Many will recall the movie comedy “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray as Phil Conners, an insufferable weatherman from Pittsburgh. Conners, a minor local celebrity who believes himself destined for much better things, resents his piddling assignment to report on the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pa.
The plan is to return to Pittsburgh after the festivities. But when a blizzard shuts down the highway, Phil finds himself trapped in Punxsutawney. He wakes up the next day, only to discover that it’s not the next day at all. It’s Groundhog Day all over again.
For some reason he’s trapped in Feb. 2, forced to relive the same day over and over again.
“What if there is no tomorrow?” he asks at one point, adding: “There wasn’t one today.”
It is a question that will resonate with millions living in quarantine today – as people wake up every morning wondering if the day ahead will be any different from the 24 hours they have just endured.
But one lesson at the heart of the movie is that because we can never count on tomorrow, life must be lived fully in the present, not just for oneself, but also for others. Ultimately, “Groundhog Day” gives us a lesson in mindfulness.
Metaphor for mindlessness?
Phil was trapped in Groundhog Day, perhaps for hundreds of years. The original script said 10,000 years, though the director reportedly said it was 10. Either way, that’s a long time to wake up to the same song every morning.
Finally, Phil awakens, and it’s Feb. 3, that is, the next day.
Perhaps what brings about tomorrow for Phil is that he learns to practice mindfulness.
Phil’s repetitive existence can stand for a metaphor for mindlessness, for how people get stuck in cycles of reactivity, addiction and habit. Locked in routines, life can lose its luster.
It can seem as if nothing people do matters all that much. “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” Phil asks two local guys at the bowling alley. “That about sums it up for me,” one of them responds.
Contemporary practices of mindfulness can trace their roots back to Buddhism. Many Buddhists believe that all living beings go through sequential births until they achieve salvation. An ancient word often translated as “rebirth” or “reincarnation” literally means “again-becoming,” or what we might think of as “repetitive existence.”
That’s Phil’s life, stuck in Groundhog Day. That’s what Phil is trying to escape, and what many face in COVID times – repetitive existence, a life stuck in one gear, frozen by habits and patterns that make every day feel the same, as though nothing matters.
Taking a moment – to respond
If Phil’s dilemma is a metaphor for mindlessness, Phil’s awakening is a metaphor for mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of experiencing life as it is happening, squarely in the now, without immediately reacting to it or being carried away by it. That grants people the space to make choices about how to respond.
That is what Phil does in the movie – he escapes repetitive existence by overcoming his initial conditioned, obnoxious, egotistical reactions to the world. At the beginning of the movie, he thinks himself too good for Groundhog Day. He wants to escape Punxsutawney as fast as possible.
As the movie continues, Phil accepts his situation and turns repetition into an opportunity for growth. He begins to find meaning in the place where he is trapped. He embraces life, fully, which also means that he notices his own suffering and the suffering of those around him.
Mindfulness in pandemic times
Mindfulness does not mean turning away from difficulty. It is a practice of meeting difficulty with compassion. Though Phil finally accepts that there might not be a tomorrow, nevertheless he acts to ensure that if tomorrow comes for himself and those around him, it will be better than today.
For example, Phil saves the lives of at least two people: a young boy who, before Phil’s intervention, falls out of a tree onto a hard sidewalk; and the town’s mayor, who, before Phil bursts in to give him the Heimlich, chokes on his lunch.
Phil’s mindful awareness of what is happening in the moment allows him to act for tomorrow without losing track of today. Phil’s mindfulness, and his compassion, drive the movie’s central love story between Phil and Rita. At the beginning of the movie, he was capable of loving only himself; by the end of the movie, Phil has learned to love mindfully – and wakes up to a new day.
This is a good lesson for us all, stuck, as we are, in a perpetual pandemic Groundhog Day, and dreaming, as we are, of tomorrow.
This article by Jeremy David Engels of Penn State is published through The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.