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Groundhog Day and the Cosmic Sense

Tom Armstrong

There are two types of people in this world: those that love Groundhog Day, and those that can't appreciate it. Our job is to exterminate the latter group. -- Adum Miller, webmaster GHD Home Page

[Beware!! This article includes many spoilers. Any reader who has not seen the film Groundhog Day recently should stop now, shut off the computer, rent the film at Blockbuster, watch the film, take a shower, eat a peach, turn the computer back on, get online, find this article and then -- and only then -- read it.]

A still from the motion picture Groundhog Day
Rita [Andie MacDowell] and
Phil [Bill Murray] dancing.

"Groundhog Day," the 1993 Bill Murray comedy, is a curiously crafted film.  It is peopled by many minor characters who are artificial in the way that situation-comedy characters are -- yet the film is ambitious (and rises to its ambitions) with a keen sensitivity to the dynamic of change to the central character.

At the very beginning of the film there is something very interesting for a Buddhist audience.  We are introduced to the Murray character (Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors) as he gives his report in front of a bluescreen.  He is there gesticulating with essentially nothing behind him [signifying the true emptiness of Self], talking about the nation's weather.  He is grandly overdressed, in a black three-piece suit (like no other weatherman I have ever seen), befitting the egocentricity of the character as we quickly come to know him.  As we see him on a TV monitor (with the "blank" bluescreen now substituted for a satellite-view of the day's weather) he acts as if he is blowing a mass of cold air eastwardly toward the Pittsburgh area.  European paintings, a millenium or more ago, used to depict the air being blown by God or cherubim to explain the cause of weather in just this way. [Fifteen minutes later in the movie, Connors will deny a blizzard starting to flurrying all about him (which he had predicted would miss western Pennsylvania) in a conversation with a policeman:  "What blizzard?" he says "I make the weather!"]

In sharp contrast to the Connors character, Rita the TV producer (played by Andie MacDowell) is introduced to us as she plays in front of the bluescreen after the broadcast, wearing a plain blue coat.  On the monitor, she essentially disappears against this backdrop.  The qualities of Rita, as we come to know her, fit this depiction: she is far less ego-attached.  Later in the movie she will say "I just like to go with the flow (and) see where it leads me."

Phil, Rita and cameraman Larry (played by Chris Elliott) drive to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day festivities that centers on a groundhog named Phil, who, according to legend, predicts six more weeks of bad wintery weather if the sun is out on the morning of February 2.  Everything in the first fifteen minutes of the movie sets up the character differences between Phil and Rita.  In addition to displays of vanity--calling himself "The Talent," his unwillingness to stay in the largest hotel which he considers "a fleabag," etc.--we hear Phil ridicule people, calling them morons, making fun of people in ways they cannot be aware of, and we also are privy to some of Phil's internal monolog [When he talks to the landlady of the bed & breakfast on the first Groundhog Day, he mutters "you can't even spell espresso" just under her ability to hear him, meaning that he thinks she's a fool.]  Phil is certainly vainglorious, but he is also a tortured man.  Though he sees job advancement in his future, it is life inself in its untidiness that tortures him.  Before the movie's gimmick of the Groundhog Day holiday repeating thousands of times, Phil is trapped--in a pattern of thinking that saps him of the ability to learn from and enjoy the life he has.  Phil is classically Unaware.

After the situation has been set up -- Phil has given the first news report on the holiday activities and we have seen Phil's first reaction to a dozen of Punxsutawney's citizens -- the film's gimmick comes into effect and we witness the evolution of his relationship with the people in his small universe and the changes that come over him. The films's gimmick has become rather spectacularly famous: It is that Phil, for reasons wholely unexplained, is stuck in this one Groundhog Day, having to repeat it thousands upon thousands of times until he finds the key to move on to February 3.

Phil the Weatherman by no means undergoes a complete transformation to Enlightenment or Cosmic Consciousness, but the stages of change that Phil experiences is not uncoincidentally similar to the marks of the Cosmic Sense, as listed in Dr. Bucke's classic study in 1901, Cosmic Consciousness:  A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind.  In an early chapter, "From Self to Cosmic Consciousness," Bucke lists the signs that this sense is present in an individual.Bucke wrote,

"...briefly and explicitly, the marks of the Cosmic Sense...are:
    1. The subjective light.
    2. The moral elevation.
    3. The intellectual illumination.
    4. The sense of immortality.
    5. The loss of the fear of death.
    6. The loss of the sense of sin.
    7. The suddenness, instantaneousness, of the awakening.
    8. The previous character of the man--intellectual, moral and physical.
    9. The age of illumination.
    10. The added charm to the personality so that men and women are always (?) strongly attracted to the person.
    11. The transfiguration of the subject of the changes as seen by others when the cosmic sense is actually present.

Most of the book is devoted to documentable instances of persons with the Cosmic Sense.  The first person discussed is Buddha, which is not surprising, for the book is a work of zen (whatever the author may have intended), looking at manifestations from the vantage of a detached third party.  Most of the eleven marks that Bucke deliniates are touched on in Phil's ascent to higher consciousness.

When Phil awakens on the first repeating Groundhog Day, he is ill, disoriented and stunned.  He quickly becomes aware that his is more that a simple instance of deja vu.  The world has been rocked off its axis; the impossible is happening; all the comforts of a predictable universe where his habits of thought had succor have vanished.  The second repeating day is much the same, with Phil a little angrier.  He continues to be abusive toward people and exhibits the same old habits of thought. On this day he explores a medical fix to his situation, consulting a physician and a psychiatrist, and sees that there is no escape from the trap he finds himself in.

On the next day depicted in the movie, Phil sees that there are no consequences to his actions.  At this point, Phil drives on railroad tracks and smashes into a line of parked cars.  The fact that any day is repeated means that the prior experience of a day is undone--so his arrest by the police is obviated.  Here Phil begins to experience joy in having his life have no meaning.  "I'm not going to live by their rules any more." he says.  He's freed of all responsibility.  We see him on a subsequent day smoking and stuffing himself with fattening foods.  He tells Rita "I don't even have to floss."  Here, Rita recites a famous Sir Walter Scott poem with the lines "doubly dying will go down; unwept, unaltered and unsung."  On subsequent days he seduces a resident named Nancy, telling her he will marry her, steals a bag of money, and indulges his fantasies.  (He has one woman wear a short maid's dress and insists that she call him "Bronco.")  And with each new day, everything is erased.

At this point, Phil begins a long sequence of days where he attempts to seduce Rita.  As he learns more and more about her, and corrects his errors, he is able eventually to get her up into his room before she slaps him and runs off.  But the artifice to his effort is something Rita sees through and he cannot succeed in establishing a close relationship with her.  Essentially, Phil is unchanged; he continues to treat others as objects that he either ridicules or manipulates.  In his pre-Groundhog Day life, his "habits of being" worked for him; but stuck in a day that loops every 24 hours, he can only struggle to expand the depth (or meaning) of the period of time--and he is not yet able to bring forth that ability from within himself.

Now, Phil falls into a depression and commits suicide, repeatedly ["doubly dying"], but still awakens again for more Groundhog Days in Punxsutawney.  Phil, with the knowledge he has of all his (24-hour) lives, comes to know that he is "an immortal; a god."  ("I've killed my self so many times, I don't exist anymore," he says.) At this point, Phil has undergone a change which results in an honest conversation with Rita in the coffee shop.  Now, he and Rita are able to have a real relationship, but it, too, ends with the cycle of another, new day.

But having found his "emptiness of self" Phil begins a different experience of existence, a new pattern of thinking.  He begins reading, learning to play the piano and ice sculpt--and to care about people.

On the last Groundhog Day, Phil and Rita become acquainted late in the evening, but it is enough time for them to come to have a close personal relationship.  And with a new dawn--on February 3--they begin a life together as mated loving partners.

Is Phil Enlightened?  No.  But much of what happens in the way of Phil's spiritual maturity matches the marks of Bucke's Cosmic Sense.  Phil is certainly (b) morally elevated and (c) intellectually illuminated.  His efforts at suicide can have (d) given him an ongoing sense of immortality and (e) a loss of fear of death.  Phil has certainly undergone a (h) change of character.  The Cosmic Sense usually comes upon a person in his late thirties, and, we are told, Phil was twenty years out of high school, just right for (i) the age of illumination.  As for (j) and (k), Phil seems to exude extraordinary charm at the end of the movie, based on people's reactions to him.

** * **

[This article first appeared in Zen Unbound Mach 1, in May of 1998. Back when the Internet was new (if you can remember those old days when things were done that seem weird and primative today), the article was a "Los Angeles Times pick" -- on February 2, 1999. ZU had the honor of displaying a globe with a satellite orbitting it as an iconic trophy. (Truth be known, The Times' short article on their picks that day mentioned us in a somewhat disparaging way.)

[A year or two ago, the article was found in an internet crawlspace by Paul Schindler, a Groundhog Day movie-phile, and he has kindly been hosting it at his website in a section called "Groundhog Day The Movie, Buddhism and Me."]