‘I once picked up a book from a bookshelf’ – Poetry by Czesław Miłosz and its implications for gestalt therapy

By Karolina Burda

 I’d like to share with you something which is precious to me, remembering that each person is first and foremost an individual, and only then a Gestaltist, and if I miss this unique experience I miss myself and the other!

In my very early age in the family home I once picked up a book from a bookshelf and begun to read it. It was a book by Czesław Miłosz, Polish poet and writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. My mother told me that all the books on this bookshelf belonged to my father.

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It might have been 1999; I was standing in the queue in the library or bookstore in the university; my professor of History of Ancient Philosophy was standing just in front of me. I often thought of him as of an old Greek philosopher, with his physical appearance, long beard, and his strong presence, always full of thoughtfulness and sensitivity. We were both queuing to get a ‘freshly’ published poetry book by Czesław Miłosz, entitled The Second Space. I will never forget his embodied ‘celebration’ of getting in touch with the depth of poetic expression, being at the same time a philosopher himself. It was like the ordinary student – teacher relationship was instantly filled by pure joy and human connection, as we got a chance to talk about our real passion for the written word, full of wisdom and maturity, and which held love as the truth. 

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It was in California in 2004, soon after settling into my new way of life, amongst many different individuals. One particular evening was very special for me as the capacity for intellectual connection between people was matched by the ability to be fully present, emotionally available, and open towards the each other. I recall that evening as a true feast on so many levels. I was introduced there to a young Jewish American student, few years older than myself. Talking about many different topics and aspects of life it soon became clear that we had many things in common. When we started discussing literature and poetry in particular, I mentioned the name of Czesław Miłosz, and told her about my experience of queuing for his book of poems together with my professor. She instantly smiled and said: ‘I know Czesław Miłosz. I attended his lectures at Berkeley where I am studying’. I was thrilled to hear it. It was like a culmination of a unique evening filled fascinating dialogue and intimate meetings with everyone present. A very memorable experience, I shall never forget. As I am writing about my experience I realise the healing power of poetry, the condensed way of expressing ourselves that it is, on the condition of willingness and openness for it!

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And again, in New Jersey in 2008, I was in my friends’ house that looks more like a New York’s gallery than an ordinary house. During one of my visits, my attention was drawn to a larger piece of paper with some writing on it and a signature… of Czesław Miłosz. I asked my friend what it was. She replied ‘Oh, it’s him, his signature from his poetry reading in Toronto, which I attended’. The Second Space came alive again, and the friendship between us grew and it continues till the present. During our recent reunion in Greece, same friends told me of their joy of seeing me being an enthusiast of so many varied aspects of life, Gestalt, psychotherapy, human connection, philosophy, literature, poetry and dance, all with the beauty at its core. 


During the recent Large Group Event organised by The Gestalt Centre in London last January, which is a four day experiential for their faculty and trainees, my friends from Cleveland sent me an interesting link to the interview with Czesław Miłosz recorded by Henry Lyman (see below). The opening poem used in this interview made me reflect even more on the healing powers of poetry and its use in therapy room. In addition, as the Large Group Event’s focus was on examination of the varied aspects of ‘white privilege’, and its dates coincided with the anniversary of liberation of Auschwitz, liberation from oppression and trauma, as well as the liberation from slavery, the link sent by my friends could not have arrived at a better time. It offered me so much to think about.

Here is the short excerpt from his Treatise on Morals (1948/1976), which I am referring to above:

‘We have seen too many crimes
to simply renounce the good
and, saying blood is now cheap
to peacefully seat to breakfast
or seeing the necessity of the absurd
to accepted as our daily bread
and so, remember,

in a difficult time
you must be an ambassador of dreams.’ 

Yes… there is a choice – one can both get used to crimes and become cynical, insensitive, indifferent, or one can have enough and say ‘No’, his guts would not approve!

In difficult times, there is a chance for the therapist to become indifferent to ‘crimes’, which form often a narrative of ‘psychotherapeutic dance’, co-creation, and verbal, or embodied expression of the client. The therapist can also do more and support the client in staying with such experiences, and at the same time to remain present to the flowing river of life, and become an ambassador of dreams for his/her clients, and bring this capacity of awareness, and of experience to his/her client. 

In therapy situation there must be always room, in as much for the client as for the therapist, to recognise and attend to the ‘second space’ shaped not by necessity, but grace, in the same fashion as Czesław Miłosz does it in his last collection of poems. His Second Space reveals an artist fluent both in his capacity to confront the world’s suffering and in his eagerness to embrace its joys, which is also an important attribute of good psychotherapy. Don’t be indifferent, make a difference!


Miłosz, C., (2004). Second Space: New Poems, translated by the author and Robert Hass, New York: Ecco (in Polish, “Druga Przestrzeń was first published in 2002 przez Społeczny Instytut Wydawniczy Znak, Kraków); 

Miłosz, C., (1976). “A Treatise on Morality”, In: Czesław Miłosz, Poems. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1976, pp. 143–156 (in Polish, “Traktat Moralny” first appeared in the journal Twórczość in 1948: № 4, pp. 5–16); 

Henry Lyman’s interview with Czesław Miłosz can be heard by accessing the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hRe5x9Ox3Y&feature=youtu.be;

There is also another link to the panel discussion on the role of science in the current challenging times, with participation of my prof. Bogdan Dembiński (with Greek looking beard) sharing one of his passions. There is also my beloved prof. Tadeusz Sławek (also with the beard and long hear, a true enthusiast and translator of William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Mick Jegger. Unfortunately the link is in Polish only; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eysmyBW3Hws&feature=youtu.be

Karolina Burda, originally from Poland, feels a citizen of the world. She is currently a psychotherapy trainee at The Gestalt Centre in London, while also working as a Health Care Assistant in Surrey. She loves the rich, deep, and transformative experiences of the gestalt approach, and is passionate about co-creative aspect of psychotherapy. She also enjoys photography, art, literature, philosophy, music, cinematography, cosmopolitanism, travelling, dancing, running, and swimming. Email: [email protected]