Long before the birth of Jesus, the Celtic and Norse pagans exchanged gifts at the time of the winter solstice. They believed that this practice mitigated one’s vulnerability to the evil spirits felt to be present at times of darkness and transition. Now it seems reasonable, from the perspective of modern neuroscience, to assume that these pagans were sensing the power of gifts to uplift “the spirit within.” But what is the nature of this internal spirit? The fact that the pagans felt they needed a boost at the coldest, darkest time of the year provides a strong clue.
Deep inside of our intelligence system (in the basal ganglia of the midbrain), an accounting of our energetic viability is always taking place. When the tally of our perceived energetic resources is low, we tend to feel low. Sunlight is the mother of all energetic resources, and when it’s in short supply, most of us feel less “spirited.” Considered by some to be a disorder, this seasonally diminished sense of pleasure — as well as the reduction of the motivation that pleasure fuels — is an adaptation: it kept our ancestors from expending behavioral energy at a time of the year when they were unlikely to get a good return on their investment. Receiving a gift from a loved one lifts our spirits because it boosts this energetic tally. And the more consciously, frequently, and fully we experience moments of appreciation for all of the goodness in our lives, the greater the sum of this internal tally and the more buoyant our spirit becomes. This is why practices such as recounting our blessings in a gratitude journal and reciting prayers of benediction re-enliven us. And like the Pilgrims, who learned to give thanks for their harvest, regardless of the quality or quantity of the yield, we can convert almost any eventuality — even a loss — into an exaltation of the spirit, just by finding and amplifying its most redeeming aspects. By the same methods, we hold the power to uplift the spirits of others, as well as our own. A gift that I received earlier this year took my internal spirit on a roller-coaster ride that illustrates the responsiveness of this energetic mechanism to positive, negative, and even completely serendipitous events.
Out of the blue, my friend Brad presented me with a brilliant, fiery garnet that he’d brought back from his second home, Zambia. Beyond its value as a symbol of our friendship, it was an exquisitely beautiful thing to behold; just looking at it made my spirit soar. As I was bringing it to a jeweler to have it set as a ring, the small round case that held it must have worked its way out of the zippered compartment of my wallet. I searched and searched for the stone but to no avail. My beautiful gift was lost, and my spirit plummeted.
After a sleepless night, I spoke to Brad on the phone. Before I could say anything about the lost jewel, he told me that, upon arising, he’d read a Buddhist story that greatly uplifted his own spirit. This was the story he’d read:
The king’s wrestler wore an ornament on his forehead of a precious stone. Once during a match, the stone was crushed deeply into the flesh of his forehead. The wrestler thought he’d lost the jewel, but when he went to his physician to have his wound dressed, the embedded gem was found, covered over with dirt and blood. The moral of the story is that our Buddha-nature is like the precious stone. It becomes covered over by the dirt of distractions, and people think that they have lost it, but a good teacher helps them recover it.
The brilliance of this coincidental gift — a propitious and serendipitous reminder of the Buddhist practice of non-attachment — outshone the one I’d lost. My spirit began to rise once again. Then, just a few hours later, I was relating this whole saga to another friend. In my re-enlivened, optimistic state, I told her that I hoped someone in need would find the jewel. Almost immediately, a thought crept in that challenged the energetic tally of my mind and spirit once again: What if the jewel case rolled into the gutter and was swept into a landfill, where no one would ever find it? Without missing a beat, this friend — a fine artist named Dianne Bennett, who creates retablos sanctifying wildlife — said, “Maybe a magpie will find it. Magpies love shiny objects!” A few days later, she sent me a beautiful image of a magpie holding a garnet in its beak — another beautiful gift born of this loss.
Peggy La Cerra, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Evolutionary Neuroscience and co-author of The Origin of Minds: Evolution, Uniqueness and the New Science of the Self (Crown).