“Would you like to share the same body with your BFF?” an Instagram post reads, piquing collective interests in a socially-distanced era. Is it a clickbait piece of tech news? Another one of those witchtok trends maybe? What if it addresses a meditative practice originating in Tibetan Buddhism instead? Introducing tulpamancy, an online community of imaginary friend hobbyists living all of our childhood dreams via mysticism.
Considered as a subset of plurality, tulpamancy is a practice that involves the creation of mental companions who live within their human host’s mind. These sentient beings are known as tulpas and are imagined into existence with meditative exercises. Although the practice originated in Tibetian Buddhism, it has been rediscovered by Westerners in the early twentieth century and again with the advent of the internet. Presently, a practitioner of tulpamancy is called a tulpamancer.
In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, monks would primarily create tulpas to overcome attachments like phobias and desires. For example, if a monk had a fear of spiders, a formless tulpa approached a spider fearlessly to demonstrate how pointless the fear was. In some cases, the entity was also visualised as a spider itself to overcome the phobia. Either ways, the monks would meditate on the experience and the tulpas would disappear once the attachment was fully resolved.
In the early twentieth century, the Theosophical Society started examining the practice in relation to consciousness. In 1929, the term ‘tulpa’ began circulating in the West following the publication of Magic and Mystery in Tibet—authored by the Belgian-French explorer Alexandra David-Néel. “Besides having had few opportunities of seeing [tulpas], my habitual incredulity led me to make experiments for myself,” she wrote. “My efforts were attended with some success.”
Tulpas remained an occult practice until 2009, when it emerged as a subject on /x/, 4chan’s paranormal discussion board. Some members began to take the concept seriously and succeeded in creating tulpas. Although the /x/ board eventually moved on from tulpas, the practice snowballed as a movement when adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic—popularly known as ‘bronies’—created /mlp/ on the platform and crafted tulpas based on their favourite characters from the show.
“The My Little Pony fandom was one of the first online communities to really grab hold of the tulpa phenomenon,” said Ele Cambria, a tulpamancer from Warrensburg, Missouri. In an interview with VICE, Cambria explained how bronies are “very accepting of weirdness” with a mindset of “Wow, that’s not normal, that’s cool.” “The characters evoke a simple goodness,” she added. “What fan wouldn’t want one for a friend?”
Tulpas are created by an act known as ‘forcing’. The act focuses on developing a tulpa’s presence or strength by devoting attention or interacting with them. There are two forms of forcing: active and passive. Active forcing involves dedicating all of one’s attention to the act of developing/strengthening their tulpas, commonly during meditation. Passive forcing, on the other hand, involves dedicating some but not all of one’s attention to the act. An example of passive forcing would be chatting to your tulpa on your morning coffee run.
The process starts with the creation of an imaginary environment called a ‘wonderland’ where hosts begin to interact with the sentient beings. “My wonderland is a little forest grove,” Cambria explained in the interview with VICE. “I’d imagine myself there hanging out with my tulpa and we’d talk or explore—basically the same stuff you’d do with a friend in real life.”
After meeting up with their tulpas in the wonderland, hosts begin to feel odd pressures in several parts of their head. This is the sign of the tulpa beginning to communicate. As the forcing process continues, the tulpa’s voice starts clearing out from incoherent mumbles. A tulpamancer can then ‘impose’ their tulpa on reality by creating a realistic hallucination of them. In an interview with VICE, one guide pegged a total of 200 to 500 hours to achieve this state.
While voice is the most common medium of communication, tulpamancers can also learn to “stroke their tulpa’s fur, feel their breath on their necks and even experience sexual contact.” Some tulpas might want to experience their life as a ‘meatperson’ out of curiosity about their host’s body. In this case, indulgent hosts use a practice called ‘switching’ which allows tulpas to possess their physical body while the host watches from the “ringside of consciousness.”
This is also what differentiates tulpas from the concept of imaginary friends. After months of forcing, a tulpa will act as an autonomous mental construct—harbouring their own will, thoughts and emotions. Their behaviour can neither be predicted nor controlled by the hosts. In this regard, hosts can engage in meaningful conversations with their tulpas because one can’t predict what they’re going to say. They’re not you. They’re a part of your mind and soul you’ve given birth to, trained and locked yourself out of. “They are a broker between hosts and the latent potential of their subconscious,” VICE summed up.
In a research by Samuel Paul Veissière, 37 per cent of tulpamancers reported that their tulpas felt “as real as a physical person,” while 50.6 per cent described their mental companions as “somewhat real but distinct from their own thoughts.” 4.6 per cent claimed the practice to be an “extremely real” phenomena, where tulpas were “indistinguishable from any other agent or person” with the rest 4.6 per cent admitted to hear and see their tulpas “outside” their heads.
“Hehe, daddy taught me this one,” wrote Storm, a tulpa hosted by Ryan Painter from Oregon, in an email to VICE. “Cogito Ergo Sum—I think therefore I am,” she continued. “I’m not totally independent, though. I have to use my host’s brainpower to think and we occasionally get jammed when we’re trying to think at once.” Tulpamancers have previously witnessed their creations recalling forgotten memories and making them laugh.
This is why tulpamancy has been equated to schizophrenia or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). However, Tulpa.io, a popular resource centre dedicated to the practice, dispelled this misconception by highlighting how DID and Other Specified Dissociative Disorders (OSDD) are “clinical labels for disordered plurality and/or traumagenic plurality.” “Unless a tulpamancy system experiences clinically significant dysfunction, distress or danger as a direct result of their plurality, they cannot be diagnosed with either DID or OSDD,” the website wrote, adding how these are guidelines set by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) itself.
The website also explained how tulpamancers cannot be considered “mentally ill” for having tulpas, as the formal definition of the term requires that a person “experience significant distress, dysfunction, or danger as a direct product of a deviant behavior.” “It is generally quite rare for tulpamancy to result in disorder as most misunderstandings between hosts and tulpas arise out of lack of communication—and thus are solved easily through discussion without escalating to disordered behavior,” the resource centre concluded.
In his research paper, Veissière noted how tulpamancers are primarily urban, middle-class, Euro-American adolescents and young adults who cite loneliness and social anxiety as an incentive to begin the practice. They also report overwhelmingly positive changes in their individual and offline social lives, along with a “largely positive” sensory experience. One informant also reported being underdressed and cold as she was walking to class one morning. “She explains that upon sensing that her host was cold, the tulpa took off his coat to place it on her shoulders, producing a feeling of warmth and the distinct sensation that she was wearing another layer of clothing.” The paper concluded how such reports of “spontaneous help” from tulpas in social, environmental and professional situations seems to characterise the practice altogether.
The cognitive scientist thereby believes in tulpamancy’s potential for the treatment of schizophrenia and other malignant psychoses. “In the age of big pharma and the marketing of madness… ‘tulpa-therapy’ could offer a free alternative that doesn’t require institutionalisation and social isolation.” And with more than 37,000 members (and counting) on the subreddit dedicated to the practice, that future doesn’t seem like an illusion either.