Therapeutic lessons from artistry: Bon Iver

22 Feb 2023

Art and music have whispered, wailed and shaken into us the secrets of what it is to be human ever since we have had the ability to create as a species. In today’s busy world, too many of us are turning away from connecting with ourselves at alarming rates. In the process we are losing connection with our essence: our tender core that is numbed from hurt, exhaustion and pain. How can artistry sing us back into connection with our true selves? What can music and art show us about sitting with numinosity to find presence and wellbeing?

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so try to be somebody; so try to feel somebody; so try to leave somebody; so hard to be somebody

Bon Iver

Last night I went to see Bon Iver at the Mystate Arena, as part of Mona Foma - a festival hosted by the Museum of Old and New Art in lutruwita / Tasmania.

Let me start by saying that I've loved a handful of songs by Bon Iver (Skinny Love, re: stacks, Holocene), and even (band leader) Justin Vernon's collaborations with Taylor Swift (exile & Evermore).

However, as I realised last night, I'm far from familiar with the bulk of the band's work.

I went along with my buddy, looking forward to the evening but not expecting the show to be one of the most moving, connected, humble and heartfelt performances that I’ve seen.

And I wasn't the only one feeling it.

In a sea of potentially up to 8000 people, I found myself standing in a crowd that was held between mesmerised silence, strobe-lit pounding heartbeats and awestruck beauty for over two hours.

To quote David James Young's review of the band's performance over the weekend in Sydney:

"The combination of plucked nylon-string guitar and Vernon’s lonesome and yearning falsetto is enough to create a stunned silence, and more than enough to dampen a few eyes."


"Even when the songs descend into glitch-out electronica, replete with stuttering samples and smash-cut noise, there’s a method to the madness. It’s almost like watching a magic trick and wondering how they do it, but also hoping you never find out because it would ruin the surprise".

It was magic all right: a mix of artistry, vulnerability, strength, raw emotion, unbridled expression and connection.

Especially the connection.

After a musical journey through valleys of tenderness and riotous walls of sound, the band finished with the entire crowd singing as one.

It was an incredibly moving experience.

Minky van der Walt

As I stood amidst the beauty of this (and marvelled at being amongst tattoed, moustached men singing en masse in falsetto - so surprising!), I couldn't help but think of how this level of artistry -true expression and connection - is only possible when we do two things:

  1. open to vulnerability
  2. back ourselves

Without these two qualities, no art or music would ever be created.

This is something that artists and musicians are called to do all the time: open to being vulnerable in order to connect to self, and trust and commit to their subsequent expression.

None of the six multi-instrumentalists on stage last night would have been there, if they had

  • stepped away from their drive to connect with their own numinosity
  • shrunk away from their experience
  • failed to prioritise the time they need to connect with themselves
  • let their to-do list win

Numinosity ... the spiritual power in the relationship between the individual and other people and things.

Based on the Latin term “numen,” little deity, it refers to the quality of an experience that produces awe, amazement, the uncanny, thrill, and rapture. The numinous is ineffable, unexplainable, and indefinable. It is the experience that produces the chill down one's spine as one reacts to something that has an extraordinary impact.

Sadly, we can't all be creative geniuses.

But we can be the caretakers of our own, personal creative genius by:

  • learning how to safely be with our own vulnerability
  • being true to our need for numinous connection
  • reverently making space our own needs
  • bravely connecting with our experience

Why is this important for health professionals?

  1. We know that health professionals are leaving work in droves.
  2. We know that the demands of capitalism and toxic systems lie at the heart of the struggles that healthcare is facing; and that organisations and policies need to flex and move to support workers on the ground.
  3. Health professionals are caring folks who are driven by strong values; and an incongruence in values is one of the key causes of burnout.

Whilst connecting to our own needs, values and experiences won't solve the systemic issues in healthcare, they can help us to:

  • stay true to ourselves
  • connect to our experience
  • know and find what we need
  • remind us of the values that are most important to us.

In doing these things, we are connecting in, holding with reverance our deepest needs, and caring for ourselves.

Aside from the fact that we can't truly attend to the needs of others if we are disconnected, exhausted and sick, we matter just for ourselves!

We are replacable at work but not in our own lives.

So here are some questions for your reflection:

How do you make space for yourself and your needs?

Do you have ways that you can connect with your own vulnerability?

In what ways do you express yourself / stand up for yourself / connect with your own tenderness?

How do you step into yourself?

How do you back yourself?

If you find these questions difficult to answer, or know the answers but don't know how to make them happen, please reach out for a chat here.

Related Resources

Header image: Jordan Munns