Harold Ramis, the wonderful comic writer-director, has died at age 69. He made us laugh, which is gift enough in this world. That his films, like Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Ghostbusters, usually succeeded in being funny while maintaining a gentle and generous spirit made the gift even richer. But beyond that, movies (as I try to show in Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies) can point us all to a more enlightened consciousness, and Ramis's most significant and lasting contribution to the cinema of nirvana is Groundhog Day.
In case you're visiting from Saturn and haven't seen it yet, Groundhog Day (directed by Ramis and co-written with Danny Rubin) stars Bill Murray as a TV weatherman who is mean-spirited, self-centered, and, most of all, embittered. Early in the film, he tells the television audience, "I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be gray, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life." On a visit to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of Punxsutawney Phil, the famous weather-forecasting groundhog, he finds himself trapped in a time warp, living the same February 2 over and over again.
This prison of pointless, endless redundancy is a fitting metaphor for the way we may feel about our lives. It's exactly what Shakespeare has Macbeth discover: "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time;/And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death."
In his efforts to escape, our hero tries every kind of selfishness and exploitation. Finally, after exhausting all other possibilities, he tries being kind -- starting with the homeless man he has walked past in all the previous editions of his day. This lifts the spell. Kindness, it turns out, is the way to liberate not only others but ourselves. In a nice, subtle touch, it's never mentioned that the hero's name, Phil, is the same as the groundhog's, hinting that in some way he's the groundhog. We're all the groundhog. What immobilizes us is our own shadow, our own projected darkness, and that's what perpetuates the cold grayness of our lives. (The movie takes us through exactly 42 Groundhog Days, extending the winter of Phil's discontent by the traditional six weeks.) As we begin to project light instead, we light our own path and move along.
In one way or another, the great spiritual traditions all recognize this best of all possible ways to live our lives. We don't have to leave it to someone else to save the world with kindness. When we put some distant Buddha or son of God in charge of taking care of everyone else, we let ourselves off the hook too easily. The Bible says, "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God" (Romans 8:14). In Buddhism, this spirit of enlightened care and compassion is called bodhichitta. As the 6th century Buddhist sage Shantideva summarized it, "One should always look straight at sentient beings as if drinking them in with the eyes, thinking, 'Relying on them alone, I shall attain buddhahood.' "
This is not just a poetic fancy but a practice, a way to bring your prayers out of the church or your meditation off the cushion and into the world. Among other things, it means that whether or not you give money to the beggar, you don't avert your eyes. That's not always easy, and it's not supposed to be. It's supposed to shake your shit up.
As long as we're here, we might as well be saints. Saints aren't special people sent from the heavens -- that would be too easy. They're ordinary people who point themselves in the direction of goodness and keep putting one foot in front of the other till it takes them all the way. As the saying goes, they're sinners who kept going. If you've really made the commitment to keep going, it almost doesn't matter how far you've gotten: the outcome is assured.
In Buddhism, this compassionate resolve is expressed in the vow of the bodhisattva: "As long as space remains, as long as sentient beings remain, may I too remain and dispel the miseries of the world." This is the longest of long-term commitments -- stretching over innumerable life situations and (if there is such a thing) over innumerable lifetimes -- to abide in the world of problems until, with our help, all others have found the place where all problems dissolve.
In 19th century Brazil, slaves who escaped from the plantations formed their own small enclaves in the countryside. There they developed the fighting art of capoeira, disguised as a form of dance. Then, it is said, some of them deliberately allowed themselves to be recaptured so that they could secretly teach it to other slaves, toward the day when they could rise up in a revolt and achieve universal freedom. That's what we're talking about.
The Dalai Lama has said that to fulfill the bodhisattva vow could take billions of eons, but that's OK because you would be spending your time in the most positive way possible. If you're just wasting your time, even one day is too long. Then you're stuck in Groundhog Day. Thanks, Harold, for helping point the way out.