Time for an Imaginary Friend?

(Photo by Felix Montino via Flickr)



We are all going a wee bit crazy, and the latest remedy for social isolation is something called tulpamancy.

The art of the invisible friend.

Tulpamancy is defined as “the act of conjuring sentient beings,” dreaming up a person who will live in your head. You decide how they look, how they act, what interests them, what they think—and then, in repeated sessions, you talk them into being. The practice’s popularity is blossoming online, with new adherents gathering on Reddit, Facebook, Discord, and other forums. To me, it seems perilously close to schizophrenia’s voices (though they are intrusive, not sought) and dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality). How do you do this and stay sane?

Though I was lonely as an only child, I settled for Nancy Drew and never spun myself a pal. I find it adorable when little kids do, but in the adult world, the practice strikes me as slightly creepy. In Tibetan Buddhism, where it originated, it is a deeply spiritual exercise of focused imagination. But in this culture, too many of us already project what we want someone to be instead of learning to love whoever they really are. How many controlling parents impose the criteria of their ideal child on the poor little schmuck who wound up under their roof? Imagine how much harder it will be to accept flaws when you are accustomed to creating and tweaking your own companion.

I did name and, er, flesh out the donors of my cadaver bones, though. I received five cadaver bones to solidify my crumbling neck, and since they were dwelling in my body, I needed a sense of who they were. Now I walk with Bobby, a wise old blues musician; Mary, a smart, gentle Irish woman who never married; the list goes on. They cross my mind when I crane to see the stars.

So I suppose in mild ways, this might not be so crazy. I read more at tulpa.info. “A tulpa is an entity created in the mind, acting independently of, and parallel to your own consciousness.” The tulpa and its host share a body, forge a relationship, trade confidences and affectionate banter, share life. Which is way more bizarre than my cadaver donors, right?

Granted, when I am nervous about something stupid and cannot sleep, I mock myself, taking the voice of a world-weary, utterly calm and wry stranger who is amused by Mrs. Cooperman’s petty angst. But it is still me talking, and I know it.

“Once the tulpa is endowed with enough vitality to be capable of playing the part of a real being, it tends to free itself from its maker’s control,” wrote Alexandra David-Néel, who introduced tulpamancy to the West in 1932. She dreamed up a jolly monk for herself, but he went rogue, and she had to dissolve him.

When I set out to write a mystery novel, I did wait eagerly for my characters to surprise me by rebelling, rewriting the plot. I had carefully prepared these characters by creating detailed identities for them, writing out their life history, past romances, quirky hobbies, birthmarks, favorite foods. . . . To really get inside their heads, I held conversations with them, asked them questions. . . .

All creative acts can look bizarre, I decide. Quarantine is lonely, and so is modern life in general. I continue to explore tulpamancy, reading first-person accounts of people who have created imaginary friends and say how comforting it is. How it eases and brightens their day. How their wife is a bit jealous.

People use chatbots for therapy; how different is talking to a machine from talking to an imaginary friend? And then there are sex robots, which users rush to endow with personality. This, too, has always struck me as a danger to healthy relationships. A smart and worldly friend, a former judge, brushed aside my worries, saying that legally, he would see a sex robot as nothing more than a sex toy, like a vibrator. But I have never known anyone who so much as named her vibrator. A sex robot is a life-size “body” with warmed, flesh-like orifices and algorithmic conversational skills. Convince me a man could not begin to prefer interacting with a creature that flattered him, watched football with him, did anything he wanted in bed, and never once mentioned the need for the trash to be taken out. . . .

Tulpamancy is a spiritual practice, I remind myself, not a sexual one. It is not about falsifying relationships, but about deepening self-knowledge. The word “tulpa” comes from the Tibetan phrase sprul pa, which means “an emanation.” Tibetan monks created tulpas while meditating, as a way of sharpening their mind with a new and powerful focus. Today’s lay practitioners say their tulpa calms them, helps them focus, eases social anxiety, and helps them control their anger.

Which seems surreal until I remember that this is exactly what the Catholic saints were supposed to do. Live alongside us, in our memories and our hearts; hear our troubles and our prayers; soothe extreme emotions; give us a model to which we might aspire. As a child I thumbed the pages of my Lives of the Saints, thrilled that the angels pulled St. Zita’s bread from the oven while she was helping the poor so her husband (who was clearly abusive, I see that now) would not fly into a rage. To this day, I like to imagine, if I am trying to rescue an injured bird or squirrel, what St. Francis might murmur to gentle their fear.

“It’s currently unproven whether or not tulpas are truly sentient, but in this community, we treat them as such,” I read on tulpa.info. Hold on. Sentient? Aware, feeling, sensing, all on their own? This flips me right back to my initial bemusement. Why, again, do people dream up these creatures? Maybe they really are trying to forge a new entity that will exist in the world.

“A bond with one’s tulpa,” the site states, “is often extremely strong, because they can know you intimately, understand you, and generally like and trust you almost implicitly and all this is due to them being in the brain with you.”

I stare at those words, unwilling to admit what they remind me of. The description sounds a lot like the relationship we are encouraged to have, at least in the world’s monotheistic religions, with God (“in whom we live and move and have our being”). One salient difference: We are supposed to be God’s creation, not vice versa.

And so, just as I was about to decide that tulpamancy is not as unusual as it seems, that our imagination does all sorts of calisthenics when we cut it loose, I reach a freshly weird conclusion: We are all sentient tulpas, dreamed up by a higher power who got lonesome.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.