Reflections on a Magical Seminar - or how possibly could this have gone so wrong?

When everyone had settled into their chairs in the large room, a cup of coffee or tea in front of them - right next to notebooks, pens, voice recorders and bottles of moon water - the seminar began. Like everyone I was looking forward to two full days filled with new knowledge, exchange and interaction around the topic of ‘Magical Workings with Herbs - A Practical Seminar’.

To see the three luminaries from Natura Naturans people had traveled for long distances into town, sought for sleeping places over night and of course paid 250 EUR ($330) in advance. Unfortunately five minutes into the seminar I had my doubts wether making all that effort had been a smart decision... 

The day began with a brief introduction by “the Godfather of Phytotherapie” Dr. rer. nat. Max Amann. He started out by telling us that his clients currently would need to wait for about two years until he was able to see them; such was the demand. He also pointed out that with 81 years he was still working seven days a week and vacation was a concept he just never believed in. While an 80 hour workweek would be his standard, even he might suffer physically from a 120 hour workweek and thus tried to avoid it…  

This was the first time a voice in my head made itself heard: 'Really? I mean, people call you ‘the godfather of herbal medicine’ and you still need to show off like this and introduce yourself with a dick-comparision to your audience?' Anyway, as I wasn’t there to find a new father, I quickly put the strange introduction aside and was determined to not allow it to spoil my experience of the seminar. After all, we all can learn a lot from narcissists - or everyone for that matter - as long as they managed to discover things worth exploring and are willing to share them.

Unfortunately, what followed was a day that became increasingly painful. (As I am writing this the second day is in full swing which I decided to pass on. That's why I cannot comment on anything but what happened on the first day.) Actually, it was one of these days we all remember from our time at uni or school - when we constantly think about how many useful things one could have done instead of sitting quietly in a chair, bound to silence and absorption… Now, let me be really fair and point out what I think I saw happening. Some things were really positive and good. Unfortunately they were buried under many factors which diminished their value almost completely…

The bright side.

The bright side was that all three speakers seemed to have a profoundly deep, practical as well as theoretical knowledge of herbal medicine. Coming from different backgrounds and generations both Olaf Rippe and Margret Madejsky had joined Max Amann decades ago as his students. Back then not only being a herbal doctor but also a ‘ghostbuster’ as they called it, he took them under his wings and began to introduce them to the world of living plant spirits, shamanism and native medicine. As someone who knows next to nothing on the subject of herbal healing it was a delight - and actually my main motivation to attend the seminar - to spend two days with experts on this topic and learn from them.

Therefore throughout the day whenever the speakers focussed on herbal medicine only, the details and concepts of it, I was quite fascinated. Many ideas really resonated with me, such as the one that pain can become the second skin of the client and in this case cannot nor shouldn’t be taken away from them. All one can do is to assist and support. Often the acceptance of the illness marks the actual turning point of events…  

It also needs to be called out how professionally the seminar had been prepared: handouts were available for everyone, three tables of related books (one of which reserved to their own works of course) and a broad selection of dried plants and herbal remedies were accessible to everyone. Plus, of course, free drinks and ginger cookies.

Finally, I want to emphasise that all three of them seem to have different levels of actual personal and practical magical experience. Proofs of this were e.g. Mr. Amann emphasising that one of the problem for the Neophyte in magic was that magic simply worked - wether they believe in it or not. Another one was Mr.Rippe mentioning the shape and form of his holy guardian angel and how he used it to travel astrally. Or how a mountain demon during a night-flight in a dream shared the names of three important herbs he should be working with more in the future.

Still - and we are now really close to the 'not so bright side' of the seminar - the conclusions they drew from these experiences were often incoherent and mostly deeply flawed by their personal ethics.  A few quotes from their handout might illustrate this:

"Evil has a lot of power in the world; it often utilises organisations to fight the Good. It also frequently appears under the disguise of the Good and labels its enemies, the Good, as the Evil. (...) The majority of all organisations, churches and cults among them, belong to the realm of Evil."  (page 2)
 "Preconditions for magical work are: sufficient levels of physical health, well balanced energy levels, above average mental health and power. Inapt people are: people with psychological disorders, mental disorders or suicides in their family history, weirdness, intolerance, bigotry or absence of any friends." (page 2) 

Honestly? I mean, filter out everyone who Johnny Whitesocks would call 'weird' from magic and I don't think anyone would be left? Of course anybody with magical experience gets what they mean - that you need to be well grounded in a practical everyday life before you can aim to advance beyond it. But the whole point of a seminar is to explain things properly to people without such experience.

So let's take a closer look at the other 'opportunities' that still lie in wait for our friends at Natura Naturans. At least from my humble perspective that is.

The not so bright side.

Well, the first one is quite simple: If anybody spends 250 EUR on a two day seminar the experience provided better is profound in terms of content, personal in terms of relations built and engaging in terms of overall atmosphere. If one visits an evening talk for a 10 bugs entry-fee it is okay not to be able to engage on a personal level. However, if one spends 25 times that money they probably want to have a chance to get involved, ask their questions and get replies longer than just a sentence? Sounds fair to me.

Especially as this can easily be done with a group size of 12 to 15 people. In fact once you create the right setting much of the seminar’s richness might flow from the facilitated interaction between participants. This would have been certainly true in this case where the presenters aimed to bring together a diverse group of people from all sorts of backgrounds. I found participants who had very interesting backgrounds in alchemy, astrology, healing, shamanism, magic, etc. 

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Of course you also want to pay attention to some critical yet really simple details in order to make this work: how the chairs are arranged, where you position yourself, wether you use a projector or handouts only, how you safe people from constant note taking and therefore failing to engage in what’s actually going on, etc.

However, with 40 people in a room that is arranged in class-room-style it is impossible to do most of the above. And so that’s exactly what followed: seven hours of full-frontal-presentation, i.e. talking at people rather than with them. -- Now, talking at people for hours might have worked well in the early 1990s when seminars for special interest groups were all up an coming - but times have moved on since then. And so have facilitation styles and participant's expectations.

Secondly, whenever you set yourself up to talk to a group of 40 strangers about ‘magic’ you just have to explain some basic terms you will be using over and over again. ‘Magic’ for one of course. However, given that you will probably also mention words such as ‘demon’, ‘devil’, ‘angel’, ‘spirit’, gosh, even ‘plant-soul’ you might want to help people adopt the right perspective on these highly and often wrongly connoted words.

Indeed Olaf Rippe spent the first few hours of the day trying to do exactly that. Unfortunately it became apparent very quickly that his academic magical expertise was nowhere near his practical experience on herbal medicine. In fact it was so low you could almost see the ISBN numbers of the books he quoted from shine through his words: Quoting Crowley’s definition on magic he quickly advanced to explaining basic types of magic in a simple hierarchical flow chart. Here he laid out how smart the farmers were when they marked their chimneys with “some sort of magical glyphs because this is where not only Santa Claus enters but also many demons” and how important it was “to do a lot of rituals around the fire place in your house because this is where the house-spirit will live”. He concluded his introduction by saying that “Anybody who tries to enter this world without protection is like someone trying to climb Mount Everest without any gear. They will simply be shipwrecked very quickly.” 

Now, let me paint the full picture for you: Mr.Rippe was talking to a room filled with a predominantly female audience who took notes of every word he said and asked questions such as “If demons enter into buildings and bodies through openings, are women more likely to be attacked?”. Don’t get me wrong: I am not judging the woman who asked this question at all. She has paid to be able to ask this question and many more and to better get a damn good answer to them. The fact that most likely she completely misunderstands the nature of a demon isn’t her fault. Instead, I am at a point where I am judging Mr.Rippe for his incompetence of getting the audience in such a position in the first place.

Quickly drifting through quotes from mainstream literature on magic of the 20th century and then reinforcing stereotypes and superstitions in the audience isn’t really helping. It isn’t helping to (1) support the audience in helping themselves nor in (2) changing the bad reputation magic has acquired over the last centuries. 

I deeply believe it is irresponsible on so many ways to talk to an audience such as this about ‘demon attacks through the chimney’ without helping them understand beforehand what we are actually talking about… What does the word demon really denote? When you say ‘devil’ and then quickly go on to point out that these only exist in a Christian paradigm but you still continue to use the term over and over - what are you referring to? When you point out that safety is so critical both in this world and the spirit realm, please help me understand the actual nature of the threats I am exposed to in more detail? And why according to your worldview are my body, mind and astral-self so vulnerable to these attacks in the first place? In fact, what is my ‘astral-self’?

Now, you might say that such depth of introduction would simply blow up a two day seminar. You also might point out that explaining the Hermetic, Neoplatonic or Gnostic foundations of your terminology to an audience like this might blow their heads off. Fair enough. And I would answer: Figuring out how to do this really well is what people pay you for! If you want to take 10.000 EUR for two days, you got to do more than putting up book tables, consolidating quotes into a keynote and then sharing your personal anecdotes for hours nonstop. If you want your seminar to be worth such a big bucket of money, you probably have some real hard work to do. And in case it is too hard, then simply take less money and chew off something more bite-sized. Just call your seminar “Herbal use in Bavarian folk customs” and you are perfectly safe. But don’t, just don’t ever quote Crowley, Agrippa von Nettesheim and Paracelsus to then go on and rant against ritual magic and how it would corrupt people - whereas shamanic magic was the best thing since sliced bread… Just don’t do this. Because people will question your competence.

Thirdly, here is a story just to show you how bad it got over the course of the day: Towards the end Mrs Madejsky shared the story when one day she was eagerly waiting to close her office to go into her well deserved Christmas vacation, when her last client arrived. Mrs Madejsky was tired from all the hard work over recent weeks, when the young woman came through the door and she immediately realised she was demonically possessed.

Of course Mrs Madejsky had explained before that people can be obsessed by many demons, such as the demon of melancholy, fear, anger or other beings. So despite her good intent she had left the audience - or at least me? - completely in the dark about her concept of demonic possession. I had simply no idea how she defined it, diagnosed it or verified it?

Luckily, however, she shared how in this case she treated it: She convinced the woman to go out into the next pub and order a German ‘Schweinsbraten’, i.e. pork belly… The next morning the woman called Mrs Madejsky and explained she actually had managed to eat the pork and have a small glass of wine. As a result she had slept the first time in two weeks and the demonic possession seemed to be cured... Hurray!

Well, let's pause here for a moment. What is so bad about the above example is that it blends elements of truth with a lot of naive assumptions and - again - simply horrible use of terminology. Of course eating meat and drinking wine will help many people to get grounded again. Some will even sleep better. That’s a great thing! If Mrs Madejsky had focussed on the herbal aspects, i.e. which plants instead of meat might have a similar effects, that would have been lovely. Yet, whenever the three of them started to use magical language and concepts they created a terrible mess from what could have been a really interesting seminar otherwise.

The very simple truth is this: Nobody of us can be great at everything. And luckily nobody holds such expectation against us. The days of the Renaissance man are long gone. In today’s world of specialisation people will come to your seminar and pay good money if you are great at just one particular thing - and capable of sharing this knowledge and skill in a professional manner. However, trouble begins when we fail to diagnose correctly where we actually hold expertise worthwhile sharing. Especially if we ask for money in return. The guys from Natura Naturans are a perfect example of this. They hold amazing knowledge that people won’t find in books on herbal medicine and folk-practice. Unfortunately they also think they are magicians who can cure demonic possession with pork belly or a one-time fumigation of asafoetida.

Actually, now that I think about it, there is a folk-saying that springs to my mind. It describes exactly what went wrong here. And maybe you want to weave another story around it in your next seminar on how you healed a possessed cobbler from the demon of being a genius… It goes like this: “Cobbler, stick to thy last.”