November 13, 2013
Recurrence, salvation, and the bodhisattva way
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
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. 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. Phil Conners (Bill Murray) is the weatherman at a Pittsburgh television station. He is both preeningly vain and fundamentally insecure. Imagine Phil’s horror when he wakes up the morning after Groundhog Day and discovers that it is happening all over again. It is Groundhog Day, over and over again.
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 3 am 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.
And the next morning Phil wakes up (once again) to Sonny and Cher. But now he is beginning to change.
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 is 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. He is giving up on how he wants it and is falling in love with how it is—always different, always the same.
Adapted from Death at the Movies: Hollywood’s Guide to the Hereafter by Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli. Reproduced with permission of Quest Books (www.questbooks.net), the imprint of the Theosophical Publishing House © 2013 by Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli.