Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Groundhog Day, Samsara and Salt

One of my favorite movies of all time, even before I fell into Buddhism was the 1993 movie Groundhog Day staring Bill Murray. It didn't take long before me and all my friends were quoting lines from the movie, and even to this day if I meet someone named Phil, I have to say in a long whiny voice "PHIL? Phillllllll Connors?" I think even besides the fact the movie was incredibly hilarious, it has some unspoken message about it that speaks to the truth of our human condition.

Today, some Buddhist's point to this movie as an example of Samsara, and some temples even have screenings every February 2nd. But what is Samsara and what does Groundhog Day have to do with it? Samsara has been translated into a few different types of meanings in the Buddhist tradition, depending greatly on who you hear it from. However, loosely speaking, Samsara is this wheel of life we are on, these ups and down and endless cycles and perhaps we can even say it stands in opposition of Nirvana.

Some would link it to the idea of rebirth or reincarnation and some tie it into Karma and the laws of cause and effect. For this post purpose, I'd like to show it in a more broad term and how the character of Phil Connors (Bill Murray) cycled endlessly through different scenarios each to day to try to figure a way out of his predicament. To speed this along, (spoiler alert) here is a decent synopsis from Wikipedia.

Self-centered TV meteorologist Phil Connors, his producer Rita, and cameraman Larry from the fictional Pittsburgh television station WPBH-TV9 travel to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities with Punxsutawney Phil for the station. Phil, who has grown tired of this assignment, grudgingly gives his report and attempts to return back to Pittsburgh when a blizzard that he predicted would miss the area has shut down the main roads, forcing Phil and his team to stay in town an extra day.

Phil wakes up to find that he is reliving February 2 again; everyone else is repeating the same actions as from what he saw the day before, seemingly unaware of the time loop, though Phil remains aware of the events of the previous day. At first he is confused, but when the loop continues, he starts to try to take advantage of the situation without fear of long-term consequences, learning secrets from the town's residents, seducing women, stealing money, and driving drunk. However, attempts to get closer to Rita are repeatedly shut down. With each passage of the loop, Phil becomes despondent; during one loop, he kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil and after a long police chase, drives over a cliff, appearing to kill both Phil and the groundhog. However, Phil wakes up in the next loop and finds that nothing has changed; further attempts at suicide are just as fruitless as he continues to find himself back at the start of February 2.

Phil continues to try to learn more about Rita, and when he reveals his situation to her and the knowledge he's gained about the town's residents, she opens up to him and suggests he try to use his situation to help benefit the town. Phil uses her advice and the time loop to help as many people around town as possible, as well as bettering himself such as by learning to play jazz piano and speaking French. Phil, now engrossed with the town's celebration, is able to admit his love to Rita, and she accepts and returns her love. After the evening dance, the two retire together to Phil's room.

Phil wakes up the next day, and finds the time loop has broken; it is now February 3 and Rita is still in bed with him. As the team prepare to return to Pittsburgh, Phil and Rita talk about eventually settling down in Punxsutawney, but they'll "rent first."

No matter what we do, we are always here, always now. Sometimes we don't want to be here anymore and sometimes we fear losing what we have and cling onto things. Phil realizes even in a world without earthly consequences, our happiness we gain by doing all the things we ever wanted doesn't last. He also see's that no matter how hard he trys to not be here, to get away, he can't. It's this series of our high high's and low low's that we cycle through in our own lives. The happiness never lasts nor all the things we love, nor the sadness we experience or the things we hate. We try and try and try to either cling to those things we love or we try avoid those things we hate.

If we just watch however, this attachment to these events and objects may remain, but all things change; and what we love changes to hate and hate changes to love. This Samsara, this ride of life can't really be controlled in the manner of attachment, but our realization of this yearning can be distinguished. Phil realizes he is here, and there is nothing he can do about it. He eventually learns to truly care for the people he crosses path with and desires happiness for all the citizens of the town. He ultimately understands that he can find a sort of humble, satisfying happiness by just entering each day with an open mind and open heart. In the end, he shows a great selflessness, wakes up, gets the girl and the loop ends.

Our lives aren't like this Hollywood ending usually. However, we can learn to slowly get off this cycle, this wheel of attachment, this Samsara. I think with right concentration, understanding, effort and mindfulness we can begin to watch and see this world unfold, unattached to the specific up's and down's. Maybe a sort of divine acceptance and awareness?

As for reincarnation, even though this post has not a lot to do about it, I wanted to throw out this reflection. Perhaps, this rebirth, this endlessness is really that in each moment we have a chance to wake up, to be aware. Each moment, this object of mind, time, is a relative measure of us staying on this wheel of Samsara. Each moment we can wake up, be present, unattached, or in each moment we are reborn in a new thought, a new delusion. I'm probably way off base here and more than likely was a slug in my past life because I really, really detest salt.

"I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank Piña Coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over and over and over..."
"Today is tomorrow. It happened!"
"No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I'm happy now."
~Phil Connors, Groundhog Day

(Pictures Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)


  1. What is it with Bill Murray and rodents?

    Caddyshack with Bill Murray as Carl Spackler:

    Carl: So I jump ship in Hong Kong and make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas.
    Angie: A looper?
    Carl: A looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I'm a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald... striking. So, I'm on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one -- big hitter, the Lama -- long, into a ten-thousand foot crevice, right at the base of this glacier. And do you know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga...gunga -- gunga lagunga. So we finish the eighteenth and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, "Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know." And he says, "Oh, uh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness." So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.

  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnHaTlI1p7o

  3. LOL One of the best scene's from any movie ever!

    So I got that going for me. hahaha