When I was twelve, because I felt an absence of like minds around me, and I wouldn’t overemphasise that because there were some, some of whom might be reading this now so don’t take it personally please, you’re all mentschen, I decided to create a separate person who was just as real as I was to live in my head. More specifically, I wanted him, whose name was to be David, to live in the top left hand corner of my frontal lobe. I can’t remember all the details of the ritual I undertook to do this but I do remember it involved imagining the room I was seated in becoming transparent and being surrounded by interstellar space. After some time, I became sure I had created this being, that my work was done, and he became my constant companion. I allowed him to speak through me to friends at school, who described him as “lackadaisical”, and I would certainly describe him as depressive. By the time I was fourteen, he was fading although I might say he’s either fused with my own personality or that I am this person now, the old me having disappeared. However, more than that I would say he was kind of an imaginary friend and I grew out of him.
More recently, I’ve come across this concept labelled as “tulpa”. A tulpa in contemporary Western usage is a mentally created thought form who is actually a conscious being. Not an imaginary one but a real one. The word is derived from Tibetan, a word which seems to be སྤྲུལ་པ་, although I’m not sure because of how strange Tibetan script is. The actual Tibetan word transliterates as “sprul-pa”, which is more general, meaning “manifestation” or “emanation”. The idea is similar to a golem in Judaism in some ways, and has also been translated as “thought-form”. It’s also found in Bon, a more folkish spiritual tradition in Tibet. The mere fact that a Tibetan word happens to be used to refer to a thought-form means neither that this is cultural appropriation nor that the concept isn’t universal. It also has a value and a meaning whether or not it’s literally possible to create an independent conscious being psychically.
Because of the possibility that one is creating a conscious entity, creating a tulpa shouldn’t be taken lightly. I think of David as having merged with my personality, so he isn’t so much dead as part of me. I don’t know what wider views are on this. I presume that once the decision has been made, people engage in detailed planning and perceptual, well, “outreach” is what I suppose I’d call it, to form their tulpa. Once all this has been done, the tulpa can be checked for sentience by opening one’s mind to them and finding out if they say and do things one wouldn’t expect.
It won’t have escaped your attention that a tulpa is very similar to an imaginary friend, something which is usually thought of as confined to childhood. Consequently, my apparent creation of David, as seen from the outside, might look rather immature for a twelve-year old. There are various other associations possible here too. For instance, belief in an interventionist Creator has sometimes been mockingly described as being an “imaginary friend”, and to some extent this can be embraced. It would be blasphemous for many theists to attempt to create God, but the association people make between imaginary friends and immaturity or psychosis is quite stigmatising and allows that mockery to be taken seriously. In fact tulpas, real or not, perform important emotional and psychological functions. I happen not to take the existence of David seriously now as a separate person who has ever existed, but I presume his apparition had a rôle. Incidentally, just to clear this up I have also had two close friends called David. Both of those are or were incontrovertibly real, physical people, one of whom I knew from school and was part of my small circle of friends as a young adult, and the other of whom I met at university, I lived with and died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. Please don’t run away with the idea that either of these people were in any sense imaginary. The second has had his biography presented on Radio 4.
Back to the issue. There is a question of childishness as a line drawn at a certain stage in one’s life after which, as Paul put it, one “put(s) away childish things”. In Greek then:
ὅτε ἤµην νήπιος,
ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐλογιζόµην ὡς νήπιος· ὅτε
γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου.
1 Corinthians 13:11
Paul is speaking here of becoming an adult human male. The word he uses, ‘ανηρ, means that and also husband, and it refers to a rôle which arguably no longer exists because this was in a highly patriarchal society. If one really does put away childish things, one may impair one’s ability to relate to younger members of one’s own family. I don’t know what kind of rôle Greeks and Second Temple Period Jewish men played in the upbringing of their children, and I wonder about that because it may not have been as hands-off as the stereotype suggests, but my perhaps naïve assumption is that it didn’t involve much of a relationship in many cases. And I’m not saying this because of my own issues with gender identity. It’s uncontroversial to assert that fathers must be emotionally involved and empathic in their parenting. But leaving gender aside here, every adult is also a child, because they have been a child. My own experience of my life is that it’s rather homogenous in nature. When I was a child (“ὅτε ἤµην νήπιος . . .”), I was an oddly adult child, and maybe now I’m an adult I’m an oddly childish adult, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take responsibility for things, and most people feel a need to play, which has to be taken seriously. But in saying this I’m impinging on both Transwaffle and Homeedandherbs. It just needed saying here.
Two aspects of this come to mind. One is that of an author creating a fictional character, and the other is the psychological condition of dissociation. In order to be convincing, it should be impossible to sum up what a fictional character is in a short textual passage. They can’t be a talking head into whose mouth you put words. They have to have a life of their own which extends beyond the page in your imagination. Also, if other people read what you’ve written, one would hope they have a life of their own beyond what you imagine. The process of creating a fictional character is markèdly similar to that of creating a tulpa, and like some tulpas, the author has often built a world around that character for them to live in, whether it resembles ours or not. This suggests that if it’s true that psychic energy is invested in a tulpa, making them real and having a life of their own, a fictional character could also have a real existence. Conan Doyle’s annoyance at having to bring Sherlock Holmes back comes to mind, and considering his interest in the paranormal I wonder in fact if he considered the possibility that Holmes might in fact be in a sense real though incorporeal.
Dissociation is often seen as a psychiatric condition, and it does emerge as a coping mechanism for emotional trauma. This was once referred to as multiple personality disorder, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly because it does in fact often relate to unbearable experiences in early life. Dissociation is controversial as a diagnosis, as some see it as a product of the therapeutic process rather like some might see past-life regression, and it might also seem like the kind of rôle-playing which many claim takes place under hypnosis. However, there clearly are situations where people perceive events happening to them as taking place to someone else, and this can be a protective mechanism, so the question arises of why one might want to remove that simply so that the body in front of one can be considered a single personality when it may be of no advantage to them but merely be a form of conformity for the observer’s comfort. Then again, it may also cause distress for the people concerned to be in this state. The seriousness of the cause in many cases ought to lead one to proceed with caution here.
A common Christian view of the situation is that people are possessed. This is partly linked to Jesus’s saying in Matthew 12:43-45:
Ὅταν δὲ τὸ ἀκάθαρτον πνεῦµα ἐξέλθῃ
ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, διέρχεται διí ἀνύδρων τόπων ζητοῦν ἀνάπαυσιν,
καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκει.
τότε λέγει, Εἰς τὸν οἶκόν µου ἐπιστρέψω ὅθεν
ἐξῆλθον· καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα σεσαρωµένον καὶ
τότε πορεύεται καὶ παραλαµβάνει µεθí ἑαυτοῦ
ἑπτὰ ἕτερα πνεύµατα πονηρότερα ἑαυτοῦ, καὶ εἰσελθόντα κατοικεῖ
ἐκεῖ· καὶ γίνεται τὰ ἔσχατα τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκείνου χείρονα τῶν
πρώτων. οὕτως ἔσται καὶ τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ πονηρᾷ.
- Now when the unclean spirit has left the human, it passes through arid places seeking rest and finds none. Then it says, “to my home I shall return, whence I came. And having come, it finds it unoccupied, clean and tidy. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they dwell there, and the human ends up worse off than they was in the first place. Thus will the evil be onto this generation.
So, the question arises of whether, far from creating a tulpa, I allowed myself to be possessed by doing this. This is also what many Christians think the risk is with meditation. One of the notable contrasts between the Tanakh and the New Testament is that the latter has a much stronger emphasis on possession by demons. Not being religiously Jewish, I don’t know how Judaism would view glanim (unsure of the plural here) from the viewpoint of sin. One difference between a tulpa and a golem is that the former is a physical being who can be manifested entirely from thought whereas the latter is a physical object upon which an animating principle is imposed by something like kabbalistic alchemical transmutation, so there is a sharper division between body and soul. To me, either seems like a form of hubris, and I’d feel uncomfortable about doing it nowadays, but I do recognise that they may have therapeutic or educational value.
Maybe a tulpa is like a companion animal. If they’re not conscious, they would seem to be a better choice than the practice of acquiring “pets” in many cases because nothing has the potential to do so except the creator. Or they may be like one’s child. I certainly spent a lot of mental energy creating our “phantom baby”, so maybe she was a kind of tulpa, which is disturbing as we tend not to think about her nowadays, but there was no intention to take her seriously as a real person at any point. Then there are the fictional characters I’ve created, and some of those have suffered a lot, some even killing themselves to end that suffering, so it would be extremely concerning if they were tulpas. I hope that some kind of intent would be involved. On the other hand, ethical considerations could mean that vegans are obliged to presume tulpas are conscious until proof of the contrary.
It does seem far-fetched that this could happen. However, in practical terms many people do behave as if a particular entity is real, notably deities. Certain avowèdly fictional characters can also have enormous followings and may be exceedingly realistic, and the question arises of whether there is such a thing as collective psychic energy which is able to hold such a being literally in existence. I don’t want to go too far down this road because it seems delusional but I do sometimes wonder about the existence of some kind of psychic field in sacred places and places of worship, although these would not be thought forms in the same sense. It would raise fewer issues to go into the question of their therapeutic value, which seems certain, although the question of malignant daydreaming also arises.
Two thirds of children are said to have imaginary friends at some stage in their childhood. It gives them the chance to play with someone when they’re bored or alone and on some level they do know they aren’t real, but it’s still important to respect this. It’s also supposed to be good for their language development because they talk more than they would otherwise. They help with creativity and emotional self-control. I would imagine that it could also help future authors and actors. I personally didn’t have an imaginary friend as a child, at least before I was twelve. I did, however, used to narrate my life for quite some time, which is kind of complimentary to characterisation in that it’s another aspect of writing fiction.
Speaking of which, one of the strangest things I found about NaNoWriMo when I started to do it was that participants would often talk about their protagonists as if they were separate from themselves. They would talk about them being reluctant to do things, for example. This is entirely different from how I write fiction. For me, although I do try to write fairly convincing fictional characters, they exist because they have a certain set of functions in the narrative, such as being a window onto the world, having a particular kind of character trait or constitute thought experiments, and they can’t be separated from the process of worldbuilding because they’re part of that world, or the setting if you want to think of it as mainstream. I wonder if there’s a link between this other tendency, which extends well beyond NaNo, and the recent focus on tulpas, and perhaps also between the facility to have imaginary friends as children and later creative writing. Then again, there are a lot of things about NaNo I find odd and baffling.
Adolescence is not generally considered an appropriate age at which to have an imaginary friend, so this has been the object of psychological research. Are they a sign of immaturity or something more positive? Three possibilities were investigated: whether they were a sign of a deficit, giftedness or egocentrism. Teenage diaries were read and the conclusion reached, perhaps surprisingly, was that teens with imaginary friends tended to be more socially competent than average, had good coping skills and were particularly creative. This is not at all what I would expect, and I don’t feel like it describes me at that age. What does reflect my attitude at that time is that teenage imaginary friends are not created as a substitute for real friends.
There’s clearly an at least superficial resemblance between tulpas, imaginary friends and dissociation, but dissociation tends to be pathologised. This seems similar to the way hearing voices is stigmatised. Medicalised and pathologised coping mechanisms, or simply aspects of experience and behaviour, often seem to be due to an intolerant and emotionally dismissive perspective on what it is to be human. It can also be hypocritical. For example, depending on the society it’s considered entirely acceptable by many to see theistic religion as “normal”, but leaving aside the question of the reality of either deities or tulpas, both of them involve interaction with a being who is not perceived by everyone. The difference with a tulpa is that they may be perceived by one person alone, but being in a minority of one doesn’t make someone mistaken. Looking at it from a mental health perspective, I don’t think it would be a bad thing for someone to manifest such an entity regardless of one’s views as to their reality. To use a possibly inappropriate analogy, the processes of physical pathology are usually initially an attempt to compensate for imbalance and remain in or return to a stable phase in terms of homoeostasis, and whereas inflammation and pain, for example, may be unpleasant there is usually a reason for them. Addressing the issue of a tulpa as if it’s a central part of a psychiatric issue is similarly inappropriate, even if there are other issues going on for the person involved.
Most people who generate tulpas consciously see them as psychological or neurological phenomena. I would probably fall into the second category, at least as I perceived David back then, in that as I said, I saw him as someone who took up residence in a specific part of my brain: part of my frontal lobe. However, I also feel that a tulpa is like the soul of a dead person, in the Ancient Egyptian sense of being a subjective impression of their physical presence, which is one of the aspects of the soul from that perspective. In that respect, the essence of the departed who visits one in one’s dreams or is seen around after their death does have a consciousness in my view because even if they are only “simulated” in one’s own mind, one’s mind is conscious by definition and therefore this person is conscious, tulpa or otherwise. The two are very similar. Only one person in twelve sees the tulpa associated with their consciousness as having a metaphysical explanation.
Thoughtforms are conceptually ancestral to tulpas in the current sense of the latter term. In Islam, they have been referred to as djinn, but a djinn is, as I understand it, generally conceived as a morally uncommitted spirit like an angel or demon in essence, and in fact I’m not convinced they aren’t physical. As mentioned previously on this blog, plasmas can exist in the form of charged dusts and have many of the characteristics, such as the ability to partition off areas of themselves to form protected special environments like cells, which make life possible, and they would need to avoid damp areas to do this, and for this reason I think it’s possible that the Islamic references to djinn may in fact be “life Jim, but not as we know it.” Consequently, a djinn and a thought-form could be completely different things. That said, maybe it’s possible for djinn to form through psychokinesis or perhaps a more firmly established physiological process, in which case they could be both.
The illustration which opened this post is from the Theosophist Annie Besant’s 1901 book ‘Thought-Forms’. Besant would unsurprisingly have attempted to fit the concept into Theosophy. Certainly the image above does call to mind my impression that physical churches and I presume other places of worship and special spaces have a kind of psychic energy field, which in the case of a church could be seen as an organ of the bride of Christ, to put it in Christian terms. Therefore, whereas many Christians might find that the general idea of thought-forms and tulpas is dangerous and Satanic, I would imagine that they would go along with this, and I can’t see the difference between this and the idea of a spirit-filled church. Regardless of denomination, it seems to me that some churches feel kind of “flat” and others “vibrant”, including house churches, and I can only really conclude that there really is something supernatural going on here. In fact it doesn’t even require theism to accept that this is true, and even physicalism might allow for some kind of esprit du corps.
This relates to such phenomena as the Winchester House, which is by any standard a remarkable building. It’s a large house in San José, California, owned by the heirs to the Winchester estate, i.e. the company which manufactured the rifles and hard drives. When Sarah Winchester inherited the fortune, it was the result of her father-in-law’s and husband’s deaths and when her daughter died of malnutrition, she consulted a medium who claimed to channel her husband, telling her that she must go west and continuously build a house to atone for the deaths of the victims of the company’s products. Ms Winchester receives instructions in her dreams for additions to the house which she then drew up as plans the next day, and although work was not constant on the house, there has been extensive remodelling and additions. Even new additions were sometimes demolished according to her wishes, or as she would probably have said, the wishes of the spirits haunting the house. It now has seven storeys and includes windows which open onto walls, staircases leading nowhere, stained glass windows and plentiful other odd features. This could be looked at, non-exclusively, as either a manifestation of guilt or grief, or as a kind of thought-form and a house with a spirit of its own. It’s been claimed that other haunted houses are tulpas too. I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that Ms Winchester had this done to assuage her guilt at the deaths caused by Winchester rifles or for some other emotional reason such as bereavement just because of the claims regarding supernatural influence or thought-forms.
From a philosophical perspective, all of this relates to the idea of concepts as external to the mind, although this sense is less concrete. According to the philosopher Michael Dummett, analytical philosophy, that is, the dominant strand of academic philosophy in the English-speaking world, held that the philosophy of thought can be understood through the philosophy of language alone and completely. This doesn’t sound particularly promising from the viewpoint of tulpas or thought-forms as it would seem that their existence must therefore be reduced to linguistic fictions, but there are other aspects of analytical philosophy which are more promising. Dummett is also on record as saying that the nineteenth century philosopher Gottlob Frege, generally regarded as one of the parents of analytical philosophy and promoted by Bertrand Russell, contributed to this school of thought by separating thoughts from the mind and therefore separating philosophy of mind (such as the mind-body problem) from the philosophy of thought. Moreover, the notion of psychologism is much criticised in Western academic philosophy generally. This is the belief that psychology is central to understanding many or all non-psychological ideas. I do in fact think this is entirely plausible in some situations, for instance the interesting parallels between ego defences in Freud’s thought and Kantian categories, but the general consequence of these demarcations is that there is a realm in which concepts exist separate from consciousness. And in fact I do believe concepts are usefully thought of in this way, and that there are no inventions but rather discoveries. A concept seems to be “in the air” waiting to be grasped sometimes, and it’s common for different people to come up with the same thing independently at roughly the same time simply because the season for doing so has arrived, possible examples being SF novels about asteroid impacts in the 1970s and filament light bulbs. Hence, although it isn’t concrete in nature, something like the idea of thought-forms does exist even in respectable academia.
This hasn’t been a thorough survey of all that can be said about tulpas and thought-forms, but I have expressed certain issues in connection with them which come to mind often. One takeaway from this is that although I personally happen to believe that tulpas have a kind of independent existence, although I’m not sure about consciousness unless one is referring to the actual grey matter substrate on which their ideas depend, their utility, value and meaning to those who construct them is clear, and they should not be stigmatised according to some reductivist paradigm which equates mental and physical illness.