Groundhog Day: each day is a lifetime

April 25, 2017

One of the most important Buddhist teachings is reincarnation. It is believed that while the body decays, the spirit never dies. The spirit retains the information and lessons learned in each lifetime and carries them forward to the next life in a different physical body. Reincarnation is an evolving spiritual journey toward enlightenment.

Sometimes when we are confronted with difficult challenges, our programmed natural response is to resist, struggle and fight. But our struggles and fights don’t seem to change the life situations that we have helped to create: it is only when we become aware of the lessons behind all the drama that we can start to make real changes and find the path towards freedom.

This is the message at the heart of Groundhog Day, one of the world’s best-loved films. Groundhog Day has just been turned into a piece of musical theatre at the Old Vic in London by Matthew Warchus, the Olivier-award-winning director, Tim Minchin, the multiple award-winning composer and the Bafta-winning writer Danny Rubin. Rubin was the original film’s screenwriter too.

The very funny, very profound show – for which I am proud to be a production partner with the Old Vic – has been greeted with five-star reviews and critical acclaim for its clever, smart, witty and inventive staging, music and book, and performances.

The audience follows TV weatherman Phil Connors (played by Andy Karl on stage, in the role made famous by Bill Murray) as he finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, when sent to cover the small town’s annual Groundhog Day. Phil starts selfish, condescending and arrogant, and his relationships with women are exploitative and based on instant sexual gratification.

As you no doubt know, Phil is soon caught in a perpetual loop of events, with each day playing out exactly as before. As Phil realises he must relive the same day over and over, his emotions take him through the Kübler-Ross five-stage model of grief. He goes through denial, anger, bargaining and depression before reaching acceptance.

He explores freedom and a life with no consequences at the start – you can kiss a stranger, rob a bank, cause a police car to crash, hold orgies – but he thinks only of himself, not the impact that his actions have on others. This “freedom” unfortunately doesn’t bring a sense of peace and contentment.

Despair then leads Phil to commit suicide in numerous creative ways, but he wakes up the next day doomed to endure the same hopeless boredom and inability to change his future.

Slowly his responses change. Instead of resistance, he begins to accept. Instead of indulging in carnal pleasure, he starts to learn to play piano, save people from accidents or death, and help people to express their love. The experiences that he creates become joy, filled with a sense of purpose.

Phil gives up on a seduction of his colleague Rita, seeing her finally as a person to appreciate rather than as a sex object. But this new attitude leads Rita herself finally to reach out to him. They fall in love authentically and miraculously – and this allows the clock to move forwards again.

The ending is moving and I found tears in my eyes. Groundhog Day shows us, in a joyful and uplifting way, that each day is a lifetime. It is up to us to choose how to live each day to the full. We may be given certain constraints in our lives but we still have the free will to live consciously and to choose our actions with compassion. It is the choices we make that transform the experiences we create, and dissolve the perceived constraints of our lives.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation