The Internet's Newest Subculture Is All About Creating Imaginary Friends
Welcome to the wild world of tulpamancy.
Kitsune, a tulpa hosted by Maciej from Wroclaw, Poland
Kitsune was a mercurial orb hovering above a marble obelisk. Maciej looked at her. “What do you want to be?” he asked. The orb vanished. Then Maciej heard the pad of feet on grass. He whirled around. There she was. Naked. With large fox ears and a bristly tale. She looked at him with large, primitive eyes.
When Maciej opened his eyes he was lying on his bed in his house in Wroclaw, Poland. Outside it was a gray day. He jumped up, sat in front of his laptop, and got in touch with me.
“I did it, she’s here,” he typed into Skype.
“Can I speak to her?” I replied. Maciej paused and listened internally. In between his thoughts came a sweet little tone; it seemed to move his fingers automatically,
“Hi, I’m Kitsune and I’m a tulpa.”
Tulpas are sentient beings imagined into existence using meditation-style exercises. Their creators, known as “tulpamancers”, form the internet’s newest subculture, meeting online at tulpa.info and the subreddit r/tulpas.
“I have three tulpas,” said Nick Kingston, a game design student from Plymouth, England. “They’ve been with me 20 months; their names are Twi, Dash, and Scoots. They are three anthropomorphic ponies about a foot high.”
Nick has a very close friendship with the three ponies living inside his head. “With other people, there is always something you hold back; I guess I don’t do that with them.”
An example of the form a tulpa might take in Tibetan mysticism
Tibetan mystics have long practiced a method to create sentient beings from the power of concentrated thought. Explorer Alexandra David-Neel was the first Westerner to discover the practice. “Besides having had few opportunities of seeing [tulpas], my habitual incredulity led me to make experiments for myself,” she wrote in her 1929 book Magic and Mystery in Tibet. “My efforts were attended with some success.”
Tulpas remained the preserve of occultists until 2009, when the subject appeared on the discussion boards of 4chan. A few anonymous members started to experiment with creating tulpas. Things snowballed in 2012 when adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic—known as “bronies” to anyone who's been near a computer for the past three years—caught on. They created a new forum on Reddit and crafted tulpas based on their favourite characters from the show.
“The Reddit forum has 6,000-plus members,” writes Dr Samuel Veissière, Visiting Professor of Transcultural Psychiatry, Cognitive Science and Anthropology at McGill University in Montreal. His study is the first academic literature about contemporary tulpamancy. “The Russian social networking site Vkontakte also boasts 6,000+ members… [Although] actual numbers are difficult to estimate.”
“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. “Bronies are very accepting of weirdness; they have that mindset of, ‘Wow, that's not normal; that's cool.’ The [My Little Pony] characters evoke a simple goodness… what fan wouldn't want one for a friend?”
In the cross-pollinating fields of the internet, it wasn’t long before tulpamancy also started to attract manga and fantasy fans. “My tulpa is called Jasmine,” said Ele. “She’s a human but from an alternative reality where she can do magic. I created her a dozen years ago for a fantasy series I write and then made her into a tulpa.”
"Tulpa" by Jeffee Slimjim
So they’re fanboys with imaginary friends, right? Not really—tulpas are believed to be conscious beings with their own preferences, and they're not completely under their host’s control.
“Tulpas are understood as mental constructs that have achieved sentience,” writes Veissière. Nearly 40 percent of his respondents reported that their tulpas “felt as real as a physical person,” while 50.6 percent described them as “somewhat real… distinct from [their] own thoughts.”
"Hehe, daddy taught me this one,” said Storm, a tulpa hosted by Ryan Painter from Oregon, who typed her words into an email for me. “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 note how their creations say unexpected things, recall forgotten memories and make them laugh. “I can recall any hidden or faded memory that [my host] has forgotten,” said KT, a tulpa hosted by Sam Isatis from Maryland. “I control a lot of her subconscious functions—as a joke I even made her yawn multiple times a few months back.”
"Amon" by Daia Le
“I can't be sure, but I know that I exist,” says Kitsune, the fox-eared tulpa hosted by Maciej. “Maybe I'm only an illusion, a mistake in his brain. No one will ever know, but we have to believe.”
Tulpas are a broker between their hosts and the latent potential of the subconscious. Hosts claim their creations can retrieve any memory, heal trauma, block chronic pain, cheerlead their studies or just be a companion.
“[Tulpamancers’] happiness levels were assessed through a variety of qualitative interview tools,” writes Veissière. “[The results] suggest that the experience of tulpamancy has an overwhelmingly beneficial impact on their general happiness.”
For most, simple companionship is enough. “My motivation for having a tulpa was the same as there is for having any other kind of friend,” said Ele. “Someone who knows everything about you but still loves you… who knows not just the outer portion, but the deep inside, too.”
For people who want to experiment with the energetic mush of the mind there are guides that explain the tulpa creation process, also known as “forcing.” A tulpamancer must first create an imaginary environment called a “wonderland” where they begin to interact with their tulpas.
“My wonderland is a little forest grove,” said Ele. “I’d imagine myself there hanging out with [my tulpa] and we’d talk… or we’d go explore, basically the same stuff you’d do with a friend in real life.”
A diagram of a tulpamancer's brain, demonstrating where they feel their tulpas
After first meeting their tulpa in the wonderland, hosts begin to feel odd pressure in parts of their head. This is their tulpa beginning to communicate. As the forcing process continues, the tulpa’s voice becomes clearer. Ultimately, a practitioner can “impose” their tulpa on reality by creating a realistic hallucination. One guide pegged the amount of time it takes to do this at 200 to 500 hours.
While voice is the most common way tulpas communicate with their hosts, tulpamancers can learn to stroke their tulpa’s fur, feel their breath on their necks, and even experience sexual contact.
Tulpas soon get curious about their host’s body; some want to experience life as a “meatperson.” Indulgent hosts then use a practice called “switching,” which allows their tulpa to possess their body while they watch from the ringside of consciousness. For some, this sounds dangerously close to schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder.
Not so, say the tulpamancers. In 99 percent of cases the host can choose to switch back at any time. And Veissière said via email that “[Tulpamancy] could have radical implications 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 institutionalization and social isolation.”
"Shira", by Daia Le
Some tulpamancers already use the practice to self-medicate. “I have been suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts for a decade now,” said Sam from Maryland. “My tulpa would try and attack my anxiety and even forcefully possess my hand to keep me from harming myself with a knife.”
But what about the 1 percent of cases where switching turns sinister? Take the strange case of Koomer and Oguigi. Koomer was a tulpamancer who documented his attempt to have his tulpa, Oguigi, take permanent possession of his body, eventually having a breakdown.
“I know what happened was not Oguigi’s fault,” Koomer blogged earlier this year. “All the bad things came from a year of stupid behaviour inspired by my reckless pursuit to switch permanently… Don’t try to have [your tulpa] take over. Not because they would harm you in any way, but because other entities will harm you if you open yourself up to such a level. I did that and it nearly made me schizo.”
Koomer’s case is rare, and for Veissière “schizophrenia [could be understood as]… an incapacitating example of ‘involuntary Tulpas,’" therefore, by forming positive relationships with their symptoms, sufferers can start to recover. It's an idea shared by the “Hearing Voices Movement,” who challenge the medical models of schizophrenia and suggest that pathologization aggravates symptoms.
“My schizophrenia manifested itself by having many thoughts and ideas all conflicting and shouting at me,” said Logan, who wanted his last name withheld. “Turning them into tulpas gave those thoughts a face and allowed them to be sorted out in a way that made sense.”
A drawing of Siouxie, a tulpa hosted by Kelson
Tulpa sex is a controversial subject in the community. “Imagine how that would make them feel,” writes Linkzelda, the anonymous author of a Tulpa creation guide. “That they were only created as a sex doll.”
However, if sex is part of close relationship that’s another story. “In short, yeah, we have,” said Scoots, one of the three My Little Pony–style tulpas hosted by Nick. “All three of us have [had sex with our host] at one point or another.”
“We totally bang,” said Siouxsie, a tulpa hosted by Kelson, who wanted his details withheld. “I guess you're asking about the mechanics of it, right? It's like jerking off, but you mentally disassociate with the actual world and just go nuts in the wonderland.”
For all their penchant for banging imaginary ponies and weird cat things, tulpamancers have a great sense of humor. They created the totally safe-for-work subreddit, r/TulpasGoneWild where users post pictures of their conquests—only, since no one else can see them, that means the message board is full of pictures of empty beds and vacant rooms.
A picture posted on r/TulpasGoneWild titled, "[F]ucked in public"
Thousands of young men have taken to the tulpa community and started exploring their imaginations, populating private wonderlands with talking ponies that they may or may not have sex with. Is this really what our grandfathers went to war for?
In a move that would make Terence McKenna proud, it is the dominant culture itself that pushes them into gender-dubious subcultures. “[Tulpa enthusiasts] draw less energy from the world than from thoughts and ideas,” said Ele. “And that’s something that’s shunned in boys and encouraged more with girls… that can push people to want to have a friend who doesn’t judge them in that way.”
“[For tulpamancers], the male to female ratio is approximately 75/25 (male/female),” writes Veissière. “Though up to 10 percent identify as gender-fluid, and explore further ‘creative’ gender and ethnic variations through their humanoid tulpas.”
Tulpamancers, like the bronie culture before them, have their own ideas about gender. “I think the idea of masculinity and femininity might be on its way out,” said Nick. “The norms or boundaries that have been erected over time to stop males or females or anyone from doing what they like are something that, thankfully, seems to be going away.”
This is the first article I've written that quotes an imagined being. It felt odd to me at first, but if I remember the work of William James correctly, a worldview does not need to rest on verifiable evidence in order to be significant.
And what is significant about the tulpa phenomenon is that it illuminates the dialectic of our time; the meeting of gushing internet culture with the slow, quiet world of the imagination. This fusion attracts people who were once marginalized and engages them in the process of community-building.
Back in Wrocław, Maciej is in his wonderland with Kitsune. She’s now over a month old. “Souls—we don't believe in such things,” Kitsune told me via Maciej’s email. “It's just an illusion that our minds create. Maciej and I are created from bunch of neurons; we live together and we die together.”
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