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The Fine Art of Doing Nothing

The brain needs "down" time every so often.

Doing nothing, or time spent with no discernible point or purpose, is often met with contempt. My mother used to call idle hands the Devil's playground, and I still sometimes feel a little guilty about just sitting and listening to music when I know that I should be doing something more constructive.

Mothers may know best, but they don't know everything. For example, I read recently that the human brain actually needs a certain amount of "down" time to stay healthy. Writers, artists, poets and musicians agree that periodic rest for the mind is essential, if they are to remain inspired and creative. Even Mozart wrote in a letter that his ideas flowed best and most abundantly in a state of idleness, such as when he went out for a carriage ride, or a walk, or during the night when he couldn't sleep. (Who are we to argue with Mozart?)

One researcher on the subject says that we should reverse that old maxim, "Don't just SIT there; DO something!" to make it "Don't just DO something; SIT there!"

That's fine, but what about busy pre-holiday times, like now, when pressure mounts and the list grows with preparations like shopping for gifts, planning meals, preparing for guests, putting up decorations, sending out cards? I found a few suggestions in my local newspaper for stealing a little "down" time, even during those days.

How to celebrate holidays without putting your brain on overload?

GETTING RID OF GREAT EXPECTATIONS: First of all, realize that nothing is like it "used to be" (or never was) in some nostalgic memory that still haunts you. Accept the fact that it is nearly impossible to attain that level of merriment, good times and family togetherness that you remember when you were a kid. It's OK if holidays are not as deliriously happy as they once were. You, as well as everybody else, have changed. That was then. This is now. So relax.

BEING CREATIVE AND FLEXIBLE: Get rid of another false notion, i.e., that you must adhere to long-standing traditions and ways of doings things, especially if circumstances -- financial and otherwise -- make it difficult or even impossible. Be open to being different and establishing new traditions. A loved one can't make it home for the holidays? Set up a computer in the living room and let him or her participate in the festivities via Skype. If money is tight, roast a couple of big chickens instead of a turkey. Send e-cards instead of the customary kind, without feeling that they are less meaningful.

DEALING WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE: Some members of the family or invited guests will always be flash-points. Just accept the fact that you can't do anything about that, and look for alternative ways to interact with them. Try steering the conversation away from politics, religion and baseball, plus any other subjects that people feel strongly about, and toward safer topics. Ask them benign questions about themselves that you've always wanted to ask, but never had the chance. (And try to look interested in their answers.)

FINDING YOURSELF ALONE: Holidays can be hard for people who, for any number of reasons, find themselves alone at festive times of the year. The advice here is to reach out to others who may also be alone. Put on a potluck! Make it a party! (You might be surprised to discover that you are not alone on the next holiday.) Think about volunteering to serve meals to the homeless, deliver food baskets to the needy, drive the elderly to church, or any number of other good deeds that will take your mind off your loneliness. It may even make you feel good about yourself. Doing things for others has that effect.

Some useful ideas there. I can also recommend putting on your favorite CD, sitting back, and doing nothing for a while. You don't need to feel guilty, no matter what your mother may have told you. Your brain will appreciate a little "down" time.