Parasocial Tulpas [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes, 41 seconds. Contains 3137 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter podcast mutant hybrid thing god never wanted but is too scared to uncreate.
It comes out twice a week on a schedule created by some janky mess of neurotransmitters in my head and the very stars themselves! Not the planets though.
On listening to bits of me reading the last newsletter, I honestly don’t think it was that good. Too self-indulgent and overexplained.
I once promised myself and you that I wouldn’t waste your time and I kinda feel like I did.
So, no closer to getting Epstein’s prison documents, I want to talk about something different.
An Ecology of Selves and *lightning crashes* Cultural Appropriation
A fundamental question is, “Are minds a side effect of a complex physical process we don’t understand?”
If mind isn’t a happy accident of matter, we must deal with several obnoxious questions.
What the fuck is it?
Can minds exist independent of matter?
How might those minds impact our own?
A full account of the history of various answers to these questions could fill books and have. We’re going to simplify things down to three broad trends from Europe and a counter-movement to the second.
The medieval Christian idea of mind was that, like the body, a side effect of the soul more or less. The renaissance changed that by providing a host of physical connections between mind and body, but these were held at bay by the second of our trends, created by old friend of the newsletter, Rene Descartes.
I’m speaking of Cartesian Dualism, the notion that mind and bodies are their own separate things with complete independence of substance.
A handy notion for sure, but it’s not true.
As medical science has slowly learned again and again over the last century: Mind and body are so interlinked there’s just about no way to say where one begins and the other ends.
But even before those proofs were in the bag, the late 19th-century secularists, empowered by darwin, were happily claiming materialism to be the basis of everything.
This annoyed, well, pretty much everyone else and we’ve yet to escape the backlash to it.
This brings us to our counter-movement and, SURPRISE!, it’s Theosophy. Recontextualizing mid-19th-century spiritualism with pocket-change stolen from India, China, and eventually Tibet we find the roots of the thought form.
But don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into another Blavatsky thing.
It’s her successor, Annie Besant, and the ever-problematic Charles Leadbetter, in their 1905 book Thought-Forms: A Record of Clairvoyant Investigation.
Thoughts Are Things
Fans and haters of Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 bestseller (thanks Oprah!) The Secret will recognize this as one of her slogans.
This work doesn’t originate the phrase, but the book turns on the idea. OK, if thoughts are things what kinds of things are they?
It’s more of a record of the shapes and colors of things beheld in meditation than a self-help book in the usual new thought/theosophic tradition.
I don’t want to dwell on it because we’ve got a long way to go to get to our point today, but it’s honestly a neat book.
Let’s linger a moment on the caption here:
The Logos as manifested in Man.—We are now coming to a series of thoughts which are among the very highest the human mind can form, when in meditation upon the divine source of its being. When the man in reverent contemplation tries to raise his thought towards the Logos of our solar system, he naturally makes no attempt to image to himself that august Being; nor does he think of Him as in any way possessing such form as we can comprehend. Nevertheless such thoughts build forms for themselves in the matter of the mental plane; and it will be of interest for us to examine those forms. In our illustration in Fig. 41 we have a thought of the Logos as manifested in man, with the devotional aspiration that He may thus be manifested through the thinker. It is this devotional feeling which gives the pale blue tinge to the five-pointed star, and its shape is significant, since it has been employed for many ages as a symbol of God manifest in man. The thinker may perhaps have been a Freemason, and his knowledge of the symbolism employed by that body may have had its share in the shaping of the star. It will be seen that the star is surrounded by bright yellow rays shining out amidst a cloud of glory, which denotes not only the reverential understanding of the surpassing glory of the Deity, but also a distinct intellectual effort in addition to the outpouring of devotion.
We can see Thought Forms as an esoteric art project to try and depict concepts visually. This is, scientifically speaking, cool as hell.
Besant gives us three kinds of Thought Forms:
That which takes the image of the thinker.
That which takes the image of some material object
That which takes a form entirely its own, expressing its inherent qualities in the matter which it draws around it.
The first two are merely representational, where the third expresses the deeper reality of the form itself.
Before we can go onto the real meat here we need to sketch some quick connections with other related ideas we won’t be going into but kind of relate and tie into our main essay.
The obvious antecedent to all of this is Plato’s theory of the Forms, where everything and every idea has its own perfect is-ness that encompasses the complete and correct version of that concept. Like the form of a chair is just the most chairness thing possible. Same with Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.
Or, uh, maybe that’s a later naive reading into Plato’s writing that he was specifically trying to steer people away from since all of his dialogues are specifically teaching tools designed as part of the teaching of his Academy, which taught skepticism.
Just seems like “Oh, yeah, there’s a universal correct answer for everything” is a pretty bad assumption for a school of skeptics. But don’t @ me if the Neoplatonists have mucked everything up for thousands of years.
Along with Thought-forms we have the mastermind, egregores, servitors, daemons, demons, emanations, phantasms, astral projection, and arguably homunculuses and golems.
Among many others, frankly. The idea of intention manifesting as a being is… pretty common.
Want me to talk about that shit? You gotta ask. I don’t know what people care about unless they tell me.
Anyway, it’s finally time to bring up Tulpas. The concept obviously missing in my previous list because it’s in the title of this newsletter.
Imagination Gone Wild
Fittingly, I think, the idea of a Tulpa only really exists in a westerner’s misunderstanding of Tibetan Buddhist doctrine and practice.
The first use of the word comes from Alexandra David-Néel, a spiritualist who snuck into Lhassa, Tibet before it was open to westerners and wrote a book on her experiences published in 1929. Titled Magic and Mystery in Tibet, it mentions that the Dalai Lama explained that he could show a projection of himself created by his mind.
Now, I’m not going to delve into the Tibetian side of this because I frankly don’t know enough of their practices or doctrine to do a good job of it.
You can read two very good breakdowns on the intersection of this idea with western pop culture at Tracking the Tulpa.
But I’ve thus far only hinted at what a Tulpa is, aside from yet another example of white people misunderstanding someone else’s religious practices.
And before anyone gets mad about me saying so, everyone misunderstands cultures they don’t know well, white people just have better access to publishing and distributing those misunderstandings than most. So they propagate further.
A Tulpa is a nonphysical being created by intention, will, and concentration practices. It’s grown from a thought, but gains a kind of mass and independence over time. They can also be produced by careless thinking & groups of people.
David-Neel created one based on a western style Monk, like Friar Tuck from Robin hood, to not create any confusion.
Let’s let her explain things a bit:
Incited by many wonderful legends regarding the power of ancient tubthobs to create tulpas, a small number of ngagspas and lamas endeavour, in great secrecy, to succeed in that peculiar branch of esoteric lore. However, the practice is considered as fraught with danger for every one who has not reached a high mental and spiritual degree of enlightenment and is not fully aware of the nature of the psychic forces at work in the process. 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. This, say Tibetan occultists, happens nearly mechanically, just as the child, when his body is completed and able to live apart, leaves its mother’s womb. Sometimes the phantom becomes a rebellious son and one hears of uncanny struggles that have taken place between magicians and their creatures, the former being severely hurt or even killed by the latter. Tibetan magicians also relate cases in which the tulpa is sent to fulfil a mission, but does not come back and pursues its peregrinations as a half-conscious, danger- ously mischievous puppet. The same thing, it is said, may happen when the maker of the tulpa dies before having dissolved it. Yet, as a rule, the phantom either disappears suddenly at the death of the magician or gradually vanishes like a body that perishes for want of food. On the other hand, some tulpas are expressly intended to survive their creator and are specially formed for that purpose.
Basically, uh, giving nothing life and free will is complicated once it’s something.
Kinda makes sense, really.
The Tulpa she created was mostly a visual illusion that eventually did stuff she didn’t command, traveling with her party and acting like a normal person walking about.
One other person apparently even saw it once, an impressive feat of visualization if true.
I ought to have let the phenomenon follow its course, but the presence of that unwanted companion began to prove trying to my nerves ; it turned into a “ day- nightmare.” Moreover, I was beginning to plan my journey to Lhasa and needed a quiet brain devoid of other preoccupations, so I decided to dissolve the phantom, I succeeded, but only after six months of hard struggle. My mind-creature was tenacious of life.
So, yeah. She allegedly took 6 months to kill something she imagined.
Using practices she didn’t understand.
An embellishment? Yeah, probably. But having done a lot of meditation and visualization over the years a lot of the details ring true for me.
We’ll leave my speculation about this for another time.
Since this has, lol, run longer than I expected, I’m gonna go quick on the next bit so we can *laugh track* start the essay this is building towards.
Since David-Neel, the idea has become somewhat mainstream. Starting with our old friend John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies, the idea of Tulpas has propagated as a possible explanation for UFOs and other weird shit.
And once you add the weirdness-crazed internet to the mix, well, you just know people ran with that shit.
And… time for a detour.
Parasocial Relationships and Influencers
The thing I really wanted to talk about today are parasocial relationships.
They’re the machine the modern Internet is grafted onto. Asymmetrical relationships where one person has lots of people they’ve never met who feel like they have a relationship with that person.
These are distinct from merely online relationships, which can be genuine, by the fact that parasocial relationships create a weird situation where many people know a TON about one person, who maybe knows a little about a few of them.
Prior to the Internet, parasociality was limited to people obsessed with famous people. Many, perhaps, but not that many.
But now everyone can have a platform and authenticity is manufactured on demand in every flavor you like including the one you’re reading right now.
Two interrelated examples are Joanne Rowling, known as JK Rowling the world-famous author of Harry Potter; and Natalie Wynn, known as Contrapoints a popular left-wing YouTuber.
We’re going to talk about them for a bit because their issues are interrelated and because the latter has commented on the former.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehash anything from this 90-minute video or the many “fun” hours of drama from either of them.
Both women have large online platforms, cult followings, and anti-cult followings. Both have become controversial within the trans community for varying degrees of anti-trans rhetoric.
I’m going to comment very little about the details there because what interests us aren’t the details but the structure of the various waves of backlash both have gotten.
The other reason to pair them is because JK Rowling’s bigotry directly impacts Contrapoints.
So, what happened?
Both creators developed a large and devoted fanbase online. Kids books, youtube videos dunking on right-wing youtubers.
Those fans developed an idea about who the person was and what they stood for.
The creator did something that broke the expectations of their audience rightly or wrongly had.
The fans felt betrayed. Thus, backlash.
The creator and fans went along various escalating waves of this with each side digging and joking at the other’s expense. Both creators have limited or left the social media they use and come back.
Both are kind of in an inescapable feedback loop now because a sizable chunk of the people who brought them fame and money, albeit on very different scales, now just outright hate them.
(It’s also probably worth noting that many if not most of the people involved in this have dealt with severe trauma)
And there’s actually no way out for either creator since if they flip their positions and somehow regain the trust of the part of their audience who hates them now… the people who stood by them for their problematic comments will feel betrayed and we’d just likely end up in the same cycle but with the polarities on the ideology reversed.
The thing I want to focus on is one of the causes of the feedback loop: The fan’s sense of betrayal.
It’s one thing to be mad when someone does something you don’t approve of, but that’s not what we’ve seen with JKR or Contra. This is one of the things that critics of “cancel culture” get wrong.
Regular disapproval doesn’t produce hate mobs and death threats at scale.
That takes more energy. Something people need to NEED to get out of them. To DO something.
And in both these cases, we have two people who made their reputations on progressive values who said some shit that’s not so progressive.
In JKR’s case, full denunciation of the ideas trans liberation is built on, supporting a variety of activist bigots, and constant use of at best problematic tropes.
In Contra’s, repeated association with problematic people, being shitty about nonbinary people, and being less left wing than a lot of people wanted or expected.
I’m sure you can guess who I sympathize with here. These aren’t meant to be comprehensive, just a broad overview.
And in both cases, a close reading of their past work reveals that they’ve actually always been problematic.
JRK’s always had pretty middling neoliberal politics and Harry Potter is built with so many cruel stereotypes there’s a cottage industry of pulling them out of the books now. Contra has always been kind of a channer edgelord without radical politics.
But, you see, we’re not dealing with two pairs of toxic relationships here: We’re dealing with relationships between 8 entities.
Her ideas of her fans
Her fans ideas of her
And the same for Contra.
And here’s where it comes together: While Tulpas are dubious as any kind of historical magical practice, David-Neel’s story of Tulpas provides us a framework to make sense of this.
Everyone’s ideas of each other are kinda their own thing. And they can take on a life of their own.
Joanne Rowling’s whole personhood is reduced to her carefully cultivated brand. She did most of that herself, but doesn’t notice how much more her personhood is reduced for her fans, who only see her creations and her brand.
To a generation of people her brand says, “Come to me to feel good about who you are because I accept you and support your rights.”
So when they come to her and she rejects them and gets real shitty about doing it… the backlash forms.
And the backlash changes what she sees about her fans. They’re no longer a source of fawning adoration to a single mother surprised her books sell, they’re a threat she needs to defend herself against.
So she reacts, befriends more people who agree with her who lovebomb her because they’re thrilled to have her on their side.
The Tulpas fight and when they do nobody involved can address the people behind them because they can’t even see them. And even if they could there’s no reliable way to show compassion for someone who’s sending you a death threat that person won’t see as an insult or attack.
It becomes a feud.
And there’s no way to win a feud.
Either you kill everyone else and are thus a monster (lose) or you choose not to feud (lose). Like one of those finger traps: The tighter you pull the more trapped your fingers.
You have to stop pulling and then it’s easy.
But that’s certainly easier said than done.
Alright, are you ready for me to make it all about me?
Influence without being an Influencer
An acquaintance recently mentioned wanting to be big enough to influence the conversation without getting lost in it, a sentiment I agree with.
(Also, go listen to their podcast, it rules)
So I’m in a weird situation. I’m a “niche micro-influencer”. I’ve broken 500 subs here, have a Facebook page with 90,000 “followers” and more or less anonymity.
It’s kind of a sweet deal, really.
There are only really two problems with it. First, I’m probably going to lose that page over the next month or two as FB cracks down on me for increasingly arbitrary reasons.
One solution to that is simply to replace FB with another source of traffic so I can focus on longform writing like this.
But that means losing my anonymity.
I’ve put my fingerprints on this newsletter a ton. And now I’m recording my voice.
But the Tulpa of me in you is still weak.
So we’re gonna kill it.
Longtime readers may have noticed a shift in how this newsletter was introduced.
You see? It’s already begun.
And once we’re free of the arbitrary bullshit of my history and personality we can get serious about playing.
Who does even run this newsletter, dear listener?
None of us really knows.
While Trenchant Edges is supported by the CIA, Illuminati, and our eternal friends at the House of Saud I regret to inform you that it’s just moral support. They’re happy we’re following our bliss, but you know how tight money is when you rule the world. If you got this far, you probably got some value from it, please tip