Dear Sangha,

If I were to compile a list of “classic Buddhist movies,” I would put the 1993 movie Groundhog Day near the top of the list. Although the movie has absolutely nothing to do with monks or meditation, the film, perhaps unintentionally, conveys some truths we find at the heart of the dharma. Buddhist teachings help us understand the root of our discomforts and the nature of reality. Groundhog Day deals with these same topics. 

As the plot unfolds, Phil Connor, an abrasive and discontented weather reporter is sent to Punxsutawney, PA to report on the annual Groundhog Day festival. For anyone unfamiliar with the holiday, every February 2 the famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, is summoned from his burrow to predict how many more weeks of winter we will have. The legend goes that if Phil emerges from his hole and doesn’t see his shadow, the end of winter is near. If he does see his shadow, we can count on six more weeks of cold and snow. 

The groundhog in the movie forecasts six more weeks of winter, and Feb 2 turns into a cycle of samsara for Phil Conner as he finds himself living Groundhog Day over and over. Initially he embraces the idea of a day without consequences and spends his time driven by selfish desire. He eventually realizes he won’t find fulfillment this way and makes multiple (failed) attempts to escape the cycle by ending his life. Ultimately he shifts his focus from himself to others around him, and he starts to engage more fully in the present moment. After he adjusts his thoughts, speech and actions, his experience of reality shifts from one of angst to one of contentment.

Although there is no explicit mention of Buddhist teachings in Groundhog Day, Phil Connor’s journey is a useful representation of the Four Noble Truths. It’s true that humans experience various forms of dukkha, translated as discomfort or unsatisfactoriness. It’s true that much of the dissatisfaction we experience is fed by our own craving: we push away unpleasant experiences or cling tightly to pleasant ones. It’s also true that it’s actually possible to stop experiencing reality this way. Finally, it’s true that, through our spiritual practice, we can intentionally adjust our view and conduct in the world, thereby changing our experience of the world. 

So, why am I writing about Groundhog Day now…aside from the fact that February 2 is next week?

In addition to the literal winter we are in the middle of in the Northeast, we are collectively in the midst of several figurative winters. Across the globe we continue to face the COVID-19 pandemic and the multiple effects of climate change. In the United States we continue to face political divisiveness and the roots of racism that manifest throughout our society. Facing these realities day after day can feel exhausting. In moments of frustration we may spend our time wishing for our reality to be different. 

Over the last 123 Groundhog Days, Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow 104 times, each time forecasting 6 more long weeks of winter. This would imply that the odds of an early spring are really not in our favor. On the other hand, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association evaluated Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions over the years to be only 40% accurate. Perhaps this suggests that reality isn’t always the way it first appears. Regardless of its reliability, the Groundhog Day festival brings together at least 40,000 people each year. When we are isolated from community, spring can feel a long way off.  Whether or not Punxsutawney Phil actually predicts an early spring on Groundhog day, the act of gathering with others in celebration is an opportunity for joy. It offers a pause in the middle of winter.

Similarly, when we gather together as sangha each Monday, we take time to recognize and share moments of brightness in our world. When we share our joys with each other, we practice collective gratitude. We recognize that we don’t need to turn away from winter in order to find contentment. We only need to adjust the way we are paying attention.