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From Our Community

Q&A with Mindfulness Maestra Mariann Johnson

A headshot of Mariann Johnson, standing outside and smiling at the camera.

For Mariann Johnson, instructor of mindfulness and wellbeing at the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing, mindfulness and meditation aren’t just trendy hobbies. Instead, they’re practices that have allowed her to be more present through all the most challenging parts of her personal and professional life.

As she entered “the last phase of my ‘professional career,’” Johnson changed occupations from organization development and public policy mediation to an area where she felt she could most significantly contribute to the wellbeing of others: mindfulness meditation. It was a natural choice, as Johnson’s sister first introduced her to the practice early in her career to alleviate what she calls the “stressors and anxieties” associated with being a “type-A overachiever.” 

Johnson was foundational in creating the Minnesota Orchestra’s unique Music & Mindfulness series as a part of the Orchestra’s larger overall Wellness initiative. In concert with small conductorless groups of Orchestra musicians, she leads the audience through a guided mindfulness meditation accompanied by live music. She recently took some time out of her schedule to answer some of our questions about mindfulness, music and how the two are more similar than first meets the eye.

What is mindfulness and what are some of its positive impacts?

The first thing I'd say is that mindfulness is an innate capacity that we all have. So, I always tell people I'm not going to teach you anything you don't already know, I'm just going to help you see how you can bring more of it into your daily life. We're really hard on ourselves. And the brain also has something called negativity bias. That means the primary function of these brains of ours are to keep us alive. And in order to do that, it's constantly scanning the environment for what's missing or what's not working.

So, what we do in mindfulness practice is learn how to be with the present moment without having to push away difficulties or cling on powerfully tight to the beautiful things in our lives. I would also say it’s not about pushing away life’s difficulties and blissing out…it’s about learning how to be with life’s difficulties…and having more resourcefulness to deal with them.

How can music help us to be mindful?  

I started looking at research, and how music affects our physical and psychological wellbeing, and then I was looking at the research in mindfulness and how it enhances our overall wellbeing. They were so overlapping…that’s why I call music and mindfulness a powerful twofer. Have you ever felt really sad and you put on a sad piece of classical music or other music? And it really allows you to get in touch with your emotions that maybe you haven’t had easy access to?

So, music and mindfulness together can be extremely healing in many ways. And the number one for me is to just recognize our shared humanity and allow us to process emotions. 

Mariann Johnson

What do you hope for attendees to take away from the Music and Mindfulness sessions? 

I usually ask at the beginning of the session how many people have a mindfulness practice or experimented with meditation…lots of people raise their hands but there are always those who don’t. Regardless of where you’re at, I think you’ll learn something from it.  

The meditation is really an important part because I’m guiding them through how they might listen to music from a different approach than they have previously. If they’ve used meditation as a formal practice, I want them to consider bringing it to an everyday activity like listening to music and how that might enhance your understanding and appreciation of the music. 

The Orchestra is hosting a Music and Healing event on July 25th. You’re leading a guided meditation with the full Orchestra conducted by Sarah Hicks rather than just a few instrumentalists for the first time; how will this be different in terms of your preparation?  

I’ll just say out of the gate that I’m thrilled to be doing this and I admire Sarah Hicks. So having an opportunity to work with her, and the fact that I’m going to be working with the full Orchestra behind me is new to me. As a matter of fact, I was reading that again and thinking “Whoa, how am I going to do that?” [chuckles]. I do have some ideas. I’m really looking forward to the gift of working with those talented musicians and figuring out a way that we can do this so that this will be a rich experience for everyone. 

Tickets are available now for the next Music & Mindfulness event on May 11, 2023. 

Check out this special guest blog written by Mandy Meisner on her experience attending a Music & Mindfulness session.  

The Music & Mindfulness series is presented in collaboration with the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing, which has offered mindfulness classes for individuals, organizations, businesses and communities for more than two decades. Learn more about the work of the Bakken Center by visiting the Take Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing website.