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Monday, February 29, 2016

Groundhog Day & Reincarnation

by Cary Bayer

As I write this piece, it’s February 2, Groundhog Day, and I’m doing what I’ve done for umpteenth Groundhog Days before this one—watching Harold Ramis’s comic spiritual masterpiece, Groundhog Day. What makes this comedy by the director of Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Analyze This a spiritual film? The biggest reason: it’s a funny romantic metaphor for reincarnation. More on this later, but first the plot.

Phil Connors, egocentric acerbic weatherman for a Pittsburgh television station, portrayed by uber wise guy Bill Murray, is transformed on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA, where the annual event has been occurring for 130 years. Everyone experiences the festivities in one day but for him that day keeps on going many times over. It’s a Capra-esque/Serling-esque picture—think It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Twilight Zone.

When Murray’s character wakes up on February 3, it’s still February 2 for everyone, but he soon knows exactly what will happen when it will happen because he keeps living the same day. For him there’s no tomorrow, just eternal February 2. He tells his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) that he’s a god. She forgets this the following “day,” as does everyone else who forgets everything that he does.

Beyond Karma

He soon discovers that he can do anything he wants without facing lasting consequences; in other words, he’s transcended karma. So after the frustration of living the same day fades, he hedonistically indulges in sensual pleasures like gluttony, lust, and greed. After tiring of this, he falls into despair and attempts to kill himself many times, only to wake up the next day safely just where he was “the day before” at 6 AM with Sonny and Cher singing “I Got you Babe” on his clock radio alarm.
In time, he becomes attracted to his producer, who he previously dismissed for her apple pie view of life. He spends “day” after day learning what she loves to manipulate his chances at carnal pleasure. He learns piano and French, but all to no avail. On one date, she says, “It’s a perfect day. You couldn’t plan a day like this.” To which he replies, “Well, you can. It just takes an awful lot of work.”

As his love for her grows, his concern for humanity grows, as well. In “time,” with each new “incarnation,” he becomes a kind of saint-like hero, treating a homeless beggar who he knows will die that night to a bountiful lunch; he repeatedly saves a boy falling out of a tree; and performs Heimlich on a choking diner every “day.”

Reincarnation: Life as a Do-Over

Those who believe in reincarnation see it as a way in which the Universe offers a giant do-over. You can indulge any desire you choose, do anything you choose, and you’ll keep coming back to Earth in a new body, says this doctrine, until you discover the deeper meaning of existence. In other words, until you get it right. The “it” is the realization that you are, in fact, an undying eternal Spirit. The experience of this fact is known in spiritual circles as Enlightenment, Awakening, or Nirvana. It’s the release from the wheel of karma and the cycle of life after death after life that we call reincarnation.
In the case of Groundhog Day, Murray’s weatherman doesn’t actually gain Self-Knowledge, but he does learn true love, a Hollywood metaphor for the more sublime consciousness that the Buddha taught. The Murray character has a major shift in consciousness; what was once an arrogant know-it-all, firmly rooted in his ego, has softened to become someone who genuinely cares about everyone. He becomes the most beloved person in town. And he treats Rita like the Bodhisattvas of Buddhism treat humanity—prioritizing her happiness over his own, the way they’re dedicated to the awakening of all others, even before that of their own. When he truly loves her more than anything else, his spell is broken, just like in the fairy tales, and when he wakes up it’s finally February 3. He’s liberated from an endless February 2, and he’s metaphorically liberated from having to come back. He has found that life is worth living and loving.