“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” —Groundhog Day
“Every day is a good day.” —Yun Men
The other day, an old friend of mine and I were chatting on the phone about our COVID experience, and he mentioned, with a dry chuckle, how it’s been like Groundhog Day: every day pretty much the same. He was referring, of course, to the 1993 Harold Ramis film, a modern classic in which a self-centered weatherman (Bill Murray) wakes up every morning and it’s the same day, February 2, Groundhog Day—again and again and again. I immediately recognized that my friend’s insight was spot-on. While this past year has indeed been like no other, the days within it have felt remarkably similar: every morning, we wake up, and life is more or less the same. Stuck at home in the same old place, seeing the same old faces, having the same old conversations—and, at the center of it, unchanged and unchanging, the same old you.
While the pandemic has of course intensified this feeling—necessarily restricting travel, fresh social interaction, and basically any opportunity to have experiences one might consider “new”—there’s a way in which life has sort of always felt like this. I mean, after all, when has it ever not been today?
To put it another way, when has it ever not been now? Sure, you could say, yesterday was yesterday, and tomorrow will be tomorrow, and neither of them are “now”—but when you were in the midst of yesterday, it was “now” for you then; tomorrow, it will be “now” for you yet again. Or as the great Zen master Dogen puts it in his brilliant (and often incomprehensible) treatise, The Time-Being, “Since there is nothing but this moment, the time-being is all there is” (trans. by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi). Apparently, the present is inescapable, though we do our best. But no matter how we long for yesterday—or dream of tomorrow, and the way it might somehow set us free—we remain trapped in today. Today, today, today.
Perhaps not surprisingly, beyond Groundhog Day, a whole little sub-genre exploring this feeling of existential paralysis has popped up in recent years. In the 2020 movie Palm Springs, two young hipster types (Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti) get stuck in “one of those infinite time-loop situations you might have heard about,” awaking again and again on a wedding day in the California desert. And in Russian Doll, a wonderfully strange Netflix series currently filming its second season, Natasha Lyonne keeps reliving the same night—her birthday—dying and being reborn and dying and being reborn. Each approach wrestles with similar themes—nihilism, depression, love—and asks similar questions: What would you do with the same day if it were presented to you time after time; how would you escape that day?
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray goes through several stages in reacting to the situation, starting of course with disbelief. He becomes elated, falls into nihilistic abandon, eats nothing but desserts. He robs an armored car, seduces various women, tries to manipulate Andie MacDowell into falling in love with him, and fails again and again. He sinks into a deep depression, commits suicide after suicide, including one in which he steals Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog who declares to the world how long winter will go on, and drives off a cliff with the tubby, buck-toothed creature on his lap.
It’s appropriate that Groundhog Day is in February, the bleakest of months, every day similarly gray. The shortest month and the longest all at once, February is the Wednesday of the year, a big, dismal, Sisyphean hump. Depression around now is understandable, especially if you’re feeling suffocated by the repetitive nature of existence. The purgatory of doing things over and over again can be soul-crushing, no doubt. Every day, the same shit—the same old tired thoughts doing loops in your head; the same exasperating patterns and tasks. The morning struggle to get the kid to school; the evening struggle to get the kid to bed. Brushing teeth, washing hands, putting on socks, taking them off. And the dishes, and the dishes, and the dishes.
This is it? This is my life?
“I don’t know, Phil. Maybe it’s not a curse. Just depends on how you look at it.” With these words, Andie MacDowell helps Murray realize that the repeated day is in fact an opportunity: he’s getting chance after chance to finally get it right.
I wonder sometimes if this is our opportunity, too: to somehow get this day—the one we’re given each morning, the one right here—just right. It’s an interesting question: If you were presented with the chance to do with this day exactly as you would, what would you do? Can we, like Murray, somehow construct the perfect day? What would that look like? And really, what’s stopping you? Isn’t that day today?
That’s the real reason the Groundhog Day perspective is such a gift. Because it forces us to come to terms with the fact that, in a certain sense, this is the only day we get. After all, if every day’s the same, it cuts through the illusion—the hope—that a future day will provide some sort of magical solution, make everything perfect once and for all. (To be sure, even now, we’re thinking these thoughts: when the pandemic’s over, everything will finally be fine again—but this thinking is the very issue at hand.) Indeed, in this light, the idea of waiting for another time becomes preposterous. It’s now or never, forever and ever. This, right here—this chance, this day, this you—is all you get.
One might argue that the whole purpose of Zen Buddhism is to wake you up to this simple fact: this is your life. This is it. And that’s not a depressing thought, but a joyful one. This is it! This is my life!
Perhaps that’s part of why Zen puts such emphasis on everyday activities—chopping wood, carrying water—because, seen clearly, the everyday is all there is. As the great novelist Jim Harrison puts it in the novella, The Man Who Gave Up His Name: “[H]e somehow understood that life was only what one did every day.” Or, as John Lennon sang it, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” And that’s the thing—it’s so easily overlooked! Life gives itself to us day after day, and somehow, remarkably, impossibly, we keep on missing it. There’s a beautiful song I first heard in Palm Springs that I’ve become quite enamored with, called “Man Stupid Being.” And we are.
Even the idea of getting the day “right” somehow misses the simple truth of it: that this day here in front of us is missing nothing, that it’s already right. Because, really, what is a perfect day? What would it look like? Would it actually look any different? If today were the only day you ever had, would it be enough?
Saturday. I sleep in a little late, cuddle with the dog a bit in bed, doze off again. I get up and make a pot of good green tea, sit on the john, write, read. Shave and take a hot shower. Meditate for a bit (the koan I’m currently sitting with, perhaps appropriately, is “Ordinary Mind is Tao.”)
I sneak in another quick cuddle with the dog. It is the weekend, and I can get away with such luxuries. I put away some laundry and chat with my wife—and then for the first time in too long, I lean down and kiss her on the lips.
I make myself a fried egg sandwich on a toasted English muffin. I put cheese on it and a potato pancake from last night’s leftover mashed, and then I eat it at the kitchen table with winter sunlight shining in through the windows.
Getting ready to go out and play catch, my five-year old son Ollie puts on his jacket upside down and we all laugh. Things are not perfect—something’s wrong with my right ankle and knee—I’m sort of hobbling around and every now and then get a painful twinge that makes me suck air in through my teeth. My wife and I play monkey in the middle with Ollie. He goes inside to use his inhaler. For no particular reason, I feel a little sad.
Now my son and I are in from the cold and sitting on the warm couch and watching football. It is one of Ollie’s favorite things to do, and it is one of mine. I have a Coke—one of my great guilty pleasures—and try to steal a bite of Ollie’s warm pretzel, but he won’t let me. We bring the dog up on the couch for another cuddle. Ollie gives her the rest of his pretzel, and she puts her head on his chest lovingly.
As Yun Men says, so simply and clearly, “Every day is a good day.” Or, to think of it another way: In the end, looking back, what day wouldn’t you consider delicious? What day wouldn’t you repeat forever, if you could?
In kinhin, or walking meditation, we walk, more or less, in circles. I wonder sometimes if this is all we’re really doing in life, too. That’s what the Groundhog Day theme is getting at: we’re all wandering about blindly, unaware, repeating the same rituals, the same mistakes. And there’s not necessarily too much we can do about it either—time is circular, days begin and end and begin again. Walking about in circles is perhaps simply our tragicomic fate.
Of course, the thing about kinhin is that you do your best to walk with awareness. (Interestingly, in all the shows I mentioned, the main characters are also conscious of their predicament.) You take each step and feel the ground beneath your toes, hear the creak of the floorboards. You watch your breath, your thoughts—the same old ones, no doubt, circling, circling. And you are circling, too, walking around in wonderful, senseless loops, and you know it, now, you are aware of it, and it’s totally ridiculous, and sometimes you cannot help but to crack open into this big beautiful smile at the absurdity of the whole thing. Here we are, once again, wandering about in circles, and it’s beautiful.
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