Is there anyone who really practices tulpa?

Courage to hear voices

Source: "The Intention to Know" / Theosophical Society

Make the foreign familiar

The new subculture of Tulpamancy has garnered a lot of online attention lately. Tulpas, a concept borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism, are sentient imaginary friends conjured up through the visualization of "thought-forms". Tulpamancers are people who conjure up tulpas and experience their imaginary companions as semi-permanent, non-threatening ears. "Hallucinations". Other sensory modalities such as touch, emotion, and vision are also incorporated into the experience.

Tulpamancers have been called the weirdest culture on the internet. As a cultural phenomenon, the practice has been described as oddly secularizing the paranormal. On the blogosphere, people have wondered if Tulpamancers have mental illness and if it is possible to hear voices without being crazy. Others have wondered if they are telling the truth. How is it possible - is it even possible? - to create a spiritual being that lives in your head?



In this article, the first of two posts on the subject, I address popular myths and questions about tulpamancy and show that the practice is nothing strange in and of itself. I will address its positive and therapeutic aspects and argue that studying tulpamancy can help us go beyond the simplified understanding of mental illness. I also present this new phenomenon as a fascinating example to understand the influence of culture on inner experiences. In doing so, I invite readers to consider the limits that contemporary culture places on the imagination, our senses, and what we accept as real, normal, and desirable.

As a cognitive anthropologist who has studied Tulpamancy closely, I have tried to apply the old intellectual recipe of make the strange familiar and make the familiar strange. This is an approach championed by Margaret Mead, an early key figure in my discipline. In her study of growing up in Samoa in the 1920s, Mead examined the "strange" culture of youth in the western Pacific who did not seem exposed to the "normal" stress and turmoil of what was then (as it is today) What was understood was a difficult hormonally mediated transition from childhood to adulthood. The lack of sexual restrictions in the lives of "teenagers" in Samoa at the time had also struck Mead as strange. When she returned to the USA, she saw with fresh eyes what she had taken for granted. Could it be, she asked, that the plight experienced by Americans in adolescents and the taboos on youth sexuality in Western culture as a whole were quite strange indeed? Could it be that what she thought was a generally harrowing human experience was actually due to the specific pathways of a particular culture at a particular time?

Why Tulpamancers Aren't Crazy.

In trying to get familiar with the strange, I have found that tulpamancers, far from being insane, simply cultivated fundamentally normal dimensions of human beings of cultured knowledge and sociality. I describe these mechanisms in Part 2 of this series.



Tulpamancers reported mostly positive experiences that increased overall happiness and confidence in challenging social situations through the support of their tulpa companions. Many of those who identified with certain psychopathological names like depression, anxiety, or ADHD also spoke of an overall improvement. In an independent query, Tulpas often described that he was "immune" to the specific conditions of his hosts. Autism Spectrum Disorders presented something of an exception. One tulpa stated that "they both have the same brain" as its host, both of which are necessarily bound by similar restrictions. Others reported greater degrees of freedom from their hosts' conditions.

One of the first conclusions of my research was that the summoning of tulpas might yield another empathetic one. This is not a surprising finding. Focusing your attention and influence on other people (real or imaginary), as we do when reading fiction or watching movies, has been abundantly demonstrated to increase empathy - that is, to make us better able to Intuitively relate to other people or imagine what it is like to be someone else in different situations.

Other findings indicated further therapeutic options. A small minority of tulpamancers, for example, experienced voices before they saw them as tulpas or made them friendly companions. Some just saw them as imaginary friends. Others had had difficult or frightening experiences with their voices and the characters that lived in their heads, and saw them as a sign of illness. In these cases, simply meeting the voices, learning to talk to them as friends and sharing the experience with other Tulipamans seemed to have very positive results. Again, this approach is not new. For example, the Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme has a successful approach called “Living with Voices Helping people with psychosis turn their voices into friendly ones.

I would like to insist that “hallucinations” and “psychoses” are not productive terms for thinking of tulpa experiences and hearing experiences in general. It is both too simple and imprecise to view hearing voices as a necessarily pathological experience. In today's psychiatry, the presence of thoughts that were not self-composed is often, but not always, understood as a sign of mental illness. In practice, one can only speak of pathology when there are clear signs of distress. When a person describes their internal experiences as frightening, stressful, or preventing them from functioning well in everyday life, or when others around them report that they are afraid or that their behavior prevents them from functioning, we can safely speak of pathology . As we have seen, this is far from the case with the vast majority of Tulpamancers.

Whether "thinking" always or never "self-authored" is too complex a philosophical question to address. It raises insoluble questions about the nature of consciousness and self and equally difficult questions about the problem of free will It raises very difficult questions about the nature and role of the body, emotions, moods and drives. It also raises difficult questions about the nature and role of language and culture, its relationship to behavior, intuition and inner narrative and its variations between social groups.

As we shall see, Tulpamancers show something fascinating about cultural variations in the positivity and negativity of the listening experience and the blurring of narrative awareness in general. But first we should appreciate how little we know about what is going on in people's minds.

Study Inner Experience

Many people want to know if tulpamancers are telling the truth about the experience. Their claims seem difficult to confirm. At face value, however, they are no more or less difficult to study than anyone's claims about what goes on in their minds. While we have every reason to believe that the people around us are conscious, have internal experiences, feel joy and pain, and have narrative streams in their heads, we have absolutely no way of scientifically studying these experiences or proving that they are the case is on. In philosophy, this is known as the problem of other minds.

For a while, advances in imaging seemed to carry the promise that the so-called difficult problem of consciousness would be solved, and that the neural basis or even causes of these processes would be discovered. However, such a breakthrough did not take place. While we can sometimes make good hypotheses about the regions of the brain associated with different kinds of tasks and behaviors (including thinking about other people), these set neural "signatures" or "correlates" say nothing at all about the content and quality of the Experiences made by people. To present an analogy, we know that people's heart rates accelerate when they experience positive (eustress) and negative (stress) arousal. This is a physiological signature of arousal. But heart rate measurements tell nothing about how the person is feeling. So it goes with brain imaging.

Verbal reports from individuals or personal introspection, as anecdotal as they seem, are still the best "evidence" we have for any kind of mental and physical phenomenon. To make matters worse, most people are unable to notice, note, monitor, and report on details of their experiences, making the problem even more difficult to investigate.

However, just like working with meditators, working with tulipamancers is a boon for phenomenologists (scientists who study inner experiences), as they have trained themselves to be more attentive to their experiences than the average population. If a large group of people reports similar fine-grained experiences that are comparable (because they differ from the average experiences of other groups), this is pretty good "evidence" of their accuracy.

Reliance on first-person reports does not preclude the possibility of quantitative measures. For example, when I asked a group of more than 160 tulpamancers about the quality of their listening experience, I found that most of the subjects who said they heard the voices of their tulpas "as clearly as someone else's voice" had been two or more Years of practicing Tulpamancy more. In turn, practitioners with less experience reported voices that were more reflective or halfway between their own thoughts and someone else's voice. The fact that Tulpamancer describe comparatively similar experiences in similar phases of practice, which tend towards fully-fledged automated voices, gives these reports further validity.

These results are in line with what we are beginning to understand about auditory “hallucinations”. A recent study published in the Lancet, for example, found that schizophrenic patients also reported fine-grained distinctions between thought-like and other voice-like experiences against simplified notions of auditory hallucinations heard as actual voices.

Cross-cultural hearing of voices

Recent work in psychological anthropology has also led to more mythical discoveries about the content and affective dimensions of speech hearing in different cultures, as well as about the relationship between people, their voices and the implicit expectations shared by other members of their societies. In a recent project, Stanford University Tanya Luhrmann led a global team of anthropologists and psychiatrists who surveyed schizophrenia in India, Ghana and the United States about what their voices told them. Her fascinating results, in classic Margaret Mead fashion, indicated that the mean, terrifying, threatening, debilitating character that most of us associate with psychosis was much more pronounced in Western patients and was likely based on prejudices inherent in Euro-American culture . In Ghana and India, patients were more likely to report friendly and guiding voices and hear the voices of relatives. When voices teased or mocked, they did so in a much less violent way. In the Chennai sample, even voices that were actively rejected by patients gave orders that reflected family obligations such as “go to the kitchen and prepare food” or “you must eat but not too much”. In the California sample, patients were much more likely to describe their voices as violent and speak of their experience as "crazy."

Source: Tanya M. Luhrmann, Padmavati, Hema Tharoor, Akwasi Osei / Topics of Cognitive Science 7 (2015) 646–663, p. 650

Cultural invitations - cognitive ideology

This prompted Luhrmann and colleagues to develop a theory of “social inflammation” or “cultural invitations” to convey psychoses. What we pay attention to and how we understand it, according to the study's authors, is always subtly influenced by our culture - that is, how we expect others around us to think that the world works. They explained that implicit “cultural invitations” about how to behave, how to understand and appreciate meaning, but also about what counts as mind, person, mind, normal experience, and pathological experience, can have immense implications how we feel. This is what I have termed "cognitive ideology," or the power of culture-specific ideas and prejudices about what counts as mind, what counts as real, and what counts as "normal", desirable, or undesirable experience in shaping our most intuitive Modes of affect and action.

Responding to latent cultural beliefs

As we shall see, positive and negative internal experiences and "abnormal" experiences of all kinds also occur in a range of implicit to explicit responses to deeply rooted, but often unconscious, cultural assumptions.

The work of the late psychologist Nicholas Spanos, who had a lifetime of such “strange” experiences as hypnosis, multiple personalities, false memories, UFO abduction reports, and past life recalls, played an important role in our understanding of the relationship between culture and inner experience. Through his clinical experiments and reviews of these strange cases, Spanos developed a socio-cognitive hypothesis to explain how subjective reality reacts to largely implicit but elaborately “rule-driven” ideas held collectively. For example, he pointed out that reports of UFO abductions of people who appear to be convinced they had the experience typically involve alien technologies that are collectively conceivable but not yet attainable. The first reports of sightings and kidnappings in the premodern era concerned flying ships with sails. One could imagine the as yet unattainable technology of flying ships, but collectively it was not yet conceivable to think of ships without sails. For this reason, in the post Apollo and Star Wars era, it has become collectively conceivable to think of currently unattainable technologies such as light-speed travel and teleportation.

This shows how important it is to appreciate the role of culture in shaping the latent ideas or implicit beliefs. Simply put, these are ingrained expectations of what is true, false, right, and false that we don't know we'll hold, but that affect our automatic behavior. Most of us don't reflect very much on our own prejudices. They tend to manifest themselves in our most "personal" likes, preferences, intuitions, and avoidances or attraction mechanisms. But, as Spanos would have put it, these answers are nonetheless rule-driven cultural constructs.

Racist and sexist prejudices are notorious examples of such implicit beliefs that have been picked up from latent cultural ideologies. They can be easily examined in children through attribution problems such as the famous Clark Doll experiment. In this experiment, children are asked to express their preference for one of two dolls that represent a black and white baby. What is worrying is that even black children prefer the white doll. How does this happen?

Over the past 70 years of research on racial biasing studies have consistently shown that children ages 4 and up are already prejudiced across cultures, ethnicity and other socially constructed categories of people consistent with the prevailing culture of their societies. In most cases, however, these prejudices are not consciously perceived by the carers and educators of the children and are almost never taught explicitly. It is as if the prejudices were literally “picked up” from a hazy cultural soup.How such prejudices are acquired - in fact, how broader cultural grammars are acquired - is still an open question.

Source: Flugschiffe / (c) Luigi Prina, Milan

Individual psychological characteristics.

I introduced the secret of how a latent architecture of cultural expectations and behaviors is acquired, emphasizing that this process extends to hallucinations, imagination, embodiment, and inner experiences as a whole.

But we should be careful assuming an "anything goes" formula where anyone improvising mentally from public language can hallucinate, conjure sentient voices, feel abducted by aliens, or have out-of-body experiences.

It should be noted that Spanos's work has been criticized for overemphasizing the social and failing to take into account the individual psychological characteristics of people who are more prone to abnormal experiences than others.

Hypnotizability, propensity to absorb (the ability to fully immerse yourself in inner images), and propensity to dissociate are examples of traits that are known to occur on a spectrum across the population and are likely to be innate. Fantasy propensity, a hypothetical subtype of absorption, has also been identified (albeit more controversially) in people who report abnormal experiences.

Another standard explanation for abnormal experiences is that they occur in response to repressed memories and trauma.

In response to its critics, Spanos tested for trauma and trait variables in a study that subjects who reported UFO experiences were divided into not intense (is.g., seeing lights and shapes in the sky) and violently (e.g. seeing and communicating with aliens or lack of time) Groups. He found that the test persons in both groups did not do above average in terms of psychopathology, hypnotizability and tendency to fantasy, but that the experiences in the intensive group were more often sleep-related (e.g. sleep paralysis). The subjects in the intensive group also reported a much stronger belief in the existence of aliens and in space visits.

Learning to Hear Voices: Explicit Beliefs and Absorption Training.

The results of Spanos in the group of intense UFO experiences support the claim that culture shapes the inner experience. In this case, we should consider the importance of explicit beliefs in conveying experiences. People who are consciously involved in believing, expecting, and wanting certain experiences may also be more prone to having those experiences. This can only happen when expectations are confirmed by the broader and more implicit expectations that other people have similar expectations.

Anthropologists have long documented cases of trance, dissociation, mental possession, and other abnormal experiences that often occur in ritual in spiritual contexts devoid of trauma and pathology. In such cases as Candomblé Possession in Brazil or Madagascar, these experiences are understood as normal and desirable.

Tanya Luhrmann, whose work on Voices Across Cultures we discussed earlier, also conducted fascinating long-term anthropological and psychological studies of the inner dimensions of prayer among Pentecostal Christians. Luhrmann's work showed that in a process not unlike that of Tulpamancy, the hard work of prayer can ultimately lead to listening experiences among believers. She first hypothesized that learning the voice of God might require a propensity for absorption. Their studies showed that those among their informants who reported the most vividly reported imagination, greater focus and more intense spiritual experiences scored higher on the Tellegen Absorption Scale (TAS). Beyond the importance of inclinations, however, a central result of Luhrmann's research was that absorption could be trained and improved in practice. Luhrmann's work elegantly showed the spiritual and other unusual sensory experiences can be brought to life through attentive learning, especially if they are sought and rewarded in a community of people with similar beliefs.

In my own work, I also found that tulpamancers performed above average on the Tellegen absorption scale. Whether this reflects individual inclinations and personal types who are more interested in tulpamancy than others is a difficult question. My research, like that of Luhrmann, suggests that the tendency to absorption can improve with practice and that culture is an important factor in shaping the desirability and reward of unusual sensory experiences.

In order to make authoritative statements about tulpamancy as an absorption training practice, however, non-tulpamancers would need to be trained in the art of conjuring voices with longitudinal follow-up from control groups with high and low absorption characteristics.

Tulpamancy in popular culture: secular mysticism as resistance

As we have seen, Tulpamancers can achieve highly individual and unusual experiences, which, however, are very similar in their phenomenology. Precisely because Tulpamancy was organized as a formalized culture (i.e. a group of people united by common expectations of the possibility and desirability of certain types of beings and circumstances), Tulpa experiences are simultaneously possible, successful and successful. I feel so positive towards Tulpamancers .

On the one hand, the “fringe dimension” of Tulpamancy promotes solidarity among members and increases the experimental rewards for having had such hard-to-reach, highly exciting experiences.

The prejudices of the dominant Euro-American culture with regard to unusual experiences and especially mental experiences, however, also create a difficult dynamic for tulpamancers, who are often reluctant to “get out” of even their closest friends, relatives and acquaintances.

As the news of culture spreads online, tulpamancers will likely continue to endure ridicule, marginalization, and pathologization. In this sense, the experience of such a fringe group is no different from that of Sufis, early Christians, Kabbalists, sadhus, and mystics of all kinds who were simultaneously feared, revered, and suppressed in mass societies that demand rigidity. Such “mystics” threaten the very core of what most people, on the deepest and broadest levels, accept as real and possible - their lives make us uncomfortable because they point to the tragic limits of our imaginations and the superficiality of our everyday experiences.

In the globalizing, internet-mediated world of 2016, tulpamancers have to bear the perverse consequences of a culture in which differences are in principle valued, but in practice are mostly monitored and punished.

Our culture, paradoxically, nominally values ​​individuality, but aggressively sets a highly standardized framework for behavior that can be measured, cataloged, pathologized, and punished with terrible precision.

Contemporary Euro-American culture is possibly the most aggressive of these frameworks ever implicitly anchored, as it extends far and deep into other people's thoughts and sensory experiences. To what extent the spiritual life of other people is viewed as "transparent" (and thus recognizable) or "transparent" opaque "(and not recognizable) is another important difference between cultures. In today's Euro-America, we don't just think of ourselves in increasingly neurochemical terms, we think and worry excessively about what other people feel and think, and we have slowly incorporated a series of simplified medical assumptions and concerns about how "normal" is healthy , sick and dangerous other people's thoughts are.

Add to this a moral panic over a simplified catalog of psychopathology, an obsession with self-responsibility, and ubiquitous marketing from the pharmacological industry, and the system of rule is almost complete because people monitor themselves before monitoring others. Any private mental experience that deviates from this sanitary norm is itself interpreted as frightening and a potential marker of mental illness. Given these issues, it is important to recognize tulpamancy as a bold, creative, and mystical backlash to the covert conservatism of our culture.

In summary, Tulpamancy presents us with a fascinating case study examining the embodied and social nature of consciousness and cognition, as well as the emergence of new forms of culture and subjectivity. It also provides an important paradigm for revising our simplistic and limiting understanding of mental illness on the one hand and mental life and personality on the other.