Comedic genius Harold Ramis passed on Monday. Ramis was involved as a writer, actor, or director in some of the most famous comedies ever made including Ghostbusters, Animal House, and Groundhog Day. While all of Ramis’ movies entertain, one, which he co-wrote and directed, Groundhog Day, stands out for me as great art; not only is it a wonderful romantic-comedy, at the same time, it teaches spiritual truths. Chief among those truths is this: If we are waiting for when circumstances are right before we chose Love we are going to be waiting a very long time.
In Groundhog Day Bill Murray plays a cynical weatherman, Phil Connors. Phil has been sent by his Pittsburgh television station to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover Groundhog Day. Phil is a burnt out prima donna who is going through the motions.
After covering the Groundhog Day ceremony, Phil, his producer played by Andie MacDowell, and his cameraman set out to return home. A blizzard closes the highways; Phil is forced to return to the bread and breakfast in Punxsutawney where he stayed in the night before.
When he wakes up the next morning, the clock radio is playing the same song it did the day before. Phil soon realizes that it is again Groundhog Day. Initially, Phil is confused and alarmed as fate forces him to replay the same day over and over. Next, Phil tries to take advantage of the circumstances by gaining worldly riches and by seducing women. When neither women nor money changes Phil’s feelings of self-loathing; Phil tries to commit suicide. That doesn’t work either; he wakes up the next morning, again, to Groundhog Day.
As he is experiencing Groundhog Day over and over, Phil is externalizing. When we externalize we try and find an outer cause for our inner-state of mind. When we externalize, we are wrong 100% of the time. Our feelings come from our thinking. So when Phil believes that he is upset because he is in Punxsutawney, he is absolutely wrong.
There can be no compromise in expressing a universal truth, and Ramis doesn’t equivocate. Phil continues to suffer as long as he believes that by manipulating his external circumstances he can escape the dreadful feelings in his mind and be happy.
“The world we see merely reflects our own internal frame of reference – the dominate ideas, wishes, and emotions in our minds,” teaches A Course in Miracles. Phil thinks otherwise for a long time; but eventually, he comes to realize he is wrong. The problem is not in the world, the problem is Phil.
As with all of us, this is not an easy lesson to learn. It is not clear from the movie how many times Phil repeats his day. Harold Ramis and co-writer Danny Rubin intended the events in the movie to represent approximately 10,000 days.
Does that sound extreme? Not to me. If we reflect on how many seemingly small patterns are hard to change, we know that Ramis and Rubin are representing universal truths. Indeed, the term groundhog day is now commonly used to convey being stuck in an unpleasant situation.
Simply, Phil’s only way out is to choose love. So finally, after many years, something shifts in Phil. He realizes that if his outer perception of the world and his inner feelings are ever to change, he is going to have to make that decision first. And so, Phil begins his journey. With his seemingly infinite time, Phil becomes a virtuoso pianist, a virtuoso ice sculptor, and most importantly, someone who genuinely cares for and tries to help others in the town.
Because he is identifying with love, there is a shift in Phil relationship’s with Andie MacDowell. Instead of trying to seduce Andie MacDowell, he now genuinely falls in love with her. Where Punxsutawney was once a living hell, for Phil, Punxsutawney is now heaven on earth.
The shift to love can be described this way: Phil begins to ignore his thinking about “when I get this” or “when I escape from that” and chooses to live fully in the now. If “when” is gone, only now and Love remain. Phil’s journey is our journey.
A common fear I hear expressed is that if I chose Love, I will lose my personality and become a pushover. Ramis tackles those fears in Groundhog Day. Having chosen Love there is now a more vibrant Phil without his dysfunctional encumbrances. But is Phil a pushover? For many days, the old Phil has been mean to an old high school classmate who has been trying to sell him insurance. The new Phil buys a lot of insurance, but when asked by the salesman to celebrate by going to dinner Phil replies: “Let’s not spoil a good day.”
By accounts Ramis was a spiritual seeker who walked his talk. In Caddyshack, a film he also directed and co-wrote, Ramis has Bill Murray’s character relate a story about a time he caddied for the Dalai Lama:
So we finish the eighteenth and [the Dalai Lama] 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.
Perhaps better than any other movie, Groundhog Day teaches that it is our thoughts alone that determine our experience of our world and that waiting for “when” to choose Love is a game we can never win. The truths revealed in Groundhog Day could only come from “total consciousness,” so indeed, Harold Ramis had that going him.