?  I think that conversation would have gone a little something like this:

Just kidding.  I have no idea what they would have said.

But Mr Saxena did make a lot of interesting statements in the article and I thought I’d address a couple of them.

“Bill Murray’s wisecracking and cynical character in ‘Groundhog Day’ finally sees the light when he detaches himself from his self-centered existence.”

Hm.  I’d say he sees A light, not THE light. 

Phil does eventually become conscious of a world beyond his self-centered existence and he responds to it, no longer singularly driven by his own needs and desires as he was before February 2nd. 

Giving up your limited and illusory sense of self may indeed be the true answer to enlightenment, but I don’t think it’s necessarily proven by this movie.   However, there is no doubt in my mind that Phil’s perception of the world expanded.  The boundaries between himself and the world around him broke down considerably.  His life was filled with many more possibilities than he had before imagined.  Did he see “the light”?  I just know that his soul became lighter.

“Living beings undergo repeated birth, death and rebirth based on their innate misconception of reality.”

That one seems to be true, or at least seems like a reasonable way to think about things.  Any conception of reality that doesn’t include what another person might be conceiving seems to me to be limited at least by that much.  So unless you’ve thought of everything your conception of reality is a misconception, right? 

Phil goes through lots of cycles of death and rebirth – and not just starting with the toaster in the tub.  His various cycles of self-understanding include thinking that he is a victim of the universe; thinking that he is the one who writes the rules for everyone else; thinking that life is pointless; thinking that death is escape from suffering; believing that he is a god; believing that his unique vantage point should be used to help others; believing that his vantage point is not unique; believing that infinity lies in a single day; believing that love is everywhere.   As each phase comes to an end, one definition of “Phil” is left behind and new one emerges. 

I’d say all of this goes to support the idea – whether actual or just metaphoric – that cycles of birth and death churn through ever shrinking misconceptions of reality.

“Many a monk has argued that the ‘self ’ is ‘an illusion caused by ignorance’. “

Maybe so.  I mean, it can be a useful illusion, as distinguishing yourself from other people doesn’t seem like a necessarily bad idea.  It may not help you reach enlightenment, but if your self is the one that’s lactose intolerant you’re going to want to know who gets the soy latte at Peets.

Phil does come face to face with his ignorance about himself many times.  When you think about it, every time you learn something new you are discovering an area in yourself that was once ignorant.  Phil expands his vision of what is possible for him as the movie progresses, and his growing empathy for other people (and perhaps animals and plants, too) is all evidence of Phil’s expanding concept of self.   That makes sense to me.

 “Can the self guide itself out of its self-created misery?”

But I thought that “self” was just an illusion.  Can an illusion guide itself out of the illusion that it exists and is miserable?  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say “Yes” because as a movie writer I understand how movies, which are just the illusion of reality, can actually change how a person feels about things.  And because I’m a positive person and inclined to say “yes” to most things.

“ How did he do it? Did his brain guide him? Or did he guide the brain?”

I suppose there are a variety of ways that people can become less ignorant about themselves and the world around them, and all would involve paying attention.  In Groundhog Day the tool used to force Phil to pay attention was repetition – with the added stipulation that there was no escape: he HAD to face his life.

The world provided Phil with a repeating day.  When you experience something enough times, over and over again, you might actually begin to see its multitude of pieces and perspectives.  A fresh repetition can reinforce an idea, can call attention to itself.  (Interestingly, the drone of repetition can also make things disappear, fade into the background, lose our attention.  More on this another day).  

Phil did not set out to become a better person, and so did not think and strategize his way toward greater understanding.  That growth was his natural reaction to the world presented to him.  That is not to say that a real person couldn’t study and meditate and pray himself into greater consciousness.  I’m just saying that Phil didn’t really do that.  But I do believe that the repetitious nature of our naturally passing days similarly serves to present a repeating world to us, one that changes us by staying the same, and by changing us that repeating world changes.

“He kept repeating himself till he realized his true self.”

That’s a nice thought and sounds true. 

I think that Phil arrived at a place where he was at ease with the outside world and with himself, at a place of peace and balance.  Is that a true self?  What happens when the outside world suddenly changes?   Phil’s true self was never tested so we didn’t get to see that part.  

– – – – –

There you have it, my friends.  Like Mr. Saxina I used the draw of Groundhog Day to talk about things I know nothing about.   Hey – it’s fun being Buddhist for a day.


Comment by A Long
2009-04-22 05:02:20

Very interesting.

You concluded with, “I think that Phil arrived at a place where he was at ease with the outside world and with himself, at a place of peace and balance. Is that a true self? What happens when the outside world suddenly changes? Phil’s true self was never tested so we didn’t get to see that part.” That is what I wonder about. What happens next?

In “Groundhog Day” Phil ratchets, eventually, in a positive direction. What happens when he is freed into the larger world and the ratchet catch is released. Does he backslide? If he does, how will he react when he realizes that? Maybe Punxatawney is merely the preliminaries. It’s simple enough with limited possibilities. Who will Phil be when his possibilities grow infinite?

I’d love to view a sequel.

Comment by Tymothy
2009-05-31 16:07:22

After having watched the movie just today (i watch it once a year, i believe the manner would be characterized as “cinematherapy”), i found myself asking the same question. What does the rest of Phil’s life look like? I find that such questions are a hallmark of a great character. When the viewer/reader asks “what was the character’s life prior to the story; what was he or she like after…” these type of questions are what bring the writer and the appreciative viewer/reader into intimate dialogue.
Another interesting thing i found watching this time was that whether the characters were aware of it or not, they too were changing. Though Phil was caught in the loop and this is the focus, the secondary characters are each reliving the day as well. There is growth in these characters, this seemed evident of Rita especially. Would this character have so easily jumped into Phil’s bed at the outset of the movie? I doubt it. Perhaps there is a quantum aspect of growth here as well? Something to consider.
Lastly, i find it remarkable that Ramis removed the “curse” as was in the script yet offered no cause in the movie, i’m curious how you feel about that Danny?
Cheers, Tymothy

Comment by Wizzard
2011-06-01 22:11:07

I can not believe how many angles this movie has.
I really don’t think that it is one man strategic thinking,but so many aspects…
woman, modern woman, peoples fear of death, of life, political and social dependecies of money society, hierarchy in it….power of stupidity, carrierism…
I am excited by sequence of action when bill is stucked in groundhogs day…
Not only selection, but sequence of it….great work….

I really don’t like this movie as funny one…it is slow and Mc dowell is rigid…but as philosophical movie, it is on first place for me…
Not recognized in philosophical circles, but it is my thinking…

Moulin Rouge is on second place..for now..

Thanks for the movie….

Comment by Ge-or-Ge
2012-01-17 02:25:08

What was it like working with Harold Remis?

Comment by Danny
2012-01-17 06:32:44

Working to develop any screenplay is tough, but I really enjoyed working with Harold. He has a very gentle, friendly, and reassuring manner. And what I admired most about him during our time together was how seriously he took my contributions and opinions. I was pretty much a novice at the time and he was a journeyman, yet he always treated me as an equal.
Thanks for the question. Much more details to come – check back in about a week.

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